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Archive for January, 2012

Night Train Murders: Blu Ray Review

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Night Train Murders (1974)

by Troy Howarth

Directed by Aldo Lado; Screenplay by Renato Izzo and Aldo Lado; Starring Flavio Bucci, Macha Meril, Enrico Maria Salerno, Gianfranco DeGrassi, Irene Miracle, Laura D’Angelo, Marina Berti, Franco Fabrizi

Two girls (Irene Miracle and Laura D’Angelo) on a train ride back home for Christmas find themselves terrorized by a drug addled duo (Flavio Bucci and Gianfranco DeGrassi) and the perverse ‘woman of quality’ (Macha Meril) who insists on egging them on…

The unexpected controversy and box office success of Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham’s Last House on the Left (1972) resulted in a slew of similar films. Being that Italy is dominated by the ‘filone principle,’ (filone meaning stream – in other words, a successful film results in a stream of ripoffs), it’s therefore no great surprise that they, too, got in on the act.  Of all the cash ins, Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders is arguably the most successful; it is also one of the most disturbing.

Whereas the Craven/Cunningham picture came off like a snuff film, with crude production values and generally amateurish performances, Lado’s picture is considerably more polished.  One might assume that this would lessen its impact, but there is something to be said for the way it wallows in depravity and shock tactics.  The setup, of course, was borrowed from Ingmar Bergman’s very different The Virgin Spring (1960), which adopted a much more genteel and introspective approach.  Last House and its imitators threw subtlty to the wind, favoring an approach designed to shock the viewer’s sensibilities.

Subtextually, the film fits into the worldview Lado announced with his very first picture, the unusual giallo Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), specially the theme of the younger generation being used and abused by the elder.  The character played by Macha Meril is crucial to the action – it is she who uses the animal instincts of the young drug addicts to her own base advantage, compelling them to go further down the road of depravity than even they would have dared on their own.  There is a certain degree of sympathy generated towards the young thugs – they even express palpable remorse when they realize they’ve gone too far.  It is the Meril character who comes off as truly monstrous – a pampered ‘lady of substance’ who encourages the violence for the benefit of her own depraved sense of amusement.

The performances are effective on the whole.  Laura D’Angelo and a young Irene Miracle (Inferno, Midnight Express) are effective as the young victims.  The characters are presented in a realistic manner, neither wholly ‘pure’ nor salacious to the degree of being mere caricatures, and both actresses manage to engender sympathy.  Neither Flavio Bucci (Suspiria) nor Gianfranco DeGrassi can compare with the terrifying presence of David Hess in the Craven/Cunningham model, but they are also rather different characters.  Whereas Krug, the character portrayed by Hess, was the embodiment of white suburban middle class angst, the characters played by Bucci and DeGrassi are slightly more humanistic; true, they are capable of horrible violence, but the sense is of them being adrift in an indifferent society, and that perhaps they could have turned out to be different had they been guided in the right direction.  Meril (Deep Red) is terrific as the icy femme fatale, while Enrico Maria Salerno (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and Marina Berti (What Have They Done To Our Daughters?) are quite good as the parents driven to violence.  Franco Fabrizi – whose credits included major roles for Fellini (I Vitelloni) and Visconti (Death in Venice) – puts in a cameo as a twisted peeping tom who gets roped into the action aboard the train.

Lado’s direction is smooth and efficient.  He doesn’t aim for the more overt stylization evident in his earlier gialli, creating a more rough and ready ambience, but this suits the subject matter quite well.  Lado also makes good use of cross cutting to create some ironic effects.  The cinematography Gabor Pogany (Double Face) is slick without becoming too pretty.  The use of heavy blue lighting aboard the train at night is a particularly good touch, adding to the sense of sickly claustrophobia.  Ennio Morricone contributes a good, harmonica-drenched soundtrack, though the use of a song by Demis Roussos will raise a few eye brows; it’s ironic in context, though a good case can be made that it’s endearing more on a ‘so bad it’s good’ level.

Video:

Night Train Murders makes its bow on BD thanks to Blue Underground.  The 1080p HD transfer looks very good on the whole.  Colors are accurately rendered, detail is strong, and there are no distracting authoring issues to report.  The 1.85 framing looks good throughout, and the image is enhanced for widescreen TVs.  The film is presented fully uncut.

Audio:

The only audio option is the English dub, which is sometimes a bit crude, but gets the job done.  Music and sound effects sound good, though dialogue has a typically ‘canned’ quality for dubbed films of this vintage.  The track is clean and clear, but one wishes that BU had managed to secure the Italian track, as well.  Removable English, French and Spanish subs are included.

Extras:

Extras are identical to those found on BU’s 2004 DVD release: an international trailer, a US trailer, radio spots, a poster and still gallery, and, best of all, a 15 minute oncamera interview featurette with cowriter/director Aldo Lado.  Lado talks of the film’s genesis, claims to have never seen Last House on the Left, and discusses the casting and other production elements in detail.  Lado makes some wry comments about the Roussos song, as well.

Film: ***1/2 out of *****

Blu Ray: ***1/2 out of *****

Godzilla Blu-Ray Review

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

Godzilla (1954) Japan
Godzilla King of the Monsters (1956) Japan/US
Stars: Akira Takarada, Takashi Shimura,Momoko Kochi, Raymond Burr
Director: Inoshira Honda, Terry Morse US reworking
Released by Criterion 2012

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Godzilla is a landmark film and it’s nice to see it get a first class treatment from Criterion. A number of very significant influences contributed its creation in 1954. The first, and still greatest giant monster movie of them all King Kong just enjoyed a very lucrative re-release. Eugene Lourie’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms introduced the idea of a giant dinosaur reawakened by mankind’s atomic testing the year before. The fears of the atomic age now had a face to them and the snarling Rhedosaurus ushered in a new era of giant beasts driven to destruction. The hordes of mutant overgrown ants in that stormed the sewers of Los Angeles in another 1954 movie were not the only ones who heard the dinner bell. Aside from the natural instincts that would drive a movie studio to turn this phenomenon loose on their own shores, Japan had several other issues that had made a severe impact on the public consciousness. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII were unlike anything else experienced. One can’t imagine what that was like. Surely it was an unimaginable terror. There was a fishing boat whose crew was exposed to radiation fallout from US bomb testing in the Pacific. Here in America that did not make the nightly news but overseas it had a very different effect. That these fears and apprehensions would find a voice in a towering behemoth that spouted glowing fire and toppled cities is almost incomprehensible. Godzilla afforded the opportunity to exercise those feelings in a way that a just previously made documentary never could. You don’t have to look very hard to find representations of guilt, politics and failed responsibilities running through this movie. It’s tough to imagine a monster movie that would address these issues, yet this one did. Let us not forget that apart from all this social consciousness Toho Studios wanted a hit. They wanted to fill theaters with big crowds and families. On its release in its native Japan, Godzilla (Gojira) was a huge smash setting records and in one fell swoop created a genre that would become a staple of Japanese cinema as easily recognizable and sturdy as the tradition of Samurai films. Mention Japanese cinema and the images of the Samurai warrior and the Godzilla franchise pop instantly to mind.

This film stands well apart from most giant monster movies. This is not a wild and fun adventure tale. Rather Godzilla is pervaded by a melancholia that runs throughout the entire narrative. Clearly the construction borrows from Beast from 20,000 Fathoms but there are no kindly old paleontologists here like Cecil Kellaway’s doddering and charming professor. The film opens with the same boat attack scenario yet when Japan’s paleontologist Takashi Shimura is brought in he holds a press conference that is nothing but somber doom and gloom. He looks disheveled. He can’t even be bothered to clean up for the reporters. His is the character that has the final words of dire warning that close the picture. The other professional scientist in the film is a brooding loner who keeps to himself in a dank and dark research lab. He’s got a patch over one eye, the result of the war and even though he is the one who can save Tokyo, and maybe the world from Godzilla’s rampage he is so wracked with guilt over creating the weapon that might get the job done that he can barely bring himself to do it. There is a terrifying scene where he demonstrates the power of his oxygen-destroyer by placing it in a fish tank. Momoko Kochi as Emiko watches and then screams as the fish are turned into skeletons in a flurry of bubbles before they completely disintegrate. In the great horror film tradition, Momiko has a helluva scream and her wide-eyed face is one of the indelible images from the film.

Godzilla has three main attacks – his initial brief appearance on a sunny Polynesian island, a teasing encounter at the harbor and the final destruction of the city of Tokyo. The seasoned film fan will easily catch the similarity with the way Godzilla confronts a train, the film cutting to the people riding inside, before he smashes it with the sequence in King Kong and the elevated subway in New York. Where this film really sets a very different tone is in how the creature enters the harbor. First off it is nighttime. Dark. Godzilla moves slowly. In the extras, Japanese film critic Tadao Sato makes the observation that he moves in a way similar to Sumo wrestlers entering the ring. Everything is so still. We hear this very sparse and somber music. A lonesome bass reed thunders low and mournful while just a few bass piano keys accompany it. The music is creepy, eerie. The image is very scary. While most monster movies will get that giddy excitement going at this point, this one builds a feeling of apprehension, anxiety. Akira Ifukube has created a remarkable soundtrack. He creates several moods. There is even a very uplifting patriotic, almost military fanfare that is used for the few times we’ve got hope. It’s uncanny how well the tones he uses for Godzilla’s attacks match with that unmistakable roar of the creature. After Godzilla’s final onslaught on the city director Ishiro Honda creates a desolate montage of destruction. There are dark broken sections of buildings still on fire, twisted metal and the wreckage of cars liter the streets. The pictures that may hit the hardest are the ones inside the hospitals. They are so jammed and crowded that many children lay crying on the floor, bandaged and bleeding. Akira Ifukube contributes a haunting theme to support the slow moving camera’s sweeps of these horrific images.

Eiji Tsuburaya’s ground breaking special effects techniques here are stunning. The idea of putting a man in a rubber suit may initially strike modern CGI fed audiences as ludicrous, but it actually stems from a well-established tradition. Asian theatre is full of some larger than life representations of fantasy creatures that have been accepted over the years. Ghosts, dragons and serpents have been presented on stages that Eiji Tsuburaya and his crew must have seen since they were kids. However no actor ever had a suit like this one. While the way Haruo Nakajima moved as Godzilla inside that rubber suit may have come from a long line of acting technique, what really sold the show was the incredible model work that went into creating all the buildings that he stomped. If you can take your eyes of the beast as he ravages the city you’ll wonder at the intricate and painstaking amount of detail under his feet. The lighting and camera angles that set these shots up are amazing. There is an extra that points out much of the matte work that went into these shots. We get to see how carefully chosen skylines were placed behind the creature and how well they fit together to create the new perspective of the gargantuan beast rampaging through the city. The water explosions were a specialty of these guys. It’s really worth noting how much of the time we see Godzilla swimming or stalking through the water in the shadow of nighttime. Sure that helps hide the fact that it’s a guy in a suit but damn does it look cool!

The original Japanese version remains a haunting parable and classic film. Terry Morse’s reworking, Godzilla, King of the Monsters takes a very creative approach to making the story more palatable for American and English speaking audiences. Rather than just dub the voices into English so fans did not have to read the subtitles, Morse found a way to literally inject the audience into the movie. Fresh from playing a wife killer in Hitchcock’s Rear Window Raymond Burr stars as American reporter Steve Martin. Morse elected to start the film with Martin trapped under rubble after the last attack and then flashback to give us the story from the beginning. We see the new scenes with Burr in a hospital corridor, then portions of the original film with a character looking at us, presumably Raymond Burr. We then see his or her point of view and it looks just like what he would have seen. The sets in the hospital are recreated. He’s even got actors that are costumed just like the ones in the original that we see from the back as they tend to the wounded reporter. It’s done very well. The Japanese people are speaking Japanese. When Burr’s reporter attends a press conference he asks a friend to translate since his Japanese is a little rusty. This lets characters give him periodic updates throughout the film without having to sit through translations. Granted we get some actual dubbing when we just see the Japanese actors without him there, but it keeps the illusion up pretty well. It is a gimmick to be sure but director Terry Morse has done a much better job with this technique than you’d imagine possible with the picture already shot and done without his starring actor. For those of us that first met Godzilla along with Raymond Burr’s reporter this remains a treasured introduction. Despite what some may claim there is still plenty of gravitas to be found in this reworked version. Godzilla King of the Monsters is no fun romp in the park. It too is a chilling and somber tale full of horrific images and despite the trimming of the original’s spoken warning at the ending, we get the point.

Video
1.37:1, Black and White. This is a very good looking rendition of the film, easily improving on past efforts. It’s been publicized that Criterion had access to a fine grain master that enabled them to create a new negative which clearly brought out much more clarity and detail. It would be remiss though not to point out the few scratches and instances of haze that you’ll encounter in this otherwise very satisfying disc. There is much more detail to be found in clothing, faces and the magnificent miniature buildings. Exterior scenes that were previously washed out are now comfortable to the eye. The scenes shot with Raymond Burr for Godzilla King of the Monsters have never looked better and boast strong color scales. Burr’s face especially as he stands at the window overlooking Tokyo giving his Edward R. Murrow style blow by blow description of the attack looks very expressive. It appears they’ve tapped other resources for some patchwork such as the Trans World logo in the second version. Viewing Godzilla now one can say goodbye to the tarnished faded prints that flickered their way across TV screens. One can move on from the many sordid VHS tapes that were released. Even though each new DVD release promised greater clarity, none delivered till now. What we have here is a very solid viewing experience, in either version. (The publicity pictures do not reflect the quality of the Blu-Ray image)

Audio
Criterion has presented an uncompressed mono soundtrack for both versions. It is clear and easy to follow. The newly done English subtitles on the Japanese version match the action and flow naturally with the scenes. As soon as the credits start we hear Godzilla’s familiar roar. There is very good separation with the instruments on the soundtrack. Those creepy sounding reed instruments and all the lower scale notes of the orchestra resounded fully in the speakers supported gamely by the subwoofer.

Extras
Far and away the most enjoyable and informative extra was an interview with Japanese-film critic Tadao Sato. He is affable, well spoken and gives a great perspective on how the film was received in Japan on its opening as well as covering the whole phenomenon. David Kalat’s commentaries on each film were informative. The featurette on the photographic effects and matte work was interesting supported by detailed visuals with and without the mattes. The definitive supplement on the big guy remains the 2008 documentary, Bringing Godzilla Down to Size. It is over an hour long and well worth seeking out.

Additional extras include:
New interviews with actors Akira Takarada, Haruo Nakajima, SPFX technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai, and composer Akira Ifukube
The Unluckiest Dragon about the tragic fate of the fishing vessel
Trailers for Godzilla and Godzilla, King of the Monsters
Essay booklet by critic J. Hoberman

Packaging
The disc is housed in an artful cardboard slipcase with a gorgeous cover by comic artist Bill Sienkiewicz. Inside is a three-sided gatefold with one housing the disc in a plastic tray. The other two reveal a cute surprise that pops up as you open them. Clever.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent
Movie – Classic