The Last Frankenstein

D: Sake Kawamura; with Akira Hashimoto, Rie Kondou, Aya Odabu.
Video Search of Miami

A spellbinding horror film with a quirky sense of black humor, The Last Frankenstein is a wildly ambitious, fiercely intelligent picture that occasionally recalls the best work of Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Cronenberg, while at the same time maintaining a totally unique cinematic voice. The plot follows the attempts of a concerned college professor to make sense of a curious epidemic currently sweeping Japan, a seemingly contagious "disease" that causes people, particularly youngsters, to embrace the joys of death and commit suicide. Scientists are baffled, and the general public is slowly but surely accepting the idea of death as religion, as the concept of ritualistic suicide seeps into the minds of modern Japanese society. The tale becomes increasingly convoluted as the professor's daughter Mai, a young girl who harbors extraordinary psychic powers, is called into service by the mad Dr. Aleo, affectionately known to his colleagues as "Dr. Frankenstein." Aleo intends to use Mai's paranormal talents to resurrect a pair of lifeless bodies that he has created, just like his twisted nicknamesake, from the bits and pieces of stolen cadavers. With the help of Mai and his hunchbacked assistant, Dr. Aleo plans to create a new race of emotionless supermen who will take over the earth after mankind has literally wiped itself out via the suicide "plague." What Aleo doesn't count on, however, is that without emotions, his creations have no desire to mate and repopulate the planet, angering the good doctor and sending the picture on its way toward a haunting finale that somehow manages to be both nihilistic and full of hope for the future. With its startling tonal shifts, complex symbolism and allusions, not to mention the hypnotic camerawork and subtle editing on display here, first-time writer/director Sake Kawamura has crafted nothing short of a masterpiece. Augmented by chilling imagery, witty performances, careful pacing, and a thoroughly developed world view, The Last Frankenstein is a rarity - a delicate, highly emotional, horror film, restrained in its violence, but daring enough to ask disturbing and unsettling questions, yet not above laughing at itself. Obviously, not for everyone, but for fans of challenging, unique films, The Last Frankenstein is a must-see. Austin's only rental copy of The Last Frankenstein can be found at Vulcan Video, 478-5325. - Joey O'Bryan


D: John Ford; with John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields, Ward Bond, Francis Ford.
Republic Pictures Home Video

"Make love, not war," might well be the anthem of this 1952 classic which earned director John Ford an unprecedented fourth Oscar. Ford's name is never associated with love stories; his legacy evokes images of war films and westerns, military men and cowboys. We tend to forget that Ford tackled just about every kind of movie and left his indelible stamp on all that he touched. In films like My Darling Clementine, Wings of Eagles, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, They Were Expendable, and, arguably, The Searchers, our memories of the male-dominated action plots override our recollections of the love stories residing at the heart of these movies. But it is The Quiet Man that stands out as Ford's one true love story.
Not only a love story, the movie was, also, a labor of love. Set in his ancestral homeland of Ireland, all the movie's exteriors were shot on location (not a common practice at that point), and Ford was surrounded by a familiar company of actors and crew members with whom he worked from film to film. John Wayne stars as the quiet man, Sean Thornton, an American boxer who accidentally killed a man in the ring and later returns to the Irish countryside of his infancy to reclaim his family's old home and a simpler life. One quick glance at the red-tressed Maureen O'Hara cast as the stunning lass, Mary Kate, seen herding sheep through the verdant countryside, is enough for Sean to know exactly what he wants. Wayne and O'Hara were to co-star in several Ford vehicles (Rio Grande, Wings of Eagles) and she was the few women who, as a partner in love, was the Duke's equal. InTheQuiet Man, she is all spitfire and spunk, hung-up on getting her rightful dowry from her blowhard brother (McLaglen), who denies it following her marriage to Sean. Without it, she feels that she's been treated as less than human and she wants her new husband to fight her brother for it, not knowing Sean's past experiences with fighting for profit. Sean, meanwhile, mistakes her needs with mercenary motives. On the surface, the story seems like a conventional fable about traditional matrimonial values, but on closer look, it is clearly a very mature drama about the forging of sexual and marital equality. (For an excellent cultural analysis in this regard, check out Brandon French's book On the Verge of Revolt; Women in American Films of the Fifties.) In addition to the spectacular Technicolor which this video transfer duplicates well (The Quiet Man also won an Oscar for cinematography), this special 40th Anniversary Edition also contains an informative featurette hosted by Leonard Maltin called "The Making of The Quiet Man," which, aside from numerous tidbits about the movie's origins, contains the movie's original promotional trailer. There's also a "deluxe" anniversary edition available and I'm not sure what additional goodies that one contains, but this more modestly-priced version also comes with a postcard-sized reproduction of one of the film's lobby cards. - Marjorie Baumgarten


D: Robert Rodriguez; with Carlos Gallardo, Consuelo Gomez, Peter Marquardt.
Columbia/TriStar Laserdiscs

"I'm a big laserdisc fan, so I'm excited about this whole voice-track idea," director Robert Rodriguez beams during the opening of his commentary track for the laserdisc release of his low-budget surprise hit El Mariachi, truly one of the "must buy" discs for any movie lover with a laserdisc player (and if you're not a movie lover, what are you doing with a disk player anyway?). "I've heard some other directors' discs," he continues, "and sometimes they run out of things to say, so I'm gonna try to jam-pack this one for you...." Boy, does he ever! Just like the movie it accompanies, Rodriguez's commentary track is lively and full of wit as he gleefully relates amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes, points out continuity errors, and explains the resourceful techniques that enabled him to make El Mariachi for such a low budget. Beyond the commentary track, the disc is letterboxed (perhaps needlessly) at around 1.75:1, with the picture and sound quality as good as it can be - considering the movie's low-budget origins. Other extras include an amusing English-dubbed version on an additional audio track, and, more rewardingly, Rodriguez's hilarious, award-winning short film Bedhead (which features a bravura comic performance from Rodriguez's little sister Rebecca). El Mariachi is a great film to begin with, but when accompanied by the director's delightful commentary (quite honestly, hands down, the best track of its type I've ever heard on a laserdisc), it becomes twice as engrossing, and once enlightened by Rodriguez's testimony, repeated viewings make his overall achievement twice as remarkable.
- Joey O'Bryan

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