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.

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.

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.”

Deadly Prey (1986)

Deadly Prey (1986) VHS cover

director David A. Prior
viewed: 12/30/2017

Deadly Prey isn’t my Best-Worst movie but it certainly deserves its place in the pantheon.

Ted Prior may not have been born to play Mike Danton, but he certainly built himself up into the monster-bodies hunk to go running around in his near altogether.  His brother, writer/director David A. Prior (RIP), has given him a place in celluloid (and VHS tape) history.

There are many laugh out loud moments.

How many times do people just wander upon Danton when he’s not paying attention?

When he spits in his hand to clean off the worm I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen.

Night of Terror (1933)

Night of Terror (1933) movie poster

director Benjamin Stoloff
viewed: 12/26/2017

Night of Terror opens with a fairly awesome crystal ball credit sequence. What follows is pure pre-code kookiness with several over-lapping plots including one with a roving maniac.

“Your eyes are like dewdrops…”

I don’t understand all the nuances of camp and kitsch but this movie is full blown something.

Here’s Bela Lugosi slumming it only two years after his breakout Dracula.

I’d say it’s ridiculous fun but the ending just kicks it up an entire full notch. And you’ll just have to watch it to know why I cannot say more.

The Love Witch (2016)

The Love Witch (2016) movie poster

director Anna Biller
viewed: 12/24/2017

A lot of people loved The Love Witch.

Anna Biller’s critique of wiles of femininity is gorgeous for sure, as is star Samantha Robinson. Steeped in style lifted from the late 1960’s / early 1970’s Euro art horror films, every shot is meticulously constructed, every idea intensely intentional.

And funny. A very off-beat funny, setting an awkward tone throughout. Again, intensely intentional.

Robinson is the “love witch” of the title, a super-gorgeous gal who has come to town (Arcata, CA for the win) in search of love. If her looks weren’t enchanting enough, she’s got potions, spells, and other tricks to capture hapless men in her dealings. But she also has a deep well of need that she herself does not understand, and all her natural and unnatural powers can’t give her what she wants.

Biller’s comedy is quite arch in its way, which usually leads to characters who represent particular ideas or concepts. But Biller’s attitude towards the metaphorical magic of female allure is double-edged. The witch as metaphor for feminine power and/or the fear of it is for Biller both true and empowering as well as cliché and a trap of over-simplification.

The film is two hours long and would probably be more effective if trimmed by a quarter. For all the beauty of the thing, and the humor and also the depth of concept throughout, The Love Witch did not entrance me as it did others. I liked it and am certainly curious of Biller’s other work.