Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cool Ass Cinema Book Reviews: Tough Guys Edition!


By William Smith

Softcover; 168 pages; B/W 2009

Hollywood has given us decades of larger than life heroes and villains in all manner of genre cinema and television. Regardless of budget, or even the scope of the film itself, audiences have come to identify with dozens of indelible images of the good, the bad and the plain out ugly. What generally sets these big and small screen rough-housers and hellraisers apart is the actor playing them. One such man is one of the most extraordinary onscreen personality's to ever ride a horse, fire a gun, command an army, more or less turned Matt Dillon into a vigilante on GUNSMOKE for nearly killing Miss. Kitty and plain out beat the tar out of the protagonist. The legendary William Smith has been and done it all and what sets him apart from everybody else is that he has scribed an even more monumentally massive chronicle in the real world having done just about everything aside from being knighted by the Queen of England (and I wouldn't be surprised if that last one weren't on the radar at some point!).

Not only has Smith appeared in hundreds of movies and television shows, but he counts bodybuilding, breaking records, competing in various sporting competitions, firefighting, military service, teaching, multilingual articulation and an accomplished author of poetry among his countless credits on a resume that's brimming with enough achievements to fill ten lives. The latter of that long list is what's being spotlighted here in this review of Bill's book, The Poetic Works of William Smith. It might be a bit hard to swallow that the King of Biker Movies, the tough guy that exchanges fisticuffs with Clint in ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980), CONAN '82's onscreen father and the man who menaced the Jordache family on one of the biggest television events of all time would command such a passionate power for the poetic word.

These 168 pages of harmonized eloquence are of a personal pedigree put pen to page. It's a testament of a far more than full life of experiences, notations and relationships that spans a man's humble beginnings through his twilight years of reflection on friends and loved ones past and present. This varied volume of verse is told with a keen sense of the inner soul and a passionate view of the world around us as well as the pain, anguish and inevitable end facing us all. Smith reminisces in a unique vernacular about many of his closest friends, a number of whom are no longer with us. The book is also much more than poetic privacy made public. Scattered throughout are a scrapbook of images from Smith's life and a lengthy list of accomplishments including cinematic and television credits. The tome really is a must buy for any William Smith fan worth their salt. It's a fascinating glimpse into the heart and soul of a man who was most memorable when playing a despicable antagonist who far too often upstaged his good guy foil. That alone is no mean feat. Now if only someone could convince the Big Man to write his autobiography!

Click HERE to be taken to William Smith's official website where you can purchase the book as well as assorted autographed items from a variety of Smith's career on both the big and small screen.

Click HERE to read an article here at CAC about William Smith, the first in a series of articles about Tough Guys of the Silver Screen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Blind Menace (1960) review

poster image: google images


Shintaro Katsu (Suginoichi), Tamao Nakamura (Lady Iwai),
Meiko Kondo ("Severed Head" Kurakichi), Matasaburo Tanba (Sir Iwai), Tsurumi Joji, Mayumi Kurata, Toru Abe

Directed by Kazuo Mori

"As long as you're always rising in the world, all your previous misdeeds don't matter."

The Short Version: Two years before becoming world famous for his classic portrayal of the Blind Swordsman, Zatoichi in nearly 30+ films and a 100 episode television series, Shintaro Katsu played the flip side to that character. Katsu is devilishly evil and systematically sadistic as the title rapist, murderer, blackmailer and all around black-hearted scoundrel who just happens to be blind. The plot is simple and basically a string of tragic vignettes as this cunning and cruel yet sightless masseur destroys and eliminates a lot of lives along his selfish path to attain wealth and a powerful government position.

Little Shichinosuke, a blind, yet devious little boy comes from a poor family and is taught unscrupulous behavior by his greedy, domineering mother. Along with his sole childhood friend, Tome (pronounced Toe-may), he grows up to be the even more despicable Suginoichi, a blind masseur with designs on attaining great wealth and power through the pain, suffering and death of others. Aligning himself with a ragtag band of thieves and murderers, Suginoichi meticulously plots the death of his master in an effort to become head Kengyo (the highest rank given to blind masseurs, musicians and money lenders) garnering himself close ties with the Shogunate.

Anyone remotely familiar with Katsu's enormously successful and timeless interpretation of the blind swordsman Zatoichi will be stunned to see him playing virtually the same role only sans the dignity and fighting skills of the kindly low level yakuza gambler/protector of the common folk. Here, the character of Suginoichi (even as a small child) is the exact antithesis of the much loved wanderer in that he beguiles his way into people's lives before stomping on them or simply stamping them out. His cruelty is consistently pulled off without the slightest ounce of remorse or regard for the possible consequences. Incredibly cunning, Suginoichi goes from one vitriolic vignette to the next leaving shattered lives and dead bodies in his wake.

It's a testament to Katsu's acting ability that he effortlessly pulls off not only the mannerisms of a blind person, but that he can make such a handicapped individual so reprehensible. It's all the more jarring when comparing this dramatic feature with the blind masseur adventures Katsu would begin essaying two years later. If you ever wondered what an evil Zatoichi from an alternate universe would be like (without the sword fighting skills), this film will satisfy that curiosity.

Even as a little boy, the title Menace proves problematic such as intentionally flinging boogers into a sake bucket.

There's also a good deal of political subtext here, whether intended or not. Those who firmly believe that the rich got where they are by stepping on everyone else will find much here to reaffirm that notion. But then, Suginoichi started out poor. His family was poor. His mother put such thoughts into his head while his father was the dignified head of household who couldn't provide the sort of life she wanted. The fact that she perpetuated such mischievous behavior in her child is almost as criminal as the calculated and meticulously orchestrated acts Suginoichi manages to pull off.

Suginoichi dreams he can see while he plays the shamisen for a sought after courtesan named Ohan.

Regardless of what the many current Occup-arasites around the nation might believe, anybody can gain wealth, it all depends on the individual and what they're willing to do to get it; There's the hard way (work for it) and the easy way (just steal it). The latter carries with it the most dire of consequences and it's that path that our non-hero "blindingly", if confidently, decides to take while nonchalantly shrugging off the shattered lives and destruction he leaves in his wake.

With that said, the finale is the one area where the film fails to deliver. The film culminates with the required "justice is served" ending, only it isn't quite the satisfying denouement the viewer comes to expect considering the numerous murders, rapes and extortion Katsu's character has bequeathed to his many victims. One of the most outrageous involves Suginoichi's master sending him to answer a money lending request from a woman who's brother indulged in an embezzlement scheme. He is to decline the offer of lending 50 ryo to Nani'e Iwai, who asks for the funds in secret not wishing her husband to know. Suginoichi delivers the message, but casually states he himself can lend her the money which she need not pay back. Asking to stay the night by which to give lady Iwai a full body massage, our malevolent masseur ultimately rapes her. When her husband returns the following morning, Suginoichi asks if she will retrieve his money for him!

Mind you, Nani'e can't really say anything lest she dishonor both herself and her husband. She reluctantly gives this blind bastard his 50 ryo back only to have him tell her he did it because she was mean to him(?!?!?) and that should she need the money, to come to his home. This she does, only for the avaricious rapist to molest her once more then further demeaning her spirit by giving her a mere 5 ryo(!) proclaiming once she visits him a total of ten times she will then have her 50 ryo! It should also be mentioned that the actress playing Lady Iwai, Tamao Nakamura, was also Katsu's wife in real life--the two having met on the set of this movie and remained together till the actors death in 1997. In a strange twist of irony, despite Katsu being famous for his iconic portrayal of the kindly Zatoichi, offscreen the actor more closely resembled his Suginoichi persona in that the real Katsu was quite the wild card.

Sir Iwai learns of his wife's infidelity

Katsu really is quite polarizing here sporting a seemingly bumpkin style innocence one minute then unleashing a bolt of brazen callousness the next. The women receive the worst treatment; being raped, humiliated or blackmailed and sometimes all three. Unable to cope with the disgrace, one of Suginoichi's female victims kills herself to which the sightless scumbag cold-heartedly laughs off the suicide. It's virtually impossible to not be mesmerized by Katsu in this movie. For those more familiar with the man's work among the Chambara style of Jidageki, the absence of swordplay will possibly go unnoticed as the actor owns every second of the film. His shameless proclivity for obtaining money by any means necessary as well as his uncanny ability to emerge one step ahead of everybody else will keep you glued to the screen eagerly awaiting the end when the now wealthy Kengyo reaps all that he has sewn.

It's also worthy of mention the group of yakuza Suginoichi makes friends with. Led by "Severed Head" Kurakichi, the masseur effortlessly frames him for a murder he didn't commit virtually moments after their first meeting! Later on, Kurakichi happens upon the blind man during a house raid. The blind menace talks his way out of death by promising them all money for jobs which he will set up should they release him. Everyone indeed makes money off of others misery, but once the devious masseur plots the death of his own master, Kurakichi and company begin to wonder whether they should keep this partnership. The group come to fear the blind man over time and even ponder killing him noting they would be doing a great public service!

According to the excellent liner notes on AnimEgo's DVD, Katsu was not a well liked leading man in Japan at the time so this tale was fashioned with him in mind as it suited his looks and only stoked the audience perception of him. The film was a huge success which ironically paved the way for the classic and well loved ZATOICHI film and television series that followed. Those films were tailor made for Katsu, too, with the enduring Zatoichi character seemingly ripped from an alternate universe to his previous Suginoichi persona. Katsu strikes an intriguing parallel between this early evil role and his later, and much loved anti heroic, yet lovable bringer of justice.

Aside from the moderately tepid ending, director Mori keeps things interesting throughout in his depiction of societal domination and decay through the propagation of evil and greed. Mori also helmed some of the equally enthralling SHINOBI NO MONO films (a series about ninjitsu), a few entries in the ZATOICHI series and also the last installment of the popular DAIMAJIN trilogy. If you're a fan of the Blind Swordsman series, than seeking out THE BLIND MENACE is a no-brainer. Casual fans may find this of interest, too.

This review is representative of the AnimEgo DVD

Monday, November 21, 2011

Intruder (1989) review


Elizabeth Cox (Jennifer Ross), Danny Hicks (Bill Roberts), Renee Estevez (Linda), David Byrnes (Craig), Sam Raimi (Randy)

Directed by Scott Spiegel

"Don't you see? I'm just crazy about this store!!"

The Short Version: Many rabid slasher fans love it, but this mostly average, wafer thin plotted, late blooming slice and dicer has expensive gore offered at a drastically reduced price. Horror's Heroes at KNB let the blood flow in what is easily the most eye-opening, head crushing aspect of this picture outside of some inventive and impressive camera work. If you enjoyed THE EVIL DEAD (1981), this bargain bin budgeted slasherama has some of that films ingenuity as well as roles taken up by Sam and Ted Raimi and even an all too brief appearance by Bruce Campbell. Saddled with a reputation bigger than the film itself, the sheer love that has went into this recent DVD package is reason enough to shop at the Synapse store--just make sure it isn't after hours.

With news of its impending sale and layoffs, the third shift crew at the Walnut Creek grocery store receive an uninvited guest after hours. Stocking turns to stalking as the employees and managerial staff are gruesomely killed off one by one by an unseen maniac who has somehow gotten inside the locked establishment.

The writer of the classic 80s necronomical classic EVIL DEAD 2 (1987) and the exploitation throwback THOU SHALT NOT KILL...EXCEPT (aka STRYKER'S WAR [1985]) took the reigns of this blood-gushing, modestly budgeted cult item. It's a late bloomer in the slasher cycle and one of the best of an asylum packed number of similar pictures during the dying days of the 1980s. These decade closer slashers were mostly lifeless, forgettable, or minor footnotes in the cycle, but INTRUDER benefits from primo photography by Fernando Arguelles and one or two other points of interest that separates it from the splat pack making up these mostly malignant maniac movies.

I didn't listen to the commentary tracks yet to see if this was an homage, but this scene reminded me a great deal of Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980).

Unlike the uniquely fresh Italian 'Slice & Dicer' STAGEFRIGHT (1987), INTRUDER brings nothing new to the table aside from an original setting and a killer who "slashes prices" in a variety of spectacularly visceral ways. That's not to say Spiegel's love letter to a by then worn out concept isn't without merits of its own. While it took an Italian to (briefly) make the slasher fresh again (the slasher itself being the bastard child of the Italian Giallo), Spiegel's movie definitely comes alive in its cinematography (indicative of the Raimi style of the hyperactive camera) and a few of its performances most notably that of its killer. The motive and reasoning for the massacre to follow is pretty ridiculous and a bit hard to swallow, but the splashy effects from the rising grue crew KNB are ambitiously accomplished on what was a beyond meager budget.

I got out my copy of GZ#6 and noticed that the actual bandsaw death scene in the film differs from what's on the cover.

The film became the talk of horror film circles back in the day when photos of its carnage were judiciously splattered both inside and onto the cover of Fangoria's sister mag, Gorezone magazine. While the film lost nearly all its money shots to the scissors of the MPAA, horror magazines would become a hot button issue as well with a number of folks becoming seriously offended by covers and contents of these magazines. At this time, horror movies and cinematic ultra violence in general was a massive concern resulting in a serious backlash against the genre itself. News programs like 20/20 and even late night tabloid crapola like THE MORTON DOWNEY JR. SHOW were viciously pelting horror cinema with a constant stream of verbal assaults.

Brutal crimes had been on the rise (or at least had become hot media topics) and movies were blamed for the despicable displays of human monsters who were allegedly "commanded" to kill by what they saw in a motion picture. The MPAA was pressured to take a more responsible stance towards violence in movies, but a double standard was in practice. If you were a big studio, you could get by, or if your film was something other than horror, than the violence was generally passed with barely a slap on the wrist. But if you were a low budget horror flick, your wrist wasn't slapped, it was slashed. Such was the case with INTRUDER.

There's lots and lots of product placement in this movie. That Frosted Flakes box art is different from I am used to.

Paramount, arguably the single most loathed major studio in Hollywood where the release of horror films were concerned, haphazardly handled Spiegel and crew's movie as opposed to simply releasing it uncut, or in two separate versions--R and unrated. With the picture stripped of its "guts", it's baffling why they would have shown any distributional interest to begin with considering their contemptible treatment of the pinnacle of slasherdom, the FRIDAY THE 13TH series and one of the decades goriest examples of the form, MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1980).

From there, a fan uproar ensued when it was discovered that the recently released to video film was--to put it mildly--severely truncated. For the rabids gorehounds, it was the splatter that mattered and INTRUDER, a film that wore its gore like a bloody badge of honor was now stripped of its rank. The film did manage to sneak out in bad quality bootleg editions and said quality remained that way till this most recent Synapse DVD/Blu Ray combo. Also of note is that the INTRUDER workprint is included with the first 500 copies among an already loaded grocery cart of goodies. Those who have been used to the grainy imagery of past releases will be shocked by the bloody vibrancy of this new Synapse edition who have given the presentation a 'Mr. Clean' sheen.

Sam Raimi gets a hand in the meat department

Going back to the film itself, the plot is nothing new and some viewers may find their patience wearing thin as it's nearly 40 minutes before the first victim falls prey to the numerous devices of death under the killers employ (similarly, the opening credits seem to take forever to get on with it). This extra time spent with an already kooky clutch of characters does little to make you feel sorry for them when they begin to kick the proverbial bloody bucket. A far too obvious red herring complete with an angry, murderous backstory is thrown into the mix early on. Once the night crew is established, the fright is on as each individual gets their own designer death sequence. The die hard slasher fans don't watch these movies for exposition anyway, but for the gore, and in that respect, INTRUDER satisfies.

Blood & Beer make a dangerous combination. Please, don't Drink and Die.

There's a ghoulishly black comical air to the whole thing, but some of the extended death sequences will no doubt make some viewers wince in disgust. Still, by comparison, Joseph Zito's equally overlooked and similarly titled THE PROWLER (1981) featured gut wrenching scenes of human destruction made all the more sadistic by a voyeuristically lingering camera. INTRUDER adopts this "gore the merrier" approach, but the quirky semi comical touches lessen the impact overall.

Bruce Campbell (cop at front) makes an arrest

During the last 20 minutes when the scenery chewing killer reveals himself, the movie kicks into overdrive culminating in a fast and furious finale that features the funniest beatdown by a decapitated noggin, a would be hero who takes a laughably punishing amount of blows to the Cabeza (this movie is full of head trauma), and a late appearance by Bruce Campbell as a police officer. The music is good and some of the stock cues used here will be familiar sounds to the ears of some viewers. The final shot isn't very satisfying (it's kind of up in the air as to what happens next), but in total, this lovingly choice cut of meat is an essential purchase for serious indy horror fans not only for its historical significance, but for the wealth of background information and plethora of extras heaped onto this Deli Deluxe package. In terms of entertainment value, INTRUDER delivers the groceries, even if a few things are left out of the bag.

This review is representative of the Synapse DVD/Blu-Ray combo special edition #227 with work print. This particular release can only be bought at the Synapse website. Click HERE for more information.

The direct link to the page with the INTRUDER combo release (while supplies last) can be found by clicking HERE.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Vintage TV Guide Ads: Awesome 80s, Tough Guys, TV & Terror Part 3

As much as I have always detested the WWF and their four ring circus act, the 1980s wouldn't be the same without Hulk Hogan. He pretty much stank as a wrestler as far as I was concerned (he was certainly no Nature Boy--as in Flair), but he was an integral part of the decade and had oodles of charisma oozing off of his 24 inch pythons as he liked to say back in the day. Wrestling was on TV almost all day till past midnight down my way. McMahon Jr. could never stand anybody beating him, or being any sort of competition so one of his many entrepreneurial cash cows was this Saturday Night show for his big money carnival act.

An awesomely underrated and riotously raunchy R rated 1980 comedy starring Kurt Russell, Jack Warden (in a dual role), Gerrit Graham and Frank McRae. The film had an incredible pedigree behind the camera including director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg. The film failed to find an audience, but has since become a cult item, and deservedly so. It's one of the funniest comedies of the 1980s in my opinion. There was an unacknowledged remake in the form of the tirelessly unfunny THE GOODS: LIVE HARD, SELL HARD from 2009.

Seagram's 7 was still popular in the 1980s, but check out the Pac Man arcade game in the background! A choice bit of product placement for the product, wouldn't you say?

Here's the ad for the TV premiere for the semi exploitationer, BORN TO BE SOLD starring WONDER WOMAN Lynda Carter as a social worker attempting to bust open a baby broker ring. Directed by Bruce Brinckerhoff who was behind the bloody killer animal flick, DOGS (1976). In 1994 there was a similar TV movie entitled BABY BROKERS starring Cybil Shepherd.

This 1981 TV movie about the life of Playboy model, Dorothy Stratten starred Jamie Lee Curtis as the tragic title character. In 1983 a theatrical movie was released on the subject called STAR 80 which featured Mariel Hemingway as Stratten.

Here's an ad from my favorite television station as a kid, WGGT 48. They showed lots of monster movies, kung fu flicks, cartoons, Roller Derby and all kinds of great drive in style movies. The film in question is CABOBLANCO (1980) starring Charles Bronson, a sort of remake of CASABLANCA from 1942. This was one of many collaborations between Bronson and director J. Lee Thompson.

These things are extinct now. We've all gotten so used to our more efficient and faster computers, that if we were to go back to typewriters, it'd be like living in the stone age.

More Eastwood, this time some classic Clint from Italy with Sergio Leone's FISTFUL OF DOLLARS from 1964. Without his international success in three Eur-oaters, it's debatable if Clint's career would have turned out the way it did.

GIMME A BREAK premiered the week before this ad here. I remember really liking this series a lot, especially the plentiful charisma of the "well rounded" Nell Carter. She was a pleasure to watch on TV and a wonderful comedienne.

Bond has his hands(?) full in OCTOPUSSY (1983) in this ad heralding its Network Television Premiere. Connery may have been first, but Roger Moore will always be the best Bond to me and this is one of his best films under the guise of the British secret agent.

Another 80s staple were these things--Cabbage Patch Kids. I much preferred Garbage Pail Kids, but these happier looking, but no less grotesque dolls were big sellers back in the day.

Even more Clint and yet another ad for EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978). This one here is from a 1983 airing. The artist rendition is really cute with Ruth Gordon putting the headlock on Clyde; something she never gets to do in either of the two movies.

KILLING AT HELL'S GATE (1981) was a TV movie variant of the backwoods hillbilly sub genre. It shared some similarities with movies like DELIVERANCE (1972) and SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981). Robert Urich and Deborah Raffin star in this Jerry Jameson movie who also directed BRUTE CORPS (1972) and THE BAT PEOPLE (1974).

If any ladies are reading this, I'm sure you remember THE CARE BEARS from back in the mid 1980s.

STREET HAWK was another short lived action-sci fi series. It was about a guy who was a police officer by day and a vigilante by night. He zipped around in a hi tech and hi powered motorcycle to fight crime and do what the police couldn't do. A box set containing the entire series came out in 2010.

A rich, white NY businessman adopts two orphaned black brothers after their mother--his former maid--dies. This once popular series lasted for eight seasons and helped make a media darling out of the cherubic cuteness of Gary Coleman, an actor who also made a splash in theatrical features such as THE KID WITH THE BROKEN HALO (1982) and THE KID WITH THE 2000 IQ (1983). Yet another famous 80s catchphrase was coined with the utterance of little Arnold's, "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

MAKO THE JAWS OF DEATH (1976) is possibly the weirdest of the killer shark movies. It follows the pattern of other killer animal-revenge movies such as WILLARD (1971), STANLEY (1972), KISS OF THE TARANTULA (1972) and KILLER SNAKES (1973). Richard Jaekel plays a typical shark loving guy who is given the telepathic ability to control the sharp toothed fishies to get revenge on those who've wronged him. I don't recall watching it on TV, but do remember my dad renting it from the video store and it not making much of an impression on me as a kid.

I was never all that fond of THE JERK, but the image featured in the ad above is about the only thing I remember about it. Bernadette Peters was also a featured attraction in the exploding testosterone actioner VIGILANTE FORCE (1976).

Phones have certainly come a long way since these dinosaur days. What some of us wouldn't do to go back, though!

Brandon Lee didn't necessarily want to be a KUNG FU guy wandering in the shadow of his famous father, but he made the most of it during his equally short career. His first was this Made For TV outing from 1986, KUNG FU: THE MOVIE that starred David Carradine. I haven't seen it since it premiered, but I remember it being pretty decent.

It's Clint again as Dirty Harry in 1976's THE ENFORCER wherein the DIRTY one goes after a terrorist organization made up of vengeful Vietnam vets. Tyne Daly of the popular lady lawmen series CAGNEY & LACEY co-stars.

One of the best (and one of my favorites) Charles Bronson movies is his version of WALKING TALL (1973). Charlie just wants to get his melon crop in but local mobsters just won't leave him alone. One thing you don't do is piss Charlie off. But if the bad guys didn't do that, we'd have no movie.

And finally, another revenge thriller--William Devane ignited the screen in the gritty Vietnam action thriller, ROLLING THUNDER (1977). That film has since went on to become a sleeper hit with the cult crowd, yet still hasn't been given the dignity of a legit special edition DVD in America outside of the recent On Demand DVD service offered my MGM. The above ad is for a similar type of thriller from 1981 entitled THE OTHER VICTIM.

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