Trap Them and Kill Them (1977)

(courtesy of guest reviewer – GORELORD)

OH – MY – GOD! The European horror gods have truly blessed myself and my collection with this fantastic and enjoyably cheesy entry in the Italian jungle / cannibal sub-genre. And now I’m taking it upon myself to grace the readers of And You Thought It Was Safe with their first excursion into the nasty world of Italian cannibal flicks. Not to mention, the wonderfully sleazy world of infamous Italian horror and sexploitation director Joe D’Amato (real name Aristide Massaccesi).

The jungle /cannibal horror sub-genre first reared it’s gruesome head in Italy in the form of 1973’s Man From Deep River, which was directed by one of the kings of the cannibal films, Umberto Lenzi. The brief history of the sub-genre ranges from 1973 to 1981, but it’s popularity among hardcore gorehounds is just as apparent in the year 2000 as it was in the 70’s and early 80’s. The plot for most of these splatterfests was pretty much the same. A group of travelers would go on an expedition into the Amazon jungles for one reason or another  only to be stalked and graphically mutilated and eaten by a savage cannibal tribe. The majority of these films contained some pretty bad acting and horrible dubbing, but at the same time sickened audiences with their incredibly realistic gore effects. These films are definitely not for the Sunday matinee crowd, and you’re not likely to find them in the possession of those closed minded mainstream morons at Blockbuster.

TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM (1977) is an odd hybrid in the sub-genre. It’s a cross between the cannibal film and the popular softcore sex Emanuelle series from Italy. For those of you who don’t know, the Emanuelle series of films starred extremely sexy European exploitation queen Laura Gemser as the title character, who found herself caught up in many sex-filled adventures. This film, although a cannibal movie, is no exception as it definitely has it’s share of screwing. It’s hard not to drool though the minute you lay your eyes on the Indonesian born goddess Gemser. TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM is not a direct part of the series but is also known as EMANUELLE E GLI ULTIMI CANNIBALI (Italian title) and EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS. Other, more direct movies in the series include: Black Emanuelle (1975), Emanuelle in America (1976), Emanuelle Around the World (1977), and Sister Emanuelle (1978) among several others.

Right away as the movie starts, fans and lovers of European trash cinema will be hooked. The opening credits roll to an extremely groovy piece of disco cheese called “Make Love On the Wing”, sung by Ulla Linder. This song was truly funky and I dug it bigtime. In fact, all of the original music contributed to the film by composer Nico Fidenco was totally cool and added a lot to the cheesy 70’s feel. At the end of the opening credits it says: Based on a true story as reported by Jennifer O’ Sullivan. I don’t have a clue who Jennifer O’ Sullivan is, but with all of the time the people in this film spend having sex, I doubt it’s a true incident of cannibalism. And plus, it’s directed by one of the kings of European exploitation, Aristide Massaccesi (a.k.a. Joe D’Amato).

The opening scene (set in New York I believe) takes us to a mental asylum full of warped wackos and one breathtakingly beautiful babe. The lovely Emanuelle (played by Laura Gemser) is a newspaper journalist posing as one of the patients of the asylum. Suddenly, a screaming nurse runs out into the hall with her right tit chewed off ! Whoa, what a great start ! Asylum attendants rush into a room where a crazed female patient gnaws on the nurse’s nipple. “She was found on the edge of the Natogrosso,” one nurse claims. “she’s a real savage”. They straight jacket the flesh-eating freak before she can finish her snack.

The same night, Emanuelle sneaks into the girl’s room hoping to get a scoop for her paper. She sure has a funny way of getting to the bottom of a story as she lifts up the girl’s gown and starts petting her kitty, if you catch my drift. She discovers an odd Aztec-like symbol above the girl’s pubic area and photograph’s it with a camera hidden in a doll. The camera must magically penetrate through clothing because when she takes the picture the symbol is clearly covered by the gown. Yet for some reason when she shows the photo to her boss Rod, the girl’s gown is pulled above the symbol revealing it. Oh well, this movie is great without being perfect,and there’s plenty of mistakes where that came from.

Rod and Emanuelle inquire to one of the other reporters at the paper about the origin of the symbol. He tells them that it’s the symbol of an extinct tribe of cannibals called the Tupinambas. Rod boasts about what a huge story this is for the paper, even though he just let a guy walk away with a piece of the photographic evidence.

Emanuelle is sent to try and arrange an expedition to the Amazon with experienced anthropologist and curator of the Natural History Museum, Professor Mark Lester (played by Laura Gemser’s real life husband, the late Gabriele Tinti). Laura and Gabriele appeared in many exploitation films together. As she heads to the museum to meet Professor Lester, some trippy, suave 70’s music entrances us. They sit down for lunch at a cafe where Emanuelle starts asking Mark questions about cannibalism. He responds by saying, “But the subject is so vast that if you want to know more we should go to my house”. Subtle buddy, real subtle. He might as well have said, “I want to bang you now”.

Anyway, they head to Mark’s place and on the way Emanuelle mentions the expedition- “By the way, I’d like to make you an offer. An expedition to the Amazon. Lead by you and fully subsidized by my paper”. Now how could anyone refuse a temptress like Emanuelle? They get to Professor Lester’s where he shows her documentary footage of a cannibal tribe chopping off a head, severing a penis, and eating their rivals. She shows Mark a picture of the tattooed symbol on the girl from the asylum. He tells her that the Tupinamba tribe thought to be responsible for the symbol are long extinct, but their descendants are the supposedly extinct Yapyakahs. Mark is intrigued and accepts the expedition. Strap yourselves in, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

We cut to a scene involving Emanuelle and her boyfriend as they park near the waterfront. She tells him about the trip like it’s no big deal- “Tomorrow I’m leaving for the Amazon, for work. Something very, very interesting. It’s about cannibals”. Then we get some really goofy dialogue. “Emanuelle you’re crazy, you’re really crazy”, he says. Good old Emanuelle, always horny, responds by saying, “Maybe I am, but right now I want to make love”. She ends up screwing him under a bridge…with his jeans still on !!! Now how in the hell does that work? Emanuelle is always thinking about sex. Like when Professor Lester goes to send a telegram to his friend in the Amazon. While he goes in to send the telegram, Emanuelle sits in the taxi and has flashbacks of them having sex. This goes on long enough to play the entire slow version of that awesome opening disco tune “Make Love On the Wing”.

It’s time to set off for the Amazon as Emanuelle and Mark board a plane. And in another funny mistake, one scene has Emanuelle sitting in a window seat looking at stock footage of land and clouds and Mark is sitting next to her. When the camera cuts back to them after the stock footage, Mark is in the window seat and Emanuelle is in the seat next to him. It was like 5 seconds in between shots ! How in the hell did they miss that?

They arrive in the Amazon where they go to the home of a colleague of Professor Lester’s named Wilkes (played by Geoffrey Coplestone). Wilkes was the one who found the girl in the asylum. It is here that we meet two other members of the ill-fated expedition. A soft speaking nun, Sister Angela (played by Annemarie Clementi), and Wilkes’s daughter Isabelle (played by Monica Zanchi). Actress Monica Zanchi appeared in another of the Emanuelle films along side Laura Gemser and Gabriele Tinti the following year in Sister Emanuelle (1978). She also had an uncredited role in Lucio Fulci’s classic Zombie (1979).

Emanuelle and Mark explain to Wilkes that Emanuelle is there to do a story on the Yapyahkahs, but he claims the Yapyahkahs have been extinct for 50 years. Sister Angela tells them that a priest in the area, Father Morales, would know something on the subject. Isabelle and Sister Angela plan on taking supplies to the Father’s mission the next day and invite Mark and Emanuelle to join them. And of course we can’t let a night go by in this film without another hot and heavy sex scene between Emanuelle and Mark. This time though, Isabelle looks on from around the corner while pleasuring herself. It’s no-holds barred all the way with Joe D’Amato directing.

The next day Emanuelle, Mark, Isabelle, and Sister Angela, along with two natives, Phillipe and Manolo, head off to the Amazon wilderness in search of Father Morales’s mission. They go by boat but they must have stopped somewhere because next we see Emanuelle and Isabelle playing near a waterfall and fondling each other. A smoking monkey sits by and watches !? Man I love this movie !

Now they’re  all back on the boat and Emanuelle is snapping photos of stock footage Alligators. What would a cannibal movie be without stock footage of wildlife? When the group makes it to an island and tie up their boat, the action picks up almost immediately. As Emanuelle is loading film into her camera, a huge python constricts itself around her neck. As the others struggle to get it off her, a gunshot penetrates the snake’s head. The man who shot it identifies himself as hunter Donald Mackenzie (played by Donald O’ Brien). O’Brien is probably best known for his lead role in another European stomach turner, Dr. Butcher M.D. (1980). Donald breaks the news to the group that Father Morales’s mission was massacred by savages. He brings them back to his campsite where they meet his wife Maggie Mackenzie (played by Nieves Navarro, credited here and in many other films as Susan Scott). They also meet the Mackenzie’s man servant Salvador (played by Percy Hogan).

Both Susan Scott and Percy Hogan have also appeared in several Euro-trash horror and exploitation films. Scott (real name Nieves Navarro) had appeared prior to this in the 1972 Italian Giallo (slasher/mystery) The Slasher is the Sex Maniac. She also starred with Laura Gemser and Gabriele Tinti again the same year as this film in Black Emanuelle, White Emanuelle (1977). Percy Hogan appeared in an in-name-only Emanuelle film, Black Emanuelle 2 (1976), which was an indirect sequel. He also appeared in a 1977 sci-fi starring Jack Palance called Anno Zero-Guerra Nello Spazio (a.k.a – War in Space and Battle of the Stars).

The group sits around the Mackenzie’s campsite as Donald talks about his experiences as a hunter. Maggie wonders if they’re sure about the possibility of discovering real life cannibals. Mark assures her, “Yes, the tribe we are to locate are indeed cannibals. They tie up their victims, rip open their bellies, tear out their insides, and eat it.” Almost as soon as those words leave Professor Lester’s mouth, we experience what I thought was one of the scariest parts of the film. We suddenly hear breathing and a heart-beet like sound, with some odd language mumbling hauntingly as the camera gives us a point of view perspective from several different angles of the group being watched. It’s the cannibals stalking their prey ! These scenes are really atmospheric and gave me a real feeling of unease. Of course, there’s more sex, this time between Maggie and Salvador.

The next day one of the native guides, Phillipe, runs up to the others in panic. They go with him and discover the other native guide Manolo, laying on the beach gutted with a snake exiting his chest cavity. They all decide that it’s time to get the hell out of there and begin their trek back through the wilds of the Amazon to some cool distorted flute and drum safari music. You just get the feeling that they ain’t gonna get out alive.

This is where I’m going to stop reviewing TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM scene for scene because I don’t want to give away which members of the expedition get butchered. But believe me, a lot of blood and guts are spilled. One of the girl’s nipple is cut off and eaten in front of her before she is disemboweled. Spears are imbedded in stomachs and backs. One of the guys is cut in half with rope. One of the other women has her vagina stabbed with a knife and ripped open. I thought it was time I lived up to the name Gorelord. Plus, there’s a sub-plot involving diamonds.

Unfortunately, the director Aristide Massaccesi, one of the legends of Eurotrash, passed away last year. I want to thank him for having the balls to direct the kind of movies he wanted to, despite what the “conservative crowd” had to say. His movies have a large following and will continue to forever.

If you could stand the nasty killings in this wicked cannibal caper, check out others in this messed up sub-genre, including: MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (1973), CANNIBAL (1976), SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978), EMERALD JUNGLE (1980), THE MAN HUNTER (1980), WHITE CANNIBAL QUEEN (1980), and the two most disgusting CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1978) and CANNIBAL FEROX (1981). Floss your teeth after viewing.



Jessie James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)

(courtesy of guest reviewer – GORELORD)

Often at times in order to discover what different creations of human atrocity lurk in the depths of the barf layered halls of the horror/sci-fi genres, I hit the review books to track down the trash. About seven years ago I happened upon this spaced out grade Z mind eraser. I knew right away when I locked eyes on the title that we were destined to be together forever. I just had to order a mind numbing copy and that’s exactly what I did. When it arrived and I held it in my filthy hands, I shivered with goosebumps as it whispered into my wax caked ear those four magical words: SO BAD IT’S GOOD.

Back in 1965 director of 175 Westerns, William Beaudine, came back for one last hurrah when he cranked out this low-budget ludicrously enjoyable movie madness. This however was not the first time Beaudine directed an insane horror/western mix. The same year he made the first of this daft duo when the notoriously inept BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1965) was released. JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER is the lesser known of the two but it does have the esteemed honor of being nominated for a prestigious Golden Turkey Award. It also has acquired a small cult following among hardcore cheese heads (including myself). {More}

Night of the Zombies (1981)

(courtesy of guest reviewer – GORELORD)

Before I get going with my review, I want to make something clear to horror fans who are new to the genre. There are two movies in the world of flesh feasting flicks titled NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES. I want to let readers know right now that this is NOT the 1983 Italian made zombie/cannibal gore-a-thon directed by Bruno Mattei.

This is the 1981 NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES and fans of hard to find obscure horror films would likely have a more difficult time tracking down this oddity. Previously know as GAMMA 693 and NIGHT OF THE WEHRMACHT ZOMBIES, this low budget Nazi zombie cheapie was directed by notorious small time horror/exploitation director, Joel M. Reed.

Reed became an infamous name in the trashy horror sweepstakes when he was all but executed by women’s protest groups after he made his most sick, nauseating, and perhaps most entertaining film, Bloodsucking Freaks (1978) (originally known as The Incredible Torture Show). He kept a much lower profile with this, his last film to date, from NMD Film Distributing. On a side note, Reed has been quoted as saying that the company that released Bruno Mattei’s 1983 Night of the Zombies stole the ad campaign for his film. I presume he’s referring to Vestron Video.

Filmed in Munich, Germany and upstate New York, NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES was backed by producer Lorin E. Price, who appears in the movie as a priest. Unfortunately, Joel Reed and the actors in the film soon discovered that Price had a habit of not coming up with the money he promised. As a matter of fact, the main star of this zombie romp, Jamie Gillis, claims that Price still owes him money for the movie to this very day! Great way to build a reputation in the film industry. Let’s hire this guy.

As I popped my copy into the old VCR I discovered something kind of strange. My print, courtesy of Interglobal Video, has the title Night of the Zombies 2 in the opening credits. The weird thing about it is, this was made a couple of years before the 1983 Night of the Zombies. The only explanation I can come up with for this is that maybe director Reed and Interglobal Video did this to avoid any confusion between the two films. With the amount of alternate titles floating around in the pool of cinematic scum, you just never know.

Among a group of unknowns, one interesting casting choice rises to the top, literally. Porno film superstar Jamie Gillis was chosen to play the main character in what was one of only a handful of legitimate film Gillis had starred in. He had previously appeared in a horror satire called Dracula Sucks (1979), directed by Philip Marshak. He does a pretty nice acting job in this flick, which may surprise a few people.

During the credits we are subjected to German military music and the psychotic ramblings of Adolph Hitler. Hitler’s ugly rant takes away from the camera shots of the beautiful snow covered Bavarian Alps, which is where a lot of the film takes place. Two grave registration officials are camped out somewhere in the Alps. They are searching for the remains of soldiers killed there during a World War II battle between a Nazi SS unit and an American chemical warfare battalion in 1944. Bavarian Police Captain Fleck (played by Ron Armstrong) insists that a battle never took place there in 1944, but the villagers claim it did take place. The villagers also claim that the Alps are infested with the living dead. The grave registration officials laugh at the rumors of zombies, but they will soon be wishing they hadn’t.

As the two men get ready to call it a night, they hear the sounds of machine guns blasting in the distance. One of them believes it’s bandits firing the weapons, after Police Captain Fleck had warned the men about them. But the other is positive that those are German machine guns that they’re hearing and goes out to investigate. As he ventures off into the hills, you kind of get the idea that he’s about to be written out of Joel M. Reed’s script. Sure enough we hear a creepy laughter and a gray-faced ghoul dressed in a Nazi SS uniform appears, not to eat, but shoot (!?) the unfortunate victim. The other grave registration official comes out of the tent and soon after he too is shot down by the pasty face soldiers. I guess they weren’t looking for a bite to eat at that time of night.

Among the two bodies a letter in a sealed envelope is discovered, which Police Captain Fleck takes and mails to the address on the front.

We are then taken to an office (looks more like an apartment) where CIA Chief Collins (played by supervising editor Ron Dorfman) gives CIA agent Nick Monroe (played by Jamie Gillis) what he calls a “minimum exposure assignment”. With the countless T&A extravaganza’s that porn king Gillis has been in, I’m not sure he knows what a minimum exposure assignment is. Collins tells Monroe that he is sending him to Munich, Germany and the Bavarian Alps. However, it is not to investigate the deaths of the two grave registration officials, but to recover canisters of a special experimental gas. The gas was lost in the Alps when it was in the possession of the American chemical warfare unit (known as Special Unit C) that battled against a Nazi SS unit. It is known as Gamma 693 (which explains one of the alternate titles) and is a lethal gas that the U.S was going to experiment with on the Germans. Collins instructs Monroe to meet with one Dr. Proud; a biochemist who has developed a deactivating foam that will destroy the effects of the gas. Are you confused yet? Well don’t worry, you will be. Surely you didn’t expect to find any logic in a Joel M. Reed film.

Monroe goes to see the respected biochemist, Dr. Proud (played by Ryan Hilliard). But by the time Proud utters his third or fourth sentence you’ll be questioning his intelligence. With a straight face Proud tells Monroe, “Nick, it’s absolutely imperative that we retrieve that gas as soon as possible. The containers could start leaking any day now.” After hearing that I’m almost positive that there are very few traces of logical plot development in this movie. If the containers of Gamma 693 gas are so deadly, why in the hell didn’t they retrieve them when they were first lost back in 1944??! Dr. Proud goes on to tell Monroe that he was the assistant of the man who first created the gas back during the time of World War II. That would have made him about three years old! Monroe shows very little intelligence as well by barely reacting to the statement. The CIA really have themselves a couple of rocket scientists with these two guys. The gas could kill two million people but don’t worry, these guys are on the case.

Before Monroe and Proud leave for Germany, Nick meets up with CIA Chief Collins, who has a chilling surprise for him. Collins now has the letter that Police Captain Fleck had found among the bodies of the two grave registration officials in the Alps. It turns out that it was written by soldier from World War II Special Unit C to his sister. Collins says that the ink in the letter is fresh. Monroe refuses to believe it, even though he believed that Dr. Proud was a biochemist in World War II.

Monroe arrives in Munich and meets with Dr. Proud at a restaurant. Proud has his niece Susan (played by Samantha Grey) with him, who for no apparent reason is going to the Alps with them. Then in another mind number, Dr. Proud spots a young man in his early twenties who he apparently knows. When Nick asks about the guy, Proud tells him that they were in World War II together! Is this guy on some kind of hallucinogenic or what? Again Monroe brushes it off like Dr. Proud is perfectly normal.

Monroe goes out on his own to some of the local bars to see what he can dig up on the soldiers who disappeared in the World War II battle in the Bavarian Alps. After getting nowhere with the locals and being attacked by a guy who laughs when he’s shot in the stomach, Monroe is followed by a mysterious little man. The man turns out to be a neo-Nazi CIA informer (played by none other than director Joel M. Reed) who tells Monroe about a right wing group in the area comprised of both Americans and Germans. Nick gives the informer a list of names to track down. However, when the informer comes back with a lead, he is stabbed in the back by two men on the street. When Monroe follows up on the small bit of information the informer did give him, he hits yet another dead end. When several other informers are murdered by an unseen killer (one of them is eaten in a camera shop), Monroe gives up on questioning the locals and heads for the Alps along with Dr. Proud and Susan.

When they arrive in the snowy Alps they meet up with Police Captain Fleck and are accompanied to their campsite by a border patrol. The first night of their stay Susan walks off into the wooded hills to do her business. She hears an eerie laughter in the darkness. As she looks around, a blue faced rotting corpse wearing Nazi gear comes at her with a dagger! But just as he’s about to plunge the blade into her, some normal looking American dude wearing a winter coat orders the zombie to leave her alone and stay away from the campsite.

The next day Monroe goes searching around the Alps on snow shoes, looking for the containers of Gamma 693. He stumbles upon stock footage of military vehicles and an army base. He makes his way up to the base and peers through a window. He see’s a man dressing in a United States World War II jacket. Back at the camp Dr. Proud starts to become mysteriously ill. The same night, an unseen killer decapitates Police Captain Fleck while he is sleeping and cooks his torso over a campfire. Someone must have felt like a midnight snack.

Monroe starts to believe the rumors of zombies after Dr. Proud runs into a couple of them and remembers their faces from World War II. They have a habit of battling in the hills at night, so in a ludicrous plot twist Monroe disguises himself as one of the living dead and infiltrates the zombie base! Sitting amongst the zombie soldiers Monroe discovers that Gamma 693 is the reason why these World War II soldiers are still the same age as they were in 1944. The gas prevents them from getting older, but without it they must consume human flesh in order to maintain their appearance. Good thing they have stock farms of captured villagers. And in another outrageous twist, it turns out that the American chemical warfare battalion and the Nazi SS unit that supposedly did battle, actually joined forces to perfect the Gamma 693 gas! Has your brain melted yet?

Back at the camp, the reason behind Dr. Proud’s sickness is revealed when his flesh starts to rot off of his hands and face. It turns out that he was around back in 1944 like he had told Monroe. He stole a canister of Gamma 693 when he was an assistant for the creator of the formula. When the creator found out, Proud had no choice but to kill him. Proud was going to steal the formula but it was lost in a fire. Ever since then Dr. Proud has been forced to eat human flesh in order to survive. Makes sense now, right? I didn’t think so. Dr. Proud tries to eat Susan but Nick shows up and Proud is turned into a skeleton after being sprayed with the deactivating foam.

Monroe goes back to the zombie base with the intention of wiping them out with the foam, but they corner him and give him the choice to either join or be killed. Does Monroe join the zombie legion? Fans of cheesy flicks can sit through this and find out themselves. If you’re a dedicated cheddar head then you’ll probably love it.

This is my first Joel M. Reed film and I can proudly say that he has gained a fan in me. As far as zombie films go, this is probably one of the strangest and most bizarre you will ever find. Low on the usual hardcore zombie gore, but it has enough corny elements to please bad horror buffs. For other films in the Nazi zombie subgenre check out Shock Waves (1975), Zombie Lake (1980), and Oasis of the Zombies (1982). I know this was a long review but this movie deserves it. Spit on crap like Titanic and The Matrix and discover the low budget living dead instead.


New Year’s Evil (1980)

(courtesy of guest reviewer – GORELORD)

Greetings fellow low-budget trash junkies. I am Gorelord, reviewer and collector of bottom of the barrel cheddar. That crazy king of horrible horror and sci-fi, Dr. Psy Chosis, has granted me the honor of contributing reviews to his wild world of weirdness. And believe me, I intend to litter the halls of “And You Thought It Was Safe” with some great bargain bin sleaze sure to please the mad doctor.

As I write this babble we are now two days into the new year, and more importantly the new millennium. So I thought to myself, what better way to kick off the new year than with a review of the 1980 sadistic slash and hack fest, New Year’s Evil? That’s right, this sleazy low grade slasher flick turns 20 this year, and the celebration is sure to be bigger than the millennium bash. Continue reading New Year’s Evil (1980)

The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Okay...this is a little...weird...The Transformers: The Movie is no place to begin your journey through the myriad maze of the  Cybertronian Wars. A link between the second and third seasons of its eponymous TV show, The Movie will leave uninitiated peoples confused, annoyed, and potentially hostile to a set of stories that continue to fascinate hardcore fans of this stupid little cartoon. The trauma it caused us and its shinning, brilliant disdain for outsiders makes this the high water mark of 1980s toy commercial animation. Screw you, the film says. This is for the fans. And if you don’t like it, just wait ’til will kill off all the main characters.

The excellent (if muddled) Transformers FAQ provides a good enough primer (pun most certainly intended) for our purposes. For those too lazy to scroll down to the appropriate section of text, we present this origin story: {More}

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)

GameraLooking back, Gamera’s rebirth was almost inevitable. History repeats itself and the movie industry eats its dead. Inspired by the success of the modern Godzilla films (beginning with 1984’s Godzilla and ending, on a dower, cliffhanger-note in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destroyah), Daiei brought their own terrible terrapin out of retirement exactly nine months before Godzilla’s (latest) death. In black and white, as I’ve mentioned, Gamera can be somber, dynamic, dark…creepy in his own, lantern-eyed way. But the advent of cheap color film technology was no friend to the Friend to Children Everywhere.

Like the daikaiju genre as a whole, by the 1970s, Gamera grew down right silly. After all, we are talking about a giant, fire-breathing turtle who flies by projecting jets through his shell’s arm- and leg-holes. (Of what? Don’t ask. My sainted father always assumed it was flatulence. ) Thankfully, the makers of Guardian of the Universe made the informed and, dare I say it (dare, dare), enlightened decision to treat Gamera seriously. Whatever the shortcomings of the Heisei Godzilla series, they were never less than serious films, susceptible to all the snares and pitfalls of the Action/Adventure pictures they emulated. Guardian of the Universe, for the most part, avoids these thanks to its narrower focus. It wants (insomuch as a film can want anything) to be only what it is: the perfect giant monster picture, complete of its kind. {More}

Gammera the Invincible (1965)

Nothing Freudian about this, is there?Though he began life as a humble Godzilla rip-off in a land and time glutted with them, Gamera would come to symbolize everything that went so horribly wrong with the Golden Age of daikaiju cinema. But let us not tell sad stories about the death of kings just yet…like his more famous cousin/industrial competitor, Gamera began life as a serious apotheosis of the paranoia and insecurity of his age. But even here, at the beginning, we can see his creators at Daiei Studios sowing the seeds of their creation’s destruction.

And speaking of destruction…it’s 1965 again, and despite rising tensions between the Superpowers, someone’s still managed to scare up the funding for an Arctic expedition (chasing  that fabled Northwest Passage, no less). As the film opens, the expedition’s official zoologist, Dr. Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), his typically hot assistant, Kyoke (Harumi Kiritachi), and your standard news hound, Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashiko), stop by an Eskimo hut to warm up and quiz the natives. A formation of toy planes interrupts their welcome. “Russian planes,” Hidaka says. {More}

The Crow: City of Angels (1996)

"Have you heard the good word of our lord, Satan?"This film might’ve had a chance, but I doubt it. Love may be stronger than death, but the love of sequels is stronger than common sense, particularly in Hollywood. So I’m not surprised this film turned out to be a pale imitation of its predecessor. Disappointed? Sure. But what did we expect from the man who wrote Dollman vs. The Demonic Toys? Or the man who directed…uck…the Cure’s music videos?

Conceived as an on-going comic book series, the first Crow film benefited from the cohesion a story must have if it’s to be a good film. Only an injection of syrupy, Hollywood sentimentality kept it from being a faithful adaption of its source, with all the problems that implies. Problems of nihilism, transcendental melodrama, and a worshipful respect for death that’s almost Mesoamerican. Problems that provide fertile ground for the true artists to do truly artistic things with J. O’Barr’s depressing little world. The Internet’s littered with them, and digging through the shin-level shelves of certain chain bookstores will also reward anyone in search of a good story set in this universe. You won’t find that here. But if you like gloss and hate originality; if you’re desperate to see a film the confirms all your worst expectations about what Hollywood is, and what horrible things it can do to even the best of stories…pull up a chair, brother/sister. Stay a’ while. {More}

The Crow (1994)

Have you accepted corvus corax as your Lord and Savior?I have a confession to make: as a Crow fan from way back. Before the Kitchen Sink Press Author’s Edition, I was there. Before the crappy TV series, I was there. Before Brandon Lee’s untimely and unfortunate death eclipsed almost everything else associated with this film, and the story it contains, I poured over J. O’Barr’s black and white catharsis of a comic.  And I loved it. To my teenage mind, this psychopathic little story seemed an expression of love. The kind of mournful, melodramatic love adolescents, and the perpetually adolescent at heart, believe is really all there is.

I even wrote my own piece of Crow fan fiction. And before you ask, no, you can’t look at it. It died a thankful and unceremonious death several computer crashes ago. I wrote it over the course of a month at age sixteen, the perfect time to write a violent revenge fantasy centered around the above definition of “love.” And in the course of writing it I discovered something O’Barr must’ve realized ?himself: that vengeance is not catharsis. In the end, it’s only vengeance. A ravenous, yawning beast that will not stop until its consumed everything it touches. Something this movie’s two screenwriters completely failed to realize. {More}

Dark City (1998)

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."Most critics began their writeups of this film with the elementary and idiotically middle-minded question: “What if you woke up [in our main character’s situation]?” Well no surprise, me: I’d freak out, find a hole to crawl in, and stay there. As would you, fictional meta-critic I made up for this intro. But then, we’re not the protagonist of Dark City. Or are we really? And if not, then just what are we? The sum of our experiences? Take those from us and what’s left? Emotions? Sense impressions? Souls? Some interior sense of justice and injustice? Is there anything within our beings that makes us uniquely us? What is it, then? And when will some anonymous Chosen One rise from out the bewildered herd to educate us and our body-snatching, pale-faced, alien masters?

These are Dark City‘s primary questions, and its heartfelt concern for them is (poignantly, and for once) not buried under a multi-million dollar marketing campaign or a barrage of Hong Kong Action Movie tricks…unlike certain other, more popular, and much more expensive films that utilize essentially the same plot, and attempt (haphazardly, almost as an afterthought) to address the same questions. But fuck The Matrix. Much as I love it, thanks to Dark City I cannot prostrate myself before it. Buy the ticket, take the ride, and I’ve been on this ride for over a year. So good job, Wachowskis: now tell me something I don’t know.

Another Tuesday morning at my house...At Dark City‘s opening, we know as little as our protagonist (Rufus Sewell), who wakes in lukewarm hotel bathtub with no memory of who he is or how he came to be there. The driver’s license in his pocket says his name is John Murdoch. A mysterious phone call from Kiefer Sutherland, and the dead hooker on the floor with the Fibonacci spirals etched into her flesh, tell him some Five Alarm shit is going on. A hasty exit might be the most pragmatic course of action. We follow John’s aimless wanderings around the titular City for several scenes…until a gang of strange men in black start to chase after him. Since none among them is Will Smith, John makes the safe assumption that they must be Evil . Chopping one open reveals this to be a prudent assumption. Hell, they aren’t even human. But if the strange, telekinetic powers John manifests during this initial chase scene are any indication, Our Protagonist ain’t exactly Joe Normal either.

Get your noir on.Finding his wife, John learns that not only does he have a wife named Emma (played by Jennifer Connelly – Go, you, Johnny-boy), but that she was unfaithful to him at some point in the past he can no longer recall. She also tells him of his doctor, Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), and how a quick sit-down with Dr. Schreber might also be a good idea. John departs to assimilate this. On the one hand, she could be lying. On the other hand, infidelity can turn people into murderous madmen. But John’s not a murderer. Or is he? That dead hooker (and the string of them appearing around the City these past few nights) might be his work…or the work of those “men” he just escaped.

While all this spins through his head, time stops. Cars, trains, people; all fall like broken toys. Like a world ruled by the Fairy Godmother’s mad bitch of a sister, the entire city falls asleep at the stroke of midnight. All save John, who, in an excellent scene, revealing Sewell’s Powers of Acting, dashes about a crowded highway, shaking sleeping people out of there cars in a vain attempt to wake someone, anyone, up. Then, before he knows it, things start to change. Buildings shift and twist into new shapes. Radio towers spring up like corn stalks treated with Alec Holland’s bio-restorative formula. Apartment tenements become rich condos, and the entire city begins to swarm with those “men”.

"It's astounding...time is fleeting...madness takes its toll..."Freaked right the fuck out, John attempts to hide, and finds the good Dr. Schreber not only awake but running around with these “men”, helping them perform experiments on the City’s sleeping population. After some pummeling, Schreber explains that all this…the city, the people in it, John’s memories (or lack thereof)… is the work of what Schreber calls “the Strangers,” alien beings who use our dead as “vessels” and have the ability to alter physical matter through the telepathic machines that run under the City. Built, not on Rock-n’-Roll, but on dreams, populated by kidnapped hordes of long-forgotten origin, the City is a perfect closed system, a vast simulation. Every twelve hours the Strangers shut the whole thing down and “tune” bits of it their whim, including the memories of its ignorant inhabitants.

No one in this City has his or her original memories intact. Free will here is as much an illusion as the beach John keeps dreaming about. Human beings are the rats in this city-sized maze but John (of course) is different. Somehow, during the implantation of his newest life (as a serial-killing malcontent), John resisted, and wound up a blank slate. This, somehow, allowed him to inherit the Stranger’s ability to effect bits of the City with his mind.

Words cannot genuinely describe this film in anything other than a dry, analytical way, killing it dead as a butterfly pinned to a specimen board  in one of the Smithsonian’s drawers. Nevertheless, we must try. And a good deal of its incomunicability flows from director Alex Proyas’ highfalutin’ style. By fusing a comic book sensitivity to striking images with heavy nods toward German impressionism and film noir, Proyas works the same magic he worked in The Crow, creating a sense of urgent movement that hauls the viewer through the twists and turns of David Goyer and Lem Dobbs’ plot.

Get your German Expressionism on, too...Indeed, Goyer, Dobbs and Proyas have hit upon a story that renders traditional film tropes like characterization less than useless. John Murdoch’s past is not the point of all this, despite its pulling double shifts as both a MaGuffin and a climactic reverser (sorta, kinda, spoiler alert). This in no way discourages the actors from giving their best. William Hurt, for example, is a wonderful gumshoe hot on John’s trail, who for once follows Sherlock Holmes patented method of investigation all the way to its however-improbable conclusion. Connelly, despite ending up a damsel in distress, projects a quiet strength that elevates her lady-in-waiting role to a third dimension. I even believe her tears (and Connelly does has some of the best tears in the biz), just as I believe Sewell’s desperate near-madness as he succeeds in playing the non-character main character that he is.

The point is that action which serves as the basis of all good science fiction…all good fiction, in fact…examining what, in the argon of my favorite Philip K. Dick story, “human is.” There’s a lot of Blade Runner in Dark City‘s visual aesthetic, and comparisons between the two films abound. This only shows the illiteracy of most film critics, few of whom seem to recall Dick’s final point, the essential question of the book Ridley Scott butchered to make his oh-so-pretty film: in the electric city, what keeps humanity’s head above the technological mire we’ve built for ourselves? Did we even build it in the first place?

No, says our popular culture. It’s all those damned aliens and their technological superpowers. If only we could see through their fog of lies and wake the fuck up to the really real nature of the world. Like any of us are going to do that, or use films like this as our guideposts and watchword…apart from me, that is.

Marquees you'd love to see.I don’t really mind the Stranger’s underdeveloped alien-ness. They look and act more-or-less like the vampires they’re meant to remind me of, yet they’re saved from being one-dimension villains by a wonderful turn from Richard O’Brien (know around these parts as Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the aptly-named Mr. Hand. In an attempt to track John down before he wreaks the whole applecart, Mr. Hand volunteers to be imprinted with the very memories John rejected. With gleaming death in his eye, Mr. Hand sets out to ensnare humanity’s only hope with a little unwitting help from Emma and William Hurt’s character, the film’s noir-detective-alike. This bit of movie cat-and-mouse handily pads out the second act while allowing us to step behind the Stranger’s curtain of creepiness. Surprise! They’re not all that different from us, really. No more so than the Morlocks. And once again, that’s okay, because for all their advanced technology they aren’t really the point either.

That Dark City not only knows this but manages to internalize it is a miracle of modern movie making in itself. All those CGI morphs and filtered cinematography are set dressing, distraction from the film’s real thrust. In an era that plucks its hot young directors from the world of advertising (including that slickest of ads, the music video) its refreshing, enchanting, and by-God heartening to find a film with even half a mind (hence the success of The Matrix). I’m even more astonished to find a film with a mind all its own. Dark City is that film, a perfect epitome of the late-20th century conflagration of science fiction and fantasy. While the ground level fans insist on segregating them, artists are working hard in the trenches to bring about their unification. This is a speculative film that, by now, you should have all seen. Because it’s just that damned good.


Reviews with swear words and sociopolitical analysis from David DeMoss