Insomnia File #46: Enter the Ninja (dir by Menahem Golan)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable or Netflix? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

It’s been nearly a year since I did my last Insomnia File.  To be honest, as much as I enjoy writing these posts, I feel like the idea behind the Insomnia File format has become obsolete.  The days of people dealing with insomnia by randomly flipping through movies and infomercials have pretty much come to an end.  Now, if someone has insomnia, they’re more likely to binge an old show on Netflix.

That said, if you had insomnia at one in the morning last night and you didn’t feel like binging The Office for the hundredth time, you could have turned over to TCM and watched the 1981 film, Enter the Ninja.

What would you have gotten out of Enter the Ninja?  Five words: France Nero as a ninja.  Seriously, what more do you need?  Nero plays Cole, a former mercenary who goes off to Japan, trains to become a ninja, and then heads off for the Philippines, where his old mercenary friend, Frank (Alex Courtney), owns a farm.  Frank and his wife, Mary-Ann (Susan George) are having problems because evil businessman Charles Venarius (Christopher George, chewing up the scenery as the bad guy) is determined to force them off of their land.  Add to that, Frank is a pathetic drunk.

Soon, Cole is putting on his white ninja suit and fighting to protect the farm and also dealing with Venarius’s ninja, who just happens to be an old rival of Cole’s.  Cole is also carrying on an affair with Mary-Ann but that’s not big deal because Frank isn’t much of a man.  One of the most interesting things about Enter the Ninja is that it may be a martial arts film but it’s also a modern western and a domestic drama.  Cole could just as easily be a gunslinger, protecting the homesteaders.  Frank and Mary-Ann could just as easily be a couple on a daytime drama.  Instead, they’re all in a ninja film.

The main appeal of Enter the Ninja is Franco Nero, an actor who — in his prime — was one of the sexiest men to ever appear in the movies.  He spends a good deal of the film with his face covered but the important thing is that you can still see those beautiful blue eyes.  As usual, Nero gives a good performance with so-so material.  Nero brings his trademark intensity to the role and he does actually seem to care about whether or not his friends lose their farm.

Enter the Ninja was directed by the legendary Menahem Golan, a filmmaker who understood the importance of never letting the action slow down.  Enter the Ninja is dumb, over the top, and entertaining.  Plus, it’s got Franco Nero!  What else do you need at one in the morning?

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man
  35. Donnie Brasco
  36. Punchline
  37. Evita
  38. Six: The Mark Unleashed
  39. Disclosure
  40. The Spanish Prisoner
  41. Elektra
  42. Revenge
  43. Legend
  44. Cat Run
  45. The Pyramid

I Escaped From Devil’s Island (1973, directed by William Whitney)


The year is 1918 and the French penal colony, Devil’s Island, is renowned as the world’s most brutal prison.  Hidden away from mainland Europe, it is populated by the worst of the worst.  The prisoners have been sentenced to either spend their life on the island or to die at the blade of guillotine and the guards are all sadists.  Le Bras (Jim Brown) has been sentenced to die but he impresses his fellow inmates by putting up a fight on his way to have his head chopped off.  He doesn’t succeed in escaping but, fortunately for him, the death penalty is abolished mere moments before the blade falls.

Le Bras is alive but he’s still been condemned to spend the rest of his life on Devil’s Island, under the sadistic eye of the head guard, Maj. Marteau (Paul Richards).  However, Le Bras has no intention of being anyone’s prisoner.  He teams up with two other prisoners, a pacifist named Davert (Christopher George) and Jo-Jo (Richard Ely), who, because he is gay, is abused by both the guards and the other prisoners.  The three of them manage to escape from the prison but they still have to make their way through the jungle.  Along the way, they visit a leper colony and Le Bras takes some time to get busy with a native woman.  Meanwhile, Marteau remains hot behind them, determined to capture them and send them back to the prison.

If I Escaped From Devil’s Island sounds familiar, that may be because you’ve seen Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon.  Papillon was a major studio production with big stars, a huge budget, and an epic running time.  I Escaped From Devil’s Island was a low-budget film starring B-movie stars and with a 90-minute running time that was the exact opposite of epic.  Roger Corman produced I Escaped From Devil’s Island to capitalize on the expected success of Papillon and he started production early enough that I Escaped From Devil’s Island actually beat Papillon to theaters by a matter of weeks.  Corman originally tried to hire Martin Scorsese to direct I Escaped From Devil’s Island.  When Scorsese decided to follow John Cassavetes’s advice and do a personal film instead, Corman ended up hiring William Whitney to direct.  (Scorsese’s personal film turned out to be Mean Streets, so he probably made the right decision.)

I Escaped From Devil’s Island is an entertaining B-movie.  It doesn’t have the epic sweep of Papillon but it does have a fun cast and all the action that you would expect from a 70s Corman production.  Jim Brown was never a great actor but he never claimed to be.  What Brown had was a tremendous physical presence and a confident movie star charisma and both of those are put to good use in I Escaped From Devil’s Island.  Whether he was playing football or beating up bad guys, Jim Brown was always the epitome of cool and that’s especially true in this film.  Christopher George has some good scenes as a pacifist who believes in non-violent resistance and Paul Richards is a great villain but this is a movie that you watch for Jim Brown and he doesn’t disappoint.

As of today, Jim Brown is 84 years old.  As anyone who has seen him interviewed recently can tell you, Jim Brown is still the epitome of cool.  When Jim Brown speaks, whether people agree with him or not, they still shut up and listen.  Happy birthday, Jim Brown!

Italian Horror Showcase: City of the Living Dead (dir by Lucio Fulci)


In New York City, a group of people sit around a table, holding a seance.  One of them, a woman named Mary (Catriona MacColl) has a vision.  She sees a sickly, hollow-cheeked priest walking through a cemetery.  She watches as he hangs himself and, as the priest dangles from a tree branch, Mary lets out a piercing scream and collapses to the floor.  The police are called and they promptly declare that Mary has died.  Later, while a hard-boiled reporter named Peter Bell (Christopher George) watches as two grave-diggers walk away from her half-buried coffin, he hears something coming from the grave.  From insider her coffin, Mary is screaming and struggling to get out!

Peter grabs a pickax and smashes it down into the coffin.  Peter may be trying to free her but what he doesn’t realize is that, with each blow of the pickax, he comes dangerously close to hitting Mary in the face.  Somehow, Peter manages to avoid killing Mary.  Once he gets her out of the coffin, Peter and Mary go and see a medium to try to figure out the meaning behind Mary’s previous vision.

What they don’t discuss is why or, for that matter, how everyone was convinced that Mary was dead for at least a day or two.  Mary doesn’t mention that Peter nearly killed her with the pickax.  In fact, for two people who have just met under the strangest and most disturbing of circumstances, Peter and Mary seem to be getting along famously.  For that matter, they don’t appear to be too surprised when the medium informs them Mary’s vision indicated that the dead will soon be entering the world of the living.

And so begins Lucio Fulci’s wonderfully odd and surreal City of the Living Dead.  Reading the paragraphs above, you might think that I was criticizing City of the Living Dead but nothing could be further from the truth.  From the start, Fulci establishes that City of the Living Dead is going to fully embrace its own unique aesthetic.

The majority of City of the Living Dead takes place in a small town with the name of Dunwich, a name that immediately (and, I believe, intentionally) brings to mind the writing of H.P. Lovecraft.  Dunwich is a town that always seems to be covered in fog.  At the local bar, men talk about the recent suicide of Father Thomas and they discuss what to do about Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), who the majority of them believe to be a a pervert.  Meanwhile, Bob comes across an inflatable sex doll in a deserted warehouse and, for the most part, just tries to stay out of everyone’s way.

(Bob was one of Radice’s first roles and, along with his turn as David Hess’s sidekick in The House On The Edge of the Park, the one that many fans of Italian horror continue to associate him with.  It’s a testament to Radice’s talent that he could make even a creepy character like Bob sympathetic.)

Even without the presence of the living dead, Dunwich doesn’t seem like the ideal place to live.  A greedy morgue attendant attempts to steal a dead woman’s jewelry.  A psychiatrist named Gerry (Carlo de Mejo) struggles to calm the nerves of his patient, Sandra (Janet Agren).  At one point, one man gets so angry with another that he drills a hole in his head.  That’s Dunwich, for you.  Who needs the dead when you’re surrounded by the worst of the living?

Speaking of the dead, that dead priest is still wandering around town.  When he comes across two teenagers making out in a jeep, he rips open the boy’s head while the girl bleeds from her eyes and proceeds to vomit up her intestines.  (Somewhat inevitably, the boy is played by Michele Soavi who, before launching his own acclaimed directing career, always seemed to die in films like this.  Even more inevitably, the girl is played Daniela Doria, who appeared in four Fulci films and suffered a terrible fate in every single one of them.)

By the time that Peter and Mary actually reach the town, the dead are already moving through the fog while storms of maggots crash through windows.  Even the sight of a seemingly innocent child running towards the camera leads to the sound of people screaming off-screen….

Even though it’s actually one of Fulci’s more straight-forward films (i.e., a character says that Dunwich is going to be overrun by zombies and then Dunwich actually is overrun by zombies), it still plays out like a particularly intense dream.  From the fog-shrouded visuals to the often odd dialogue, City of the Living Dead is a film that plays out according to its own unique logic.  The film’s surreal atmosphere may have partially been the result of a rushed production schedule but it also serves to suggest that, as a result of the priest’s suicide, the nature of reality itself has changed.

City of the Living Dead is not a film for everyone.  If I was introducing someone to Fulci for the first time, I would probably have them watch Zombi 2The Black Cat and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin long before I even suggested they take a look at City of the Living Dead.  That City of the Living Dead is a gory film should come as no surprise.  That was one of Fulci’s trademarks, after all.  Instead, what makes City of the Living Dead a difficult viewing experience for some is just how bleak the film truly is.  Even before the living dead arrive, Dunwich is a town the seems to epitomize the worst instincts of humanity.  There’s a darkness at the heart of the City of the Living Dead and it has nothing to do with zombies.

First released in 1980, City of the Living Dead is generally considered to be the first part of Fulci’s Beyond trilogy.  Catriona MacColl, who gives such a good performance here, appeared in the film’s two follow-ups, The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery.  (MacColl played a different character in each film.)  With each film, Fulci’s vision grew more and more surreal until eventually, he seemed fully prepared to reject the idea of narrative coherence all together.

Though initially dismissed by critics, The Beyond trilogy is today celebrated as one of the greatest achievements in the history of Italian horror.  City of the Living Dead is probably the most narratively coherent film in the trilogy, even if its ending raises more questions than it answers.  Personally, I love the ending of City of the Living Dead, even though it was apparently a last-minute decision.  (According to Wikipedia — so take this with a grain of salt — someone spilled coffee on the original work print of the ending, which led to Fulci having to improvise.)  It’s an ending that suggests that not only has the film broken apart but that the world is shattering right along with it.  In the end, the world falls apart not with a bang but with one long scream.

 

A Horror Insomnia File #29: Day of the Animals (dir by William Girdler)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you were having trouble sleeping around 2:30 in the morning, you could have turned on your television, changed the station to Movies TV, and watched the 1977 nature-goes-crazy horror film, Day of the Animals!

Now, I should admit that I was not suffering from insomnia last night.  Jeff and I are currently up at beautiful Lake Texoma and we just happened to be up late last night and flipping through the stations.  I should also admit that, unlike most of the other movies reviewed for this feature, Day of the Animals was not one of “those insomnia-inspired discoveries.”

No, we had both seen Day of the Animals before.  The thing with Day of the Animals is that it’s one of those films that, if you see that it’s on TV, you simply have to stop what you’re doing and watch it.  Considering that the man had a long career in the movies and I haven’t seen every film that he made, I could be wrong on this but I am fairly certain that Day of the Animals is your only opportunity to see Leslie Nielsen wrestle a grizzly bear.

Leslie Nielsen plays Paul, a businessman who is part of a group of hikers.  Shortly before he wrestles with the bear, Paul stands, bare-chested, in the middle of a rainstorm and attempts to taunt God.  “Melville’s God, that’s the God I believe in!” Paul shouts, “You want something!?  YOU TAKE IT!”  Then he turns to one of the hikers and says, “I know what I want and I’m taking it!  I killed a man for you!”

Now, at this point, I should probably make it clear that Day of the Animals is not a comedy, though it’s always inspired a lot of laughter whenever I’ve watched it.  Day of the Animals attempts to be a very serious horror movie.  It even has an environmental message.  Because of the hole in the ozone layer, solar radiation is driving all of the mountain animals crazy.  Mountain lions attack campers.  A grizzly bear wrestles Leslie Nielsen.  A group of rats attempt to kill a policeman.  German shepherds tear a man apart.  And it’s not just the wild animals that are being affected.  Leslie Nielsen goes crazy too.

Of course, Leslie Nielsen isn’t the only hiker.  Genre vet Christopher George plays the leader of the tour and Lynda Day George is along for the ride as well.  If you’ve seen the movie Pieces, you’ll remember Christopher George as the tough cop and Lynda Day George as the tennis pro who, at one point, dramatically screams “BASTARD!” into the wind.  Susan Backlinie, who was the first victim in Jaws, also has a role in this film and that seems appropriate.  Director William Girdler found quite a bit of success in ripping off Jaws.  Before Day of the Animals, he directed Grizzly.

But good ole Leslie Nielsen is pretty much the entire show here.  He tries really, really hard to give an intense and frightening performance.  In fact, he tries so hard that you almost feel guilty for laughing at times.  But then you see that head of perfect silver hair and you hear that deadpan voice saying, “Come here, you little punk!” and you just can’t help yourself.

Anyway, Day of the Animals may be bad but I defy anyone not to watch it.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement

Horror Film Review: Mortuary (dir by Howard Avedis)


Here!  Watch the trailer for the 1983 slasher film, Mortuary!

(It’s the first trailer shown in the video below.  Be sure to stick around for the Humongous trailer.)

OH MY GOD!  That sure was scary, wasn’t it!?  In case you didn’t recognize him, that was beloved horror character actor Michael Berryman getting dragged into that grave.  No matter how bad the film was (or is), Michael Berryman was one of those actors who was always worth watching.  Based on the trailer, Mortuary has got to be some sort of classic, right?

Well…no.

The trailer’s a classic but, unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the film.  This isn’t just a case of scenes from the film being edited into the trailer in such a way that the audience is misled as to what’s actually going on in the movie.  Almost all trailers do that…

No, the trailer for Mortuary contains literally no scenes from the actual film.  Michael Berryman isn’t even in Mortuary!

But you know who is in the film?

BILL PAXTON!

That’s right … a very young Bill Paxton made his film debut in Mortuary.  Even better, he got to play the killer!  Now, I know you probably think that I just spoiled the film for you but seriously, Paxton is so obviously the murderer that it doesn’t really count as a spoiler.  Paxton plays Paul Andrews, the teenage son of mortician, Hank Andrews (Christopher George).  Everyone agrees that Paul is a little bit weird.  Or, as someone says in the film, “Paul’s been so strange since his mother committed suicide.”  Someone else agrees and then adds that it probably doesn’t help that apparently, Hank used to force Paul to sleep in the mortuary.

In the role of Paul, Paxton gives a very odd performance.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a good performance and, if I ever meet Bill Paxton, I’m not going to bring this movie up.  But seriously, Paxton’s performance is so weird that you can’t stop watching him.  There’s a scene where he literally skips through a cemetery.  He seems to be having fun and good for him!

Paul is a little obsessed with Christie (Mary Beth McDonough).  Christie has been having issues since her father’s mysterious drowning.  Everyone keeps telling Christie that her father just had an accident in the pool but the audience knows — via the first scene in the film — that her father was only in that pool because someone hit him with a baseball bat.  Ever since her father’s death, Christie has been sleep walking and having night terrors.  She demands that her boyfriend, Greg (David Wallace), help her find out what really happened to her father.

Greg, however, is still trying to figure out what happened to his best friend, Josh (Denis Mendel).  Earlier, Greg and Josh broke into the mortuary so that they could steal a tire.  Josh went off on his own and ended up getting stabbed to death with an embalming pipe.  Greg never noticed because he was busy spying on what was apparently a black magic ceremony involving Hank and a coven of witches.

And one of the witches was … Christie’s mother, Eve (Lynda Day George)!

When Eve isn’t busy practicing the dark arts, she’s telling her daughter that she needs to get over her father’s death.  Is Eve trying to drive Christie crazy?  Does Hank know that Paul is homicidal?  Will Greg ever figure out that Josh is dead?

And most importantly — will this film feature any disco roller skating!?

YOU BET IT DOES!

I’m probably making Mortuary sound more fun that it actually is.  It’s actually a fairly slow-moving slasher film and neither Greg nor Christie are particularly interesting or likable.  Still, the film features Bill Paxton skipping in a cemetery and that’s worth something.

If you’re willing to look, you can find Mortuary on YouTube, though I’ve been told that the version that was uploaded was the television version so some things have been cut out.

But you know who hasn’t been cut out?

BILL PAXTON, THAT’S WHO!

mortuary-bill-paxton-2

Back to School #24: Graduation Day (dir by Herb Freed)


graduationdayposter

For the past week, we’ve been doing Back T0 School here at the Shattered Lens: 76 high school and teen film reviews, all posted in chronological order.  We started with two films released in 1946 and now, we’ve finally reached the golden age of teen films: the 1980s.

You really can’t take a look at 80s teen films without reviewing at least one slasher film.  With the twin box office successes of Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980, there were literally hundreds of slasher films released in the early 80s.  Since those films were specifically targeted towards a teen audience, it’s not surprising that quite a few of them took place in high school.  And, since the majority of these films were also low-budget affairs, we also should not be surprised that the majority of them were filmed in Canada.  In other words, this would appear to be the perfect opportunity for me to review my favorite Canadian slasher film, Prom Night!  However, I’ve already reviewed that film so, instead, let’s take a look at the next best thing.

First released in 1981, Graduation Day has a great opening.  Various good-looking teenagers compete in athletic activities.  One guy throws the shot put.  Another one does the pole vault.  A dark-haired girl does gymnastics.  In the stands, other teenagers cheer and smile because apparently, they’re really into the shot put.  Standing on the sidelines, Coach Michaels (Christopher George) shouts things like, “GO!  GO!  GO!”  Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens) runs the 100 meter race.  “GO, LAURA, GO!  30 SECONDS LAURA!”  Coach Michaels shouts.  We get a close-up of a stop watch.  Then we get a close-up of Laura running.  Then we get a close-up of everyone in the stands cheering insanely.  And then a close-up of …. well, let’s just say there’s a lot of close-ups.  Laura crosses the finish line and then collapses dead of a heart attack.  What makes this montage of competition, cheering, and death all the more fascinating is that there’s a wonderfully bad song playing in the background.  “Everybody wants to be a winner!” the singer tells us.  And I guess that’s true…

Anyway, jump forward a few months and now, mere days before high school graduation, somebody with a stop watch is killing the members of the track team!  What’s interesting about this is, despite the fact that they’re the only targets of this killer, we really don’t get to know much about any of the members of the team.  By that I mean that most of them are only really seen three times in the movie: during the opening credits, when they die, and then at the end of the movie when their bodies are discovered.  One of them — a blonde girl — is only seen twice, reportedly because the actress playing her got mad and walked off the movie before her death scene was filmed.  Hence, we only see her at the start of the film and then at the end of the film when another character stumbles over her head.  (In a move that would be copied by Tommy Wiseau in The Room, director Herb Freed gave all of her lines and her death scene to a totally new character, played by future horror mainstay Linnea Quigley.)  The end result may be the only slasher film where the victims themselves are all largely red herrings.

Instead, Graduation Day spends the majority of its time with the possible suspects.  Graduation Day came out at a time when the North American slasher film was still largely influenced by Italian giallo films and, as a result, the film is structured like a whodunit.  When we see the killer, all we see are the black gloves that he or she wears whenever committing murder.  So, who could the killer be?

Could it be Laura’s grieving and bitter boyfriend, Kevin (E. Danny Murray), who appears to be in his 40s but is apparently a high school student?

Could it be the grieving and bitter Coach Michaels, who is being forced to retire as a result of Laura’s death?

Could it be Laura’s sister, Anne (Patch McKenzie), who knows karate and always seems to pop up right before anyone is murdered?

Could it be the principal (Michael Pataki), who is automatically a suspect just because he’s played by Michael Pataki?

Or maybe it’s the school’s music teacher, who is fat, balding and wears a powder blue leisure suit?

Or maybe it’s the school security guard, MacGregor (Virgil Frye), who says stuff like, “I could hurt you bad if I put my mind to it!”

Or maybe it’s Felony, the band that shows up to play at some sort of weird pre-graduation roller skating party?  Felony — which was an actual band that apparently had one hit in the early 80s — plays a 10-minute song called Gangster Rock.  Now, personally, I happen to really like the song so I’m going to include it below.  Be warned that, while Felony was performing, the unseen killer managed to kill both Linnea Quigley and her boyfriend, so watch at your own discretion.

How much you enjoy Graduation Day is going to depend on who you see it with.  Like most of the early 80s slasher films, Graduation Day is a film that’s best viewed with a group of your most snarky friends.  As a group, you can consider such oddities as the fact that, though the film takes place in a large high school, it appears that there’s only about 40 students in the graduating class.  You can point out that every single character in the film appears to be a potential homicidal maniac.  You can enjoy the nonstop bitterness of Christopher George’s performance.  You can talk about different your graduation day was from the one shown in this film. You can argue about who the killer is and then, at the end of the film, you can wonder how someone that stupid could have managed to kill 7 people in one day without anyone ever noticing.  Even better, you can all get up and dance to Gangster Rock, just like the doomed characters in the film.

What fun!

laura