Naked Fear

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“The Naked Prey”

The concept of “hunting humans” has been popular cinematic fodder for over 80 years, since The Most Dangerous Game came out in 1932. This isn’t the first specifically to target women – the Roger Corman produced The Woman Hunt did so in the seventies – but the prey in that needed male help to accomplish much, which isn’t the case here. The heroine is Diana Kelper (DeLuca), whose new dance job turns out not to be quite as expected – she’s more or less coerced into working as a stripper, unable to leave until she pays off the debts to the man who brought her in. The only way to do that is to turn tricks on the side, but her first client is Colin Mandel (Garfield), who is interested in a longer-term relationship. Specifically, one where he can take his female victims into the remote wilderness, where they wake up, unclothed and eventually on the wrong end of a crossbow bolt or bullet. However, with Kelper, he may have bitten off more than he can chew.

It’s a good concept for a movie – all the more striking when you discover real-life serial killer Robert Hansen basically did the same thing for real, up in Alaska – and much credit to DeLuca for a performance which retains her character’s dignity, more than you’d imagine from the pretty lurid plot-line. The problem is mostly the script. The two obvious flaws are, firstly, it takes too long to get to the interesting stuff (from both exploitative and less prurient views), instead, meandering around pointless subplots such as a new local cop (Shiver), who has suspicions about all the missing persons reports, but blah blah blah. And secondly, way too much idiocy is required by Diana for reasons of plot. For example, at one point, she completely has the drop on her tormentor, having knocked him out with a rock. Obvious things to do would include, keep on smashing his skull, taking his weapon, or at least removing his boots and clothes for your own use, since you are buck-naked. Nope: she just runs off. Really?

There’s some discussion over the ending: some have said it feels tacked on, but I liked it, and felt it pointed towards a potentially more-interesting sequel, with Diana swapping roles and becoming the hunter rather than the hunted. But it isn’t quite enough to salvage the overall movie, with the weaknesses noted above enough to negate the more positive elements.

Dir: Thom E. Eberhardt
Star: Danielle DeLuca, J. D. Garfield, Arron Shiver, Joe Mantegna

Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs

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When the series started in 1974, it originally appeared to be trying to take on the Female Convict Scorpion series at its own game – both were inspired by Toru Shinohara manga series. However, going by the fact it took more than two decades for a second entry in the series, I can only presume the commercial returns weren’t anywhere near as strong. This starts off well, with policewoman Rei (Sugimoto) luring in, and then blowing away, the man responsible for torturing and killing another woman. Turns out the perpetrator was a diplomat and in the resulting scandal, Rie is sent to jail. Her chance at redemption comes when a gang of thugs stumble into the kidnapping of the daughter of a politician (Tamba): to avoid a scandal, Rie is offered a pardon if she infiltrates the kidnappers and kills them all. Initially, all goes to plan, with the first member taken out quickly, but it soon becomes clear the other members are rampaging psychos, and the situation rapidly spirals out of control, to the point where the politician yanks his support and orders the deaths of everyone, in the name of damage limitation – including both his daughter and Rie.

The promising beginning is a bit of a con, as the majority of the film has Rei not doing much more than sitting around, waiting for the gang to destroy itself. Occasionally, she will prod them in a certain direction, but generally, they don’t exactly need much encouragement and she’s mostly passive rather than the vengeful fury for which I hoped. Now, there’s certainly plenty of tbe “fury” bit, with some of the most enthusiastic arterial spray I’ve seen for its time, and some of the torture scenes are close to unwatchably brutal (the cops are every bit as bad as, and perhaps worse than, the criminals in this area). However, Rei just isn’t as interesting a character as Sasori, despite sharing the same terse approach; she does fit in pretty well, to a cast of characters who all seem to possess few human or sympathetic qualities.

Things escalate particularly nicely at the end, when the police discard the “softly, softly” approach [which in seventies Japan, appears to mean “not actually killing people yourself“] and go after the gang, who have moved on to take a bunch of other hostages. This leads to a chase and shootout at an abandoned US military base, which probably also meant something significant in 70’s Japan, going by the occasional hints of anti-American sentiment. Noda has a broad stylistic palette, throwing montages, hand-held camera and freeze-frames into the mix, the last-named perhaps trying to evoke the manga spirit. It doesn’t come off as particularly memorable however, and if the lack of its own artistic style is more than made up for in copious sleaze, you can certainly see why no-one dared (or bothered?) to follow in its footsteps for more than 20 years.

Dir: Yukio Noda
Star: Miki Sugimoto, Eiji Go, Tetsuro Tamba, Hideo Murota

Die Weibchen

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“Deadlier than the male.”

This German 1970’s film is well ahead of its time in some ways, but is postively Neanderthal in others, being basically a scream of fear about women’s liberation. It feels like a far-less subtle version of Neil LaBute’s re-make of The Wicker Man, taking place in a matriarchal town, where women are in charge, with the exception of a couple of incompetent men, to lift heavy things and provide a facade of normality (the police commissioner is an alcoholic, who knows little and cares less about what’s going on). Into this scenario comes Eve (Glas), a stressed-out secretary who has been booked in for a six-week course of treatment at the local spa. It’s not long before she stumbles across the body of a man with a knife embedded in his back, only to discover that no-one believes her, with the clinic’s doctor telling people Eve is suffering from post-tramautic hallicinations. Is that the case, or is there something genuinely unpleasant going on? And what’s this on the dinner menu?

It’s clear this is a warning tale of what might happen if that pesky feminism is allowed to continue unchecked to its “logical” conclusion: there’s even an actual bra-burning, though fortunately it’s only the more photogenic members of the cast who take part in this. It does a particularly good job of straddling the line, where you’re not certain whether or not the whole thing is simply a product of Eve’s deranged imagination. It does finally come down to a decisive conclusion, with a scene which is surprisingly graphic for the time. Up until this point, the cinematography and direction do a nice job of capturing the hallucingenic feel of a nightmare, where it feels like you can only move in slow-motion and wherever you go, whatever is chasing you is already there ahead of you. However, it’s also surprisingly pro-feminist, in that it’s basically only the women who are portrayed as strong and competent: the men are all sex-obsessed or drooling idiots – occasionally both. If ever a film were guilty of sending out mixed messages, this would be it – but, surprisingly, I didn’t feel that hurt it much.

It’s certainly a unique entiry, perhaps to be filed alongside other seventies gynophobia, such as Invasion of the Bee Girls. However, with a woman at its protagonist, as well as the antagonists, this strikes a better balance between its elements and, despite occasional obviously dated elements, stands the test of almost half a century, better than I expected.

Dir: Zbynek Brynych
Star: Uschi Glas, Irina Demick, Francoise Fabian, Giorgio Ardisson
a.k.a. Mujeres carnivores

Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Challenge

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“In which Reiko Ike is shown the ropes. Lots of ropes…”

If the first Queen Bee movie was a fairly effective romp through the genre, that’s a lot less the case fot the follow-up, with Ike largely floundering around, as Maki, the leader of the Pearl Gang, who finds herself embroiled in a battle with another crew, the Black Lilies and their leader, Yuri (Kazama). Their spat is interrupted, when the Kuroji clan of yakuza throw their weight behind the Black Lilies. However, the triumph of the Lilies is short-lived, as they find out that they are about to be forced into life as prostitutes, for the benefit of their new allies, ending their life of freedom in the ‘hood. There are also subplots in which Yuri’s former boyfriend, Eizo wants to be a top racing driver, bringing him into conflict with the yakuza as well, and a suitcase filled with stolen guns.

Particularly early on, it’s no more than a series of vignettes, as we follow Maki and her crew as, for example, they attempt to swindle a monk who cheated a friend of hers, or pay a visit to a hot spring, where they are “voyeured” by a man wearing scuba gear. Oh, hold my aching sides, for I fear they may split. Meanwhile, the conflict between Maki and Yuki is decided by a game of chicken where they lie, head-to-head on the street, and someone drives a truck over them, until one of them faints. This is neither about as exciting as it sounds, i.e. not very. Though we do get introduced to a fairly new concept in sexual violence: rape by carbonated beverage. So, there’s that…

The main problems here are two-fold: the film takes too long to get to any significant meat, plotwise, and Suzuku seems overly keen on the sexual sadism. Now, it may seem odd to complain about that, considering the genre of pinky violence, but it definitely seems more of the focus here, and seems pretty graphic, too. If you’re coming to these films looking for empowering portrayals of strong women characters (as I am), what feels like lengthy scenes of bondage are probably not what you’re after. Ike doesn’t get the chance to get out of second-gear until the finale, which comes only after a badly-botched effort to extract revenge on the Kuroji mob. That comes about 70 minutes too late, to make this one a keeper.

Dir: Norifumi Suzuki
Star: Reiko Ike, Hiroshi Miyauchi, Chiyoko Kazama, Akiko Koyama

Ambitious Kung Fu Girl

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“More ambitious than kung fu”

Tian Si Si (Yim) is a spoiled rich girl, whose doting daddy pays kung fu fighters to give the illusion that she can beat them up. Despite his desire to wed her off in an arranged marriage to Yang Fan (Tak), Si Si runs off to meet her idol, Qing Ge (Chen), a true master of the martial arts, whom she knows only through the fictional tales of derring-do, told by her maid. Susequently, Si Si becomes the target first of con-men, then is sold to a brother, and when they realize who she is, becomes the centre of a scheme to force her into marriage, so her husband can inherit her father’s fortune. Throughout it all, Yang is about the only loyal friend, though when she meets her idol, she discovers that, while if he isn’t as depicted, he still has a courageous streak of his own.

This is clearly intended as a light and frothy confection, not to be taken seriously – witness the gambling contest between Qing Ge and his rival, which has much more in common with a modern game-show than anything from the period. However, the plot is actually smartly written, with enough angles and schemes to keep your head spinning, as you try to figure out who actually wants to help our heroine, and who is against her. I’m not normally a fan of this era of martial arts, often finding the action too obviously-staged. However, this is quite well put together, and I do appreciate camerawork which lets you appreciate the performers’ skills.

Indeed, as a film in general, this would probably rate a star or so higher, and is a fun 90 minutes: my main disappointment is that the heroine is really not the kung fu girl of the title. Apart from the initial encounter with the paid opponents, her “Sloppy Blind Man’s Sword” technique is hardly used. Though there are some other strong female characters – most notably brothel owner Madame Mei (Wong Mei-Mei), who clearly has physical skills beyond what you’d expect from her job – they are largely secondary and/or subservient to the male ones, with the possible exception of courtesan Zhang Hao Er (Choh Seung-Wan), who is certainly her own woman. But overall, entertaining fluff though this is, it only barely qualifies for inclusion here, rather than in our Hall of Misleading Advertising.

Teenage Bank Heist

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“Solidly acted and directed TVM, but the script definitely holds everything back.”

Recent high-school graduate Cassie (Cobb) works at a bank alongside her mother (Quinlan), bickering about the usual things, such as whether to go to college or not. This mundance existence is suddenly interrupted by a robbery: Cassie is stunned to realize the raiders are actually some of her school friends. When they realize this, the girls are forced to take her along, and she discovers the cause of the crime – the father of one (Thomson) has been kidnapped while on business in Mexico. Meanwhile, Mom is tracking down her kidnapped daughter, FBI agent Mendoza (Blasi) is also on the hunt, and one of the girl gang has her own plans for the ill-gotten gains, which doesn’t involve any ransom.

I wavered between 2.5 and 3 stars for this, but finally opted for the latter, because of the sheer volume of strong female characters: only one of the seven main characters is male, which is a rarity. The pacing is good, the film hitting the ground running from an intriguing opening scene, before flashing back to the lead-up to the robbery, and there pretty much isn’t a dull moment thereafter. Obviously, the TVM format imposes certain limitations on content, but the movie works within these fairly well, and the performances avoid most of the usual pitfalls and make the girls into fairly well-rounded, rather than irritating characters. Credit particularly Augie Duke as “bad girl” Marie, who has a fiery intensity that’s fun to watch.

So, why was I being indecisive, all the way down in the 2.5-3 star range? It’s the plotting, with a number of elements that are utterly implausible, particular with regard to the crime and how the FBI would handle circumstances. For instance, after getting surveillance footage of a crime, would they allow a witness unsupervised access to it? Do agents meander off to follow said witness out into the desert on little more than a hunch? There are a bunch of similar moments, where it’s necessary to suspend disbelief for plot reasons, not least the ending, which certainly had me raising a sardonic eyebrow and going “O RLY?” If these don’t damage the movie irreparably, they certainly weaken its impact significantly. And that’s a shame, as its strengths still certainly make it worth a look.

Dir: Doug Campbell
Star: Abbie Cobb, Maeve Quinlan, Cassi Thomson, Rosa Blasi

Karate Girl (1974)

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“Definitely not to be confused with the Rina Takeda film of the same name.”

This movie acquired some notoriety last year when a clip of a villain’s death went viral as “Worst death scene ever”, even though it had been edited and had extra audio added for “humourous” effect. Certainly, there’s plenty to mock in this 1974 Turkish revenge flick, which plays like someone heard second-hand descriptions of Thriller: A Cruel Picture and decided the world needed a PG remake. However, while aspects of the execution are without a question shoddy and laughable, it has an interesting story, briskly told, and with a good central character.

That heroine is Zeynep (Akin), a mute flower-seller who roams the streets of Istanbul with an apparently endless selection of cue cards through which she converses with customers. Her happy life is disrupted when five escaped convicts invade the home where she lives with her father, killing him and pawing her about, before stealing the money they have saved for a medical operation to return her speech. However, the trauma apparently had the same effect, Zeynep now being able to talk. She vows to track down those responsible and make them pay, with the help of a convenient passing transient, Murat (Hun, who’d go on to become an member of the Turkish parliament), who happens to be well skilled in shooting and martial arts, for reasons that do actually make sense eventually. Zeynap ends up joining the local police force to further her mission, which climaxes on a roof-top where the last member takes a baby hostage.

Apparently unreleased in the US or UK, this is available from the usual dubious sources, most commonly on a print dubbed into English, with French credits and Greek subtitles. Oddly, this adds to the whole package, which succeeds in being more entertaining than you’d expect, in a way best described as “barking mad.” Akin, who was one of the leading lights of Turkish cinema in the sixties and seventies, gives it her all, and certainly has the screen presence to pull it off, even allowing for some of the worst stunt doubling in cinema history – the wig used by her double is a completely different colour. The film manages to be both chaste and sleazy at the same time, with the latter best represented by the bad guys’ facial hair. No-one will ever mistake this for any kind of classic. However, I’ve been less entertained by many movies, and it’s enjoyable enough, for various reasons, that I found it relatively easy to overlook the undeniable flaws.

Dir: Orhan Aksoy
Star: Filiz Akin, Ediz Hun

Darklight

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“Never has the chasm between idea and execution been quite so yawning.”

Great concept: Lilith, Adam’s first wife, condemned to immortality, is now an amnesiac in a minimum-wage job. But when a demon threatens to unleash a plague of biblical proportions on the Earth, she has to be shown her true nature and convinced to hunt down the enemy. Unfortunately, almost every aspect, from exposition through characters to the action and CGI-heavy effects, are awful. Not just bad: awful. The plot is contrived and relies on things like TV news to propel it, the main protagonists are Buffy/Watcher clones; Lilith’s “training” consists of one laughably short session; the action sucks because she’s clearly fighting thin air, and as for the final battle…I’ve seen better and more convincing computer graphics on a Game Boy Advance.

There are a couple of facets I quite liked; the concept of a religious group secretly protecting the world from demons and so forth is nice, and Appleby has some screen presence. However, most of the potential is screwed up with ruthless efficiency; the makers needed to watch Witchblade and see how to handle a heroine with a past [admittedly, they had an entire season to work with, not two-hours-minus-adverts]. The angst Lilith feels is nonsense. She’s been killing since time began, so has clearly come to terms with it, so why break down over one death? She’d have been better off as an ‘avenging angel’, without moral qualms.

The ending is, inevitably, left open for a sequel or a series, but there’s absolutely nothing here that would encourage me to watch it. The best one can say is that, at $2m, it wasn’t expensive, but the SciFi Channel could surely have found more worthwhile projects to fund than this poorly-made collection of bits and pieces stolen from better heroines.

Dir: Bill Platt
Star: Shiri Appleby, Richard Burgi, John de Lancie, Richard Gnolfo