Saturday, July 23, 2011

#112: The Beast Within (Philippe Mora, 1982)

If we've learned anything from the movies, we know we should never leave a man or woman behind when we go off to get help. Let's isolate one of many scenarios. (Assume we're in the days before cell phones, unless you're a phone-hating Luddite like me.) You and your lovely wife and loyal dog are driving down the road in an unfamiliar area. It's dark. You miss your turn. You realize your error, and you swing the car around too fast and drive off the road. As you attempt to reenter the highway, your tires get stuck in some deep, soft gravel. You attempt to get out of it, but you can't. You're stuck hard. The nearest town is less than two miles away, so you walk back to town to get a tow. You leave your lovely wife and dog behind to guard the car. Big mistake, jerk. Why? Because a crazed man-beast KILLS YOUR DOG AND RAPES AND IMPREGNATES YOUR WIFE!!! That's why, sucker.

This is exactly what happens in the early moments of Philippe Mora's The Beast Within, a sleazy little drive-in/midnight/B-movie horror show that is not particularly good, but not too bad. This is the kind of movie horror fans will enjoy, but it is decidedly not the kind of movie that has crossover potential with non-aficionados of the genre. What we have here is little more than plot, gore, a few moments of dark humor, a little atmosphere, a weird cicada metaphor, killings, monster rapes, possession, good and bad southern accents, and weird mutations and transformations. Certainly not a waste of a few hours, but hardly one of the classics.
After the opening scene, The Beast Within moves 17 years into the future. It seems the unfortunate couple decided to keep the monster-rape baby. He's since grown into a nice, normal teenager, but complications have arisen. Shortly after his 17th birthday, his pituitary gland starts going crazy, and he's hospitalized in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. The doctor tells them he doesn't really know why their son is having this problem. He thought it might be genetic, but both parents have been tested and are fine. The mother wants to tell the doctor about the true genetic father of the boy, but pops is still uptight about the whole monster-rape thing and refuses to discuss it. After some pressure from his wife, he decides to relent, to an extent. The couple revisit the town where the horrible incident occurred, Nioba, and conduct some research into the little town's sordid secret history. They pose as journalists writing a book about crime in small town America, but they don't really fool anybody. They do discover that, despite the townsfolk's insistence that there haven't been any serious crimes in Nioba, a man was ripped apart and partially eaten around the time of the rape.

Their son soon escapes from the hospital and wanders Nioba at night, driven by a strange impulse sent to him from beyond the grave by his man-beast father. He's caught and put in the hospital in Nioba. Meanwhile, the couple's journalist story falls apart, but they make a friend in the sheriff and a few enemies in the undertaker, the newspaper editor, and the judge. This town has a dark secret, and everyone is involved. Meanwhile, the son keeps escaping the hospital and raising hell at night. He is then recaptured and put back in the hospital. This happens so often in this film that it moves beyond parody. Soon, members of a prominent family in the town start getting killed. Are any of these dramatic events connected? Why, yes, all of them. Funny you should ask.

Most of these events are all just preamble for the film's final 20 minutes. We get a pretty sweet transformation/mutation scene that owes more than a little to both The Exorcist and An American Werewolf in London. God, I miss non-CGI special effects. Hollywood wastes so much fucking money on catering and marketing schemes and star's salaries and bullshit. Why not blow a little money on master craftsmen making real stuff instead of the oddly textured and unconvincing computer effects that look like they're happening in a different dimension than the rest of the action on screen? Maybe, some day, CGI will look right. Right now, it's a joke and it makes every movie it's in look cheap and shitty. I'm just shouting into a void, I know. I complain about this 100 times a year, and no one will listen. "Hey," some Hollywood exec is not saying right now. "Some semi-employed, occasional substitute teacher is complaining about CGI on his blog. Let's scrap this shit and go back to foam and latex. Get Rick Baker on the horn now. We've got some robots and severed heads to build. Take it out of Shia LaBoeuf's salary. We've given that dope enough money." That will never happen. I just don't get our world sometimes. Why does technology always trump aesthetics? Just because we can do some things doesn't mean we always have to do some things. CGI can suck my ass in hell for all eternity.

Now that I've hit my quota of CGI complaints for the second quarter of 2011, I can resume my review. The Beast Within is loaded with veteran character actors, which may be of some interest for film buffs, but unfortunately does very little with them besides using them to further the plot. Still, it's enjoyable to see so many of them in one film. They include the late Bibi Besch (mother of Samantha Mathis), Ronny Cox, L.Q. Jones, Luke Askew, R.G. Armstrong, Logan Ramsey, Ron Soble, Don Gordon, and Designing Women's Meshach Taylor. Many of these actors have worked with Sam Peckinpah. Meshach Taylor has not. L.Q. Jones and Luke Askew get the best use of their talents out of the mediocre script, but Logan Ramsey also gets a nice moment when his character, so excited about the hamburger he's about to grill before he's attacked, decides to grab a handful of raw beef and eat it as he's being killed. He's not going to let a little thing like being murdered stop him from enjoying his rare meat.

The writing/directing team behind The Beast Within would go on to long careers in the horror genre. Writer Tom Holland later wrote the screenplays for Psycho II and Class of 1984 and wrote and directed Fright Night and Child's Play. Director Philippe Mora is an interesting case. Though his parents are French and he was born in Paris, he's lived most of his life in Australia and was one of the pioneering directors of the Ozploitation scene of independent Australian B-movies in the 1970s and 1980s. He was offered The Beast Within on the basis of his violent 1976 Western, Mad Dog Morgan, one of Dennis Hopper's rare 1970s leading roles during his bridge-burning, drug-fueled insanity period. The producers thought, "Hey, this Mora guy is great with blood and violence and he hasn't worked in a few years so we can probably get him cheap." The movie kicked Mora's career back into gear, and he's worked steadily ever since in two distinct tracks: genre B-movies and documentaries about philosophy, history, art, and culture. His other genre films include The Return of Captain Invincible, Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf, Howling III, Communion, and Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills.

Friday, July 8, 2011

#111: Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)

Kinji Fukasaku was one of the kings of Japanese genre filmmaking. Working in a variety of genres at a fiendishly prodigious pace, Fukasaku nevertheless gave the majority of his output a hard-to-maintain standard of quality and irreverent personal stamp notably absent from many other filmmakers who cranked out as many movies as he did. Perhaps his closest fellow traveler is countryman Takashi Miike, another audacious visual stylist who pumps out movies by the truckload and works in many genres. Fukasaku's best work is found in a series of formally inventive, extremely violent, darkly funny, and offbeat organized crime and gangster films in the 1960s and 1970s. From his claustrophobic and sadistic, compressed-space mini-masterpiece Wolves, Pigs, & Men to his more traditional gangster epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity and its sequel Graveyard of Honor and Humanity (which sit nicely next to the first two Godfather films and Goodfellas in their grand sweep and mixture of classicism and New Wave/New Hollywood currency), Fukasaku's crime films are a more than fine place for movie lovers to spend their time. The man had a lot more to offer than films about the yakuza, however. Horror, science fiction, dramas, samurai films, war films, youth pictures, and the indescribable Black Lizard, which combines a heist film, a gangster film, a murder mystery, a smoky nightclub film, a French New Wave homage, and a transsexual love story that's played with a surprising (for 1967) amount of empathy, sympathy, and matter-of-fact nonchalance, starring Japan's most popular drag queen of the era. I tried to describe it, but you just have to see it.

Fukasaku's final film, 2000's Battle Royale, is just a hair short of his 1960s-1970s best and unintentionally (in the sense that he didn't know it would be his final completed film) puts a period on the sentence of his filmography by combining a bit of everything he does well. Battle Royale combines elements of horror, science fiction, action, crime, war, drama, black comedy, the high school movie, and over-the-top soap opera sentimentality into a taut little teenage version of an only-one-can-survive scenario. The film also features one of my favorite recent performances, an understated black comic gem of revenge, loneliness, and cookie-hoarding by the legendary Takeshi Kitano. I'll come back to him later.

Battle Royale begins in a near-future that is much closer for comfort than it was 11 years ago. The economy has collapsed and public education is in the toilet. 800,000 teenagers have stopped showing up to school. The ones who still come are out of control. The government passes a law, the Battle Royale Act, to scare the bejeezus out of the little punks. The act makes it legal for the government to pick a random high school class by lottery, ship them off to a deserted island, and make them fight to the death until only one student survives. That student gets to go free, but he or she may be forced back into the mix as a ringer for a future battle royale. There are always two ringers. Some of them are past winners, but others are sociopathic thrillseekers signing up for fun. The ringers are called "transfer students" in governmentspeak. The particular battle royale in this film enjoys one of each brand of transfer student.

The students get to the island through a combination of treachery and drugging. They think they're taking an already scheduled field trip. They eagerly hop on the bus but are eventually put to sleep and transported to the island unawares by a heavily guarded military presence. They awake in a simulated classroom with electric collars around their necks. Their former teacher Takeshi, now a government employee with the battle royale department, happily explains the general plan to his ex-students and then shows them a video of a cheerful young woman happily filling in the details. The students are released into the dark of night one by one, by class rank, alternating between boys and girls. Each student is issued a bag of supplies, a map of the island, and one random weapon. Fate can be cruel or kind here. The weapons include guns, crossbows, axes, Tasers, tracking devices, poisons, grenades, bulletproof vests, swords, nunchakus, trashcan lids, and flashlights.
Soon, we're thrust into the claustrophobic hotbox of 9th grade interpersonal relations, made more intense by the new social order of kill or be killed. Some students form factions, some go it alone. Some refuse to kill, some kill themselves, some kill for revenge and/or twisted pleasure, some kill only in self-defense, some kill because they want to get into a good college later. It's a typical three days of high school, with more blood and explosions. Oh yeah, those collars. Four times a day, parts of the island are declared off-limits. Anyone lingering in these areas will get their throats torn out by the explosive devices embedded in the collars. The collars will also detonate if the students attempt to remove them or if more than one student survives the three-day time limit. Only one student may survive, or everybody dies. To drive the point home, one student's collar is purposefully detonated during the orientation.

As I mentioned before, the ex-teacher turned battle royale administrator is played by Takeshi Kitano. Kitano is a modern Renaissance man. A film critic once wrote that if one turns on a television in Japan at any time of the day or night, Kitano will be on at least one channel. This is probably not hyperbole. Kitano has worked as a standup comic, game show host, sitcom star, late night talk show host, actor, writer, director, and painter. He's a great actor and an even better director. In films like Fireworks, Boiling Point, Sonatine, Kikujiro, and Zatoichi, writer/director/star Kitano skillfully integrates slapstick comedy, extreme violence, action, meditative beauty, complex drama, bizarre non-sequiturs, romantic paeans to nature and love, his own painting, and his painter's eye for color and composition. His films are unlike anyone's, anywhere, and his body of work is a must-see for anybody who cares about movies more than a little. His role here is one of his most enjoyable. A scene where he answers his cellphone at a particularly interesting moment in his life is worth the next hundred jokes you'll hear.

I'll leave the rest of Battle Royale for you to discover. I've seen it three times, and it's still as exciting, funny, and gripping as it was on that first viewing. The first two times I watched the film, I identified with the kids. After several years in the fringes of education as a student teacher and substitute teacher, I now identify just as much with Kitano. I've worked with a lot of kids that needed the occasional crossbow through the throat. Teaching is a lonely profession. It's always you vs. them, even when they're momentarily on your side.
Fukasaku's Battle Royale became such a success in its native country that he got to work on a sequel. Shortly after filming began, Fukasaku was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died shortly thereafter. His son Kenta completed the bulk of the film. I haven't seen it yet, though most reviews call it a disappointment. Whatever the second film's quality, the first one makes a fitting epitaph. Fukasaku's earlier films have a world-weariness and jaded cynicism that comes with hard living and age. This final work bears most of his trademarks, but it's paradoxically a young man's film. The 70-year-old man at the end of his life and career made a movie with a young person's energy and enthusiasm. I like that.