Friday, November 7, 2008

Hercules Unchained (1959) review


Directed by Pietro Francisci; Special Lighting and Effects Director: Mario Bava

Steve Reeves (Hercules), Sylvia Koscina (Iole), Sylvia Lopez (Omphale), Gabriele Antonini (Ulysses), Sergio Fantoni (Eteocles), Mimmo Palmara (Polineces), Guliano Gemma (Beranipo), Sergio Ciani

Hercules attempts to thwart war against Thebes after the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polineces, feud over their yearly rotation to rule the great city. On his way to mediate for the two begrudged siblings, Hercules is entranced after drinking the "water of forgetfulness", found emanating from a fountain near the entrance to a cave. Omphale, the bewitching man-eater of Lydia, forces her men to lust after her by using the powers of the magical waters. Hercules comes under her spell but is saved by his friend, Ulysses in time to save the city of Thebes from certain destruction.

Sexually charged sequel to Pietro Francisci's HERCULES (1957) has the Olympian Demi-God at the mercy of the man hungry Omphale of Lydia. As a good number of fusto movies take bits and pieces from Greek mythology for these cinematic tales, this portion of the film is taken from the story of Hercules who, according to Greek lore, was a rather unhinged man with violently murderous tendencies.

The legend states that Hercules was to marry Iole after defeating her father and brothers in an archery contest. But after unknowingly purchasing stolen cattle belonging to Iole's father, her brother confronted Hercules about the theft only to have the angered strong man toss him from a tower. Not long after, Hercules asked an oracle to purify him yet again only to be refused.

After destroying the shrine and battling with the God Apollo, Zeus proclaimed Hercules would be pardoned if he became a slave for three years. He was sold to Queen Omphale of Lydia who then forced him to dress as a woman and perform womanly duties as well as being her lover until his three years were up. In the film, Hercules becomes easily enraged after repeated ingestion of the magical waters, another nod to his mythological personality.

An interesting plot point regarding Omphale is her black widow-like behavior regarding males. She uses them sexually till they begin to bore her only to have them killed then "mummified" as stone statues by a group of Egyptians living beneath her domicile. The grotesque statues are then placed in Omphale's secret garden of the dead. Of course, Omphale ultimately falls in love with Hercules and finds it difficult to allow him to meet the same fate as her previous suitors. Still, it's up to Ulysses, pretending to be Hercule's deaf servant, to help the strong man escape Lydia alive just in time to prevent his home of Thebes from certain war.

The brief sequence where we see the Egyptians "disposing" of Omphale's lovers provides a parallel to their mummification practices of preserving the dead and is even mentioned in dialog by Omphale that the Egyptians will one day become widely known for their art.

Steve Reeves returns in this Italian-French co-production. A better sequel to the original film that made him an international star. And again, as always, (like the other actors in these movies) Reeves is dubbed by a voice actor because, according to a colleague, his voice wasn't "Herculean" enough. Guiliano Gemma and Sergio Ciani (Alan Steel) make very brief appearances as centurions.

Although the action slows down a bit during the section of the film when Hercules is under the spell of Omphale, there is still much to enjoy about the production. Whether it be the beautiful women or some stunning locations accompanied by colorful set design ably photographed by the esteemed Mario Bava.

DVD Availability: Concorde Home Entertainment (R2). This DVD is a double feature and is paired with HERCULES also starring Steve Reeves. Both features offer English as well as German audio options.

Kage No Gundan 2: Episode 18


Directed by Yoshiki Onoda

Late one night in Sunpu Castle, two guards hear the sound of cries coming from the helmet room. Checking the noise, they find what appears to be a ghostly apparition floating inside the room. Believing the ghost to be one of the unjustly murdered women from the previous ruler of Sunpu Castle, lord Tokugawa Tadanaga, the samurai pray to a shrine adorned in armor to ward off any evil spirits. The next day, Shin and Dr. Gennai are out fishing and discuss the supposed spooks of the castle. Gennai believes Clan Councillor, Nagato to be in possible danger. He is a righteous and upstanding man and his position could threaten O'oka's plans to become Shogun.

In Sunpu Town, a series of brutal crimes are taking place the result of ruthless bandits who care not if the victims are women or children. One of the marauders leaves his handprint behind for the Iga to find; whether intentionally, or carelessly. Tsuruzo is sent to Sunpu Town to investigate. On his journey into the town, he happens upon a beautiful woman (oyu) attacked by a group of killers.

Another man (Otojiro) at the scene was attempting to help but the group was too much for him. Oyu lives at a temple. Tsuruzo escorts her safely back there. The kindly priest of the temple is friends with Dr. Gennai and the two sit and chat for awhile. The priest tells Tsuruzo that the bandits had murdered Oyu's entire family and she was lucky to have managed to escape. He also talks of the ghost, 'the Lady of the Snow', that haunts the helmet room of Sunpu Castle.

Later, Gennai tells Shinpachi that the Sunpu Magistrate has been found dead and that he's sure Councillor Nagato will be next. A shogunate envoy will arrive at the Castle shortly to inspect the coveted helmet worn by lord Ieyasu 180 years before during the great battle of Komaki Nagakute. After hearing this story, Shinpachi believes that O'oka plans to steal the valuable accoutrement. He then asks Gennai to invent something for him.

Meanwhile, Tsuruzo meets Otojiro in the street. He tells Tsuruzo to not get involved with the girl he saved. Obviously infatuated with her, Otojiro follows Tsuruzo and gives him a message to relay to Oyu. Not long after it is revealed that Otojiro is actually a safe cracker hired by the gang of bandit killers! He meets with the group leader to receive money for a new job. This time, he must get inside Sunpu Castle, but the leader can't reveal what he must do just yet. That night, Otojiro and a few others have a practice run infiltrating the castle. Tsuruzo watches nearby and interrupts the villains efforts. Alerted to their location, the bandits are chased away by the castle guards.

The following day, Otojiro crosses Oyu's path to talk to her. It's apparent she likes him as well. She fancies an ornament he carries with him and Otojiro decides to make one especially for her. Meanwhile, Tsuruzo continues his investigation. That night, Dr. Gennai completes his ingenious device for Shinpachi; A device that projects images by way of light acting as a projector. It is this machine that has created the ghost of Sunpu Castle. Later, Tsuruzo overhears the plan to break into the castle within three days to steal away the precious helmet. Otojiro's skills as a lockpicker will aid in the task. Tsuru meets secretly with Ryukichi to deliver the news.

Ryukichi leaves Tsuru's ninja gear for him but forgets to leave the key. Otojiro happens by and easily opens the box with a small needle. Otojiro gets a peak inside and guesses he's a ninja. He offers to treat Tsuru to drinks. Late that night, Tsuru sneaks into the castle and awakens lord Nagato and informs him a group of invaders will break into the castle the following night to snatch the helmet. Tsuru follows Otojiro to his meeting with Oyu inside the temple. However, having given himself away, he is captured and tortured. Otojiro enters the room but claims he's never seen Tsuru before. Tsuruzo then pretends to kill himself, even managing to slow his heartbeat down to appear dead. The Shadow Warriors await anxiously for Tsuru's belated return.

Meanwhile, Tsuru has gotten himself free, but Otojiro shows up and says he will aid in his escape. The Iga notice a fire has broken out in Sunpu Castle. Tsuru suddenly returns to Yamabiko to tell Shin the Sadojima gang is behind the killings. Shin is familiar with their leader, Sadojima Hyoei. The gang having been in hiding for several years, they are now employed by O'oka. The Iga make their way to the castle. Meantime, the gang manage to get inside killing everyone they come across on their way to the helmet room. The bandits easily slaughter everybody even killing the Helmet Room chief, Takemura, who was the gangs contact. Otojiro picks the lock and he, too, is killed as the Shadow Warriors have already beaten the gang to the prize.

A great battle takes place. The bandits vanquished, Tsuruzo goes to Otojiro who dies clasping the hair ornament he made for Oyu. Tsuru meets with Oyu one last time to deliver the ornament to her but doesn't reveal to her that he is dead. Later, Shinpachi is trying to get away from a drunken customer who discusses the incidents of Sunpu Castle. The inebriated patron asks Shin, "How about firing into the castle tower?", which chokes him up a bit changing to a cautious laugh.

Director Onoda encores from his excellent prior episode to deliver a lesser affair. It's not bad by any means, but nothing special. The one saving grace for this one is the fight scenes as they are plentiful. The finale is especially well done (as usual) and lasts longer than normal. There's no real stand out performances here. Tsuruzo sort of gets center stage which could have been an interesting path for this show to take but it never does, content to just skirt around the subject.

With Tsuruzo and the lock picker, Otojiro, both vying for the attentions of Oyu would have been a good direction, but this is dispensed with fairly quickly. Even still, it's a decent episode just not a very memorable one. Kiki Kirin is absent here as is Gohei, Misato, Hayate Kid and Koroku. No mention is made of their whereabouts although it is too be assumed they are off on some other business elsewhere. Gohei returns later in the series and his disappearance is explained. Better than some of the other shows earlier in series two, but this one is easily forgotten.

Continued in Episode Nineteen: THE GREAT PURSUIT!!!

Kage No Gundan 2: Episode 17


Directed by Yoshiki Onoda

Shiina Misato watches a house from afar amid a bamboo forest. A group of men are inside, conspirators against the onslaught of the Dark Shogun, O'oka Tadamitsu. The Shiina attack killing everyone inside. Misato cuts down the last and the man's body tumbles down an embankment landing near a passing Shinpachi. The dying man utters the word, 'Myokeiji'. Misato appears and attack him again accusing Shin of murdering her father. Shin denies committing the murder and states he will fight her one day, but not for an incident he was not a part of. Misato returns to O'oka to tell of a successful job in eradicating the conspirators. O'oka then states her next mission is to kill Tsuge Shinpachi.

Later, Dr. Gennai asks Orin if he can use her backlot for an experiment. Not long after, many women in the bathhouse rush out screaming fire. Orin runs outside and sees Gennai playing with fire. She hits him several times in anger. Having retreated to heal his bruises, Ryukichi asks Gennai what he was doing with this strange discovery. He says, "It's called asbestos in the west, but I discovered it in Japan." In detailing this fireproof find, Gennai says that, "150 years from now, people can live in fireproof homes." This prompts Ryukichi to say, "Just because we are not educated, you are always lying to us." Tsuruzo comes into the restaurant to talk with Shin about info regarding the men that were attacked by the Shiina.

Meanwhile, Misato goes to see a sick member of the Shiina, Sagenta. He quickly stabs himself shortly after Misato tells him to get well so as to return to the circle. He proclaims that he was the one that killed her father. Misato demands he say why he did it since he was her father's most trusted agent. Sagenta dies before he can explain his actions. Misato calls a meeting with the other Shiina agents. Angered that they all knew it but her, she mandates someone say who ordered it. Anabuki Samon reluctantly says, "The Shogunate Chief of Security at that time...lord O'oka." Misato then requests an audience with the Dark Shogun.

Meeting with O'oka, he senses she has now learned the truth about her father's killer. He explains his actions to her and then asks if Misato can still be loyal to him or will she attempt to avenge her father. O'oka then slyly goads Misato to believe what he did was right. She asks for a few days to ponder her decision. Of course, O'oka doesn't plan to sit idly by waiting for Misato to come for his head. Meanwhile, Otoki and Tsuruzo check out the Myokeiji Temple. A woodsman happens upon them and tells them to beware of the temple that a strange light, (or ghosts as he puts it) have been seen there the first of every month. They soon find an unhinged man playing on the beach. Upon closer inspection, marks are found on his neck that look like the work of the Koga ninjas.

At the same time, Shinpachi is out hunting and sees smoke. Investigating to see if anyone is in need of help, he finds Misato who has been searching for him for the past three days. She says the fierceness is gone that she was mistaken about him. She apologizes for having wronged Shin and he also apologizes for thinking her a vicious woman. The two walk down the mountain together and it is clearly evident, Misato brings her feelings for Shinpachi to bear.

Back at O'oka's chambers, he has summoned Anabuki Samon to ask him if he can lead the Shiina group. Misato having become a woman, she must now die. The Iga meet about the strange light emanating from Myokeiji Temple and surmise it must be O'oka's secret meeting place where he gives orders to officials he couldn't normally be seen with. The meetings occur on the first of every month and tomorrow is the next meeting. The Iga plan further.

Misato meets with O'oka and beseeches her obedience to him. Pleased, O'oka asks that she partake in a drink with him. Misato becomes weak and realizes that O'oka has drugged her drink. She is furious and confused that she has pledged her loyalty to him yet he does this. She staggers towards him. O'oka quickly grabs his sword and slashes Misato across the eyes blinding her. The other Shiina rush inside and prepare to deliver the killing blow. O'oka stops them stating she will be of use to bring Shinpachi out into the open. With the next day the 1st of the month, O'oka changes the planned meeting into an Iga massacre.

Otoki, Ryukichi and Tsuruzo keep an eye on the Shiina and notice Samon and crew carrying a palanquin into the Temple. They then see them take a blindfolded Misato into a storeroom. Awaiting the Iga, O'oka has one last talk with the helpless Misato. Meanwhile, Shinpachi learns of Misato's fate and plans to head out alone but eventually allows the others to join him. The Shadow Warriors make their way to Myokeiji Temple. Shin enters the building Misato is being held inside of. He is then trapped with her. The Shiina lock all points of exit and set the place on fire. The other Iga try to rescue their chief but none of them can get close. O'oka watches the show nearby confident he has seen the last of the Iga Phantom.

The Iga manage to get close to the flaming storeroom but cannot save Shin. They duel with the Shiina. Inside the burning building, Shinpachi lays atop Misato having been equipped with Dr. Gennai's suit of asbestos, the two emerge from the cinders unscathed. Shin joins in the battle as well. He spies O'oka hidden behind more Shiina warriors. Samon asks how he was able to survive and Shin replies, "Iga secret, 'Bird of Fire'!" He tells O'oka that he will kill him another day and to enjoy his power. The Iga escape amidst a flurry of grenades to get Misato to safety. Back at Yamabiko, Dr. Gennai tries to save her eyes. "The wound was sharp. A day has passed. I do not believe her sight will return. I will do what I can."

The next day, Orin asks what is Shin's relation with the girl he brought to Gennai. Orin throws herself on him. Thinking one of her breasts has fallen, he sees that Orin was carrying tomatoes around inside her kimono. Suddenly, Gennai rushes inside and takes Shin away. Misato has fled while Gennai was out getting medicine. Shin finds a piece of paper nearby left by Misato. They check it to see if it contains invisible ink. They place the paper over some heat and it reveals a handprint! Gennai asks, "Shin-san...was that girl one of the 26?!"

One of the best episodes of the entire series, it also has one of the best cliffhanger endings as well. There's an incredible amount of intrigue and subterfuge entailed in this episode. Not only that, but Shiina Misato, the most complex and conflicted character of series two, is the main focus here. Just when one loose end is tied up (the murderer of her father), another presents itself when it is revealed that she is possibly one of the 26 loyalists to the Dark Shogun. Her relationship with Shinpachi is also a complicated one. Friends and enemies as Shin puts it. Misato is nonetheless in love with Shinpachi but is still drawn to her sense of duty irregardless of the fact that O'oka ordered her father's murder.

And despite this, O'oka slyly uses underhanded means to trick her into believing he still desires her services. This reinforces the notion that O'oka is not concerned with loyalty from any one person or group, only that his name shall remain untarnished and free of contention.

There is an air of extra sensory perception about this episode as both Shinpachi and O'oka seemingly read the thoughts of others. Shin knows that Misato will return to O'oka's guard but also realizes the danger ahead and that the next time they meet, one of them may be dead. O'oka secretly orders Misato's death drawing the conclusion that she has become an ordinary woman and that she is in love with Shinpachi. Anabuki Samon gets the limelight here and the character of Gensai Kuroiwa is absent for some reason.

Also, Gohei is missing. Possibly, actor Isamu Nagato was busy working on another show or movie at the time. Koroku has taken this episode off as well. Orin is seen fleetingly on a couple of occasions. This episode ends on a superior note, one that leaves you itching for closure which doesn't come until later on towards the end of series two. This is the first time I've seen anything from director Yoshiki Onoda but what an auspicious start! A perfect episode all around and one that doesn't disappoint in any department. The show closes with two great cliffhangers; a fiery final fight, and a shocking revelation that is guaranteed to make fans want to stick around till the last episode.

Continued in Episode Eighteen: THE BLACK WOLF CRIES IN THE NIGHT FOG!!!
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