Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Having devoted a full review to the lone full-on horror outing in the mix – the supremely tawdry and sleazy witch-hunting epic Mark of the Devil – the focus for this installment will be the remainder of Arrow Video’first wave of U.S. releases, an eclectic grouping of the black-and-white Japanese crime thriller Massacre Gun, that same country’s half Samurai gang/half ghost revenge yarn Blind Woman’s Curse, and the Lee Van Cleef spaghetti western Day of Anger. Released by MVD Entertainment Group, each marks out a very distinct corner, both aesthetically and narratively – the kind of exotic buffet courageous cineastes hunger for and revel in discovering.

My initial encounter with these flicks reminded me of nothing so much as the idle Saturday nights of my youth where, after the rest of the house had gone to bed, I would gorge myself on whatever random foodstuffs in the pantry (some nights it was graham crackers, others it was baby dill pickles) while watching whatever equally random madness the loonies of Denver's Channel 2 were serving up. A voracious reader of film reference books even then, I had often heard of the titles in question, but every once in a while, they would serve up something beyond my scope of knowledge and occasionally beyond my imagination. Such is the case here – even to my considerably more advanced palate, this remains unusual and rare cinematic territory indeed, resembling the resulting bastard children of Something Weird Video and the Criterion Collection were they ever to have too many drinks one night and end up in bed together.

Massacre Gun (1967), directed by Yasuharu Hasebe (considered by many to be the inventor of the “Violent Pink” subgenre), is a stark and beautifully shot action/drama focusing on hard-as-nails mob enforcer Kuroda (genre mainstay Jo Shishido) who, after being forced to gun down his lady love, opts out of the “family” and forms an alliance with his hot-tempered brothers Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji) and Saburo (Jiro Okasaki). This decision understandably doesn’t go down so well with former boss Akazawa (Takashi Kanda) and soon, a gangland war is a-brewin’, with strongarm tactics and machine gun battles galore. Hasebe breaks up the violence with exquisitely shot cabaret sequences where injured boxer Saburo hits the skins opposite resident crooner Chico (Ken Sanders)

If, like me, you’re not well versed in the world of this brand of stark and moody Asian cinema, this is a dandy place to start. There are a number of strange cultural anomalies (the indoor archery parlor, for example) and the chipmunk-cheeked Kuroda’s plans for taking over his former employer’s turf seem quite haphazard at times (consisting primarily of walking into a joint, roughing up the proprietor, and saying, “We’re in charge now”). But the character archetypes are strong and the atmosphere appropriately evocative of the classic Hollywood ’40s noir efforts, while the well-choreographed final gunfight is a marvel to behold.

Extras include a brand new 18-minute interview with Shishido and a 37-minute chat with film critic/historian Tony Rayns, both of which offer a wealth of anecdotes and historical context for the feature. Also included are the original theatrical trailer, a gallery of rare promotional images, and in keeping with Arrow’s superlative reputation, the packaging features a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan, and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, newly illustrated by Ian MacEwan and featuring original archive stills.

Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) is, according to esteemed genre critic Phil Hardy, “a bakeneko (cat ghost story) that is unusual in that the cat doesn’t represent a dead person.” Female gangster Akemi (Meiko Kaji) accidentally blinds the daughter Aiko (Hoki Tokuda) of a rival boss during an assassin mission, setting in motion a series of increasingly bloody and mysterious events, setting two rival gangs at each other’s throats with Aiko – who has become an expert knife thrower in spite of her infirmity – constantly stirring the pot.

It’s hard to do verbal justice to such a wild and extravagant visual feast, especially since director Teruo Ishii (Horrors of Malformed Men) is hellbent on defying expectations at every turn. Part yakuza tale, part samurai epic, part supernatural horror, the entire enterprise is draped in an atmosphere of darkness and mistrust, with oddly placed comedic vignettes raising their heads from time to time. (Most featuring Ryohei Uchida’s bowler-hat-and-loincloth-adorned thug, whose pernicious body odor sends many nose hairs acurl.) The opening sequence is a slow-motion, rain-soaked, arterial-spray operetta, with dragon tattoos undulating across the backs of Akemi’s warriors. Later, these tattoos will be flayed off the men (and women) as the story progresses and as Aiko’s quest for vengeance brings her closer to her sworn enemy.

Arrow’s U.S. release is highlighted by a new high definition digital transfer of the film prepared by Nikkatsu Studios, with newly translated English subtitles. Extras include the original trailer, as well as trailers for four of the films in the Meiko Kaji-starring Stray Cat Rock series (also coming soon from Arrow/MVD), as well as a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by former Mondo Macabro superstar (and personal pal) Gilles Vranckx. There’s also a marvelous audio commentary by Jasper Sharp, which details the various players abundant contributions, from Ishii’s Super Giant kiddie fare to Kaji’s Female Convict Scorpion series and Lady Snowblood (the latter paid homage by Quentin Tarantino via the finale of Kill Bill Vol. 1). There is also a collector's booklet featuring a new essay by film historian Tom Mes, illustrated with original archive stills.

Day of Anger (1967) began its life as an anecdote told by a young man, Renzo Genta, to renowned Italian screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (The Whip and the Body, Torso, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh), relating the story of an aging arthritic gunfighter who acquires a disciple to do his shooting for him, eventually becoming an even more lethal extension of himself. Though Gastaldi and director Tonino Valleri made substantial alterations to the final script (as well as adding scenes from a requisite German source novel to appease their producers), the result is one of the more impressive and ambivalent in terms of the gunplay and violence that serve as trademarks of the spaghetti western. Though there is plenty of both, the manner in which it is portrayed leaves a sense of desperation and futility as opposed to the usual gratifying action and heroic bullet ballets. There’s no denying the Sergio Leone influence – Valleri served as second unit director on A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More – but his is a more classical approach than his mentor’s extreme close-ups and prolonged standoff signature pieces.

As opposed to the youth described in the original script, we are presented with likeable lunkhead Scott (Giuliano Gemma), an outcast within his small town community of Clifton, collecting people’s trash and bedpan leavings in between instances of physical and verbal abuse by the burg's more affluent members. When gunslinger Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef) enters Clifton, Scott is immediately entranced by this mysterious stranger and soon seeks him out as a father figure – Talby even gives his young follower a last name, that of Mary, after the prostitute who brought him into the world. But even as Scott’s confidence and ability with a pistol grows under Frank’s influence, we see his innocence bleeding away with every bullet he puts into his former oppressors.

The film features several excellent action sequences (including one where Talby is being dragged endlessly behind a horse, leaving the audience wondering just how many stuntmen Tonino went through in the process), a spectacular saloon conflagration, and marvelous turns by stars and supporting characters alike. Walter Rilla is memorable as a benevolent father figure, a former sheriff who allows Scott to sleep in his barn, while Ennio Balbo, Andrea Bosic, and Lukas Ammann are enjoyably sinister as the town elders who surreptitiously dip their “clean hands” into dirty business. Riz Ortolani does his best Ennio Morricone impression, delivering blaring brass and thrumming strings with appropriate bravado, as well as providing some rare lighter moments by mirroring Van Cleef’s heroic theme’s melody with a banjo version as Gemma pokes along on his mule.

In addition to a brand new restoration of the original 35mm Techniscope camera negative (which looks spectacular in high def), we are treated to both the Italian and the truncated “International” versions of the film with English and Italian dub options. The generous supplements include a previously unreleased 2008 interview with Valerii, where he discusses the genesis of the story and his perception as living in the shadow of Leone, as well as new interviews with a robust and jolly Gastaldi and Italian film critic/historian Roberto Curti.

The latter is the more sober of the two, but amidst Curti’s struggles to overcome the language barrier (constantly searching for the correct English counterpart to accurately communicate his thoughts), there is a treasure trove of information providing context for not only the film’s place within the genre, but Valerii’s legacy as an unsung talent in spite of his numerous box office successes, including the Terence Hill/Henry Fonda smash My Name is Nobody. There’s also a deleted scene, a reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Reinhard Kleist, and new criticism by spaghetti western expert Howard Hughes.

And with that, the station identification in my mind’s eye is delivering its test signal before shutting down for the night (trust me, kids, it used to happen), and I’m drifting off to sleep with a satisfied smile on my lips even as my stomach rumbles. If this is the kind of weird and wonderful cinema we’re to be treated to now that Arrow has finally landed on our Western shores, there will be many sleepless nights to come. All three films are available for order now through MVD Entertainment Group, so don’t delay!

Massacre Gun

Blind Woman's Curse

Day of Anger

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


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