A few months ago, the Crypt of Curiosities dipped its first toe into the wild world of Shaw Brothers films. Perhaps one of the most prolific and accomplished studios in the history of exploitation cinema, Shaw Brothers put out hundreds of movies in their ’70s heyday, encompassing everything from their signature kung fu and wuxia films to goopy horror to romantic melodramas. But with a filmography so wide and with so many to choose from, a couple in particular stand out: two odd, violent spins on Japanese superheroes, complete with rubbery suits and gratuitous violence. So of course, still riding the high from the Devilman OVAs, I decided it’d be proper to check out what Shaw Brothers had to offer. I was not prepared.
Go Nagai’s 1972 manga Devilman is one of my favorite things in the world. Despite being released in 1972, I am hard-pressed to think of any comic that affected me as deeply and personally as Devilman did when I first read the story of the young Akira Fudo, a pure-hearted teenager who fuses with the ancient demon Amon, turning him into a violent, impulse-driven demonic hero Devilman. It has basically everything I could possibly want from art: queer themes and characters, a riveting story, stunning art, a fascinating world, and lots and lots of demons dying in excessively violent ways at the hands of a demon-human hybrid. It’s incredible.
The ’20s were, for all intents and purposes, the birth of the feature-length horror film. While there had been some dabbling in the genre prior, (The Student of Prague, The Avenging Conscience, The Queen of Spades) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) changed everything. In its wake came Nosferatu, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Unknown, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Phantom of the Opera, among others, irreversibly changing the course of genre history. But of this early wave of horror, two stand movies in particular stand out: the first two Swedish horror films.
When I started the Crypt of Curiosities, I did it with the explicit intention to introduce people to the weird, wild corners of genre cinema. Shaw Brothers’ Black Magic, Hammer mummies, hyper-violent anime, sadistic Spaghetti Westerns—it’s an exercise in peering into the odd expanses that deserve more attention. It’s about championing the under-championed.
Escape From New York is one of the greatest genre films ever made. It’s lean, it’s mean, and it has an absurd premise and setting that’s just begging for exploration. It’s a bona-fide John Carpenter classic. And much like Halloween before it, it inspired quite a few knockoffs. From Sergio Martino’s 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983) to Lockout (2012), Escape From New York has become a regular genre knockoff touchstone. But today, I want to focus on just two: Enzo. G Castarelli’s Bronx series.
Even before I’d seen a single Godzilla movie, I knew Mechagodzilla was my favorite damn thing in the entire franchise. Because really, how could it not be? Regardless of its incarnation, Mechagodzilla is still a giant robot shaped like a monster. There are few things in entertainment that are quite that perfect, and it seems that pop culture agrees. Mechagodzilla has become something of a series icon, up there with King Ghidorah and Mothra as one of the most recognizable non-Godzilla kaiju in the franchise. Yet all legends have to start somewhere, and for Mechagodzilla, it was in the fourteenth film of the franchise, Jun Fukuda’s aptly titled Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974).
If you ask me, Hell is the ultimate horror setting. Sure, creepy castles and abandoned outposts are great and all, but a realm of eternal torment just strikes me as a tad more terrifying. And of the major cultural interpretations of Hell out there, none are quite as grisly as the hell of Japanese Buddhism: Jigoku. Sure, there’s a way out of it, but the torments inflicted upon the damned in Jigoku make the ones Dante wrote about seem fit for children’s birthday parties. Jigoku consists of sixteen separate hells (eight “hot” and eight “cold”), with eight great hells that consist of tortures ranging from being charred in massive frying pans to being eternally smashed into paste and revived by massive rocks. It’s a brutal, depressing place where hope is faint and mercy can wait billions of years away. Naturally, it makes for a great topic for a horror movie.
Next to Universal, few studios have had such a big impact on horror than RKO Radio Pictures. Started in 1927, RKO was the first studio founded to make exclusively sound films, a then-brand-new invention that served as a major draw for the studio. RKO’s life was relatively short (it was killed just 30 years after forming), but during their time, they put out a seriously impressive number of classics, including Top Hat, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Informer, and most notably, Citizen Kane.
David Cronenberg was my first favorite director. Even before I knew what a director did, or before I’d seen more than a grand total of two of his films, I knew this to be true. Seeing his name above both The Fly and Videodrome was enough for me to realize that there was something special about this one, and every film I’d subsequently watch would only help enforce that, diving me deeper and deeper into nightmare worlds of body transformation and sexual obsession. But as my last Crypt entry discussed, every director has to start somewhere—and with Cronenberg, that “somewhere” is two brief feature films, micro-budget experimental movies that help lay the groundwork for some of the greatest works from one of cinema’s greatest artists.
For my money, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are two of the best genre directors working today. Their two feature-length gialli, Amer (2009) and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2014) are among the greatest "throwback" films of all-time, taking the vocabulary and iconography of the giallo and twisting it into something new and exciting, all while playing with the cinematic form with a barrage of close-ups, split screens, and Chris Marker-esque jump-cut slideshows. The only downside is that, as of the time of this writing, only the aforementioned gialli are available for viewing, while their latest film, Let the Corpses Tan, won’t be released stateside until this summer. So what’s a fan of hyper-stylized neo-gialli to do? Why, turn to their shorts, of course!
If I haven’t made it clear in previous articles or on social media, let me do so now: I’m a firm believer that Lucio Fulci is one of, if not the, greatest horror directors to ever live. While dismissed as a schlock artist by critics in his time, Fulci’s unique brand of horror, borne from a holy fusion of market-friendly gore and surrealist pure cinema, has aged remarkably well. But before he mingled among zombies or cracked open the gates of hell, Fulci directed a few violent giallo films, including the incredibly depressing Don’t Torture a Duckling, which recently received a new restoration and Blu-ray release from Arrow Video.
In 1946, the sleepy Texas town of Texarkana was rocked by a string of eight violent assaults, five of them resulting in murder. These crimes were later dubbed the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, named after the late-night timing of the attacks, and the unknown perpetrator become known as the “Phantom Killer.” It was truly a horrific crime and it’s no surprise that it’s one that would attract exploitation filmmakers. Filmmakers like Texarkana resident Charles B. Pierce.
In the mid ’40s, the Universal Monsters were in a tough spot. Up until then, the ’40s had been a nonstop flow of sequels and one-offs, with an avalanche of Invisible Men, Draculas (Draculi?), and the odd Frozen Ghost here and there releasing at a steady clip. But this high release rate had made them stale, and by the time 1946 came around, the studio was in desperate need of a new, recognizable monster.
In the realm of quintessentially British pop culture staples, few have quite the sheer amount of content as Doctor Who. For over fifty years, the escapades of the time-traveling Doctor and his many companions have delighted audiences the world over, spanning countless serials, TV episodes, audio dramas, comic books, and novels. Unfortunately, when it comes to cinema, the good Doctor is a lot less prolific.
What do you think of when you read the words “black magic”? Covens of witches? Cackling necromancers? Card games? Or maybe, you think of gross Asian horror. For over forty years, the black magic sub-genre has dominated all sorts of weird cinema discussions, encompassing a myriad of films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Indonesia focused on hexes, curses, and witchcraft. Since there are tons of these films out there, it can be daunting to find where to jump in, but for my money, there’s no better place to start than at the beginning, with Ho Meng Hua’s genre-defining duology, Black Magic.