Capsule Reviews: April 2 – April 11

The Street Fighter (1974)

Pure insanity from Sonny Chiba. Watch Sonny smack a punk so hard, we need an X-ray of his skull to monitor the damage! See Sonny tear a man’s larynx out with his bare hands! Witness Sonny toss a gal around the room, then grab her for some suck-face with the curt: “We make out!” You’ll make out too! It isn’t difficult to comprehend the appeal of this film for 1970s grindhouse audiences: the surreal disjunction of the post-synch dubbing, the wildly histrionic faces and poses Sonny strikes, the fashionable ultraviolence and the total disregard of narrative consistency.

 

Sister Street Fighter (1974)

Though Sensei Sonny only puts in a few cameo appearances, this spin-off (released only five months later) is even more unhinged than its predecessor. White slavery, drug cartels, diamond smugglers and a villain with a steel claw (in an obvious homage to Enter the Dragon) set the stage for more martial arts mayhem. Etsuke Shihomi (aka Sue Shiomi) went on to star in three more Sister Street Fighter sequels over the next two years.

The Cry of the Owl (2009)

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel (and previously filmed by Claude Chabrol in  1987), this Canadian version stars Paddy Considine as a disaffected Peeping Tom and Julia Stiles as the kook who invites him into her life. Recriminations, persecution, blackmail and murder ensue. Effectively captures narrative and mood. Enhanced by strong central performances. A suitably ambiguous ending salvages the overly twisty third act. Minor but intriguing.

Dorian Gray (2009)

Oliver Parker—who has mounted film versions of Oscar Wilde’s plays—here turns his attention to his only novel, previously filmed on a number of occasions, most notably the 1945 Albert Lewin classic starring George Sanders and Hurd Hatfield. Eschewing the “prestige” approach of that film, with its emphasis on the witty and urbane dialogue that made Wilde famous, Parker’s film injects large doses of Gothic horror, manifests many of the latent aspects of the novel’s subtext (emphasizing the range of decadent vices favored in the late Victorian era from sadomasochism to opium addiction, as well as the homoerotic subtext excised from later editions of the novel) and significantly alters the dynamics of the original storyline. These alterations run the gamut from the inconsequential to the momentous—and some may seem off-putting to the fidelity-mongers among us—but taken on its own terms, the film works nicely as a lurid little fable.

Executive Koala (2005)

An executive in a plushy/furry koala costume (his boss is a white rabbit and a frog runs a local convenience store) engineers his own amnesia to cover an assortment of crimes, many of them involving murder by hatchet. Batshit insane Japanese film throws every trick in the book at this exhaustive (and exhausting) deconstruction of slasher films, playing like a video game version of the already parodic American Psycho. Invites immediate comparison—both thematically and aesthetically—with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (Hausu [1977]).

Black Sheep (2007)

Mixing humor and horror—with the emphasis on the former—in a tale of genetic engineering and environmental do-gooderism, this film definitely fits the mold of Kiwi Horror pioneered by Peter Jackson back in his (pre-prestige) Bad Taste or Dead Alive days. While some of the comedy lands, its one-note depiction of both sides of the confrontation feels forced and rings hollow. The gore effects, naturally, work wonderfully, as do the Dr. Moreau-esque sheep/human hybrid creatures. Worthwhile weekend frivolity fodder.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

Ultra-low budget horror film from UCLA graduates, especially writer/director/star Richard Blackburn, fuses Southern Gothic, fairy tale and vampire-lore elements into a heady and surreal brew, a metaphor for seething adolescent sexuality—remarkable for a PG-rated film in its intimations of pedophilia and lesbianism—represented by the seemingly angelic Lila Lee (played by Cheryl Smith, better known for her roles in exploitation fare like Caged Heat and The Swinging Cheerleaders). Striking imagery, bold colors, an eerie score, set design and makeup all enhance the atmospheric, moody feel of this excellent, little-known fever dream of a film.

French Sex Murders (1972)

From the wild, wild world of producer Dick Randall (or so the accompanying documentary on this Mondo Macabro DVD would have you believe) comes this not-so-wild, bottom-shelf attempt at a giallo thriller. Garishly lit with war-surplus klieg lights that banish any trace of shadows, or else so full of them that often figures and entire scenes cannot be made out. Seemingly edited with a machete and all the subtlety of hardcore porn. Featuring Euroschlock stalwarts like Anita Ekberg (twelve years and a million miles from her Fellini heyday), Barbara Bouchet, Jess Franco fixture Howard Vernon and, inexplicably, since it goes entirely without comment, Roberto Sacchi (aka The Man With Bogart’s Face). And—as if all this weren’t enough to warrant giving the film a pass!—shamefully skimping on the promised sex and murders. Did I mention it isn’t very good…?

Galaxy of Terror (1981)

Produced by Roger Corman. Starring a veritable Who’s Who of exploitation/cult favorites: Edward Albert, Erin Moran, Robert Englund, Sid Haig, Zalman King, Grace Zabriskie and, yes, Mr. Hand himself, Ray Walston. This is a bargain basement attempt at recapturing the popular appeal (read: box office) of 1979’s Alien. While the Atari 2600 FX work is rewardingly risible, and the set design is actually pretty impressive, little things like narrative cohesion and character development go right out the window. Most prints severely curtail the infamous “worm rape” sequence, which leaves poor Taaffe O’Connell stark naked and covered in goo, including the one I saw on TCM. For Roger Corman completists only.

The Boston Strangler (1968)

Taking significant liberties with the facts in the Albert DeSalvo case, despite all the trappings of the docudrama police procedural that dominate the narrative’s first half, Richard Fleischer’s film seems to exist for two reasons: 1) to give Tony Curtis a role he can literally sink his teeth into and 2) to showcase Fleischer’s penchant for hyper-stylization, in this instance a plethora of split-screen compositions (surely an inspiration for a young Brian De Palma) and flashy subjective scenes that place Curtis and detective Henry Fonda at the scenes of the crimes. By no means a terrible film, and certainly throwing wide the gates of psycho-sexually permissible subject matter in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, nevertheless, it remains an ethically compromised curiosity piece.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)

Produced and directed by Roger Corman, and an anomaly in his filmography owing to a dramatically increased budget and lengthened production schedule courtesy of Twentieth Century-Fox, this is another would-be procedural docudrama. Hewing a little closer to the facts—at least those known at the time of production—the film is hemmed in by its approach, really only coming alive for its violent set pieces: a series of gangland slayings building up to the titular carnage. Performances, however, are strong: Jason Robards chomping cigars and chewing scenery as Al Capone, Ralph Meeker exhibiting his trademark blend of bravado and sleaze, George Segal hamming it up as a cynical, girlfriend-bashing gunman. And Corman moves his camera almost constantly, no doubt enjoying the luxury of industry-standard tracks and cranes. Look for Corman regular Dick Miller in a small role and—don’t blink!—an uncredited Jack Nicholson in an even smaller one.

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About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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