The slugline for Living Hell is “A Japanese Chainsaw Massacre”, and it’s easy to draw parallels between the two films. Both were shot on extremely tiny budgets with relatively unknown actors, both involve deranged, bloodthirsty families, and both are pretty good as long as you don’t expect too much of them. Living Hell has some good moments (and a few great ones), but in the end it’s only fair. A pity, because with a tighter script and some relatively minor technical improvements it could have been a grisly little gem. As it stands, it’s an interesting near-miss.
Yasu (Hirohito Honda, whom we last saw in Battle Royale) has spent most of his life in a wheelchair at the mercy of his unsympathetic family. They’re convinced the young man has mental problems, even going so far as to say that his inability to walk is psychological and not physical. With his mother gone, he lives with his father, brother and older sister as a near-prisoner, who deny him access to telephones and only take him outside when they can find a suitable excuse. His only companion is his pet bird, whom his parents can’t stand either. It’s a recipe for misery.Read more
The Black Cauldron was Disney’s “lost” movie of the Eighties, a groundbreaking release but also a deeply troubled one. It was the first animated Disney production with no song score (a profound break from tradition that was not to be repeated, it seems), the first of Disney’s animated productions since Sleeping Beauty to use true 70mm widescreen rather than matted Super 35, the first to use computer graphics — and the first to receive a PG rating, at a time when anything other than G was the kiss of death for a Disney feature. Small wonder: this was a harkening back to the days of the Isle of Lost Boys in Pinocchio, when the Disney crew was less afraid to peer into dark corners.
A shame the risk-taking didn’t pay off commercially. The film suffered from post-production tampering (courtesy of then-head of Disney Jeffrey Katenzberg), was poorly promoted, and laid an egg in theaters — showing once again showed that American audiences didn’t respond well to animated films aimed at anything other than kids. It also scared Disney off from doing anything remotely removed from the tried-and-true “Disney formula”. This habit would allow more adventurous folks like Pixar to eat its lunch in the long run. Cauldron didn’t even get released to video for decades, making it a sought-after commodity on the order of the equally-lost The Thief and the Cobbler. Like many movie companies, Disney seemed determined to treat some of its most interesting and groundbreaking work with utter contempt. Read more
The Punisher was one of the most atypical of the featured characters in the Marvel Comics stable, and for that reason all the more interesting. He didn’t have super-powers, and he didn’t have a lofty ethical code, either; he was a dispossessed vigilante out to destroy criminals in the wake of the death of his family. His chief attribute was his unquenchable anger, and he channeled that into his one-man war against crime. The filmed version of The Punisher, in its own underhanded way, actually dares to ask us whether or not putting on a costume and turning into a vigilante is really all that morally justifiable
The way it does this is by doing something few movies are capable of doing well: pushing our buttons calculatedly. You can watch it as the pulp-action thriller it was designed as, sure, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find something else going on. Someone once said about a book of Harlan Ellison’s, “Even while it’s slamming you into a wall, it’s tickling your ribs,” and I thought of that quote often while watching this film. The movie takes some minor liberties with the character’s origins, but his motives are the same. If anything, the movie does something the comics didn’t do, at least not at first: hold a mirror up to our expectations about vigilante anti-heroes.
I lived in New York City long enough to understand why there is a cultural fascination with vigilante anti-heroes. When Bernhard Goetz gunned down four black kids who were ostensibly trying to mug him on a subway train, there was no middle ground in the minds of many people: either Goetz was simply protecting himself against youth run wild, or Goetz was a violent sociopath who should be in prison for putting one of the kids in a wheelchair for life. Curtis Sliwa (leader of the neighborhood-watch group Guardian Angels) praised Goetz for fighting back, but since then we have been culturally conditioned to believe that we can solve social problems by whipping out a gun and blowing away the right bad guy. The Punisher shows us someone who does exactly that, but at the cost of his own spirit: dare we cheer him on? Read more
Comedy’s hard enough, and mixing comedy with horror is even harder. Leave it to Tsui Hark, one of Hong Kong’s best directors for decades, to combine the two effectively and even enjoyably in We’re Going to Eat You. This was only his second feature film, but he crammed it with so much energy and insane invention that you’d never know. It manages the tough trick of being both funny and gory without falling down too far on either side.
If I had to guess, WGTEY is probably what happened after Hark saw a few late-Seventies Italian horror productions and decided he could either pay homage to them or go one better. He has in fact done them one better, partly because many of those productions were humorless and stodgy (not counting unintentional humor, mind you), and had only the barest germ of a plot to see them through. Eat, by contrast, is blackly funny from start to finish, has a plot that’s about twice as involved as it would need to be for a movie like this, and even manages to sneak in some sly social commentary as well.Read more
Hiromi’s family life would be enough to stress out any teenager. Her mother and father are so estranged from each other they barely know how to say hello; her housemaid is closer to her than either of her parents; she’s got a crush on her tutor, who barely realizes she’s alive; and her only source of real solace comes from her talking dog, Junkers (pronounced YOON-kers, not JUNK-ers).
This does not sound like the premise for a compelling story, I know. It’s the talking-dog bit that probably had you fleeing in horror, right? Surprise: Junkers Come Here is a lovely piece of work, one of the best examples of how an animated movie aimed at younger viewers doesn’t have to be condescending, smarmy, or illiterate to be good. It’s the sort of movie a parent can watch with their children without having to switch off nine-tenths of their brain, and the sort of movie children can watch with ten-tenths of their heart engaged. It deals with issues that many children might themselves face, but it’s never saccharine and often full of keen wit. (Small wonder that it was based on a children’s novel written in Japan, as was Kiki’s Delivery Service.)
Hiromi’s parents are well-off enough to afford a comfortable house and plenty of things for her to play with, but like most kids with proxy parenting of some kind, she’s lonely. Her best friend is jealous that her sister, barely only a few years older, is getting married; Hiromi would be happy to even have a sister. She’s a good student, but her heart’s just not in it — she daydreams about her departed grandmother, and about one perfect day she spent with her mother and father on the beach all those years ago, when he mistakenly waded into the water and was only too happy to pull his shoes off for a family snapshot.Read more
After seeing a Hong Kong take on Italian horror (We’re Going to Eat You), I decided to check out a Japanese version of the same. Japan has produced explicit homages to Italian horror before, like the good-to-excellent Evil Dead Trap, so I was expecting at least competence. Junk is at least a competent entry into the zombie-horror entry, but it falls pretty far short of being an inspired one. It’s got all the ingredients, but the flair of the chef is missing, and it never winds up being more than an amusing time-waster.
Part of the problem, I think, is that this territory has become played-out. Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus had zombies and gangsters, too, but he found ways to move the whole thing into new directions. Junk is at core a remake of Return of the Living Dead, with a little of Re-Animator thrown in for good measure, along with some of director Atsushi Muroga’s earlier gangster-revenge movie Score, right down to the jewel-heist subplot. If this had been released ten years earlier it would have been terrific, but for it to have been made in 2000 is somewhat embarrassing.
Junk opens with a pair of scientists (English-speaking, as a fair amount of the cast is American) working to bring a dead Japanese girl back to life using a glowing green serum (sound familiar?). She’s resurrected, all right, but the first thing she does upon returning from the grave is tear a hefty chunk out of her savior’s neck and start chowing down. (What is it about coming back from the dead that turns people into cannibals, anyway? Is the catering on the other side really that bad?)Read more