Voice Without a Shadow (1958)

Director Seijun Suzuki was a titan of Japanese cinema. Appreciated for his output during the 60’s and 70’s, he began making films in the 50’s and continued to work all the way into the 2000’s. Known as a stylist, his films have garnered a rabid following. Voice Without a Shadow is one of his lesser seen films from early in his long career. Released by Nikkatsu studio and re-released by cult film titans Arrow Video as part of the Nikkatsu Diamond Guys set, Voice Without a Shadow deserves to be rediscovered.

The film begins with a vicious murder and a mysterious call by the perpetrator to a phone operator. Terrified she tells the police and the police round up suspects and have them speak to her over the phone. No dice. None of the suspects match. The murder goes unsolved until one day when one of her husband’s shady friends calls their home. She recognizes the voice as the murder’s and he knows she recognizes it. It turns out the man has also been blackmailing several people in town and using her husband as a go-between, unbeknownst to her husband. When the blackmailer/murderer turns up dead, her husband is suspect number one because of their association. His wife, along with a plucky reporter investigate the case to root out the real murderer of the blackmailer/murderer.

This film oozes style. Every shot is carefully crafted and designed in a way that only Suzuki could do. The film has lots of wonderful dolly and tracking shots, great shots of architecture and scenery. The film is pure eye candy. So much so that i had trouble following the movie because i was too busy getting an eyeful of the compositions. The film is a wonderful twisty noir that kept my attention throughout it’s whole run time. ’58 is late in the game for a noir but this one hits the right marks and should be spoken of in the same breath as the genre standouts. I had a great time watching this film and I’m so glad it’s finally readily available in the states. It may be an early film from Suzuki but it shows no sign of being made by an inexperienced film maker. Suzuki knew was he was doing right out of the gate.

The film looks fantastic with a great restoration from Arrow. The special features are a bit skimpy but that’s because there are 3 films included in this set, all on one disc. Fret not however, there are no signs of compression. The film looks pristine.

Doberman Cop (1977)

After a very tiring day, I just wanted to sit back and watch something fun. Something that wouldn’t be too taxing hit all the right notes. That something I grabbed was Doberman Cop. This 70’s Japanese cop/gangster flick starring Sonny Chiba looked like the perfect movie to cure what ailed me.

Doberman Cop begins with the discovery of a burned human body inside a building that was set aflame by an arsonist. A string of serial murders is also being investigated and a detective from Okinawa has come to track down a missing person from his village. This detective, played by Sonny Chiba, is the titular Doberman Cop. He arrives wearing a straw hat, shabby clothes, and has a live pig he carries around in a sack. Constantly talked down to, he’s actually a damn good detective who doesn’t mind cracking a few skulls to get what he wants. He’s also armed with a .44 Magnum and the stones to use it. It turns how his missing person is some how involved with the murders happening throughout the city and so he and his pig begin to dig into the underbelly of the city to get find the guy responsible and put him to sleep.

Because Doberman Cop was directed by Kenji Fukasaku (The Yakuza Papers), one might assume that the film would be dense with lots of complex character relationships. That’s not really the case. The film was actually based on a popular manga and as such relies more heavily on swagger and action than a highly detailed plot. Sonny Chiba turns in a performance worthy of his name as his relishes being taken for a fool and then proving everyone wrong, usually with a knuckle sandwich thrown in. The music is bombastic and fun and supports the macho vibe of the film very well. Of course because it’s directed by Fukusaku, the film breezes along at a fast clip and never becomes dull. This might not be one of his masterpieces but it sure is a lot of fun. Doberman Cop is a well told story with equal parts style and action. It was everything i was hoping it would be.

The blu looks great as always with Arrow Video releases. The disc comes with some great features like a great (and informative) introduction from a Fukasaku scholar, a new interview with Sonny Chiba and the writer of the film and more. If you enjoy 70’s cop flicks, this one would be right up your alley. If you love 70’s Japanese cinema then this one is a must see.

 

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The Sword and the Claw (1975)

Set during medieval times, The Sword and the Claw is about a bearded and super studly king named Soloman. The guy loves the ladies and impregnates a queen because she cant deny his macho appeal. He’s executed and the queen he impregnated gets thrown in the dungeon after she gives birth. Another Solomon sired is secreted out of the kingdom and the child is raised by lions. He takes after his old man and is super strong and super hunky. He has the sacred royal birthmark that tells everyone he’s the descendant of King Soloman. He learns of his lineage and leads a band of rebels to depose the king and take over the kingdom with a lot of jumping, punching, and sword fights. After having his hand burnt by acid, he has a blacksmith build him some lion claws that he uses to attack the henchmen of the king with bloody fervor.

For those lucky enough to see Turkish Star Wars I’ll tell you up front that the Sword and The Claw isn’t as bonkers. Then again there are few movies that could compete with Turkish Star Wars. It’s kind of a genre unto itself. While The Sword and the Claw may be more grounded in reality, it’s still very wild and fun. The costumes in this movie are absolutely fabulous. The characters wear vivid colors, spray painted hard hats, fake beards, and brandish wooden swords painted to look like metal. The music feels like it was lifted from a comedic caper and feels very out of place in the film, giving the action sequences a happy slapstick vibe. The fight scenes themselves are ludicrously over the top with our hero taking down scores of bad guys in one hit. Arkin gets to show off his impressive gymnastics skills throughout the movie which only adds to the ridiculousness of the film. The dubbing is also pretty funny with some very bland deliveries during intense scenes and some very funny lines like, “what do you want you lousy bitch!?” That line in particular had us cracking up. There’s plenty of action and blood in the movie and even a smidge of gore thrown in for good measure. The film doesn’t overstay it’s welcome either with an efficient run time and plot. Thankfully there isn’t much down time in the movie and the hijinks have just enough variety so the movie never gets stale.

The Sword and the Claw is a fun fantasy action flick that delivers the bad movie goods. I’ll admit that this kind of sword and sandal kind of flick often don’t work for me but I had a good time with this one. It may not be pantheon but it sure is fun.

AGFA have done a nice job on releasing the film too. The film is sourced from a 35mm print in pretty decent shape. The film has scratches and artifacts from being abused since it’s release in ’75 but the colors are rich and the sound is clear. The blu also features a bonus film called Brawl Busters (1981). I haven’t watched it yet but I’m looking forward to it. If AGFA keep putting out lost gems like this they will earn themselves a very loyal following. I can’t wait to see what they release next.

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Pulp (1972)

About a decade ago I watched Get Carter (1971) with my uncle. I had never seen it and it was one of his favorites. I could see why. Michael Caine plays a great tough guy, it had memorable lines of dialogue, and great hard nosed action. Fast forward to today and I discovered that Caine made another film with director Mike Hodges (who also directed Flash Gordon) directly after Get Carter called Pulp (1972). Intrigued I popped the disc in to check it out.

Taking place in Malta, Michael Caine plays Mickey King, a hack pulp fiction writer specializing in cheap detective novels that feature violence and sex in equal measure. He’s approached by a grizzled older man smoking a cigar claiming that he has a job for Mickey. It seems that there’s a mysterious actor who lives nearby that wants Mickey to ghostwrite his autobiography. Why? Because the actor loves his work. Mickey agrees and is taken on a long trip to the actor’s villa. On the way Mickey finds the dead body of a man he suspected to be his contact for the actor. Troubled Mickey continues the trip until he’s contacted by the real contact for the actor. So why was the other man murdered? Was Mickey the real target? Shaken, Mickey meets with the actor, Preston (Mickey Rooney). Preston was indeed a major actor until his connections to the mafia were publicly released and he had to flee to live in isolation. Fearing for his life, Preston won’t leave his villa until he’s told Mickey everything that belongs in his book. From there more twists and turns occur and I won’t spoil it here but Mickey’s life imitates his art.

Pulp is an odd duck of a film. It’s a comedy but a dry one, filled with slight humor. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, this isn’t. But it wasn’t supposed to be. It’s very British and so the humor mostly comes from odd situations, places, and people, rather than big slapstick moments (though there are a few of those too, such as cars around Malta continuously crashing). The film is also a mystery but one that takes almost the entire runtime to finally begin and quickly end. It’s too silly to be a thriller, but too slight to be a pure comedy. I’ll be honest and say that at first I was bothered by this. It doesn’t conveniently fit into a prescribed genre. This means that if you measure it by genre standards, either comedy or thriller, it fails. But if you measure the film on it’s own terms and try to appreciate it for the anachronistic beast it is, it’s a good film. Caine is fantastic in it as are the other actors. I could see myself revisiting the film again later due to it’s odd voice and pacing as well as the great comic timing of Caine. My only complaint is that the color palette of the film is very brown. Brown cars, brown walls, brown suits, everything brown. It’s an odd complaint but what the heck, this is an odd movie.

As always with Arrow releases, the print looks and sounds fantastic. Given the films’ limited color palette it needs all the help it can get, visually speaking, and arrow has done another great job. The film has some nice supplements too, mainly interviews with cast members (no Caine though) and crew.

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Essex Space Bin (2016)

I picked up Essex Space Bin without knowing much. I knew it was released by Troma, I knew it was British, and I knew it was very low budget. I also knew it looked odd. All of these things combined, I figured it could be a perfect Awful Awesome movie. Or it could be absolute garbage. But that’s the roll of the dice I take every time I’m on the hunt.

Essex Space Bin is about a middle-aged woman named Lorraine. She’s lonely and poor. She has a daughter that doesn’t like her and a mother that doesn’t like her. She believes that she’s on the cusp of discovering a secret portal to another dimension. As a child at the beach she met a man looking for the key to the portal and ever since then she’s been on the hunt too. She meets a mystic with a cheap website who claims he can gain her access to the other dimension but only if she pays him. Her daughter and her mother think she’s crazy and that the man is a charlatan. Undaunted, Lorraine continues to pursue her gateway to a different life. Will she find the portal? Will it be what she was hoping for?

Essex Space Bin is a real head scratcher. It looks like was shot on film, which is incredible. No one shooting low budget flicks shoots on film anymore, especially when they’re as bizarre as this flick is. Characters where super cheap wigs, scenes meander for several minutes and rarely coalesce into anything resembling a story. The film is a big rambling journey that feels beyond the grasp of the viewer. I felt like I was transported into a world without context, like joining a conversation half way through where the people being discusses are unknown to us. The characters speak about things as if we, the viewer, understand the context but there is no context. We’re just thrown into a bizarre world with little idea of what the hell is going on. I felt as if this was part of a longer series, that perhaps this was a public access or web show that was popular enough to create this feature.

Individual scenes do little to build upon each other and instead feel like individual ideas. This gives the film a very disjointed feel as things get progressively more strange as it goes along. There’s a clear passion behind the film. This was in no way thrown together to make a quick buck. It’s a film that uses it’s own language to tell a story that makes sense to the directors but rarely does so for the viewer. Given the right crowd and the right situation, this could be fun to watch but as a solo viewing, I had a hard time staying focused on the film.

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Cops vs. Thugs (1975)

About a dozen years ago a friend of mine’s little brother gave me some Japanese movies on dvd to check out. Among the pile were the five films of the Yakuza Papers directed by Kinji Fukasaku. I watched all five films in quick succession and really enjoyed their gritty portrayal of yakuza life. Fast forward to today and I’ve finally watched another Fukasaku yakuza film, Cops. vs. Thugs thanks to Arrow Video.

Cops vs. Thugs is about various yakuza families and their lives within the underworld. We meet our “hero,” a cop who regularly associates and befriends the yakuza. He’s heavily involved in their goings on but through his guidance and the help of other similarly associated cops, the yakuza families don’t war with each other. They quietly break the law, running their various schemes. That is until violence erupts once more and a new boss is sent in to clean up the mess. He knows nothing about the yakuza world and only makes matters worse. The violence reaches a fever pitch and it’s up to our hero to help diffuse the situation and try to calm down the clans once again.

Cops vs. Thugs is a film that requires full attention. I knew this from previously watching the Yakuza Papers films. Cops vs. Thugs moves fast and features several characters whose position isn’t always clear. That full attention pays off though by providing a complex portrayal of the world of the yakuza and the police who try to keep the peace to protect the citizens. The cops aren’t totally clean either, in fact, most are pretty damn dirty. They have to partially live the life of the yakuza which means some moral compromises along the way. Think Goodfellas but without the cops having to be undercover. The film is gritty and real with energetic camera work and a great score. Despite the fact that there isn’t much action in the film (this is a crime film, not a martial arts flick), it still has a breathless vibe to it. The runtime blew past and the whole film had me captivated.

If you enjoy yakuza films, mafia flicks, or gritty 70’s cinema, I recommend Cops vs. Thugs. It has a big reputations for being one of the best examples of the genre and I have to agree: it’s a great flick.

The blu, as always with Arrow Video, looks fantastic. The print is crisp and clean without any damage. The special features include a new video appreciation by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane, a new visual essay on cops & criminals in Fukasaku’s works by film scholar Tom Mes and a booklet with liner notes.

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J.D.’s Revenge (1976)

Close to 10 years ago, when Netflix streaming was still new, I was able to watch a bunch of “blaxploitation” films on the service. I watched classics like Bucktown, Coffy, Friday Foster, Black Caesar, and more, including JD’s Revenge. It was a fun time in streaming history and I watched all that I could. Much like the superior Across 101st Street, JD’s Revenge doesn’t really fit in with what one typically categorizes as “blaxploitation.”

Taking place in New Olreans, J.D.’s Revenge begins in the 1940’s. We meet JD Walker, a street walking tough guy who witnesses the murder of his sister in a meat locker. Her through is slashed by another man and JD rushes to her in shock, covering his hands with blood. In walks Elijah who assumes JD is the murderer. The real murderer shoots JD, protecting his secret. Fast forward to 1976 and we meet Ike. He’s a hard working man going through law school and driving a cab. One night, he and his girlfriend and some other friends take a night on the town. They stop at a club and Ike participates in a stage show involving hypnotism. He awakens to find his head splitting and flashes of memories that don’t belong to him. As the film progresses Ike begins to be taken over by the spirit of JD who is out for revenge against the men involved in his sister’s death, and his own. This of course turns Ike’s life upside down because JD is one bad dude.

When many people think of blaxploitation they think of a macho story line involving lots of action, shooting, racism, a funky soundtrack, and lots of cursing. JD’s Revenge doesn’t have those things. It’s a genuinely well acted, well filmed, drama/horror about a man losing himself to a very negative spirit. There’s an earnestness about the story that is rarely seen in your typical exploitation fare. One key element in traditional blaxploitation is that if the main character’s race were to be changed, the whole film would cease to make sense. In this case the story could have been played by any actor from any race, it just happens to be a predominately African American cast. This helps to keep the film from turning into a racist cartoon. The characters all feel real and not just dick swinging macho guys. It’s a shame that this film gets lumped in with films like The Mack and Super Fly. Those films are a lot of fun but they lack the honest emotional core that JD’s Revenge has. It’s a film worth seeking out for horror fans looking for something less over-the-top. It’s a well told ghost story that happens to star African American actors.

The film has never looked better. Again, Arrow has released a film in the best possible quality. The picture is perfect as is the sound. The Blu features a 46 minute documentary about the making of the film with interviews with the cast and crew, additional interview supplements, and a trailer reel for the director. It’s great to hear the stories behind films like this that have been traditionally ignored.

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Red Christmas (2017)

There was a time when I was a champion for Artsploitation Films. They had a roster of strong independent and foreign films from new or unfamiliar directors. They released fantastic films and took big risks. I loved them for gambling on unknown foreign directors making films that fit into a world that wasn’t quite art house but wasn’t quite genre film either, hence the title artsploitation. They grabbed up the films likely to be ignored by genre labels and art labels. Lately however their film selection has been, for me, uneven. They still release great flicks but also some far less successful films in terms of artistic quality. Instead of readily watching anything they put out, I’ve had to be more selective. It was with this reservation that I popped in Australian film, Red Christmas, starring Dee Wallace.

Red Christmas begins with an abortion clinic. We hear audio clips of pro-life advocates and pro-choice advocates while a man carrying a briefcase and a cross walks into the clinic and sets off a bomb hidden in the briefcase. During the chaos the man discovers an aborted baby, still alive in a bucket in the corner. He takes the baby and flees the scene. Fast forward to 20 years later and we meet an Aussie family gathering together to celebrate Christmas. The matriarch of the family is played by Dee Wallace and her husband has passed away. She has three daughters, one pregnant, one incapable of giving birth (who is married to a priest of some kind), and her younger daughter. She also has a son Jerry who has Downs Syndrome. Also included is a crusty older man who I assume was the brother of the deceased husband. Gathering together under one roof they spend the first 45 minutes of the film bickering and being unbelievably unkind to each other. Then a mysterious man arrives covered in wrappings like the mummy and wearing a big black cloak. He tells the family he’s there to read a letter to them. The contents of the letter infuriate the family and they kick him out. Then the killing begins.

I’ll be upfront about Red Christmas: I didn’t like it. One reason being the acidic portrayal of the family. They were so cruel to each other I found it hard to believe that they would willingly associate with each other for any reason whatsoever. Even if people like this exist, why would I want to spend 81 minutes with them? There was no warmth, no understanding, no familial bond. Just anger, selfishness, and unrelenting verbal assaults. By the time the action started I honestly didn’t care at all what happened to the characters. This is a familiar trope in horror films and one that never fails to cause me to dislike them. It undercuts the impact of the violence and makes the film difficult to get through. At best, as an audience member, i can enjoy watching these awful people being dispatched, at worst, I don’t have any investment of any kind. Such is the case here. I also feel that abortion is a topic that, for me, isn’t suited to gory slasher film. It’s too serious of a subject to be handled as nothing more that a catalyst in a low budget slasher flick. I’m not saying the subject can’t/shouldn’t be explored in cinema but for me it needs to be handled with far greater care than is the case in Red Christmas. I’ll be frank and admit I almost turned the film off within the first few minutes because of it.

Now onto the good. The film is well shot using good quality video equipment. There is some great monochromatic lighting on the back end of the film that gives it some style similar to Creepshow. The gore is well done, and not over done. The acting is solid, especially from veteran Dee Wallace and thankfully it’s very short.

These strong suits however, for me, do not overcome the poorly written characters, unrealistic motivations, the handling of abortion in the film, and the general lack of humanity exhibited in the film. It’s an ugly film, populated with ugly characters doing ugly things.

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The Crazies (1973)

 

Growing up renting videos from my local mom & pop I stumbled across The Crazies on big box vhs. It had a killer cover and proclaimed that it was from the director of Night of the Living Dead (which I hadn’t seen yet) so I rented it. I honestly didn’t remember much about that viewing other than being kinda bored. Later I watched Dawn of the Dead and was totally floored. At one point I went through George Romero’s filmography, or at least as much of it as I could get my hands on. That being said, I haven’t given The Crazies another shot until this viewing on Blu courtesy of Arrow Video. I was curious to see if my (very) young opinion still held true or if in the intervening years of avoiding the flick, I had missed out.

The Crazies was released after Season of the Witch but before his cult gem Martin (which preceded his opus, Dawn of the Dead). It takes place in a small rural town. The film begins with two children waking up to find their father smashing their house with a crowbar. They run to wake up their mom but find her dead. The father then lights the house on fire. Local volunteer firefighters show up and discover the police already there and the father sitting in the back of a squad car, screaming. It isn’t long before the military arrives and takes over the town. An experimental bioweapon that causes the infected to behave uncontrollably violent was released accidentally near the town and the military has come to quarantine the area. It isn’t long before people are herded into the local high school to be held under lock and key. Everyone is a potential disease carrier and no one trusts anyone. The military guys are decked out in hazmat outfits but are also succeptible to the contagion. Soon the town erupts into chaos. Our protagonists of the story are volunteer firefighters trying to sneak out of town to avoid infection and arrest by the military.

I really enjoyed the paranoid tone of The Crazies. The film was made at a time when public opinion of the military and government in general had shifted from mindless adoration to genuine skepticism and fear. The Crazies captures that fear, personified in the anonymous hazmat wearing military goons. As with his best films, the societal commentary is thick, whether it was intentional or not. The violence foreshadows the graphic special effects that would be utilized in Dawn. We see big bloody bullet wounds, stabbings, and beatings. The acting is stilted but passable. Romero’s films were rarely known for their stellar acting so The Crazies is par for the course. The trouble with the film is the pacing. The film starts off with a bang and creates genuine suspense but then gets bogged down with Romero’s commentary on the slow moving wheels of bureaucracy. This theme of useless red tape is repeated throughout the film but frankly, the point is driven home too often. It kills the pacing of the film. Our protagonists also stop at various times during the film to hide or rest and these moments also slow the film down considerably. The result is a film that has bursts of energy, action, and tension, and lulls of dialogue. Now, I’m not adverse to a talky film if that is the intended style. All films don’t have to be explosions and action the entire time, but this film could have benefited from some trimming to keep things moving along.

The film looks fantastic however. Again Arrow has done a great job restoring and presenting the film. The colors are rich, the sound clear, and not a speck of dirt to be seen. The blu also comes with a bevvy of special features including a couple of interviews with Lynn Lowry, behind the scenes footage, commentary and more.

While not his most accomplished film, The Crazies is worth checking out. The film’s social commentary is as sharp as in any of Romero’s films, and the story is unique for the time. The pacing may be lax and the direction workmanlike, but the ideas are insightful and still relevant today.

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The Climber (1975)

I’ll fully admit that I’m not nearly as well versed with eurocrime flicks as I’d like to be. The italian poliziotteschi films were known for their gritty realism, violence, and great soundtracks. For some reason that isn’t fully clear to me, they are largely under represented on North American releases. We got a boat load of spaghetti westerns, gialli, cannibal films, zombie films, post apocalypic trash, and other genre films during the vhs boom of the 80’s but the eurocrime film was left out in the cold. Arrow Video has tried to remedy this problem by releasing The Climber (1975) on a beautifully presented blu ray. I was unfamiliar with the film but was in the mood for some gritty action so i popped the disc in.

The Climber is about a New York native Aldo (Joe Dallesandro) who has been working in Italy as an underling in a crime syndicate. He’s handsome, ambitious, and capable, he’s also disliked by his boss. When his boss roughs him up for disobeying the rules, he leaves Napoli and heads to Rome where he begins his own crime syndicate, starting with hassling restaurants for protection money. What follows is the rise and downfall of an ambitious crook living in violent world.

Taking a page from films like Scarface (’32) and Black Cesar (1973), The Climber presents an ugly world filled with violence, murder, extortion, fear, and near constant peril. The film features a “rough around the edges” approach that helps instill a sense of immediacy, energy, and animal fear. A polished film would be beautiful to look at but the “in the trenches” vibe of the film helps to immerse the viewer into the rough and tumble world that the characters inhabit. It feels very proto-punk to me with an attitude of youth and rebellion. The world represented in the world is ugly and the film mimics the world aesthetically through shaky camera moves, wild camera angles, and an in the moment feeling that helps to propel it to it’s final violent conclusion. The music in this film is also wonderful. Nearly every song or piece of score feels like macho ass-kicking music meant to instill a sense of invulnerability felt by the film’s protagonist. Our “hero” isn’t a man worth admiring and yet he’s compelling all the same.

The blu looks fantastic. Arrow once again have delivered a beautifully restored print for us to enjoy without any issues whatsoever. The film, i’m sure, has never looked better. Included on the blu are the Italian and English voice tracks, an interview with Joe Dallesandro, and a booklet with liner notes by Roberto Curti. Also included is a dvd of the film.

I really enjoyed The Climber. I went in with no expectations and was rewarded with a film that hit many of the eurocrime staples (violence, motorcycles, macho men, and a bombastic soundtrack). If you are a eurocrime fan, this one is a must buy. If you haven’t dipped your toes into the pool, it’s a solid film to start with.

 

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