Tag Archives: Action

LIST CANDIDATE: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Barkett

FEATURING: Steve Barkett, Christopher Barkett, Tera Hendrickson, John Henry Richardson,

PLOT: A bounty hunter haunted by the memory of an old flame who was killed by a Satanic cult swings into action twenty years later to bring them to justice and solve the remaining puzzles.

Still from Empire of the Dark (1990)

COMMENTS: The first thing you will notice about Empire of the Dark is that it’s a passion project by writer/director/star Steve Barkett, he of only two directing and three production credits. But give it a chance. Barkett is at the opposite end of the shoestring auteur spectrum from the likes of Neil Breen. Barkett is self-aware, has a sense of humor, and places the audience first. He has every opportunity to turn his story into an ego fulfillment fantasy, but cheerfully writes his script with a female character turning down his advances just to deconstruct that trope. Every decision he makes is based on producing the most entertaining movie possible, given his limited means. Even though Empire of the Dark is a low-budget production with plenty of rough edges, it is by far the best budget vanity project your humble reviewer has ever watched. You can even riff on the silly parts. Recall my rule about distinguishing brainless movies from stupid movies. This is one of the brainless, fun ones.

We open on a Satanic cult hiding out in a cave which is accessed by a portal in the wall of a house. Blades aloft, cultists are about to sacrifice both a woman, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), and her baby on the same altar. Enter our hero Richard Flynn (Barkett), who fights his way through the fanatics, making it to the altar with one bullet left. Two cultists are bringing their knives down on two victims, so he has to choose. Angela screams at him to save her baby; Richard obliges by shooting one executioner and rescuing the kid, running away with him in his arms even as Angela meets her fate. 20 years later, that baby grows up to be Terry Nash, returned to town with a mysterious photo of the cult leader and some news that the Satanists are behind a present-day string of murders deemed the “demon slasher” case. Meanwhile, Angela appears to Flynn in dream sequences, to get good use out of that fog machine.

What follows is a swashbuckling yarn as Flynn, an unlikely action beefcake who knows exactly how out of shape he is, shoots and stabs his way through bad guys. This will take him through a painfully amateur and yet thrilling pursuit within a small-town grocery store, an ambush in the woods from sword-wielding cultists dispatched with exactly one bullet each, and ultimately back to the foam-rock caves of the cult’s lair to confront them and a testy summoned demon. Flynn’s sidekick in this quest is local cop Eddie Green (John Henry Richardson), who plays it hilariously straight as a hard-boiled stereotype who is not the least bemused by demon-summoning Renaissance-fair rejects. Consultations with a nun and a psychic take just long enough to drop a clue, throw in some ham, and move on to the next body-count scene. While the dialog is hokey, with the occasional glib line, there is mercifully little of it. The pace jogs along nicely, with just enough reflective inter-action palette cleansers to allow you to catch your breath. Even though the gins never run out of ammo and can be blessed by the local clergy in preparation for taking down Satanists, Flynn and his team will sometimes abandon them for swords.

While Steve Barkett isn’t exactly a major talent, as a producer he has a talent for spending the money where it counts. Empire of the Dark is chock full of ballsy stunts, cheesy late-80s monster-madness special effects, and a full orchestral score which punctuates the whole movie with a trite, but ear-friendly, action soundtrack. Cinematography is on point and the shooting location (which I’m guessing is in the U.S, Northwest?) does it many favors. Just be advised, it still gets silly! Every cultist is dressed in an identical Dollar Tree hooded robe and mask costume. One after another, they die like flies, yet there seems to be thousands of them, like a video game level you can’t clear. The big bad demon is sometimes a puppet and sometimes stop-motion animated. The fake blood is played by what appears to be dainty smears of raspberry jam. Vast plot holes are never explained. But this movie doesn’t care beans whether you’re cheering it or laughing at it, as long as it kept you amused.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is the exact movie all of us would have liked to make when we were 14 years old. Empire of the Dark is best served with a bag of Halloween candy and an ice-cold Mountain Dew. The fact that this movie is not better known, even as a cult weird-o fan favorite, is flabbergasting. But that’s life when you’re a vanity project.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enveloped by an exceedingly melodramatic and non-stop symphonic score, and peppered with delirious optical effects and endearing stop-motion monsters, Empire of the Dark is a trampoline of a movie, repeatedly reaching its ambition before hilariously tumbling down into sublime silliness.”–Laser Blast Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich, whom stumbled upon it thanks to a lucky random Tumblr click. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: VERSUS (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ryûhei Kitamura

FEATURING: , Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka

PLOT: Two escaped convicts make their way to the location where gangsters are supposed to pick them up; double-crosses follow, complicated by the fact that the rendezvous spot is a mystical forest where the dead quickly return to life.

Still from Versus (2000)

COMMENTS: Although there’s a token plot involving a gate to Hell and reincarnation, Versus is basically nonstop dopey comic book violence, choreographed by filmmakers who don’t care as much about logic as they do about making sure the actors look cool while shooting zombies. From about the ten-minute mark until the credits roll after two hours, the movie  is one long melee, with a few pauses to catch its breath.

Because the dead pop right back up as zombies here in the “resurrection forest,” there’s seldom a lack of victims; if the script temporarily runs short of bodies, it just brings in another platoon of yakuza or cops from off-screen and the killing starts again. The cast is so large that you lose track of who’s killed who, and how many times. Sometimes it only takes one bullet to take down a zombie; sometimes twenty are needed. For variety’s sake there’s ample kickboxing, knife fights, some kind of combination machine gun/bazooka, and samurai swords pulled out for the final showdown. The violence is often played for grossout laughs—Evil Dead II is a big influence here—with heart-eating, a bad guy who can punch straight through heads, and eyeballs stuck on the ends of fingers. More conventional comic relief comes in a cowardly yakuza, and there’s also a tiresome running gag where the hero keeps knocking the heroine unconscious. The mythology motivating the massacre is serviceable, the leads look good, and the action is sold in bulk. And that’s about it.

In hindsight, Versus is not an incredibly weird film, although the mix of samurai, yakuza, zombies, and nonstop gore was novel at the time. The movie was significant as a proto- film, however. Not only did it launch the career of cult action star and subgenre icon Tak Sakaguchi, but it’s also the first screenwriting credit for , who would go on to mix the absurd violence found here with -style body horror in Meatball Machine (2005) to launch the line of bioweapondry-obsessed B-movies that grew increasingly ridiculous throughout the early 21 century.

Arrow Video’s 2021 “Limited Edition” Blu-ray is another Criterion-quality set from the specialty releaser, with numerous extras and a second disc housing the “Ultimate Edition” of Versus. This 131-minute cut provides an additional 11 minutes of fighting footage that was newly shot in 2003. If you’re surprised that they went back to the forest to film even more fight scenes, rather than some extra exposition or character development, then you’re probably not in the target audience for Ultimate Versus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kitamura’s gonzo flick is overstuffed to the point of nausea, its barrage of gory outrageousness becoming wearisome after the first fifty fatal mutilations…”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Martin,” who described it as a “Japanese gangster, zombie, martial arts, apocalypse movie. Mind blowing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: GENIUS PARTY (2007)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Hideki Futamura, Yuji Fukuyama, Shoji Kawamori, Shinji Kimura, , Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Various voice actors

PLOT: Six short animated films from different directors associated with Japan’s Studio 4ºC.

COMMENTS: There’s no better way to enjoy the Christmas/Saint Stephen’s/Saint John’s/Holy Innocent’s holiday run than to nestle back with coffee and cartoons, so I kicked up my heels and dove deep into a very fine collection of anime wonderments (as well as a mixed metaphor). Each entry in this 2007 anthology gets its own paragraph.

“Shanghai Dragon” – dir. by Shoji Kawamori

Somehow the fate of humanity rests in the snot-covered hands of 5-year-old Gonglong when a mysterious, magical piece of chalk is crash-delivered to his schoolyard. “Shanghai Dragon” playfully riffs on the Terminator premise, showcasing the likely whimsicality if mankind’s savior were a very, very young boy. Kawamori’s short is, in a way, straight-up action anime, including a cybernetically enhanced, cigar-smoking badass; killer robots; hundreds of explosions; and a giant AI-controlled dog robot. But it’s also one of the cutest cartoons I have ever seen.

“Deathtic 4” – dir.  Shinji Kimura

Four young school friends plot to save a (live) frog that was somehow transported to their (zombie) planet by the hazardous Uzu-Uzu weather event. While “Shanghai Dragon” was cute, “Deathtic 4” (presumably the planet’s name) is one of the ickier cartoons I’ve seen—but it still immolated me in a fire-wall of charm. The quartet inhabits a sicklier variant of ‘s “Halloween Town“, and are all losers (despite three of them claiming “super powers”). The Zombie Police discover the living froggy, they sound the alarm–via a detachable siren nose that turns out to be one of those “moooo” canisters. The lads then flee toward the MASSIVE cyclone, Uzu-Uzu, with a plan ripped from a Garbage Pail Kids’ E.T.

“Doorbell” – dir. by Yuji Fukuyama

Fukuyama’s short is by far and away the most cryptic of the bunch, but that isn’t what made it my least favorite—or maybe it is. My suspicion is the director is attempting a philosophical exercise concerning infinite realities, all variants centered around one focal point: in “Doorbell”s case, that of a young man whose versions of himself keep splitting off and cutting him off from future paths. Neat, and pleasantly understated—and as such, feels a little out of place here.

“Limit Cycle” – dir. by Hideki Futamura

Playing like a cyber-theological TED talk, Futamura’s short lacks narrative and characters, but is the most fascinating entry. Its layered visuals, which combine classic animation, computer animation along with symbolic numbers, images, and math, are lush and hypnotic—prompting me to sorely regret my lack of fluency in Japanese, as my eyes had to stay anchored to the persistent subtitles to have any grasp of what was going on. Beautiful to behold while raising many profound philosophical points.

“Happy Machine” – dir. by Masaaki Yuasa

Humanistic allegory meets wacky animation in this short. The story begins with a happy infant (whimsical mobile above his bed, toys lining shelves, loving mother approaching to feed him) whose reality is sucked away, forcing him on a strange journey through a wasteland. Animation itself is deconstructed as its artifice collapses along with the infant’s home—and that’s just one of the dozen or so dissections of life, etc., that Yuasa performs with his singular ‘tooning style.

“Baby Blue” – dir. by Shinichiro Watanabe

Boy is going to be moving away from his school–and his girl-crush–and so suggests that he and she cut class and head out. To anywhere. Those seeking a melancholic musing on maturation may find this quite satisfying. While it lacks the temporal/scientific/divine themes of its fellow entries, I wasn’t unhappy about its inclusion, particularly the scene where the boy busts out a grenade (acquired, against the odds, in a wholly believable manner) to fend off a gaggle of ’50s throwback goons.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the average level of quality is staggeringly high… If you have any love for animation as a medium of art, I cannot recommend this collection enough.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead,” who described it as “pretty weird. It’s a series of mind-blowing anime shorts, specially the short ‘Happy Machine.'” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

CAPSULE: JIU JITSU (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Dmitri Logothetis

FEATURING: Alain Moussi, Nicolas Cage

PLOT: Jake awakens in a secret military facility in Burma with no recollection of his past, but with much recollection of jiu jitsu.

COMMENTS: Jiu Jitsu currently rates a mere three stars on IMDb. That’s two more stars than actually appear in it. Of course, when that single star is Nicolas Cage, it suggests one of two things. The first possibility is that it’s that once-in-five-or-ten-years alignment of the cosmos during which our boy Nic does something serious and taps into his capacity for gravitas. The second, much more possible, possibility is that Nic shows up, scatters his eccentric magic during his all-too-brief screen time, and raises a “crummy B-movie” to the level of a “crummy B-movie, but with Nicolas Cage!” Even someone as slow on the uptake as myself knew that this would be the latter, but I can say that Jiu Jitsu is not the worst 2020 release I’ve seen–by a long shot1.

As any practitioner of the art can tell you, “jiu jitsu” was taught to mankind about two millennia ago by a traveling space creature desiring to hone his fighting skills by popping through a portal in a Buddhist temple which opens up every six years as augured by a cyclical comet. If this alien—let’s call it “Brax”, as per the director/writer’s advisement—does not get to jiu-jitsu his way through nine fighters when he visits, he will lay waste to all life on the planet. Bad news for mankind? Hardly. We’ve got two things Brax isn’t counting on: square-jaw superman Jake (Alain Moussi) and the wiley warrior Wylie (Nicolas Cage). With these jiu jitseleros and their team of seven interchangeable associates, Brax gets more than it’s bargained for.

Your patience for—and, conceivably, enjoyment of—Jiu Jitsu will hinge on two things. First thing: your appetite for staged martial arts ticklings. Leading man Moussi made his career as a stuntman, so he’s got the chops. And all the side-characters may not be able to act, but they do seem comfortable with the thwack-thwack-thwack element. (Though you may not quite believe it when you see Cage’s character do a leaping flip.)

Which brings me to the other thing: what is your devotion to Nicolas Cage? I cannot recall any film that I was not happy to see him on-screen in (be it wielding a chromium axe, spraying his girlfriend’s daughter with a hose, or riffing off himself during one of those “one-in-ten-year” roles). Hearing his delivery of bad dialogue as the druggy(?), crazy(!) mentor never failed to rouse at least a chuckle—particularly when he drops the bon-mot, “Just remember the one thing you always have with jiu jitsu… leverage.”

And with that bomb, I’m dropping the mic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Jiu Jitsu feels like a deeply 2020 movie in that it is a barrage of WTF choices that hit without mercy until you either give in and go with the flow or just go mad. Or, hey, maybe both.”–Kristy Putchko, IGN (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TOKYO FIST (1995)

東京フィスト

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DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: Shinya Tsukamoto, Kahori Fujii, Kôji Tsukamoto

PLOT: Tsuda Yoshiharu is a mild-mannered salaryman whose engagement winds up on the rocks after an old high school friend suddenly reappears in his life.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Tsukamoto’s take on the boxing melodrama is, for the most part, “only” as strange as one might expect from the auteur of body-mechanics. However, the explosive triple-climax of sports violence, body horror, and metallo-spiritual fervor wrenches Tokyo Fist from the realm of the merely eccentric and slams it squarely into the pulsing weird sensors of the viewer’s brainpan.

COMMENTS: With its jerky camera work and dissonant soundscape, Tetsuo: the Iron Man would seem like lightning captured in a bottle—a one-time occurrence. Heaven knows its spiritual sequel never quite managed to capture the frenetic discomfort of Tsukamoto’s paean to corporeal mechanization. Perhaps it was filming in color, perhaps it was the attempt to graft an actual story on to the madness—whatever it was, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer feels like a softer cousin of the original man of iron. In Tokyo Fist, Tuskamoto reclaims that lightning he captured that first time around, somehow harnessing its electricity to transform a simple tale of romantic betrayal and depression into a jolting and exhausting treatise on violence and revenge.

Tsuda Yoshiharu (Shinya Tsukamoto) represents any black-tied, white-shirted salaryman in greater Tokyo. He sells insurance packages. He apologizes obsequiously. And he’s constantly worn out and perspiring. It’s been so long since he’s had sex with his fiancée Hizuru (Kahoro Fujii) that neither can remember when they last thus exerted themselves. A colleague browbeats him into passing along a “gift” of cash to professional boxer Kojima (Kôji Tsukamoto, Shinya’s real-life brother). As fate would have it, Kojima is an old high school buddy of Tsuda’s. It’s no happy reunion, though, when the boxer starts showing up uninvited, and seduces the good salaryman’s lady.

So what happens next? Tsuda joins the boxing club that Kojima belongs to—pursuing a more traditional variety of “body alteration” than in Tetsuo—and things get violent. This is all to be expected in a boxing/romance/revenge/redemption movie. However, each of those four genre flag-posts is subverted here. Starting with redemption: Tsuda’s quest to buff up and out box his rival turns into something on the spiritual side of suicidal. His revenge becomes moot when Hizuru shows strange signs of her own personal change: what begins with a tattoo escalates to the self-installation of increasingly large piercings in increasingly deep chunks of her flesh. The romance between Tsuda and Hizuru seems almost non-existent, just a cutesy momentum that is instantly derailed by the intrusion of the (occasionally feral) Kojima.

And then there’s the boxing. It’s worth mentioning the “reality” of Tokyo Fist and how it’s captured before elaborating. At the start, everything’s traditionally lit: the “salaryman introduction” drives home a hyper-normality. Increasingly, though, Tsukamoto takes his lighting cues from silent films. Nighttime is always a lush blue tone; the daytime becomes harsh. Eventually the only realism appears during boxing matches. And as expected, Tsukamoto doesn’t shy away from jarring sound. There’s always the risk of an earful of grinding rivets to ruin one’s complacency as the training room montages begin writhing staccato-style on top of each other. Slam editing, slam sound, slamming faces, slamming flesh, culminating in a mystical blood spout finale. This ain’t no Rocky.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This is a film about sex and violence, and viewed as such it approaches the level of a masterpiece, albeit a distinctly surreal one.”–Marv Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: 12 MONKEYS (THE COMPLETE SERIES) (2015-2018)

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DEVELOPED BY: Travis Fickett, Terry Matalas

FEATURING: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, , Emily Hampshire, Todd Stashwick,

PLOT: In 2043, the world is decimated by a viral pandemic that occurred in the late 2010’s. Scavenger James Cole (Stanford) is recruited by Katarina Jones (Sukowa), a scientist heading Project Splinter, which can send a person back in time. Cole is sent back to 2015 in the hope that he can prevent the outbreak. He encounters virologist Cassandra “Cassie” Railly (Schull) and enlists her help. They discover that things are not easy, as their attempts to prevent the outbreak are repeatedly foiled by the “Army of The 12 Monkeys” and their leader, “The Witness,” who has a grander plan in mind.

COMMENTS: “The best adaptations of IP aren’t in slavish service to their source material but are inspired by that material to say something new — something personal, something genuine. I’ve come to learn that adapting doesn’t have to be an act of re-creation. Just gratitude. We wanted to take our love of Gilliam’s film and with the advantage of a longer form narrative, more deeply explore what it made us hope and believe about the nature of time.”–series co-creator Terry Matalas.

The “12 Monkeys” series was inspired by the feature film Twelve Monkeys (1995). Generally, no one looks forward to television series based on popular films, although it’s a long established TV subgenre. It’s hard enough making a GOOD film that can hold an audience’s interest; with a television series, one has to repeat that success on a weekly basis, AND maintain quality for several years—if things go well for everyone. Some get lucky & hit gold (“M*A*S*H,” “Friday Night Lights”) while most others crash and burn and end up in the cultural dustbin.

So when it was announced that there would be a series based on Twelve Monkeys on SyFy, the initial reaction wasn’t favorable. After all, the movie was directed by , who puts his distinctive visual style even on what would be considered “work for hire” projects—which Twelve Monkeys technically was (David and Janet Peoples’ based their script on ‘s 1932 short La Jetee). With Gilliam having no involvement whatsoever in the new show, it makes perfect sense that most fans would consider it a dubious enterprise.

So, it was a pleasant surprise to watch the first episode in January 2015 and not find it inept and horrible; in fact, it was interesting enough to wonder how long it could sustain itself before collapsing into The Suck. Fortunately, it never did. Over four seasons, “12 Monkeys” kept its promise to its audience to provide quality storytelling. They knew to leave at the top of their game, as opposed to Continue reading CAPSULE: 12 MONKEYS (THE COMPLETE SERIES) (2015-2018)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: CRAZY SAMURAI MUSASHI (2020)

[AKA Crazy Samurai: 400 vs. 1]

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Yûji Shimomura

FEATURING:

PLOT: The titular character kills 588 samurai and mercenaries because he’s Crazy Samurai Musashi.

COMMENTS: Yûji Shimomura’s third feature film, Crazy Samurai Musashi, is basically a master’s thesis in fight choreography. It isn’t weird, unless you consider a seventy-seven-minute, uninterrupted cut of a swordsman uninterruptedly cutting up his foes to be weird. And it could be argued it isn’t really even a movie, because no semblance of “story arc” exists, as highlighted by the epilogue in which the older (and still crazy) samurai Musashi slashes his way through a fresh batch of goons because That’s Just What He Does. So what is this thing?

This thing begins with a fairly traditional prologue involving novel cinematic practices like “zooms”, “cuts”, “editing”, and dialogue. A clan of samurai want vengeance against Musashi for killing two of their leaders. They’ve gathered the whole gang together, as well as three-hundred mercenaries, so as to make sure that the job gets done. As the men gather their courage, a small boy, the scion of the clan’s elder, is distracted by a butterfly. Musashi’s arrival is advertised by his daring leap from a nearby tree–during which he slices the butterfly in twain and kills the young boy. The long take starts right after Musashi commands, “Let’s get this started!”

Having read up a little on Yûji Shimomura, I am not surprised by the fighting: his main contribution to cinema has been stunt and fight coordination. What caught my eye is that Sion Sono was involved (he wrote this thing). Sono is an oddball among oddballs, with an eye for excess and strange humor.

The excess is covered by Shimomura—nearly six hundred deaths occur on screen. The humor crops up in the occasional interludes between sword fights. Musashi always finds water canteens during lulls in the combat, almost like video game power-ups. He has an amusingly civil exchange with a young woman in a wood shed, and is miffed when she breaks her promise to keep quiet as he’s catching his breath. He shows obvious confusion when he tries tallying his kills halfway through the massacre. And then there’s my favorite: Musashi increasingly busts out the “Bring it!” gesture at the remaining fighters as the body count rises.

Watching Tak Sakaguchi exhaust himself was itself an exhausting experience. He’s a credit to combat actors: even as he grows more and more breathless, he maintains a steely look and a flair for body language. Crazy Samurai Musashi doesn’t quite work as a movie, but it’s a must-see for anyone making a combat film. Too often fight scenes, large and small, are impossible to follow. If one director can do it for seventy-seven minutes straight, others with more editing leeway and bigger budgets have zero excuse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an impressive feat of fight choreography and of physical stamina on both sides of the camera, not least from its indefatigable star Tak Sakaguchi.”–Allan Hunter, Screen Daily (festival screening)