Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 14

Return of Daimajin (1966)
Daimajin gyakushû / Daimajin Strikes Again

Here are some stats: The first “Daimajin” was released in April of 1966. Its sequel came in August. The third and final film, alternatively known as either “Return of Daimajin” or “Daimajin Strikes Again,” was out by December. That’s quite a speedy turn-around time. Anyway, both of the “Daimajin” sequels have a confusing collection of alternate titles. “Return of Daimajin” is the title on the print that I watched. So that’s the title I’m sticking with. To simplify things, in part one Daimajin is in a temple. In part two, he’s on an island. In part three, he’s on top of a mountain. Got it? Good, let’s move on.

So what prompts Daimajin to both return and strike again? A man, missing for some time, returns to his peaceful village just to die. Before expiring, he tells his family that a cruel lord is kidnapping people to work as slaves in his mountain-top fortress, in preparation of going to war with different kingdoms. Determined to save their families, four children set out on a rescue mission. This entails crossing a treacherous mountain, one that is home to the easily enraged stone god, Daimajin. In time, the bravery of the children, and the cruelty of the mountain lord, stirs Daimajin awake, forcing the hideous idol to once again trample the buildings of man.

Let’s get the usual elements out of the way first. What parts of the Daimajin formula does the third film maintain? Once again, a greedy, cruel warlord is kidnapping and torturing innocents from a near-by peaceful kingdom. Instead of crucifying people, the bad guy’s favorite method of torture is dropping disobedient workers into boiling sulfur pits. At least once, a katana is slashed across the back of a rebelling slave. Man, feudal Japan was just rift with evil lords. In a wider sense, “Return of Daimajin” is faithful to the structure laid out in the first two entries. Some greedy asshole is oppressing people until an innocent person’s promise to sacrifice his own life revives Daimajin, at which point the stone god goes on a rampage, destroying the villain’s stronghold and offing the main bad guy in an especially brutal manner. After his anger is satisfied, the stone samurai crosses his clenched fists across his face, his angry ogre scowl replaced with a plain white mask, and the statue disappears in some fashion. (He turns into snow and blows away this time, by the way.) It’s not rocket science, folks.

However, “Return of Daimajin” adds some fun variations to the rules. Instead of following weeping royalty, the main characters are four young kids. This lends the story some youthful energy and makes the movie a grim spin on the kids-on-an-adventure genre. The kids are not especially distinct characters. The oldest boy is hungry and slower then his little brother and sister. The youngest boy is probably the bravest of the lot. There’s some fun elements like the kids arguing about who gets the food, cutting down a tree to cross a small canyon, or firing arrows at the enemy samurais. It’s not a terribly different change but it’s enough to make the third Daimajin movie a little distinct from the previous two.

The film also treats its titular giant monster a little differently too. Usually, Daimajin is an Old Testament style, ultra-moral force of nature, punishing those that are cruel with far more severe cruelty. He’s mostly that here but with one important difference. Like Daiei’s other kaiju franchise, Daimajin has suddenly developed a soft spot for little kids. Though he’s not quite the friend to all children, the idol does send a hawk to watch over the children. At one point, the hawk attacks the soldiers sent to kill the kids. The youngest boy has a strange dream where the hawk is flying over him, before he plunges off the side of the mountain into a snow bank. This mirrors an event later in the film. After one of the kids is lost in a river, two more start to succumb to hypothermia. The lone survivor offers himself to Daimajin and leaps off the cliff. Daimajin, after burying some random bad guys in a landslide, teleports from his mountain temple. Rising up through the snow, he holds the little boy in his hands, rescuing the child. This is a fairly big changes to the character’s established persona. Daimajin is usually less about saving people and more about smiting people.

Not that he doesn’t smite anyone. Oh man, do people get smitten. Daimajin marches up the mountain side towards the bad guy’s base, a snow storm blowing in with him. He pushes down a huge stone wall and gets to work fucking people up. Daimajin overturns buildings, tearing through roofs and walls. He pushes over a tower containing huge vats of sulfur, bathing the samurais in harsh, yellow liquid. He stomps people into the snow and mushes them into walls. Two moments are my favorite. The first is very small. While walking through the work village, Daimajin gets his foot caught on a building and, carelessly, tosses the whole thing aside, wrecking it with ease. I assume this was intentional and continues to show how much like flies we are to a physical god like Daimajin. The second moment is more elaborate. After the main villain and a few of his henchmen flee into a mine, the giant statue reaches down into the caves, grasping about blindly for the men. The giant Daimajin hand the effects team cooked up is a fun special effect. For the big finale, the monster, for the first time in the entire series, pulls his sword. He pins the bad guy to the mountain wall, impaling the man on the comically oversized blade, before dropping his body in the bubbling sulfur pit. As always, the direction and music combines to make a guy in a costume destroying a miniature set far more ominous then you’d expect.

The destruction is slightly less visceral then in the previous films but the story is more engaging then part two’s. The snowy, mountain setting helps further set it apart from the other two entries. The “Daimajin” movie presumably made money for Daiei but it’s interesting that they didn’t continue the series further. On one level, I would have liked to have seen where the series had gone in future installments. Would Daimajin follow the path set by many other kaiju and fight other monsters? That would’ve been cool. On the other hand, the well-worn “Daimajin” formula was already starting to fray after three movies. I can’t imagine it sustaining many more films. Watching all three in such close proximity was probably a mistake, as the similarities really stick out that way. Weirdly, the only attempt to revive the franchise in the modern day was with a live-action television series a few years ago that, thus far, has yet to have a domestic release. I guess that’s all I have to say about the “Daimajin” movies. [7/10]

Ghoulies IV (1994)

Here’s how lucrative the direct-to-video horror market was in 1994: Somehow actually thought it was a good idea to make a “Ghoulies IV.” A series that was never really good in any classical sense of the word had reached its nadir with the dreadful “Ghoulies III.” What more stories could possibly be told with these characters? Enter two key figures. First, Peter Liapis, the leading man from the original “Ghoulies,” returned to the franchise after a ten year break. Secondly, and more importantly, prolific schlock master Jim Wynorski, before he turned his focus primarily to softcore pornography, sat in the director’s chair. Together, they made a film no more coherent then any of the other “Ghoulies” movies but one slightly more entertaining then the last one.

“Ghoulies IV” has multiple plot lines and fully develops few of them. However, I’ll do my best to unpack this one. In the years since the original film, Jonathan Graves has become a cop. He’s also grown some ratty facial hair and seriously buffed up, to the point that you’d be forgiven for not recognizing him. Anyway, he’s a homicide detective in L.A. with a history of Satanic magic, kinky sex, and numerous ex-girlfriends, including his police chief. He investigates a murder and break-in at a warehouse, unaware that the deed was done by his dominatrix ex-girlfriend. That girlfriend, Alexandra, seeks to bring Jonathan’s evil demonic mirror image, known as Faust, over into our physical world. In order to do this, she has to regain a red jewel and sacrifice some people. Also, during one of her numerous rituals, she unleashes two ghoulies. They’re not really that important.

“Ghoulies IV” is, undeniably, a bad movie. But it's the good kind of bad movie, one that is brisk, entertaining, and totally fucking bonkers. When watching this film, you are stepping into a wonky headspace where pretty much anything can happen. The movie begins with a blonde babe in tight leather killing some security guards with a machine gun and ninja throwing stars. From there, we have a shoot-out in a liquor store, a random appearance by Jackie Gleeson and Art Carney impersonators, another shoot-out in another liquor store, and an insane asylum literally run by the inmates. Alexandria mostly communicates with Faust in alley-ways that are fully visible from and open to the streets. While talking to her dark lord, she grabs a random guy off the street, who suddenly sprouts horns, revealing himself to be a demon. One of Jonathan’s fellow officers has her car taken over by Satan, who yells at her from the radio, sends the vehicle on a chase through the streets, causes several spectacular car crashes, before ramming a phone line and exploding. While fighting his possessed partner in the warehouse (Most of the movie takes place in one warehouse or another), Jonathan steps into the pentagram on the floor and suddenly shoots lasers from his hands. Why? You’re asking the wrong questions, bub. What’s important is that it does happen and makes what otherwise would have been a tedious B-movie completely unpredictable and utterly bug-nuts.

Another gonzo joy of “Ghoulies IV” is its hyper-masculine, absurdly macho lead character. Like I said, if he wasn’t played by the same actor and had the same name, there would be no reason for the audience to assume this was the same guy from the first movie. Part one’s Jonathan was skinny and kind of nerdy, the sort of guy you’d expect to become enamored of the dark arts. Part four’s Jonathan has left a string of broken hearts behind him. The entire plot of the movie is motivated by his ex-girlfriend wanting to have sex with him again. The police chief, another ex-girlfriend, constantly says catty things about his current girlfriend, establishing that she’s not over him. That current girlfriend is a part-time hooker who gets kidnapped at the end. (The movie is actually obsessed with prostitution, as several sequences are devoted to a troop of overly attractive street walkers.) All these woman drooling over Jonathan is in sharp relief to his actual behavior. He’s a recovering drunk with a bad habit of falling asleep mid-sentence. Every other word that comes out of his mouth is about how much pussy he gets. Every other, other word is him flatly explaining the plot. Peter Liapis, by the way, looks like a high school gym coach in this. Not the kind of guy you’d expect to have a history of evil sorcery and an obsession with sadomasochistic sex. Peter Liapis didn’t write the movie but the whole thing comes off like his mid-life crisis anyway. Which is, of course, absolutely hilarious.

And then there’s the Ghoulies themselves, which are easily the least important part of the film. They honestly contribute nothing to the plot which situates “Ghoulies IV” as basically a Ghoulies movie in-name-only. Instead of being played by complex puppets, the ghoulies are played by dwarfs in crude demon suits. Tony Cox is the black one and Arturo Gil is the white one. They are literally credited as “Dark Ghoulie” and “Light Ghoulie.” The actors dub over crude dialogue while the lips on their masks barely move. What do the Ghoulies do? They hide out in garbage cans, beat up the Asian repair man, eat pizza, look at porno magazines, and spray deodorant on their tongues. They play a brief role in the finale, accidentally shoot a hole in the roof of Jonathan’s cop car, and rescue a woman from a mugger at one point. The characters are afterthoughts in their own movie. Naturally, actually focusing on the Ghoulies would have distracted from the badass adventures of Officer Jonathan Graves.

The finale has the bad guys being blown backwards through a portal to the afterlife. This is illustrated by the actors walking through digital portals which were (barely) animated over the scene. This is a good example of the old-fashion, B-movie hilarity contained within “Ghoulies IV.” This is the perfect sort of movie for friends to gather around, drink beer, and make fun of. It’s not long, clocking in at 84 minutes which includes a very long end credits sequences. It’s not slow paced, as something ridiculous is happening nearly every minute of its run time. The acting is bad, the effects are bad, and the story is ridiculous. Moreover, the movie is seemingly unaware of its own badness and ends with the titular monsters promising “Ghoulies IV: Part 2.” Perfect. Check it out. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: King of the Road

The last of the recycled “Two-Fisted Tales” segments, “King of the Road” was directed by Film Thoughts favorite Todd Holland. It also features probably the biggest actor to ever show up on “Tales from the Crypt,” future world-wide superstar Brad Pitt. Character actor Raymond J. Barry stars as Joe Garrett, a cop and father. Secretly, Joe was a champion street racer when he was young but has been running from that past since killing a rival racer. That past comes rushing back when a young punk named Billy shows up, demanding a race. When Joe says no, Billy seduces his daughter, kidnaps her, and forces Joe behind the wheel of a dragster one last time.

“Tales from the Crypt” usually works in archetypes and “King of the Road” is no different. How much you enjoy the episode probably depends on whether or not you have a built-in affection for those archetypes. I, myself, have a soft spot for carsploitation flicks, stories of old professionals being challenged by new-comers, and father/daughter stories. So I enjoy “King of the Road” a lot. The race scenes are exciting, though too short. Warren Zevon, of all people, contributed some great original songs, “Bad Road” and “Roll with the Punches.” Frustratingly, only the latter has ever been given an official release. Raymond J. Barry is good as the strong, silent Joe. Brad Pitt hams it up nicely as the psychotic Billy while Michelle Bronson strikes the right balance of “fun” and “you want to protect her” needed for the role of the daughter. Tom Holland’s direction captures the sleazy, nostalgic tone necessary for this sort of story. I can understand why the “Two-Fisted Tales” derived episodes aren’t well regarded by “Crypt” fans. They each have wildly different tones then you’d expect from the show, causing them to all stick out badly. Yet, taken on their own, the stories are solid and add some variety to the series. [8/10]

So Weird: Shelter

“Shelter” probably has one of the odder “So Werid” premises. Fiona’s opening monologue talks about what mad scientists would be up to in the modern world, if they took on typical doctoral jobs. While taking the family cat to the local vet, Fiona crosses the path of a dreamy young guy. That guy mysteriously vanishes. After returning the next day, Fiona snoops around and discovers that the mad veterinarian is turning her customers into dogs. After Fi gets changed into a cute little puppy, she has to escape and get herself changed back before her new canine mind overwhelms her original human mind.

Because of its strange story, “Shelter” is another episode of “So Weird” that doesn’t feature much of Cara DeLizia. Oh, Fiona is central to the story but Cara is off-screen for most of the episode. The episode is mostly composed of footage of dogs wandering around and being adorable while the actors’ voices play overhead. The voice-over performances are fairly silly but I do enjoy the insight into the canine minds. The dogs are awfully good actors, as far as canine goes, with highly expressive faces and body language. The episode gets a decent amount of tension out of the characters loosing their humanity to their newly installed canine personalities. The revelation late in the episode that the mad scientist is also turning dogs into people pushes the episode to a whole other level of silliness. I’d admire that the show acknowledges that dog-to-human transformations would feature a lot of accidental nudity though. That seems realistic. I wish the episode explored the implication that people really would be happier as simple-minded dogs more. The actors are as appealing as ever but “Shelter” has a seriously goofy script. [6/10]

Stan Lee the Skeleton guards the warty pumpkins.

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

Well, I choose to call this one "Daimajin Strikes Again".

The Majin is back for the final time, taking revenge on a evil warlord who has enslaved the father of a little boy. The boy recruits a few of his friends and together they journey to rescue his father. This was likely aimed at a younger audience and lacks some of the cruelty found in the earlier films.

The boys fend off a series of attacks from the warlord's soldiers, but their escapes are a bit hard to believe. The appearance of the Majin is the least satisfying of the series and everything is a bit more magical and child-friendly. The sets and scenery (fake or real) are beautiful.

This is without doubt the least interesting movie of the series but it still puts a bow on a slow-moving but entertaining trilogy. (4/10)