The Friday Afternoon Movie: North Korean Labor Camps

Switched to a YouTube playlist because the VICE video would auto-play. You can see the full-length version at the link at the end of the article.

Perhaps not the best thing for the week of Christmas, but history cares not about holidays. Last Saturday, as I’m sure you all know, Kim Jong Il, the iron handed dictator of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, died from an apparent heart attack at the age of 69. The past week has seen a continuous outpouring of grief (some real, some staged) from within the Hermit Kingdom, while the rest of the world seems to look on with trepidation, waiting to see what his heir apparent, Kim Jung-un, will do.

Less than a week before Jong Il’s death, VICE News ran another of their fascinating looks into North Korea. Shane Smith, accompanied by freelance journalist Simon Ostrovosky, traveled to Siberia to investigate North Korean logging camps located deep in the forests. Here, North Korean citizens are contracted as laborers for up to 10 years, during which time they are housed, fed, and paid a pittance for their work. The North Korean government, meanwhile, was paid handsomely for what basically amounts to slave labor.

Smith’s interest seems to be twofold: to expose these camps, and to try to talk to North Korean citizens, a feat nearly impossible in his visits to the country itself. If you’ve seen Smith’s past work, then you’ll know what you’re in for. The reporting is solid, but there is a Gonzo aspect to it as well. A decent chunk of the forty minute documentary is spent on a crowded, sweltering train where the only thing to do to numb the boredom is drink. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be rather difficult to get near these camps, but he and his crew manage to at least talk for a bit with some of the laborers.

Regardless of your feelings on the style, VICE has done a stupendous job exposing yet another facet of the horror that was Kim Jong Il’s regime. In the closing minutes of the piece Shane reveals that much of the scrutiny they found themselves under was no doubt due to the fact that the Dear Leader was visiting the same area of Russia at the time to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev and broker another labor deal, to sell more of his people. If that isn’t evil, I’m not sure what is.

Via VICE

The Friday Afternoon (Short) Movie: Pythagasaurus

A short film for your Veteran’s Day, Pythagasaurus comes to us from Aardman Animations, best known for their series, as well as doing the video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, as well as the upcoming Arthur Christmas. Pythagasaurus tells the story of Ig and Uk (voiced by Bill Bailey and Martin Trenaman, respectively) who, upon discovering a volcano has popped up outside their hut, decide to call upon the the titular Pythagasaurus (Simon Greenall), a dinosaur renowned for his mathematical acumen and knowledge of all eight numbers. It’s three minutes of sublime absurdity with a surprise, twist ending. Enjoy!

The Friday Afternoon Movie: Vincent Price Double Feature: Theatre Of Blood and Witchfinder General

It’s the Friday before Halloween. Very exciting. In that spirit, the FAM has a Double Feature for your weekend. Today we present two films: one a horror movie and another a horror movie of a kind but both sort of forgotten classics that play to the man’s strengths as an actor.

First up is 1973′s Theatre of Blood directed by Douglas Hickox and starring Price and Diana Rigg. The rest of the cast is a host of distinguished British actors: Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, Robert Coote, Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Joan Hickson, Robert Morley, Milo O’Shea, Diana Dors and Dennis Price. Price plays Edward Kendall Sheridan Lionheart who, by his own account, was the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day. Others are not so sure, especially a group of critics who give an annual award for such achievements, specifically the “Critic’s Circle Award for Best Actor”. When they give the award to another, Lionheart attempts suicide. He survives, however, unbeknownst to his detracters, and is taken in by a group of homeless meths-drinkers. Ridiculed throughout his career by these people and denied their highest honor, Lionheart, with the help of his daughter Edwina, exacts his revenge, murdering each critic, one by one. Each murder is based on the deaths featured in the plays of Lionheart’s last season of Shakespeare before his alleged death, many of them chosen to exploit the weaknesses of their victims, and the critics can be seen to correspond with the Seven Deadly Sins.

Theatre of Blood was one of Price’s favorite movies, mostly because it allowed him to act in Shakespeare, something his long string of B-movie horror casting had kept him from doing. It did not seem to bother him, or many other people at the time, that it very much resembled The Abominable Dr. Phibes which had come out two years before, in which Price plays an organist who takes revenge on the doctors he blames for the death his wife, with the help of his assistant Vulnavia, using the Ten Plagues of Egypt as inspiration. Regardless of these similarities (each film is great in their own right) it is a pleasure to watch Price dig into his role as Lionheart, especially when he is acting out his scenes from Shakespeare before each gruesome murder. It also manages to be a fairly funny film, with each slaying taking on an air of absurdity. The sight of Price disguised as an effete, hipster hairdresser —complete with sunglasses and afro — being a particular highlight. In many ways this is the more traditional of the two performances featured here, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

Our second film is more historical drama than horror movie, but it is, indeed, horrific. Released in 1968 and directed by Michael Reeves (who would die a year later, at the age of 25) Witchfinder General (renamed Conqueror Worm in the US to tie into Price’s run of Roger Corman directed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations) stars Price as Matthew Hopkins a real life witch-hunter who operated in the Eastern counties of England in the 17th century, during the English Civil War. With his sadistic assistant John Stearne (also a historical figure) played by Russel Roberts (whose voice was overdubbed by Reeves using actor Jack Lynn, as Reeves felt Roberts’s voice was too high-pitched) he travels through England extracting forced confessions from the accused in exchange for money and, it turns out, the sexual favors of the countryside’s young women. He makes a mistake, however, when he reaches Brandeston, Suffolk and executes the town priest, John Lowes, for conspiring with the Devil and takes advantage of his daughter, Sara (who Stearne later rapes), for Sara’s husband, Richard Marshall, a soldier in Cromwell’s army, is not the forgiving type.

Price is absolutely fantastic in this one. His depiction of Hopkins contains none of the hammy overacting found in many of his traditional horror roles and, as such, he comes off as truly evil. His performance was due, in some part, to his contentious relationship with the director. As originally written in the script, Hopkins was meant to be an ineffective leader, a buffoon of sorts. Reeves has Donald Pleasance in mind for such a role but was informed by American International Pictures that Price, their contract star, had to be placed in the role instead. Having rewritten the role for him, Reeves never got over it and made Price’s life as miserable as he could on set. The two clashed repeatedly throughout the filming and it was only after he had seen the finished film that Price realized what Reeves managed to get out of him, calling it “one of the best performances I’ve ever given.”

Despite the tension between the two men during the production, when Price saw the movie the following year, he admitted that he finally understood what Reeves had been after and wrote the young director a ten page letter praising the film. Reeves wrote Price back, “I knew you would think so.” Years after Reeves’s death, Price said, “… I realized what he wanted was a low-key, very laid-back, menacing performance. He did get it, but I was fighting him almost every step of the way. Had I known what he wanted, I would have cooperated.”

In the US, where it was released uncut with additional prologue and epilogue narration by price to establish the aforementioned Poe connection, (though without the added nudity meant for the German release), it made little impact, being shown mostly in drive-ins and grindhouses. In the UK, however, where 4 minutes were removed due to violence, it shocked critics, many of whom dismissed it as sadistic though, by modern standards, of course, it is fairly tame. It’s not particularly concerned with being entirely historically accurate, but it does manage to capture the paranoia that must have been present during that time and the hypocrisy that, no doubt, proliferated among those who rooted out so-called witches.

And here we are, dear readers, at the end of our Vincent Price-a-thon. A sad day. No doubt, there will be those who would have wished to have seen other films here, but there will always be another time for those; Vincent’s catalog is vast, after all. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at his career. Until next time, then.

The Friday Afternoon Movie: The Last Man On Earth

This week the FAM continues its Vincent Price-a-thon (Did we mention, this is a Vincent Price-a-thon? No? Well, it is.) with 1964′s The Last Man on Earth, directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow. It is based on Richard Matheson’s classic novella I Am Legend which would later be bastardized into 1971′s The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, the 2007, Will Smith shit-fest I Am Legend as well as I Am Omega, the “Mockbuster” of that same year distributed by straight to video empire The Asylum.

The Last Man On Earth has two distinct advantages over these efforts. The first is that the script was partially written by Matheson himself and, as such, it most closely follows his original story. In the end, though, he was not particularly pleased with the effort and had himself credited as “Logan Swanson” (a combination of the maiden names of his mother and the mother of his wife):

I was disappointed in The Last Man on Earth, even though they more or less followed my story. I think Vincent Price, whom I love in every one of his pictures that I wrote, was miscast. I also felt the direction was kind of poor. I just didn’t care for it.

The second is, of course, Vincent Price, because everything is automatically made a bit better when he’s around. That said, I would agree with Matheson’s take that Price is a bit miscast here. He’s not the hero type, at least not in the way that the story requires Richard Neville (Morgan here) to be. His interactions with the hordes of undead outside the confines of his house, then, are usually pretty laughable, including scenes of Morgan going about his business of staking vampires while they sleep, in which Price halfheartedly waves a hammer around to pantomime the act of driving a stake into a body. I can’t help but wonder if this may have been a part of the reason why Richard was rewritten as a milquetoast scientist from the blue-collar factory worker in the story. That said, I still find his performance to have some great strengths, most obviously his ability to bring Morgan’s internal monologues to life. Price manages to instill these voice-overs with a palpable sense of sadness and desperation which is good because, much as I adore the book, it is mostly a story about a man talking to himself. This may be why Hollywood has shied away from doing a straight adaptation.

The differences here are fairly minimal, with one exception. The vampires here are shuffling, wrecks, whereas in the book they were agile and fast. This change would seem to have little impact, though it did make an impression on one George A. Romero, who would acknowledge the impact of both the film and the novella on his Night of the Living Dead. Other changes include, Richard’s last name and pre-apocalypse occupation (as previously mentioned) as well as the specifics of his interactions with the woman Ruth and the dog. The largest change, of course, is that of the title and, subsequently, its use in the final line of the story. I Am Legend very much elevates itself with that last line and, though The Last Man on Earth makes an effort, it cannot match Matheson’s twist. Regardless of any shortcomings, however, it’s worth giving The Last Man on Earth a look. It’s a solid film, starring one of the great horror masters and a worthy entry in the history of end of the world cinema.

The Friday Afternoon Movie: House On Haunted Hill

It’s October, that time of the year when, with Fall in full…fall, we are sanctioned to gorge ourselves on a year’s worth of high fructose corn syrup. Knowing you’ll no doubt take care of that on your own, today the FAM provides you, instead, with a healthy heaping of camp and Vincent Price as we present House on Haunted Hill from 1959, directed by William Castle.

The setup is fairly simple: Eccentric millionaire Fredrick Loren (Price) has invited five strangers to attend a “party” for his fourth wife Annabelle at a supposedly haunted house. The power will be off and the doors will be locked at midnight. Each of the guests is given a .45 pistol for protection. Any guest that makes it until morning will receive ten thousand dollars. As the night progresses his guests will learn that there is more to fear than ghosts.

Two things really make House on Haunted Hill: Price, of course, at his schlocky best and the house itself. Say what you want about the acting or the special effects, but the atmosphere conjured up by those sets is strikingly foreboding, especially the wine cellar, home of perhaps the films most famous apparition, the old crone who twice scares the crap out of poor Nora.

Castle was well known for heavily promoting his films with a number of gimmicks, and this one was no different. House on Haunted Hill was marketing as being filmed in “Emergo” or “Emerg-O” in some theaters. What this meant was, during the film’s penultimate scene (in which the scheming Annabelle meets her demise) a glowing, inflatable skeleton would emerge from above the screen and float above the audience via wires. This was known to elicit more laughs than scares and the skeleton often became a target of flying confections.

House on Haunted Hill is a quintessential Halloween movie. It is a typical, haunted house experience put to film (it even starts out with a series of generic haunted-house-spooky sounds) hosted by Vincent Fucking Price. If you’re in the mood for some B-movie thrills, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The Friday Afternoon Movie: The Devil’s Backbone

Today The FAM presents 2001′s The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo), directed by Guillermo del Toro and produced by Pedro Almodóvar. Set in 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, it tells the story of Carlos, a young boy recently deposited at an orphanage until, he is told, his father, a Republican war hero, returns. Unbeknownst to young Carlos, Franco’s Nationalists have a distinct upper-hand and his father is dead, making his stay permanent. The orphanage is run by the kindly Dr. Casares and and a curt headmistress, Carmen.

Carlos doesn’t take to the orphanage particularly well and while he makes a few friends — not the least of which is Jaime, the orphanage’s bully — all is not well. There is still the matter of Jacinto, the groundskeeper, I violent, brooding man who was an orphan himself, who is intent on stealing the gold rumored to be stored somewhere in the complex. Of course, there is also the ghost of the boy Santi, who disappeared mysteriously on the night the orphanage was bombed, and now haunts the orphanage and who tells Carlos “Many of you will die”. What happened to him and how is it connected to the cistern in the cellar?

His third film, The Devil’s Backbone features the same juxtaposition of childish innocence and dread found in his other non-Hollywood efforts: 1993′s Cronos and 2006′s Pan’s Labyrinth; that latter film continuing the exploration of many of the themes found here. It’s a look at how the unblemished mind confronts the horrors of both reality and the supernatural — a Kids Save the Day movie in the Spielberg vein, forced through a horror movie meat grinder, though del Toro perhaps treats his young characters with a bit more respect.

The horror here is handled deftly as well, the ghost is more often heard than seen outright, softly, mournfully moaning its discontent, keeping it from veering into the territory of silliness that many films in the genre are wont to do. And war, always war. Its looming specter, too, haunts this film as well as Pan’s Labyrinth. War is the real evil in these films, man the main antagonist. Even the depths of del Toro’s imagination cannot eclipse their evil.

The Friday Afternoon Movie: Inside The Labyrinth

Three day weekend coming up for us Americans, so this has to be a quickie, seeing as I have to amass the alcohol and ammunition that every holiday celebration here requires. Today’s FAM is “Inside the Labyrinth”, an hour long behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Labyrinth.

Labyrinth, for the one or two readers who don’t know, is the 1986 Jim Henson film starring pre-rhinoplasty Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, a whole mess of puppets, and David Bowie’s package. While short, the documentary does provide a look into the complexity of the creatures that Henson and company were building, exemplified by the image of a severed, yet moving Hoggle head speaking lines whilst perched on a wooden post. (Bonus for Star Trek: The Next Generation fans: Hey look, Dr. Crusher was also a choreographer.)

Thorough as it is, it does not address the decision to pour David Bowie into nut-hugging spandex for a children’s film; something that, for now at least, remains a mystery.

The Friday Afternoon Movie: Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

Today the FAM presents John McNaughton’s 1986 low budget cult classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Released in 1990 after years of battling with various censors over its content it is, perhaps, one of most effective horror movies of the past two decades, forgoing piles of gore for a documentarian approach to the genre.

The titular Henry, played by Michael Rooker, is a drifter, who just happens to leave a trail of bodies behind him. Indeed, the first thing we see is the body of a nude woman in a field, after which we see Henry as he goes about his day with scenes from other crime scenes interspersed throughout. It is only later, when our other two main characters show up, Becky (Tracy Arnold) who has left her husband to stay with her brother, the incredibly creepy Otis (Tom Towles) in Chicago, that we are formally introduced to Henry or, at least, the Henry that presents himself to the world.

Rooker’s performance here is excellent, displaying a strained awkwardness that serves as a mostly successful veneer for the terrifying person underneath. It’s a cover that completely disappears when he’s out looking for victims. Towles, for his part, manages to play a character who is actually creepier than the psychopath he is paired up with. Arnold may be the weakest link among the three. Her character is too direct, her dialog too on the nose, but there is just enough there to get the audience to care about her. Her penultimate scene in Otis’s apartment is completely expected and yet that makes it no less horrifying.

Made for a $110,000 in less than a month, Henry was inspired by real life killer Henry Lee Lucas who, at one time, was thought to be one of America’s most prolific serial killers. (It was later revealed that while Lucas had confessed to over 600 murders, most of them he could not have committed and was simply confessing to whatever cold case was put in front of him in exchange for improved accommodations in prison.) Interestingly, Henry’s story of his mother is surprisingly close to that of Lucas’s who also was a violent prostitute who often forced him to watch her while she had sex with clients. She would also make him wear girl’s clothing and dresses and his father actually did lose both his legs, after being struck by a freight train.

Due to the budget constraints, many of the actors were close friends of McNaughton. One of them, Mary Demas, appears as three different dead (or soon to be dead) people: the dead woman in the field, the dead woman in the bathroom, and one of the prostitutes Henry kills with Otis. The street scenes are devoid of extras as, again, there was no money to hire any, so the two men having an argument in front of the subway that Becky emerges from were not acting, they just refused to move. Rooker apparently stayed in character on and off set for the entire 28 days and was so unsettling to be around that his wife, after have found out she was pregnant, waited until after shooting had ended to tell him.

It’s a a tour de force of low-budget film-making. Shot in 16mm, it’s a film that feels strangely real. Watching Henry is like watching an unmarked video found along the road, evidence hastily disposed of. You are watching something you weren’t meant to see, and so are absorbed by it and, in some ways, complicit in the events that unfold. It almost feels like something you should turn in to the police.

It’s a sentiment very much echoed in the scene of Henry and Otis (having been taken under Henry’s wing) watching a video they shot (using a camcorder acquired earlier through less than legal means) of the pair during a home invasion in which they kill a man, woman, and their son. As the video ends, Otis hits rewind causing Henry to ask “What are you doin’?” To which Otis replies, simply “I want to see it again.” Watching it again he goes over the segment of himself assaulting the wife and mother frame by frame, as much an indictment of their voyeurism as ours.

The Friday Afternoon Movie: 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s

Another week another FAM. Time to FAM it up FAM style. FAM to the MAX! FAMtacular FAMmery.

Ok, that’s enough of that. (Editors Note: Please PLEASE, stop drinking at work.)

Today we present 1979′s 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, directed by Gary Weis of All You Need Is Cash and Saturday Night Live fame. I first found this movie three years ago and it still fascinates me. Following two gangs from the South Bronx, the Savage Skulls and the Nomads, it provides a fascinating snapshot of New York as it limped out of one of it’s worst decades. It plays much better as a time capsule, I think, then a gang documentary. If you ever wondered how anyone could come up with the aesthetics of a movie like The Warriors, here’s your answer.

The Friday Afternoon Movie: The Weather Underground

Hulu had the only embeddable copy of this. For readers in territories that cannot view Hulu, however, you can watch the whole thing here, on the distributor’s official YouTube channel.

It’s Friday again and you are sick and tired of this damn job! Stupid job. Stupid boss, with his/her stupid shirt and his/her stupid face. It’s time to rise up! Time to flip over your desk and set it on fire. Then go punch your boss in the face. FUCK THE MAN!

Ok, well, maybe it’s not time for that but it is time for The FAM, and today we’re showing The Weather Underground, Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s 2002 documentary about the Weathermen, the radical leftist organization responsible for a number of bombings of government buildings during the 1970s as well as breaking Timothy Leary out of jail. Featuring interviews with key members of the movement, it manages to stay objective while giving an inside look into the machinations of the violent side of the New Left that grew out of the protests of the Vietnam War.