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The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai

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Today’s feature is a little film called “The Last Samurai.” No, not the 2003 Tom Cruise movie that we are all familiar with: the 1991 Lance Henriksen movie that no one has ever heard of.

“The Last Samurai” was directed and written by Paul Mayersburg, who is best known for writing “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and “Croupier.” “The Last Samurai” was the last of three films that he directed, but he is still active as a screenwriter, and is currently attached to an announced 2016 movie called “Killer Surreal.”

The cinematography for “The Last Samurai” was provided by Sven Persson, who worked on and off on films set in Africa since the late 1940s according to his IMDb entry. “The Last Samurai” is his last reported film work.

One of the producers of “The Last Samurai” is a man named Tony Carbone, who has no other recorded producing credits. However, he has a co-writing credit on a 2010 episode of the television series “Archer” called “Honeypot,” which is a fan favorite in the series. I’m a little curious if these are indeed the same person, and how he wound up with these credits decades apart from each other.

lastsamurai4The special effects on “The Last Samurai” are credited to Massimo Vico, who worked on films such as “King Solomon’s Mines” and Albert Pyun’s infamous “Alien From L.A.”

The stunt coordinator for “The Last Samurai,” Scott Ateah, has gone on to work on over 200 films, including big budget productions like “Watchmen,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Slither,” and “I, Robot,” as well as infamous flicks like “The Core,” “Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2,” “The Wicker Man,” and a whole bunch of “Air Bud” movies.

The cast of “The Last Samurai” is headlined by Lance Henriksen, a veteran b-movie actor who is best known for his role as the android Bishop in “Aliens.” However, he has also been featured in movies like “The Pit and The Pendulum,” “The Mangler 2,” “Hard Target,” “Super Mario Bros.,” and more movies about Sasquatch than you might expect. John Fujioka takes the other central role, and has appeared in films like “American Ninja” and “Mortal Kombat.” The rest of the cast features John Saxon, a veteran character actor who has appeared in features like “Mitchell,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and “From Dusk Til Dawn,” Arabella Holzbog of “Carnosaur 2” and Richard Linklater’s “Bad News Bears” remake, and Lisa Eilbacher of “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Leviathan,” and “10 to Midnight.”

lastsamurai3When it comes to summarizing the story of “The Last Samurai,” I can’t possibly do any better than the back of the suspiciously-fake-looking DVD case that I paid 95 cents for:

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“Japanese multimillionaire, Yasojiro Endo journeys to Africa to find the truth about a Samurai ancestor who disappeared two centuries ago and to find the true spirit of the Samurai in himself. While on a safari with mercenary Johnny, he bumps into a business acquaintance also on safari, except he is actually in the midst of a covert arms deal. Endo and Johnny are now in the way, and must reach deep within themselves and come to terms with their personal demons to summon their strength for their fight to the finish. They confront their inner selves, and both discover their true nature is that of the Samurai.”

“The Last Samurai” was initially released straight to video in Germany, and took a number of years to get distribution in the United States. As I mentioned earlier, almost no one has heard of this movie, so it clearly didn’t make a financial splash. Predictably, there is no budget information about the film available, but I have to assume that it was very, very low.

“The Last Samurai” starts with a black and white, slow motion sparring session, which is later implied to be a moment from a former life of Fujioka’s character. It doesn’t really fit with the rest of the film, and I am a little curious as to if it was filmed after the fact and edited in. The fact that it was used for at least one home video cover of the movie has me a little suspicious.

lastsamurai2My first thought after starting “The Last Samurai” was “Holy crap, this score is awful.” The theme sounds like a synthesizer replication of a middle school saxophone player warming up.  The rest of the score is a mixture of ominous synthesizer tones and occasional drum beats, which gets very old quickly. The music is credited to a guy named Rene Veldsman, who only did scores for six low budget movies in his career, which is probably for the best.

I’m not sure if the problem is my DVD copy or if it is the movie itself (or a combination of the two), but the film quality here is just abysmal. to the point that it is honestly distracting whenever there are sudden movements or cuts.

Lance Henriksen portrays a mercenary in “The Last Samurai,” and has a line at one point that I am willing to bet was pulled from real life. When negotiating his pay, Henriksen nearly runs down Fujioka with a car, after which the following exchange takes place:

“You have a Japanese sense of theater”

“If I’m an actor, I want 20 grand. A day.”

I’ll admit, I got a little giggle out of that.

Speaking of which, the acting in “The Last Samurai” is a mixed bag. Lance Henriksen thankfully hams up his character, and makes his segments entertaining. He even seems to be enjoying himself with the role, which is really great to see. Fujioka makes a lot of dramatic use of a personal fan, which I think is supposed to be stately, but just looks kind of ridiculous in the context of the film. John Saxon also stands out, if for no other reason than because of his astounding miscasting as a wealthy middle eastern arms dealer. His attempts to nail down his character’s accent and just surreal coming from a second generation Italian immigrant from Brooklyn. The rest of the cast outside of those three, however, is abysmal. There is clearly a lot of use of non-actors who can barely get through a line, which makes any interactions between the actual actors and the accessory cast excruciating.

At least some of the blame for the performances has to be leveled at Mayersburg, given he both directed the feature and wrote the dialogue (which some of the actors were understandably having trouble with). His inexperience as a director almost certainly contributed to some of the problems with the movie, and I think it is safe to say the the film is better written than it is directed.

All of that said, the movie isn’t all bad. It takes way too long to get going, but the last 20 minutes of action is pretty fun, and Henriksen absolutely thrives in his role. The movie could definitely have used some more editing to help with the pacing and the extraneous character details that bog it down, especially given how long it feels at 1 hour 30 minutes. Still, there are far more tortuous film experiences out there, and this flick at least offers some redeeming moments.

As far as a recommendation goes, if you have ever wanted to see Lance Henriksen’s bare ass or watch him awkwardly play with a monkey, this is the movie for you. Outside of those niche interests, “The Last Samurai” is a bit too slow to recommend outright, though the highlights are probably worth checking out.

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Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “The Pit and The Pendulum”

The Pit and The Pendulum

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Welcome back! We are at the tail end of the Stuart Gordon Spotlight here at Misan[trope]y Movie Blog, taking a look at 1991’s Edgar Allan Poe inspired “The Pit and The Pendulum.”

“The Pit and The Pendulum” marks yet another collaboration between Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon, a combination that proved successful over the years. Just as with “Dagon,” Gordon specifically takes on the directorial role, leaving all of the writing work to Paoli (at least in the credits).

This adaptation of Poe’s acclaimed short story is by all accounts a heavily altered version of “Pit and the Pendulum,” and even includes a highly modified version of another Edgar Allan Poe story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” thrown into the middle. Outside of the setting and the eponymous device, this version of the tale is virtually unrecognizable from the original incarnation. In that way, it is somewhat similar to “The Black Cat,” another Poe adaptation Gordon would take on years later. Both concern themselves very little with the source material, which isn’t inherently a bad thing in my opinion. However, I think both films attempt to add in too much extra content, which is something I will get into later.

“The Pit and The Pendulum” had a famous film adaptation done in 1961 starring none other than Vincent Price, and was notably directed by B-movie legend Roger Corman. In the years since Gordon’s 1991 take on the story, another adaptation was created in 2009 by yet another B-movie notable: David DeCoteau. However, his version was significantly less well-received, holding an astounding 2.9 rating on IMDb at the time of this writing.

The cinematography on the movie was contributed by Adolfo Bartoli, who did a significant amount of work for Full Moon Features throughout the 1990s. His credits include a handful of “Puppet Master” sequels, as well as “Demonic Toys” and “Prehysteria.”

The music on “The Pit and The Pendulum” was unsurprisingly provided by Richard Band, brother of Full Moon Features head Charles Band, who produced the film. Richard Band has contributed music to two Stuart Gordon features since “The Pit and The Pendulum”: “Castle Freak” and “Dreams in the Witch House.”

The set and production design of “The Pit and The Pendulum” was provided by Giovanni Natalucci, who worked on a number of previous Stuart Gordon features like “Robot Jox,” “Dolls,” and “From Beyond.” Personally, given the low budget, I think a splendid job was done creating a believable enough set and appearance for the Spanish Inquisition.

The cast features a score of recognizable faces for Stuart Gordon fans and general film buffs alike, including Lance Henriksen (“Aliens”), Jeffrey Combs (“Re-Animator,” “From Beyond,” nearly everything by Stuart Gordon), Oliver Reed (“Gladiator,” “Tommy”), Jonathan Fuller (“Castle Freak”), Stephen Lee (“Dolls”), and Mark Margolis (“Breaking Bad”).

pit5 pit6The story of “The Pit and The Pendulum” follows a young couple in Toledo, Spain during the heat of the Spanish Inquisition. They wind up on the wrong side of Torquemada after an incident in which they attempt to save a young boy from being flogged. From that point, the two try to survive a variety of tortures while Torquemada faces challenges to his reign of terror, both from internal and external sources.

This version of “The Pit and The Pendulum” was apparently the result of the second attempt by Stuart Gordon to adapt the work onto the screen. Apparently, years earlier, Gordon intended to make a movie from the story, but with Billy Dee Williams and Peter O’Toole in key roles. This reminded me a little bit of how “Dagon,” which was initially set to star Jeffrey Combs, got put on the back-burner in favor of “From Beyond,” and wound up staying there for over a decade (meriting a recasting).

This adaptation certainly takes a number of liberties with the story of “The Pit and The Pendulum,” but one of the most interesting inclusions was a modified version of the sword of Damocles, an ancient Italian anecdote about the heavy responsibility of leadership, told via the image of a great sword held by a hair above a throne. I thought this worked well here, particularly given the similarities of the images of the hanging sword and the pendulum blade. However, I wish the sword had been used more cleverly and effectively in the story, though it does play in as a plot device.

“The Pit and The Pendulum” was released straight to video by Full Moon Features, meaning it never had the opportunity to make money back in theaters. The budget was estimated at a low $2 million, so it probably did well enough to meet production expectations. Given the method of distribution, the film didn’t get a lot of attention. Nevertheless, it currently holds an IMDb rating of 6.2, and Rotten Tomatoes scores of 56% (critic) and 41% (audience). However, I found that those low numbers were a bit deceiving given: of the 9 critic reviews counted, at least one of the ‘rotten’ reviews admitted that the movie wasn’t bad, but was just underwhelming for Stuart Gordon. I agree that this isn’t great for Stuart Gordon, but on its own, it isn’t an awful horror movie. I’d say it justifies the middling score it has accrued on IMDb, but not the significantly lower metrics from Rotten Tomatoes.

When it comes to positives about “The Pit and The Pendulum,” I have to start with pointing out the performances. Lance Henriksen always plays a great B-movie bag guy, and his Torquemada is no exception. Jonathan Fuller is also pretty solid as the lead in the story, particularly in a few moments where he laughs off torture attempts to throw off his adversaries. Jeffrey Combs, as always, is fantastic in his minimal background role, and just about steals the show in a couple of moments. That said, in spite of the good performances, I definitely had some issues with this movie.

pit3Something about the opening of the film confused me out of the gate: the movie starts with Torquemada ordering the flogging of a long-deceased corpse. It almost plays as physical comedy, watching a dried corpse a la “The Crypt Keeper” being flogged into pieces. I have to assume this was intentional on the part of Paoli, but I don’t understand how this bit of absurdity plays in with the rest of the film tonally.

pit4I don’t think anything about this film took me aback as much as the inexplicable inclusion of actual witches, who are shown to be capable of telepathy. I assumed that the inquisitors were wrongfully accusing people of witchcraft, not persecuting an actual subset of witches within the Spanish population. I’m sure there were some Pagans and such in the area in real life, but even real Pagans aren’t actually magic, as the witches are portrayed in this film. I just can’t wrap my head around the logic of their inclusion, outside of providing a handful of minor plot devices to move the story along. It just seemed so astoundingly unnecessary to me: like the old saying goes, “when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras.” Why on Earth are the people accused of witchcraft in this movie actually witches? It makes more sense for the story that Torquemada is just randomly persecuting people on the slightest whim. Does the fact that these accused witches are actually magic mean that the inane selection process used by Torquemada’s men actually works? I mean, come on. That’s not only outlandish, but it is counter to the entire story.

Something else that bothered me about the story (in relation to the inclusion of actual witches in it)is what the ultimate message of it was. It obviously takes a strong stance against Torquemada’s religious violence in the Inquisition, but it is unclear why that is. Maria could be representative of the purer, better form of Christianity, which initially seemed to be the case, but then she developed witchcraft-based telepathy. What are we supposed to make of that? Is witchcraft/paganism the right way to go, as they were wrongfully persecuted by the Christians? Are the Catholics on the right track, as the Vatican attempts to shut Torquemada down? The only thing that is clear at the conclusion is that Torquemada is bad, and everything else is left muddied.

Worse yet, one of the great and defining strengths of “The Pit and The Pendulum” was its reality-based sense of terror and dread. This adaptation, with its inclusion of magic, telepathy, witches, etc., managed to turn what should be something realistically suspenseful into a tale that borders on being fantasy-based and generic.

Personally, I think that this story would have worked better in a shorter form, similar to the hour-long format of “Masters of Horror.” Paoli clearly struggled to flesh the story out enough for a feature: he wound up making additions that weakened the film, and ultimately inflated the movie just enough to throw the pacing off and void the suspense. To be fair, though, Paoli was tasked with making a lot out of very little, as the short story source material isn’t exactly rife with plot details. For what he had to work with, he did manage to build a narrative around a very narrow tale.

pit1Overall, “The Pit and The Pendulum” is entertaining despite its lack of focus and general bizarreness. The performances are all pretty great, and I liked the production design for sure. I feel like the script tried to do a little too much, and the third act just didn’t play as strongly as it should have. The sleep spell (and all of the witchcraft) was beyond out of place here, and Torquemada’s hallucinatory (?) confession scene just didn’t feel satisfying enough. This would have been a more interesting and compelling story without the supernatural elements in it, given that it is never well developed and is just completely unnecessary (or worse, antithetical) to the story.

I don’t recommend going out of your way for it, but it is a good enough watch for horror fans. If you happen to stumble across it, there is plenty here to make it worth your time in entertainment. Otherwise, this isn’t a must-find essential entry in Stuart Gordon’s filmography.