Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Peter Straub, John Irvin’s Ghost Story (1981) follows four elderly men (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and John Houseman) who have formed a private club to tell each other creepy tales.
Released for the first time in the UK by Second Sound, Ghost Story is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.
More information on Hannah Jenkins can be found at here.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Cooper
UK, Canada 1990
Philip Ridley’s acclaimed tale of childhood, vampires and the prairie is as beautiful and menacing as ever.
Marking its long-overdue return with a handsome 25th anniversary restoration, this oft-overlooked oddity from multimedia artist, playwright and filmmaker Philip Ridley has lost none of its surreal power. Although it disappeared into obscurity after picking up 11 awards during its international film festival run, this welcome re-issue of the cult favourite suggests a healthy revival could be nigh.
A quarter century on, the film looks magnificent (Dick Pope’s exterior photography is exquisite), while tonally it feels as deliriously offbeat and unpredictable as ever, fusing together as it does elements of David Lynch, Guy Maddin and Edward Hopper. Its director described it as a ‘mythical’ look at childhood, and the young Jeremy Cooper anchors the neo-Gothic nightmare effectively as the imaginative and increasingly desperate Seth Dove, whose nearest and dearest are floundering around him in ever-more sinister circumstances.
The adults are a mixed bag of damaged souls. Mum is a gibbering wreck, while Dove’s father is a hopeless, blubbering oddball who buries his head in comic books about vampires. Only Dove’s brother (Viggo Mortensen, in an early screen performance), returning from military service in the Pacific, offers any real sense of hope, even when veering wildly between attentive and caustic. A local English widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) nicely reflects the boy’s lively imagination and inherent fears, while a mysterious gang of local thugs in a black Cadillac add to the unknown menace. There is clearly foul play at work.
The film oscillates almost brashly between the inexplicable and the overt, while leaving much to question. None of the characters are really adequately explored – they appear to be a motley crew of misfits, left fending for themselves in the glistening prairies of 1950s America – yet there is a world of depravity just beneath the surface of this corn-pickin’ facade.
Even with the current crop of offbeat narratives inching towards mainstream cinema, it’s hard to imagine a film like this being green-lit today. At its core lies a sombre, foreboding tale of neglect and retribution, with little sense of hope as our young protagonist inevitably faces the consequences of his actions (and those around him). The Reflecting Skin is both strikingly bleak and beautiful, near-riveting in its relentless pursuit of the dark and horrific, and a rare and unusual work that deserves its place among similar, better-known fare in the genre.
The re-issue features a remastered print, a director’s commentary, two documentaries about the film, plus a collection of Ridley’s shorts.
Cast: Kurt Raab, Jeff Roden, Margit Christensen, Ingrid Craven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Produced by R.W. Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel’s take on real-life serial killer Fritz Haarmann is restrained and stylised.
On paper, Tenderness of the Wolves (1973) is an unlikely project, to say the least. The film was produced by legendary German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but bears little similarity to his powerful and astutely observed social dramas; it’s certainly difficult to imagine Fassbinder tackling the story of a prolific German serial killer in one of his own films. It was obviously a very personal project for long-standing Fassbinder associate Kurt Raab, who wrote the script and starred as the vampiric, cannibalistic killer. Another Fassbinder contact took the director’s chair: Ulli Lommel, later known in cult circles as the director of the supernatural slasher flick The Boogey Man (1980).
In the wake of World War Two, Fritz Haarmann lives out a comfortable existence, thanks to a campaign of petty crime: fraud, theft, black-market racketeering. He’s a convicted homosexual with a long rap sheet (homosexuality was illegal in Germany at the time), but the overworked and understaffed police turn a blind eye to his activities because Haarmann is a valuable informant. Haarmann himself exploits his police connections by regularly ‘patrolling’ the local train station, which feeds into his secret career as a brutal serial killer who preys on young men and boys, many of them drifters who take shelter at the station. After each kill, Haarmann always has plenty of fresh meat to sell to his friends and neighbours, and give as presents to his police friends.
Despite the grim subject matter, Tenderness of the Wolves is relatively restrained. Although violent and bloody scenes do feature in the film’s final third, for much of its length it focuses on a stylized representation of Haarmann’s life and his interaction with others. While it’s clear that he is killing people, the acts are not depicted, just the initial meeting and the subsequent distribution of ‘meat’. This is not without interest, but it does rob much of the film of any tension or suspense, leaving Tenderness of the Wolves left to survive mainly on Kurt Raab’s distant, slightly otherworldly performance. Raab is consistently excellent as the shaven-headed monster, but like the film as a whole, he seems to move at a deliberate and stately pace, as if forced to figure out his every move in advance, step by step. How much enjoyment you derive from the film is largely dependent on your tolerance for its slow pacing, but Tenderness of the Wolves is not without its rewards.
Director Ulli Lommel has had a varied career, to say the least. Born into a showbusiness family, Lommel’s father was a prominent stage comedian who appeared in a number of films in the 1920s and 30s. Like his sister, Lommel took to stage early in life. In the mid-60s he formed a friendship with then-theatrical director Fassbinder. When Fassbinder began moving towards cinema, Lommel went with him, first as an actor, then as a scriptwriter and director. By the late 1970s he had moved to New York and become associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, eventually directing films, including Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and Blank Generation (1980), both of which featured Warhol himself. They also brought him into contact with actress Suzanna Love, a wealthy heiress that Lommel would later marry. Lommel and Love made a series of low-budget horror films together, including The Boogey Man, psycho-thriller Olivia (1983) and witchcraft revenge story The Devonsville Terror (1983), all of which are quirky, interesting takes on standard genre frameworks. From there Lommel directed a series of increasingly dull, anonymous action flicks and TV movies. He resurfaced in the 21st century with a string of zero-budget zombie and slasher movies, most of which showed absolutely no evidence of the talent and ability that Lommel’s earlier films demonstrated.
Watch the Arrow Video Story to Tenderness of the Wolves:
Original title:Pusong wazak: isa na naming kwento ng pag-ibig sa pagitan ng puta at criminal
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Elena Kazan, Nathalia Acevedo
Philippines, Germany 2014
Khavn de la Cruz’s Filipino musical noir compensates for its lack of plot with oodles of style.
At its worst, Ruined Heart feels like what happens when an ‘edgy’ fashion shoot gets out of hand, gets bitten by a radioactive DJ set and mutates into something less than a movie. It doesn’t have a story as such. After some rockin’ black and white tattoos-on-a-dead-guy titles we are introduced to some archetypes: the Whore, the Criminal, the Friend, the Pianist, the Godfather. Everything after that is a series of rambling tableaux, set mostly in the crowded streets and covered markets of a nameless town (or towns) in the Philippines. Loosely, the Criminal falls for the Whore, the Whore gets killed by the Godfather, the Criminal takes up the gun, it doesn’t end well. But even this simple narrative is chopped and screwed. There’s no real dialogue, though occasionally characters utter poetic and lyrical profundities; instead we have an ultra-cool soundtrack playing over street celebrations and fights and fireworks and car rides and killings and parties and orgies and a lot of scenes of the Criminal and the Whore running and walking and dancing and fucking and falling in love. The imagery is occasionally upsetting and obscene, often repetitive and mystifying.
That said, the cinematography is by Chris Doyle, so it looks amazing and feels energised and rackety and fluid. Asano Tadanobu (Criminal) and Nathalia Acevedo (Whore) are both photogenic as hell and fun to watch, and the eclectic hip jukebox score is a blast. So while the film often tries the viewers’ patience it also delivers up sublime moments where it all clicks into place and you’re grinning from ear to ear as the characters dance, in a decidedly unchoreographed fashion, to ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ by John Holt, or ‘She Said’ by Hasil Adkins. It tests Godard’s maxim that ‘all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl’ to breaking point, delivering both less and more than most would expect from a night at the picturehouse. We get dazzling imagery and fine musical moments by the skipload, and moments of that elusive beast ‘pure cinema’, but a decided deficit of anything else to chew on. It’s an exercise in style over, well, pretty much everything, but it’s a buzzy, seductive style nonetheless.
Much credit should go to Brezel Goring of Stereo Total, who created the bulk of the soundtrack, with mentions for contributions from Grauzone and the Flippin’ Soul Stompers, who play live on screen. Khavn De La Cruz wrote, directed and produced, I’d cast a wary eye out for the rest of his work, but I’d definitely accept an invite to any party he’s hosting.
Cast: Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco, Mary Jane Higby, Doris Roberts
Leonard Kastle’s brutal, gritty take on the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ is a masterwork of ugly desperation.
A lonely and bitter nurse, Martha (Shirley Stoler) lives alone with her unstable mother in Mobile, Alabama. She is friendless, apart from her conspiratorial neighbour, Bunny (Doris Roberts), who makes less-than-subtle comments about her weight, especially as Martha gorges on a bag of pretzels after a tortuous day at the hospital. So Bunny mischievously signs her up to a lonely hearts club, and sets in motion a chain of events, described in The Honeymoon Killers’s title card, as ‘…incredibly shocking… perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime’. Based on the true story of the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’, Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, the only film ever made by Leonard Kastle (who was actually a composer) is a gripping, original crime drama, a low-budget cult classic.
When Martha receives her first letter from Ray (Tony Lo Bianco), the audience is given a glimpse at his game – he writes her from a desk full of framed photographs of other women. Ray is a con man who seduces then fleeces desperate women, going so far as marriage (one woman pays Ray to marry her to disguise a pregnancy – the myth that sex before marriage is clearly a sin with severe consequences runs through the film like a joke). Martha, at first, is no different than his other marks – but somehow she clings on to him, becoming a part of his scheme, masquerading as a sister who never leaves his side, even when they travel to meet his various women. Although Martha wants in on the cash, she’s far from a willing accomplice. She’s jealous, possessive and insistent that Frank never touch the others, even going so far as to sleep in the same bedroom as the other lonely hearts; it’s his violation of Martha’s rules that eventually leads to murder.
Shot in stark black and white – often gleamingly bright, in contrast to the usual noir aesthetic linked to such torrid stories – it’s a documentary-style film, but laced through with dark, erotically charged undertones, captured by the cinematographer Oliver Wood in some terrific moments. In a scene when Ray first comes to visit Martha, celebrated with a sad little party, the camera films him from behind as he dances in front of her, his hips at her eye level, as he sways suggestively to the sounds of tropical music – for Martha, he’s irresistible. Though the film is rarely explicit, sex is at its beating heart; after the first, explicit killing, Ray strips off all his clothes, the camera again following him from behind as he enters Martha’s bedroom, linking the pleasures of violence with sex.
Shirley Stoler perfectly captures Martha’s unhappiness and desperation. She’s an ugly person, shrill, irrational and brutal. Lo Bianco’s Ray is the perfect (if stereotypical) Latin lover; his is perhaps the more nuanced performance of the two. In fact, the film is peopled with unpleasant characters, hinting at an ugly world full of sad, pathetic people (this cynicism is compounded when the killers bury two religious icons alongside one of their victims). It’s only Ray’s final lonely heart who is kind, attractive and caring – and too much for Martha, who’d rather she and Frank were in jail than see him sleep with another woman – which is, of course, the final outcome of their killing spree. Martha and Ray were executed in Sing Sing in 1951.
Watch the Arrow Video Story for The Honeymoon Killers:
Kijû Yoshida’s 1960s masterwork on free love and radical politics finally comes to Blu-ray/DVD.
A monumental work of late 60s Japanese cinema, Kijû (also known as Yoshishige) Yoshida’s Eros + Massacre has been rather difficult to view for several years, decades even, its reputation largely kept alive after serving as the title for David Desser’s pioneering book on Japanese New Wave Cinema published in the 1980s. Now, the film finally arrives on DVD and Blu-ray via Arrow as part of their Kijû Yoshida Love + Anarchism’ limited edition box-set, in both its original theatrical cut (the version under review here) and Yoshida’s rarely seen director’s cut, with around 50 minutes of restored footage previously removed for legal reasons.
Even in its shorter form, Eros + Massacre is a deeply challenging and sprawling work that unfurls with gusto over the best part of three hours. The film is split between two connected narratives, one a biography-of-sorts centred on famed Taishô-era polygamous anarchist Sakae Ôsugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), and the other a contemporary storyline concerning two university students, Eiko and Wada, as they research Ôsugi’s philosophies on radicalism and free love. Things start to get interesting as the time periods appear to converge, with characters from the 1910s/20s strand – including Ôsugi and the three women that he simultaneously romances (including Yoshida’s wife, actress Mariko Okada) – being fleetingly transposed without explanation to late 60s Tokyo, as if them being discussed by the students had the ability to literally bring past into present. Eiko even gets the opportunity to interview one of the women at one point.
The relationship between historical fact and present speculation as well as the relationship between Ôsugi and his women begin to blur, and confusion is further fuelled (in the theatrical version at least) by the sheer volume of scenes excised at the behest of politician Ichiko Kamichika, who had been romantically linked to Ôsugi and was the inspiration for one of the film’s characters (although her name was changed). In the director’s cut, the balance between past and present segments is heavily skewed towards the former, with the 60s scenes acting more as a framing device rather than a storyline of equal weight. In the theatrical cut, there is a greater sense of equilibrium but on the flipside this also creates a split in dramatic focus.
But the one constant between the two versions is that Yoshida insists that you do your homework, making the film less accessible to those not familiar with the historical context or its reference to contemporary Japanese counterculture. Something that can be enjoyed by all, however, is the film’s ravishing and often indulgent style, with Yoshida making full use of his scoped monochrome framing by regularly trapping his actors in the corners and edges of shots, slicing up their bodies or eye lines in interesting ways, or isolating them within doorways or window openings. Symbolism is also rife, leading to sublime imagery such as an extreme wide shot of the 1920s characters traversing along a seemingly abandoned modern Tokyo motorway, the use of reflections – in mirrors, water etc. – to instigate transitions between the two time periods, and the 60s students re-enacting the deaths of famous martyrs – most notably Jesus on the cross.
Like many films from the Japanese New Wave, Eros + Massacre requires a certain degree of awareness of the socio-political concerns of the time for full comprehension, but the rewards are massive for those willing to put in the work; not to mention that it’s exquisitely presented and, in spite of its difficulties, perhaps still stands as Japan’s quintessential arthouse film. Yoshida would continue his intersecting of the themes of political and romantic radicalism in his loosely related follow-up works Heroic Purgatory (1971) and Coup d’état (1973), which also feature in Arrow’s box-set.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane,
Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson
USA, UK 2015
Scott Cooper’s violent thriller about Boston criminal Whitey Bulger fails to engage.
** out of *****
Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: The United States of America V. James J. Bulger (2014) is a modern masterpiece. It tells the same story as Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a derivative ultra-violent homage to Goodfellas, which it desperately wants to be (failing miserably in that respect).
Berlinger’s picture is an alternately terrifying and heartbreaking documentary exposé of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, his protection at the hands of the FBI and the suffering of his hundreds of victims. It’s the victims who give Berlinger’s film oomph. Cooper’s picture does little more than blast through key high points of Bulger’s ‘career’. Bulger was an asshole and psychopath of the first order. This places Black Mass immediately at a disadvantage. There’s clearly no room for redemption and the only change of any consequence is just how appalling Bulger’s actions become.
Focusing too superficially on the family dynamic between Bulger, his State Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their tough, accepting Mom (Mary Klug), the movie mostly targets Bulger’s 30-year history as a federal informant via old neighbourhood chum, FBI agent John Connolly (superbly played by Joel Edgerton). Bulger is given complete immunity to commit horrific crimes so the FBI can get the dope on the Italian mob whom our ‘hero’ is attempting to rub out so his Irish Winter Hill Gang can completely control all criminal activities in Boston. Seeing as Bulger is so ruthlessly reprehensible (sans the perverse fun Scorsese injects into his pictures), so much of the proceedings are humourless and just plain unpleasant.
Much will be made of Depp’s performance as Bulger and he does indeed seem to be having the time of his life mugging malevolently under a variety of insane makeup designs. His flamboyant excess delivers prime entertainment value, but only to a point. It eventually becomes tiresome. I’ll take Depp’s work as Tonto in The Lone Ranger over this any day.
The biggest problem is a screenplay that doesn’t provide a strong enough adversary for Bulger to play against. This wasn’t a problem in Berlinger’s great documentary since Bulger’s prime victim was the protagonist, genuinely fearing for his life (and indeed getting rubbed out during the film’s shooting and subsequent Bulger trial). What drives the world of Black Mass is Bulger’s enablers, henchmen and virtually faceless rivals whom he stylishly dispatches. It’s the human factor that’s missing right across the board. Humanity is what makes great crime
A fascinating storytelling tour de force and an ambiguous documentary about a Death Row convict.
A bald-headed man in a blue shirt sits in the corner of a stark room. He leans into the camera, his face half in shadow, and begins to tell his story. The first words he speaks are about time: ‘In the blink of an eye, you can look and 10 years are gone… but the next week is agony.’ This is Nick Yarris, recounting the years that he spent in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison. It’s a dramatic opening to David Sington’s documentary, which is also a breathtakingly dramatic monologue. Yarris is charismatic, intense and a masterful storyteller. After two decades on death row, Yarris requested that all appeals be ceased, and that he be put to death; David Sington’s engrossing, if uneasy, film is an attempt to understand what led to that decision.
Footage of Yarris is mixed with cinematic recreations, often almost abstract close-ups, filmed with a Gregory Crewdson-like vibrancy; in slow motion, a boy runs through the woods, a hint at a dark secret that is shockingly revealed at the film’s end; water pours down a man’s back in a shower; a pair of women’s gloves lie on the seat of an empty car. Crisp, eerie photography of the inside of the prison – the rows of bars, the cold steel of a toilet in an empty cell – is also interwoven with Nick’s tale, as he speaks about the harsh, brutal treatment that he and other prisoners endured, including being ‘tortured with silence’. It’s a captivating performance, full of emotion, as he recounts the horrors of jail, building up a sense of atmosphere by evocatively describing life behind bars, then his rehabilitation, and his newly found obsession with words and literature.
It’s only later in the film that he begins to reveal the details of his past, and the nature of his drug addiction and the crimes that he committed. Though we learn that he was first jailed for auto theft, the crime that – wrongly – landed him on death row is a mystery that runs like a thread throughout much of the film. It’s a story full of twists, turns and tragedies, punctuated by the many mistakes that he made, and also the vagaries and delays of the justice system. And though we learn that he was later exonerated of murder after the advent of DNA testing (although it took years), it’s the final twist that is the most disturbing, powerful and gut-wrenching.
It’s a striking, compelling film that is incredibly personal. Yet, it’s hard, at the end, not to feel as though we’ve been manipulated by both the filmmaker and Yarris. The vague way he’s shot (and the film itself) is reminiscent of interviews in Errol Morris’s remarkable documentary The Thin Blue Line>, where the location is obscured, lending a sense that Yarris is perhaps still in the system, though the reality is that his ordeal ended in 2003. While his story is an incredible one, it feels like we’ve watched a very rehearsed theatrical performance, and are left wondering how much of this is documentary and how much is masterful storytelling. But maybe it doesn’t actually matter.
Based on the Gothic novella ‘Carmilla’ by: Sheridan Le Fanu
Cast: Hannah Fierman, Christin Orr, William Katt, Kylie Brown
***½ out of *****
When movies are rooted in a sense of place that pulsates from their opening frames, deepening to a point where the story is inextricably linked to a regional atmosphere, thus becoming as much a character as the picture’s on-screen personages, then you know that you’re in a world of total immersion. When said films feel like they’re coming from a place that feels familiar and lived-in from the perspective of the filmmaker, the work takes on an added transcendence that can only come from the heart, as well as a good eye for detail and local colour.
In genre films, some of the strongest examples of this can be found in all of George A. Romero‘s early Pittsburgh films (Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, Martin); Alfred Sole’s astonishing New Jersey-rooted Alice, Sweet Alice; Paul Maslansky’s Houston-based voodoo thriller Sugar Hill; and amongst many others, the latest foray into regional horror, Bret Wood’s The Unwanted.
From the beginning, writer-director Wood plunges us into a contemporary milieu, a kind of antebellum-ish New Millennium Gothic, as a mysterious young woman (Christin Orr), attired in fashionable grunge duds and bearing a countenance of toughness and determination, gets off a Greyhound bus in an alternately seedy and retro-cool South Carolina burgh.
She makes her way on foot to a leafy post-war neighbourhood to the house she’s targeted. Here she inquires into the whereabouts of one Millarca Karnstein (Kylie Brown). The door is answered by the handsome, but alternately seedy-looking owner Troy (William Katt of Carrie fame, here adorned in a grubby ball-cap with long curly locks of head-banger-hockey-hair), and Laura (Hannah Fierman, ‘Lily’ in the ‘Amateur Night’ segment in V/H/S), his insanely gorgeous wide-eyed daughter who hovers silently behind him.
He claims not to know whom she’s looking for. The woman is insistent, though: he must know, since Troy’s house was the exotically named Millarca’s last-known address. Troy amusedly points out that he’d have heard of someone in the town with a name like Millarca Karnstein, never mind someone of that monicker residing in his home.
By this point, ‘Karnstein’ is ringing a bell with us (at least those of the geek persuasion). For horror aficionados, the mere mention of the name Karnstein immediately signals that we’re about to plunge into an adaptation of ‘Carmilla’, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s immortal 1871 classic novella of vampirism, which predates even Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), making it one of the earliest major works in the (relatively) modern genre of vampire fiction.
Some of the best movies adapted from the Le Fanu include Vampyr (1932), Carl Dreyer’s liberal cinematic borrowing from the material, as well as several faithful renderings including Roger Vadim’s 1960 Blood and Roses , with its highly charged erotic qualities; Camilo Mastrocinque’s creepy 1964 Terror in the Crypt, starring Christopher Lee and Adriana Ambesi; the exceptional 1974 Roy Ward Baker-directed Hammer Horror version The Vampire Lovers, with Ingrid Pitt and Peter Cushing in the first film of Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy; and now, of course, The Unwanted, one of the most effectively oddball attempts to wrestle with Le Fanu’s work.
When our heroine (bearing the name, Carmilla Karnstein, of course) leaves Troy’s home dejectedly, but also with skepticism, she inquires at the local cop-shop for information about the missing Karnstein, and is told the report she’s requested will take two full business days.
Damn! She’s now going to be in this low-down Hicksville conurbation longer than anticipated. Carmilla sallies over to the local greasy spoon for some coffee where her waitress is none other than Laura, Troy’s daughter, the drool-inspiring beauty with the jet-black hair and come-hither saucer-like dark eyes.
Laura reveals to Carmilla that Daddy Troy didn’t tell the truth. Millarca Karnstein did indeed use their home as a mailing address, living in the family trailer on the outskirts of town near Daddy’s hunting grounds. Carmilla, in turn, reveals that Millarca was her mother, and even though Laura’s mommy Karen (Lynn Talley) died when she was a tyke, she has vague recollections of both women.
And now we plunge into the Le Fanu tale proper, the two women eventually embarking upon a passionate lesbian relationship with the added touch of bloodsucking.
Here Wood takes us into strange territory involving dreams, nightmares, flashbacks and lingering questions all needing answers. While there are vampire-like qualities to the eroticism, Wood sublimates the supernatural elements in favour of a compelling mutual lust amongst the two women for both flesh and blood.
Troy, creepy from frame one, slowly edges into complete psychopathic bunyip territory, especially as the film reveals one new horrific revelation after another. With his clearly incestuous desires for his own daughter (and the possibility that he’s acted upon them), he’s as much a danger to the women as they are to each other.
What’s delightfully perverse is the identical lesbian vampire relationship twixt the mothers of Laura and Carmilla. For genre fans, it’s like getting dreamy, healthy dollops of ‘double-double’. Karen and Millarca slurp, suck and wildly caress away in dreams and flashbacks while their daughters in the present are also engaged in identical gymnastics.
The movie has a few strange pacing problems, due on one hand to the screenplay being a touch ambitious for its own good, and, once we take time to peruse a number of cut and/or alternate takes in the Kino Lorber Blu-ray extras, we discover why there are a few lapses in logic, motivation and tone, most of which inspire us to think, ‘Uh, why the hell were these sequences cut and/or not worked into the overall narrative?’ There might have been concerns, rightly so, about pacing, but I suspect the film feels longer and a bit more disjointed than it needed to be, because these scenes fell to the cutting room floor.
Another irksome touch that affects pacing and tone is one of the most jarringly annoying song-scores I’ve heard, which wends its way through the picture. The opening song is terrific and well utilized, as are the orchestral elements of the score proper, but a lot of the others seem shoehorned into the proceedings.
Happily, the aforementioned fumbles don’t detract from the overall visual dexterity, which the picture has in spades, as well as the performances by all four leading and supporting ladies engaged in vampiristic Sapphic pleasure.
The revelation here is William Katt. It’s almost impossible to separate him from his post-Carrie work as the sweet, handsome young lad who finally takes Sissy Spacek to the prom in Brian De Palma’s masterpiece, but in The Unwanted, we drop all notions of that much earlier role from our minds and marvel at his initially subtle and eventually mounting, crazed viciousness.
It’s such a great performance that one feels a certain degree of regret that such mainstream industry awards as the Oscars all but ignore low-budget independent horror, since the work Katt does here is Academy Award-worthy, at least in terms of even a nomination in the Supporting Actor category.
Also, pacing problems aside, the final third of the film is utterly chilling and plunges us into one terrific jolt after another. The movie features, hands down, the best on-screen use of a hunting arrow and where/how it plunges since Burt Reynolds’s fine aim delighted us in John Boorman’s Deliverance.
Bret Wood’s previous feature-length work has been in documentaries. He’s highly regarded as one of the finest producers of added-feature extras in the world of home-entertainment for the Kino Lorber company. His recent commentary track for the Blu-ray release of Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page is phenomenal. Incidentally, the extras on The Unwanted include Wood’s first-rate short dramatic effort The Other Half, a grimly funny, scary and perverse bite-sized treat involving a double amputee, his wife and a prostitute.
Wood’s first feature film was the funny, revelatory and, frankly, vomit-inducing Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films and his sophomore feature effort, Psychopathia Sexualis (2006), was a dream come true for me personally, as it focused upon the classic encyclopaedia of sexual deviance by Richard Fridolin Joseph Freiherr Krafft von Festenberg auf Frohnberg, genannt von Ebing (known more popularly as simply Krafft-Ebing, though I’m a big fan of his full name).
As a seemingly unrelated aside, the Krafft-Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis was a favourite tome amongst director Guy Maddin, screenwriter George Toles and myself as young gents in the early flowering stages of our lives, a book that we’d read aloud to each other round campfires in Gimli, Manitoba throughout the 80s, along with our coterie of similarly enchanted colleagues.
The feature film Archangel (which I produced, Guy directed and George wrote) includes a Krafft-Ebing phrase for our favourite sexual delight, one which means very little to anyone not acquainted with arcane terms in Psychopathia Sexualis, but never fails to give us insider-chuckles to this very day. I refuse to tell you what it is. You must acquaint yourself with Krafft-Ebing and then see Archangel again. It will put Maddin’s entire film in a whole new context for you (if you hadn’t sensed it already, that is).
That a contemporary filmmaker has created a documentary portrait of Krafft-Ebing seems an extra-special treat for those who partake of The Unwanted, Wood’s first fictional feature: one which features so many delightful dollops of bloodsucking, lesbo action, incest, chilling suspense and glorious bits of mad violence.
The ludicrously prolific Takashi Miike (as I write this, IMDB lists 99 credits as director since his debut in 1991) seems to work in different modes. There’s the high-end classy work he did for Jeremy Thomas (13 Assassins, Hara Kiri ); there are the extraordinary cult films he made his name with in the West (Audition, Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer); and there are a whole lot of other films he seems to have tossed of in short order that work on a ‘throw it against the wall and see if it’ll stick’ principle. Yakuza Apocalypse is very much a third mode film.
‘Unkillable’ yakuza boss Kamiura is in fact a vampire, who manages to infect loyal underling Kageyama with his condition after being decapitated by assassins. Kageyama in turn infects some of the common populace and soon the world is out of whack: if everyone is a yakuza vampire, then where do Kamiura’s old gang get their status from? Soon a Kappa demon turns up and the conviction grows that some kind of apocalypse is in the offing. A female yakuza has steaming milk issuing from her ears, with which she tries to cultivate a new crop of ‘decent civilians’. The end of days arrives in the shape of a frog-headed martial arts master who looks like a sports team mascot with a bulging hypnotic eyeball. A Kageyama/Frog smackdown ensues. The world ends.
Trying to describe the plot of this effort is a thankless task. There’s stuff in here from spaghetti Westerns and Road Runner cartoons. There’s a lot of informative and/or baffling dialogue (‘Yakuza blood tastes bad and has no nutrition’). There are nice ideas that go nowhere, and wacky bits of business that occasionally pay off (love that frog). There’s an almost philosophical thread about what defines a yakuza. (Kageyama’s skin is too sensitive to allow for the requisite tattoos, the dearth of ‘decent civilians’ makes the old gang question their place in the world.) But much of this gets forgotten as the chaos mounts. It’s not boring, but it is frustrating, all a bit scrappy and makeshift and half-baked. There are the desired moments of weirdness that Miike fans would expect, but here they just don’t add up to much. Ah well, there’ll be another one along any minute…