Stephen reviews: The Five Star Stories (1989)

geroi_pjati_planetThe Five Star Stories [ファイブスター物語] (1989)

Starring Ryo Horikawa, Maria Kawamura, Hideyuki Tanaka, Norio Wakamoto, Ichiro Nagai, Kazuhiko Inoue, Rei Sakuma, Run Sasaki

Directed by Kazuo Yamazaki


The Five Star Stories starts off with a brief description of the Joker Galaxy, which contains only four stars, making it the smallest galaxy I’ve ever heard of. So why does the title talk about five stars? No idea. The four stars we do get to hear about have the rather unusual names of Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western. I suppose the film takes place in one of these solar systems, but I can’t remember if it bothered to say which one. Maybe it even takes place on that mysterious fifth star. This confusing description of the galaxy actually mirrors the film which is also bizarre, mismatched, and very incomplete.

Clearly a highly condensed adaptation of a longer work, Five Star Stories suffers the usual problems of these types of films, but magnifies the problem by also being very short. Even a full two hours or more can leave adaptations such as Fist of the North Star or Dagger of Kamui feeling like half the story was left out. Five Star Stories is only one hour long, and it is nowhere near enough time to do the original story justice. What’s left is a confusing hodgepodge of poorly explained events told with an air of epic mythology.

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Curse II: The Bite (1989)

thecurse2_1Curse II: The Bite (1989)
AKA The Bite, Blood Biter

Starring Jill Schoelen, J. Eddie Peck, Jamie Farr, Bo Svenson, Savina Gersak, Marianne Muellerleile, Sydney Lassick, Terrence Evans, Shiri Appleby

Directed by Frederico Prosperi

Expectations: None. Hopefully it’s more fun than the unrelated first one.

On the general scale:
twostar

On the B-movie scale:
threestar


Curse II: The Bite isn’t a horror movie bursting with originality, but it is bursting with a lot of fun and great FX work, and in a low-budget horror movie that ends up counting for a lot. For the most part it is a slow-burn horror film, but it’s one that rewards its viewers steadily leading up the incredible, exciting finale absolutely chock full of fantastic FX work from Screaming Mad George. It’s really surprising to see such plentiful FX work in a low-budget film, and it goes to show you that if you get a trained professional to provide practical FX you can have a kick-ass horror movie without breaking the bank. Let’s bring back that trend in horror films!

Curse II begins on an ominous note: a pair of radiation-suited employees of the Yellow Sands Nuclear Test Site in the Arizona desert pick up a snake with a pair of snake-gettin’ tongs. Hmm, maybe The Bite sub-title refers to a snakebite! But if you don’t figure it out from that initial scene, during the credits we’re treated to snakes, snakes and more snakes. But not just snakes doing the usual slithering around and flicking their tongues in and out. These snakes are climbing up the chain-link fence surrounding the test site. Some of them just hang there on the fence, too, perhaps because they’re resting, but probably because they were just climbing up the fence to have a better vantage point from which to plot their nefarious plans.

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Quick Takes: The House by the Cemetery, Christmas Evil, Game Over

housebythecemeteryThe House by the Cemetery [Quella villa accanto al cimitero] (1981)
AKA The House Outside the Cemetery, Zombie Hell House

threestar

Starring Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Giovanni De Nava
Directed by Lucio Fulci

My favorite and the most easily accessible of the three Fulci movies I watched recently (the others being City of the Living Dead & The Beyond). Like the others, the plot is a definite weak point, but the atmosphere and the gore make up for it immensely. The gore is also a lot less “fun” in this one, instead going for much more realistic, brutal violence with gallons of blood flowing. Well, it’s not all realistic, there’s a bat attack that’s hilariously wild and ridiculous, but that’s probably unintentional. And just make sure the bat scene is the height of absurd weirdness, the bat provides more squirting blood than virtually all the other scenes combined. This moment is insane in the best way possible, as are all the other horrific bits (although those are insane for the sheer audacity to even attempt to get something this brutal past the censors). Good stuff.

Christmas_EvilChristmas Evil (1980)
AKA You Better Watch Out, Terror in Toyland

threehalfstar

Starring Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fenwick, Brian Neville, Joe Jamrog, Wally Moran, Gus Salud
Directed by Lewis Jackson

Harry was never the same after he saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus! The event scarred him deeply, developing into a fixation on everything Christmas and Santa-related. Harry’s now in his 40s and working at Jolly Dreams, a toy manufacturer. Christmas Evil is a slow-burn horror movie that’s more character study than traditional horror movie. Yes, Santa murders people, but this isn’t a Santa slasher movie. We see Harry’s psychosis evolve from simply caring about making quality toys for the holidays, to being driven to the point of shoving a toy soldier’s sword through a dude’s eye. But because we see the whole run up to the murder spree, the victims are not faceless and nameless. They are enemies to the spirit of Christmas, so in a weird way Harry is a hero of sorts, in his own mind at least. This is brought home beautifully in the ending of the film, which is equal parts touching, joyous and symbolic. Director Lewis Jackson twists the knife of psychosis at will by utilizing well-known hallmarks of the season, be it Harry maniacally calling out reindeer names while he’s driving away from the scene of the crime, or a cassette tape of a Christmas song warping and distorting as we see the aftermath Harry leaves in his wake. With each reference, Harry seems to slip deeper into his twisted Santa persona, further subverting the Christmas music and general mythology. Christmas Evil may be a low-budget film, but it is very well-crafted and the lead performance by Brandon Maggart is fantastic.

3615codeperenoelGame Over [3615 code Père Noël] (1989)
AKA Deadly Games, Dial Code Santa Claus

twohalfstar

Starring Alain Lalanne, Patrick Floersheim, Louis Ducreux, Brigitte Fossey, François-Eric Gendron, Stéphane Legros
Directed by René Manzor

Game Over is the result when you combine the ’80s kids’ affinity for muscular, gun-laden action heroes, a psycho in a Santa suit, and Home Alone. It’s not as great as that might sound, but it delivers more than enough laughs and genuine peril to make for a fine experience. Our lead is Thomas, a computer whiz kid who questions the existence of Santa Claus. He sets up cameras to record Santa in the act (which he can watch via his forearm-sized TV/camera controller), but his mother warns that if Santa sees him watching, Santa will turn into an ogre. Thomas also decides instead of writing a letter to Santa this year, he’ll just use a computer program called “3615 code Père Noël” (also the original title of the film). There is a Santa on the other end, but it’s a crazed lunatic out for young blood! What struck me the most about this movie was how brutal it was at times, and how much different it felt from American films with kids in peril. Thomas is actually harmed, ending the film bloody, exhausted and shell-shocked (to the point of resembling a pint-sized John McClane). It’s a little crusty and slow moving in parts, but overall it’s a good watch if you can hunt it down.

Stephen reviews: Vampire Princess Miyu (1988/1989)

737187003622Vampire Princess Miyu [Kyuuketsuti Miyu 吸血姫 美夕, Vampire Miyu] (1988/1989)

Starring Mami Koyama, Naoko Watanabe, Mayumi Shou, Katsumi Toruiumi, Ryo Horikawa, Yuji Mitsuya, Masako Ikeda, Kiyonobu Suzuki, Tesshō Genda, Kaneto Shiozawa

Directed by Toshihiro Hirano


Another series rather than film, Vampire Princess Miyu is one of my old favorites from my high school years. It was refreshing coming back to this series and finding that it still holds up pretty well. This is not the late ’90s TV series, but the decade older direct-to-video mini-series. At only four episodes the entire series is no longer than a feature film, making it easy to watch in one sitting although each episode stands on its own fairly well. They are all interconnected and combine to tell a broader story, but each episode is also a single adventure in itself.

The franchise has a rather oddly translated title. “Princess” is nowhere in the Japanese title. Miyu herself is not, and never was, a princess of anything. One can only wonder what made the translators insert that word. I guess it just sounds better than the more basic Vampire Miyu (though I do wonder if the original title might be a reference to Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat). In any event, the erroneous title is the one by which the franchise is most commonly known in English (the original manga used the literal translation Vampire Miyu when it first came out in the US, but later releases apparently added in the “princess” bit).

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Stephen reviews: Garaga (1989)

garaga_1Garaga [ギャラガ] (1989)
AKA Hyper Psychic Geo Garaga

Starring Toshio Furukawa, Akira Kamiya, Keiko Han, Megumi Hayashibara, Michie Tomizawa, Eiko Yamada. Eiji Maruyama

Directed by Hidemi Kubo


Garaga tries to deliver an action-packed sci-fi epic, and to its credit it is filled to the brim with tons of robots, aliens, and spaceships that are all in a massive tangle of conflict. Honestly, all the parts are there for a great adventure. Unfortunately, they aren’t put together well enough to make it work. It’s too jumbled to make a good story, and the action scenes come off too bland to be viscerally entertaining. Add in a few plot holes and you have a thoroughly lackluster film. A lack of any quality animation doesn’t help matters either.

It starts with the crew of the spaceship XeBeC making a special delivery. They’ve got a general’s daughter in cold sleep, and they need to take her… somewhere. It obviously isn’t all that important since the film never mentions where they are taking her or why. But the ship has been sabotaged, and they crash-land on an unknown planet (OK, not really, it’s actually the planet Garaga) filled with violent ape monsters that want to kill everyone. And this is where the original destination ceases to mean anything, especially since it seems like everyone on the ship was headed to Garaga anyway. I almost thought they were stranded at their destination.

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Stephen reviews: Riding Bean (1989)

ridingbean_1Riding Bean [ライディング・ビーン] (1989)

Starring Hideyuki Tanaka, Naoko Matsui, Mami Koyama, Kei Tomiyama, Megumi Hayashibara, Chieko Honda

Directed by Yasuo Hasegawa


Another relic from my high school days, Riding Bean is about as action packed as you can make a movie without becoming a simple montage of action scenes. It’s short, but full of shootouts and car chases and shootouts during car chases leavened with plenty of lighthearted humor. It’s all about Bean Bandit, the Roadbuster, the best and craziest getaway driver in Chicago with a scar on his face and a jawline to make Jay Leno jealous. He’s a lot like a ’90s anti-hero, and his badassery oozes off the screen. His partner is a sexy gun expert named Rally Vincent, who knowledgeable anime fans might recognize as the main character of Gunsmith Cats, though here she is blonde instead of brunette.

Bean will take on any job as long as he gets paid, and while Rally is more of a good guy, she is still pretty much in it for the money and has no qualms about the illegal nature of their jobs. As with any rebel car chase story, there are plenty of car crashes and incompetent police for Bean to make fools out of. And trust me, these are some flat-out ridiculous car chases that could only have been brought to life in an anime. His car may not be as tricked out as James Bond’s, but has Bond ever had a car that can drive sideways? And of course it has the requisite “driving off an unfinished overpass” scene as well; you can’t have a car chase film without one of those.

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Stephen reviews: Wrath of the Ninja: The Yotoden Movie (1989)

wrathoftheninja_1Wrath of the Ninja: The Yotoden Movie [戦国奇譚妖刀伝 Sengoku Kidan Yōtōden] (1989)
AKA Legend of the Enchanted Swords; Yotoden: Chronicle of the Warlord Period; Wrath of the Ninja – The Yotoden Chronicles; Blade of the Ninja

Starring Keiko Toda, Kazuhiko Inoue, Takeshi Watabe, Tomomichi Nishimura, Masami Kikuchi, Kazuki Yao, Kaneto Shiozawa, Norio Wakamoto, Reizo Nomoto, Shōzō Iizuka, Ritsuo Sawa, Eken Mine

Directed by Osamu Yamasaki


Ninja action is awesome, right? Especially when there are lots of demons and illusions, and martial arts showdowns scattered around, right? The more the better, right? Well, sadly that’s not the case for Wrath of the Ninja which proves that you can indeed have too much ninja action in a movie, as hard as that is to believe. I think (hope) that this is the result of compressing down the longer original story into oblivion. The film version of Wrath of the Ninja is a compilation of the series, and it’s got all the usual problems of such a film cranked up to eleven.

The plot, what’s left of it anyway, revolves around three ninjas from different clans who each own a special weapon with a legend attached to it. They’re up against the commonly used historical figure of Oda Nobunaga, who was also the villain of Black Lion as well as other anime. Here, as is common in stories set in feudal Japan, Nobunaga is a demon bent on conquering the world. I think. I’m actually not sure what he’s after. The story doesn’t have enough time to bother with something as trivial as the objectives of the main villain. But whatever he’s trying to do, it involves the massacre of the protagonists’ hometowns, which obviously unites them in an unstoppable ninja team-up out for revenge.

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