Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Something Creeping in the Dark (1971)

It was a dark and stormy night.  Ten jerks find themselves in an old, dark house, and weird things start to occur.  This is the premise for Mario Colucci’s Something Creeping in the Dark (aka Qualcosa Striscia nel Buio aka Shadows in the Dark), and this set up, if nothing else, is one of the most clichéd of the horror and mystery genres.  The reason is obvious.  Storms act as visual portents, bad omens of things to come.  They also give dramatic tension to scenes, because the characters are usually a bit stressed from the effects of the storm (the dangers of driving, being stuck out of doors in the rain, etcetera).  Maybe they bicker more than usual.  Maybe they’re a bit more anxious or cranky.  But, assuredly, they reveal themselves, because the strain and tumult of the tempest makes them forget their normal polite facades.  The director opens this film with his characters driving through the rain, and many shots are obscured by it, keeping the viewer off kilter, never quite sure of what they are seeing while still being recognizable enough.  Like the characters, the audience becomes embroiled in the restlessness of the environment in this way.

Storms also act as a means to gather a disparate group in one location and see what happens when things go south.  Here, the characters wind up in the manse of the late Lady Sheila Marlowe (a clear reference to Christopher Marlowe, the author of Doctor Faustus, played in portraiture only by Loredana Nusciak), a place that looks as ornately musty yet still kind of like a medieval dungeon as any ever put to film.  Rather cleverly, the film gives us an Agatha Christie-esque layout, and the expectation is that any oddities that happen will be explained away by the end as the doings of a human.  It’s a classic weird pulp framework, those stories that, essentially, became the formula for every episode of Scooby Doo (and quite a few gialli).  However, Colucci takes a sharp right turn and brings the actual supernatural into the mix, and the film plays both sides of the fence up until its conclusion, even while it tells us flat out that a specter is involved.  This is done by the introduction of Spike (Farley Granger), a “homicidal maniac” whom Inspector Wright (Dino Fazio) has captured and is bringing to justice.  This means that the characters can act out some of their darker impulses, because they have an easy scapegoat.  For example, Joe (Gianni Medici), the housekeeper, threatens his girlfriend (Giulia Rovai) with murder, knowing he can lay it off on Spike, who makes a habit of escaping throughout the film.  Sylvia (Lucia Bosé) fantasizes about seducing and then murdering Spike, a sharp contrast to the dull, bitter relationship she has with her husband Don (Giacomo Rossi Stuart).  Basically, the storm washes away all but the innermost desires of the film’s characters.

Something Creeping in the Dark is a brooding film, filled with a sense of doom, and it contains much superficial philosophical musings on existential matters.  The characters recognize their flaws, and the inescapability of their situation traps them inside themselves (in much the same way that they are trapped in the house).  They are left to act out their repressions or be consumed by them (possibly both).  The ghost of Lady Marlowe is the impetus for this.  She passes from character to character, possesses them for a time, and either kills them or shows them up for what they are.  Susan West (Mia Genberg) is the flinty assistant to Doctor Williams (Stelvio Rosi).  The doctor was en route to perform an emergency surgery, something which he quickly gets over when he finds out that he won’t get there in time.  Susan clearly harbors unspoken feelings for him, and Marlowe provides her the opportunity to express them.  Yet, after they consummate, Susan doesn’t feel freed of her emotional constraints.  She feels violated instead of satisfied, and she rejects Williams’ attempt to console her.  Rather than bring them together at long last, the playing out of Susan’s desirous impulses may keep them apart forever because her agency was taken away (or was her “possession” an act she now regrets?).  

The filmmakers portray Marlowe’s ghost via a high angle tracking camera (with fish eye lens) that floats down hallways, extinguishing lights as it approaches.  It is an omniscient viewpoint, and Marlowe is, virtually, God (and a capricious God, at that).  She toys with her playthings, enjoys making them dance for her amusement.  It is also conceivable that Marlowe’s possession of various characters is her own attempt at breaking out of her purgatorial/existential prison, of finding some meaning to the spiritual torment she is in.  Finding no satisfaction in this, it’s just as easy to kill her toys in a spiteful, childish lashing out against ineluctable circumstances.

The film is difficult to recommend, though I really would like to.  It takes tropes and plays with them, juggling between the corporeal and the preternatural.  It is loaded with style, and Colucci dives into some psychedelia, but he makes it work by anchoring it within his characters’ minds rather than as some overwrought visual display to take the audience on a “freak out.”  The director also takes about a half a page from Robert Wise’s book (i.e. his direction of the superlative The Haunting), using suggestion as much as he does directness.  It is entirely possible that human hands are behind the film’s nefariousness.  It is entirely possible that the human hands behind the film’s nefariousness are being manipulated by a supernatural force.  It is entirely possible that a malevolent spirit alone is behind the film’s nefariousness.  And Colucci allows that it may be all three simultaneously.  The major problem with the film is that it is both repetitive and sluggish.  Spike makes off into the nearby woods and has it out with the cops not once, but twice.  The Spike character is also, in my opinion, underutilized, considering his potential (and Granger’s talent; he does give his all here).  When the characters aren’t standing in the living room talking circularly or shooting barbs at one another, they are in their individual rooms talking circularly or shooting barbs at one another.  Interesting ideas are brought up and then left floating, and the climax is both predictable and a bit silly in its aftermath.  Something Creeping in the Dark is a film worth seeing (I finally made up my mind), though maybe not on a dark and stormy night, because you may fall asleep during it.

MVT:  Colucci brings a thoughtful sense to his direction.

Make or Break:  The séance scene is tense and creepy, while being distinctly Italian and a little goofy.

Score:  6.5/10

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Karate Rock (1990)

During the opening credits of Larry Ludman’s (aka Fabrizio De Angelis) Karate Rock (aka Il Ragazzo delle Mani D’Acciaio aka The Kid with Iron Hands), a car passes by a Burger King, and the first thing that popped into my head was how appropriate that is.  When I was a boy, fast food was something you got once in a blue moon.  It was a “treat,” not the go-to for every meal of the day.  Fast food was considered trash food.  I suppose it still is, but it’s much more readily accepted as a meal option now.  The same holds true for trash cinema.  It’s probably not “good for you” (yes, I know that sounds snotty), but damn it all, it sure does taste good.  The acceptance of trash cinema has certainly grown over the years from a rather small cult following into a veritable legion or people who devote the entirety of their moviegoing lives to it.  I have no grudge against trash cinema nor against the people who live and breathe it (I would consider myself at least partially in this category).  But I do find myself, from time to time, trying to figure out the “why?” of it’s appeal.  This is something which can be especially confounding when you’re a devotee as well as an observer.  

I’m sure the answer is likely far more complex than any of the films which fall under the trash purview (and definitely more in-depth than I have room for here), but I keep coming back to fast food as the appropriate analogy.  Trash films, even when they drag, when the camerawork is horrible, when the action is less than thrilling, almost always give you at least one moment you won’t see in any other film (or, lacking a specific moment, an attitude).  Just like you can’t get a Burger King burger at McDonald’s and vice versa, you can’t confuse something like 1990: Bronx Warriors with 2019: After the Fall of New York, no matter how hard you try.  In fact, the individual flaws may be the things that make them stand out.  These are films totally concerned with trying to be entertaining.  They don’t care about expanding the vocabulary of filmmaking.  They don’t care about making any cogent statements about the human condition (though, I would argue, they sometimes do despite their best efforts).  They don’t want to suggest anything.  They want to be as plain as the nose on your face (and 99.999% of the time, they are).  Like Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, et al, they all want to sell you a hamburger, fast and cheap, and, most importantly, from one of their franchises.  So, Karate Rock is perhaps the most bonkers ripoff of The Karate Kid ever made, yet it still partly works in spite of itself, but not because of any inherent virtues.  That said, the distinct lack of Elisabeth Shue is truly, truly tragic.

Kevin Foster (Antonio Sabato, Jr) is moved from his Savannah, Georgia home to the small town of Bend because he got into too much trouble for his policeman father John (David Warbeck) to take.  Rooming with the happy-go-lucky Billy (Robert Chan), Kevin runs afoul of local jerkoff Jeff Hunter (Andrew J Parker) and his gang of thugs.  From there on out, it’s nothing but dancing at the local slushie bar and karate-ing (-ish).

As previously stated, the clear and obvious “inspiration” for Karate Rock is 1984’s The Karate Kid.  There is the new kid transplanted to a town where he is all alone and outcast for his background.  There is the young love angle.  There is the karate angle, replete with the old, retired (and retiring) Asian mentor.  There is the gang of young toughs who dominate the protagonist’s life and make it infinitely more difficult.  The thing of it is, Karate Rock has none of the heart of the John G Avildsen film, and it completely misses the whole point of its progenitor.  For the first part, there are still all the setups we expect from this story, and they all turn out exactly as one can predict.  Nonetheless, there is no connective tissue to get us there.  There is no development of the characters, from the top down, to make us care about anything that happens to any of them.  Kevin is practically a doorstop who keeps getting in Jeff’s face just to make himself feel bigger and salve his own pride.  Billy offers no wisdom or insight into how Kevin can better himself until he decides to train him (he does get a half-assed back story, however).  Conny (Dorian D Field), the girl next door, never shares a heartfelt moment with Kevin, and she pathetically keeps trying to change herself to match Jeff’s hotty girlfriend Kim (Natalie J Hendrix) rather than showing Kevin (and the audience) anything unique she has to offer.  John behaves more like Kevin’s parole officer than his father, and there is no depth to their relationship for a reconciliation to mean anything.  These are warm bodies occupying spaces until it’s time for them to do something.

For the second part, this film has nothing to do with self-discovery or conquering one’s fears.  This is because it is entirely shot through a thick, oily filter of pure Italian machismo.  Kevin wants Kim because she’s beautiful, and, according to various moments between her and Jeff, she puts out.  Conny flings herself at Kevin because he’s hot, not because he is in any way distinctive.  And Kevin frankly couldn’t give a shit about Conny until he needs her, anyway.  The impetus for Kevin’s martial arts training has nothing to do with improving himself.  He’s doing it just to get revenge on Jeff for publicly kicking his ass multiple times (and never mind that Kevin names Kim as the prize for the winner of their climactic showdown, something she protests not in the least).  Billy’s decision to teach Kevin has nothing to do with anything other than that he’s an old Asian guy who knows karate (and the training montage is not only substandard in its techniques [read: no “wax on, wax off” stuff] but also mindboggling in its intercutting with shots of Jeff dancing at the slushie bar), and there is no thought given to the ideals and philosophy of martial arts.  It’s strictly used here to beat the shit out of people.  Finally, just to keep the viewer even more off-balance, the whole inner turmoil that Kevin has completely not been struggling with for the entire movie is his desire to be accepted by his old man, which he does by beating up a couple of kids (wasn’t that part of the reason he was taken away from his home in the first place?).  The whole film is like getting Chinese noodles and putting pesto sauce on them.  Yes, it’s still noodles and sauce, and it tastes fine, but it is not in any way what you expect.  And that’s without even getting into all of the disco dancing that takes place to music I could have whipped up at twelve-years-old on my Casio SK-1.

MVT:  The pure wrongheadedness of De Angelis’ approach and the bizarre view that the Italian filmmakers had of American life.

Make or Break:  The “rock dance” competition.  It’s one for the ages in so many ways.

Score:  6.75/10             

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Alley Cat (1984)

Cinematic villains love to cackle, and few bad guys cackle more or better than those from Hong Kong genre cinema and English-speaking exploitation cinema.  Show me a martial arts film made anywhere from the Sixties up to about the year 2000 that doesn’t have one (usually either followed by or while simultaneously stroking a ludicrously long, stringy beard), and I’ll show you a cigar box full of four-leaf clovers.  American action films typically have a gang of lowbrow guttersnipes who all think things like rape and murder are the funniest things in the world.  I can’t tell you where this tradition started, but I know that it swiftly became a staple/cliché that carries through to today.  The idea is that the villains have a sense of superiority, and their haughty laughter shows this to their enemies and victims.  Likewise, it’s meant to show the audience that these characters are vile.  The things they find uproariously hilarious are things a normal human being finds odious and tragic.  It also removes the films further away from reality, because these guys are so heightened in their reactions to everything, they become cartoonish.  Take Edward Victor’s Alley Cat, for example.  The iniquitous Bill/Scarface (Michael Wayne, an actor who only appeared in this one film but could very easily have been the Anthony James of films that only had $1.22 to spend on casting) brays when he thinks of what he’s going to do to our heroine Billie (Karin Mani), and his underlings follow along, because being a scumbag is fun (conversely, this is also meant to be menacing for the same exact reasons).

Billie chases a couple of thugs away from her car with her Karate skills (and it should be said that either Mani actually knows martial arts or the stunt-doubling is impressive, maybe both), but their boss Scarface decides to teach her a lesson by stabbing Billie’s grandmother.  Billie decides to take this rather personally.

Alley Cat is a standard revenge film in every way, and that includes its philosophy of disproportionate responses.  Billie kicks the stuffing out of Tom (Tim Cutt) and Mickey, who run off crying to Scarface.  To show her who’s boss, these jerks follow Billie’s grandparents and assault them, leading to Grandma Clark being comatose and, eventually, dead.  The average man might have just forgotten about having their ass whipped by a woman, been thankful they didn’t wind up in the pokey, and gone about their felonious business elsewhere.  Not these guys.  Every affront must be met with five times the violence and viciousness.  Billie, however, is just like them.  Yes, she starts off defending her property and family or helping a stranger, but she quickly discovers that the adage about if you can’t beat them, join them, holds true when it comes to thugs.  Inevitably, she does to the bad guys what they tried to do to her, tracking them down and killing them (I assume; there’s only one definitive onscreen death).  Yet, we side with her because we repeatedly see her attacked (honestly, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t give up jogging at night if they were assaulted even half as much as Billie is) for no real reason.  She goes from defensive to offensive, but morally, she’s correct.  The justice system we rely on also lives up to the rule of disproportionate responses.  After Billie rescues a woman from a rape using a handgun, she is arrested for a variety of crimes which she did violate, but that any decent cop would let slide, all things considered.  The judge who presides over every single case that Billie is involved in chucks her in jail for contempt of court (where she makes a few friends for life).

This leads to the idea of misogyny that pervades the film.  Every man in the film either hates women or is ineffective (read: a pantywaist).  All the men on the street want to have sex with every woman they see (willingly or not).  Billie is chased and set upon multiple times in the park, and the men who do this have nothing but sex and violence on their minds.  Scarface’s girlfriend is treated like the piece of meat she is.  He calls her “Miss Blowjob,” and the two are not above throwing things at each other.  He puts her down and reminds her constantly that she’s nothing but a warm hole.  She puts up with it likely because she’s been beaten down and is now simply inured to the fact that this is the way of things.  Boyle (Jon Greene), a beat cop, is the one who gives Billie a hard time about her need to carry a gun when she goes out at night.  He delights in handcuffing her and charging her with every single thing he can.  Boyle also has a hooker (Britt Helfer, whom you likely remember from Raw Force or the soap opera Loving, but, either way, is physically impressive, just to play my own pig card for a moment) he bangs while on duty (and, we can infer, without paying for her services).  The single male who isn’t a complete swine is Johnny, the cop Billie meets cute with at the hospital and who quickly becomes her boyfriend.  At first, Johnny is the paragon of virtue, standing up for the little guy and attempting to keep Billie out of danger while trying to bring the bad guys to justice by the book.  even he has a level of sexism about him, trying to show Billie how to do Karate without knowing she’s working on her black belt.  What Johnny finds out, however, much like Billie did just slower, is that to get justice one must get one’s hands very dirty.  You can’t clean up a Jell-O wrestler without getting some on you, so to speak.  As in all movies of this stripe, the system is moribund, if not five weeks gone, allowing the misogyny perpetrated on the streets to corrupt the decency it’s supposed to stand for.  The choice left for victims is surrender or vigilantism.

Alley Cat has some good things going for it.  Being an exploitation film, it is loaded with beautiful women who don’t mind doffing their clothes onscreen.  There are action scenes every few minutes.  There is a layer of grime all over it; you can almost feel the grit on the characters and smell their b.o.  What it gets wrong is that it is unfocused.  Did we need the lengthy sequence of Billie in prison?  Did we need the lengthy sequence of Johnny tormenting the Helfer character for information?  Did we need the random jogging assault attempts that have nothing to do with the main story?  No, to all.  Yes, they each satisfy for this type of film, but they are all extraneous.  You could argue that they are necessary as illustrations of systematic misogyny, but they distract from the main narrative.  Maybe that’s the point?  Maybe the filmmakers wanted to do a more holistic approach to a Woman’s Revenge film?  It’s possible.  But, at eighty-two minutes, the tangents drag down the pacing, and they made me think that the filmmakers simply didn’t have enough story to fill out that time frame.  Fair enough, because the distractions do what distractions are supposed to do.  But they also remind the viewer that time is dragging by.

MVT:  Mani can keep a movie together and handle physical action, and, with a better script and some better direction, I believe she could have been a genre luminary.

Make or Break:  The finale drops what scant subtleties the film had and digs into its genre trappings full bore while displaying exactly what Billie has become.

Score:  6/10