Monday, February 24, 2014

Movie Monday: Beast of the Yellow Night

Can you escape...the Beast of the Yellow Night?
A few Movie Mondays ago, I ran a review of Black Mama, White Mama, directed by the absurdly prolific Eddie Romero. I had wanted to see some more of his C-grade stuff (relative to BM,WM), but his movies are fairly hard to find for rental. So I was happy when I saw that his 1971 opus, Beast of the Yellow Night, is available in full on YouTube!
The film opens in WWII, when a soldier named Langdon, having deserted his outfit, lies near death in the jungle, starving. He is met by the Devil(!), who offers to save his life in return for his soul. The dying man makes the deal. Flash forward to the 1970s, and Langdon's soul is now inside the body of another man, named Phillip, who has somehow recovered from a horrific accident. His wife Julia (the comely Mary Wilcox) and his brother (Ken Metcalfe) are amazed that Phillip is still alive, and uneasily watch as he returns to his life.

Following a psychedelic sex scene (full of both male and female nudity), we see Langdon talking with Satan (Vic Diaz), and it's clear over the years these two have become quite acquainted with one another. Langdon is used to doing Satan's work, but he starts to rebel now that he's possessed Phillip, who apparently wasn't a bad guy and has friends and family who care for him.

As a way to control his wayward charge, Satan has Langdon turn into the beast, who kinda looks like a cut-rate version of The Beast, the X-Man:
The Beast kills a random passerby on the street, tearing his guts out and munching on them (which which get to see in full, if brief, display). He sees himself in a plate glass window and, disgusted, runs off.

Later, Philip returns to normal, and starts to get it on with Julia again. But just as things get hot and heavy, Philip feels the transformation hit and shoves her out of the room. He then hits the streets, looking for more victims to kill. After fighting off a group of teens, the Beast is befriended by a blind man (Andres Centenera) who doesn't give the creature wine and bread but he could have.

The blind man seems to know the truth about Philip, meanwhile the police start to investigate all the murders, and think he has something to do with it. Racked with guilt, Langdon begs Satan to kill him and free him from this eternal life of servitude, but Satan (who appears in many guises) is having none of it. He is eventually caught by the police, and the locals want to get their hands on Langdon and perform a public lynching (at least, I assume so, this scene is entirely in Filipino with no subtitles).

Unfortunately, it's at this point that Beast of the Yellow Night gets unbearably talky. Sure, the effects are bargain basement, but this is a Z-grade monster movie, so let's see the monster killing people! Instead we get the blind man talking with Langdon, Langdon talking with Julia, Langdon talking with Satan, and the police talking amongst themselves about who the murderer really is. C'mon already Romero, make with the chicken parts smothered in fake blood!
While Philip and Julia make love again (say what you want about her, but Julia is one fun gal), the transformation starts again and our titular hero(?) runs off into the night, getting into a scrape with the police. For some reason, instead of ripping into them, the Beast slugs all the cops with roundhouses and uppercuts.

Langdon and the blind man try to sneak out of town, only to be stopped by a military unit. In the chaos trying to escape, the blind man is shot, causing Langdon to Hulk Out and go on a rampage:
This final sequence is probably the most impressive (if that word can be used at all), because it's clear that all the punching, snarling, and neck-eating is going on in the middle of a real fire, which could not have been comfortable (or safe!) to shoot.

I won't get into the details of the ending (though I can't imagine too many of you out there actually watching this movie), suffice it to say that Romero does save the best for last: there's a genuine, Lon Chaney, Jr.-like special effects shot employed. And while it's not well done, well, you know, yellow point for trying!

The most curious stylistic choice of Beast of Yellow Night is the casting of Satan. When we first see him, he's hardly a terrifying figure:
As played by Vic Diaz, Satan is kind of a big ol' jerk, as opposed to some scary Master of Lies. But I guess Romero only had so much money to spend, so he decided to go subtle with all the Satan scenes, and make the guy as bland and ordinary as his surroundings. Which kinda makes sense, if you think about it.

So let's be honest: Beast of the Yellow Night is an ultra low-budget, mostly poorly acted, ridiculous piece of genre nonsense. But, I dunno, I didn't hate it. Romero has a certain Ed Wood-ian ambition that I sort of admire, even if his reach exceeds his grasp by a Filipino mile.

P.S. I have no idea what the "Yellow Night" stuff was about. It is neither mentioned or referenced in really any way. I guess it was just another trick by Satan!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Movie Monday: Summer of '42

Have you ever had...a Summer of '42?
I had heard of this movie a long time, and was familiar with the tagline, but never knew what it meant. Then I happened to watch the trailer for the film a few weeks ago, and realized what the film was about. I was instantly intrigued.
For the uninitiated, Summer of '42 is a 1971 film set in, yes, 1942, on a Nantucket Island. It stars Gary Grimes as Hermie, who spends his days with his two pals Oscy (Jerry Hauser) and Benjie (Oliver Conant) wasting time on long Summer days. They walk the beach, see movies, and try and put the moves on girls. Related to that, they also try and learn about sex, since, as they are teenage boys, that is pretty much all that's on their minds.
Here, the boys have smuggled a medical book about reproduction out of the vacation house Hermie and his family (who are never seen) are renting, and are fascinated--and a little terrified--but what they read.

Right away, we realize that Hermie is a little more thoughtful, a little more mature, than his two pals. He's interested in girls all right, but his tastes run a little different: instead of the teenage bikini clad girls on the beach, he has a major crush on an older woman who is renting a cabin with her husband just down the beach. The guys tease him about it ("She's old--she must be twenty!"), but he doesn't care. He only has eyes for this vision of beauty to whom he has never spoken.

After the woman's husband ships off to war, Hermie's pals dare him to talk to the woman as she sunbathes. It almost happens, but then they ruin it by yelling embarrassing things at their friend ("Watch out, he's a rapist!") and Hermie takes off. But an opportunity arises when he sees the woman trying to lug too many bags of groceries home from the store, so Hermie offers to help, and the woman--Dorothy (Jennifer O'Neil)--takes him up on it:
Hermie is terrified of this woman--she's sweet and friendly, but also an adult and undeniably gorgeous. Dorothy is charmed by this kid (who orders his coffee black so as to appear more manly, and then is repulsed by the taste), and she asks him to come by the house and move some stuff in her attic. He obliges, and finds himself almost unable to handle how sexually alluring this woman is. 

Hermie keeps running into Dorothy, doing little jobs for her, as well as in town when he and Oscy are on a double date with some girls their own age. After the movie the foursome goes to the beach, and all Oscy wants to do is get laid. Hermie is alone with his girl, but really can't think of anything else but Dorothy.

Time passes, and one late afternoon Hermie goes to visit Dorothy. He finds a letter from the War Department, saying that her husband has been killed in action. He finds Dorothy, alone and in tears. He comforts her, which turns more intimate, until she leads Hermie to the bedroom and they make love.

The next morning, Dorothy awakes and wanders out of the bedroom, onto the porch, staring off at the sea. Hermie puts his clothes back on, says goodbye, and walks off, but not before stopping to look back at her: 
The next day, Hermie and Oscy talk, but all Oscy wants to do is talk about getting laid again. Hermie says nothing, finally wandering back to Dorothy's house. He finds it empty, with a note for him on the door. It's from Dorothy, who says she had to go back to her life, and she hopes that someday Hermie will be able to understand what happened, and what that night meant. Via voice over from the adult Hermie, we learn that he never saw or heard from Dorothy again, and realizes what was left behind after that Summer of '42.

Most movies, when dealing with male sexuality, are immature in the extreme. Don't get me wrong; when I was a kid I enjoyed those stupid R-rated sex comedies that ran on cable as much as the next guy. But you really don't see measured, thoughtful examinations of this subject very much. And Summer of '42 has scenes like that--when Hermie goes to buy condoms, it feels barely more mature than that sequence from Amazon Women on the Moon.

Author and screenwriter Herman Raucher based this story on a real life experience. In a case of a creative person not knowing what they had, Raucher thought the main focus of the story was Hermie and his friends, not Hermie and Dorothy (when he later adapted the screenplay into a book, he beefed up that aspect of the piece). But he was wrong--as I watched the movie, I could not have cared less about Hermie's goofball friends, as the scenes with him and Dorothy are the film: lock, stock, and barrel.

That said, I was surprised how little interaction Dorothy and Hermie had in the film; they barely know each other before their big night, which undercuts a bit of the emotional resonance. And while the sex scene itself (which runs about five minutes, with no music behind it) is handled well, the scenes immediately following it have a darker cast than I expected: Dorothy immediately seems sorry it happened, which makes the whole thing seem sad.

One scene that is spot-on perfect is with Hermie and Oscy the morning after--as Oscy drones on about his teenaged concerns, Hermie keeps silently staring at the horizon. The film lets the whole scene play out uninterrupted, keeping focus on Hermie. He can't quite explain it, to himself or to anyone else, but something is unalterably Different now. Summer of '42 captures that feeling of confusion, excitement, and terror quite well.

Raucher, when promoting the film, went on The Mike Douglas Show, and revealed that he got a letter from the real Dorothy following the movie's release. She was a grandmother, having been happily remarried for many years. She said that she had been worried that their night together had been traumatic for him, and was relieved to see he had dealt with it. He never heard from her again.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Movie Monday: Storm Warning

Have you ever thought to yourself "Hey, I'm a fan of former President Ronald Reagan. I'm a fan of Doris Day. And I'm also a fan of the Klu Klux Klan. Is there a movie that features all of these things?" Well, the answer is yes, and that movie would be the 1951 Warner Bros. film noir Storm Warning!
Storm Warning opens on a young(ish) woman named Marsha Mitchell, a traveling dress model(?) who via bus stops in a small Southern town of Rockpoint to visit her younger sister Lucy (Doris Day).

Right from the get-go, we know there's something up with this town: in the background, you can't help but notice a couple of the locals seem to be staring at Marsha (and her friend, who is continuing on the bus trip), but saying nothing. They're friendly enough, but something is just a
Marsha notices right away things are strange here: all the businesses seem to close up shop in the middle of the evening, and a man who seems to be a cab driver pretends not to be, turning her down when she inquires about getting a ride further into town.

A short time later, Marsha is walking down a dark street when she hears a commotion coming from the police station:
This hooded gang kicks and beats a man, who manages to get up and run away. But then he is shot in the back by the Klan, which causes him to collapse and die right in front of Marsha. As the Klan approaches, she hides in an alley and sees a couple of the ringleaders without their hoods on.

Marsha makes her way to the bowling alley where her sister works. They talk, and Marsha relates the events of what she just saw to Lucy. Lucy suggests the slain man was a reporter who came to town, undercover, with the goal of revealing the Klan's existence in Rockport. They head back to Lucy's house, where Marsha meets her new brother-in-law, Hank (Steve Cochran)...who was one of the Klansmen Marsha saw committing the murder!
As Marsha and Lucy deal with their drama, a Federal prosecutor named Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) arrives, wanting to investigate the murder. As you might imagine, the town is less than thrilled to have the guv'mint poking around in their bidness, and everyone seems to clam up, hoping to stop the investigation in its tracks.

Now, I will say, when I first saw the trailer for this movie (more on that in a moment), I thought Storm Warning looked like gangbusters: what an unusual cast, and a very unusual subject matter, shot through the film noir filter of 1950s Warner Bros. How is this movie not more famous?

And indeed, the movie's opening scenes are wonderfully creepy and evocative: right away, you know something's wrong with this supposedly friendly small town, and when Marsha's friend gets back on the bus, leaving her behind, you get a real sense of menace. I'm a sucker for "Nightmare Town"-esque stories, so I was really excited to see where this went after Marsha sees the Klan commit murder, right there in the open.

Unfortunately, it's right at that point that Storm Warning takes its exciting grabber of a premise...and then doesn't do a whole lot with it. One of the more confusing elements is that the whole racist part of the Klan's existence (which is to say, all of it) is completely eliminated: in fact, I don't think you see a single non-white person in the film. The Klan here seems more like the Mob, running the town by force, or an overzealous gang of vigilantes. 

Also, the cast here seems out of place: Ronald Reagan is way too laid back as a hard-driving District Attorney, who is literally putting his life at risk by showing up in this town. (There is a line that made me laugh, in light of Reagan's later political career and philosophy: when a local tells Rainey they don't like the Feds snooping around, Rainey says something to the effect of "Well, if you could keep things under control locally, then the Federal Government wouldn't have to get involved"). Additionally, Ginger Rogers and Doris Day just seem too white bread to be involved in this potentially dark, grimy story of murder. There's way too many scenes of them arguing (Lucy doesn't want to believe what her sister says about her husband, of course) and that stuff feels like its from a typical Hollywood melodrama.

Storm Warning is a case where the film might have been better as a "B" picture, with a cast more adept this kind of material: replace Ronald Reagan, Ginger Rogers, and Doris Day with Sterling Hayden, Ida Lupino, and Marie Windsor, and then maybe you would have had something.

As I mentioned above, the thing that got me excited about this movie was the trailer, which is awesome. Take a look:

Monday, February 3, 2014

Movie Monday: The Hand

No one can escape...The Hand!
Actually, you'd think it'd pretty easy to escape a hand because...after all, it is just a hand! But as we'll see, that's not always the case:
The Hand is a 1981 horror film directed by Oliver Stone(!) starring Michael Caine (in what he himself described as "a money job") as a writer/artist who produces a successful adventure newspaper strip called Mandro, a Prince Valiant/Conan hybrid. Over the opening credits, we see Jon Lansdale (Caine) hard at work on the newest installment:
Jon is married to Anne (Andrea Marcovicci), and they have a young daughter, but it doesn't take long to see that they're not happy. Anne wants to move to New York but Jon is content to stay in Vermont. While on a drive, they bicker over this, which quickly escalates into a full-on argument. Anne, thrown by Jon's yelling and an impatient driver behind them, veers off into the opposite lane, just as a garbage truck is coming!

She tries to swerve, and mostly does, except Jon's outstretched hand gets smashed by the truck, shooting blood in every direction:
As you might imagine, this doesn't make things better between them. To make matters worse, Jon has lost his drawing hand, which leads to his agent suggesting he partner up with another artist to continue Mandro. Jon goes to New York to meet the guy (played by Roger Rabbit himself, Charles Fleischer), but Jon is so rude that the whole arrangement collapses and the agent fires Jon off his own strip.

Right around this time, we see that Jon's Right Hand Hand, last seen in a field, has come alive and has started to move around on its own. It finds its way to New York where it kills a bum (played by Stone), and starts to show up in other plays, both literally and figuratively. 
Is this really happening? Has The Hand come alive and started killing people? Or is this all in Jon's mind?

As the movie crawls along, The Hand seems to suggest one version, then another, then flips back again in a final scene that feels like it comes from another movie entirely. Anyone up for The Hand 2: The Fingering?

Michael Caine's performance is trashy fun; he seems like an extremely angry guy right from the get go (he is a comic artist, after all), and he gets to a lot of patented Michael Caine Stuttering Angry Thing, when you can almost feel the walls of the set shake from the sheer volume. He also lets himself look scrungier as the movie plods along; by the end with his hair shooting in all directions he reminded me of Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.

Overall, I'd say The Hand makes for a pretty solid psychological thriller, but at some point it was decided to make it more of a classic horror movie and that's when all the silliness shows up. Oliver Stone realized someone being strangled by a dismembered hand looks pretty goofy, so he keeps the lighting dark, allowing us only little glimpses of the people as they fight for their lives against The Hand. Stone of course would move onto more prestigious projects, while Caine would face other horrible movie monsters in his film career, like Jaws the Shark, killer bees, and Steven Seagal.

Fun Fact: All the shots of the Mandro comic strip were drawn by comic book legend Barry Windsor Smith!

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