The TSL’s Grindhouse: Red Sonja (dir by Richard Fleischer)


The 1985 film, Red Sonja, invites us to take a journey to a forgotten age, a time of a mythical kingdoms, evil sorcery, epic sword fights, and annoying little child kings who spent a lot of time shouting.  It’s a time of wonder, danger, heroism, and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Reportedly, the once and future governor of California has frequently named Red Sonja as being the worst film in which he ever appeared.  When you consider some of the other films that have featured Gov. Schwarzenegger, that’s indeed a bold statement.  In Red Sonja, Schwarzenegger plays Lord Kalidor.  Interestingly enough, Lord Kalidor is absent for the majority of the film.  He shows up briefly at the beginning of the film and then he vanishes for quite a bit of Red Sonja‘s 89-minute running time.  Whenever Schwarzenegger does show up, he wears the smirk of a man who knows that he’s going to get paid a lot of money for doing very little actual work.

The majority of the film focuses on Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen), a warrior who lives in one of those vanished ages, perhaps after the War of the Rings but before the sinking of Atlantis.  When we first see her, she’s being spoken to by what appears to be a puff of smoke, which is apparently meant to be some sort of warrior goddess.  The puff of smoke fills tells Sonja about everything that happened to her before the start of the movie, though we never do learn why Sonja needs to be told her own backstory.  After rejecting the sexual advances of the evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Begman), Sonja was forced to watch as her parents and brother were murdered and then she was raped and left for the dead by the Gedren’s soldiers.  The Goddess promises to make Sonja into a superior warrior, on the condition that Sonja agree to never have sex with a man unless that man can first beat her in fair combat.  Sonja agrees and is sent off to get trained by the Grand Master.  It’s kinda like Kill Bill, if Bill was a puff of smoke.

Jump forward to …. well, I’m not sure how many years pass.  To be honest, it’s next to impossible to really discern any sort of coherent logic to the film’s narrative progression so let’s just give up on that.  What’s important is that there’s this temple and, inside the temple, there’s a glowing green talisman.  Apparently, the talisman created the world but now it needs to be carefully watched over before being destroyed.  Only women are allowed to handle the talisman (Yay!) but they’re not allowed to destroy it unless directed by a man.  (Booooo!)  The temple priestesses are waiting for Lord Kalidor to arrive so that they can get rid of the talisman.  However, Queen Gedren shows up first.  Not only does she steal the talisman but she kills the priestesses as well.

One of the priestesses was Varna (Janet Agren, who you might recognize from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead).  Varna just happens to be the sister of Sonja.  (Sonja is now known as Red Sonja, because she had red hair.  From now on, I want to be known as Red Lisa.)  Now, Sonja has yet another reason to want to kill Gedren!  Rejecting Kalidor’s help, Sonja heads off for revenge.  Along the way, she meets an annoying child king named Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.), who is upset that Gedren previously destroyed his kingdom.  Despite hating him, Sonja allows Tarn and his guardian, Falkon (Paul L. Smith), to tag along with her.  Despite not being an official member of the revenge party, Kalidor decides to follow after them because he wants to beat Red Sonja in fair combat, if you get what I mean.

Red Sonja is a spectacularly silly film.  The dialogue is stilted.  Even by the standards of the 1980s ,the special effects are poorly executed.  This the type of film where the evil Queen nearly destroys the world not because she has any sort of grand scheme but instead, just because she’s evil and that’s what evil people do.  Brigitte Nielsen delivers her lines with a forced solemnity while Schwarzenegger, Bergman, and the great Paul L. Smith seem to be struggling not to start laughing.

And yet, there’s a sneaky charm to be found in all of the silliness.  For instance, when Sonja does finally reach the queen’s castle, she has to cross a bridge that appears to basically be the skeleton of giant rhinoceros.  No none in the film seems to be surprised to come across a skeleton a giant rhinoceros and, to be honest, there’s no reason for it to be there.  It’s just there and it’s so wonderfully out-of-place that it becomes rather fascinating.  Add to that, while the portrayal of the evil lesbian queen is problematic in all sorts of ways, this is a film about a strong female warrior who doesn’t need a man to rescue her and that was probably even more rare in 1985 than it is today!

Watching Red Sonja, you get the feeling that nobody involved in the film took it all that seriously and that perhaps the best way to handle the movie is to just sit back and have a laugh.  It’s dumb, it’s campy, it often makes no sense but, at the same time, it’s still a lot easier to follow than Game of Thrones.   Like many bad films, it’s only bad if you watch it alone.  Watch it with a group of your snarkiest friends and you’ll have a totally different experience.

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.

 

Italian Horror Spotlight: Ratman (dir by Giuliano Carnimeo)


This October, along with with everything else, I want to highlight Italian horror!  Today, we start things off with a look at 1988’s Ratman!

Terry (Janet Agren) has come to a Caribbean island, not for a vacation but instead to collect the remains of her sister, Marlis (Eva Grimaldi).  Marlis was an up-and-coming model who came to the island with a photographer named Mark (Werner Pochath) and another model named Peggy (Luisa Menon).  Marlis had her entire life ahead of her but apparently, someone murdered her on the island and then left her body in an abandoned building where it was eaten by a rat.

Obviously, identifying a dead sibling would be a difficult task for anyone.  Fortunately, no sooner has Terry arrived on the island than she runs into Fred (David Warbeck).  Fred is a true crime writer, a man who knows the island and who is always ready with a quip or a joke.  For reasons that are never quite clear, Fred invites himself to accompany Terry down to the morgue.  Why does Terry allow a complete stranger to go with her to identify her sister’s body?  Who knows?  Maybe it’s because Fred is played by David Warbeck, who was one of the more likable actors to regularly appear in Italian horror films.

It turns out to be a good thing that Fred came along because, when they arrive at the morgue, it turns out that the police don’t actually have Marlis’s body!  Instead, they have Peggy’s body.  Peggy was murdered while wearing Marlis’s dress, which led to a case of mistaken identity.  But, if Marlis isn’t dead, where is she?

Could she and Mark have gone deeper into the jungles of the island, hoping to find the perfect place to take the pictures that will turn Marlis into a superstar?  Of course, they have!  Unfortunately, what they did not take into account is that the island is also the home of the Ratman!

Who is the Ratman?  Well, his name is actually Mousey (Nelson de la Rosa), despite the fact that he doesn’t really act like a mouse.  Mousey was created a mad scientist who wanted to see what would happen if he crossed the genes of a monkey and a rat.  The end result was a 2’4 sociopath with really sharp teeth and an insatiable urge to kill.  The scientist thinks that he’ll win the Nobel Prize for this creation but Mousey seems to be more concerned with killing people.  As soon as he gets out of his cage, he goes on a killing spree….

Mostly because of the presence of Nelson de la Rosa (who, until his death in 2016, was the world’s shortest man), Ratman has a cult following.  And it must be admitted that de la Rosa makes for a memorable ratman.  Unfortunately, he’s not really in the film that much.  The majority of the film is made up of filler.  For instance, we spend a lot of time watching Mark take pictures.  A lot of time is also devoted to Fred and Terry having to deal with the incompetent island police.  (The police are convinced that Marlis is dead and are apparently willing to force Terry to look at every dead body on the island to prove it.)

Fortunately, this film also features David Warbeck and, as any fan of Italian horror can tell you, Warbeck was one of those actors who improved any film in which he appeared.  Warbeck always approached his roles with a sense of humor and a likable joie de vivre and he’s probably as convincing as anyone could hope to be when appearing in a film like Ratman.  Warbeck delivers his lines with just enough of a smile to not only let you know that he’s in on the joke but to also invite you to play along with him.

Reportedly, Ratman was a troubled production and the film’s producer stepped in to take over from the credited director.  That perhaps explains why the film itself sometimes feels rather disjointed.  There is one undeniably effective sequence, in which a model is stalked by a knife-wielding maniac just to then be attacked by Mousey instead.  Otherwise, by the standards of most Italian horror films, it’s a visually bland movie.  I would have liked to have seen what someone like Lamberto Bava and Lucio Fulci could have done with Ratman.

Ratman exists in several different version.  The version I saw was dubbed into French and it was obvious that a good deal of gore had been cut from the film.  (The “official” Italian version has a running time of 82 minutes.  The version I saw only ran 76 minutes.)  Still, even in an edited form, this film has an undeniable “What did I just see” appeal to it and it’s always worth watching anything that features David Warbeck.

Film Review: Atomic Cyborg/Hands of Steel (1986, dir. Sergio Martino)


Paco Queruak (Daniel Greene)

Paco Queruak (Daniel Greene)

I already looked at The Terminator (1984) knockoff film Lady Terminator, but there are many Terminator inspired movies. What makes Atomic Cyborg stand out is that it takes The Terminator and adds that much loved past time of arm wrestling. If you hadn’t seen this in 1986, then you would have had to wait till the arm wrestling greeting in Predator (1987) and Stallone in Over The Top (1987). Actually, the arm wrestling is pretty ridiculous.

The movie begins with Paco (Daniel Greene) going to kill a guy. At this point, we really don’t know anything. Paco tries to kill this guy, but fails. It soon emerges that a bad guy played by John Saxon sent Paco, who is a cyborg. Paco flees to Arizona and takes up residence at a bar with a woman named Linda (Janet Agren). Apparently, arm wrestling is big in these parts. Paco doesn’t engage in it at first, but after receiving a message on a roll of toilet paper, this happens, and it’s go time!

You're On

Arm Wrestling

Meanwhile, the cops are trying to figure out what weapon was used to attack the good guy. They don’t know it was Paco. In fact, them trying to figure it out provides the film with one of it’s funniest scenes. The computer displays an image of the weapon and possible objects it could be. I totally look at that and see an ashtray, don’t you?

Clearly that shape is anything but a hand

Clearly that shape is anything but a hand

Meanwhile, the bad guys are also searching for Paco. You see, Paco isn’t a cyborg in the same way as The Terminator. The Terminator is a machine with biological parts added to create a cyborg. Paco is like RoboCop in that he is a human that, according to him, is made up of 70% machine. That’s why he wasn’t able to carry out his mission. It’s also why he is able to be provoked, form a bond with Linda, and be tricked into a trap under the pretense that some kids need to be saved. They are pissed that he has failed them.

There really isn’t anything else to the movie. I know I say that a lot, but that’s the case with many of the films I watch. They’re pretty simple. While Paco arm wrestles, the good guys try to figure out what happened while the bad guys search for Paco. Here’s a few highlights though. I always feel it’s important to show you, rather than just try and use words. Otherwise, it’s like trying to describe to something living in 2D what it’s like in three dimensions.

The movie is made by Italians, so of course the beat the hero up scene that came into Spaghetti Westerns via Yojimbo is here.

The movie is made by Italians, so of course the beat the hero up scene that came into Spaghetti Westerns via Yojimbo is here.

The rattlesnake arm wrestling scene.

The rattlesnake arm wrestling scene.

Repairs

Repairs

Clearly, this Atari 2600 game will help them find Paco.

Clearly, this Atari 2600 game will help them find Paco.

Lady Atomic Cyborg

Lady Atomic Cyborg

All I can say is, it’s fun. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it, but it’s enjoyable. I do love the ending screen.

A Baad Asssss Cyborg Is Coming To Collect Some Dues?

A Baad Asssss Cyborg Is Coming To Collect Some Dues?

There are two behind the scenes things worth mentioning. First, if you look up Daniel Greene who played Paco, you will find that he seems to be a favorite of the Farrelly brothers. He’s in many of their films from Kingpin on. Second, John Saxon’s co-star Claudio Cassinelli was killed in a helicopter crash while filming in Arizona. Since this movie wasn’t a union picture, John Saxon followed SAG guidelines and shot all his scenes in Italy. He credits SAG with saving his life because he figures he would have been on the helicopter in Arizona if he hadn’t followed the rules. At least this is according to IMDb.