Quick Takes: Videodrome, Stereo, Crimes of the Future

Videodrome-posterVideodrome (1983)

Starring James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky, Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman, Julie Khaner, Reiner Schwarz
Directed by David Cronenberg

Videodrome is probably my favorite Cronenberg film from what I’ve seen so far, and I doubt anything could replace it. It’s an intoxicating descent into the media and what lengths our desensitized, media-obsessed culture will go to for entertainment. It’s probably more relevant now than ever. James Woods is fantastic, but I was surprised and impressed by Blondie singer Debbie Harry, who really pulled her weight and inhabited her character perfectly. The makeup FX work by Rick Baker is ultimately what sealed the deal for me, though, and moments like Woods communing with the pulsating TV are beyond amazing. What a movie! I don’t even know what to say. Watch it!

stereoStereo (1969)

Starring Ronald Mlodzik, Jack Messinger, Iain Ewing, Clara Mayer, Paul Mulholland, Arlene Mlodzik, Glenn McCauley
Directed by David Cronenberg

Stereo is technically Cronenberg’s first feature, but due to the experimental nature of the work, it’s hard to truly think of it in this way. I give those honors to his first “traditional” film, Shivers, but this is beside the point. I’m sure Stereo was very informative and necessary to Cronenberg’s growth as an artist, but as a viewer it is not an experience to relish. The film is mostly silent, with only a sparse, dry commentary chiming in now and then. Stereo is meant to be a series of educational films documenting the experiments of Dr. Luther Stringfellow (who is never seen) at the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry. There Stringfellow was trying to give telepathic abilities to his subjects. Like actual educational films, Stereo is very dry and hard to stay awake through (and it’s only an hour). For me, its only saving grace is the stunning B&W cinematography capturing the architectural beauty of the University of Toronto Scarborough campus where the film was shot. Cronenberg may not have embraced narrative and entertainment at this point, but he clearly already knew how to frame an exceptional image. I do like the overall premise of the film, and the conceit of filming fake educational materials for a fictional doctor’s sci-fi experiments is inspired, but I can’t really recommend Stereo. If you are so inclined, though, the film is readily available on the Criterion edition of Scanners (or the Blue Underground release of Fast Company, in lower quality).

crimesCrimes of the Future (1970)

Starring Ronald Mlodzik, Jon Lidolt, Tania Zolty, Jack Messinger, Paul Mulholland, William Haslam, Willem Poolman, Stefan Czernecki
Directed by David Cronenberg

Crimes of the Future can be seen as a companion to Stereo, in that it’s also silent (with sparse commentary) and very experimental. But this film is in color and Cronenberg employs some limited sound design work to spice the soundtrack up a bit. Despite these “advancements,” Crimes of the Future is an even more boring film than Stereo, and the color cinematography doesn’t dazzle nearly as much (although there are some very nice shots throughout). The story centers around a doctor named Tripod, who wanders between various groups of men and tells us about his mentor Antoine Rouge, who somehow created a disease that spread through cosmetic products and wiped out Earth’s entire female population. Again, I have to give credit to Cronenberg for coming up with quite an interesting premise, but this is one hard film to watch. Just excruciating. Like Stereo, I can’t recommend Crimes of the Future, but if you’re a determined Cronenberg fan, the film is available on the Criterion edition of The Brood (or the Blue Underground release of Fast Company, in lower quality).

Purple Darts (1969)

purpledarts_3Purple Darts [紫金鏢] (1969)

Starring Wang Ling, Tung Li, Ou Wei, Cho Kin, Li Kuan-Chang, Lee Fung, Cheung Sai-Sai, Chow Siu-Hing, Tai Leung, Cheung Ching-Fung

Directed by Pan Lei

Expectations: Fairly low.


It’s a shame that Purple Darts is one of the Shaw Brothers films that never received a DVD release from Celestial, because it’s a great wuxia full of fun characters and tense fights. Its story isn’t always the slickest, the characters’ motivations are usually somewhat cloudy and unexplained, there are “important” things that ultimately mean nothing, and the choreography leaves a lot to be desired, but Purple Darts finds ways to make those discrepancies fly away like a slick wuxia hero. It’s by far the best film I’ve seen from Pan Lei, and I’m sad that his final martial arts film for the Shaw Brothers, 1971’s The Merciful Sword, is currently MIA. Maybe it’ll eventually turn up like Purple Darts.

Like many Shaw martial arts films from the 1960s, Purple Darts opens with an infant in peril. Her parents are under assault from four villainous figures of the martial world: Bai Feng the Butcher, Lu Dachao the Bull Demon, Gu Miaozhen the Seducer, and Wang Yizhou The Wind Waving Scholar. Together they seek the Great Mystery Scriptures, a kung fu manual with unexplained power and importance. The infant’s mother manages to smuggle her out through a hidden tunnel, and an old man takes the baby in. Cue the credits! And now, just as in a good majority of these ’60s wuxias, the credits end and the infant is now a 20-something adult in search of vengeance for the crimes against her parents!

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A Thousand Year Old Fox (1969)

thousandyearsfox_2A Thousand Year Old Fox [천년호] (1969)
AKA Thousand Years Old Fox

Starring Shin Young-Kyun, Kim Ji-Su, Kim Hye-Jeong, Kim Nan-Yeong, Kang Kye-Shik, Lee Ki-Young

Directed by Shin Sang-Ok

Expectations: Pretty high.


The Korean Film Archive calls A Thousand Year Old Fox, “The pinnacle of 1960s cinematic horror, which successfully experiments with the ingenious combination of fantasy, action, and melodrama.” I don’t have any real knowledge of the late ’60s in South Korea, so I can’t comment on the film being at the pinnacle of the country’s horror genre, but I can say that the rest of the description is apt. But it’s probably fair to assume that this was an impressive film in its day, because on the strength of this film — and presumably director Shin Sang-Ok’s reputation as “one of the greatest Korean producer-directors of his era” — A Thousand Year Old Fox was picked up for Hong Kong distribution by the Shaw Brothers, and Shin was contracted to make a few films directly for the studio. A Thousand Year Old Fox wasn’t released in Hong Kong until 1971, but it failed to catch on there, making just shy of HK$300,000 in a year where the number one film, The Big Boss, made over HK$3 million.

A Thousand Year-Old Fox tells a love-triangle story about General Kim (Shin Young-Kyun), who has just returned to his country after two years of defending the borders from bandits, Queen Jinseong (Kim Hye-Jeong), who only has eyes for the general, and the general’s loving wife, Yeo-hwa (Kim Ji-Su), who is eagerly awaiting her husband’s return. The queen seduces the general, keeping him at the palace and delaying his reunion with his wife and child. Meanwhile, the queen sends her guards to banish Yeo-hwa from the kingdom, and while traveling a group of bandits ambush Yeo-hwa’s party. The bandits stomp Yeo-hwa’s infant to death, but she uses this moment to make her escape. She runs as fast as she can through the forest and the fields, only to fall into a small lake and drown before the bandits catch up to her. But this is no ordinary body of water, it’s one inhabited by a bodyless fox spirit. The fox draws strength from Yeo-hwa’s heightened emotions and strong desire for revenge and is able to inhabit her body. And you thought it was a complicated situation when it was just a simple three-human love triangle!

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Marlowe (1969)

marlowe_5Starring James Garner, Gayle Hunnicutt, Carroll O’Connor, Rita Moreno, Sharon Farrell, William Daniels, H.M. Wynant, Jackie Coogan, Kenneth Tobey, Bruce Lee, Christopher Cary, George Tyne, Corinne Camacho, Paul Stevens, Roger Newman

Directed by Paul Bogart

Expectations: Low.


It’s never a great idea to watch the movie version of a book right after you read it, but yet I can never help myself from doing just that. Like almost every other Raymond Chandler adaptation, Marlowe misses the mark by quite a bit. It’s a shame, too, as I think they really could have had something good here if they didn’t inject a bunch of corny bullshit into the novel’s tight plotting. At the broad level, though, the film is a pretty fair and faithful adaptation of The Little Sister‘s plot. It hits many of the novel’s events in basically the same way, even making use of many lines of Chandler’s dialogue. But while it may bring most of the plot to life, it does so without a single shred of the novel’s tone, an offense far worse than changing a plot point or adding something corny.

One of the finest aspects of The Little Sister is how beaten and downtrodden Marlowe has become. It was the fifth Marlowe novel, and over the course of the novels his character becomes more disillusioned with Los Angeles and the shit he’s always dealing with. Marlowe in The Little Sister is the same witty, sharp detective he always was, but instead of being a leg up, he’s almost always playing catch-up. Unfortunately, Marlowe doesn’t attempt to replicate any of this version of Marlowe, instead giving him a cocky smile, a happy relationship with a girlfriend(!!!), and a swanky jazz score whenever he does something “cool.”

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The Wild Bunch (1969)

wildbunch_2Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez, Ben Johnson, Emilio Fernández, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Albert Dekker, Alfonso Arau

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Expectations: High. It’s The Wild Bunch.


When I was a teenager I loved The Wild Bunch because it was bloody and violent in ways that I had never seen in a classic western. This violence — and the way it was edited — would forever change the course of American cinema. Re-watching the film in my 30s, I am struck by how the violence is never presented as entertainment. It is instead meant to affect the viewer, and while 45 years of violent, bloody filmmaking have definitely softened its impact a bit, it’s still incredibly brutal and hard to watch at times. The violence also makes the film feel a lot more modern than its contemporaries, which I’m sure is a huge reason why this film has continued to resonate with audiences over the years.

On the surface, The Wild Bunch is about a gang of bandits who are looking to make one last score before getting out of the game. On their tail is the calm, mild-mannered Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who was once a trusted member of the outlaw group. It’s a rather simple and often-used story, but The Wild Bunch never feels simple or clichéd. One of the first images on-screen shows a group of children huddled around a colony of red ants attacking a small group of scorpions. This image is not only striking, but it is representative of the rest of the film and the struggles of the main character Pike (not to mention our own fascination with watching violent struggles).

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Shark! (1969)

shark_1Shark! (1969)
AKA Caine, Man-Eater

Starring Burt Reynolds, Arthur Kennedy, Silvia Pinal, Barry Sullivan, Enrique Lucero, Carlos Barry, Manuel Alvarado, José Chávez, Francisco Reiguera, Emilia Stuart, José Marco

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Expectations: The lowest.


Shark!, the film which Sam Fuller was so displeased with that he disowned it and tried to get the producers to remove his name from it. Around the fringes of the film, there are shreds of Fuller’s usual style and forceful direction, but overall it just doesn’t have that Fuller spark. Shark! is a great example of how editing can completely cripple a film, as Fuller delivered his final cut to the producers only to have it re-cut without his knowledge into the lifeless, slow film before us. Shark! feels disjointed, sloppy and without purpose for a good amount of its runtime, things that Fuller’s previous films just don’t set you up to expect from him.

In my review for The Naked Kiss, I mentioned that it was a film that could have never been made within the studio system. While this is impressive nowadays, the controversial nature of the film also made it nearly impossible for Fuller to get financing for his future films, so he spent a lot of his time after The Naked Kiss unsuccessfully trying to get pictures off the ground. Eventually, this led Fuller to get desperate and take the shady deal that led to the production of Shark! In between the two films, Fuller had made a few episodes of the TV show Iron Horse, but he found this work so boring and uninteresting that he could barely even remember doing it in his autobiography. This disinterest surely contributed to Fuller’s acceptance of the Shark! deal, which was originally a two-film contract that dissolved after the debacle of Shark!

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Have Sword, Will Travel (1969)

Have Sword Will Travel [保鏢] (1969)
AKA The Bodyguard

Starring Ti Lung, Li Ching, David Chiang, Cheng Miu, Wang Kuang-Yu, Wong Ching Ho, Ku Feng, Cliff Lok Kam Tung, Lau Gong, Hung Lau, Chan Sing, Wong Chung, Cheng Lui, Cheng Kang-Yeh

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Very high? The first martial arts film by Chang Cheh with Ti Lung and David Chang? This should be spectacular.

Oh man, this one might be a long one. I think I took more notes for this one than I ever have for any previous review. Have Sword, Will Travel is the first martial arts film to feature the duo of Ti Lung and David Chiang, and boy what a film to kick off their wuxia careers. Chang Cheh’s previous martial arts film was The Invincible Fist, and while this film doesn’t quite reach those heights, it comes damn close.

Written by noted martial arts scribe Ni Kuang (who had previously written The One-Armed Swordsman and The Invincible Fist for Chang Cheh), Have Sword, Will Travel is yet another example of the man’s stunning writing ability. No one looks to this genre for quality writing (in fact, most people regularly lambaste it for its shitty writing), but they clearly haven’t experienced a great Ni Kuang script.

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