ć€§è›‡çŽ‹ / King of Snake (1984)

King of Snake coverAfter producing a few fantasy efforts like Tsu Hong Wu and Monster From the Sea in the decade prior, the middle 1980s saw the Taiwanese film industry make one more go at that particular brand of giant monster cinema indigenous to the Japanese islands. With Toho in the midst of their own daikaiju resurrection at the time the genre may have seemed a safe bet to producers, but 1984’s King of Snake doesn’t look to have made much of an impact either domestically or internationally, where a pair of VHS releases in Japan (where the film’s SFX production generated some small interest) are the sum total of its reach. Like any number of cheaply licensable features from Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and elsewhere, King of Snake was swallowed up by Joseph Lai’s infamous IFD and regurgitated in cinemas and on video, in this case as 1988’s inept gweilo epic Thunder of Gigantic Serpent.

Oddly enough, it’s as the foundation for Thunder of Gigantic Serpent that King of Snake has gained the most notoriety, with its more or less competent giant monster effects providing a bizarre counterpoint to Thunder‘s bottom dollar action scenes. Beyond Thunder‘s modest cult reach King of Snake has remained rather obscure, and not without good reason. King‘s off-balance blend of giant monster rampage, children’s fantasy, and violent mob action have effectively left it a film without an audience, at once too grim for the young and too childish for the old – pity the poor souls tasked with advertising it when new.

Penned by Yiu Hing-Hong (Bruce Lee Against Supermen), King of Snake begins with a successful test of the new R19 process (a big plexiglass box with some wires in it), whose developer (Danny Lee!) hopes to put it towards ending global hunger. The military has its own ideas however, and the General overseeing the project (Paul Chang Chung, The Fast Fists) quickly shifts the project towards militarization. The lead scientist resigns in outrage, while the other researchers begin using the R19 process to make everyday things gigantic – something that’s bound to go well for everyone in the end. Unfortunately for all involved the mob has its eye on the R19 project as well, and soon a gaggle of hitmen descend upon the research lab in an attempt to snatch the device for themselves. A firefight ensues and most of the lab staff are killed, but the R19 device is successfully kept out of mob hands.

All is not well, however. The R19 box quickly finds its way to the curious Ting Ting (a very young Tracy Su Hiu-Lun, You and Me), a girl whose best friend is an intelligent, head-nodding rat snake. Ting Ting decides the box will make the perfect home for her slithery little buddy Mosler, and is even more thrilled when it balloons the critter into a beast a dozen or so feet long. The monster Mosler helps Ting Ting win in competitions against the local boys and even saves her from a burning building, but mob goons on the hunt for the R19 soon come a-knockin’. After beating up Ting Ting’s parents (nothing says “children’s entertainment” like seeing your dad with a gun in his mouth!) and kidnapping the girl the mob sets an electrified trap for the incensed Mosler, but all doesn’t go to plan. The current causes Mosler to grow positively tremendous, and soon the Godzilla-scale snake is trampling everything in its path in pursuit of its beloved Ting Ting…

Mosler and his giant monster antics are easily King of Snake‘s most commendable feature, and offer plenty of reasonable miniature and composite effects shots for those SFX traditionalists out there who are looking for a quick fix. King‘s distinct tokusatsu feel arrives courtesy of effects supervisor YAJIMA Nobuo, a soon-to-be Toei effects director who had been working on television and film projects for the company since the 1960s (including planning on SATO Hajime’s unrealized monster project Devil Manta). While his work here is hardly tops for his career, it’s generally not bad. Say what you will for Mosler himself, but his rampage arrives with plenty of explosive glitz and some decent miniature construction besides, with only an ill-advised model train being truly embarrassing. Less encouraging is King of Snake‘s reliance on stock footage at a few key points, where cropped footage from Gorath and scope material from Tidal Wave and Mothra (this film is native 1.85:1) is crudely incorporated. The climactic jet assault on Mosler is limited by this issue as well, as Yajima’s perfectly competent miniature effects are needlessly fluffed with incongruous scope footage of tanks firing.

While the SFX aspect of King of Snake is fun enough, it takes up far too small a chunk of the running time. The rest is devoted to the film’s bland scramble of plot, which splits its time pretty evenly between dull romantic walk-abouts, mob violence, and Ting Ting’s home life before devolving into extended scenes of the kidnapped girl repeatedly calling out to her serpentine savior. All those plaintive cries of, “Mosler! Mosler!” aside it’s really not that bad. It’s just neither engaging or amusing, which leaves King of Snake feeling a pretty tiresome slog whenever its eponymous star isn’t smashing into something.

And that, I imagine, is a big reason why King of Snake has remained so obscure in the nearly 30 years since it was made – aside from the monster kicks there’s really not much entertainment value here. It almost pains me to say this about the awful retrofit granted it by Joseph Lai’s IFD, but it’s loads more fun, presenting all the neat monster stuff as-made while replacing much of the mob drama with dreadful, hysterical white-guy crime drama all its own. Thunder of Gigantic Serpent is a great time for those with a taste for such things, but King of Snake is pretty “meh” regardless. At least the score is kind of interesting, though not for any legitimate reason. True to form for so many Taiwanese films of the time, King of Snake appropriates music from all over the place, including Once Upon a Time in the West, Big Trouble in Little China, and even Gerry Anderson’s UFO!

King of Snake has no official domestic video release, and the long out-of-print WOO Video VHS tape remains the best quality presentation of it around. That tape arrives with no English option and hardcoded Japanese subtitles, but presents the film at its intended 1.85:1 in a decent video transfer. A later edition from AVA Nippon is more common, but seems to suffer from some generational degradation in comparison to the WOO Video. Those interested in either should keep an eye out on Yahoo Auctions Japan. The WOO Video edition goes under the titleÂ ć€§è›‡çŽ‹: HONG KONG掩棊たćșæ›Č (King of Snake: Overture of Hong Kong’s Collapse), while the AVA Nippon has it renamedÂ ć€§è›‡ć€§æˆŠ (Python Wars). The source transfer is the same for each (only the video-generated title before the show is different), and the images above are taken from the WOO Video edition. A cropped and English subtitled version from a far worse source is shared below, for those crazies among you who don’t want to spend your time and money tracking down 25 year old Japanese video tapes. In this case I really can’t blame you.

Violet & Daisy (2011)

violet-and-daisy-posterViolet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are silly teenagers (or in Violet’s case a young woman using a not quite age-appropriate teenage persona to protect herself from things she and the film can’t speak about directly) and best friends. Or really rather “only friends”, for they are both too weird for the general populace. Together, they don’t fight crime but work as professional killers. They’re the sort of professional killers whose thoughts after the rent are pop stars and dresses, though.

Their latest hit develops a curious dynamic. It isn’t, after all, every day that a hit person’s victim reacts to finding two armed girls asleep on his couch by putting a blanket over them, nor are offers of cookies day-to-day experiences in the killing business. Of course, their victim (James Gandolfini) is rather atypical in that he actually wants to die and has therefor done his best to piss the leaders of two independent criminal organizations off to get his death wish fulfilled. Our heroines are not quite prepared for this kind of situation, and soon a peculiar sort of friendship develops between them – in particular the more classically sane Daisy, who really only ever became a killer to be with Violet – and their prospective victim, with unexpected and expected expressions of humanity.

To complicate matters, there are also the number one killer of Violet’s and Daisy’s organization (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the killing troupe of the other gang, and the kind of lies you tell people because you love them to cope with.

At first, Geoffrey Fletcher’s Violet & Daisy seems to be another movie in the never ending line of would-be Tarantino gangster movies, the kind of film Tarantino hasn’t been making for a long time, or ever, and the kind of film his imitators generally painfully not succeed at making anyhow. The longer the film goes on, though, the clearer it becomes that Fletcher isn’t really making one of those films at all but something much more interesting and individual.

Violet & Daisy does share some of the surface aspects of the semi-Tarantino genre but the film’s emotional core and the direction of its intelligence are both completely different from that horrible non-genre. And not just because of its protagonists’ prolonged teenage-hood, but because Fletcher’s main interest seems to lie in examining the way in which people, young women like Violet and Daisy as well as older men like Gandolfini’s Michael, can grow sideways and crooked, yet still deserve some basic human compassion. The film doesn’t believe that compassion then magically fixes everything but it does believe in it making things better, even if an act of compassion is as twisted as the one Michael provides for Daisy in the end.

I was at first rather uncomfortable with the way the film’s portrayal of its female main characters, with horrible Clueless clichĂ©s about teenage girls hanging in the air, but here, too, things became more clear and more interesting the longer the film went on. Fletcher is neither out to reduce the two to the clichĂ©s they at first seem to be, nor does it look down on them. Turns out a girl can be a professional killer for dresses and still be a complex character; it’s as if Fletcher had actually met teenage girls.

One of the film’s tricks to achieve its obvious goal of complexity and ambiguity is playing with audience expectations. The best example for this is the casting the 30-year-old Bledel not as we’d (ironically) expect – and some typically dense IMDB reviews even complain about – out of painful movie experience as an actual teenager, but as a woman who acts like a teenager to keep things in her past at bay the film can only ever hint at or show in a metaphorical dream sequence, because the character just can’t articulate them. And yes, this is the sort of film willing to be ambiguous enough to just tell (or not tell, depending on your perspective) its audience something important about one of its main characters via a metaphorical dream sequence.

It being a rather black comedy, Violet & Daisy very often happens to be not just surprisingly profound and emotionally complicated but also to be very funny. The interplay between Gandolfini, Ronan and Bledel really sells practically every joke in the movie, with no moment played too broadly. The trio is just as good in the film’s more serious moments (though this is the kind of film where the humour is part of the serious business too, and vice versa, so it’s rather difficult to keep them apart), playing off each other beautifully in ways that feel natural in a film little interested in realism but very much in feeling emotionally and philosophically real. They’re so great together it’s rather unfair to single one of them out, but I have to say, if Saoirse Ronan is this great at selling complexity in a role a lesser actress could have turned into a mere caricature when she isn’t even twenty yet, what kind of performances will she be able to give in ten years?

So, if you’re in the market for a non-naturalistic film about growing up, compassion, and bloody violent murder, Violet & Daisy will be for you. I’d even recommend it if you’re not.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

The Outfit (1973)

At just about the same time when professional robber Earle Macklin (Robert Duvall) is released from jail, his brother Eddie is murdered by killers working for the Outfit (the artists formerly known as The Syndicate). Turns out a bank Earle, Eddie and their partner Cody (Joe Don Baker) robbed belonged to the Outfit, and when there’s one thing you don’t do, it’s stealing from them, at least if you ask Outfit boss Mailer (Robert Ryan).

Eddie’s not the only one Mailer wants to see dead, but hits on Earle and Cody fail. Once he understands what’s going on, Earle decides the best way to stay alive is to go on the offense. From now on he, sort of joined by his girlfriend Bett (Karen Black), and a bit later on by Cody, robs every Outfit establishment he can find. They’re pretty easy marks, too, for the unspoken “don’t touch the Outfit” rule among professional criminals has led to rather lax security measures in the organizations’ establishments.

Mailer could make his new problem go away peacefully if his organization would only be willing to pay Macklin $250,000, and leave him in peace afterwards. Not surprisingly, that’s not a deal he’s willing to make; instead he intensifies his attempts killing Earle and Cody, until they see no choice but to come after him. Not that this wasn’t their preferred outcome all along, given their actions.

The Outfit is an adaptation of one of Donald E. Westlake’s/Richard Stark’s Parker novels (one of my favourites in the series to boot), and as always one that does star Parker neither in name nor character. As far as I know, that’s because Westlake didn’t want the Parker name used unless an actor agreed to an actual series of films, which sounds rather like avoiding finding more readers for one’s books to me, but then I’m not the pulp-y paperback writing master here.

Duvall’s Macklin is nearly as ruthless as the character he’s based on, but clearly still has more regular human feelings than the empathy-less sociopath Parker. Consequently – and wouldn’t Parker just love this as proof for his usual thesis that emotions are bad for his business anyhow? – Macklin may be nearly as brutal as Parker but does tend to sometimes let his emotions get in the way of his planning abilities. He even has actual feelings for Bett beyond her use as an object to relieve his sex drive with.

Of course, it is much easier for a viewer to relate to Macklin than to a more closely adapted Parker. Emotional shorthand does, after all, work better with characters that do have emotions their audience can relate to; and once we can relate to something on that level, we do tend to excuse little things like mass robberies and a lot of dead bodies much easier. Duvall as an actor is at the height of his powers here, providing just enough glimpses of the emotional intensity and rage working under Macklin’s cold and professional surface.

I also appreciate how Flynn attempts to provide a somewhat more sympathetic view of women here than you’d ever find in a Stark novel, obviously having caught up with the scientific news that women are actual human beings, just like men; early on in the film I even dared hope he’d give Karen Black’s Bett just as much room for development as his male characters. That hope, alas, isn’t really fulfilled, despite Black’s – an actress I love but not for anything that has anything to do with subtlety – surprisingly subtle performance. In the end, The Outfit trades Stark’s borderline misogyny for that common clichĂ© of the female character having to die to motivate the male lead to his climactic violent act. However, Flynn does go through these motions at least with a bit more interest in Bett than typical, and really, compared to Stark’s treatment of women in the books, he’s golden.

It’s also difficult for me to mind this flaw much in a film that does nearly everything else right. I love how Flynn’s script adapts the novel, leaving most of its set pieces intact while imagining a different, more human character like Macklin (without two novels before as the set-up for certain scenes) going through them. A lot stays as it is in the novel, yet there are little shifts in meaning and emphasis that aren’t just caused by the necessity of filmic language; they are also products of a director with a slightly different philosophy than Stark’s, replacing cynicism that at least borders on nihilism with the laconic, strangely sympathetic fatalism so typical of US crime movies of the era. In The Outfit and other movies like it, everybody is a sinner and everybody is most probably doomed, but there’s still room for small, defiant gestures of humanity, even if these gestures are violent and morally dubious.

This – to my European eyes – very particularly American way of looking at the world of the early 70s takes place before a background of unspectacular ugliness: a brown world of mud, dark bars, motel rooms and houses that look as if they could crash down on the characters any minute now. The Outfit‘s USA is a place far from small town romance or the supposed sexiness of the big city – not that we ever get to see anything that looks like you’d imagine the Big City (Flynn retools a short dialogue between Parker/Macklin and Handy/Cody about the shittiness of cities quite wonderfully in that regard). Obviously, the American Dream is not impervious to mud.

Flynn is also just a great director of semi-realistic action sequences. Everybody, their amount of professionalism in the cause of violence notwithstanding, is somewhat awkward in these scenes, and even when clearly used to the violence they are committing, still caught up in the little failures and stumbles that come with the chaos surrounding them. Despite the conscious decision to use awkwardness and the sudden chaos of real-world violence, Flynn also manages to keep the action exciting and tight. This way, whatever else one may look for and find in The Outfit, it’s also a great, exciting 70s crime film.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

The Squeeze

Not to be confused with the surprising number of other films called The Squeeze.

Former Scotland Yard inspector Jim Naboth (Stacy Keach) has just gotten out of what clearly wasn’t the first rehab stay after a drunken binge, taken his first drink again, and returned home to his two kids who inexplicably are still in his custody, when he learns from her second husband Foreman (Edward Fox) that his ex-wife Jill (Carol White) and her and Foreman’s little daughter Christine (Alison Portes) have disappeared.

Both have been kidnapped by Keith (David Hemmings) and other henchmen of Irish would-be upper class gangster Vic (Stephen Boyd) to use them to blackmail Foreman. Foreman, you see, is a owns a bank (I think, he may also just own the security business), and Vic and his men are planning to use him to get into one of his security vans that should be loaded with about a million pound sterling, which is nothing to sneeze at by late 70s standards.

Accompanied by his thief friend Teddy (Freddie Starr) – who attempts to keep the ex-cop sober and out of trouble with particular enthusiasm – Naboth drunkenly stumbles through the seedy parts of London looking for Jill and Christine. Naboth’s always just one step from one kind of humiliation or the other, but also a surprisingly effective investigator when the alcohol haze gets a bit thinner.

If you ask me, then Michael Apted’s The Squeeze is one of the unsung greats of British crime cinema of the 70s. It’s not quite on the level of Get Carter or The Long Good Friday, but not quite being one of the best films of its era and genre doesn’t mean it’s not pretty fantastic.

At this point in his career, before a curious and rough Hollywood career that contains a Bond movie and Oscar-baiting melodramas, Apted had predominantly worked for British television with quite a few TV movies under his belt, and one can’t help but suspect that he enjoyed going all out with the grime and the violence for the cinema for The Squeeze. Stylistically, Apted’s film opts for grainy hyper-realism, showing London as a cesspool of ugliness and poverty that is from time to time lit up by acts of random human kindness. There’s a lot of nervy hand camera work (that still is steadier than most of the footage you’d find in a POV horror film from our decade), grain, and locations of a particular shade of grey – with a bit of cheaply garish colour from time to time – on display that make the mood of seediness particularly thick. On the other hand, Apted doesn’t lay it on too thick: The Squeeze is a film taking place in locations that are ugly and quite unpleasant yet still feel believably lived in.

It seems like a somewhat curious casting decision to find someone as American as Stacy Keach playing a former London copper, and Keach’s ropy accent that seems to come and go as it pleases sure doesn’t help there, but once you’ve watched Keach’s performance here for a quarter of an hour or so, you start to ignore the accent, and become impressed by the raw truthfulness of Keach’s performance. The actor is clearly channeling some of his own experiences here, and portrays Naboth’s vulnerability, his loss of dignity, his lack of responsibility in all their ugliness without ever turning him into a caricature. Paradoxically, Keach’s portrayal of Naboth’s lack of dignity is so strong it effectively returns that dignity to the character.

The rest of the cast is equally strong, particularly comedian Freddie Starr in a not at all comical role, and Carol White going through some of the film’s theoretically most exploitative moments and turning them into the exact opposite.

There is – obviously – a strong gay undercurrent in the relationship between Starr’s Teddy and Keach’s Naboth (just look at the scenes of Teddy interrupting Keach and his nurse girlfriend during sex), yet the film resists either turning Teddy into a tragic gay or making fun of him. I read this as a deeply ingrained respect for human difference you don’t generally expect to find in a violent crime movie, or at least as an expression of the film’s disinterest in judging its characters.

That unwillingness of judging characters for anything is particularly interesting and uncommon in a film that pulls as few punches as The Squeeze does. This is a film where violence is inelegant, undignified, and disgusting, and that doesn’t flinch from showing even a seemingly sane gangster like Hemmings’ Keith having no trouble at all being cruel to children, pressing a woman into a forced striptease with following rape (or at least non-consensual sex, depending on your interpretation of the word), nor with anything else that helps him keep his feeling of control. Consequently, the “bad guys” should be really easy to hate, but Apted’s direction doesn’t seem interested at all in making the audience hate them or anyone else, really. At the same time, Apted clearly has just as little interest in wallowing in the characters’ base actions as he in excusing them. He shows them but he sure as hell does neither enjoy them nor want his audience to (and the film’s main sympathies in these scenes are always with the victims). It’s just that not showing the disgusting details would be dishonest, and The Squeeze is a film all about being truthful to its audience, at least as far as it understands the truth.

At the same time, Apted also avoids the feeling of nihilism that could very easily follow this approach. There’s too much compassion in every shot and every scene of The Squeeze to call it a nihilist film.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?