Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Kage No Gundan 2: Episode 4


Directed by Akikazu Ota

Out hunting one day Shinpachi happens across a little boy named Shota and his dog. A storm hits and Shinpachi takes the boy to his home inside a temple looked after by a kindly elder. That night, Shinpachi senses five killers approaching the temple. The old man tells him to get the boy to his mother who works at a clothing shop in Edo. Shota is unaware his mother is alive. As the old man is struck down by a sword strike from one of the men, Shota suddenly loses his voice. Shinpachi makes it back to Yamabiko with Shota safely.

Gohei consults with doctor Gennai about curing Shota's loss of voice but nothing can be done. In an effort to learn why the five killers were after the boy, the Shadow Warriors investigate. Gohei goes to see Oyu, Shota's mother who works as a prostitute (under the name of Otami) in addition to the dye factory. Otami (Oyu) denies having a son but due to Goehei's insistence, she cannot resist displaying concern on her face.
A samurai named Arata Genzaburo follows and attacks Gohei upon leaving Oyu. It is discovered he was the one that killed the old man at the temple that night. Arata is also Oyu's lover and she suspects him trying to kill her son despite his insistence otherwise. The Igas follow him around and learn that he is part of a murder plot to find and kill Shota but the reason is still unclear.

Iga ninja Otoki goes to see Oyu in secret and explains to her that Arata betrayed her for a post in the Sanada clan and that the Yakuza are watching her every move. A plan is hatched to get her to Yamabiko to see her son. Once there, Oyu tells why she had to abandon her son. Shota is lord Sanada's heir. Some years back Sanada had a liason with a girl from a restaurant who got pregnant. Since Sanada already had an heir, the woman was ordered to kill the baby when it was born so as not to cause problems. Otami (Oyu) fled to Oume to raise the child away from harm.

Gohei suggests Oyu stay and work at Yamabiko to be with her son till it is safe for the two of them to go away together. However, the villains aren't far behind and they eventually manage to kidnap Shota.

Meanwhile, Shinpachi learns that Takanuki had poisoned lord Sanada to usurp his power. With the young Shota being the lords son, Takanuki wants him dead as he is all that stands in his way of overtaking the Sanada clan. Just at the moment Takanuki orders Arata to kill Shota, Oyu steps in the way of the sword strike. Lightning flashes just as it did the night the old man was killed.

Shota suddenly regains his voice and the Shadow Warriors appear to dispense justice on the evil-doers. After the fight, the remaining Sanada clan wishes to take Shota back to be clan leader but Shinpachi refuses but asks Shota what he wishes to do--his response is to return with him back to Yamabiko.

This is a long winded episode. There's lots of talking and very little action. There are a couple very minor scuffles but nothing really substantial till the last couple minutes. It's worth the wait as Shinpachi delivers one of his best "death speeches" before carving up his intended victim(s). He always conveys an intimidating and life ending sermon before delivering retribution but this one he utters whilst the fight is going on around him and it's particularly memorable.

Director Ota does a fine job of mounting a compelling program with fine character- izations. Less patient fans will be put off by the lack of action but sometimes stories need to breath in other ways besides continuous fight scenes. The episode itself is a gloomy affair as Shota never does learn that Oyu was his mother. The director adds a nice touch in that with a lightning strike Shota's voice is both taken away and given back during simultaneous life altering situations. There are no humorous moments and Kiki Kirin is absent from this episode. Sonny Chiba is also absent from much of the show save for the beginning and ending letting the younger cast shine as well as giving Gohei lots to do as well. Doctor Gennai is only seen briefly. A well handled dramatic episode that's dialog heavy and recommended for those that can appreciate a good plot.

Continued in Episode Five: THE COURTIER'S SECRET TREASURE MAP!!!

Kage No Gundan 2: Episode 3


Directed by Ikuo Sekimoto

After witnessing a foreigner test a gatling gun for members of the Shibata clan by massacring a group of vagrants, the Hayate Kid is injured by the same powerful weapon. The evening prior Hayate was pursued by a group of men for thievery. He eluded capture with the help of a young girl named Chie. Becoming enamored with her, Hayate learns of her sick father, Kajiyama and endears himself with his company after catching fish to serve in his recovery.

Meanwhile, the evil foreigner, Millard, barters for the sale of the gatling gun; a weapon that will enhance the stability of the weak Shibata clan. As an exchange, Millard demands the sight of witnessing the act of Seppuka as well as a woman of his choosing. The woman he chooses just happens to be Chie; having seen her portrait painted by none other than doctor Gennai. Chie's father, Kajiyama, is the accountant for the Shibata clan and he is ordered to pay the money for the gun. He protests vehemently against it and is arrested for his troubles. This incident secures both requests desired by Millard for his trade.

Upon visiting O'oka Tadamitsu, the duplicitous Hiranuma discusses the situation. O'oka has designs on the Shibata clans port. Noting its incredible monetary value, O'oka declares that the illegal purchase of the gatling gun be exposed which in turn will abolish the Shibata clan. Hiranuma will become the new governor and both he and O'oka will control the newfound wealth.

Iga ninja Koroku listens in on the conversation and is discovered. He manages to escape and tells the others of the plan. Believing that if she gives herself to the foreigner she will save her father, Chie is taken to the Shibata Mansion. Hayate goes after her. He encounters Millard and watches helplessly as he attempts to rape her. At the same time the Shadow Warriors are enroute to the Mansion. Enraged, Hayate attacks Millard. Waiting for Millard to arrive, Kajiyama prepares to kill himself. Millard enters but seems disoriented. He falls over dead just as the Shadow Warriors make their entrance and lay waste to the villains and destroy the gatling gun that nearly brought an end to the Shibata clan. Kajiyama and Chie head off away from the city to become farmers. She tells Hayate that when he changes his way of life, she will be waiting for him.

The end scene features a comical moment that has doctor Gennai scolding Shinpachi for destroying the foreign gun, "You have no appreciation for science!" he tells them. Shinpachi changes the subject when he sees Orin approach telling her she's just in time that doctor Gennai can finally paint a portrait of her much to his chagrin. She asks just how much she should disrobe for the event making Gennai the butt of the joke with the others having a laugh at both his and the oblivious Orin's expense.

The director from the previous episode returns for another suitably entertaining program. This one is clearly a star turn for Sanada who gets a love interest and also reveals a bit about his past and why he does what he does. Any fan of Sanada will definitely enjoy this episode as he's the central character and his then wild popularity is warranted with his charisma and photogenic looks. What's amazing about Japanese pop culture is that actors and actresses can be popular on both mediums--television and cinema.

It wasn't unusual to see a popular star in both giving fans more than enough entertainment value. There's not a great deal of action in episode three till the end but it's handled wonderfully especially the surprise entrance of the Shadow Warriors. With this episode being built around Sanada, future episodes would do likewise for other members of the Iga crew. Everyone gets a chance to shine at some point over the course of the 26 episodes.

Continued in Episode Four: THE MOTHER WHO VANISHED!!!

Men Behind the Sun (1988) Review

CAMP 731 1988 aka MEN BEHIND THE SUN aka HEI TAIYANG (literal translation: BLACK SUN; also the English title of the sequel)

Pictures coming soon...

Directed by Mou Tun-fei

A group of young Japanese boys coerced into becoming soldiers in the Japanese Army see numerous atrocities and graphic experiments performed on Chinese citizens during WW2.

One of the most, if not the most, uncompromisingly brutal and sadistic movie ever made. All the more repellent in that it really happened. Director Mou was very brave to attempt such a film. He received numerous death threats from unknown parties when he traveled to Japan to lecture young Japanese students about the incidents that occurred to the Chinese populace in the late 1930's. Schools in Japan had their books altered leaving little mention of the incidents as well as many Japanese citizens claiming said atrocities never happened chalking it up to propaganda fables.

Without doubt one of the most difficult films to sit through. After I saw it the one and only time, I thought about the film for days afterwards. It seriously depressed me in a way no other film had done before. The only other film that ever came close to this movies power is CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979). Other films have left me feeling dirty and somewhat mentally violated after viewing them, but nothing like this film. The constant reminder that these and unbelievably far worse acts of barbarism actually took place only re-enforces Mou's power as a director. What is even more astounding is that in light of what is shown, this film only barely scratches the surface of what happened to the Chinese during this tumultuous time in history.

One of the most harrowing scenes in all of cinema is found here and it's also a scene that caused much debate over the value of Mou's film; much like the intense scrutiny Ruggero Deodato found placed against him when CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979) saw release. The scene involves the Japanese doctor demonstrating "strength in numbers". A white cat is thrown into a room filled with thousands of starving rats. It takes what seems like an eternity for the helpless animal to finally succumb to his doom. The cat fights valiantly to survive, but again, as the doctor states... "strength in numbers..." in reference to the impending attack on America by the Japanese. The camera never flinches away from this most despicable geek show sequence. In fact, the shots of the cat in its death throes are the most difficult to stomach. This scene was removed for the films UK release as well as other prints around the world.

Another vexing scene concerns the live vivisection of a little boy. What makes this scene especially distressing is that the little boy was a recently deceased cadaver donated from his family specially for the film. What is most amazing is the boy's resemblance to the child actor portraying the kid who is used in the ghastly experiment.

The film itself is a cavalcade of cruelty and despair showcasing the many tortures and vicious experiments the Japanese "doctors" performed on their Chinese captives which they called "Maruta's" which means "material" or "log". They didn't consider their test subjects human and subjected them to many horrifying ordeals. These experiments dealt with freezing and extreme heat, gas and decompression chamber tests and testing of various diseases such as bubonic plague among other barbarous acts. The plague was also injected into flies concealed inside balloons which they were trying to unleash into the air and onto foreign soil. Before the means of doing this had been figured out, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Of all the past Naziploitation movies, none of them hold a candle to this film. What Hitler did was minor (not to make light of those heinous crimes) when compared to the savagery perpetrated on Chinese, British, Australian, Russian and American soldiers and citizens during the war. It is a shame that this dark and gruesome time in man's history is not more widely known. Author Iris Chang wrote a NY Times Bestseller entitled, THE RAPE OF NANKING: THE FORGOTTEN HOLOCAUST OF WW2. The book dealt mostly with the (now more widely known) Nanking Massacre and only occasionally touched on the devilish experiments of Camp 731. The Nanking Massacre is covered in Mou's equally nasty sequel, BLACK SUN: THE NANKING MASSACRE (1995). Mysteriously, Mrs. Chang died on November 9, 2004 of a self-inflicted gun shot wound on a rural road in Los Gatos, California.

Realizing it was a film of great importance, Mou Tun-fei had much trouble getting the film released in Hong Kong. Eventually, it did see release there but he was not allowed to advertise it in any way. No trailer, no poster; only the title on the marquee. The film was highly controversial overseas. The real-life accounts were at odds with the all too real animal violence seen which brought much speculation to the very realistic effects sequences. Considering the circumstances surrounding the real cadaver used, speculation arose that the effects scenes may have been more than just that.

Mou would return to the subject matter with his 1995 sequel, BLACK SUN: THE NANKING MASSACRE (1995). This film actually utilized real footage of victims. This footage was smuggled out of Nanking by a sympathetic Nazi (of all people); a mister John Rabe who had the footage hidden inside the threads of a jacket. This footage would end up as a propaganda film shown in US movie theaters during the war. Mou originally envisioned a trilogy but in lieu of the controversy, death threats and difficulty getting the films made, the third film never saw fruition (at least not yet).

However, there were two unrelated films that were released in HK proclaiming to be sequels to the original MEN BEHIND THE SUN. These were MEN BEHIND THE SUN 2: LABORATORY OF THE DEVIL 1992) and MEN BEHIND THE SUN 3: NARROW ESCAPE (1994). Both, believe it or not, directed by that Chinese Jess Franco, Godfrey Ho.

Mou Tun-fei got his start directing Shaw Brothers movies. He was one of a few up and coming New Wave directors at Shaw's at the time. He directed what is called the Chinese version of SALO (1975), LOST SOULS (1980). Mou also directed one half of the Shaw horror anthology, HAUNTED TALES (1980). He also directed the gruesome kung fu thriller, A DEADLY SECRET (1980). These films would foreshadow where Mou would be a handful of years down the road. As it stands today, MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988) is a grueling and dark testament of man's inhumanity to man that only grazes the surface of what was, in real life, far more cruel and ferociously sadistic historical horrors. A time that hopefully, will never be repeated.

This review is representative of the World Video DVD. There is an English dub in addition to Cantonese and Mandarin audio tracks.

DVD availability: World Video, Japan Shock (Netherlands; region 0)

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) review


Lone Fleming (Betty), Cesar Burner (Roger), Maria Elena (Virginia), Jose Thelman (Pedro), Veronica Llimera (Nina), Simon Arriaga (morgue attendant), Maria (Maria Silva)

Directed by Amando de Ossorio 

The Short Version: The Blind Dead ride in their inaugural slaughter sojourn--a classic of not only Spanish horror but of all horror cinema. Amando de Ossorio's decayed, horse-riding zombies hack, slash and drink the blood of their victims without the aid of sight, but by sound. An unnerving, tension-filled ghost story with just the right amount of goosebump-inducing atmosphere and shocks. No matter how silent, no matter how still you are, they will find you! In the annals of horror history, the Blind Dead ride with the best genre offerings.

Meeting up with a childhood friend for a weekend getaway, Virginia leaps from the train she and her friends are traveling on after Betty, her long-time friend, appears to show interest in Roger, the man accompanying her. The train conductor refuses to stop due to superstitious legends of a satanic cult permeating the countryside. Virginia stumbles upon the ruins of a monastery and decides to stay till morning. As night falls, zombiefied, skeletal creatures rise from their moldy tombs, climb atop their decomposed steeds and chase down the beautiful Virginia....

Discovering Virginia dead under mysterious circumstances, her body drained of blood, Betty and Roger uncover a terrible local legend of the Templar knights. Crusaders of Christ, the Templar's were ex-communicated for blasphemy, and hanged till the crows ate out their eyes. Centuries later they rise from their graves, awakened by the haunting boom of a ghostly bell to seek the blood of new victims.

Amando de Ossorio's first entry in his popular quartet was a big international hit during its theatrical release. At the time in Spain horror was said to have been frowned upon and seldom attempted mainly because of strict censorship laws. The one man who got the Spanish horror boom moving was Paul Naschy and his Uni-horror homages. These films, amazingly, were not as popular in their homeland, but more so in neighboring countries. In Spain and in America TOMBS is a cult film with a healthy following.

Ossorio's presentation was a bit different from Naschy's approach. Instead of using popular horror icons born from folklore and the minds of novelists, he chose the historical Templar Knights of the 12th-14th centuries. Feared by the King who believed their growing popularity would bring about dissent among the common people, the Templar's were inevitably hunted down and executed as heretics.

Ossorio created his own mythology, and even altered it with each of the succeeding three entries. For his celluloid version of the Templar's, traditional vampire lore mixes with Romero's then new approach towards zombies as seen in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Ossorio's zombies kill with swords and drink the blood seeping from the gaping wounds. They do indulge in eating of the flesh in the other sequels, though.

Ossorio writes his script like a three arc story. The first section is the introduction of the Templar's and the palpable, superstitious air you can feel in nearly every frame. LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO is unique among vintage terror cinema in that it is genuinely scary years after it was made. The lengthy sequence near the beginning where Virginia decides to stay the night on the grounds of the dilapidated monastery marvelously builds the tension till the Blind Dead's arrival. An unblemished kick-off to one of the great classics of horror.

The second portion is where we learn the origin of the sightless zombies and, most importantly, witness the slashed and chewed corpse of Virginia return from the dead, dining on the jugular of a morgue attendant; and an intense stalk and chase by Virginia attempting to lay claim to the sangria of a female worker in a mannequin shop. It's one of the best scenes in the movie with the perfect pitch of lighting and music to ramp up the horror. It is in this section that most identifies the monsters with vampires. In none of the other entries does a victim return to life to drink the blood of another. 

Of particular interest during this portion of the film is the demise of the vampirized Virginia. Earlier in the movie there's a scene where she's undressing by a fire she builds inside one the ruins. The camera is behind the fire and as she undresses, the flames heighten, her body barely concealed by the licking flames. Later during the mannequin shop attack, Virginia, now a member of the living dead, is accidentally set on fire. The flames devour her slinky frame much like they did in the earlier, symbolic shot.

The third and final arc is where our protagonists go to the monastery to learn whether there's truth to the legend or not. It's here where the director has written the classic horror blueprint that would follow years later in all your finer slasher pictures; people doing dumb things, people standing around far too long (frozen with fear!), or women getting their foot caught or falling to the ground giving the slow-moving creatures time to catch up to them. It's also an early example of the 'final girl', which would be popularized in the 1980s slasher boom. And now for the unholy monsters of the film's title....

Among the most memorable, and original creations in all of fantastic cinema, the Blind Dead Templars find their prey through sound alone; even a beating heart can guide them to a potential victim's location. Adorned in centuries old cloaks and hoods, their bony hands reach out with swords drawn to slash, stab and skewer their targets before sucking the blood from the bodies. They ride long-dead, decomposing horses in haunting slow-motion. The skeletal crusaders even have small tufts of hair dangling from their bony chins.

Anton Garcia Abril's frightfully fabulous score is arguably the life's blood of Ossorio's world of zombie horror. Desperately in need of a CD release, it's up there with the likes of Carpenter's iconic score for HALLOWEEN (1978) and Manfredini's signature cues for FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

Rape is a recurring theme in Ossorio's Blind Dead foursome (there's an attempted one in the second film, one in the third, and none in the fourth). It's most applicable in the first picture in how it fits into the narrative even if it comes off as gratuitous. 

In TOMBS, Ossorio writes in a lesbian sub-plot where we learn that Betty and Virginia had experimented when they were younger back in school. Actually, Betty had seduced her. Whenever Betty brings this up, Virginia seems to change her facial expression. When Betty tags along with her and Roger, Betty flirts with him to the point Virginia becomes noticeably jealous and leaps off the train to her doomed date with the Templar's.

During the conclusion, Betty and Roger enlist the aid of Pedro and his lover Maria, two small time hoods to accompany them to the monastery since nobody else was willing to foolishly throw their life away. Pedro is basically an animal; and after Betty states she's never been able to enjoy the touch of a man, Pedro takes it upon himself to reinforce Betty's stance by raping her. Afterward, thinking he's done a good thing, Pedro has the temerity to offer her a cigarette!

Much like the slashers of the next decade, there's virtually no plot in TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD. It's purely a well-told ghost story attached to the three aforementioned set-pieces. The reasons to watch are for the imagery, the atmosphere, the music and the Templar's themselves. Ossorio manages a remarkable creature feature with so little money.

The film's US release suffered a lot of cuts as well as the awkward shuffling around of some of its scenes. Trimmed down from 97 minutes to under 80 minutes, the VHS release fared no better. The movie was a mainstay on the syndicated ELVIRA'S MOVIE MACABRE during the 1980s. Strangely, those airings featured bloody violence during the train massacre that was missing on Paragon's videotape release.

Amando's three follow-ups all brought something new to the table, but none match the vigorous amount of fear he amasses in his classic original. The first sequel, RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD (1973), is the most successful at replicating the success of the first picture, but going in a radically different direction at the same time. The third film, THE GHOST GALLEON (1974), placed the Templar's aboard a fog-enshrouded ghost ship. Saddled with the absolute worst special effects, it's the least appealing of the four films. The fourth from Ossorio, NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS (1975), marks the return of the Templar's to an ocean setting in a Lovecraftian tale of sacrificing virgins inhabiting a superstitious seaside village.

The Templar's would return in at least two other movies by different directors. One of these was from British filmmaker, John Gilling, director of Hammer's THE REPTILE, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (both 1966) and THE MUMMY'S SHROUD (1967). Gilling's Templarian tale was titled CROSS OF THE DEVIL (1975). Written by Paul Naschy (!), the picture was plagued with problems and remains rarely seen today.

The Templar's rose one last time in Jess Franco's lousy porno horror, MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), based on his own novel. Unfortunately, it is fairly easy to see nowadays via a DVD release from Severin.

In the early 70s, Amando de Ossorio created a unique monster in the form of the sightless, rotted Knights Templar. These skeletal blood-drinkers will forever be remembered as one of the most original and frightening of Europe's distinguished heritage of cinematic horror.

This review is representative of Blue Underground's Coffin Box Set. Specs and Extras: anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1; uncut Spanish with English subs and cut English dubbed version; theatrical trailer; poster and stills gallery; alternate opening credits sequence as REVENGE OF THE PLANET APE.

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