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Friday, September 25, 2020

The Dark Planet


The Dark Planet

1989
Richard Corben, Christopher Wheate

For Heavy Metal magazine aficionados, Richard Corben is known as the creator of "Den". Corben also enjoyed making short films in his spare time. His use of latex prosthetics, stop-motion animation, and miniature work is an obvious labor of love. The passion for what he’s creating fills the screen, but the attempt to weld these separate short films in a single narrative does not work. That doesn’t mean The Dark Planet isn’t enjoyable, but it is best to approach it as more of an art film than a cinematic story.

How I want to look at every Zoom meeting.

The film is broken into two main stories, Tower of Blood and Relief Station. There is no dialogue in the entire film, and I can’t imagine that any amount of it would help clarify these stories, but we’re not here for clarity we’re here for the atmosphere. Tower of Blood is the longer of the two and it tells the tale of shapeshifters, cavemen, and tentacle monsters. The story is slow, constantly shifting, and violent. Relief Station involves a space pilot, a lot of sex, and a supercomputer. I’ve rewatched this story a few times and I’m still not completely sure what is supposed to be happening. These wordless stories playout almost completely visually with minimal additional sound effects. I can see how Corben would compose and approach these stories as comics and they seem especially fitting for the graphic and lurid stories featured in Heavy Metal

Your enjoyment of The Dark Planet is going to depend on your tolerance for a slow tonal story with a shifting dream logic versus a tight narrative. If you are a fan of such things as Phase IV (1974) or Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), I could see you settling into the quiet weirdness of this film. Also, if you are a lover of lo-fi movies like the woks of the Polonia Brothers or Todd Sheets you can find something to enjoy in the visuals. I understand that these are small niche interests and that most people are going to find it difficult to get into and I don’t blame them one bit. This has cult film written all over it.

Time of the Apes 2: The Reckoning

If The Dark Planet had been released just a few years later it might have ended up as supplemental material on a DVD or a curiosity on YouTube, but thankfully we got it when VHS was cheap and plentiful and a well-known artist could put together their passion project and sell it to curious fans sight unseen. Only 2000 tapes were produced so it is a rarity to find the actual VHS tape, but it has been uploaded to YouTube for the curious. 

The Dark Planet is told through a mix of lo-fi video and 16mm film, the music is an ambient mix of tones and discordant bleeps. The pace is slow and the whole thing feels like an ambitious public access show but if you are like me and like ambitious public access show it is definitely a plus. 


Friday, September 18, 2020

Triumph of the Champions of Justice

Triumph of the Champions of Justice (aka El triunfo de los campeones justicieros)
1974
Rafael Lanuza

Of the three Champions of Justice films, Champions of Justice (1971), Return of the Champions of Justice (1972), it is Triumph of the Champions of Justice that is the strangest of them. That’s no easy task against films that include superpowered dwarves, dimensional travel, and ‘micemen.’ Triumph takes the win through an incomprehensible plot involving dwarves from Uranus who live in another dimension. They need access to a machine created by a thousand of years old astronomer who is working in a circus. They can also turn invisible sometimes, but that doesn’t really have much to do with anything.

Triumph opens with a great hook, Blue Demon battles two strange men who are trying to climb an electric tower. Just as he defeats them, they graphically melt into green goo. It makes you wonder what is happening and you will keep wondering as the movie continually throws a mish-mash of science-fiction elements together in hopes of making a story. It never does, it just creates a growing calamity of confusing plot points that still ultimately come down to watching some wrestlers beat people up for 90 minutes.

"Please enjoy half off at the concession stand."

Our Champions of Justice line-up this time includes Blue Demon, Superzan, Venus, and White Phantom. This particular Venus was not an established luchador but instead created for this film. Still, it is nice to see a woman in the mix of heroes. She’s given a super-spy air about her and ends up being one of the most fun characters although she doesn’t get as much screen time as many of the others. Superzan starred in many of his own films, where he is effectively the luchador Superman. He is not nearly as powerful in this film and the story isn’t interested in offering any explanations why. Nor would expect it to.

Events just pile on to one another until they achieve a sort of nightmare reality that is occasionally interrupted by poorly staged fights most of which take place on the dirt floor of a small circus. There is some graphic violence that is unusual for a luchador movie and plenty of slime which isn’t. The whole film concludes on a strange silent posterized sequence that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Carl J. Sukenik movie.

"Nobody loves guacamole dip as much as we do!"

There isn’t a lot of connective tissue in the Champions of Justice films beyond Blue Demon and little people. Out of all the various luchador teams, this one feels the weakest. Blue Demon must carry almost the entire film by himself, save for the little time the Venus is present on the screen. It is the least coherent and most bizarre of the trilogy almost to the point where it can float on that alone. I can’t promise you’ll have a clue what is happening but I can guarantee you won’t forget many of the strange unsettling moments.

Making it through all three of these films is a Triumph in and of itself.


Friday, September 11, 2020

Return of the Champions of Justice

Return of the Champions of Justice (aka The Champions Five Supermen aka Vuelven los Campeones Justicieros)
1972
Federico Curiel

Less than a year after Champions of Justice (1971), our band of luchadors are back…well some of them, Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras, and La Sombra Vengadora (now known as the Jalisco Thunderbolt) are all present and joined by, The White Phantom, and The Hornet. They are still shirtless and riding motorcycles during the opening credits and that’s all that is important. The little people are back too but more on that later. Rest assured that wrestling happens, car chases go on forever, and everything looks like it was shot in a high school.

"I am going to have the weirdest sunburn."

Where Champions of Justice plays out like a particularly deranged spy movie, Return of the Champions of Justice is a horror movie. The film opens a man killed in virtual darkness by a band of squealing little things. It’s an immediate statement that this film is not going to be a carbon copy of its predecessor. That doesn’t mean it's going to be any good, but at least it’s going to be a little different. Return of the Champions of Justice takes place in dingy buildings, abandoned dirt roads, and the ruins of churches. There is a gloomy atmosphere over the whole production, some of that is due to the rushed production and low budget, but it works for the film.

White Phantom and The Hornet are fun additions even if they don’t make big impressions. I would like to make a special shout to the Jalisco Thunderbolt for again being the biggest jobber on the team. In the previous film, he was captured and mind-controlled to fight his teammates, in this one, he is the lone lucha introduced getting the snot kicked out of him by random thugs. Blue Demon has to helicopter in to save him.

"Everybody thinks I'm Santo but nobody thinks you're competent."

Aside from wrestlers, the other signature element of Champions movies is little people, and Return does feature a team of dwarves. Return introduces Black Cat and her team of Micemen. The Micemen are little people in fursuits who have a poisonous bite. They swarm their opponents and a single chomp can kill. Effectively this pits our luchadores against the Killer Shrews. When the Micemen are hidden by darkness and bad camera angles they retain a little menace, but the moment you see their cute little furry costumes they become the height of ridiculousness. It’s this friction between silly and threatening when the Champions films really hit their stride. One of Return’s biggest issues is that it holds off on the Micemen for nearly an hour before really throwing them at our heroes.  

Return of the Champions of Justice does forge its own identity of sorts, but it never hits the loopy heights of the former film, it is a bit too slow and the relatively simple conflict comes across as muddled and uninteresting. Still, it is worth a view if you are a luchador fan. There are plenty of fun moments to keep things from becoming too dire. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Champions of Justice


Champions of Justice (aka Los campeones justicieros)
1971
Federico Curiel

Dr. Marius Zarkoff (David Silva) has created an overly complicated plan to program other people to do his bidding, but first, he sends his army of little people to murder wrestlers that he hates (as you do.) Those wrestlers take exception to this and begin to hunt for the doctor in between water skiing and judging beauty contests. Then the weird stuff starts happening.

The most enjoyable luchador movies are the ones where the plot is the height of camp silliness but everything is treated as a real threat. That weird disconnect creates a lot of unintentional(?) humor, and even better, a lot of unintentional(?) surrealism. Champions of Justice throws its ambitiously strange plot down almost as a challenge to see how serious our Technicos (good guy luchadores) can make a plot involving super-powered little people and flash-frozen beauty pageant contestants.

"Rowr."

Champions of Justice has gathered a list of legendary luchadores for its ranks. Leading the bunch is Blue Demon, the second most famous Lucha libre fighter of all time (and the one with superior movies, sorry Santo), he is joined by Mil Mascaras (A Thousand Masks, most of them leopard themed), El Medico Asesino (The Assassin Doctor), La Sombra Vengadora (Who sports an unusual lightning bolt on his mask, and Tinieblas (His name is Darkness, his mask is dark, you get it.) The gang is introduced to us riding motorcycles with no shirts on while sporting their signature luchador masks, and honestly, they couldn’t be cooler. 

When the film opened with a wrestling match I feared the worst, ironically wrestling ring matches in most luchador movies are boring filler.  Champions of Justice comes relatively late in the life span of the subgenre and has learned its lessons. A tag team match does happen, but it is eventually interrupted by machine-gun fire from a band little people hiding on a balcony. From this point on the movie is off to loosely connected action sequence after loosely connected action sequence, with only occasional breaks to have a mad scientist arm the dwarves with some new bit of technology such as super strength or a freeze ray.

"Now kiss!"

This barrage of nonstop action and threadbare plot does wear out its welcome by the third act but it’s still hard to deny the charisma and showmanship of the luchadores on display. They might not be the best actors in the world, but they don’t give this silly film anything less than their entire effort. The army of atomic-powered dwarves are remarkable too, they perform some fun stunts and it is enjoyable to watch them gang up on our full-sized heroes to deliver a beating. 

Champions of Justice is a weightless slugfest littered with a few wonderful stunts and a whole lot of silly nonsense. There is nothing here beyond watching some luchadores get chased around by dwarves but if you do it right, sometimes that is all you need.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Slime People


The Slime People
1963
Robert Hutton

A pilot, Tom Gregory (Robert Hutton), makes a rough landing in Burbank, California. He finds the town deserted and dozens of bodies strewn on the roads. These people were murdered with spears. Tom encounters a group of survivors, Professor Galbraith (Robert Burton), Lisa Galbraith (Susan Hart), Bonnie Galbraith (Judee Morton), and a soldier named Cal (William Boyce). These survivors recount a battle between the army and a race of underground monsters who have come to surface to surround the city with a solid dome. Now trapped inside with the Slime People closing in, the survivors must find a way through the wall before it’s too late.

"Must...find...moisturizer..."

The Slime People had the potential to be a low-budget gem. For starters, the monsters look great in an era of film where monster effects were still often crude for low budget affairs. The slime people themselves are full-bodied costumes that project the right mix of camp and menace,.With a little creative lighting they could even stand-up today in a modern film. I like the fact that they use spears which is an usual choice of weapon for a monster. The concept of an underground race rising to the surface trapping everyone inside a dome and killing them off is horrific and interesting. Even though it was a cost-saving exercise to set the film just after the initial attack, the opening moments with the pilot walking around a deserted town filled with corpses is a terrific opener.

Almost immediately after a captivating intro the film fumbles. The pilot runs into a group of survivors who deliver line after line of dialogue explaining everything that has happened. Any mystery about the slaughter and the monsters is gone. From this point on the film struggles to find something to do. We get a lot of talking and moving to a new location, some more talking, and finally a few hints at how to defeat the monsters. There is even a brief scene where our survivors are confronted by looters. This could have led to some more complex conflicts later in the film, but the whole thing is resolved within minutes and never spoken of again.

Me on Benadryl.

Beyond being too talky, the other major mistake The Slime People makes is covering the action scenes in a cheap fog effect. It obscures the image and renders everything on screen a grey blob. I could almost understand this decision if the slime people costumes were terrible, but they are easily the best thing in the film. The entire third act is virtually incoherent during what should have been an exciting climax as the survivors make a last-ditch effort to burrow through the dome and the slime people close in on them. I’m still not sure what happens but eventually, things end, the dome is gone, and everyone is all smiles.

If you really like monster movies and really like the films of the 1950s and 1960s, The Slime People isn’t the worst film you can watch, but it might just be the most disappointing. 


Friday, August 21, 2020

Assassinaut

 Assassinaut
2019
Drew Bolduc

An alien race now occupies and controls the Earth. It operates through human bureaucracy. Four kids are selected to be part of space mission/PR move on behalf of the President of Earth. A botched assassination attempt forces everyone to evacuate the President’s space station and the four kids end up stranded in a forest on an alien world. They discover that the President has crashed on this world too and start hiking in hopes of rescuing her. Before long, they stumble across a transportation officer who doesn’t seem to like kids very much. He likes them even less when an alien parasite takes over his nervous system and forces him to start hunting down and killing the young astronauts.

Assassinaut is a lot of things, a wilderness adventure, a political thriller, a character study, and a gorefest. Problem's rise because none of these aspects gel. The strongest of these elements is the classic wilderness survival story of a group of kids learning to survive on their own. Thankfully, this makes up the bulk of the story as we watch these four would-be astronauts form bonds and do their best to survive on an alien world. Throw in a morally grey adult who initially helps them but later becomes a threat and you have a solid yet unassuming SF adventure story. 

The political thriller side, which opens the film and later comes around during the third act, feels undercooked as several key details are passed off quickly through exposition. It does lay the groundwork for larger worldbuilding, but we don’t get it until the end when it feels the least useful. The world of Assassinaut is built on the smiling face of totalitarianism but that’s largely dropped for the adventure. 

The gore also falls into this category, I can see it being used to emphasize the serious and lethal nature of the environment but the violence is so over the top in places it loses that threat and almost veers into splatter-comedy. Thankfully, the gore is great. There are numerous goopy practical effects and some truly painful-looking wounds, but it feels watching the Goonies (1985) where suddenly Chunk gets a broken leg and the camera lingers on the compound fracture for a few seconds.

Visually Assassinaut is a low-budget treat, filled with sumptuous, wooded locations and convincingly sterile and cramped spaceships. The editing is tight and manages to hold the story’s wild tangents together well enough to keep things exciting. The film evokes a similar working-class in space aesthetic to Alien (1979) without mimicking the look of that story.

Assassinaut is a mess but it is a compelling mess that does so much right that it makes the sloppy storytelling even more glaring. Somewhere in all these threads is a brutal tale of kids surviving against a planet and their own authority figures. Still, I wholeheartedly recommend passionate messes that take chances and Assassinaut is a great example.


Friday, August 14, 2020

The Medium is the Message and You’re Not Going to Like It


John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) is bookended by two similar but slightly different segments. Both segments are a dream, in particular a message transmitted as a dream. Both are grainy video images of a church door open, light spilling out, with someone or something standing at the threshold. The first segment is a warning. In the second that threshold is breached both narratively and in actuality, the threat has become a reality.

There is a particular subgenre of horror films in which the subject is a film itself that can destroy, in this case, it is the medium that can not only harm the characters in the story but there is an implication that the film itself could harm the real-life viewer as well. This narrative thread could be traced back to its most popular source, Robert W. Chamber’s "King in Yellow", which describes a play when read or performed that can cause madness and even death. From there we get such things as The Ring (1998) with its malevolent videotape, John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns (2005) with a film, when viewed, drives its observers to suicide, and the more recent Antrum (2018) which poses as a documentary about a lost film that has claimed lives.

This idea that horror can reach out from its medium, that it possesses the power to not only frighten or revolt but the ability to do actual physical harm has been applied from everything from comics to teleconferencing, but it hasn't taken hold there like it has for the haunted film subgenre. Viewing a film in the optimal fashion lulls the viewer into a trance-like state where the brain does not differentiate between the dream world of the film and the real-world of the person sitting there viewing it. Horror's core is about the violation of autonomy. A film already strips you of that autonomy, you are a passive viewer to its events and in a theater setting, you can’t even stop that. The most control you have is to leave and even if you do the events of the film still occur out of your sight.

Prince of Darkness – IFC Center

There’s another element that harkens back to horror movies as an endurance test. A lot of horror fans, especially when young, look to horror films as a right of passage. If you can sit through this or that film you’ve earned bragging rights. As a kid, I was always looking for the most dangerous film, the one that could scare me so badly that I couldn’t sleep, the one so gross I’d gag while watching it. Even though I discovered most films fall far short of the expectations that have been set-up for them, I enjoyed the journey enough to keep going. Ultimately you learn that a film might disturb you. but in the end, it is largely harmless. The film is just a shadow on the wall.

We come back around to that notion of violation of autonomy. Horror says, “But… what if those shadows had substance? What if they can and do reach out from the screen to touch you? What will you do then?”

In Prince of Darkness, there a moment where the Anti-God while speaking through an animated corpse tells the scientists, "I've got a message for you and you're not going to like it." The medium is the message and horror is foundational enough to the human experience that even the medium is not free from horror's clutches.