Monday, January 14, 2008

Dark Pasts, Dark Futures

8. There is a certain shock of recognition found in watching Shinobi no mono (1962, directed by Satsuo Yamamoto), because many of its ninja set pieces were swiped wholesale by screenwriter Roald Dahl for You Only Live Twice. I found myself saying, "Hey, wait a minute..." quite often. The copious program notes confirm the influence (both films share the same advisor on all things ninja, too). Beyond that, this film is a labyrinthine historical piece in which two rival ninja clans are manipulated by their ruling masters against the rise of the warlord Oda Nobunaga. Caught in the middle is ninja prodigy Ishikawa Goemon, who, through his inability to keep it in his pants finds himself an outcast under the secret direction of the master of his clan. This film has tons of plot--too much plot for one movie, probably--perhaps because almost all of the principle characters are actual historical figures and perhaps because the screenwriter had all sorts of interesting extrapolations to the historical record. Goemon (historically a Robin Hood figure) is played by the excellent Raizo Ichikawa, a matinee idol who died much too young. Other familiar character actors litter the movie, including Yunosuke Ito playing yet another scowling old man and Tomisaburo Wakayama as Nobunaga. I hope Animeigo picks up the movies that follow this one in series.

9. and 10. Witchfinder General (1968, directed by Michael Reeves) is such a bitter little pill that it's no wonder that its director committed suicide shortly after it was made. The film finds Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a self-styled witch hunter scouring the English countryside for witches with his not so faithful assistant, for a price. In opposition is soldier Ian Oglivy, who vows to kill Hopkins after Hopkins hangs his mentor and rapes his wife. The whole thing comes to a brutally nihilistic end. There's a strong theme of generational strife in this film--a product of its time, no doubt--and it would make an interesting double-bill with Blood on Satan's Claw (1971, directed by Piers Haggard), which is the opposite side of the same coin. That film posits its young people as truly in league with the devil, demonizes Britain's pre-Christian past, and impales Satan himself on the end of a holy avenger sword in the hands of its witch hunter. It's almost as if the makers of this film were pursuing a reactionary answer to Reeves's film. Both films make superb atmospheric use of the English countryside, keeping the eye entertained even when there's nothing important happening on screen.

11. Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1986) is awfully funny, but its humor is leavened with such strong graphic violence that audiences can be forgiven for not laughing at it, I guess. That was my experience when I first saw it back in the day. I was the only person in the theater laughing. Some of the people near me gave me funny looks. Part Kafka, part Philip K. Dick, and part Dirty Harry, this remains the director's most satisfying work in English. He's helped by a committed lead performance by Peter Weller, by stellar character work by Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox, Dan O'Herlihy, et al., by superb design work by make-up man Rob Bottin and stop-motion artist Phil Tippett, and by Basil Poledouris's riveting score.

12. I originally saw The Terminator (1984, directed by James Cameron) the night it opened. Jesus, that was 24 years ago. I saw it with some high school buddies, and none of us had high expectations. My buddies mainly wanted to see action, and I can't say that I didn't want the same, but I knew that this was made by the guy who made Piranha II: The Spawning, which I had endured a few months before on cable, so I just prayed that it wouldn't suck too much. I mean, really, a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (fresh from Conan the Destroyer) as a killer robot? I think that all of us came out of the movie looking like we had been hit in the forehead by a two by four. This is a movie that laid the lumber to the audience like no other film in the marketplace at the time. It was unrelenting. I can even pinpoint the spot where I knew the movie was going to kick my ass: the scene where the terminator pops his eyeball out with an X-acto knife, revealing the electronic eye behind it.

In any event, I hadn't seen the movie in over a decade. Some perspective creeps in with time. One thing that is immediately apparent in retrospect is how much the "look" of the film is in line with other sci fi exploitation films from the same period. It looks very similar to Escape from New York or Galaxy of Terror, and, of course, there's a reason for this. This look was more or less authored by Jim Cameron when he was working as a special effects man. The other thing that I noticed about the movie was how bad the performances by its principles are. Both Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are servicable and both of them are blown off the screen by Schwarzenegger, in spite of the fact that Arnold has a mere 16 lines of dialogue (the film is arguably stolen by two cameos: the redoubtable Dick Miller as a gun shop owner and Bill Paxton as a punk). It's also apparent that much of the film's forward motion is the result of creative editing, rather than elaborate set-pieces, a nod to the paucity of resources available to the filmmakers.

The arc of the movie's plot has the most in common with slasher movies: we have an unstoppable killer rampaging through the cast until we are left with only the final girl to confront him. There's even a hint of the moral universe of the slasher movie when Sarah Connor's slutty roommate and her boyfriend are killed by the terminator. Thematically, however, the movie most resembles Frankenstein, which Isaac Asimov once described as the story of a robot that turns on its creator. From a purely cinematic point of view, the lumbering injured terminator at the end of the movie recalls the Monster from the old Universal Frankensteins (especially Son of Frankenstein), and the electrical effects throughout the movie should be a dead giveaway. To an extent, this is the living end of the Frankenstein story, in which our creation and our hubris brings about a heavy metal apocalypse. And this, more than any other element of the movie, is what strikes a chord.


No comments: