Santa Claus (1959)

4.0 out of 10
In 1978 René Cardona Jr. directed a film called Cyclone. It was a disaster movie. The results were somewhere between Open Water and the Italian cult exploitation film In the Highest of Skies. An Italian and Mexican co-production, the film starred the likes of Arthur Kennedy, Carroll Baker, Lionel Stander, Hugo Stiglitz and Olga Karlatos. As the title suggests, Cyclone dealt with the aftermath of a storm. Cast adrift aboard a pleasure cruiser, the ensemble are forced to resort to cannibalism. However, when food runs short, they are compelled to eat a pet dog. Indeed, in one of the more shocking, yet staged, canicide scenes in the history of exploitation cinema, the pooch is filleted. Surprisingly, even through the nastiness, all this has a theme that is tangential to the story of Santa Claus. Because, guess what! The dog in Cyclone was called Christmas! Honestly. You see this, we are informed, was due to the fact that he was born on the same day as The Baby Jesus. As you can imagine, despite this random awwwww moment, the film is not really suitable for younger audiences. Anyhow, two decades prior, René's father, who is also called René Cardona, attempted to direct a family movie. The results were called Santa Claus. This was a film that, believe it or not, actually had a lot in common with Cyclone. You see, what the Night of the Bloody Apes director delivers, here, is also a disaster. Not only that, but it has to be said that this is a complete dog's breakfast of a Christmas movie. As is the case with Cyclone, René Snr's slice of cinematic fruitcake is also far too traumatic for younger audiences. Santa Claus, as the title suggests, is a potpourri of seasonal mayhem. Mexican seasonal mayhem to be precise. Although there is an English language version. This version was narrated, and initially distributed, by the infamous K. Gordon Murray. It is a film that tries its best to tug at the heart string. Indeed it possibly tries a little too hard. And.... it mostly fails. You see, Santa Claus, in reality, is batshit crazy. Not sad. Despite all the blatant appeals to tear jerkiness, in practice it appears as though every spoonful of sweetness has been mischievously replaced by a gloopy dollop of unadulterated weird. This is partially due to a demon named Pitch! Pitch, played by José Luis Aguirre 'Trotsky', is a horned, red faced antagonist. He is an agent of Satan. He is followed by a sulphurous odour, yet is little more than a slightly naughty, Wayne Sleep type crossed with Mr Claypole from Rentaghost. Pitch, it has to be said, is little more than a prancing fool. With a slight similarity to Claude Rains devil from Angel on my Shoulder, he has been sent to the surface on a mission. That is—to foil Father Christmas. Satan, it seems, hates Santa. Santa, here, who is played by José Elías Moreno, appears to be some sort of proxy for Jesus. In practice though, he fares little better than Pitch in the creepiness stakes. It may all be weirdo against weirdo, but the resulting film is, of course, supposed to be about a battle between and evil. In this version of the Christmas story old St. Nick lives in a space station-like castle in the clouds. There, he makes his list of all the children. This is in order to determine, after checking it a couple of times, just who are the naughty and who are the nice. But, when the demonic Pitch causes trouble, Santa is not allowed to intervene. You see, he is allowed to visit earth for one day, per year, only. So, instead, he is forced to bide his time. He can only look on through his funky telescope with its blinking eye. He also can listen to people on his computer with its sphincter-like mouth. It's very strange! Santa, in this, is also prone to spouting the occasional bit of logic defying gibberish. For example, we are informed that "I love you as much as your parents because no-one can love you as much as your parents". Eh? What the fu... . Anyhow, just because our Santa is confined to barracks, it is not to say that he doesn't keep himself busy all year round. No! Santa doesn't just sit about! Instead, he paces his castle, bellows his manic Ho Ho Hos and makes crude, wanking faces, while he plays regional songs on his organ. These, incidentally, are for the entertainment the diverse band of international, junior stereotypes that constitute his little helpers. Disproving Bob Geldof's thesis, the children of Africa are here. They know it is Christmas. Unfortunately, despite their seasonal awareness, and their adding of a splash of token colour to an almost overwhelmingly white globe, they are Um Bongo-like, offensive stereotypes. The children of Africa, it seems, spend their time dancing around drumming in leopard skin loincloths. They even, like the bastard offspring of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, have bones in the their hair! However, despite this dubious expression of internationalism, they merely represent just one strand of insensitivity in Santa Claus. So, they are accompanied by the children of Spain, the United States, England, China, France, Germany, Mexico and Japan. All in "traditional" costumes and singing national nursery rhymes. There are even assorted rifle wielding kids from a conglmomeration of South American states. Oh... and some belly dancing kids from The Orient!! Sheesh! Indeed this segment seems to go on, and on, and on... The children of nation after nation parade their national costumes. Over one sixth of a Santa movie passes and nothing of interest happens. Not so much as a cookie or glass of milk has been consumed. Nothing! Just kids singing. Badly. It is all a whirlwind of inconsequential filler noise of almost Olympic Ceremony proportions. Even the Soviets get a walk-on. This is all prefaced by a seemingly endless credits sequence. The opening features wrapping-paper styled titles and an eternal loop of a ringtone-like Jingle Bells. On and on it goes. Passing through what seems like a hundred verses or more. Much, much more. Though eventually, having introduced us to absolutely everyone, it is time for Father Christmas to deliver presents. Indeed, this is the story. In a nutshell. Santa must defy a demon and deliver all the presents. These include a doll for a poor girl and parental love for a lonely rich kid. Both children, incidentally, experience incredibly odd dreams. A dance of the dolls is possibly the scarier of the two. You see, in the land of the nightmares the child of the poor is king. In his mission Santa is aided by Merlin the Wizard, some eerie clockwork reindeer, a flower of invisibility and a bag of magic dust for "the dreaming of joy and goodwill". He sprinkles the narcotic upon children who wake up early, with predictable consequences. Indeed, it is touches such as these that make Santa Claus, the other movie, such a compelling prospect for fans of psychotronic film. Conversely it is these same touches that make it such a horror show in the first place. Although, any movie that features a training montage upon a chimney themed, obstacle course, has to count for something, right? However, it's all creepy as fuck. Far too weird for kids!

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair (1969)

8.5 out of 10
Nature is brilliant! For, without nature, we'd have none of that cool stuff such as starfish or lemurs. But, maybe it can be improved upon. I mean, who hasn't looked at rabbits and thought, hmm, these are okay, but wouldn't they be better in lilac? How about bears! Bears are not bad, but, what if they could dance a bit? Could forests be improved with the addition of giant red toadstools with white spots? How about doves with human faces? No? Well, oddly enough, there is someone who thought all these things would be a great idea. Welcome to wonderful, wacky world of Aleksandr Rou! Rou would direct a number of these fantasy films for Gorky Film Studios. He made Baba Yaga, for example. No! Not the 1973 film where we get to see Ely Galleani's norks! But he directed another, more family friendly, Baba Yaga in that same year. It features a walking house. He also directed the excellent Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors, Through Fire, Water and... Brass Pipes and Frosty. Alexander's films manage to combine the traditional world of Russian folklore with Soviet ideology. Not only that, but, throughout his work, there is a certain tendency to the surreal. However Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair is not as far off-the-wall as, say, Jan Švankmajer's films for example. Nevertheless it certainly has more than a foot in the oddball camp. Based upon a ballad by Vasili Zhukovsky, Rou's Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair may be as mad as a box of frogs, but it is also simpy breathtaking. What a colourful and seductive cinematic world it represents too! Indeed, seldom has fantastic film looked so vibrant. So, stand aside Dario. Move over, Mario. Because the Soviets are here and they are mainlining Skittles. The reds have combined with greens, blues, yellows. Everything about the film's visuals places emphasis on getting the best from the use of colour. The set design is phenomenal too. There are backlit stained glass windows and delightful use of gel lighting. There seems to be barely a rock in the film that remains unpainted. Indeed, there is something to add a wow factor to pretty much every frame. Of course there is an ideological element woven within Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair. There is a fairly anti-Tsarist message running throughout the narrative, for example. Because here, the Tsar is portrayed as vain, controlling and corrupt. The film opens with a preamble delivered by an old crone. She introduces us to the Tsar. Initially he appears the form of a puppet. She has her hand up the Tsar's jacksy! She also concludes the story with the closing of a door. Upon the door are some words. They tell us that our film has concluded. So, as a result, the story is framed in such a way as to suggest that this is all nothing more than a fairy tale. This, of course, is an act of distancing. The Brechtian conclusion is designed to take the viewer back out of the fantasy. There is also an acknowledgement of the official materialist doctrine of the USSR. So, we are treated to a brief montage that underscores Engels interpertation of mother nature. There are sweet lingering shots of ice forming and melting, apple blossom, opening tulips blowing in the breeze, dandelion clocks casting their seeds upon the breeze and ice forming once again. Shot in Sovscope, the entire scene hits the eyes like a candy coloured sugar rush. It really is unrelentingly beautiful. With a colour palette that is unrivalled, It is a whirling carousel of dialectical beauty. What the scene depicts is the passage of time. Eighteen years to be precise. You see, it has been eighteen winters passed since Tsar Yeremey the Bearded was tricked into giving up his son. Played by Mikhail Pugovkin, the Tsar was drinking from a well when his beard is grabbed by a monster who lives in the land beneath the water. The creature is Chudo Yudo the Lawless. Played by Georgi Millyar who wears blue make up from head to toe, Chudo Yudo tells the Tsar that he will only release the beard if he is pepared to give up the thing in his kingdom that is unknown. The Tsar agrees. After all, he knows everything in the kingdom. However, on returning home, he is informed that his wife has had a baby. A son and heir. This, of course was news to him. But, with a sinking feeling he realises that the son is the unknown. He has unwittingly pledged his son to Chudo Yudo. Now, eighteen years later, it is time to pay up. Strangely though, the Tsar seems somewhat unconcerned. You see, he has made arrangements. In order to secure the royal line he had arranged for his kid to be exchanged with the child of a poor fisherman. After all, he figured, all babies look alike. Yeah, yeah, I know! The Prince and the Pauper! Anyhow, Unbeknown to the Tsar the exchange never occurred. So, the fat blob sat upon his sofa scoffing cake was his real son after all. The handsome lad who fishes all day that was being secretly groomed for power? He really is the son of a fisherman! Anyhow, there is a reason why Chudo Yudo is intent on collecting on the pledge. What he seeks, is a suitor for his daughter. She is, of course, the eponymous, and fair, Barbara. It is she of the silken hair. With magical powers and played by Tatyana Klyuyeva, Barbara has eyes like saucers and a cute overbite. But, despite this, she is lonely. Several men, including a hypnotist, a mind reader and a man with a fish tank belly come to get Barbara. However she is unimpressed with these slim pickings. She wants a real man. As in a human man! Anyhow, putting aside all the ideological stuff and what remains is just great. Because, here, in Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair, Aleksandr Rou brings us owls with flashing eye, magic carpets, fairies, singing and dancing pirates. Oh, and don't forget those lilac rabbits!

Finger of Doom (1972)

6.5 out of 10
Just like the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, Finger of Doom sounds as though it is going to be one of those really cool punches that make Kung Fu cinema such fun. But, that isn't what it is though. Instead, it is a form of Kung Fu. Just like Ecky-Thump from The Goodies, or Venusian Aikido from Dr. Who, it's a made up martial art! Anyhow, what marks Finger of Doom out from say Drunken Monkey, or whatever, is that it is solely practiced by the living dead. At night. Oh, it also utilizes a set of Freddy Krueger style, golden thimbles that fire mind-controlling, poison-tipped, steel pins. One such practitioner of Finger of Doom style is Kung Suen Mao Neon. Played by South Korean comedienne, Chih Hsien Po, she is an evil, living dead, twin. Not unlike her goody-twoshoes undead sister, she studied martial arts at the Living Dead Clan Kung Fu School under Sha-fei Ouyang. Dressed head to toe in white, the foxy dominatrix, Kung Suen, seeks to subjugate men with the power of her meridian controlling pins and turn them into vampires. Then, as by day she sleeps in her coffin, she is transported about the place by her loyal band of vampiric, pale-faced, red eyed, man-slaves. However, at night she is out, about, and executing her plan for power. After all, given that the Hsueh Li Pao helmed Finger of Doom was to be her final role for Shaw Bros, she was going to go out in style. Anyhow, in the land of the living, three brothers, who are numbered one to three, paint and assemble wax and bamboo umbrellas. They were once heroes. But now, their swords simply gather dust and rust. However, when a blackmail attempt goes a bit awry, brother Number Two finds himself captured and enslaved by the evil, living dead, twin. Thus, the remaining brothers, One and Three, are forced to try and rescue their sibling. So, yet again, they must break out the swords. Nevertheless, it is all too much for the remaining brothers. Despite their skill, they are in waaaay out of their depth here. Brother Number Three ends up enslaved too. However, help will soon be at hand. You see, as luck should have it, the Living Dead Clan have dispatched the "good sister". She too dresses all in white, is carted around in a red coffin, uses the mind control pins and so on. But, this nice living dead girl, played by the even-foxier-than-her-sister, Ivy Ling Po, is instructed to temper the ambitions of her evil sibling. Though, truth to tell, given the similarity in their approach and, indeed, their very raison d'etre, the whole white hat/black hat division of labour seems somewhat redundant here. Suffice it say that, as far as Finger of Doom is concerned, it is perfectly okay to be an enslaving, mind-controlling bitch. However, ambitions of world domination are simply not cool. Period. Of course, what the film is really about is the rivalry between two supernatural sisters. This then acts as a proxy for the battle between good and evil. So, this means, of course, that Finger of Doom is sort of a horror film. It also leans towards the Gothic. As would be expected, this means that this is a film that is mostly shrouded in darkness. It also features hell of a lot of mist. This, incidentally, contributes to an extremely creepy aesthetic throughout. Indeed, if for nothing else, Finger of Doom, originally Tai yin zhi, certainly deserves praise for its ambience. You see, what we have here is a feast for the eyes. Thanks to Chi-Jui Chen and Yuan Cheng Huang, it all simply looks splendid. What is on offer rivals, or even eclipses, much of what Hammer were doing around this time. It is also far more visually engaging. Indeed, by comparison, the famous Hammer and Shaw Bros. collaboration, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, appears a little stagey. Finger of Doom is also far less hokey all round. So, expect no rubber bats. Oh, by the way, apart from darkness and mist there are some other familiar Gothic horror signatures here. There is a devious hunchback assistant, for example. He is played by Li Tung. Also, there is a dungeon. So, as we would expect, there is an attempt at a bit of dungeon torture! However, this is no ordinary torture. Indeed it is no sort of torture at all. You see, brother Number One, played by Han Chin, is chained up. The he is forced to endure as sexy "evil twin" Living Dead girl drops her robe and stands naked before him. Bravely, though, our little soldier summons up his inner strength. He is able to resist. He doesn't look. You see, brother Number One is a gentleman. Besides, he has a crush on "good" living dead girl. So he's also, technically, a bit of a necrophiliac. However, romantic diversions here are mere secondary considerations. For, what Finger of Doom attempts to do is to successfully marry the martial arts and horror film. Sadly, however, this only partially succeeds. You see, this works as a martial arts film. Finger of Doom is blessed with decent wire-work and some excellent, high tempo sword fights. However, it really fails, spectacularly, in the horror department. For all the effort in setting the right tone, the film isn't really scary.