Return of the Dead (1979)

Return of the Dead [銷魂玉] (1979)

Starring Ku Feng, Wang Lai, Lau Luk-Wah, Yeung Chi-Hing, Yueh Hua, Chan Wai-Ying, Si Wai, Yuen Sam, Cheng Miu, Ko Hsiang-Ting, Cheung Ching-Fung, Choh Seung-Wan, Tai Kwan-Tak, Chan Shen, Chun Wong, Wong Ching-Ho, Lau Wai-Ling, Shum Lo, Fung Ming, Lui Tat, Wang Han-Chen

Directed by Li Han-Hsiang

Expectations: Moderate. Hopefully it’s as good as The Ghost Story or better.


Li Han-Hsiang followed The Ghost Story with another horror anthology nine months later: Return of the Dead. It is a much more conventional anthology, with a framing story bringing together three stories which would otherwise have no connection. Return of the Dead is also not a sexploitation film (although it does brush up against the genre in a couple of scenes), so overall I imagine it is a much easier to digest film for traditional horror audiences. The only problem is that Return of the Dead just isn’t as good as it ought to be. The stories are all entertaining and engaging, but they lack a bit of oomph to really send them into a territory that inspires love. I liked the film, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that there’s not a lot to hang any sort of recommendation on.

The framing story is relatively light, showing the protagonists of the individual stories explaining how they came to reside in the insane asylum they all call home. The first story is likely to be familiar to horror fans, as it is an adaptation of the time-honored tale, The Monkey’s Paw. Here the paw is a necklace with a charm depicting the three wise monkeys (See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil). Ku Feng and Wang Lai play husband and wife, with their son played by Lau Luk-Wah. Lau works at a local factory, while his parents have a small, but successful fermented tofu business. Ku Feng’s character has adopted the name Wang Zhi-He to help sell his goods, as the real Wang Zhi-He was the man who discovered and popularized bottled, fermented tofu. If you know the story of The Monkey’s Paw, you’ll know what comes next. It is a simple, but effective moral tale, and Li Han-Hsiang adapts it well.

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The Ghost Story (1979)

The Ghost Story [鬼叫春] (1979)

Starring Yueh Hua, Woo Gam, Shirley Yu Sha-Li, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Wong Ching-Ho, Kara Hui, Lam Yeung-Yeung, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Lee Kwan, Ng Hong-Sang, Yeung Chi-Hing, Fung Ging-Man, Wang Han-Chen, Ku Wen-Chung, Tin Hoi-Fung

Directed by Li Han-Hsiang

Expectations: Curious, but not sure.


The Ghost Story is a sort of anthology film, but the way it’s told the second story is meant to represent the reincarnations of the characters from the first, and the leads are played by the same actors (Woo Gam & Yueh Hua). Some secondary actors reappear in similar roles, as well. But since there are two distinct segments and a framing story of a grandpa telling stories to a rapt audience, I suppose it’s as much of an anthology film as anything else. The stories here are adapted from Pu Songling’s ever-popular short story collection, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, first published in 1740. The bulk of the film is based on one of the most popular tales, The Painted Skin, while the first story is a bit harder to pin down.

There are 491 stories in the full version, but most English editions are whittled down to somewhere around 100 stories. The book I have has a story titled Making Animals that contains some elements present in the first segment of The Ghost Story, but other than that I was unable to identify the specific story being adapted. A six-volume, complete English translation was finished a few years ago by Sidney L. Sondergard, so perhaps one day I’ll figure it out. For now, though, we’ll have to be satisfied not knowing or assuming that Li wrote a new story around elements of Making Animals. Anyway, once he tells the kids to go to bed, our narrator begins a tale that occurred sometime during the reign of Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty. It is the story of Hua’s Inn, run by three sisters, and how a group of tired soldiers sought refuge there.

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Quick Takes: Fast Company, The Fly, Dead Ringers

fastcompany_1Fast Company (1979)
threehalfstar

Starring William Smith, Claudia Jennings, John Saxon, Nicholas Campbell, Don Francks, Cedric Smith, Judy Foster, Robert Haley, George Buza, David Graham, David Petersen
Directed by David Cronenberg

Just a few months before unleashing The Brood, Cronenberg released this love letter to drag racing. It is easily the least “Cronenbergian” film from him I’ve seen, but even if I didn’t go into it knowing he loved cars, Fast Company would’ve told me as much. The film’s cinematography is superb, capturing wonderful, wide vistas of the Canadian roadways, as well as close-up shots of gleaming engines, smoking tires and all kinds of other machinery. I was especially taken by an intense close-up of a spark plug gap being checked. Also of specific note is an in-car shot of a complete funny car run, with a timer on-screen to further add to the wow factor. I’m not an experienced fan of drag racing, so I was quite impressed with the speed and the precision with which everything is carried out. The film’s story is relatively cliched, and it gets super campy — AKA Fun! — as it goes along, but during the racing segments it actually feels closer to a documentary. It is real cars with real drivers doing some real racing, after all. I think it would be a fine choice for a rumbling double feature with Mad Max: Fury Road. Plus there’s a Springsteen-like theme song, what more can I ask for? Anyone that loves cars, specifically when they were hulking beasts of steel and thunder, should check this forgotten gem out.

theflyThe Fly (1986)
threehalfstar

Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, Joy Boushel, Leslie Carlson, George Chuvalo
Directed by David Cronenberg

As I worked my way through Cronenberg’s films, I was eager to re-visit his take on The Fly. It was the first Cronenberg film I saw (as a kid sometime in the late ’80s), and all I remember from that viewing was that I thought it was really weird. I didn’t know how to comprehend or process it. Then I watched it again about 10 years ago, and while I liked it a lot more that time, it still felt kind of emotionally cold and I couldn’t get into it completely. When I look back on these experiences after this most recent re-watch, I’m shocked at myself. The Fly is one of Cronenberg’s greatest achievements, and the FX work that slowly transforms Jeff Goldblum into the Brundlefly is absolutely exquisite. My journey with the film is a testament to re-watching films at different ages; the Brundlefly may evolve rather quickly, but it takes much longer for a human such as myself. Sometimes you see a film too early for it to resonate, and thankfully when I watched it this time it felt exactly right.

deadringersDead Ringers (1988)
threehalfstar

Starring Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold, Heidi von Palleske, Barbara Gordon, Shirley Douglas, Stephen Lack
Directed by David Cronenberg

Dead Ringers is an interesting film for Cronenberg to make directly after The Fly. Where that film went hard into the grotesque, Dead Ringers is reserved and intensely psychological. I must say that I prefer the methods of The Fly, but Dead Ringers succeeded in winning me over despite this. Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists, and it’s this absolutely riveting dual performance that glues you to the screen. Irons manages to create two distinct, believable characters, and Cronenberg somehow managed to often include them in the same shot without any hint of optical compositing or other visual trickery. It’s really something to see. Definitely a weird movie, though, so I don’t know who I’d recommend it to other than people who are already Cronenberg fans.

Quick Takes: The Dead Zone, Rabid, The Brood

dead_zone_xlgThe Dead Zone (1983)
threestar

Starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Dewhurst, Martin Sheen, Nicholas Campbell, Sean Sullivan, Jackie Burroughs, Géza Kovács, Roberta Weiss
Directed by David Cronenberg

Having just finished reading the novel, this re-watch of The Dead Zone was definitely a different experience than when I first saw this many years ago. I was struck by how episodic the book is, without any overt attempts to drive home big themes or large-scale payoffs in the third act. It’s a completely different style of writing compared to anything King had published prior, more character-driven and “small” (especially considering it was King’s novel published directly after The Stand). The movie echoes this structure, except it cuts about half of the book and condenses the rest into a very potent, but still weird and not-so-fluid film. Christopher Walken is a perfect choice for King’s everyman Johnny Smith, and the rest of the cast is well chosen, too. I can’t say that Martin Sheen really represents the Greg Stillson that’s present in the novel, but they changed his character some so it’s not hard to roll with it. It is Martin Sheen after all. As a Cronenberg film, it’s missing his unique, almost avant-garde approach to horror, but his cerebral nature fits well with this specific King tale. Definitely recommended, although I think reading the book first will make the movie a richer experience, as you’ll be able to fill in the blanks caused by the shift in medium, as well as spot the subtle details throughout that recall specific moments or scenes of the book not given their full due in the film version.

Rabid POSTERRabid (1977)
AKA Rage
threehalfstar

Starring Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan, Patricia Gage, Susan Roman, Roger Periard, Lynne Deragon, Terry Schonblum, Victor Désy
Directed by David Cronenberg

Rabid, on the other hand, delivers a healthy dose of sick Cronenberg body horror. Rabid opens with a motorcycle accident near a plastic surgery center, and our heroine’s injuries are too much to sustain travel to a hospital more equipped to deal with her issues. No, she’ll have to go into emergency surgery, and since this place is on the cutting edge of plastic surgery, her burns are repaired via skin grafts of morphogenic skin (which can form itself into any type of body tissue, depending on where it’s grafted). Things go awry — oh, do they! — and while Rabid is definitely too abstract and low-budget for many viewers to get behind, I found it to be riveting entertainment. Marilyn Chambers may be known for her pornographic role in Beyond the Green Door, but her turn here as our skin-grafted lead is fantastic. She definitely could have had a fruitful horror career if the fates had aligned. Rabid also features FX work by Joe Blasco, and while there isn’t a ton of it, what’s here is incredibly effective. I’m being vague because it’s really better to just see Cronenberg and Blasco’s creations for yourself and revel in their fucked-up, “I’m never going to forget that” nature. Definitely seek this one out if you think you’ve seen everything a horror movie can deliver.

the-brood-posterThe Brood (1979)
AKA Chromosome 3

fourstar

Starring Art Hindle, Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Henry Beckman, Nuala Fitzgerald, Cindy Hinds, Susan Hogan, Gary McKeehan, Michael Magee, Robert A. Silverman
Directed by David Cronenberg

The Brood was Cronenberg’s horror follow-up to Rabid (the car movie Fast Company separates them), and it is a film of markedly better quality. Cronenberg’s signature cerebral tone takes center stage right from the opening moments, grabbing hold of your attention in a way that his previous films couldn’t quite manage. Where Shivers and Rabid feel like a good director finding himself in low-budget genre films, The Brood represents the dawn of a fully formed Cronenberg, ready to unleash the full range of his talents on an unsuspecting mainstream audience. The film is a very slow burn during its first half, though, and while it is always interesting I did find myself questioning if it should be classifies as a drama with horror elements instead of straight horror. It was right about at that point in the film when Cronenberg twisted the knife and the film never let up. It’s definitely a horror film! I’m sure some modern audiences would find the premise somewhat laughable or ridiculous, but I found it to be chilling and very psychologically engaging. I’ve slowly warmed up to Cronenberg over the last couple of years, but The Brood firmly cements my place as a big fan. I guarantee you’ve never seen a movie quite like this one!

Mad Max (1979)

mad_max_ver2Starring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Tim Burns, Roger Ward, Lisa Aldenhoven, David Bracks, Bertrand Cadart, David Cameron, Robina Chaffey

Directed by George Miller

Expectations: Vroom!

threehalfstar


Ever since I first watched Mad Max as a teenager, I’ve harbored a serious love for it. The opening chase is probably one of my all-time favorite opening sequences. While going about my day, I will often randomly recall the moment when the car crashes through the trailer and smile to myself; it’s one of those small pieces of film on my mental highlight reel (along with other gems like the head explosion at the beginning of Dawn of the Dead). But even though I watched Mad Max many times during those years, enough to sear this moment into my brain, I went into this re-watch not recalling much of anything specific except that.

Max is a cop for MFP (which does not stand for Mother Fuckers Protectin’ like you might expect), and MFP is one of the last shreds of ordered society left in the world. Max and his few compatriots do their best to enforce the law, but it’s like fighting an ocean wave; it’s coming through you no matter how hard you struggle against it. Chaos is taking hold over Australia, with no remedy in sight. The MFP is a dying breed in a land that has moved on.

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Quick Takes: The Wolf of Wall Street, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Zombie

wolf_1The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
threehalfstar

Starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, P. J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Matthew McConaughey
Directed by Martin Scorsese

In my teenage years, when I getting serious about my film obsession, Martin Scorsese was one of my favorite directors. The years haven’t been too kind to our relationship, though, as Scorsese hasn’t made a single film since Kundun that I’ve flat-out loved. The Wolf of Wall Street still isn’t quite there for me, but it is a finely made film that is incredibly entertaining and watchable even at a full three hours. Most importantly, Scorsese successfully dredges up that exuberant energy that made his earlier films sparkle. Leonardo DiCaprio proves (once again) that he deserves one of those coveted Oscar statues, in one of his best performances yet. But honestly, it was Jonah Hill that surprised me the most. Hill is a surprisingly good actor, I guess “surprisingly” because I always wrote him off as “one of those dudes in modern comedies that I don’t like.” While most of the movie is best described as vapid exuberance, it does end up relating something insightful about the American psyche and the power of money. If you’ve been cold on the last few Scorsese films, The Wolf of Wall Street is the real deal.

Dawn_1Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
twohalfstar

Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer
Directed by Matt Reeves

I liked Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but for me it was a big step down from the first one. A lot less emotionally engaging, and all the human characters were cardboard and boring. The story didn’t really grab me either, although I don’t know what else this movie could’ve been about. It’s a movie about the dawn of the war between apes and men, so you kinda have to show why they’re angry at one another, but I think it could have been far better executed. A good majority of the FX work is outstanding, but alongside the amazing stuff are chimps with faces that look flat and completely fake (such as Caesar’s son). I don’t understand why, because Caesar, Koba, Maurice and a good majority of the other apes all look near-real most of the time. Whatever… apes with machines guns made me smile. And they ride horses! The third movie will likely be a pretty hefty action film, but I’m not going in with great expectations after the so-so showing here by director Matt Reeves (who is also directing the third one).

Zombie_Flesh_eatersZombie [Zombi 2] (1979)
AKA Island of the Flesh-Eaters, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us, Island of the Living Dead

twohalfstar

Starring Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, Auretta Gay, Stefania D’Amario, Olga Karlatos
Directed by Lucio Fulci

Zombie is surprisingly dull for the most part, except when the zombies come around with their muddy, worm-ridden faces. The characters — if you can even call them that — do some really dumbass shit, and the “story” is like a vague premise with dialogue attached to it. It’s seriously not much more than: A woman searches for her father on a strange island where the dead rise from their graves. And the search for Daddy isn’t even that big of a deal, as it’s pretty clear from the first scene what happened to him. The last half hour or so is pure zombie killin’ entertainment, though, and the gore throughout is awesome. Lots of great flesh-rippin’ bites and other gruesome sights, especially the bit where a splintered wood beam pierces through a character’s eye!

Salem’s Lot (1979)

salemslot_1Starring David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres, Julie Cobb, Elisha Cook Jr., George Dzundza, Ed Flanders, Clarissa Kaye-Mason, Geoffrey Lewis, Barney McFadden, Kenneth McMillan, Fred Willard, Marie Windsor, Brad Savage

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Expectations: High. Excited to re-watch this after a decade or so, having just recently re-read the book.

threestar


Salem’s Lot is one of my favorite Stephen King books, so any screen adaptation would have a lot to live up to. Add in that this film was a ’70s TV miniseries, unable to capture King’s penchant for colorful language and mind-searing terror, and you might think that this one hasn’t got a shot in hell of holding up much. But it does hold up (for the most part), so if you’ve been sitting on the sidelines for the last 34 years, give it a shot. 🙂 One warning, though: if you’ve read the book and you remember how things go down, it’s going to be hard not to compare the two versions constantly while watching.

I’m generally against reviews that focus on pointing out why the film version isn’t as good as the book, but for this one it’s going to be hard to hold back. Certain aspects of the adaptation don’t even begin to bring life to the words on the page. Many of the book’s characters are missing completely, and in some cases the ones that survived the cuts absorbed their sub-plots where the screenwriter saw a need to combine. This is an understandable necessity in adapting this type of book and I’m not against many of the specific changes made, but in doing this one of the novel’s central characters feels pushed aside and left out: the town itself.

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