Sunday, January 21, 2018

From Beyond Television: Ultraseven Episode #30

Episode 30: Whom Takes the Glory (EIKO WA DARE NO TAME NI) ***1/2

Other titles: Trial By War (English dubbed title)

Directed by Shunsetsu Suzuki

With battle maneuvers scheduled for Ultra Squad members in spite of strange earthquake phenomena in the area, Furahashi and Amagi brush up on their guns skills at the shooting range. There they meet a crack shot named Aoki, who happens to be a new Garrison trainee. When an unidentified ship is detected, Aoki eagerly wishes to be the one to investigate. Furahashi tags along in case something goes wrong. It's all part of the maneuvers--with Commander Kiriyama and Dan masquerading as the "enemy ship". The brash Aoki is a little too much of a Top Gun, though. 

Acting on impulse, he later ditches Dan while setting a radar sensor and begins using the Pointer's Missile Defenses against a strange burrowing vessel emerging from the ground. Curiously, Aoki never reveals to Dan what he saw. Unknown to everyone else, Aoki sets a transmitter aboard the Magmalizer as a beacon for the unseen enemy that ultimately costs some lives. During the maneuvers, alien invaders hijack the Magmalizer and tank formations in an attempt to wipe out Ultra Squad.

Unlike the previous episode, #30 is a perfect balance of characterization and action. This is an explosion-heavy installment with lots of planes, rockets and tanks. The Pointer gets more screen time showcasing some of its futuristic hardware, too. The alien invaders even utilize similar weaponry (see insert) to the Ultra Guard's Magmalizer. Curiously, the monster department is where 'Whom Takes the Glory' is lax.  

Alien Plachiku is a peculiar creation. In the annals of Japanese Tokusatsu there have been some seriously wacky monsters; but their outrageousness was part of the design. Plachiku was from monster creator Toru Narita and the suit built by Ryosuke Takayama. Curiously, Narita's original design heavily emphasized the skeletal features. The final monster appears slapped together, looking like an exfoliating bath sponge with two big breasts on its face. Neither Narita nor Takayama envisioned the sponge-like plastic bits stuck all over the skeleton-like suit; this was reportedly done by others in the art department. Kunio Suzuki is inside the monster suit.

We learn nothing about the alien's origins since there's not a lot of time between Aoki's self-aggrandizing actions and the constant display of guns, rockets, and other military hardware invading the screen (this is a good thing, though). According to sources, Alien Plachiku's homeworld is made of plastic. The monster's weapons include a mist that petrifies its victims.... including Ultraseven. This is a rare occasion where the monster is seemingly destroyed, but upon reduced to its bony form, it's still alive.

Aside from the plethora of action, the highlight is the character of Aoki--whose attitude is referenced in the title. You're not sure where he stands at first, but his penchant for being a hot-head is established from his first appearance. A "Shoot First, Ask Questions Later" kind of guy, he ultimately suffers for his impetuousness. Actually, others suffer for it as well. Keisuke Fujikawa's screenplay is well over the top in depicting Aoki's erratic, narcissistic behavior, but actor Yamaguchi Takehisa harnesses the character's mannerisms and makes Aoki one of the most memorable of the series.

The year prior to appearing on U7, Takehisa starred in an episode of the popular AMBASSADOR MAGMA (1966-1967) series. He would share the screen with actress Chie Yamaguchi, the lady he would make his wife in 1972. In 1973, Takehisa was Riderman, Joji Yuki in MASKED RIDER V3 (1973-1974), a role he would reprise several times over the course of that wildly popular Tokusatsu series.

Sadly, Yamaguchi Takehisa would die at just 41 years old on April 6th, 1986 from liver cancer just 4 days after leaving hospital. His last work was in BIRTH OF THE 10TH! KAMEN RIDERS ALL TOGETHER! (1984).

Director Suzuki got his start as an actor, but later became an AD for Eiji Iwaki at Toho. Iwaki himself had been an AD on GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955); and a film where Suzuki had been an actor. Suzuki later became a director in his own right--predominantly in television work. Invited by fellow director Kazuho Mitsuda to work at Tsuburaya Productions, he became an AD on ULTRA Q and later was given command of the directors chair on ULTRAMAN beginning with episode 25. Both Suzuki and Mitsuda helmed 14 U-7 episodes.

Beginning with episode 29, the series began a slow dip in the ratings that would last for a good stretch of episodes before ascending to levels from earlier in the run.

If it weren't for the lackadaisical monster, this would be a near perfect piece of small screen SciFi escapism. Still, it's an enormous amount of fun--being that rare occasion where a human character is more interesting than the monster.
MONSTERS: Alien Plachiku
WEAPONS: TDF Pointer; Ultra Guard F-4 Fighter Plane

To be continued in episode 31: THE DEVIL WHO DWELLS IN A FLOWER!!!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

From Beyond Television: Ultraseven Episode #29


(other titles: The Hijacked Satellite; The Apprentice Alien)

Directed by Kazuo Mitsuda

A privately owned Japanese university launches David, its first satellite, into orbit. Professor Niwa designed the satellite, but when the TDF intercept some messages of an alien origin, they suspect the professor may be from another world. Ultra Garrison member Soga convinces his fiancee to try and get information from the professor's mysterious assistant, Ichinomiya. A disgraced scientist who was laughed at over his plans for a transportation device, he's been collaborating with the professor to build his revolutionary machine. A Protean alien under his human guise, Niwa has been using Ichinomiya so his people can mine pertinent information on Ultra Squad from all around the world for a planned invasion.

Twenty-six minutes doesn't give you a lot of time to expound on a storyline with potential. This story (combined with elements of episode 10 of ULTRAMAN) formulated a major plotline in Toho's last Showa Godzilla movie, TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975); that of a tortured scientist who, because of his ridicule, has forsaken the human race. It's more of an afterthought in this U-7 episode while the alien professor takes center stage. It's slightly disappointing for what amounts to an average piece of Japanese SciFi entertainment.

Novelist and school councilor Ichikawa Moriichi penned this one; working primarily in kid-friendly entertainment before delving into more adult material by the mid-70s onward.

The Protean Alien shares some similarities with the popular Alien Baltan from the previous Ultra series. Deriving its name from Prometheus in Greek mythology, the interplanetary invader can turn invisible and create multiple holographic images of itself; so likely its preference for trickery was pilfered from the Greek Titan. Yamamura Tetsuo was inside the Prote Alien suit. Featuring in several ULTRA series', Tetsuo's suit acting career lasted till 1981 culminating with ULTRAMAN 80. Reportedly, he became dissatisfied on set of one of the two U-7 programs he did for director Shunsetsu Suzuki, who talked him out of quitting.

Outside of a lot of optical effects, the big monster battle isn't much of a fight--just Prote using his deceptive abilities to both antagonize and avoid any physical contact with U-7. There's a miniature set of the private university where the story takes place, but only the Pyramid Building--modeled on the Gakushuin University in Tokyo--is destroyed. This moment in the episode is a bit of foreshadowing since this unique construct was demolished in 2008.

Another plot thread depicting Ultra Squad member Sogo having a fiance (played by Sanae Kitabayashi) is inconsequential to the story and dropped after this episode.

The actor playing the title Earth man, Kinshoku Takinori, was a prolific television performer. Some of his roles include the popular action series G-MEN '75 (1975-1982); Katsu's NEW ZATOICHI (1976-1979); and Sonny Chiba's KAGE NO GUNDAN III (1982). 

Director Kazuo Mitsuda helmed various episodes of many other Ultra series'. This was his 10th of 14 U-7 episodes that bore his name.

ULTRASEVEN is distinct among others in the series in that it often had brilliant writing underneath foam rubber monster fisticuffs. This episode just misses the mark with its decent plot, but middling execution; and not much in the way of monster action to satisfy the kid in you.

MONSTERS: Alien Prote; Protean Spacecraft
WEAPONS: TDF Pointer; Ultra Hawk 2

To be continued in episode 30: FOR WHOM TAKES THE GLORY!!!

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Monster Club (1981) review


Vincent Price (Eramus), John Carradine (R. Chetwynd Hayes), Donald Pleasence (Pickering), Stuart Whitman (Sam), Richard Johnson (Busotsky's father), Britt Ekland (Busotsky's mother), Barbara Kellerman (Angela), Simon Ward (George), Anthony Valentine (Mooney), Patrick Magee (Innkeeper), Anthony Steel (Lintom Busotsky), James Laurenson (Raven), Geoffrey Bayldon (Psychiatrist)

Directed by Roy Ward Baker

The Short Version: The last of the Amicus productions (well, in spirit, anyway) is a three piece orchestra of horror built around a punk rock disco of the film's title patronized by the monster underground crowd. Actually, it looks more like a club full of people wearing department store masks. Groovy at times, but with sparks of unrealized creativity, the songs are much better than you'd expect even if the movie isn't. Barely resembling the book it's based on (one story isn't from the book at all), Baker and company manage to wrangle a meager amount of humor, but virtually none of the author's dark wit. Carradine and Price seem to be having a grand time hosting this club; although for viewers, it's a mixed drink lacking the proper amount of ingredients.

A hungry vampire receives a light, late-night snack from his favorite horror author, and repays him for the drink by offering a lifetime supply of horror stories. This neverending series of volumes are found within the Monster Club, an arcane establishment where the drinks run red and the clientele are anything but human.

Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Chetwynd-Hayes, Baker's primarily kid-friendly movie captures very little of the whimsy and black humor present in the book; failing to sink its teeth into the author's witty style. Hayes creates a perfect balance between blood-curdling horror and macabre humor while the movie version drives a wooden stake through it. Curiously, one of the segments isn't even from Hayes's book but from a previous collection of the authors' vampire stories.

Released in March of 1976, 'The Monster Club' contained five tales interwoven between a prologue, an epilogue, and four Monster Club interludes. It's written in a format perfect for a filmic adaptation. Not surprisingly, this is yet another case where the book is better than the movie. Baker's work has some qualities of its own, but Hayes's source material is far more expansive. Possibly had it been made during the height of the omnibus craze, THE MONSTER CLUB would've fared better. Unfortunately, a horror anthology for kids seemed terribly out of place in 1981 surrounded by slashers vying to out-splatter one another.

The wraparound segment--suitably the most lively of the bunch--takes place within the title discotheque. In the book, the main human character is named Donald McCloud. For his celluloid counterpart, John Carradine plays the author himself, R. Chetwynd-Hayes. The author (who died in 2001) was reportedly not very pleased with the treatment of his material, nor the choice of Carradine playing him because of his age. At the time, Carradine was 74 and Hayes was 61. As a gag, Hayes had put producer Milton Subotsky in his book, but in the form of an anagram as Lintom Busotsky; So Milton returned the favor by turning Donald McCloud into the author.

On a side note, there's another Amicus reference from Hayes in 'Monster Club Interlude 3' to director Kevin Connor. Referred to as an "up and coming director", his name is turned into an anagram as Vinke Rocnner; a Ghoul asks, "Has anyone seen his From Behind the Tombstone?" Incidentally, Kevin Connor had directed FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, a 1974 Amicus portmanteau based on stories from R. Chetwynd-Hayes.

When Milton Subotsky split from his Amicus partner Max J. Rosenberg in 1975, he set up Sword and Sorcery Productions. The intention was to shoot an ambitious project based on Lin Carter's Thongor character. While that gestated for the next few years, Subotsky tried to get a number of other projects made but most never got off the ground. Unfortunately, Thongor and the Valley of Demons was among the vanquished productions (Click HERE for an article on that aborted production). Further, the failure of THE MONSTER CLUB was the end of S&S Productions.

Going back to THE MONSTER CLUB, the initial scenes in the disco are surprisingly fun; even if the monster masks are painfully obvious. They're supposed to be genuine monsters, but the effect is ruined by the dance floor bits by giving the impression we're witnessing little more than a masquerade. The songs are much better than you'd expect; and arguably the film's greatest strength. A highlight is a stripper literally taking it all off, turning into a skeleton in silhouette after removing her skin behind a screen. These attempts at capturing the book's black humor offsets the fakery of the club's monstrous patrons... to a degree. Vincent Price carries these scenes, keeping the undead revelry alive with his jovial delivery.

While THE MONSTER CLUB is lax in the monster department, it succeeds in others like the set decoration and locations. It makes it look more expensive than it really is. This is especially apparent in the stories themselves; with emphasis on the first and last tales. If you've read the novel, the movie is a clogged artery in comparison. Rich in its descriptions of each creature's lineage, the movie never quite comes close to matching the gore grandiose of Hayes's writing. The mythologies are remarkably detailed so it's a shame the film version doesn't follow suit. The stories (the two from the book that are served up) share but a sliver of their sources, which is doubly disappointing. The theme of isolation is shared by all three and exclusive to the movie version. With more money pumped into it, THE MONSTER CLUB could've been a classic of the omnibus form.

As for the stories....

THE SHADMOCK: Angela, a financially emaciated woman, is pressured by her boyfriend to take a job working for a wealthy recluse named Raven; who happens to be a strange hybrid creature called a Shadmock. Initially terrified of him, Angela develops a friendship with the eccentric millionaire. The lonely Raven eventually proposes to Angela. Her boyfriend convinces her to accept so she can lay claim to his riches.

As scripted, 'The Shadmock' is akin to the sort of "just desserts" you'd find in an EC horror comic. Unfortunately, it greatly deviates from the source material. The above synopsis is virtually unrecognizable to what Hayes had written. This is a shame, too, because the original story is morbidly mounted with only the most jet-black of humor riding shotgun. The actual story deals with a bickering couple of repute, Sheridan and Caroline Croxley, who are spending a weekend retreat at one of the family estates. What the Croxley's don't know is that the help are a literal family of monsters; and what awaits this unhappy couple is anything but rest and relaxation.

Before we continue, we should take a momentary step back; the 2nd tale in 'The Monster Club' is titled 'The Mock'. That story correlates with this one in relation to the creatures. In that story, the Mock (a polite word for Mongrel) is a bullied youngster who, along with his mother, wish to raise their monstrous patriarch from the grave. Well, actually from the bathtub from which he drained (you'll have to read the book to get the full backstory). From there, the young monster is to undergo a change much like an adolescent enters into puberty.

The types of monsters in 'The Mock' populate this one, but the emphasis is on the Shadmock--which is mentioned in the earlier tale in the novel. The name of the monster in the book is Marvin, but in the movie he's called Raven. To bring the Shadmock to celluloid life, the filmmakers have sort of combined a few features from some of these lower level hybrid monsters. In the book, Marvin the Shadmock is a handsome man, sort of the male version of Marilyn Munster; only Marvin possesses a deadly method of dispatch when he whistles. 

His filmic counterpart is the exact opposite. The onscreen Shadmock is just a pale, lovelorn guy with minimal makeup. Much is made over how "terrifying" he is, but this is an exaggeration; the character looks more like a guy who doesn't get out in the sun too often and there's nothing overly monstrous about that. Still, as much as this deviates from Hayes's story, the exposition of Raven is well-handled. One holdover from the novel is the Shadmock's love of gardening; but what he does in the garden is missing from Baker's version.

THE VAMPIRES: Bullied at school, a lonely boy has little interaction with his eccentric father who, when he asks why he doesn't play with him during the day says, "I vurk during ze night". It's not hard to discern what his profession is. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard's B Squad (the Blood Squad), vampire hunters investigating assorted blood crimes, are tracking a particularly clever bloodsucker. Upon finally locating his whereabouts B Squad's Chief Pickering (he's staked over 2,000 vamps!) learns the joke's on him. "Bevare of men carrying violin cases!"

Easily the weakest of this cryptic trifecta, this second segment wasn't even among the five MC stories, but based on 'My Mother Married A Vampire'--taken from Hayes's 1978 horror short collection, 'The Cradle Demon'. The 1st story in Hayes's book, 'The Werewolf and the Vampire' would've been far more suitable. The theme of love--grim as it is--is in there so it would've shared that with the film version of 'The Shadmock'; as is the isolation of the boy. The title is self-descriptive about a man bitten by a werewolf becoming one himself prior to meeting a young lady with the whitest of pallor and parents to match. Throw in a determined priest with a young boy learned in exterminating creatures of the night and you have yet another missed opportunity for the film version; budgetary reasons being the likely culprit.

Having never read the original story outside of a plot description that seems to stick to the authors intentions, what makes it onscreen has very little blood in the veins. Not even Donald Pleasence or Richard Johnson can rejuvenate this anemic segment. The humor is juvenile, the angle of the lonely son is abandoned after it's introduced, and there's no horror to speak of; it's just horrible.

THE GHOULS: A horror film director, frustrated over a lack of suitable locations to shoot his exteriors, decides to go it solo and find the perfect place to make his horror movie. He gets more than he bargained for when he goes off-highway to a remote, fog-enshrouded village by the name of Loughville (an anagram for Ghoulville).

In the novel, this story is titled 'The Humgoo', the progeny of a Ghoul with a human; so this tale has the most sinister air about it. The film changes the title to lay emphasis on the Ghouls; yet the novel prefers focus on Luna, another creature of isolation and loneliness. Other alterations include changing the name of the book's main human character to Sam (a movie director); while he's Gerald Mansfield (a mere traveler) in the novel. These Ghouls are the closest to Hayes's source, but there are differences and, understandably, whole morsels tossed aside. Some of these discarded bits are anything but gristle, though.

The Grand Guignol repartee in the Loughville Inn when Gerald first arrives is evaporated for Baker's movie; instead getting quickly down to business once Sam reaches the spooky hamlet. Dispensing with this building sense of dread does hurt the segment, but the atmosphere makes up for this shortcoming. Upon discovering the inhabitants are Ghouls, the Humgoo of the story--a young girl named Luna--explains "the great eating", a festival of sorts where the cannibalistic creatures feast on corpses brought to them by The Elders, a mysterious bunch mentioned only once in the movie version. Luna imparts to Sam that these flesh-gobblers bury their victims alive till they die, then dig them up for their succulent preparation.

In the book and movie Gerald is captured; but one of the story's most intense sequences is shaved away. Stripped naked and buried alive, Gerald manages to escape certain death thanks to the easily tired ghouls not burying him deep enough. Another section where a hungry young cannibal discovers their fresh meal has gotten away sends shivers down the spine. 

However, much of the dialog in Hayes's story is faithfully recreated in Baker's movie. One of these is a sequence where our hero discovers the skeletal remains of the town's priest, the last survivor before the ghouls descended and devoured the residents. Sam reads the last page of his diary which divulges what happened there. Instead of the traditional flashback, we get the priest's voice backing a series of ghoulish drawings--the work of British artist, John Bolton. Bolton's work also graced a 30 page comic book adaptation; the cover of which is seen behind the end credits (as well as gracing the cover of the Valancourt Books edition from 2013).

The story's ending is basically the same as the movie, but is different in that there are no police Ghouls escorting Sam back to his doom. It's the Elders, a wealthy bunch that keeps the creatures satiated with fresh food.

Last call in THE MONSTER CLUB consists of Vincent Price elucidating a speech about how horrible Humes are (humans) compared to monsters. This oration is in Hayes's book, but where it's different is in the closing moments. Both Price and Carradine get down and boogie with the club creeps before the credits roll. Without giving anything away, Hayes closed his novel on a much darker tone; a tone that the movie largely avoids.

The producers thought they had a surefire hit on their hands, going so far as to commission a movie tie-in novel based on the screenplay and an aforementioned 30 page comic book illustrated by British artist John Bolton. None of this helped the movie make any money. Still, despite is failure, the picture has garnered a small cult following over the years. Looking at it today, it's painfully underwhelming but sparks of ingenuity are there, intermittently spread about the films near 100 minutes. One of these areas of brilliance is in the soundtrack.

Arguably the movie's strong suit, the music is overwhelmingly impressive. Not content with a single composer, the ambitiousness is notable in three separate musical stylists; and then there's the rockin' musical numbers like the club anthem, 'Monsters Rule, Okay!'. Douglas Gamley's romantically tragic compositions for 'The Shadmock' are played by American motion picture composer John Williams. John Georgiadis delivers a beautiful, violin-driven score for the 2nd segment; basing it on Transylvanian folk melodies, it's the sole point of interest in this tired blood tale. Alan Hawkshaw's Humgoo haunter is an electronic number that suits the third and most satisfying story of the movie.

If you're a fan, Scorpion Releasing's bluray is a must-own. Even if you're not too keen on the flick, this is one of the most gorgeous presentations of a niche title ever put to disc. Looking like it was made yesterday, the movie may be lackluster, but the producers of this blu obviously put a great deal of care into it. With that said, the film actually benefits from the amount of clarity; giving it a more polished pallor than it likely had during its theatrical release. Mostly mediocre with spatterings of innovation, some viewers will pass on obtaining membership to this CLUB while others will gladly patronize this monstrous establishment. Overall, Monsters Rule, but this movie is just Okay.

Specs and Extras: New 1.78:1 16x9 anamorphic HD transfer; Watch in Nightmare Theater Mode; 62 minute interview with Vincent Price from 1987; 40 minute audio interview between David Del Valle and Price; On-camera interview with David Del Valle; Original trailer; Isolated ME track; liner notes; running time: 01:37:39

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