Fritz Lang’s five-hour hallucinatory epic take on mythic tale Die Nibelungen is available now from Masters of Cinema (Eureka) in a spectacular new HD restoration DVD or Blu-ray set.
On the eve of its 20th anniversary, one of the most popular animé films of the early 90s finally reached UK cinemas, ahead of an HD release on Blu-ray. Ninja Scroll was originally released in the West on the back of the success of Akira, as both US and UK distributors fell over themselves looking for the next big Japanese animated film that could cash in on the success of the cyberpunk classic, while ignoring for another decade the non-violent, but superlative work of Studio Ghibli.
The film suffers from the excesses that gave much contemporaneous animé a bad name. These include pans over still images to save the animators some time, as well as the more unsavoury scenes of rape, excessive female nudity, ultra-violence and the ubiquitous tentacled monsters. But none of these elements should be a surprise, as the director also animated more egregious examples in the form of his Wicked City pair of films (ôôjû toshi, 1987) and Monster City (Makaitoshi Shinjuku, 1988). However, in Ninja Scroll at least, these elements are offset by some beautiful renderings of landscapes, weather and the costumes of feudal Japan. The film’s bookends are also excellent: a surprisingly subtle fight scene on a bridge and a climactic battle on a burning ship full of molten gold.
That the film excels more in individual compositions than overall direction and storytelling is indicative of the fact that the director worked better as an animator on other people’s projects, rather than his own, most notably on one of the finest examples of the medium, Rintaro’s Metropolis (Metoroporisu, 2001) and the Satoshi Kon/Katsuhiro Ôtomo anthology Memories (Memorîzu, 1995).
While not based on manga like many of its contemporaries, the story in Ninja Scroll is still episodic to the extent of feeling like video-game plotting. The lead character – a wandering ronin called Kibagami Jubei – goes on various missions: retrieving gold, protecting the weak from being beaten and subjugated, and fighting a variety of creatures that transform from human personas into monsters. Some of these seem overfamiliar, such as those with the aforementioned tentacles, but others are terrific hybrids of man and nature, including a swarm of hornets that live within a hunchback’s vertebrae and demons that transform into rocks and shadows. Reminiscent of American super-villains, these characters and the rendering of rain and snow suggest the director also looked to the West for inspiration, to heroes and villains in Marvel Comics, as well as the then recently started Sin City comic by Frank Miller. Indeed, Kawajiri would look to Miller for inspiration again in his 2003 The Animatrix samurai episode ‘Program’.
Elsewhere, the inspiration is purely Japanese, with the wandering ninja relocated from a series of novels by Futaro Yamada, and placed in front of compositions reminiscent of paintings by Hokusai. This cultural mash-up is entertaining and often memorable, and the legions of adolescent males who have watched the film over the last generation ensured a thematic sequel in 1997’s Ninja Resurrection (Makai Tensho: Jigoku-hen), a spin-off TV series in 2003, and an official sequel in pre-production.
However, the rape scene, which borders on cannibalism and necrophilia, leaves a bad taste in the mouth (no pun intended), and one wonders if the BBFC actually made the right decision in 1995 when they originally cut it from the film. The other 93 minutes are a reasonable introduction to the genre for gamers and animé fans, who would be well advised to follow this with the superior animé series Samurai Champloo (Samurai chanpurû, 2004–05). However, for those seeking the best ninja/samurai action on screen, there are dozens of live action movies either directed by Akira Kurosawa or based on manga by Kazuo Koike that are much better films than Ninja Scroll.
Despite the best efforts of writer, actor and director Paul Wegener, the Golem has never quite achieved the status it deserves, lagging behind the vampires (F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, 1922), insane scientists (Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920) and disfigured fiends (Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera, 1925) that occupy the ‘first tier’ of silent movie monsters. Inspired equally by Hebrew mythology and 19th-century literature, Wegener’s 1920 classic Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (‘The Golem, and how he came into the world’), is the last of three Golem films he starred in, and the only one to survive. Like many of the iconic films of silent cinema, Der Golem has appeared in a variety of running times and print qualities, but restored and remastered versions are readily available.
Der Golem begins in 16th-century Prague, in the Jewish ghetto, where the Rabbi Loew foretells disaster for the Jewish people. Sure enough, the emperor announces that the Jews are to be driven from their homes. In order to protect his people the Rabbi creates the Golem, a stone being reanimated by the demon Astaroth. The Rabbi takes the Golem to the imperial court, where the assembled company are suitably impressed. After the creature prevents the palace roof from falling on their heads, the emperor agrees to let the Jews remain in their homes. Unfortunately the Golem is later possessed by Astaroth, who allows it to rampage through the streets of Prague, burning and destroying.
Although he co-directed Der Golem with Carl Boese, Wegener’s most important contribution to the film is his performance as the Golem itself. Despite portraying a creature made of stone, he manages to create a surprising level of emotional expression, primarily through his eyes. A victim of man’s weaknesses, the Golem is the archetype for all subsequent tragic creatures, most obviously Boris Karloff’s monster in James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931). After Wegener’s Golem, architect Hans Poelzig’s set design is the star of the film; his portrayal of the sprawling Prague ghetto is nothing short of incredible. A riot of lopsided angles and bizarre shapes, it’s one of the finest cinematic cityscapes ever created.
Like a great deal of Der Golem, Poelzig’s designs have been tremendously influential. Edgar G. Ulmer’s surreal horror-noir The Black Cat (1934) appropriated both the architect’s images and his name for Boris Karloff’s satanic villain, Hjalmar Poelzig. It has sometimes been claimed that Ulmer worked on Der Golem – often by the man himself – either as a set builder under Poelzig or as a cameraman under visionary cinematographer Karl Freund, but corroboration for such assertions is scant. Already one of the most sought-after cinematographers in Europe, Freund would later work on Fritz Lang’s science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927), as well as several of F.W. Murnau’s greatest films. After moving to Hollywood in 1929 Freund shot Tod Browning’s genre classic Dracula (1931), before directing The Mummy (1932), a sombre mood piece that has much in common with Wegener and Boese’s Der Golem.
Periodically, news surfaces of a possible remake of the story of the Golem – Italian special effects maestro Sergio Stivaletti has often said he would love to direct a new version – but so far nothing has become of such rumours.
There are few films that fit the title of ‘cult favourite’ better than Eugenio Martín’s Horror Express (1972). Despite being one of the best Spanish horror films of the 1970s, Horror Express didn’t make much of a splash in the domestic market, but even today cult fans recognise it for what it is: a colourful, fast-paced monster movie filled with oddball characters and equally loopy plot twists.
Most of the action takes place on the Trans-Siberian Railway as it hurtles across the Siberian tundra from Peking to Eastern Europe. Among the passengers are two British scientists, Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee), an archaeologist, and biologist Dr Wells, played by Peter Cushing. Others travelling on the train include a Polish nobleman (George Rigaud), his beautiful young wife (Silvia Tortosa), and their unstable, Rasputin-like priest (Alberto de Mendoza); a Spanish engineer; a Russian detective (Julio Peña), and a woman later revealed to be an international spy (Helga Liné). Saxton is travelling with several crates containing the finds from his latest expedition, including the frozen corpse of a primitive humanoid, believed to be millions of years old. Before the train has even left the station the curious properties of the thing in the crate have begun to emerge; after attempting to open the box, a Chinese thief is found dead on the platform, with his eyes completely white. Later that night a hairy, bestial hand emerges from the crate, finds a rusty nail and expertly picks the lock. Before long there is a mounting pile of corpses on the train, and all with the same white eyes. Dr Wells performs autopsies and discovers another bizarre symptom: the victims’ brains are entirely smooth, leading the doctor to conjecture that they have been drained of memory and learning. Whatever is loose on the train is not simply killing, it’s also accumulating the knowledge and experience of all its victims.
As you might guess from the two main stars, Horror Express draws much of its inspiration from the Gothic horror tales of Hammer, but Martín and his scriptwriters can at least be commended for not repeating the usual Cushing/good vs. Lee/evil set-up. In many ways Saxton is a typical Lee character: proud, aristocratic and distinctly unlikeable, the opposite of Cushing’s good-humoured Dr Wells. Despite this, Horror Express does give Lee a chance to flex his heroic muscles – something he rarely did with Hammer – as he leads the fight against the prehistoric monster and rescues the damsels in distress. Saxton might be an insufferable snob, but he does at least manage to save the day. Further references to Hammer’s films are dotted throughout Horror Express, whether it’s the prehistoric beasts of Val Guest’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), the disastrous archaeological expeditions of Terence Fisher’s The Mummy (1959) or the sensationalist pseudo-history of Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Naturally, no true Hammer tribute would be complete without Peter Cushing opening at least one skull with a saw and chisel, and sure enough, there’s one here too. There’s also plenty of Hammer-style pseudo-science: ‘The creature’s visual memory resides in the eye, not the brain!’
Such knowing references might well appear lazy and derivative in a lesser work, but in Horror Express – a film that displays its influences openly – they contribute to its considerable charms. A key factor in this is a witty and original script that treads comfortably between humour and horror, without undermining either of them. It’s a claim that’s often made and rarely warranted, but there really isn’t another film like Horror Express. At first it’s a fairly standard creature feature, with the victims locked in an enclosed space with an ancient monster, but before long the bizarre plot developments start to appear. [SPOILER ALERT] The primitive primate is not the creature itself, it’s just a body the being inhabits – and it can move bodies too, along with a few other abilities that make killing it a bit more difficult. The heroes’ task is complicated by human factors too, including the increasingly unstable priest who comes to believe that the monster is a being of divine origin. Fed up with pandering to the ‘spiritual needs’ of the nobility, he decides to offer himself to the diabolic creature and tries to stop Saxton and Wells from killing it. Even more troublesome is the presence of Captain Kazan, an army officer played with enthusiasm by Telly Savalas. Sent to deal with the problems on the train, Kazan believes it’s all the work of agitators or anarchists, and his solution involves whipping or beating anyone whose face doesn’t fit. Naturally the Count and Countess are spared this treatment and allowed to return to their carriage. [END OF SPOILERS] If there’s a subtext to Horror Express, it concerns the insulation of the Count and his wife. Appropriate surrogates for Generalissimo Franco, still in power at the time, they sit in luxurious and comfortable surroundings while their servants brutalize anyone they please with impunity.
As well as Cushing and Lee, Horror Express features a number of well-known faces from the European horror scene. Seasoned gialli stars Alberto De Mendoza and George Rigaud both appeared in Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969) and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) together, as well as a handful of Sergio Martino films separately. German-born actress Helga Liné is much the same, having racked up an impressive number of genre credits, including Amando de Ossorio’s When the Screaming Stops (1976). Before his death in 1972, Julio Peña had been a mainstay of Spanish cinema, appearing in almost 100 films since the 1930s. Although Horror Express is one of her few genre credits, Silvia Tortosa is still a popular TV star. Special mention much go to Telly Savalas, whose flamboyant, over-the-top performance as the thuggish vodka-drinking Captain Kazan is one of the film’s most memorable aspects, even though Savalas is only on screen for about 15 minutes. Whether it’s entirely appropriate is up to the individual viewer, but Kazan’s sudden appearance kicks the film into high gear and brings in the energetic final act as Saxton and Wells make one last attempt to save the passengers and destroy the monster.
Although it doesn’t play fair by bringing some new monstrous abilities for the climax, such left-field plot developments are comparatively commonplace in Spanish horror films of the 1960s and 70s. Thankfully Martín and his two leading men have the sense to approach the film’s increasingly loopy narrative entirely straight, aware that even a hint of irony or condescension could have a disastrous effect on a movie like this. The finished result is an atmospheric, original and very entertaining film, and one of Spanish horror cinema’s best works. Ironically enough, it’s also the kind of film that British studios were finding it increasingly difficult to produce. Hammer’s most recent efforts were not inspiring: Dracula A.D. 1972 was a misbegotten attempt to bring Dracula into the 20th century, while the promising Vampire Circus (1972) was hampered by rewrites and post-production difficulties. Similar problems afflicted Amicus, the producer of endless anthologies of short horror films. In comparison with Horror Express, the 1970s output of both Hammer and Amicus looks somewhat pale indeed. Jorge Grau’s excellent The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) is another Spanish horror film that makes far better use of its English locations than most British directors could.
Brandon Cronenberg hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to distance himself from his father’s work here. His first feature has weird medical practices and perverse ideas aplenty. In a world where the hysteria surrounding celebrities has spawned a number of spin-off industries well beyond the racks of gossip magazines, you can buy pounds of lab-grown celebrity meat, celebrity skin grafts, and, in the clinic where Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works, get yourself infected with genetically modified exclusive celebrity diseases. Syd’s an effective salesman, trusted in the company, but he’s got a little dirty business on the side, infecting himself with the valuable maladies and passing them on to his underground contacts. Unfortunately, one of the new infections proves to be far more virulent than he expects, and he finds himself a seriously sick and seriously desirable man, with criminal and legitimate interests vying to exploit the strange new superstar virus coursing through his veins. As Malcolm McDowell informs him, ‘I’m afraid you’ve become involved in something sinister’.
If we must make comparisons with his dad’s oeuvre, and, y’know, it’s begging for it, then Antiviral continues in the vein of the 80s Scanners/Brood/Videodrome period, though it lacks their pulpy forward momentum and energy, and takes a while to get going. What it does have is a well thought through look of gleaming white surfaces and strange technology, a lot of woozy discomfiting camerawork and a fantastic sound design that pulses and throbs menacingly, combining to create a queasy subjective experience. Cronenjunior sets out to make you unwell watching his film, and has succeeded admirably: it builds into something truly troubling. He’s aided hugely by the extraordinary-looking Caleb Landry Jones, pale of skin and red of hair, who adds flesh and blood to an intentionally blank and unknowable lead, stripped entirely of past and personal clutter. Good stuff, very promising, though I’d steer well clear if you have a thing about needles – and don’t expect a McDonalds tie-in campaign…..