Alan Gibson ) The Satanic Rites of Dracula

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While Hammer’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula hasn’t garnered much critical or fan acclaim, it holds a special place in my heart for the sheer insanity of it’s plot: a resurrected Count Dracula, aided by members of a death cult, cultivates a virulent plague in the hopes of unleashing it on the world. The script, by Doctor Who veteran Don Houghton (Inferno, The Mind of Evil) is pure science-fiction fun, and if for no other reason it should be appreciated as the last time Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would share the screen as van Helsing and his vampire nemesis.

So – not an amazing film by any means, but an entertaining and – for Hammer fans – mildly significant outing.

Mamoru Oshii ) The Sky Crawlers

While it’s true that Mamoru Oshii’s _The Sky Crawlers_ is punctuated by jaw-droppingly beautiful scenes of aerial combat, the true pleasure is all the meditative stuff between sorties. Plenty of anime have dealt with the futility of war, but few have done so as effectively as _Sky Crawlers_ as the film’s Kildren (essentially ‘kill-doll’) pilots – genetically engineered clones designed from the ground up to wage war – tear each other apart to appease a populace seeking the cathartic release provided by armed conflict…not as a means of solving national disputes, but as sport.

There’s a mystery here, about the fate of one such Kildren, and an ace pilot nobody seems to be able to vanquish – but watching the pilots struggle to come to terms with the futility of their existence is the real draw. Anyone familiar with Oshii’s existential polemics won’t be surprised by this, but newcomers be warned – this is not wall-to-wall action. It demands – and rewards – your patience.

Jem Cohen and Fugazi ) Instrument

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Whatever else might be said of Fugazi, they know how to age gracefully. Over the course of sixteen years, six albums, and numerous tours Washington D.C.’s reigning DIY kings managed to stay true to their roots in the hardcore punk scene while producing work of ever increasing maturity and power…all while never breaking their promise to sign to a label.

Instrument is a remarkable testament to the band. Jem Cohen culled footage from archival footage he recorded going back to the band’s inception in the late 80’s; the result is a warm portrait that reveals the band to be much more than the driven ascetics their business tactics portray them as.

While it remains to be seen if Fugazi, who have been on hiatus since 2003, will ever return to the recording studio I’m glad Instrument exists as a testament to their ethos and work.

Pier Paolo Pasolini ) Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom

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Okay – so yeah. Salo.

What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said? To call Salo one of the most deservedly controversial films of all time is not hyperbole. While some may claim (indeed have claimed) that the levels of violence and torture in Salo have been surpassed in recent years (A Serbian Film comes to mind) there’s no getting around it – Salo is a difficult piece of work to digest.

Truth be told – Salo pales in comparison to its’ source material, Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom…although that’s not saying much. But how does one defend a work like Salo – a film that consists almost entirely of  the systematic rape and torture of children? I don’t think it’s enough to dismiss it as fiction, to merely say ‘This is just a film – no one was actually harmed.’ Pasolini himself said ‘artists must create, critics defend, and democratic people support . . . works so extreme that they become unacceptable even to the broadest minds of the new State.’ If one believes that freedom of expression is absolute, one must defend the right of films such as Salo to exist. Of course – one can simply claim that artistic freedom is not unrestricted, that creative works must reach an ethical standard for society to abide their existence.

I don’t claim to have the answer, although I tend to side with artistic absolutists on the issue. If the question of who decides the value of art boils down to society vs. the individual, my gut tells me it’s the individual who should make this determination for themselves, and not that of the collective.

So watch – or don’t. It’s your choice.

Bonus: Coil – Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)

Rod Serling’s Night Gallery

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While Rod Serling’s name will always be synonymous with The Twilight Zone, I was introduced to his work through Night Gallery. For whatever reason, I was utterly obsessed with horror films and comics as a kid. My local UHF affiliate would show Serling’s followup series late at night after all the sensible people were well off to slumberland…but a handful of neurotic insomniacs, myself included, would stay up to all hours of the night consuming whatever fodder the local television stations would shovel into our eyeballs.

While I would later discover how much better his previous boob-tube outing had been, I don’t regret my strange introduction to Mr. Serling’s dry wit and oddball charm. Looking back it’s likely that Night Gallery was my first exposure to the work of H.P Lovecraft through Serling’s adaptations of ‘Pickman’s Model’ and ‘Cool Air’…and it’s easy to see how the series perfectly complemented my youthful interest in horror comic digest rags like Creepy and Eerie.

Night Gallery premiered in 1969 with a 95-minute pilot episode that featured the legendary Joan Crawford under the direction of a fresh-faced Steven Spielberg. While this auspicious debut didn’t do any lasting good for Serling’s short-lived horror series (it was cancelled after a modest 3 years with 46 episodes in the can), Night Gallery is a fun footnote in the annals of television history.

Bonus: Night Gallery – An Inside Look

Masaki Kobayashi ) Harakiri

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Masaki Kobayashi‘s Harakiri is my favorite chambara of all time.

I don’t say that lightly. In my estimation it ranks above Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Lone Wolf and Cub, and just about any other samurai film you’re likely to have seen or heard of. I don’t mean that as a slight on those films – rather, it’s a measure of how high I hold Harakiri. And I”m not alone. Remember the shootout at the end of Taxi Driver, where Travis Bickle goes on his insane killing rampage? I have a sneaking suspicion that Scorcese cribbed that from Harakiri – a tight, white-hot firebrand of anger aimed at dispelling whatever myths the viewer might have about the sanctity of bushido.

Tatsuya Nakadai, whom most will remember as the gun-toting maniac Unosuke in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, is Hanshiro Tsugumo – a masterless samurai who has arrived at the gates of the Iyi clan requesting to use their courtyard to commit ritual suicide in the usual manner. What follows is a deconstruction of bushido ethics that unfolds in harrowing, methodical detail.

The suit of armor which bookends the film’s opening and closing shots is a powerful symbol of honor and martial spirit at one end and a hollow shell devoid of humanity at the other. Between the two is a beautiful tale of angry desperation – a napalm-hot declaration of war on the power of blind adherence to tradition.

And lest you think Kobayashi is a man whose personal convictions don’t live up to his art, consider this: during World War II Kobayashi served in the Japanese Imperial Army; he refused any commission above private to ensure he would serve his tour of duty exposed to the same danger as the lowest men in his unit.

That’s what makes Harakiri my favorite chambara of all time.

Link: Roger Ebert’s Great Movies – Harakiri

Cross-Post: Geeky & Genki

David Cronenberg ) Shivers

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70’s cinema was full of explorations of the decade’s sexual zeitgeist, but there really is nothing quite like David Cronenberg‘s 1975 effort Shivers. There’s not much to the plot: an isolated apartment complex is infested with parasitic critters which turn their hosts into sex-starved maniacs. But what it loses in narrative brevity it gains in sheer queasy terror.

The opening scene, a young couple looking to rent a unit while the camera cross-cuts to a horrific murder elsewhere in the building, is pure Cronenberg. True to form the film is chock full of people who barely relate – in some ways they seem better off once they’ve got one of those things in them. Cronenberg himself has said he feels more empathy for the infected than he does for the sterile inhabitants.

Aiding Cronenberg’s mayhem are a young Lynn Lowry (whose almost extraterrestrial beauty is hard to forget) and the legendary Barbara Steele, probably better known for her role in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.

Like all Cronenberg films, Shivers can be hard to watch if you’re a hypochondriac. He’s not considered the king of body horror for nothing. There’s also a fair amount of rape-iness going on – so, be warned.

Link: Shivers (Wikipedia entry)

Bonus: David Cronenberg and the Cinema of the Extreme (BBC2, 1997)

Jindrich Polak ) Ikarie XB-1

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If one were asked about film adaptations of Stanislaw Lem’s work, the obvious choice would be Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. It wouldn’t be the only option however. Filmed in 1961 by Czech director Jindřich Polák, Ikarie XB-1 draws from Lem’s work The Magellanic Cloud and as one would expect from a film derived from Lem’s writing it concerns itself less with propulsive action and more with meditative concerns like the ability of the human mind to cope with the rigors of long-term space travel.

The crew of the Ikarie XB-1 have been sent on a mission to explore planetary bodies in the Alpha Centauri system and the film charts an episodic narrative about the challenges they encounter. Even though the film looks every bit what you’d expect from a 1961 Eastern European production there’s no doubt Polák uses what he’s got in an effective manner. Before too long you’re well past trying to forgive the film’s limitations and find yourself simply immersed in the ship’s voyage.

Originally released in the US under the title Voyage to the End of the Universe, it wasn’t until 2005 that a properly translated version of the film was made widely available in America.