Wednesday, October 31, 2012

One Good Scare: Spielban's Youki

There's plenty of odd and eerie things to be found in Japanese tokusatsu shows. Especially in the older shows -- the newer shows have gotten so candy covered and bubblegum that it ain't even funny. It's hard to imagine kids nowadays being scared by anything in one of these shows. But in older shows? There's plenty of things to give kids nightmares. I know -- I was one of 'em.

Several villains or monsters of the week gave me the creeps, but one of the ones that REALLY scared me, the one that caused me to hide -- hide my face behind my hands, bury my face into the couch, watch from a doorway -- was the villain Youki from Spielban. His first appearance on screen caused me to hide -- it's just any ordinary episode, and suddenly at the end, plans defeated by Spielban once again, Pandora decides to conjure up an entity formed by the wickedness of mankind -- its form: Youki, who generates upon the rooftop of a building amidst lightning, Terminator-style.

Look at that! LOOK AT THAT! That crazed expression, the wicked grin, the hideous clown lips, the horns of hair. Not only is Youki a creep to look at, but he kicks off a STRANGE arc on the show, where he floats around Japan, corrupting ordinary people and recruiting them for a cult to take on Spielban, causing ordinary folk to go mad and riot for his cause. The majority of Youki's scenes are filmed in a weird, dreamy way, with Spielban barely being able to fight back because of Youki's being ghost-like. Spielban often got pretty messed up by him, and when I was a kid, I don't think I wanted a villain to be written off as quickly as I wanted Youki dealt with. And he wasn't just a pain for the heroes, but the villains, too -- he defeats one of the show's other regular villains by turning her to bronze, as she's posed on her hands and knees, which he then uses as a seat! There's an episode with this spooky ordeal where he possesses a girl's parents, and in his last appearance, he makes his intentions known that he wants to take over the Wahler Empire -- Pandora ain't having none of it, though, so she seals him and sends him to a SFX-riddled doom. Machiko Soga's character was my favorite character that week.

Youki was know how in the Space Sheriff shows, especially Shaider, there were numerous episodes that tried to be weird and creepy, but it was more often than not just silly and WTF? Youki took those ideas, rolled 'em up in one character and arc, and actually made them scary and weird.

Masahiro Sudou, the man behind the make-up.

Youki was played by Masahiro Sudou, who's an action actor -- he went on to play Baron Owl in-suit in Sekai Ninja Sen Jiraiya, and another toku appearance of his was as the cop in charge of the Asakura restaurant hostage situation in Ryuki. It's no comfort knowing about the actor, though -- Youki still gives me the willies. And just when you think Youki is done haunting you? They made the character a woman in VR Troopers! (They just dubbed Sudou with a woman's voice. Yeesh! Sudou spoke as the character in a very deep and quiet tone, which was creepy enough.)

Youki may have only appeared in five episodes of the series, but a memorably terrifying five episodes they were, ones that totally must have scarred the kids who watched Spielban at the time.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

There's a new guy in town -- his name is RoboCop.

I've been on a bit of a RoboCop kick lately and figured, hey, why not talk about it a little here. I've always seen RoboCop as a cousin of a tokusatsu hero -- if you want to believe the legends, Gavan's design inspired his design, and the Metal Heroes brought it all full circle by doing a show inspired by him. (Which would be Jiban.)

RoboCop was huge when I was a kid. It's kind of funny how, thanks to home video taking off, so many kids like me were exposed to crazy-violent R-rated movies like this and/or the works of Schwarz-chan or slasher movies. Kids loved RoboCop so much that he got his own cartoon show, for crying out loud, just like that big old lovably unstable 'Nam vet John Rambo. Ah, the '80s...

When you're a kid, you just think RoboCop is cool. When you're older, you appreciate the human story, or maybe the eerily too close for comfort corporate satire, or the revenge story. The first film has gone on to be called a classic of the genre, and since RoboCop's not exactly an obscure superhero, I'll spare you sypnoses of the films. I think the fact that the first movie is the only one remembered so fondly is proof of not only how lightning in a bottle the script was, but that it was a perfect fit to be filtered through idiosyncratic director Paul Verhoeven. Under his eye, he perfectly captures the human drama, understands the bleakness, has the off-color sense of humor, and brings to life the gruesome and terrifying streets of Old Detroit. He took the film very seriously when few other filmmakers wouldn't give the script a chance, and his care shines through.

Peter Weller, the Alex Murphy/RoboCop of the first and second films.

And not just the script and director, but the casting is just spot on. The movie would not work half as well as it does without Peter Weller's performance as Alex Murphy/RoboCop. All sympathy as Alex, and what he invented as RoboCop is often imitated by his successors, but never duplicated. The movie gets joy from having RoboCop, in his early stages, speak in a clunky, almost comical phrasing, and Weller never makes RoboCop seem stupid, which is a trap some of the actors fell into. Without being able to work with his eyes and just his body movements, he's able to convey so much -- just watch him when he's at Murphy's abandoned house, having flashbacks of his wife. Weller was a great friggin' find for this role. I'm always wowed by the scene of Murphy's murder -- Weller's body language there makes the scene hard to watch, he really captures the pain. Ugh...

Two other stand-outs are the film's main villains -- Ronny Cox as Dick Jones and Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddicker. The film took a chance casting both Cox and Smith, casting them against type -- up until that point, they had played mostly nice guys, or paternal types or military professionals. But, damn, do they create some vicious bastards in this movie. (Cox is so good, he pretty much was typecast after this movie.) The villains in this movie, especially Boddicker and his gang, used to scare me when I was a kid. How brutal and just evil they were, so it was surprising to grow up and see these actors in varying roles, even in comedic films.

The gore of the film is infamous, but that's Verhoeven for you. There's something about the way he does gore that I find pretty disgusting. He goes overboard, but at the same time it's almost authentic looking -- he outdoes a lot of horror films, because as a horror fan, a lot of the gore in those movies can get cartoonish. When I was a kid, I just had RoboCop taped from a network broadcast (gore-free), and the violence was still upsetting. (Murphy's murder was approximately three seconds long in that edited version, but as I said, Weller's performance is disturbing enough.)

And yet the kids still loved RoboCop, which was made obvious by how comic book-ish RoboCop 2 was. (I do believe I remember a preview for RoboCop 2 playing before Disney's Dick Tracy at the theater. So, yeah...Hollywood wasn't above catering to kids!)

Verhoeven steps down from the director's seat, and Irvin Kershner takes over. Hey, he did The Empire Strikes Back, so that has to be awesome, right? Well, he also did the abysmal renegade James Bond flick Never Say Never Again, so...think again. This movie is a heck of a dip in quality from the first one. The villains aren't quite as creepy and there's more emphasis on the comedic -- the movie tries to capture that Verhoeven dark humor, but definitely can't pull it off, so it just comes across as silly, and unfortunately nobody learns their lesson, because it's a problem that begins to plague the franchise from here on. The original film's writers didn't return for this one, and the writer is the infamous comic writer Frank Miller. Any wonder why this thing is so comic booky? Weller returns for the last time as Murphy/RoboCop, and although given some hokey material at times, does his usual great job.

The movie's fun enough so long as you don't try to think too much about the first movie. I did really like this movie when I was a kid, and that's kind of a problem, isn't it? Instead of being something that was one thing, but played on another level that managed to grab the interest of young'uns, this movie was made to play on just one level -- popcorn entertainment. No depth, no satire, it's just out to wow ya, and that's it. Someone thought they were doing something right, and this is how you end up with...

RoboCop 3. The bastard of the franchise. I don't think anybody has said anything positive about this movie. It's remembered for two things -- being awful and nonsensically killing off Lewis. Well, not only Lewis, but it killed the film series and it killed the career of writer-director Fred Dekker. I'm a big fan of Dekker's '80s horror-comedies, The Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps, so I actually try to go easy on RoboCop 3 and look for the good in it. People lament the lack of gore, as RoboCop 3 was rated PG-13, but I never thought the series was about gore, so that didn't matter to me. I didn't mind the little girl supporting character, that created a sort of Frankenstein feel between her and RoboCop. (Harkening back to Dekker's Monster Squad.)

Robert John Burke, the Murphy/RoboCop of RoboCop 3.

 I thought the story was fine. (The script was originally again by Miller, but rewritten by Dekker.) It makes sense to me that, by this point, RoboCop has inspired citizens and become a figure of hope, and that Robo would side with the people. People think that's too lighthearted or whatever, but it's a logical trajectory in my opinion. The movie's two huge weaknesses to me are: Robert John Burke as Robo, and the cast of villains. The villains rank from cartoonish (Robo Ninja; the blustering and over-the-top OCP honcho played by Rip Torn) to the dull (vaguely British military dude). As for Burke, he was obviously cast for his passing resemblance to Weller, as he's just damned awkward in-suit and gives a less-than-stellar performance. He reads every line in a robotic voice, and they give a tin-can effect to him on top of that. They again try to turn Robo into a quip-maker, and Burke just blows those lines. I suspect Burke's just uncomfortable in roles that require him to be in crazy costumes or excessive make-up, because he's not this bad in other roles, but in movies like this and the awful horror film "Thinner" (which required him to wear a ridiculous fat suit and prosthetics), he's unbearable.

The film has an interesting supporting cast, chock full of familiar faces (Jill Hennessy! Daniel von Bargen! Bradley Whitford! Stephen Root!), and I...I just don't think the movie is as bad as it's been made out to be. I had fun watching it, it's certainly not as bad as I remembered it being. If you like your RoboCop out for revenge and blood drenched, yeah, it will disappoint, but I think the movie could have been worse given the constraints from the studio. The script was OK, the direction was good -- I think Dekker did the best he could and the blame shouldn't fall on him, but on Burke. When RoboCop sucks, what does that leave you? A lot of the complaints about 3 I think could be applied to 2, but that movie gets much more praise from fans. Why? I think Weller alone elevates that movie. Maybe if he had been in 3...

So, the films are dead, but there's still money to be made off of old Robo. Where to turn to next? Television! RoboCop gets his own show, but it's bad news -- it's syndicated. And a Canadian production. Even though it boasts a heavy per-episode budget for its time, can this turn out well? After recently rewatching the films, I was itchin' for more RoboCop. Well, where else to go other than the series? I barely remember seeing any of it, but I knew of its wretched reputation. Well, I'm one of the only people who didn't mind the third movie -- why not give the show a shot?

Richard Eden, the Murphy/RoboCop of the television series.

It's surprisingly not as bad as you'd think. You have to keep in mind when it was made and where the franchise was at that point and its tone. Its biggest crime is being a bit on the boring and repetitive side. It doesn't look the way you'd expect a syndicated Canadian show from '94 to look. (Uh, that's supposed to be a compliment.) Robo's suit is surprisingly good and...hey, you know what? The actor playing Alex/Robo in the show is pretty good. Richard Eden is his name, and while he's not quite up there with Weller, he's WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY above Burke. An Emmy nominee for the soap-opera "Santa Barbara," Eden has clocked the most hours as the character RoboCop, and at least he's good in the role -- I think he's a decent anchor for the show when the episodes are duds.

Now, knowing the show's bad reputation, as I was weighing whether or not to buy the Canadian-only R1 DVD release, I checked out reviews. A lot of them basically consisted of people trashing the show because RoboCop doesn't shoot anybody. Say what now? What always interested me about RoboCop was...well, RoboCop. Murphy, namely. I like the story of the man, the humanity coming through the machine. I like that the human soul triumphs over the mechanical, and -- in the first film -- Murphy's slowly emerging from within RoboCop, to where he ends the movie identifying himself as Murphy. RoboCop's inventor, Bob Morton, just basically chooses Murphy by accident -- he's the first poor schmuck who's killed and OCP is allowed to work on. But it's Murphy himself that makes RoboCop such a success, Murphy's strength and heroism. This is proven when other candidates are chosen for RoboCop 2 and they fail. Murphy -- like Weller in the role -- was a real find. The extreme violence was really only needed in the first film -- to highlight the viciousness of Murphy's murder, the overkill of the ED-209, the extremes of Murphy/Robo's revenge against his killers.

So, the whole humanity of Murphy being what interests me about the character, I read that the show delves deeper into that, so that basically decided for me. But...the show tries, but just doesn't quite go to the levels that I feel it should, and it doesn't try to say as much as that first movie. For example: an early episode has religious zealots protesting the police because they think RoboCop is an "unholy abomination." With references here and there to Murphy's Catholic background, both in the films and the series, I thought that would be an interesting look at the character, but the show just takes the idea and...has RoboCop sitting silently in a church for most of the episode, the writers not really saying anything. The episode also shoots itself in the foot by having the religious zealots represented by cartoonish parodies of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, which highlights the show's biggest problem -- the antagonists are ripped from a completely different show. Eden and the other cop actors are pretty good (especially Yvette Nipar as Robo's partner, Lisa Madigan, although she's severely underused), and they take things seriously, but pretty much every single antagonist thinks they're in the 1960s Batman series -- the worst being recurring villain "Pudface." Ugh. The villains are foolish and hardly threatening. Hard to believe characters like this are supposed to exist in the same world as Clarence Boddicker!

The show also involves Murphy's family more, but they're disappointingly used as just devices to kick-off Robo's involvement in an episode -- they're just there to always be suckered in by criminals and captured. The further glimpses into Murphy's humanity, and bringing his family further into the story is all just wasted potential. The show also aims for the social commentary and consumerist criticisms of the first movie, but goes a little too far into SNL-skit territory, which is unfortunate, because it has a better aim for the first film's satire than the film sequels did, it's just the execution is off. The show really needed to play it straighter, and focus more on Murphy/Robo rather than the "quirky" cases they'd drop him in the middle of.

There's also some neat stunts throughout the series, such as RoboCop being in a shoot-out while set on fire, a bad guy trying to run Robo down with his car (with the perp's car being sliced in half by the cyborg's heftiness), a pretty crazy bus crash involving Madigan, and a pretty surprising falling stunt when Madigan is shoved off a building -- I actually went "Holy shit" during this fall, because there's an angle where you can't really picture where they put the air bag for the stunt-person to land on.

A big mistake of a lot of the sequels is getting away from the character(s) and focusing on just the big action or trying-too-hard-and-not-succeeding at the dark humor. Although I've been able to find entertainment in the sequels and TV spin-off, they are quite subpar compared to the first movie, which is near perfect in what it set out to do. After the TV series' demise after one season, things were quiet on the RoboCop front until they made the four-part television miniseries "Prime Directives" in the early '00s, which I plan to talk about in a later post. And, of course, there's a remake movie being made starring Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman as Murphy/RoboCop. The remake has a neat supporting cast, but I suspect it will make the same mistakes as the sequels and just miss the point -- not focusing on the character and just be a big special-effects shoot-em-up, diluting any of the original's wit, soul, tragedy, danger and edginess.

Thank you for your cooperation. Good night.