Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Ninja Squad (1986, Godfrey Ho & Robert W Young)

Another nugget of movie-making gold from the crazed minds of Godfrey Ho, Joseph Lai, and the must-be-fictional IFD script unit. This time our pal Richard Harrison (who is unnerving without his trademark moustache, just like a young Burt Reynolds or a post-Fawlty John Cleese) returns as Ninja Master Gordon to train a young lad named Billy in the mystical arts of ninjitsu.

Unfortunately for Billy, he hasn't reckoned on the lack of job prospects for 18th century Japanese assassins down at the local labour exchange, and finds himself returning to his home town without money or gainful employment, and facing a gang of extortionist thugs threatening his poor old mother that if she doesn't find any cash they'll "burn down your fuckin' house"!!! Class.

Whilst young Billy wrestles with the domestic soap opera aspects of ninja existence, his master Gordon is entangled in conflict with the startling Ivan the Red (Dave Wheeler), who possesses an amazing costume, a ludicrously macho and husky dubbed voice, and a truly sensational bass-lead theme tune. Seriously: if they release "Ivan's Theme" i predict it as Christmas number one with full confidence.

 Ivan's challenge to Gordon to fight to the death for NINJA SUPREMACY is spurned, and so Mr. The Red decides to take out a number of random ninjas clad in outfits of varying ludicrousness as they "train" (jump about a bit) in various neighbouring fields. Obviously, we're all waiting for the final showdown between these two ninja colossi, and we aren't disappointed.



 Well, we are, to be honest, but as with all of these movies, it's the journey , not the destination, that matters. And when we've encountered such hilariously inept dialogue, thrillingly pounding basslines, and dubbing so bad it may well make you mentally ill along the way, who can possibly complain? Only the type of person who wouldn't even "revenge" their own mother.

Harrison: reading the script, appalled, 1986.

                                      No-one defeats Ivan the Red!  Hahahaaaa!!!! (My hero)

Monday, 14 September 2015

October Moth (1960, John Kruse)

One of several features made in the early to mid 1960s by the British Independent Artists Ltd out of Beaconsfield Studios and released contemporaneously with the Edgar Wallace Mysteries B-film strand, October Moth stands as the sole film to have been written and directed by John Kruse, author and screenwriter of the classic Hell Drivers (1957).

Distributed by Rank Film Distributors and boasting a soundtrack composed by Humphrey Searle (The Abominable Snowman [1957], The Haunting [1963], Doctor Who: The Myth Makers [1965]), October Moth is a tight and taut little psychodrama that packs a lot of character orientated punch into its brief (like the lifecycle of the lepidopterous insect of the title) into its brief 54 minute span.

 Much of the movie is a theatrical (in the best possible Brechtian black box theatre sense of the word) two - hander between the characters of brother and sister Finlay (Lee Patterson, Time Lock [1957], Jack the Ripper [1959], The Three Worlds of Gulliver [1960]) and Molly (Lana Morris, Trouble in Store [1953], Radio Cab Murder [1954]) in their isolated farmhouse, in which their relationship appears top have spiraled into a solipsistic borderline - incestuous nightmare.  Patterson gives a very good tense and wiry performance as the jittery Finlay, slightly reminiscent of Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in Hitchcock's masterful Psycho, made the very same year, as he brings back to this remote and isolated locale an injured woman he has rescued from a car crash - an accident apparently caused by the driver swerving to avoid the fire started by Finlay's upended moth jar, drawing his 'victim' towards him like a moth to a literal flame.

 'Ma's come back - Pa did it, not me.' says the deluded Finlay to his terrified sister. 'She looked at me.  She told me that she loved me.'  This Misery - esque tableau is played out whilst poor Molly grows more and more anxious about her clearly disturbed brother, as he becomes ever more deranged.  'I feel Pa's about,' he declaims, not satisfied with abducting an ersatz mother, 'I dream about him night after night.  Not his face - his face is blurred.  But his boots, and the swing of his hand and the stink of the beer on him!'

 Molly's attempted cries for help via local linesman for the county (and yes, now i have Glen Campbell stuck in my head...) Tom Driver add a frisson to the situation, as Finlay becomes increasingly aware of the trying-to-be-helpful Tom's presence upon the grounds, but equates him with the menacing presence of the Bogeyman-esque 'Pa'.  'You pretend he's alive for the same reason you pretend the woman in there is Mother,' yells Molly as she reaches the end of her tether, 'Because it's all unfinished!  Because he died before you were big enough to avenge her!'

 A great tense little suspenser that rip-roars along in under an hour, October Moth is a curio that i can heartily recommend to all aficionados of the obscure.  But as the inevitable occurs, and the sinister sibling saga ends in inevitable sacrifice of life, we are left with the desolation of Molly's words to Tom: 'When no-one needs you, you're nothing.'

 Sniff.  Nihil sum i s'pose.  Still, who needs family, eh?

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960, Cyril Frankel)

 Yet another in the run of Hammer Films' black and white thrillers of early 1960s, Cyril Frankel's masterful Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (released in the US by distributors Columbia Pictures under the Americanised title of Never Take Candy from a Stranger) takes a bold step for a film of the period in tackling a subject much more unnerving and horrifying to cinemagoers than the Gothic tomb-rent revenants put out by the famed Hammer Horror studio - paedophilia.

The young star of the film, Janina Faye, had already appeared twice for Hammer - as little Tania in Terence Fisher's classic Dracula (US title Horror of Dracula) in 1958, and again under Fisher's direction as the mute orphan girl in 1960's The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll.  She would go on two years later to star in another film with the thorny theme of the child predator, Pat Jackson's Don't Talk to Strange Men.  This film's director, Cyril Frankel, had made a splash with the Irish-set drama She Didn't Say No (1958) - which had been banned in the Emerald Isle for its 'immoral' content - and had also, in an uncredited capacity, helmed much of the classic School for Scoundrels (1960) when original director Robert Hamer was relieved of his duties due to the alcoholism which would soon claim his life.  Frankel would direct a full-blooded 'Hammer Horror' in 1966, the Joan Fontaine - starring The Witches.

Never take Sweets... was touted on its Columbia Pictures release as 'the most challenging film of the decade', and the Coming Attractions trailer led with the legend 'Our story takes place in Eastern Canada, but it could happen to children anywhere'.  The screenplay by John Hunter was based upon the three-act play The Pony Cart by Roger Garis, American author of the Outboard Boys series of children's adventure books, and apparently based upon a real-life incident involving Garis' own daughter.

The film opens innocuously enough, with two young girls, Jean Carter (Janina Faye) and Lucille Demarest (Frances Green) playing on a swing in woodland, before the revelation that they are being watched by the elderly Clarence Olderberry through binoculars from the window of his turreted room.  When Jean realises that she has dropped and lost her candy money, she is told by Lucille that there is a place she knows where they can obtain lots of candy, and the children head off in the direction of the Olderberry house, chillingly setting the tone of the picture as the credits begin to roll.

Jean's parents, Peter (Patrick Allen, 1984 [1956], Captain Clegg [aka Night Creatures, 1962], The Night of the Big Heat [1967], The Black Adder [1983]) and Sally Carter (Gwen Watford, Cleopatra [1963], Taste the Blood of Dracula [1970], The Ghoul [1975]) are recent arrivals with their family to the provincial Canadian locale of Jamestown, where Peter has taken up the post of principal of the high school.  we are quickly introduced to the snallmindedness and small-town thinking of the local academic community through the gossipy Sylvia Kingsley (Helen Horton, Phase IV [1974], Alien [1979] and Superman III [1983]), the Helen Lovejoy - like serpent in the groves of academe.  When young Jean tells her parents that the expedition to the Olderberry house resulted in both she and Lucille being instructed by old Mr Olderberry to dance naked for him, Sally's immediate instinct to alert the authorities is questioned by the grandmother Martha (Alison Leggatt, This Happy Breed [1944], Waterloo Road [1945], The Day of the Triffids [1963]), who questions the wisdom of rash action.  'I know how tough children can be', she says, minimising the scale of Olderberry's actions in a grim prelude of the town's closing ranks against the 'Outsiders' who are 'stirring up trouble', from whispered gossip in the hairdressing salon to the resistance against taking matters further from the local police - 'You and your husband are strangers in this town,' says Captain Hammond to Sally, 'No-one knows much about you... [this means] quite a lot, in a place like this.'

The Olderberry family's standing in the community is continually emphasised, from their ownership of the saw mill which provides so much local employment (including the job of Lucille's father Tom Demarest [Robert Arden, Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981), D. A. R. Y. L. (1985), The Little Shop of Horrors (1986)] who refuses to become involved and packs his daughter off to live with her aunt to keep her from testifying against Olderberry) to their patronage of the Coldhill Sanitorium private hospital. The town's conspiracy of silence extends to Olderberry's tendencies being widely known and whispered about, but nobody has ever come forth and taken action.  The family's scion Richard Olderberry (Bill Nagy, The Night of the Prowler [1962], Battle Beneath the Earth [1967]) reacts against Peter's offer to drop prosecution in return for making sure that Olderberry Senior is kept under supervision with prideful threats: 'A high school principal needs the goodwill of the community...You're on trial - we can get rid of you!', and dismissing the Carters as 'lousy outsiders' with the promise that if this should go to court and little Jean take the stand, his lawyers will 'tear [her] apart, on my instructions!'

And this threat is not idle, as the case proceeds to court, silence falling as the Carters enter the courtroom like strangers entering The Slaughtered Lamb, as Jean is led like the lamb to the slaughter and Olderberry (Felix Aylmer, so wonderful in such roles as Polonius in Olivier's Hamlet [1948], Merlin in Knights of the Round Table [1953] and the elderly Stephen Banning in Hammer's The Mummy [1959], projecting silent menace in a wordless performance) glowers from the dock as his attack dog of a defence attorney (Niall MacGinnis, the Satanic Karswell of Night of the Demon [1957]) hounds young Jean on the witness stand, picking apart her testimony whilst cross-examining her in front of a crowded courtroom and causing the viewer to question whether the Carters are doing the right thing in subjecting her to this ordeal, rather than go along with the townsfolk and 'sweep it under the carpet'.  The traumatic experience is called to a halt when the prosecution (Michael Gwynn, of Hammer's The Revenge of Frankenstein [1958] and The Scars of Dracula [1970]) drops charges against Olderberry, setting the elderly predator free with a tabula rasa that will carry a heavy price for all concerned, when a carefree Jean and a returned Lucille encounter him in the woods.  Aylmer's portrayal of the thus far creeptastic but seemingly confused Olderberry here turns to pure menace, as he pursues the girls into the woods (a Canadian wilderness with a striking resemblance to Black Park, Buckinghamshire, as a well-trained Hammer fan eye can easily glean) with the shambling gait of a Karloffian Frankenstein monster.

The Frankenstein parallels don't end there, as Jean's abandoned bicycle is brought into town (like the dead body of little Maria in James Whale's 1931 expressionistic opus), leading the panicking authorities to whip up a posse of townsfolk, like the villagers wielding torches of yore, to comb the surrounding countryside.  The search, and Olderberry's pursuit of the girls through the forest to a lake and nearby trapper's cabin (the 'cabin in the woods' location of so many deaths in the horror genre) is wonderfully and suspensefully photographed by cinematographer Freddie Francis, with great use of fog filters on the lake sequences.

The dreaded denouement comes with Olderberry being apprehended red-handed over the strangled body of Lucille (ooh, is that a dodgy moral there?  The girl who playfully led Jean to Olderberry's house in the first place, who had presumably 'danced for his candy' before, is the one to die).  The Carters' accusations against the paedo patriarch are vindicated, Clarence Olderberry is taken into custody by the sheriff who can no longer look the other way, and Richard Olderberry is reduced from the threat throwing thuggery of earlier in the film to a hollow man belittled before the townsfolk who had respected his family name to the extent of an omerta.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is an unfairly neglected film, reduced to the status of a curio amongst its more famed Hammer brethren.  But it is a very worthy piece, handling a troubling subject with thoughtfulness and maturity, and certainly worth a look from any who may be seeking a superior slice of sinister.


Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Five Golden Dragons (1967, Jeremy Summers)

Yet another espionage-sploitation co-production from notorious shady producer Harry Alan Towers (once again writing the screenplay, and probably also writing and singing the 'feem toon', under his nom de plume of Peter Welbeck).  This time round we are in the 1967, wherein Ol' Uncle Harry has somehow schmoozed a co-production deal with Hong Kong's legendary Shaw Brothers which has already yielded such celluloid treasures as The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967) - the only one of Towers' tepid Manchu pentalogy to actually film in China -and the Lindsay Shonteff - helmed The Million Eyes of Su-Muru (1967), and so he ropes in Vengeance director Jeremy Summers (who would go on later the same year to direct the Vincent Price - starring House of 1,000 Dolls for Towers) to direct a spy 'epic' (cough) on location in Hong Kong that would inevitably feature Maria Rohm (of the aforesaid Fu Manchu, Su-Muru and Price opuses this same year, as well as sequels to the first two The Blood of Fu Manchu [1968] and The Girl from Rio [1969], and many other Harry Alan Towers productions.  Oh, did i mention that Maria was Harry's wife?  Funny, that) and Klaus Kinski (slumming it in many of Towers' films at the time, including Su-Muru and Circus of Fear [1966]), and would inevitably be touted on its Teutonic release as a krimi based on the works of Edgar Wallace (an assertion that must have had Wallace rotating at high speed in his grave).

My, that was a long sentence.

                                   (Edgar Wallace Presents... Yeah, Harry.  'Course he does.)

What we actually have here is a North by Northwest knockoff plot of an innocent abroad (Robert Cummings, former star of Hitchcock's Saboteur [1942] and Dial M for Murder [1954] but playing his role here like he was still co-starring with Abbott and Costello in One Night in the Tropics [1940].  Perhaps he'd read the script and decided it couldn't possibly be played seriously) drawn in to a web of mayhem and intrigue.  American playboy Bob Mitchell (Cummings) is written a mysterious letter by a murdered man saying simply 'Five Golden Dragons', baffling Bob but arousing the curiosity of the local police including Commissioner Sanders (Rupert Davies, also of the Fu Manchu parish having starred in Towers' The Brides of Fu Manchu in 1966, and essaying a role presumably named in order to provide a spurious connection with the works of Wallace) and Inspector Chiao (Roy Chiao, of Enter the Dragon [1973] and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [1984]), who share an amusing bantering relationship of one-upping each other with Shakespeare quotations.

Bob soon finds both himself and a pair of Eurobabe sisters he has been chatting up by the hotel pool (the inevitable Maria Rohm as Ingrid, and Maria Perschy - later star of Towers' The Castle of Fu Manchu [1969], Jacinto Molina's The Hunchback of the Morgue [1973] and Amando de Ossorio's The Ghost Galleon, aka Horror of the Zombies [1974] - as Margret) being pursued by the dastardly Gert (Kinski).  There follows some competently directed action sequences from Summers, including a chase across the junks in Hong Kong harbour, and a scene wherein the waterskiing Ingrid is kidnapped by speedboat piloting henchmen.

 All of this is preamble and prologue of course, to our inept hero finally encountering the Dragons of the title ('Special Guest Stars' Dan Duryea, Christopher Lee, George Raft and Brian Donlevy, sharing precisely two scenes in the entire movie - presumably having both shot in a day by the notoriously budget conscious Towers - sitting around a meeting table wearing preposterous papier mache masks over their famous visages for most of their screen time).  Bob finds his way into this Dragons' Den, but these entrepreneurs of evil wish only to invest in death, being the heads of an international crime cartel.  Bumbling Bob finds himself roped in to posing as the fifth Dragon by shady nightclub owner Peterson (Sieghardt Rupp) and his chanteuse moll Magda (Margaret Lee, of Towers / Jess Franco productions Venus in Furs [1969) and The Bloody Judge [1970]) to entrap the four crime bosses, with Ingrid's life held hostage by the rude Gert (i was trying to make a 'Gert / rude' joke, and there we have it) to ensure his co-operation.

Enjoyable hokum, featuring nice location travelogue footage of colonial period Hong Kong, decent action and characterisation and a leavening of humour, as well as some musical numbers (Margaret Lee sings 'Time Of Our Lives' and 'Five Golden Dragons' to the music of Malcolm Lockyer - he of the jazzy score of Dr Who and the Daleks [1965] - and Japanese singer / actress Yukari Ito performs a song, in the nightclub that cannot decide whether it's called The Blue World or The Happy World depending upon the scene) before Commissioner Sanders arrives for the Poirot-esque 'summing up' scene and Bob and Ingrid go off together.

And, in any case, how many other films can you name in which Klaus Kinski leads a gang of ninjas trying to assassinate an ageing American doing a hopeless Bob Hope impersonation?  Or in which Dracula, Professor Quatermass, Waco Johnny Dean and Johnny Allegro control world crime wearing stupid Halloween masks?  Yeah, none.  Exactly.

It's probably for the best, too.

Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960, Val Guest)

 Continuing my journey through some of Hammer Films' lesser known monochrome thrillers, next up on the list was the 1960 psychodrama Stop Me Before I Kill!, a.k.a. The Full Treatment, directed by Val Guest after his Hammer adaptations of Nigel Kneale BBC scripts The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Quatermass II (1956), and The Abominable Snowman (1957), as well as wartime drama Yesterday's Enemy (1959) and shortly to helm the SF drama The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961).  Guest co-scripted alongside Ronald Scott Thorn, adapting Thorn's novel "The Full Treatment" into what was to be Hammer's longest film to that date, running a full two hours - though the film would be hacked down to 93 minutes by its US distributors Columbia Pictures.

The film opens in media res with a scene of the aftermath of a car crash on a motorway, revealed by Guest in a tracking shot that takes us from crashed car (replete with jazzy score playing on the car radio, continuing Guest's established verite style) to askew oil tanker with it's painted advertisement announcing that "Alan Colby Uses" Castrol Motor Oil, the irony of which is soon revealed as we discover that race car driver Colby (Ronald Lewis, shortly to star in the following year in Hammer's Scream of Fear [a.k.a.: A Taste of Fear] and William Castle's Mr Sardonicus), 'the demon of the track', is one of the pile-up's passengers, along with his brand new bride Denise (Diane Cilento, of Tom Jones [1963], The Agony and the Ecstasy [1965] and The Wicker Man [1973]).

 The unlucky newlyweds finally embark upon their halted honeymoon almost a year later, but their romantic sojourn in the south of France (the location for many of these Hammer psychodramas) proves to be a difficult one due to Alan's post-concussion traumatic stress manifesting itself as unbridled aggression and the compulsion to strangle the bride during moments of intimacy and heightened emotion.  And we're not talking in a sexy auto-erotic sense, here, alas.

"I daren't make love with my wife - i want to but i daren't touch her!", confesses the 'demon of the track' now in thrall to his own demons, "I daren't sleep with her, because... sometimes when i hold her i feel a sort of emotional compulsion...".  Alan finds himself delivering this confiteor of his carnal constriction contemplations to Dr David Prade (Claude Dauphin, The Phantom of the Rue Morgue [1954], The Quiet American [1958], Barbarella [1968]), a benign-seeming fellow holidaymaker who is also a psychiatrist.  Doctor David may well have motivations of his own for volunteering to help Alan in a professional capacity, however, as signaled by Guest in a neat superimposition shot of the not-so-good doctor watching the lovely Denise swimming in the ocean, reflected in his voyeur-vision binoculars.  All of this, and his distracting resemblance to John Sessions, make this trick cyclist a profoundly suspect character.

The twistings and turnings of the plot, as Prade manipulates the increasingly frantic and desperate Colby into being convinced he has committed a murder that he doesn't remember, are accentuated by Val Guest's assured directorial flourishes: a very nifty pull-back from a London establishing shot into the interior hallway of the couple's flat; a wonderful trick shot mixing between a tracking crane shot on location (panning up from a Harley Street road sign) up to a window, and in to the interior studio-shot scene of Prade's office in a very neat and almost imperceptible edit.

The scene of Prade's 'psychoanalysis' of Colby features P. O. V. perspective shots and wild edits and pans that give us a real sense of Colby's jitteriness and edginess, twitching and flicking, scanning around the room, and use of a series of extreme closeups to ratchet up the tension as one man imposes his will on the other in order to mentally destroy him.

A very watchable suspenser of psycho-sexual strangulation that draws the viewer in and sweeps along to its dramatic conclusion