Miguel Aceves Mejia began his career as a singer of renowned versatility and grace, earning from his fans the moniker “King of the Falsetto”. In the late 50s, he moved into film, making over 60 films in the ensuing years, many of them westerns. Among these was a series of three films he made for Sotomayor, in which he played the singing lawman Sheriff Miguel. El Asesino Enmascarado was the second of these films, following closely after El Rey de la Pistola and immediately preceding Camino de la Horca, both of which were made during the same year.
El Asesino Enmascarado begins on a jaunty note, with Miguel belting out a robust Ranchero number as he rides his way homeward across the range. This introduction, combined with the fact that Mejia is joined in the cast by a pair of popular songbirds of the day, might lead you to the think that the movie will be a musical, although, aside from a scattering of diegetic songs during the first act, that is not the case.
One of those aforementioned songbirds is Lilia Prado, a beloved singer, dancer, and actor who appeared in over 100 films over the course of her career, including Luis Bunuel’s Wuthering Heights and Illusion Travels by Streetcar. Here she plays Lola, a saloon singer who appears to be intended as Miguel’s love interest. As such, she is none too pleased when a mysterious female card sharp named Luz arrives in town and strikes up a flirtatious rapport with Miguel. Luz is played by Ana Bertha Lepe, another beloved Mexican entertainer who also played one of the man crazy Venusian ladies in La Nave de los Monstruous. Lepe sings a lot in her movies (the lucha also-ran El Asesino Invisible, in which she played herself, was little more than a showcase for her talents), so it’s a little surprising that she doesn’t sing here. She does, however, prove herself handy with a whip in one of the film’s early fight scenes.
Luz spends her days emptying the townsfolks’ pockets at the poker table and attracting unwholesome stares from her fellow bar patrons. When she is not doing this, she shares an upstairs room in the saloon with a mysterious, black garbed man whose face we never see (though, if we did, we’d know that he was played by Joaquin Cordero.) Could he be the masked killer who has suddenly started picking off townspeople left and right? Probably, but we must first wait for Sheriff Miguel and his partner Ramon (Luis Aragon) to do a lot of nocturnal snooping and fist fighting before we can find out for sure.
El Asesino Enmascarado is exactly the kind of cheap and efficient B film that the Mexican film industry reliably churned out in great numbers during the 50s and 60s. In a lot of ways, it feels like a TV western, with most of the action confined to either the saloon set or a limited number of outdoor locations. Director Manuel Munoz and cinematographer Fernando Colin compensate for this by setting a lot of the film’s action at night and utilizing a noirish play of light and shadow in their compositions. Munoz also keeps things commendably fast paced, cramming a lot of plot and—often surprisingly violent--action into a brisk 90 minutes.
To be honest, El Asesino Enmascarado is not a film I would have sought out if not for the fact that it was the second film on a double feature disc that also contains El Charro de las Calaveras, a supernatural western in which a woman carries around what appears to be the head of “Black and White” era Michael Jackson in a box. That’s some pretty formidable company for a film as straightforward and inoffensive as El Asesino Enmascarado. Though I would recommend it to any Spanish speaking fan of B grade westerns, who I think would find it pretty satisfying—especially if enjoyed con muchas cervezas.
In addition to their economical cars and improbably clean public restrooms, Japan deserves mention for the micro-specificity of some of the subgenres found within its exploitation cinema, whose founding principle seems to have been "No fetish left behind." A perfect example of this is the Ama, or “girl diver”, films of the 50s and beyond.
As some of you probably know, the Ama was a community that lived in pockets along the Japanese coast. Their women were known for their diving ability, and they supported the community with the abalone, pearls and other bounty they harvested from the bottom of the sea. Of special interest to filmmakers of the day was the fact that they performed this task clothed only in a tiny G-string, with the rest of god’s gifts exposed to the open air—and the camera. Never mind that the most competent of the Ama were well into middle age; those hags would be nowhere to be seen in the movie version of diving girl life, replaced to a one by pulchritudinous young lasses with hourglass figures.
Shintoho, at the time Japan’s premiere producer of low budget programmers, was the first studio to seize upon the diving girls’ exploitation potential, putting out a series of several Ama pictures starting with 1956’s Revenge of the Pearl Queen starring Machiko Maeda. Girl Divers of Spook Mansion, directed by Morihei Magatani, came later in the cycle and appears to have come at a time when Shintoho was trying to liven up the genre by way of a little cross-pollination. At this time, the studio was also enjoying success with a series of Kaidan, or “Ghost”, movies in the vein of Masaki Mori’s Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan. As the title suggest, Girl Divers of Spook Mansion, is clearly an attempt to combine strengths (though it was not the first Ama film to combine genres, as other Ama films tended to feature elements of Shintoho’s popular crime films.)
In the film, Ama series regular Yoko Mihara plays Kyoko, a former diving girl who has left her village behind to become a big city police woman. As our story begins, she has returned home at the request of her friend Yumi, a young diving girl played by Supa Giantsu/Starman regular Reiko Sato. As advertised, Yumi lives by herself in a creepy old mansion that is more loaded with scary gimmicks than the Haunted House at Disneyland: Gloomily lit taxidermy, rope-like cobwebs, live snakes hanging from the rafters, hidden passages, black cats that jump out of nowhere, and a cackling, mentally defective hunchback who lurks about the grounds for no ascertainable reason. The black cat, I must mention, does not make that “raeerr!” sound that cats do when they jump out in Western movies, perhaps because the Japanese know that cats don’t actually do that—there presumably being no word for “boo!” or “psyche!” in cat speak.
Yoko tells Kyoko that she is being tormented by the ghost of her younger sister Kayo (Zatoichi regular Masaro Banri), who, in a flashback, we see going mad and throwing herself into a well on the mansion grounds. Her ghost is only visible to Yoko, but when Kyoko sees Yoko faint at the sight of it, she starts making an earnest attempt to get to the bottom of what’s going. Finally, stumped, she reaches out for help from her detective friend Nonomiya, who soon after arrives in the village. Nonomiya is played by Battles Without Honor and Humanity’s Bunta Sugawara, who, while bringing a not unwelcome presence to the film, undermines any potential for a female empowerment message that the film might have promised via his role as a male rescuer/white knight. It’s just hard to believe that these women, who are able to dive to depths of thirty feet in ice cold ocean water without scuba gear—or clothes, for that matter—wouldn’t be able to hold their own against a ghost.
Anyway, Nonomiya joins Kyoko in chasing after shadows and stumbling upon secret chambers, eventually to hear word of a treasure that is hidden somewhere on the property. Meanwhile, the perpetually cigar chomping Professor Mizuki (Jigoku’s Yoichi Numata) and his ever-present pith helmet make themselves a constant, suspect presence. Could there be more to this whole ghost business than meets the eye? Hmmmmm?
If you have gotten this far in my synopsis of Girl Divers of Spook Mansion, you have probably observed that its main characters being diving girls has no impact on the story whatsoever, and that it has as little to do with diving in general as it does bobbing for apples. And you’re right; rather than making day-to-day life in the Ama village an element of the plot, the movie instead uses it as just a backdrop for the action. This means that horrific scenes of leering female ghosts emerging from the shadows are often followed by long, documentary style underwater sequences that show the scantily clad diving girls from low angles that provide plenty of ass and crotch shots. Of course, censorship standards of the day prohibited the filmmakers from having their diving women be actually topless. Instead they dress them in brief half-shirts made of a cheesecloth-like fabric that becomes virtually invisible when soaked in water, which it, of course, is. The end result is like an artfully lensed wet tee-shirt competition.
Many people who have seen it (including Jasper Sharp, from whose excellent book Behind the Pink Curtain I gleaned most of the factual information used in this review) describe Girl Divers of Spook Mansion as boring. I suppose that has something to do with expectations. Indeed Girl Divers sets itself up for a fall with its delightfully kitschy credit sequence, which depicts the various diving girls in a series of pulpy tableaus reminiscent of Bloody Pit of Horror (a comparison that I do not make lightly): one girl embraces a skeleton, another is picturesquely tangled in a fishing net, another is decorously draped over the edge of a giant stew pot, etc. This primes us to expect an entertainment with a lot of reckless exploitation movie energy, where instead we find the cautious rhythms of a supernatural mystery.
And as a supernatural mystery, Girl Divers of Spook Mansion works, albeit in a cozily timeworn way that some might find laughable dated and other, more sentimental types (like me) may delight in. Director Magatani and cinematographer Kagai Okado brings just the right amount of old school creep to the ghost scenes, employing a dramatic chiaroscuro lighting scheme and a lot of weird, forced perspective compositions. That these are bracketed by a lot of rather prosaic T&A footage makes them, to me, seem all the more otherworldly and strange.
Then again, my charitable attitude toward the film may also be due to the promise of Girl Divers of Spook Mansion’s title, which, while not entirely delivered upon, is one that I don’t want to let go of. In this way it may be the Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power of Japanese exploitation cinema. In any case, if you don’t plan on watching the film, I would suggest that you instead plan a roughly 80 minute activity that is more intriguing to you than the idea of Girl Divers of Spook Mansion. Otherwise, you may find yourself haunted.
On Wednesday we were able, despite some technical glitches, to keep Pop Offenisve in orbit long enough to transmit to you dozens of songs about various occupants of interplanetary craft, hopping martians, sky men, and aliens in our midst. Of course, there are dark forces within our government that want to see all evidence of this event destroyed. That's why, if I were you (which I may be), I'd listen to the archived version of the show as soon as possible. And if you need some kind of written document to make it official, you can look at the full Playlist, which has just been posted over on the Pop Offensive Facebook Page.
I'm sure that, after the events of last week, many of you are contemplating migrating into outer space. Well, this Wednesday, November 16th, Pop Offensive is going to offer you the next best thing: a solid one hour and fifty minutes of songs about space travel, little green men, UFOs, and rocking on the Moon. It's POP OFFENSIVE IN OUTER SPACE, and it launches at 7pm Pacific, streaming live from http://kgpc969.org.
I think it would be expected here to say something like "it will be out of this world!" But I respect you too much for that. It is going to be pretty amazing though, so please listen.
Tars Tarkas and I have been doing the Infernal Brains Podcast for six years now, and have recorded almost 20 episodes. Astonishingly, over that entire time, we've managed to avoid becoming at all proficient at doing it, or acquiring anything even close to an air of professionalism; we always just hoped that our knowledge and enthusiasm would fill the gap. Some of you seem to think they did. Thanks for that.
Anyway, over the past couple of years it's become increasingly hard for Tars and I to find time when we both can put the necessary effort into researching, recording and editing the show. And by that I am not just saying that we are adult men with all kinds of adult shit to do, but moreover that we are infantile men who have wrapped ourselves up in so much other childish nonsense that we have time for little else. If you are someone attentive enough to have noticed that there was a full year break between the last two Infernal Brains episodes, you are probably saying "no duh, guys" right now.
What I'm getting at is that Tars and I have decided to retire the Infernal Brains podcast. This, of course, does not preclude us getting together to do one-off podcasts when we find a topic worthy enough, or re-branding as something like Infernal Brains Turbo 4D: Gothpocalypse! to appeal to that oh-so-important younger demographic. Meanwhile, all of our episodes will remain online until Donald Trump outlaws the internet. In fact, if you need to do some catching up, here's s few of our highlights to get you started
These inaugural episodes are from back in the days when we were just called the Tars Tarkas 4DK Joint Podcast and recorded our episodes at the kitchen table in my San Francisco apartment. In them you'll hear us provide an exhaustive inventory of virtually every old Taiwanese movie in which a Japanese-style rubber suitmation monster appears. You could say that these episodes set the bar for comprehensive research that came to make later episodes so daunting. You could even say that the seeds of our destruction were sewn from the very beginnings.
This is the notorious episode in which each of us discuss what we think is the worst film we've ever seen. This sounds like a lighthearted enough concept until you consider the pool of films that we are drawing from.
A fun episode in which Tars and I examine Toho Studios' turn toward the kiddie market in the early 70s--and in particular a movie in which a chronically constipated baby dinosaur must fight an alien monster to save the Earth. Will Diagoro overcome his fears to defeat Goliath and earn himself the huge, satisfying dump that he so deserves? You'll find the answer here.
In these two episodes, we join with David Wells of the sadly defunct Soft Film blog to fill as many holes as we can in what's known about Pearl Cheung Ling, an iconic figure in Taiwanese martial arts cinema around whom much mystery revolves. Thanks in large part to David's meticulous research, we manage to paint a pretty full portrait of this exciting actress, who is also noteworthy for being a rare female director in the male dominated world of Chinese language action movies.
For many of us of a certain age, the Starman movies--which were edited together for U.S. TV from Shintoho's Super Giant serials--were staples of Saturday afternoon TV in the early 70s. And as fond as our memories of them might be, it's unlikely anyone would ask that someone present a comprehensive history of them--as we, of course, did. I'm especially fond of this episode because it was the first one I edited.
This was the first episode we recorded when I returned after a long illness--and it's one of my favorites. Tars and I find our vocabularies and brains taxed while discussing films with all animal casts. And by "animals", I mean actual animals, and not puppets or cartoons. This one's a great example of our ability to mine for ever more obscure sub-genres within the field of world popular cinema.
One of our best, in which we team up with the Cultural Gutter's Carol Borden to examine the odd preponderance within the science fiction genre of films in which races of evil female aliens attempt to dominate or otherwise sap the Earth's men of their mojo. Films discussed include Cat Women of the Moon, La Nave de Los Monstuous, Missile to the Moon, and the Turkish entry Flying Saucers Over Istanbul, to name just a few.
It was inevitable that Tars and I would eventually get around to discussing Pakistani exploitation cinema--and what better jumping off point than this monumentally sleazy Pashto language hybrid of Catwoman and The Incredible Hulk? Along the way we discuss other classics of Pakistani trash cinema, from the notorious Haseena Atom Bomb to International Gorillay, an action film in which a band of everyman jihadis fight to bring down the evil mastermind Salman Rushdie.
And that's just a sampling, folks. Be sure to check out the Infernal Brains archives for more discussions of alluring international weirdness, and to pay your respects. Because, like it or hate it, no one did it quite like the Infernal Brains did--and likely will do again. In closing, I will simply say not goodbye, but so long.
I’m not alone in thinking that Don’t Torture a Duckling is Lucio Fulci’s best film, although I may not be qualified to make that call.
You see, I’ve never been a big fan of Fulci’s movies and, as a result, have seen far from all of them. For one thing, I feel that the mean-spirited and discomfortingly personal nature of the violence in his films is rarely, if ever, supported by the special effects used to represent them. When Fulci goes in for an extreme close-up on one of his signature acts of savagery, what he’s really giving us is a too-close look at the stretching and snapping of latex and the rending and tearing of foam rubber. Although the obsession evident in those sequences is always fascinating, the net effect of them is to make the films surrounding them look a little silly.
Don’t Torture a Duckling, however, goes against the grain of what we’ve come to expect from Fulci in a couple of significant ways. It is by far the most compassionate film of his that I’ve seen, in that Fulci lets down his clinical detachment enough to allow a strain of tragedy to infect the proceedings. At the same time, I’d say that it is also his most feminist film—which is not just my way of saying that it his least misogynist, but that he shows some actual empathy for his female character here, especially the one played (beautifully) by Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’s Florinda Bolkan.
The story takes place in a remote seaside town on Italy’s Northern coast whose people are so provincial in their attitudes that one might think they inhabited a previous century. That is, if not for the modern highway that winds its way through the mountains nearby, which seems to be the town’s only connection to the contemporary world. At the film’s opening, a young boy surveys the empty highway from a cliff overhead and, upon seeing a lone car heading his way, run’s off, excitedly shouting “they’re coming!” to his friends nearby.
What he’s referring to, in this case, is a pair of Rubenesque prostitutes who are making a routine visit to the town. But he might as well be referring to literally everybody, as that is who is about to descend on the town in the aftermath of it being the site of a string of shocking child murders. Among this crowd is Euro-sploitation stalwart Thomas Millian, who this time, rather than playing a somewhat grubby looking villain, is playing our somewhat grubby looking audience surrogate.
Millian is Andrea Martelli, a big city newspaper reporter who is in town to get to the bottom of the murders. In the process, he alternately clashes and cooperates with the town’s police commissioner (Virgilio Gazzolo) and, once the State Police arrive to aid in/take over the investigation, Ugo D’alessio’s Patton-esque Captain Modesti. Needless to say, the townspeople, being a gossipy and untrusting lot, are able to point the authorities toward no small number of suspect outsiders as potential culprits. Giuseppe, the town pervert, is quickly cleared, leaving two local women at the top of the list.
The first of these is Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet); a young woman taking temporary residence in her wealthy father’s abandoned home--a starkly modernist structure lording over the town from an insolent remove on a nearby hilltop. In her personal style, Patrizia seems to be trying to bring her own little corner of Carnaby Street to the town, and the residents reward her with no small amount of resentment and disdain for it. One of them seems to imply that she has brought bad luck to the town, and that “funny things” have been happening since her arrival. The townspeople also seem to judge her for being sexually promiscuous. I cannot argue with that assessment, as, when we met her, she is flaunting her naked body in front of a ten year old boy.
That ten year old boy, Michelle, eventually becomes one of the murder victims, along with two of his friends. Fulci, perhaps satisfied with breaking the taboo of depicting child murder, does not focus on the brutality of the killings—the kids are beaten, strangled, and drowned—but instead ramps up the tension in the stalking scenes. As he's pursued by an unseen assailant through a pitch black forest, the young actor playing Michelle does a superb job of portraying raw panic and sheer, pants-soiling terror. Finally, he takes shelter under a crucifix. Unfortunately, Fulci’s hatred of the church is still in effect here, and he is killed anyway. This murder leads Martelli to the town’s young priest, Don Alberto Avallone (played by the ethereally pretty Marc Porel), who ends up assisting him in his investigation.
The second woman of interest in the investigation is Maciara (Bolkan), a disturbed woman who lives in the mountains on the outskirts of town after being banished for practicing magic. In a flashback, we see her come upon Michelle and three of his friends digging in a place where she has buried the body of her stillborn illegitimate child. In a rage, she puts a curse on them and, upon returning to her stone hut, fashions a wax doll of each boy that she sticks pins into. After each boy’s murder, we see her carefully bury the corresponding doll.
When Maciara is arrested, after being hunted down like an animal by the police and suffering an epileptic seizure, she confesses to the murders, believing it is her magic that has killed the boys. The authorities, knowing better, set her free. Unfortunately, the only thing the townspeople know is that she has been arrested for the killings. And so, shortly after her release, she is cornered by a trio of male vigilantes and beaten to death with clubs and chains.
To me, this last described scene is the centerpiece of Don’t Torture a Duckling for a couple of reasons. If you are someone who comes to Fulci’s movies for the gore, this is the scene you are looking for. But, rather than prurience, what Fulci goes for here is pathos, making it, as a result, agonizing and nearly unbearable to watch. Interestingly, he chooses to score the beginning of the assault to the kind of hard rocking musical track you’d expect in an Argento movie, but, when Maciara starts to go through her death throes, switches abruptly to a mournful ballad (“Quei Giorni Insieme a Te”, or “Those Days Together With You” by Ornella Vanoni). Maciara's death is clearly a martyrdom, both operatic and traumatizing. Once her murderers have left, she uses her last bit of strength to crawl her way to the edge of the highway, where her last breath is witnessed by a family of tourists who speed by without stopping.
This scene, as well as one in which a brutal fight is witnessed through the eyes of a terrified little girl, seems to underscore one of Fulci’s main themes here—that of innocence ruined, not by evil, but by those who see themselves as being in opposition to it. The director also seems set on portraying an old world being rapidly overtaken by a modernity as indifferent to its beliefs and desires as those tourists were to Maciara’s suffering—and the reciprocal hatred and mistrust that breeds (wow, this all seems so familiar somehow…)
While Don’t Torture a Duckling is rich with symbolism, Fulci doesn’t get so caught up in it that he doesn't present a well structured and compelling mystery with a satisfying ending, which he does in spades. Of course, he is aided in this by a terrific cast. In addition to the stellar Florinda Bolkan, there is Irene Papas, who portrays padre avallone’s mother, a woman entrusted with the care of a mentally disabled little girl who holds a key to the murders in the form of a headless Donald Duck doll (hence the title?) Barbara Bouchet, a somewhat cryptic actress, is perfect as Patrizia, a very cryptic character who provides Millian with both a vague love interest and someone to trade expository dialog with. And Millian? Well, as I said, he’s a stalwart, bringing just the right amount of grizzled world weariness to his portrayal of our chain-smoking protagonist.
I think it’s a testament to Don’t Torture a Duckling’s quality that it has inspired me to re-examine the rest of Fulci’s filmography. Where watching a film like The Beyond or New York Ripper is tantamount to staring into a frigid abyss, Duckling is a film that wears its warm, beating and very human heart on its sleeve for all to see. (It was also, tellingly, Fulci’s favorite of all his films.) I’d go beyond that to say that it is not only Fulci’s best film, but also a very good film in its own right, as well as a great film within the giallo genre. Check it out.
Hi, it's Todd. I know you usually come to this blog for thoughtful commentary on weird movies laced with profanity and dick jokes, and we'll be back to that in a moment. But, right now, I want to talk to you about next week's election.
Now, I don't assume that all of my readers share my (pretty left leaning) politics. But I also don't assume that very many of you are dumb or crazy enough to push the human self destruct button known as Donald Trump. If you are, my condolences--and enjoy the dick jokes.
As for the rest of you: I know that Trump's prospects aren't looking nearly as good as they were a month or so ago, but that's no reason not to vote. In fact, I think it is our patriotic duty to ensure that Trump is not only defeated, but utterly and completely thrashed. Let's make his failure a failure for the ages and, in so doing, put all other aspiring dictators on notice to never, ever try any shit like this ever again.
Ok, thanks for listening. Oh, wait, just one more thing...
It's hard to imagine Kenny B and I picking two films as different from one another as those we picked for Taiwan Noir #23. The first is the 1961 film Fantasy of Deer Warrior, which I would call a kid's film if not for my fear of some angry parent pounding my face in. Sure, it's got actors cavorting around in silly looking animal costumes and even a couple of songs, and if coupling that with a lot of violence and overt sexuality sits well with--or even entices--you; boy, do I have a film for you!
The second film is Double Vision, a slick serial killer thriller from the early 2000's that pairs Tony Leung with American actor David Morse. Needless to say, the combination makes for a lively discussion. Check it out, won't you?