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by Bill Gibron

27 Feb 2008


After their profitable partnership dissolved, after their once amicable relationship started to fray (in part thanks to lawsuits, misunderstanding, and miscommunication), director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman were desperate to prove they could go it alone. Both knew that the exploitation game was still the most important genre in all of cinema. It was where the medium was truly testing the limits of its aesthetic. It was also where the easy money was. A little gore, some T&A, and a fine living could be made. Before coming back together to make Blood Feast 2 in 2001, both men made several sensational pictures. Unfortunately, when the time comes to write their bios, the same THREE films take front and center.

Yet there are many amazing movies as part of this duo’s individual oeuvres that get unfairly overlooked. While few have had the impact of Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red, they definitely deserve an equal amount of attention (and in the case of Color, much more so). Consider this list as a beginner’s guide so to speak, a starting off point for a further perusal of the considered works of two exploitation giants. While they are not the only names among the founding members of the genre, Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman are truly artists among the raincoat rabble. Our overview starts from the production end of things:

From David F. Friedman

The Defilers 1965


The first true “roughie”, an exploitation subgenre that focused on violence as much as sex, this craven bit of carnality remains Friedman’s confirmation he could hack it without Lewis. Two spoiled men kidnap a gal and make her their perverted plaything. Unrelenting in its brutality and corporeal cruelty.

A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine 1966


Friedman discovery Stacey Walker is the only reason to watch this otherwise routine ‘bad girl gets her eventual comeuppance’ drama. She primps and preens across the black and white screen, her Baby Doll like innocence swamped in gallons of sleazoid slime. Everything else is by the book and routine.

She Freak 1967


Using his status as an actual carnival owner to reimagine Tod Browning’s Freaks, Friedman digs up a deliciously seamy look at love and betrayal on the Midway. Much of the story stays the same, but with late ‘60s sexuality taking over, we get a healthy dose of dementia.

The Erotic Adventures of Zorro 1972


There’s much more than swashbuckling in this scandalous take on the Hispanic hero. Featuring the unflappable Bob Cresse as a corrupt officer, and a bevy of California beauties, this is the kind of softcore sex spoof that Friedman fell into late in his career. It stands as one of his best.

Johnny Firecloud 1975


In light of the success of Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack character, Friedman found his own way to celebrate growing Native American awareness. The result was this action packed tale of bigotry, bravery, and the most irredeemable white people ever. Jack may have started the war, but this amazing artifact ended it.

From Herschell Gordon Lewis

Blast Off Girls 1967


Like A Hard Day’s Night gone gangrenous, Lewis lifts the lid off of rock and roll corruption and finds a talentless bunch of wannabe musicians and a cameo by Colonel Harlan Sanders? Let’s face it - any film with a character named Boogie Baker (who everyone pronounces “boo-gee”) has more moxie than most.

The Gore Gore Girls 1972


Strippers are being slaughtered and it’s up to a fey private dick to figure out whodunit. Featuring classic moments including the ground hamburger butt (complete with salt and pepper), the plain and chocolate milk giving nipples, and gratuitous Henny Youngman. It’s enough to make you scream…with deranged delight!

The Gruesome Twosome 1967


The local wig shop needs inventory, and guess who supplies the samples? Why, it’s the girls from the nearby college campus. Another in Lewis’ hilarious string of gore comedies, this one note nasty is far funnier than frightening. Even the blood is a little less festive than before.

How to Make a Doll 1968


Hoping to trade on the growing promiscuity of the sexual revolution, the Godfather of Gore decided to go robot. When a nerdy scientist realizes he’ll never get a real girl, he decides to build one. The results are like an outtake from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In…only crazier.

Jimmy the Boy Wonder 1966


A rare non-exploitation spin for Lewis, this heartwarming family film has a horrid child actor in the lead, the producer’s wife as the singing female star, and enough sloppy psychedelic missteps to give the wee ones nightmares. The story centers on a boy who can stop time. He should have halted it before production began.

Just For the Hell of It 1968


Juvenile delinquents run ramshackle over a small Florida town, wrecking all kinds of ‘baby into garbage can’ havoc along the way. Really nothing more than a series of smash and grab set pieces supplemented by droning dialogue about all things antisocial, this stands as one of Lewis’ most unhinged efforts.

She-Devils on Wheels 1968


Female biker babes, riding hard and partying harder - that’s the premise to one of the ‘60s greatest grindhouse classics. The scene where the gals pick over the male members for their evening’s pleasure is a glorious goof on the long running battle of the sexes. In fact the whole narrative is one long feminism/chauvinism chopper tirade.

Something Weird 1967


Hoping to do something with LSD and ESP, Lewis lumbered into a crackpot combination of witchcraft, psychics, and supernatural possession. Toss in some acid, and the title speaks for itself. It stands as a benchmark in the director’s solo work, an ‘anything for a dollar’ drive that saw him finally returning to terror. 

The Wizard of Gore 1970


Montag is a magician whose splatter show acts somehow come to life hours after the performance. Unlike his later horror comedies, Lewis takes this material very seriously, and the resulting grue is quite disturbing. While Ray Sager’s sprayed gray hair is rather unconvincing, the rest of the film is unrelenting in its desire to disturb.

Year of the Yahoo 1972


An election time favorite, this outsider view of the political process is as vital today as it was 35 years ago, perhaps even more so. A country bumpkin singer is tricked into running for the Senate by a group of corrupt campaign chiefs. Oddly enough, his rube hick humility strikes a chord with the public.

by Bill Gibron

26 Feb 2008


No one had ever seen anything like it before. As drive-in patrons lined up for a Friday night showing of a new horror film, little did they know that they were about to witness a cinematic milestone. It would be the creation of an entire genre of film, and the beginning of the end to a profitable filmmaking partnership. Those Peoria, Illinois customers got more than they bargained for as they pulled into the dirt parking lot and attached a tinny speaker to their windows, for what poured forth from the screen was seventy minutes of unbridled brutality. They witnessed legs chopped off, eyes gouged out, tongues ripped from throats, and brains spilled from skulls.

On that balmy night in 1963, the mighty Monarch of the Exploitation Film, David F. Friedman, along with King of the Nudies, director Herschel Gordon Lewis, redefined their careers (and their lives) with the release of Blood Feast. Over the course of the next two years, they would further refine this new form of cinema, creating a trilogy of gore-drenched classics. Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red cemented their legacy and eventually split their profitable affiliation. While dated and a little dippy, these films stand as a testament to these founding fathers of fear, the men who discovered that genuine terror - and a lot of cash - could be made by thoroughly grossing people out.

The ‘60s had just started. Producer Friedman and director Lewis were well known, highly reputable players in grindhouse filmmaking and distribution with such titles as The Adventures of Lucky Pierre and Daughters of the Sun to their credit. Taking a very basic premise - like an enchanted pair of glasses that allowed the wearer to see a person “au natural” - they would shoot nudist camp footage and incorporate it into the basic narrative. While fun and highly profitable, by ‘63 the market was literally flooded with breasts and bare butts. The duo needed to find another unwholesome subject to exploit. It needed to have the same immediate visceral impact on the audience that live childbirth footage had when featured in the moralistic Mom and Dad films. It needed to stir the imagination (and senses) the way acres of unclothed nubile young bodies had in the nudie cutie movie.

Like most acts of desperation, their idea was sudden and inspired: Gore! Total carnage! Unmitigated and realistic scenes of torture and murder! Remove the subtle nuance and cinematic trickery from past movie killings and show everything in graphic, gruesome detail. Within weeks, Blood Feast was on its way into the cinematic history book. Its phenomenal success mandated a sequel of sorts. Two Thousand Maniacs saw lightning strike twice, but only one year later, there was so much dissension built up between Friedman and Lewis that Color Me Blood Red was abandoned (to be completed by others), signaling the end of their era in gore films.

While Friedman and Lewis would both explore the horror film separately, they never did recapture the magic of Blood Feast or the trilogy, and with good reason. These were honest collaborations, the very essence of teamwork: Lewis on the camera, Friedman producing and operating the sound. After a dozen or more solo efforts, Lewis retired from film completely, and Friedman stumbled into a long stint with the soft-core sex farce. But it’s these films, with all their unrelenting bloodshed and gleeful butchery, that people remember. And it’s also the most passionate and playful of their work together (or maybe even separately). Historians and fans consistently return to these films to see where it all began—when horror finally grew balls and decided to show it all in unadulterated explicit detail.

Stylistically, Lewis and Friedman lifted a great deal from the horror comics of the time (like the ones created by EC). Their use of bold, vivid primary colors (as in Blood Feast) made the images feel like the dazzling panels of a cruel comic. Two Thousand Maniacs is a cornpone Vault of Horror by way of Brigadoon with its bizarre twists and shockingly sick set pieces. Even in Color Me Blood Red there is a clear cartoon-like conceit, with every action exaggerated, acting over the top and outrageous, and shots that mimic the best in pen and ink. The Trilogy allowed Lewis to expand his director’s language with unique angles, extreme close ups, and atmospheric lighting. The result was a set of cinematic sickies so drenched in dread and bloodstained bodies that audiences couldn’t help but be disturbed. And entertained.

They also marked the true origins of the modern horror archetype. Blood Feast was (and is) the prototypical psycho killer on the loose film, a blueprint for every other slasher/maniac movie to come. Two Thousand Maniacs was the perfect meeting of formula with fantasy. You can see the future fun killings of Freddy Krueger or the over-the-top torture tactics of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Evil Dead in its rednecked roots. Unfortunately, Color Me Blood Red stands for the eventual downfall of the genre, illustrating that when bound by parameters and convention, or when over-hyped or underdeveloped, a gore film could be tedious and pedestrian.

On its own, Blood Feast is the keeper. It is pure psychotic fun, a quirky assault on your senses and your tolerance for the disgusting. It makes its mutant merriment out of ingenuity, energy, and entrails. The film starts out strong and moves rapidly through its uncontrolled barrage of vivid thrill killings. However, at the end it sort of loses steam. The collection of body parts for an Egyptian blood feast/ritual is a novel and nutty premise and, in general, it works wonderfully. But once the killer is discovered and the pseudo mystery solved, the film degenerates into a laughably goofy foot chase that even the puffiest detective should have been able to win. First time viewers may find the initial half of the film shocking and grotesque, even by today’s standards. From the opening scene where an unfortunate young lady’s carved-open face is shown in full close up, the movie announces its intent to use graphic bloody images as a gigantic exclamation point to the proceedings.

The acting, unfortunately, is not consistent. As Ramses, Mal Arnold is wonderfully perverse, but Connie Mason’s Susan seems to be channeling Tor Johnson. Lewis is a tight, economical director, and not a shot or opportunity is wasted, and with classic set pieces like “beach brain bingo” and “the tongue tear” he creates, along with Friedman, a disturbed, demented (if occasionally imperfect) delight. Any fan of horror, then or now, should be required to watch Blood Feast, if only to witness first-hand where so much of what they now worship actually spawned. While they’re at it, a trip to Two Thousand Maniacs should be mandatory as well.

In the summer of 2001, in the sweltering heat of New Orleans, a pair of old men laughed and joked. They reminisced about old times. They imagined about what could have been. They buried their differences and embraced the experience of renewal. As 75-year-old Herschel Gordon Lewis called action, a brutal killing occurred. Blood flowed like an evil, if familiar, river. Still, surrounded by the fresh paint and modern technology, some things were the same; the stage gore was still the patented brew, and 78-year-old David F. Friedman was standing by his side. It had been over 40 years since they had conceived the genre they were now diving back into, and the two elderly entrepreneurs of exploitation were putting the finishing touches on Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat.

Dozens of films, hundreds of bad reviews, and thousands of imitators later, Lewis and Friedman truly have nothing left to prove. Their legacy is cemented in a strange concoction of Karo syrup, red dye, and makeup base. They will always be known as the Godfathers of Gore, and people looking for the first true “video nasty” and its unhinged progeny can buy The Blood Trilogy and relish in the work of two true originals. Just like those first time customers in Peoria on that fateful day in 1963, they can bear witness to the graphic, squeamish birth of the gore genre…and the lasting influence of David F. Friedman and Herschel Gordon Lewis.

by PopMatters Staff

25 Feb 2008


The mainstream acceptance of documentary films is undeniable, which is to say they’ve started to make money. This newfound box office clout has transformed the genre from one of format to mood.  Non-fiction films are now subject to the same rigorous expectations of any western, thriller, or musical.  And while it is always heartening to see practitioners of a heretofore ‘ghettoized’ art form reap a financial reward, that cheer is darkened by the thought of a Darfur genocide doc pitched to unctuous studio execs a la The Player (“It’s Super Size Me meets Schindler’s List!”). 

John Grierson, the Scottish-born pater familias of British and Canadian documentaries wrote in his book First Principles of Documentary, “We believe that the materials and the stories taken from the raw can be finer (more real in the philosophical sense) than the acted article.”  Which is all fine and good, but when you’re opening on 2000 screens, you want to know that it’s going to play in Poughkeepsie. 

Grierson engendered the notion of documentary as unaltered truth, and his veracity has been debated ever since, but never before have the tools of cinematic grammar and genre conventions been applied to the form with such verve. 

The most common tact stolen from fictional films appears in the crosscut.  Innumerable examples exist of this editorial dash between two or more threads of action to create suspense (Roger & Me, The War Room, Startup.Com, Hoop Dreams, ad nauseum).  Now I don’t suggest that documentarians should be barred access to the rudimentary tools of editing, but this technique can only erode the already crumbling notion of unvarnished truth espoused by giants of verité like Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, Public Housing, Domestic Violence) or Allan King (Warrendale, A Married Couple, Dying at Grace).  I’ll make a concession: if the editing style of your documentary owes a heavy debt to Hitchcock, maybe you should back away from the Avid for a breather. 

In the mood for courtroom fireworks?  No need for Grisham, just turn to Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Capturing the Friedmans and others, (although this trope is the domain of the TV investigative feature and so popular that, well, it has its own station). 

How about docs that mimic other genres?  Crime drama meets police procedural in Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill, The Thin Blue Line, Biggie and Tupac, Cocaine Cowboys.

Dysfunctional family drama?  Capturing the Friedmans (again), Tell Them Who You Are, Brother’s Keeper, My Architect, Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows.  You get the feeling that if Eugene O’Neill were around today he wouldn’t be typing but shooting from the hip in HD. 

When discussing the ascendancy of documentaries, there is an undeniable elephant in the room, and that’s not a fat joke.  Michael Moore makes non-fiction issue films but rarely deserves the appellation of ‘documentarian’. Moore is the filmmaker as polemicist, a projected cousin of non-fiction rant books that littler bookstore shelves hither and yon.  And while I often agree with his politics, this is not the reason I bristle at yelps regarding his passing acquaintance with objectivity.  I expect from him the same impartiality proffered by wingnuts like Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity.  Those who preach to the converted deftly avoid the burden of objectivity but sacrifice authority for all their furious exhortations. 

He has also spawned a brood of filmmaking brats infatuated with making themselves the star. Progenitor Ross McElwee aside (Sherman’s March,Time Indefinite), odious first person entries such as 20 Dates, My Date with Drew and the inexplicably popular Tarnation enervate.  All I have gained from these works is that I don’t want to watch films about people I would change seats on a bus to avoid. 

Now to the fun part - who to blame?  I would like to extend a judicious finger at reality TV but I believe it only highlights the public’s thirst for truth.  Once these stopped being ‘reality shows’ and were tagged ‘reality based’ (with story editors on staff, for Christ’s sake) it turned into professional wrestling. Artificiality admitted and embraced, their popularity soared and activated in the viewer’s brain what I like to call the Aaron Spelling Effect, with symptoms mimicking those of enveloping narcosis. 

However, the longing for truth continued and it is a sensible urge.  In a world of fictional WMDs, steroid-fuelled homerun kings and Katie Couric News Anchor, how’s a fella supposed to set his moral compass?  At the movie theater it would seem, a sanctuary for us all in troubled times. 

In days past (I’m looking at you Depression Era), we trudged to the theatre for escape.  Only now we crave truth but in digestible form.  Hence, the addition of genre spice to our documentary gruel.  The problem is that the majority of the public receive information in a ‘documentary’ as if it was as John Grierson intended, “raw…more real than the acted article”.  Filters are left at the door (Hepa or otherwise) along with critical thought.  It’s as if the smell of popcorn causes ninety-minute brain death. 

Which leads me to shake my accusing finger at David Holzman’s Diary

It’s 1967.  David Holzman picks up a camera and films his daily life.  He is a lover of film and the process of filmmaking.  He cites Jean-Luc Goddard’s maxim about truth in cinema.  A clip from a glossy Vincente Minnelli film is included in a rapid sequence of one night’s television viewing.  David films his girlfriend sleeping in the nude.  He acquires a fish eye lens and plays with it, hoisting the camera over his head like a child.  He interviews a friend who voices his concerns regarding David’s experiment.  He drives his girlfriend away with his filming obsession. 

The Library of Congress entered this film into its National Film Registry in 1991.  Why, one might wonder, would a film of anodyne detail deserve such an honor?  Well, it is a terrific document of New York’s Upper West Side in the late sixties and looks good in black and white.  And for those that don’t know David Holzman’s Diary, it was fake. 

I don’t bring this up just to cite what could be the first ‘mockumentary’ long before it became a term, the most tiresome word in a sitcom pitch, or the form for many first time directors to tackle (Woody Allen, Tim Robbins, Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks and Jim McBride, director of Diary).  I don’t bring up this hard to find film (once available on VHS, currently available from UK’s Second Run DVD in Region 0 PAL) in an effort to convince you of how subtle and effective its evocation of ‘reality’ - I may as well try to describe a cool breeze. 

The two directors mentioned illustrate the unending battle between fact and truth.  While Goddard famously maintained that film should be ‘truth 24 frames a second’, Vincente Minnelli responded in an interview that film is, in fact, ‘a lie 24 frames a second’.  Not only does it provide a telling comment on the methods of two widely divergent talents, it foretells (in an already prescient film) the problematic crux of the blockbuster documentary.  A form ostensibly dedicated to objectivity should not concern itself with character arcs, plot points or, God help us, test screenings (“I liked When The Levees Broke but could it be less of a downer?”). 

So the next time you’re lined up to see the newest non-fiction film about the troubles along the Gaza Strip, consider instead buying a ticket to Don’t Mess With The Zohan.  For if Vincente Minnelli is right, you just might learn something. 

by Bill Gibron

24 Feb 2008


Leave it to the 80th anniversary of Oscar to throw us all for a loop - at least metaphysically. In one of those years where it seemed like every award was predetermined, Sunday night’s Academy telecast offered a few solid surprises - and a fair amount of sure things as well. It was a strange night overall: Jon Stewart taking his usual post-modern satiric swipe at everyone and everything associated with Hollywood; Daniel Day-Lewis was almost personable; and someone stole John Travolta’s eyes! There were highlights (Once winning Best Song, and Stewart leading co-winner Marketa Irglova - with Glen Hasard - back onstage to give her music cue shortened thank you’s) and lowlights (The Golden Compass beating two better films for Visual Effects), but mostly, the eighth decade of this Tinsel Town trophy fest packed a welcome bit of unpredictability.

It started with the Best Supporting Actress award. No one thought Tilda Swinton had a chance, though her turn as Michael Clayton’s corporate antagonist was cinematically solid. No, everyone had pegged Ruby Dee to take home this prize, and on the off chance she failed to get the career capper, critic’s list favorite Amy Ryan was waiting in the wings. So imagine everyone’s surprise when Swinton‘s name was called. It signaled yet another instance where this category confounded the traditional thinking. Something similar happened when Best Actress came along. From the underdog pinings for Juno‘s Ellen Page to the old world welcome back for the expected Julie Christie, Marion Cottillard‘s work in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose was viewed as quite the long shot. So when her name was announced, the stunned performer literally fell apart. She was so visibly moved during her acceptance speech that you just knew she too thought her chances were slim.

On the men’s side of the evening, everything went as scripted. Javier Bardem took home the Supporting Actor trophy, touting No Country and his homeland of Spain in the process, while Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis continued to carry There Will Be Blood on his sinewy British shoulders. Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic provided another of the night’s unexpected thrills when Robert Elswit walked away with the Oscar for Best Cinematography. In a career spanning more the 25 years, and dozens of good (Boogie Nights) and god-awful (Moving Violations) movies, this was only his second nomination - and he ended up beating Roger Deakins who was up for two awards himself (No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The man behind the Coen’s bleak Southwestern vision went home empty handed for the seventh straight time.

Elsewhere, there was conformity and confusion. Somehow, Compass did beat both Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for Visual Effects while La Vie en Rose picked up a second trophy for Make-Up work (beating Norbit, Hallelujah!). The Bourne Ultimatum garnered three trophies, all in the technical fields (Achievement in Editing, Sound, and Sound Editing). On the other hand, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street had to settle for a single award for Best Art Design (Dante Ferretti and partner Francesca Lo Schiavo had previously won for The Aviator). Other singular winners included Atonement (Best Score), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Best Costumes), and Juno (Best Original Screenplay). Diablo Cody, author of the feel-good pop culture comedy was another recipient visibly shaken when she accepted her statue. Even her typical ‘too cool for school’ demeanor faded in light of the moment’s majesty.

Another shocker was Taxi to the Dark Side. The story of a cabdriver who died while in US custody (he was arrested and tortured by American forces), beat two other Iraq- based narratives (No End in Sight and Operation: Homecoming) and category mainstay Michael Moore (SiCKO) for Best Documentary. On the other hand, Pixar proved its continuing Oscar dominance by taking home yet another Best Animated Feature trophy for Ratatouille. It’s Brad Bird’s second, a staggering achievement when you think about it. Yet in the end, it was Joel and Ethan Coen‘s night. They took home acknowledgements for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and ultimately, Best Picture. None of these wins was a stunner - the boys had won the DGA and Producer’s Guild Awards - but it was still very odd to see the Academy embrace these particular filmmakers so. The duo have never been known to walk to the industry beat, not in their movies or in their public personas.

So No Country for Old Men will go down as the evening’s big winner (four in total) and the second crime drama in a row to take home the top prize (after The Departed in 2007). Trivia buffs will likely be the only ones who remember the names of the Best Live Action (The Mozart of Pickpockets) or Animated (Peter and the Wolf - again!?!?) Short, or the winner of Best Foreign film (Austria, for the true story of Nazi Counterfeiters). Office pools worldwide will smart over the upsets and eyes will now turn to the ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’. The 12 months of 2007 produced a literal landslide of excellent cinematic fare, much of which never even got a chance at Oscar gold. A year from now, we’ll be having the same argument over 2008’s hopefully abundant crop of celluloid. Here’s hoping next year’s ceremony is even more surprising.

by Bill Gibron

23 Feb 2008


The test of any great story is its adaptability - that is, how readily another individual or culture can take the basic tenets and make it their own. Myths and legends are a primary source of such interchangeable material, but there have been many ‘modern’ narratives that have found such universality. Though many may argue that he merely channeled the basic stories of the past, William Shakespeare created several plays that have become the standard bearer for dozens of updates and revisions. His most heralded work remains Hamlet, considered a true test of any actor’s mantle. Interestingly enough, it forms the basis for the luxurious martial arts spectacle The Legend of the Black Scorpion. But instead of focusing on the famous melancholy Dane, we get a decidedly female look at the complicated court politics.

This is a movie where Gertrude - in this case, Empress Wan (played by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Ziyi Zhang) - is the main focus. We have our Hamlet in the tormented Prince turned tortured artist Wu Lan (a wonderful Daniel Wu) and a backstabbing, scheming Uncle (You Ge) who may have murdered his own brother for the throne. Toss in the unrequited love of Qing Nu (a heartbreaking Xun Zhou) daughter of the crown’s chief advisor, her brother (Xiaoming Huang) exiled to a distant part of the Empire, and a defiant official who pays for his consternation with his life, and you’ve got the Bard’s basics clearly in place. But director Feng Xiaogang isn’t interested in just retelling the well honed saga. Instead, he adds subtle subtext about human nature, the need for individual facades (or masks), and the ruthless nature of power - both personal and political.

Together they combine to bring new life to a classic. The Legend of the Black Scorpion (on DVD as part of the Weinstein Company and Genius Products excellent Dragon Dynasty Collection), for all its Old Vic allusions, is purely Chinese in its execution. This is a film that flaunts massive, impressive sets, long, luxuriant takes, performances pitched somewhere between dour and delirious, and enough Yuen Wo-ping wire fu to soften even the most hardened of martial arts hearts. Thanks to the brilliant art direction, the use of tone and mood, the emphasis on interpersonal passions and pride, as well as the incomparable scope of events, we get a story that soars well above the typical elements. Instead, Xiaogang gives us tragedy as a type of cosmic destiny, a means of making the smallest act seem like the most significant and symbolic step ever taken by a human being.

The Legend of the Black Scorpion is indeed as eye opening as it is thought provoking. From the opening moments when we meet Wu Lan in his beautiful bamboo school, to the last act confrontation at the world’s most sumptuous banquet, Timmy Yip’s stunning designs, loaded with exotic and ephemeral touches, take us back in time and literally out of this world. While most period pieces strive for some semblance of era-appropriate realism, only the warrior uniforms here recall a feudal state. The rest of Black Scorpion shudders like an art gallery come to life, moments so magnificent and masterful that you wonder how they were ever achieved. As part of the new two disc DVD package, we learn a great deal about the production, how CGI and other optical tricks were used to realize some very ambitious aims. It highlights the big budget foundation of this fascinating film.

Yet pretty pictures are nothing without actors and performances to populate them. And in the casting of Black Scorpion, Xiaogang has found a fascinating company indeed. For all her plaintive, porcelain beauty, lead actress Zhang makes a devastating villainess. Perhaps because she is so regal in her demeanor she comes across as even more cruel and heartless. At the other end of the spectrum, no Western actor can out melancholy Wu when it comes to playing our notoriously depressed lead. Instead of being inactive or unable to defend himself, the Prince in this version of the story stands for his principles and fights when confronted. It is only when he sits with the Empress or his love Qing that his true sadness comes forth. Wu is a wonderful martial artist, a man who typically isn’t given much of a chance to highlight his kung fu. Here, he gets a pair of wonderful swordplay scenes, and he really excels in both.

As for his handling of the material overall, Xiaogang can be accused of going slo-mo more than necessary. During the opening attack at Wu Lan’s school, there is a great deal of undercranked blood spray. Indeed, fans of such formal epics may be put off by the amount of gore here. Bodies are bisected with regularity, and one character is beaten to death in a gauntlet so cruel it’s almost impossible to watch. Yet between all the garroting and wound gushing, suicides and mass slaughter, it’s the lesser intrigues that carry this film. And it is here where this director truly shines. The scenes between characters sizzle with unspoken fervor, and the contrasts between close-ups and massive establishing shots never let us forget the “cogs in a bigger machine” theme. In fact, it’s clear that Xiaogang used Hamlet for more than a fictional foundation. Something about the story truly resonated with him.

It’s a fact confirmed by ever-present commentator Bey Logan as part of Black Scorpion‘s excellent digital overview. Spending most of his time comparing and contrasting this version of the Bard with the original, there is a lot of insight in the alternate narrative track. From moments he feels surpasses the classic to times when traditional Hong Kong filmmaking took over, Logan lets us in on all aspects of the production. Perhaps the most engaging material offered centers on the missing scenes - intriguing sequences scripted but never filmed. We also learn who killed Wu Lan’s father, and why such a conclusion was cut out of the film. Along with the standard Dragon Dynasty interviews and featurettes (Xiaogang and Wu get the Q&A treatment, while there are two Making-of documentaries), we truly begin to understand the positives - and potential negatives - of adapting a very famous tale.

Yet it’s that very alteration that stands as The Legend of the Black Scorpion‘s biggest accomplishment. While it seems next to impossible to take Hamlet and make it your own, the creative company behind this film has done just that. There is just enough Shakespeare here to keep purists from crying foul. Yet there is also enough originality and outright vision to keep things looking and feeling wholly unique. Some may complain over the lack of action (there are probably four or five major martial arts sequences in a 140 minute movie), and the open-ended conclusion could leave audiences cold, but make no mistake about it - The Legend of the Black Scorpion is as opulent and overpowering as any version of the famous play you’ve ever seen. It stands as a true work of art.

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