Female Prisoner Scorpion: 701’s Grudge Song (1973)

Female Prisoner Scorpion: 701's Grudge Song (1973) movie poster

viewed: 01/10/2018

Yasuharu Hasebe picks up the reins where Shunya Itō left off, directing the fourth and final feature of the Meiko Kaji “Scorpion” films. Female Prisoner Scorpion: 701’s Grudge Song is nowhere as good or satisfying. It’s much more conventional than any of Itō’s films.

Kaji escapes the cops and is found hiding out in a strip club lavatory by Teruo Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), a semi-emasculated former student protester.  Is this the first time Nami (Kaji) has needed anyone’s help?

Nami inspires Kudo to help her, though the cops focus in on him as her accomplice. He takes the beatings with masochistic fatalism, but vows revenge. Unfortunately for Nami, and for us, it’s amateur hour for with Kudo. Despite not giving her up to the cops, he leads them back to her hideout and then plans a failed robbery.

Does Nami really like him? She has sex that isn’t rape for once but also doesn’t seem entirely consensual or pleasurable. At the end, she tells him that it was another person that loved him, not her. An insight that isn’t very satisfying.

The Shunya Itō/Meiko Kaji films are amazing. At first I was thinking “Wow, she’s also Lady Snowblood!, these films must have been influenced by those.” Only if so, it would have been the other way around. I also didn’t realize until viewing these that she was also the star of the Stray Cat Rock series, which I’ll have to delve into more deeply. And then at the very end of the whole thing, I finally realized that it’s also Kaji singing the iconic theme song “Urami Bushi”.

I catch up eventually.

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972)

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) movie poster

director Shunya Itō
viewed: 01/08/2017

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, the second in the original Scorpion film series, finds Nami bound in a dark cell whittling a metal spoon into a shiv with her teeth. From the opening shots, diving down into the depths at where she lies, Shunya Itō strikes a tone of the horror film, a precursor of what is to come.

Jailhouse 41 breaks into a quickly quashed riot and then Nami and six other prisoners are sent to hard labor outside of the prison.  Itō strikes Nami in a somewhat Christ pose, pinioned to a cross, before being raped for humiliation by the ruthless guards at the warden’s order.

Itō takes the film beyond his Bava-esque lighting and manic camera and into more full-on pulp avant-garde. The women escape to an abandoned village where they encounter a ghost-like witch woman, expound upon their crimes, break into Kabuki-like sequences and some seriously far-out set-pieces, ringing throughout of horror and the supernatural.

The women are constantly pursued but eventually hijack a bus of tourists, running ruthlessly riot through the countryside.

This film series, with Itō running things, is just amazing and fascinating. Nami’s world is only fit for a scorpion. The police are corrupt, the wardens and guards are vile, the prisoners themselves rotten and selfish monsters, and even the average tourists are rapists and brutal ex-war criminals. Kayoko Shiraishi is Oba, the most vicious of the prisoners, who prides herself in having murdered her children, ripping one from her womb.

Jailhouse 41 is certainly most radical of the series, fully surreal, theatrical, non-traditional and wildly fun.


Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (1972)

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (1972) movie poster

director Shunya Itō
viewed: 01/07/2017

I was so gobsmacked watching Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) that I headed for Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion, the first film of Shunya Itō’s trilogy. Weirdly, I couldn’t get subtitles to go on it, but I went ahead with the movie anyways.

More conventionally a “women in prison” movie than Beast Stable, it’s still a hyper-stylized affair with the wildest tilting cameras, dropping 90 degrees, capturing at full width the full height of the image, just sideways. This effect is used to command the space in weird and new ways, not just a tilt for wonky perspective but a whole different approach to the use of the frame. And Itō does it effectively in spades.

It’s the introduction of Meiko Kaji as Nami Matsushima, a.k.a. Scorpion, the taciturn killer lady with “looks that kill”. It’s interesting how the film is structured, opening with a prison break before delving in flashback exactly how Nami got into prison.

This movie is a riot. A prison riot, if you will.

I fell fast for this series and Meiko Kaji and Shunya Itō. Color me enthralled.

Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973)

Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) movie poster

director Shunya Itō
viewed: 01/07/2017

I started Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable, not really knowing what I was in for. But before it was over, I was regretting not having watched the series in order. Also, I think for the first time in ages, I was in love…with a movie.

It’s not that you have to watch the films in order, but director Shunya Itō’s trilogy, pumped out in quick succession is itself a triptych of pulp mania and psychedelic surrealism, each unique on its own.

Beast Stable opens with the gorgeous Meiko Kaji stalked on a subway, escapes by hacking off an arresting officer’s arm and running for it, arm dangling from her handcuffs. She later uses a tombstone to carve through the chain, spotted by a prostitute turning a trick nearby.

The camerawork and cinematography are lurid, alive and vividly inventive, pulsing with Bava-esque colors. Perversity and revenge are everywhere, fulfilled by Nami Matsushima, the Scorpion. Takashi Miike, eat your heart out. This is sublime pulp Grand Guignol pop art.

The soundtrack is also incredible. I was so enraptured, I had to immediately go to the first film, Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion, to see more of what I’d been missing.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) movie poster

director Rian Johnson
viewed: 01/07/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

For maybe the first time, I sat in a theater seat when the Star Wars theme cranks up and the scroll starts that I didn’t have the brief flutter in my pulse. This has less to do with Star Wars: The Last Jedi than perhaps just me and where I’ve gotten to in my relationship with the film series. I mean, it had been out for three weeks before I finally saw it. I don’t think you could have explained that to my 10 year old self.

I wonder how anyone has a personal relationship with Star Wars anymore. It’s so globalized and ubiquitous.

I won’t try to add to the myriad litany of discourse here other than to say that, yes, I liked The Last Jedi. I liked the new characters, I liked the development of Luke and Leia and definitely did indeed feel that flutter at seeing Mark Hamill’s (and all of our) goodbye to Carrie Fisher. Kudos to Rian Johnson on taking the series into new spheres. I hope that they continue to do so.

It was most definitely too long of a movie.

Cool World (1992)

Cool World (1992) movie poster

director Ralph Bakshi
viewed: 01/06/2018

Ralph Bakshi’s Id is not PG-13.

In 1992, I, like about everybody else, considered Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World a bit of a disaster. In part from a technical perspective, comparing it with the much better budgeted and realized Who Framed Roger Rabbit from only a couple years prior. But also from the weird tension of a film that was a lot nastier and racier than it was allowed to be.

I’ve been working my way through Bakshi’s oeuvre for the past few years, holding back on this disastrous last feature of his (still rated 4% on Rotten Tomatoes, apparently). So, I put it on for me and my two teenagers.

Oddly, they both liked it. And oddly, so did I.

Though the concept is weak, featuring Brad Pitt as a 1945 ex-GI stuck in the Cool World, policing live action dudes from cartoon (“doodle”) babes with the one law in the land: miscegenation. Holli Wood (Kim Basinger) is the hot-to-trot honey, a modernized Tex Avery dream girl, who’ll do anything to become a “real world girl”. She seduces Gabriel Byrne, a cartoonist who thinks he dreamed up the Cool World, to take her across dimensions.

Bakshi (or whoever directed it) fails to get most any shot where a live action person looks like they are actually seeing the cartoons. Pitt is almost the worst at this and looks a lot of the time like he’s just hoping they don’t make him look like a moron.

The animations, wheeling out of control and nearly non-stop in Cool World is like a crack-fueled reel through 1930’s animation, in particular the Fleischer and Terrytoon studios, where nothing ever stopped moving, but pulsed in a cycle. This would maybe be just cute mice if that were it, but this is a Ralph Bakshi picture, so there is this utter counterculture subversion of all these figures, all chasing one another with knives or guns, twisted prostitutes and pimps, caricatures just barely this side of racial stereotypes, cutting loose with all they’ve got.

It finally all explodes on early 1990’s Las Vegas (now immensely quaint by comparison). The production values will never escape your mind, but if you give into the animation and designs, there is a lot of weird action.

And I don’t know, but I liked it this time through. It’s not that it’s necessarily any better, but I appreciate it more. And like I said, my teens did as well. Weird.

Svengali (1931)

Svengali (1931) movie poster

director Archie Mayo
viewed: 01/04/2018

I first stumbled on Svengali as a horror film loving kid. Though I don’t recall the context being that it was exactly a horror film or what prompted me to watch it late one night, but I was quite impressed with it and have always meant to get back to it.

Adapted from George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, its horror cred is owed in part to its legacy relationship to the Gothic horror genre. That, and perhaps as important, are the film’s design and aesthetics, which straight borrowed from Expressionist cinema to a great effect. And, of course, John Barrymore in one of his most notable roles, the titular Svengali.

Marian Marsh stars as Trilby, the former titular heroine of the novel. As noted elsewhere, the film’s choice to focus on the villain rather than the heroine as the core of the story, turns this also from a more typical drama and into a darker, more supernatural film.

When I first saw this film, I probably couldn’t recognize the depiction of Svengali as being anti-Semitic, but if you’re familiar with the depictions of the era in which it was made, it’s hard to get away from. Some might argue that Barrymore makes more of the character than any simple racist caricature, but it is deeply imbued in his costume and make-up, as well as some other characteristics.

It’s a visually rich and inventive pre-code horror film. Sincerely recommended.

Felidae (1994)

Felidae (1994) movie poster

director Michael Schaack
viewed: 01/03/2018

Wikipedia describes Felidae as “a 1994 German adult animated neo-noir crime horror film”. Francis the cat moves to a new neighborhood with his overweight but kindly owner only to find that someone is tearing out the throats of cast around the neighborhood. That seems noirish enough but as the story moves forward it heads into themes of vivisection, eugenics, and racially motivated genocide. And religious sect fanaticism. And the imagery gets dark, gory, and bleak.

Felidae is a most adult animation.

“Once there was a suffering dreamland… I was born there. It was a place of sorrow until the prophet came among us and brought us salvation.”

Filmed in classic 2-D cel animation, I wouldn’t consider the quality of the animation or character design to be that much above average. But as it is 2-D cel animation and the character designs aren’t worlds away from industry standards, it does “feel” familiar in style.

Also, interestingly, it was adapted from the first of a series of novels by German-Turkish writer Akif Pirinçci. I wonder where he took the series after this grim, dark original.

Felidae is a total anomaly. Really, quite the interesting movie.


The Witchmaker (1969)

The Witchmaker (1969) movie poster

director William O. Brown
viewed: 01/01/2018

Someone’s killing pretty young things in the bayou, hanging them from trees and draining them of blood. A team of researchers led by Alvy Moore (from Green Acres) drops in and gets marooned there for a long weekend. Only, as Alvy Moore seems to realize, there are more witches in heaven and earth than dreamed of in most philosophies. And some pretty active ones in the bayou.

“We have the formula for the flying ointment they rubbed over their bodies prior to a sabbath. It had enough hallucinogenic and psychedelic drugs in it to make anyone think they were flying.”

The Witchmaker (a.k.a. The Legend of Witch Hollow) falls kind of in between decades in style and content, coming as it does in 1969. But it’s an earnest effort.

It’s kinda awesome when the villain Luther assembles his brood of baddies from across the globe for his coven.

If witches/devil worshipers just want to get loaded, fornicate, and trip balls, I say “Let ’em.”

Satan War (1979)

Satan War (1979) VHS cover

director  Bartell LaRue
viewed: 12/31/2017

They don’t get more psychotronic than this.

Who was Bartell LaRue? A native Texan who had a brief, but seemingly successful career in television from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies as an actor and voice actor. Who then made a Biblical documentary The Ark of Noah (1975) and finally Demon War in 1979 before falling off the face of IMDb and apparently the face of the Earth.

But who was Bartell LaRue? What prompted him to make one of the strangest anti-Satan movies of all times? How did he get the satanic panic so early?

Satan War is mind-boggling. A remnant of American cultural Id. It’s not just a derivative Amityville Horror in gloopy darkness, bookended by an African American dance troupe performing faux satanic masses and dances. Did he think only black people could perform the black arts?

“Don’t laugh. I just blessed the whole house. Here. Say you’re prayers.”