Born of Fire (Directed by Jamil Dehlavi)
I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the greatest film ever to climax in a “Devil Went Down to Georgia” style flute duel with the Earth’s core temperature at stake. Peter Firth and Suzan Crowley star as a haunted flautist and a concerned astronomer who travel from England to the mountains of Turkey in search of, respectively, a long-missing father and an explanation for abnormal solar activity. They wander into a ruined city populated by a cryptic Muslim cleric and a silent young man with osteogenesis imperfecta who happens to be the flautist’s half-brother (Nabil Shaban in a colossal performance). From then on it’s a surreal waking nightmare full of seductive djinns, snake handcuffs, giant moth-babies, and a naked musician/demigod with dominion over the world’s volcanoes.
As near as I can tell, this movie has little to no cult following. That is inexplicable. For starters, it’s gorgeous. The location filming in the Turkish mountains ranks among the most spectacular I’ve seen, and nearly every shot is a composition of bizarre beauty. The story is perhaps a little thin, and grounded in a lot of myth and metaphor that I only barely grasped, but it’s such a dreamlike experience that it hardly matters. Just being an Islamic arthouse horror film from the late ‘80s should be enough to give “Born of Fire” a higher profile, but this deserves reverence even without the curiosity factor.
Zuma II: Hell Serpent (Directed by Ben Yalung)
An excavation crew unearths and quickly re-buries a vengeful blue-skinned snake demon named Zuma, who promptly resurfaces and sets out on a mission to slaughter every virgin in the Philippines and bring about a new age of snake supremacy, pausing only long enough to impregnate a random young woman who births a dimwitted snakeboy that follows its father’s bidding. Meanwhile, Zuma’s rebellious daughter (who wears her hair long enough to hide the snake protruding from either shoulder) just wants to settle down with her husband and raise their new babies, one human and one serpentine.
So yeah, even by the standards of obscure Filipino action-horror flicks, this one is bananas. I mean that in the very best way. Based on a presumably equally wild comic book series, this is a sleazy, noisy, occasionally incoherent conflagration of all things weird, wicked and wanton, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I haven’t seen the original “Zuma” - they’re both pretty hard to come by, especially in an English dub - but I feel safe in saying that it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this sequel one iota.
The Purple Ball (Directed by Pavel Arsyonov)
A group of Soviet space explorers stumbles upon a ghost ship formerly operated by an ancient death cult with a penchant for planting world-killing time bombs on unsuspecting planets, Earth included. It’s up to teenage adventurer Alica and her four-armed giant friend to travel back to mythological times and defuse the threat, but first they’ll need to contend with gigantic birds, forgetful magicians, and a supergroup of the most infamous cannibals of Russian folklore.
The sequel to a highly popular TV miniseries, “The Purple Ball” is a peculiar blend of grim sci-fi and deliriously macabre fairy tale, and somehow those two halves cohere into something rather lovely. It’s a great-looking film, full of spooky futuristic sets and charmingly rickety puppetry that ‘s fun to watch even when the story meanders. Natalya Guseva is delightful as Alica, who’s apparently a beloved kid-lit hero in the Pippi Longstocking vein in her homeland. It’s perhaps not the weightiest of adventures, but it’s a singular experience all the same.
Tales from the Quadead Zone (Directed by Chester N. Turner)
“Black Devil Doll from Hell” is always going to be the crown jewel of Chester N. Turner’s legacy, and deservedly so. That film is a bottle of demented lightning built around a once-in-a-lifetime lead performance by Shirley L. Jones, and any follow-up was going to pale by comparison. But that doesn’t make “Tales from the Quadead Zone” any less astonishing.
This horror anthology is a more conventional film in a lot of ways, but being more conventional than “Black Devil Doll from Hell” is a very relative thing. Despite the “quad” implied by the title, we get three stories here: a poverty-stricken family resorts to desperate methods to put food on the table, a man defiles his estranged brother’s corpse and lives to regret it, Shirley L. Jones reads a story to a ghostly child while battling domestic abuse. Everything here is bare-bones, handmade, and deeply invigorating. Turner’s direction could charitably be called rough, but he’s gotten a little more sure-handed since “BDDFH,” and his score is an even more delirious masterwork of squalling synthesizers and cackling chants. None of the movies on this list is for everybody, and this one is for a very select few. But for those who can dig this sort of thing, it’s some revelatory stuff.
Mutant Hunt (Directed by Tim Kincaid)
Two flamboyant crime bosses/genius inventors go to war with armies of beefy, drug-addled sunglass-sporting androids (alternately known as “mutants” for whatever reason), and it’s up to a mildly boorish soldier of fortune to set things right. This is just plain trash that skews slightly more campy and self-aware than my usual tastes, but it has the good sense to wallow in its own filth and even manages to pull off some grotesque poignancy here and there. I found the sequence with the damaged android who achieves just enough sentience to beg for death much more moving than anything I’d expect to see from the director of “Robot Holocaust.”
The Black Cobra (Directed by Stelvio Massi)
The ‘80s cinema landscape is littered with shameless Dirty Harry knock-offs, but not many had the chutzpah to include a beat-for-beat reworking of the famous “Make my day” speech. Watching Fred “The Hammer” Williamson detail the firepower of his handgun, speculate on whether he has any bullets left, declare that he feels lucky, and call his audience a punk is a strangely transcendent experience, the kind of brazenness you only get with bona fide trash cinema.
The rest of this cheap Italian quickie is an equally bold-faced riff on Stallone’s “Cobra” and various Dirty Harry flicks, riddled with misogyny, plot holes, Bruno Bilotta’s world-class sadistic smirk, and The Hammer’s indifferently furious line readings. It’s pretty great, obviously.