The Enchanting Ghost (1970)

The Enchanting Ghost [鬼屋麗人] (1970)

Starring Chang Mei-Yao, Yang Li-Hua, Lui Ming, Lam Ban, Lee Hung, Julie Lee Chi-Lun, Sha Lee-Man, Ko Hsiang-Ting, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Tai Leung, Ko Hsiao-Pao, Ng Ho

Directed by Chou Hsu-Chiang

Expectations: Excited, I liked Chou’s The Bride from Hell.


Like last week’s film, The Ghost Story, The Enchanting Ghost falls into the category of Hong Kong horror with only minor elements of what usually defines a horror film. The Enchanting Ghost was also based on a story from Pu Songling’s 18th century collection of ghost stories and other assorted cautionary tales, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. This particular film is based on the story The Bookworm, for those interested in seeing how differently things play out in the two versions. As with most classic Hong Kong ghost films, your enjoyment of The Enchanting Ghost will depend on having properly set expectations for a slower pace and light supernatural elements. With that in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed The Enchanting Ghost from start to finish. It is a finely crafted film that definitely makes you wait for the ghostly happenings, but the journey towards them is also largely charming and entertaining.

Lang Yu Zhu (Yang Li-Hua, playing against gender as a male) is a scholar whose entire existence is consumed by his affection for learning and books. He doesn’t do much else, based in part on his particular love for a real-life poem by Emperor Zhenzong titled Quanxueshi (劝学诗). The poem is a love letter to studying, expressing that study can bring such things as fortunes, good harvests, and beautiful women. When we meet Lang, he is lovingly reciting these lines of the poem, and in a few short minutes he is given the chance to test the poem’s theories. Lang’s uncle covets his home, so he arranges with an official to seize it from Lang under the auspices of repaying the debt left by Lang’s father when he passed. Whether this debt is legitimate or not, Lang is thrown out into the street with nowhere to call home, so he decides to take up residence in the town’s derelict haunted house.

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Quick Takes: Videodrome, Stereo, Crimes of the Future

Videodrome-posterVideodrome (1983)
fourstar

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).

Quick Takes: Mark of the Devil, Day of Anger, Blind Woman’s Curse

mark_of_devil_poster_01Mark of the Devil [Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält] (1970)
AKA Hexen

threestar

Starring Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Katarina, Reggie Nalder, Herbert Fux, Johannes Buzalski, Michael Maien, Gaby Fuchs
Directed by Michael Armstrong

Set in Austria during the 1700s, Mark of the Devil is a witch hunter film that is surprisingly brutal and graphic for 1970. Although, I guess it probably wasn’t released uncut most places back then. Anyway, Mark of the Devil is one of the ancestors of the torture porn genre, but unlike the Saw films and those that followed, I actually enjoyed Mark of the Devil! A lot of that rides on the shoulders of Reggie Nalder, who is exceptional in the role of the town’s crazed witch hunter. It’s ultimately a hard one to recommend, though, as it’s not much more than a torture-rific exploitation movie. What I can recommend is the newly released Arrow Blu-ray/DVD, which is excellent. I love when Blu-rays manage to retain the general look of watching a film projection (DAT GRAIN). Looks like a million witches burning at the stake.

day_of_angerDay of Anger [I giorni dell’ira] (1967)
AKA Blood and Grit, Gunlaw, Days of Wrath

threehalfstar

Starring Lee Van Cleef, Giuliano Gemma, Walter Rilla, Christa Linder, Yvonne Sanson, Lukas Ammann, Andrea Bosic, Ennio Balbo, José Calvo
Directed by Tonino Valerii

As if you needed any more evidence that Lee Van Cleef is a total badass, Day of Anger presents him in one of his finest roles. He plays the mysterious and ruthless Frank Talby, who rides into the strange town of Clifton and endears himself to a persecuted street cleaner named Scott (Giuliano Gemma). In their first encounter, Talby teaches Scott that he doesn’t necessarily have to accept the lot that life has given him; he can instead create the life he would like to have. This progression of Scott’s character, and his relationship with Talby, are satisfying enough on their own, but Day of Anger also has some incredible scenes that rank among the best the western genre has to offer. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Talby has a duel mid-film that’s just fantastic. Director Tonino Valerii was Sergio Leone’s assistant director before moving on to his own films, and he clearly picked up some tricks. After watching a number of mediocre Spaghetti Westerns over the last few years, Day of Anger is not only one of the best Spaghettis I’ve seen in a while, it’s also one of the best westerns I’ve seen in a while. Genre fans should definitely check it out! The new Arrow Blu-ray/DVD looks absolutely fantastic, too!

Blind Woman’s Curse [怪談昇り竜] (1970)
AKA Black Cat’s Revenge, The Tattooed Swordswoman, Strange Tales of Dragon Tattoo

threehalfstar

Starring Meiko Kaji, Hoki Tokuda, Makoto Satō, Hideo Sunazuka, Shirō Otsuji, Toru Abe, Tatsumi Hijikata, Yoshi Kato, Yoko Takagi
Directed by Teruo Ishii

If you were to look at Blind Woman’s Curse critically, you could find many faults with the plot. It is a film that mixes multiple genres and styles together, and it’s not necessarily concerned with doing them all justice. But honestly, I only noticed this after the film had long been over, because while I was watching I was just having a blast. It’s one of those rare films that satisfies my love for both B-Movies and classically well-made cinema. All the the trashiness you’d expect from a multi-genre B-Movie is present, but Blind Woman’s Curse is made with much more grace and skill than these B-elements would normally suggest. There are some seriously great shots and camera work here, and they make me very excited to see some more of Ishii’s work. The film also reminded me a lot of the work of Takashi Miike, and I have a strong feeling Ishii was an influence on him. I don’t know if Blind Woman’s Curse has a cult following, but it definitely deserves one and the elements to attract one are surely all here. The availability of the recent Arrow Blu-ray/DVD should help it find more fans, too.

Wrath of the Sword (1970)

wrathofthesword_1Wrath of the Sword [怒劍狂刀] (1970)

Starring Tang Ching, Shu Pei-Pei, Sek Kin, Chiang Nan, Paul Wei Ping-Ao, Yip Ching, Lan Wei-Lieh, Wu Ma

Directed by Wu Ma

Expectations: Fairly high.

twostar


I had high hopes that Wrath of the Sword would be some kind of unsung hidden gem of martial arts cinema. Instead, as the film went on it only became more apparent why Wrath of the Sword wasn’t well known. It’s not a horrible movie — it does entertain — but it has little in the way of originality or flair. Wrath of the Sword simply exists, and for martial arts fans these days, when hundreds upon hundreds of films are readily available, that is definitely not enough. Evidently it wasn’t enough in 1970 either, though, as the film tanked at the box office. Placed into context against the Shaw catalog, Wrath of the Sword came out in-between Vengeance! and The Twelve Gold Medallions, a place that no film would want to be, let alone a mediocre one.

As you might guess, Wrath of the Sword tells an uninspired story told better in many similar wuxia films. The film opens with the massacre of the Bai family, but one descendant remains: Bai Ying (Shu Pei-Pei), and she’s out for vengeance. For unexplained reasons a mysterious swordsman, Yu Qing-Hua (Tang Ching), seems intent on helping Bai Ying on her mission, but as he points out to her, she doesn’t even know who her enemies are. Good thing those evil bastards aren’t shy at all, ambushing Bai Ying whenever the opportunity presents itself.

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From the Highway (1970)

FromtheHighway+1970-6-bFrom the Highway [路客與刀客] (1970)

Starring Peter Yang Kwan, Ingrid Hu Yin-Yin, Tsui Fu-Sheng, Suen Yuet, Lee Hung, Yeung Fui-Yuk, Lee Man-Tai

Directed by Chang Tseng-Chai

Expectations: Fairly high.

threestar


From the Highway is an impressively produced film… if you can watch it without holding its legacy against it. The film is largely considered the first color hand-to-hand kung fu film, but the title is a misnomer in this case. From the Highway is only barely a martial arts film, let alone a hand-to-hand film. It’s actually a drama surrounded by some traditional martial arts traits. In this way it recalls director Chang Tseng-Chai’s later film The Casino, which is essentially a drama until the action-packed finale.

The lead character, He Tian (Peter Yang Kwan), is perhaps the genre’s first prominent unarmed character, though. If I remember right there are older Shaw Bros movies with hand-to-hand scenes, although I don’t remember other characters who only fight unarmed. I don’t know enough about martial arts film history to say definitively that he’s the first, but if nothing else he’s an unarmed fighter amidst a multitude of weapon-wielding contemporaries. But even if this character trait is notable, it only seems notable because of the film’s built-up legacy. As a viewer in 2015, I’m looking for the seeds of later films; I’m looking for the “birth” of the kung fu film. And it’s just not here. On the other hand, when I watched The Chinese Boxer under the same mindset, it lived up to the legacy of being “the first hand-to-hand kung fu film,” and was impressive for how much it actually resembled later films.

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Five Easy Pieces (1970)

fiveeasypieces_1Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach, Lois Smith, Ralph Waite, Billy Green Bush, Fannie Flagg, William Challee, John Ryan, Marlena MacGuire, Sally Struthers

Directed by Bob Rafelson

Expectations: Moderate.

threestar


Sometimes you just can’t connect with a movie no matter how good it is, and this was my experience with Five Easy Pieces. I honestly don’t know what I think of the film. I didn’t like it much, that’s for sure, but to say it’s bad just because of that feels wrong. It’s not you Five Easy Pieces, it’s me. Due to this experience, my initial thought was to forgo my usual star rating and replace it with question-filled stars. But after writing the rough draft of this post I was able to wrangle my thoughts enough to rate it, so without further ado let’s get wrangling those thoughts and my initial indifference with Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.

The film opens by introducing us to Bobby (Jack Nicholson), an oil worker in the central valley of California. He’s a blue-collar guy who enjoys more than his share of beer and women. He’s involved with Rayette (Karen Black), a diner waitress with dreams of becoming a country singer, but he doesn’t seem all that into her. Eventually we learn that there is more to Bobby than this working-class lifestyle suggests. He is actually a classically trained pianist from a wealthy, eccentric family, but he decided to give it all up and live a simpler, more down-to-earth life.

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The Singing Killer (1970)

The Singing Killer [小煞星] (1970)

Starring David Chiang, Wang Ping, Chan Sing, Tina Chin Fei, Dean Shek Tin, Ku Feng, Stanley Fung Sui-Fan, Yeung Chi Hing, Wong Chung, Lau Gong, Yip Bo-Kam, Lee Sau Kei

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: Moderately high. I hope to have fun with it.


Chang Cheh’s The Singing Killer opens rather promisingly. David Chiang sits on-stage at the drums singing these choice lines (among others):

“I’m the singing killer
Fist is a fist, Knife is a knife
Kung fu, judo and karate, I specialize in all
If you dare, come and try me
The singing killer is me”

While Chiang definitely showcases his ability to kick some ass during the film’s brief but brutal fight scenes, and he’s also proven to be quite competent with a gun when he needs to be, the film just isn’t all that engaging. I mean, if David Chiang can’t even be bothered to move his mouth when he’s supposed to be singing, how am I supposed to dredge up enough excitement to be enthusiastic about this?

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