January 12th, 2009

CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS (1936) ** ½

The great Warner Oland stars in his 11th Charlie Chan flick.  This time out he goes to the circus and watches some midget dancing (“Size of package does not indicate quality within!”) and trapeze acts before finding the big top owner dead.  Chan has all of his twelve children with him, so he is reluctant to take the case, but eventually says OK and brings the murderer to justice.

 

As the title implies, Charlie Chan at the Circus features lots of circus footage.  Now I usually hate the ever-loving shit out of circuses, but since Chan was on the case, it was alright with me.  While the flick is slick looking, it stalls a bit around the ¾ mark and the solution to the crime is needlessly protracted.  It still has enough fun stuff to make it worth a look though.  There’s a rampaging man in a monkey suit, dancing midgets, and Chan spouting a lot of hilarious wisdom like, “Curiosity is responsible for cat having nine lives!” 

 

Oland is wonderful as always and Keye Luke is simply awesome as his “Number One Son”.  The highpoint of the movie comes when Number One Son goes undercover in drag and dresses up a midget like a baby and pushes him around in a stroller.  It’s Oland though who gets all the best lines like, “More than one way to remove skin from cat!”, “Inquisitive person like bear after honey.  Sometime find hornet’s nest!”, and “Better to slip with foot than with tongue!” 

CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU (1938) **

After the death of Warner Oland, 20th Century Fox hired Sidney Toler to pick up the reigns as Charlie Chan, master detective.  It’s not quite in the same league as some of Oland’s flicks, but it’s a decent entry if you’re an indiscriminate fan of the series.  This one opens with Chan at home in Hawaii, awaiting the birth of his first grandchild, when he learns that a murder has happened on a steam ship.  He boards the vessel and has to sift through a lot of various red herrings (including George Zucco, who keeps a brain in a jar) before finding the culprit.

 

Charlie Chan in Honolulu was the 17th entry in the durable series, but curiously, it was only the first movie to feature Chan on his home turf of Hawaii.  Unfortunately, Chan doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time during the middle section of the flick as his Number Two Son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) does a lot of the snooping.  Once Charlie finally does arrive on the scene, things don’t necessarily improve however.

 

Toler does a top notch job following in Oland’s footsteps and easily makes the role his own.  As great as Oland was, I like Toler just as much and in this film, he proved that he had the screen presence necessary to carry the franchise and his performance is easily the best thing about this tepid entry.  Although Charlie Chan in Honolulu is a rather dull installment, there is a great scene where Chan’s superior talks to him about the murder case but Charlie thinks he’s talking about his grandbaby.  The police chief says “Do you have any clues?” and Chan replies, “Intuition and five dollars say it will be a boy!”

THANK YOU, MR. MOTO (1937) **

Peter Lorre stars as Mr. Moto, the crafty Japanese Interpol agent, in his second big screen adventure.  In this installment, Mr. Moto is after a set of ancient scrolls that leads to the treasure of Genghis Khan.  Naturally, everyone close to the scrolls ends up dead, so Mr. Moto has to keep on his toes if he wants to stay alive.  In the end, Moto gets tired of risking his neck for the damned things so he just burns the scrolls to be done with them.

 

What made the Mr. Moto series more than just a knockoff of the Charlie Chan movies was the fact that Mr. Moto knew how to kick a little ass when he had to.  In this flick, Moto gets into a couple of fistfights and even kills a few bad guys; something Honorable Chan would’ve never done.  Having said that, Thank You, Mr. Moto is a thoroughly middling chapter in the series.  After a promising start, things get severely bogged down, especially whenever Lorre isn’t on screen.

 

Speaking of Lorre, he doesn’t look or sound remotely Asian, but at least he’s fun to watch.  I particularly liked the scene where he killed a guy and then made it look like hari-kari to save his own ass.  I also got a kick out of seeing John Carradine as an elderly antiques dealer who gets shot during a drive-by too.

 

Lorre returned the next year in Mr. Moto’s Gamble.

PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN (1940) * ½

Phantom of Chinatown is historically significant because it was the only film in the “Oriental Detective” genre of the 30’s and 40’s where the leading man playing the Oriental Detective was actually an Oriental himself.  After a five film run of Mr. Wong movies, Boris Karloff said enough’s enough and quit the series and the studio quickly tapped Keye Luke to replace him for the franchise’s swan song.  Yes, after years of playing second fiddle to Warner Oland in all those Charlie Chan flicks, Keye Luke, The Number One Son himself, got to star in a movie.  Too bad it sucked nuts.

 

A noted professor dies while giving a lecture about some ancient scrolls and foul play is suspected.  Naturally Mr. Wong (Luke) is brought in to solve the case.  After a couple of close calls, Wong teams up with Detective Street (series regular Grant Withers) and a foxy secretary (Lotus Long) to trap the murderer. 

 

Phantom of Chinatown is easily the worst of the Mr. Wong series, mostly because it’s so damn dull.  The opening lecture scene went on FOREVER and the professor’s incessant droning was really tough to bear.  Once Wong is finally called in on the case, things don’t perk up any though. 

 

Again, this movie is important because it featured an Asian in the leading role, but that doesn’t mean its any good.  While Luke handles himself adequately as Mr. Wong, he’s sorely lacking the charisma of Boris Karloff and doesn’t command the role the way Boris did.  After the poor showing of this flick, the series ended and Luke was quickly reduced to playing a sidekick yet again. 

 

Luke later went on to play the shopkeeper in the Gremlins movies.

YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983) **

Wow, this is one weird ass movie.  As much as I hate the term, “So Bad It’s Good”, it’s a fitting description for a lot of cheesy movies.  Yor, The Hunter from the Future on the other hand deserves its own category.  It’s “So Bad It’s… Still Pretty Bad, But You Won’t Be Able to Take Your Eyes Off It”.

 

It’s all about this caveman dude named Yor (Reb Brown from Howling 2) who saves a hot cavegirl (played by the hot chick from Moonraker) from a triceratops by hacking it up with his axe.  Afterwards, some bad cavemen kidnap her and Yor rescues her by ripping off the wings of a bat and turning them into a makeshift hang glider.  When Yor starts making cute with another caveskank, the chick from Moonraker gets all kinds of jealous, but when once that bitch gets killed, she forgives him.  Then she gets kidnapped AGAIN and is attacked by ANOTHER dinosaur (a stegosaurus this time) and Yor has to rescue her AGAIN. 

 

Things start getting bizarre once Yor captains a Viking ship to a strange island ran by the evil Overlord (John Steiner from Caligula).  This Overlord guy looks like he stole his wardrobe from The Emperor and commands an army of robots that bear more than a passing resemblance to Darth Vader.  Since this island is all futuristic and shit, Yor trades out his axe for a laser gun and blasts the Hell out of a bunch of robots and leads the resistance against the Overlord.  The final confrontation between Yor and the Overlord is hilarious as Yor opts to not use his laser gun against his mortal enemy and instead takes a pole and shoves it though the Overlord’s abdomen.  Then, Yor gets on a spaceship with his new pals and flies off into the sunset. 

 

Incredible.

 

I think there is a really great cheese fest hiding somewhere in Yor, but director Antonio Margheriti couldn’t find it.  It has all the ingredients worthy of a really great cheese fest.  Barbarians, dinosaurs, robots, spaceships; yet somehow it doesn’t completely work.  I think might’ve helped if the flick didn’t switch gears so suddenly from being a Conan rip-off to being a Star Wars rip-off.  I know that the flick was edited down from a four hour Italian mini-series to 88 minutes, but the shift in tone is so strange that it gives the audience whiplash.  It also stunk that a large chunk of the movie consisted of nothing but Yor rescuing his girlfriend from various perils.  After about the fourth caveman attack, it gets old after awhile.

 

That’s not to say that there isn’t some good cheese to be found here.  First and foremost is the theme song.  It sounds pretty much the way Queen’s Flash Gordon theme song would’ve sounded like if Freddy Mercury was about seven times gayer than he already was.  That is to say the song fucking rocks.  

 

Brown is hilarious as Yor, as he more or less resembles Bam Bam Flintstone on steroids.  The dinosaur scenes are also a lot of fun.  The dino effects are passable and Brown convincingly battles them in a believable fashion.  Also, some of the Star Wars shit will just make your jaw drop.  Remember the scene in A New Hope when Luke and Leia swung over the open pit in the Death Star?  Well, Yor contains a similar scene except with two loincloth clad barbarians.  Also, all of the futuristic scenes look like they were shot in a boiler room, which adds to the unintended hilarity.  

 

Yor is no Plan 9 or anything, but if it isn’t the best Barbarian vs. Robots in a Boiler Room Movie of 1983, I’ll eat my hat.

 

AKA:  Yor.  AKA:  The World of Yor.