Obscure Gems Two: Revenge of the Obscure.

Back in what we shall call The Day, MostlyFilm recommended twelve obscure gems, promising that this was the start of an occasional series. In the meantime, MostlyFilm Recommends has blossomed to give you overlooked sequels, Christmas films (nice and not so nice) and cult Australian cinema, but we’ve never got round to giving you more of those obscure little gems, films lost down the seat cushions at your local multiplex, half-remembered and covered in boiled sweets. Until now, as they say. Until now..

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up And Scald Myself With Tea
by Spank The Monkey

Nazi TV - big screens, but nothing but Nazis on.

On the Guardian Film talkboards (the birthplace of what eventually became MostlyFilm), Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea was our shorthand for a movie whose level of obscurity was off the charts. Any English language discussion of it online was limited to fond reminiscences of its single British TV screening (BBC2, 16/01/1982, 9.35pm). It was almost a disappointment to discover you could easily buy it on DVD. Almost.

Doctor Who sent up one of the classic motifs of time-travel fiction in Let’s Kill Hitler: but in 1978, Czech director Jindrich Polák went in the opposite direction with a story that boils down to Let’s Give Hitler A Nuke. A group of old Nazis have a fiendish plan to hijack the world’s first commercial time-travel service – based out of Prague, obviously – and reroute it to Germany in 1944 to give the Fuhrer the means to win the war. But they haven’t planned on their pilot having a twin brother and a wonky digestive system.

Tomorrow…, despite the darkness of its central conceit, is a classically-structured farce which adds temporal displacement to the traditional causes of comic misunderstanding: twin brothers, duplicate suitcases, small errors with knock-on effects. It really hits its stride in the last half hour, when it explores the best time-travel trope of all – that if something goes wrong, you can always go back in time again and try to fix it. It’s a brilliantly plotted climax, which demonstrates why the BBC2 audience fell in love with it over 30 years ago.

Strangler vs Strangler
by Paul Duane

Guns are cheating, strangling man.

Strangler vs Strangler (Slobodan Sijan, ’85) is a delirious Yugoslavian creation, starting from the notion that what defines a modern city is, more than anything else, its criminals. After a brief rundown of Belgrade’s main claims to fame (including the real-life story of the Belgrade Phantom), it settles on the story of two competing stranglers, one – Pera – a mother-fixated Victor Buono lookalike who sells carnations in nightclubs, the other – Spiridon – a wimpy, rollerskating, misogynist rock singer obsessed with his sexy stepmother.

The latter, with his (actually pretty good) band Symbol, immortalises Pera’s semi-accidental strangling spree (he only kills women who hate his beloved carnations) in a worshipful rock song, giving the murderer a sense of stardom. They’re pursued by the increasingly frustrated Inspector Strahinjic, a character borrowed wholesale, down to his cats, from Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge. Then there’s the sexy, sharp-tongued radio DJ whose sarcastic running commentary on Spiridon’s band’s womanhating brand of punk attracts Pera’s ire, leading to a bizarre ending where the two stranglers swap fates, with a final flourish of the voiceover: “Some stranglers are luckier than others.”

A film where the good guys wind up in mental hospitals or dead, and the bad guys end up running down sunny beaches hand in hand with their bikiniclad stepmothers, with a musical score borrowing equally from Herrmann’s Psycho & Andre Previn’s Kiss Me, Stupid, the film’s as referential as anything by, say, de Palma but a LOT more fun than most.

The Assassination Bureau
by TheTramp

'Would you like to hear me sing Wild Thing?'

When asked for my favourite romantic screen pairing I will often quote Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed in the Assassination Bureau.

The Assassination Bureau comes courtesy of 1969 and Director Basil Dearden. The plot focuses on the leader of the shady outfit of the title, played by Reed, and a pioneering female journalist, played by Rigg, who seeks to bring it down in the name of humanity – and in so doing write the story that will kick start her journalistic career. Her means of doing so? Why to hire the Bureau to assassinate someone of course, and who better than its leader?

The twist to the mix, as of course there must always be, is that Miss Winters is being funded by Telly Savalas’ newspaper baron who is also, unbeknownst to her, deputy chairman of the Bureau Lord Bostwick. A man who has global political designs, hoping to use the Bureau to kick start a new world war. And so the scene is set for a turn of the 20th century period romp.

Reed as the charming and debonair Ivan Dragomiloff could scarcely be more handsome. With a twinkle in his eye, a curl of his lip and a thrust of his terribly masculine legs in a succession of smart yet tight trousers and the occasional long boot, is straight out of an adventure romance novel. Even his hair shines as if polished. Is it any wonder therefore that Rigg’s tight laced feminist suffragette prototype Sonya Winter finds herself drawn to the very man she originally aimed to destroy?

You may not have heard of this film but believe me when I say that it is as much of a 60s classic as the Pink Panther or the Sound of Music. And if your heart doesn’t thump a little faster when Reed tumbles out of a coffin, in quite my favourite scene, well I wonder what it is that is wrong with you.

The Assassination Bureau is available for viewing online on much promoted but not that popular with bloggers of this site at present thanks to limited film selection choices, LoveFilm.

Hearts of the West
by Philip Concannon

Oooh, nice toilet.

Jeff Bridges made a number of films in the 1970s that are deserving of a wider audience. Fat CityBad CompanyStay Hungry and Winter Kills are all worth seeking out, but I’ve picked Howard Zieff’s charming comedy Hearts of the West as it’s a genuine crowdpleaser that has somehow fallen into obscurity. Bridges is perfectly cast as the enthusiastic but naïve Iowa farmhand Lewis Tater, who arrives in 1930s Hollywood with grand dreams of making his name as a writer. Instead, he stumbles into a career as a supporting player in B-movie westerns, before his willingness to leap crotch-first onto a horse ensures his swift elevation to leading man. He’s an easy mark for the various penny-pinching producers, washed-up stars and conniving conmen who populate the production offices at Tumbleweed Pictures, but Hearts of the West is an affectionate and benign satire of early cinema.

Zieff’s tone is nostalgic rather than cynical, and while he stages a couple of smart sequences (one, involving a number of “dead” extras, is a great gag), his direction is primarily focused on giving his tremendous cast room to shine.  Alan Arkin is particularly memorable as the talentless but fast-talking producer Kessler but the film is full of terrific turns, with Blythe Danner, Donald Pleasence and Andy Griffith all excelling, while Bridges leads the way with one of his most disarmingly funny performances. Hearts of the West was released outside the US as Hollywood Cowboy, but the evocative original title is a much better fit for this endearing look at a bygone age of filmmaking.

Ninja III: The Domination
by Spank The Monkey

Take note - this is how you make a film poster.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo is the greatest sequel title ever. How could director Sam Firstenberg and dancer Lucinda Dickey follow it up? The inexplicable plan of 80s schlockmeisters Cannon Group was to put them both to work on the threequel… to Enter The Ninja.

Ninja III opens with the evil Black Ninja going kill crazy on a golf course, until the police riddle him with bullets. In his dying moments, his spirit takes possession of telephone engineer and part-time aerobics instructor Lucinda Dickey, using her legwarmered physical form to take revenge on his killers. As they say in the trailers, Only A Ninja Can Destroy A Ninja, which is where franchise regular Sho Kosugi comes in.

I’m not saying this is good or anything. As with most US martial arts cinema, the depiction of injury takes precedence over any display of skill, until the decent ninja-on-ninja finale. The supposedly scary bits are laughable, and the dialogue even more so, with one cherishable line anticipating Harry Hill by 20 years. But it’s hugely watchable – maybe the closest Hollywood has got to Asian exploitation cinema at its most berserk.

It’s a ninja movie with dancing, aerobics, poltergeist effects, an exorcism held in a Chinatown sex dungeon, and a climax featuring a zombie and an earthquake for good measure. Its everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach results in the sort of incoherence that could be mistaken for energy from a distance. On some Saturday nights, that’s all you need.

Better Off Dead
By TheTramp

Do not insert in ear canal? Fine, but what about HERE?

Ah the 80’s, the dawn of the high school movie and teen ‘angst romances’. Classics include the Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Sixteen Candles, Catholic Boys, Weird Science, the Sure Thing and Ferris Buellers Day Off. Yet very few people, at least in the UK, have seen my favourite – Better Off Dead.

Starring a young John Cusack and written & directed by Savage Steve Holland (yes you read that correctly, Savage Steve Holland) this 1985 movie has Lane Meyers (Cusack) dumped by his girlfriend Beth in favour of the more popular school ski champ/jock. Devastated Lane has various spectacular failures at suicide, before realising he’s actually in love with the French Exchange student, Dominique, from next door and regaining some of his lost pride on the ski slopes.

So far so normal I hear you cry, and yet it isn’t. I swear that shortly after receiving the funding for a high school movie the writer/director got everyone to smoke a lot of weed and began subverting.

For instance; there is a fantasy Claymation sequence where Cusack turns in to Frankenstein and creates a singing & dancing burger man complete with burger girl to be in love with. Then there’s his family; a domestically inept and quite possibly not on this planet mother, an ineffectual father and a baby brother who is like an older prototype Stuey Griffin, building items from the back of cereal packets like nuclear rockets. And have I mentioned the homicidal paper boy mafia? The best friend without a crack habit but who will snort jelly (best line, “Look at this mountain man, it’s made of pure snow!”). How about the Asian duo he drag races with who learnt English by watching TV sports commentary? Or the ski slope based fight with shy, but not so nice, Ricky that apes a certain sword fight between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone?

In taking a standard plot and playing havoc with it Better Off Dead stands out from others in its genre. It’s not a pastiche, or even homage to these movies, if anything it’s homage to a whole host of film classics (Close Encounters, Robin Hood, Romeo & Juliet, Flash Gordon, Frankenstein – watch it and let me know which films you spot) but mostly it’s just wonderfully off the wall and fun. Although if you are like this person, perhaps you should avoid watching it.

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4 thoughts on “Obscure Gems Two: Revenge of the Obscure.

  1. TIWUASMWT is great. Another similar-ish Czech film worth tracking down is ‘I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen’, where a nuclear war causes all women to become infertile and grow beards…so the UN decides to send someone back in time to kill Einstein, in the hope that the atom bomb will then never be invented.

    1. “so the UN decides to send someone back in time to kill Einstein, in the hope that the atom bomb will then never be invented.”

      Isn’t there an obvious flaw with regard the the invention of time travel WRT the whole going back in time to kill einstein thing?

      I remember watching The Assassination Bureau on Saturday afternoon telly when i was a kid and thinking it was great. Ninja III sounds like an extended version of the last five minutes of Bowfinger, which can only be a good thing.

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