Saturday, February 10, 2018

Cathy’s Curse

(1977) Directed by Eddy Matalon; Written by Myra Clément, Eddy Matalon and Alain Sens-Cazenave; Starring: Alan Scarfe, Beverly Murray, Randi Allen, Dorothy Davis, Mary Morter and Roy Witham; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“How can a film be a successful film if you have no stars, no production values? It can if it is a genre film. A thriller with car chases is a much too expensive affair. But a suspenseful film is easier to shoot, and it’s a genre I like.” – Eddy Matalon (from the featurette “Tricks and Treats: An Interview with Director Eddy Matalon)

One of the most eagerly anticipated blogathons of the year is the O Canada Blogathon, featuring a wealth of cinematic offerings and talent from my friendly neighbors to the north. Before I delve into this year’s cinematic offering, I’d like to give a hearty thanks to the co-hosts with the most, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy. For my fourth O Canada Blogathon appearance, I’ve dipped deep into the well to dredge up the Canuxploitation shocker, Cathy’s Curse (not to be confused with the Everly Brothers’ iconic 1960 song, “Cathy’s Clown.”).

Cathy’s Curse (aka: Cauchemares, French for nightmares) is a mostly forgotten relic (re-discovered, thanks to the recent Severin Films Blu-ray/DVD release) from the notorious era of Canadian “tax shelter” films,* which spanned the 1970s and 1980s. During this prolific period, many filmmakers found license to go wild, and thanks to generous government tax breaks, low budget genre films flourished. This French/Canadian co-production was shot in Montreal with a mostly French crew and Canadian actors. The tight six-week schedule was made worse, thanks to the involved parties struggling to understand each other. The end result borrows heavily from such esteemed films as The Exorcist, The Omen and The Bad Seed, but manages to retain a style all its own.

* Learn more about the weird, wild history of Canadian underground cinema and tax shelter films here

In the film’s opening scene, a father drives off into the night with his daughter, in search of their wayward wife/mother. It proves to be a short drive, as he narrowly avoids a rabbit, but veers off the road. The car bursts into flames, as cars that gently land in a ditch are prone to do, taking father and daughter with it. Several decades later, one of the surviving descendants George Gimble (Alan Scarfe), along with his family, move into the house that belonged to the man from the initial scene. Things start to get loopy as George’s daughter Cathy succumbs to the dark forces that reside in the home. Neighbor kids, the caretakers, the family dog,* and anything that crosses her path is fair game. So, is it a curse on Cathy, or is it a curse that Cathy brings upon the other family members? Well, I suppose it’s a little bit of both.

* Fun footnote: In the film, the characters refer to the dog Sneaker as “she” when it’s obviously a “he.” In the unfortunate tradition of pets and horror movies, you can probably guess the poor canine’s fate. But fear not, pet lovers, as we can see it breathing at the end of the scene.

Okay, let’s not mince words. Most of the acting is bad. How bad? Scarfe, who was apparently accustomed to working on the stage, plays family patriarch George Gimble as if he’s a character in a Shakespearean play. His theatrical gestures and cadenced intonation are all wrong for this sort of movie and setting. In one scene, he recalls a beloved childhood memory of a nude statuette, and in a later scene he handles the piece of artwork a bit too lovingly, to the point where – look, if he weren’t already home, I would have asked him to get a room. Beverly Murray plays his emotionally unstable wife Vivian. I’m not sure what sort of direction she was given, but Murray makes sure she injects histrionics into every scene. The only one who does a halfway decent job is Randi Allen as Cathy, in her first and only film role. She feels the call from a creepy doll in the attic which harbors the spirit of her long-dead aunt Laura (the girl in the opening scene). But the fact that her deceased relative’s spirit inhabits the doll doesn’t exactly provide the motivation for Cathy to go on a murderous rampage or spout hateful dialogue. Judging by the first scene, there was no indication Laura was evil, unless dying in a fiery auto crash somehow transformed her into a malevolent force. In a scene reminiscent of Linda Blair’s demonic tirade in The Exorcist (sans the theological gravitas), Cathy spews a litany of profanity that elicits more laughs than scares.


The filmmakers attempt to enhance the film with some not-so-special effects. In one of the movie’s lo-fi highlights, the evil doll flies across the room, into Cathy’s hands. How was this example of movie magic achieved? According to the director, it was simply some monofilament and a fishing rod. In another scene, there’s a ghostly portrait of Laura with glowing eyes. Instead of an optical effect, we can clearly see it’s been doctored with green lights. When Cathy uses telekinesis to shatter George’s beloved statuette into a million pieces, this was achieved by a marksman and a rifle (Actually, this effect works quite well). When the elderly groundskeeper gets liquored up (with a little help from Cathy – Who else?), Matalon and company simulated the effects of delirium tremens with all manner of creepy crawlies.*

* According to Matalon, “We went to a pet shop and asked for the weird stuff.”

I’m hesitant to employ the overused phrase, “so bad it’s good.” First of all, Cathy’s Curse, by just about any definition, is not a good movie. Is it entertaining? Sure. Also, keep in mind this was made on a shoestring budget, for a fraction of a Hollywood production, and frankly, it’s more fun than most of the stuff that comes out of Tinseltown. Sure, the dialogue and over-the-top scenes are laughable, but this is exactly what makes it such an enjoyable romp. While it might be a stretch to call this movie a lost treasure, you could do a lot worse on a Saturday night.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Black Butler

(2014) Directed by Kentarô Ohtani and Kei'ichi Sato; Written by Tsutomu Kuroiwa; Based on the manga by Yana Toboso; Starring: Hiro Mizushima, Ayame Gôriki, Yûka, Mizuki Yamamoto and Masatô Ibu; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“Humans are incapable of sharing sorrow as a group. They choose their own survival, even if it means damning others. Behold: this is a microcosm of society.” – Shinpei Kujo (Masatô Ibu)

The translation from manga to anime show to live action feature can be tricky. Witness Mushishi  – despite its stellar origins, the live action film version never quite captured the depth or subtlety of the source material. In all fairness, it’s tough to condense something that was multiple volumes and multiple episodes into one coherent two-hour film. Superficial traits and thumbnail sketches substitute for depth, until the finished product plays like a “greatest hits” compilation. Also, after we’ve grown accustomed to the animated characters, attempts to duplicate them in live action invariably resemble cosplay. With this in mind, I kept my expectations in check, but remained hopeful. Considering the manga and excellent anime series, Yana Toboso’s story about a young aristocrat and his demonic butler was a deep well to draw upon.

Black Butler veers off on a different tangent from previous versions, including a gender reversal on one of the principal characters. Instead of Victorian England as the backdrop, the story takes place in a near-future alternate reality, where the sun never set on the British Empire. The location is never specified, other than “An Eastern Nation,” which we assume is ostensibly Japan. Kiyoharu* (Ayame Gôriki) is heir to the considerable Genpo family fortune, and the 17-year-old head of the Funtom toy company (sadly, we never see the fruits of the company’s labors). He also serves a secret role as “The Queen’s Guard Dog,” spying for the British government. Kiyoharu has his own guard dog, so to speak, in his trusty guardian Sebastian, known for the signature tagline, “I’m simply one hell of a butler” (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge). He’s a demon in human form, bound to protect his master from harm and assist him in his quest for vengeance against the individuals responsible for the death of his parents. Sebastian is clear, however, that his loyal service comes at a price, as he vows to consume Kiyoharu’s soul upon his death.

* In the anime series, he’s “Ciel.”

In an early scene, Sebastian makes short work of some yakuza thugs, breaking up a human trafficking ring, which proves to be only the tip of the iceberg for a greater mystery. Kiyoharu is ordered by the Queen to investigate the gruesome deaths of several high-ranking dignitaries, in which the victims undergo a sort of instant mummification. Digging deeper, the clues lead to Epsilon Pharmaceuticals, where its unscrupulous CEO Shinpei Kujo (Masatô Ibu) has produced a powerful drug with some unfortunate side effects. In one scene, he unleashes the drug on a group of wealthy, unwitting test subjects, with bloody results. Besides suffering from a conspicuous case of affluenza, these upper crust twits reveal their poor vocabulary – I imagine most folks would suspect Kujo was up to no good with a drug called “Necrosis.”

The best performance belongs to Hiro Mizushima for his depiction of the unflappable butler Sebastian. Mizushima plays the part with restraint and dry wit. His suave demeanor belies a sadistic streak worthy of his demonic lineage. He’s not above toying with his prey or taunting his master. Gôriki is good, if not exceptional as Kiyoharu, single-minded in his pursuit of vengeance. He harbors a secret of his own, which I won’t reveal here. Other characters, such as Genpo family steward Tanaka (Tarô Shigaki) and the undertaker (Louis Kurihara) are glossed over. By comparison, Rin (Mizuki Yamamoto), the klutzy maid with an ace up her sleeve, fares much better. She gets to have her moment in the sun in one improbable action-packed scene.

Black Butler suffers from a weak third act, which coasts on the good will of the previous two acts. The plot devolves into familiar action movie territory, with a race against the clock to stop a bomb (equipped with the de rigueur LED counter). What was once fresh in Goldfinger has been copied ad nauseum, to the point where we know exactly how this is going to turn out. Another tired element is the drug, and its deleterious effects. Exposure to Necrosis varies, depending on how important the character is to the plot. The drug either kills within minutes or lingers long enough for the duration of a protracted scene (or two). On the plus side, the filmmakers wisely chose to tone down the CGI effects. While CGI is employed for backgrounds and to stretch the physics in the action scenes, the film never seems bloated with spectacle. There are a few notable scenes that benefitted from an eye for visual flair (especially the colorful gardens surrounding Genpo Manor), although it would have been nice to see more such flourishes.

Black Butler confirmed and denied my suspicions about live action versions of popular anime series. It never quite escapes the shadow of the admittedly superior source material, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t possess its own charms. It’s best to go in with an open mind and expectations that are lowered a notch or two. Black Butler might not change your perception of a manga/anime adaptation, but it works well enough. To someone who’s uninitiated to the Black Butler universe, it’s possible many of the quibbles won’t matter. And if it encourages rather than discourages digging deeper to read the manga or see the anime series, that’s not a bad thing, indeed.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Japan-uary VII Quick Picks and Pans

Creepy (2016) Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s thriller is a film that lives up to its title. Hidetoshi Nishijima stars as Takakura, a former police profiler now working as a professor at a university, where he teaches criminal psychology. He finds himself drawn back into his old profession when a detective consults with him about an unsolved case regarding a missing family, and he meets the one remaining family member who could shed some light on the mystery.

Meanwhile, Takakura and his wife Yasuko (Yûko Takeuchi) have relocated to a new neighborhood, where they encounter a chilly reception. Teruyuki Kagawa is suitably disturbing as their reclusive neighbor Nishino, who might be more than he seems, as he gradually becomes entwined in their lives. Creepy works its way under your skin with relentless precision. You may never look at your neighbors the same way again.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) The title of writer/director Makoto Shinkai’s (Your Name) heartfelt coming of age story refers to the velocity that cherry blossoms fall from a tree, which serves as a fitting description for the main characters’ dissolving relationship. Childhood friends Takaki Tohno and Akari Shinohara meet in elementary school, and drift apart as time and distance intervene. The story, told in three chapters, chronicles Takaki and Akari’s lives as they follow separate trajectories. In the most affecting segment, a snowstorm threatens to keep the two friends apart. As the film progresses, we feel their sadness and longing, as forces beyond their control conspire against them. Shinkai captures the ephemeral nature of childhood friendship, contrasted with adult ennui, teaching us the bitter lesson that love doesn’t necessarily conquer all.  

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968) 1968 was a banner year for Japanese supernatural films, with Kuroneko, The Great Yokai War, and this fine example from director Noriaki Yuasa (best known for the original Gamera movies) and Daiei Studios. Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) is adopted from an orphanage and brought home to live with a family in a mysterious house. While her adoptive father travels to Africa to study snakes, she must contend with a belligerent older sister, a mother who might not be altogether sane, and a stern housekeeper. Before long, Sayuri discovers that the family is under the influence of a sinister spell. But who or what is responsible? Filled with surreal imagery, hallucinogenic dream sequences, and thick with gothic atmosphere, the film recalls Hammer in its heyday, or an early ‘60s Corman production. Filled with twists and suspense at every turn, it’s a great dark fantasy for kids of all ages.

Rating: ***½. Available on Amazon Video

Visitor Q (2001) Takashi Miike has been equated with a number of different directors over the years, but John Waters? In one of his most unrestrained films, Miike takes us into the twisted world of the Yamazaki family (calling them dysfunctional would be a massive understatement). Kiyoshi (Ken'ichi Endô) is a disgraced television reporter, looking for the next big scoop that can save his career. He features his own son, Takuya (Jun Mutô), in an exposé of bullying, documenting every minute as he gets mercilessly beaten by his classmates. Kiyoshi’s wife Keiko (Shungiku Uchida) works as a heroin-addicted prostitute, while trying to evade Takuya’s abuse. Miike and writer Itaru Era pile layer upon layer of maladaptive family behavior, hitting all the right (and wrong) buttons, leaving no stone unturned to evoke a reaction. And just when you think it can’t possibly go any further, Miike pushes his movie over the edge. It’s a recipe that’s bound to be a polarizing experience for fans of Miike’s work. I’m not sure if I should applaud his chutzpah or condemn him, but if nothing else, Visitor Q doesn’t evoke apathy.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Underwater Love (2011) A lonely, socially awkward 35-year-old woman falls in love with a magical amphibious creature. At the time of this film’s release, the premise seemed more outlandish, but The Shape of Water changed that notion forever. Of course, since it’s a pinku musical after all, Underwater Love has a few different tricks up its proverbial sleeve.

Asuka (Sawa Masaki) works at a fish processing plant, where she’s engaged to the facility’s manager (Mutsuo Yoshioka). One day, she encounters her long-dead high school classmate, who’s been reincarnated as a kappa (a sort of half-man, half turtle yokai), and their relationship rekindles. Naturally, there’s the requisite pinky sex, but oh there’s so much more, including song and dance sequences (with music provided by the German group Stereo Total) ranging from passable to surprisingly catchy. It’s an amusing, albeit uneven mix of elements, but Underwater Love deserves an award for sheer audacity. Give it a try if you can find it.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Region 2)

The World of Kanako (2014) Kôji Yakusho stars as Akikazu Fujishima, a former cop who was fired from the police force due to mental health issues and alcohol abuse. After he receives a frantic call from his estranged wife that their daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu) has been missing for several days, he attempts to find out what happened to her. His quest leads him down a trail of sex, drugs and gang activity. The film jumps back and forth between the present and three years in the past, to recount the exploits of Kanako and her classmates. The World of Kanako features some strong performances, and it’s well made, but something seems to be lacking in its odd mixture of conflicting tones. At times, it seems like two different movies, competing for our attention: on one side, it’s a Tarantino-esque, style-conscious action fest. On the other side, it’s a serious family drama. Director Tetsuya Nakashima never quite reconciles these abrupt shifts. The end result is a film that’s as empty as it is unpleasant to watch.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu