Ginseng King (the Three Headed Monster) - 1989

Occasionally I stumble upon a movie that's so good, I can barely stand it. I have to periodically pause it and walk away so that everything I've seen so far can sink in. It's literally like a form of cinema induced paralysis where I'm literally awestruck. It's getting exactly what you want that didn't even realize you wanted. It's seeing all the qualities of a favorite film seemingly tailored for your own bad taste come together harmoniously in ways you couldn't have imagined. The Ginseng King is one such film.

A boy foraging for roots and herbs in the forest stumbles upon a tiny living ginseng root. Legend has it that if you eat the root of a "wiggling" ginseng, you'll live a long and healthy life. Since this is a living, breathing, talking creature, it obviously doesn't want to be eaten, so it runs away from the boy. He chases the baby ginseng through the forest, it hops into a tree, the boy follows and gets bit by a poisonous snake who's hiding out in the tree. He falls and hits the ground writhing in pain. Realizing that the boy will die if he doesn't intervene, the baby ginseng root hovers over the him releasing some kind of mystic ginseng smoke. He announces that the wound is too bad and that the only way to save the boy is to call upon his ancestor, the 1000 year old Ginseng King.

From the shadows ascends our hero, the Ginseng King. As he approaches you realize it's either a midget or a child in a suit. Literally an anthropomorphic ginseng suit. What would a ginseng root look like personified? Lumpy, beige, stringy in places, knobby with big ol' bug eyes like Marty Feldman. The ugliest thing I've ever seen AND the cutest thing I've ever seen. He comes to the boy, breathes his magical ginseng smoke over him, then blows some in his mouth bordering on awkward/inappropriate. The boy wakes up just long enough to catch a glimpse of his saviour, then the Ginseng King disappears into the night. The boy's health is restored and he goes home.

Now the Ginseng King is wandering through the forest and he's suddenly being hunted by these goon-faced ninja guys. They're chasing him because, if a tiny little baby ginseng has these astonishing powers of longevity, a one thousand year old human sized ginseng must be bursting with magical properties. In fact, rumor has it, the 1000 year old ginseng can even RAISE THE DEAD.

While running from the goons he encounters a young woman who appears to be a in peril. Fleeing from the same guys I suspect, so they stick together and continue their escape. It seems as though they are safe and then the girl reveals her villainous intentions, she's with the goon-dudes and it was a trick! She grabs him and he uses his magical ginseng power to electrocute her with video toaster laser lightning! She propels back, he shoots into the air like the magical ginseng man that he is and starts aimlessly flying around like a deflating balloon. In his flight, he loses a single whisker. It falls on a grave, and you remember what I told you about the Ginseng King's power of resurrection, right?

"Outta here!"

Cut back to the boy's hut. His mother is ill and you realize that's why he was trying to capture the wiggling baby ginseng. He's nursing his poor mother back to health. He didn't find much but he makes her some herbal tea from what he was able to acquire. He tries to tell her about the 1000 year old Ginseng King, but she shrugs it off as his childish musings. Suddenly in bursts a ZOMBIE. A pretty large and intimidating zombie. This guy's no joke. He chases the mother and son through the hut, fucking shit up, destroying their home. Sharing a noticeable likeness to a Hong Kong Jiangshi (Hopping vampire), vaguely reminiscent of scenes from Encounters of a Spooky Kind or Mr. Vampire. They run up into the loft and he's so large he breaks the ladder while attempting to go after them. He shakes the load bearing pillars supporting the loft. He's going to bring the whole house down! The mother reminds the boy that the Monk on mountain may be their only hope. He leaps right over the zombie-vampire and bolts for help.

When he returns with the Monk, the house is destroyed, the zombie-vampire is gone and the mother is laying idly having been drained of most of her blood. Barely alive, the Monk is skeptical of whether or not he can help her. The boy tells him about the 1000 year old Ginseng King hoping it will inspire optimism. The Monk dismisses it saying that that the herbal deity is just a legend. While the Monk is attempting to restore the mother's health, the zombie returns! Chaos momentarily ensues until the creature abruptly stops to "salute" the Monk. Everyone pauses in confusion, but this wasn't an ordinary salute it was more like a "sieg heil". I thought, surely that didn't happen. I noticed the opposite facing swastika (symbol of well-being) on the Monk's sash and thought "I MUST  be projecting this, SURELY". Then it it happened AGAIN and the Monk takes notice. He realizes that the swastika is controlling the zombie and while it's never directly stated he mentions that the creature is clearly "foreign", he knows because he's wearing a uniform. Then he touches the band on his arm. So yes, there is indeed a NAZI ZOMBIE in this Taiwanese fantasy flick about living flying Ginseng gods. Yes. It happened, it exists. We can all go home now. The greatest movie ever made has been discovered. I'm shutting the blog down. GOODBYE.

I could go on describing every detail of the film play by play but then there'd be nothing left to experience for yourself. After defeating the zombie in a most EXPLOSIVE way, the evil girl and her goon-faced-goblin-ninja-dudes finally capture the Ginseng King. The rest of the film is the boy and his elderly companion "Grampa Earthgod" and their journey to rescue "Grampa Ginseng" (which is what they affectionately start referring to him by half way through the film - lots of Grampas in this universe).

Is it all making sense yet?

Lots of incredible characters are introduced along the way. My favorites being "Magic Eyes and Magic Ears", two giant gods who live in a cave with the power to see and hear anything at any distance. More lumpy awkwardness from these two gents, and their friend "long legs" has the ability to travel great distances from literally having the longest legs in the world. He travels 12,000 miles with every step!

Then of course there's the alternate namesake of the film, the Three Headed Monster, our big bad boss. But honestly, despite his coolness, by this time in the film you're kind of zoning out from sensory overload. I don't mean to fall into ellipses of praise but this movie's just too rad for words! Over the past year I've been falling more and more in love with the exploitation films of Taiwan and the Ginseng King has tipped me over the edge.

I found very little background information in my research. I can't help but wonder if the character of the Ginseng King is just a one-off for the film or if it's rooted in some kind of folklore. I know that there IS such a thing as thousand year old ginseng and it's considered to be very potent and costs somewhere around $65 an ounce. I can't help but wonder if the idea behind the film was conceptualized by some devout consumer of ginseng wanting to make a PSA for children to take their vitamins. Kind of a long shot but it made ME want partake in more Ginseng so if that is the case, it worked.

Just the fact that a movie like this exists and I didn't know about it until recently gives me tremendous hope for the future. I usually don't worry about running out of bizarre little gems to watch,  but after a bit of a dry spell it's impossible not to question when your next obsession will find you. And I'm so glad that the Ginseng King found me. Life will surely not be the same.


Rölli - Amazing Tales (1991)

Lately the fairy tale films of Russia and Eastern Europe have been greatly influencing my personal viewing cycle. I simply want to be surrounded by dancing forest animals, sprites, chicken legged witch houses, werewolf servants and , sure - why not - "Rölli's". I went into Rölli - Amazing Tales blindly, knowing nothing except that the appearance of the leading troll creature fits in with an aesthetic that I crave. 

"Rölli" is an impish little forest dwelling man-beast who romps around with false bravado, attempting to scare and intimidate other critters. When he encounters a Forest Fairy his soft nature is revealed when he saves her from an attack from a "BIG Rolli" (Rölli is not only his name but his species, somewhat confusingly). After this a friendship forms, they pair off for the duration of the film. Generally speaking, the movie follows a somewhat generic straight-to-video kids movie approach. Despite having some cool costumers here and there, it's not terribly artistic or moving. It has an eco-friendly "take-care-of-mother-earth" agenda, and honestly doesn't have much to offer an adult audience.

When I first turned it on I could have SWORN the title theme was sung by Nina Hagen. Sweet and feminine one minute, then hitting this strange goblin-eque notes of terror in the chorus. I was so convinced that I made up my mind at that point that the film was automatically the greatest thing ever. A premature summary to say the least. For starters, it was NOT Nina Hagen, it was the two main characters, Rölli and the Forest Fairy (hence the sweet and feminine with the guttural troll pipes). Also, I realized that wouldn't have made sense anyway because Rölli is Finnish and Nina is German, oy! The character of Rölli is the creation of Finnish singer, Allu Tuppurainen. He went on to play the character in various forms on stage and screen. It of course only makes sense that he wrote and performed all of the songs too!

I sadly was just not terribly impressed with Rölli - Amazing Tales. I so wanted to be but perhaps I have become spoiled by much greater films from that area of the world. Very little depth or complexity on any level, and for the genre there was far too little magic and enchantment! Quite literally a throw away fairy tale, aw shucks...


Don't Panic - 1988

Oy! Spoilers ahead...

I first discovered Don't Panic earlier this year when it was recommended to me by a trusted movie buddy. I had intended to review upon first viewing but as I recall I was quite overwhelmed as it met basically every point of favorability I seek in a campy 80's slasher movie. You would think by the bewilderment and pressure I was putting upon myself to do this review that I was writing a dissertation on Italian Neo-realism and it's effect on post-war Europe, but in reality I'm just hypnotized by the sight of grown men in dinosaur jammies...

On paper Don't Panic is your typical 80's horror fodder, leaning strongly towards Nightmare on Elm Street rip-off territory. That's not to say I mind, many of my favorite films borrow heavily from the success of previous films. Despite the excellency of a film such as Nightmare on Elm Street, to see the awkward charm of a loose and clumsy Mexican reworking is somehow much more rewarding. The story follows a tragically nerdy Steve Sanders look-a-like named Michael who has recently moved to Mexico City with his alcoholic mother from Beverly Hills (ironic?!). It's his 17th birthday and after his party a few friends decide to stick around and ambush him with a surprise seance via Ouija board. A recipe for disaster in any horror movie. This is when we're introduced to two pivotal characters. His turd-faced best friend Tony and his love interest Alexandra who, bless her heart, has the most obnoxious distracting unibrow I've ever seen.

There are some other friends present but they're basically just monster bait, so I didn't bother learning their names. After a reluctant game of Ouija where Tony, acting the part of an 80's movie best friend, being a jerk, making jokes, insulting ghosts, etc. He's dead meat. Mike's alckly mother breaks up the party and puts him to bed, dino-jammies and all.

After this Michael begins to have a series of dreams where he's seeing through the eyes of a ghost murderer. His friends begin to die off and poor Steve-Sanders-clone is destined to run around like a little bitchface child, whining and flailing about like the lame little booger eater he is. I don't mean to be so hard on Steve, er Michael. He just invokes a deep rooted mean-spirited side of me. If I knew him in real life I would have bullied him relentlessly. Partially because I'm an asshole, but mostly because he sucks. I love him for it, but he sucks big time.

One of the highlights of the film is when Turd-face Tony explains to Michael that if he really wants to show Alexandra how he feels he needs to bestow upon her a magical rose. In a bromantic scene of epic homo-eroticism, Tony gives Michael a rose from the vase in his room (why does this teenage boy have a vase of roses in his bedroom??) and explains that as long as the petals never wilt and die, neither will their love. He's like the witch at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast only way fartier. The love story angle in the movie is laughable, reaching after-school-special proportions of nauseating cheesiness. And again, with Alexandra's unibrow deserving it's own screen credit, she plays second banana in ever single scene.

The horror elements of the film are decent. Nothing to write home about, but passable and keep the story going amidst the hilarious teenage drama. That's the real star here (as well as the dinosaur PJ's). The melodrama between characters sets this apart from most Nightmare on Elm Street Rip-offs and your run of the mill slasher film. We later find out that the killer is Tony who was possessed by a demon named "Virgil" (endlessly awkward demon name) the night of Ouija board. Likely for being a huge irritating dork.

I really cannot speak highly enough about Don't Panic. It's relatively new to me but it already has found a place in my heart. It's amongst a very elite grouping of slashers that I consider to be perfect examples of their own kind of art. A balance of humor, horror and ineptitude that creates a symphony of trash cinema to the likes of which I am honored to experience again and again. This second viewing offered more insight into why I felt so overwhelmed the first time. When you really enjoy something on a basic fundamental level it's difficult to express without falling into endless ellipses. With genre movies it's easy to feel self conscious because obviously there are some people who just won't get why a film like Don't Panic is so special. Let me put it it this way; if Pizza was a movie, not a food, it would be Don't Panic. Simple as that. Childhood dreams and memories I didn't even have all wrapped up in a nicely little package. It certainly deserves a DVD (or heck, blu-ray, why not?) release, but in the meantime if you can track down a copy it official has the Scumbalina seal of approval!


I Was a Teenage Mummy - 1962

What is it about kids making movies that is so undeniably adorable?! I'm a sucker for these 8mm/16mm home made monster movies produced by children in the 60's and 70's. I had never heard of I Was a Teenage Mummy until a friend of mine asked me if I could track it down for him. I'm always up for a challenge so I examined my resources and managed to finagle a copy.

I Was a Teenage Mummy or I Was an Invisible-Teenage-Man? Who can tell??

An homage to classic monster movies, this charming little flick has a basic Universal's "The Mummy" plot with an added cute child version of Peter Lorre that truly made my heart melt. Obviously an amateur production but the details are spot on. Lots of little touches and accurate costume details that make it an impressive achievement for a group of youngsters, or adults for that matter. It doesn't take itself too seriously, The dialogue was dubbed much later and is spoken in a way that every line references a film title. Throwing "The Man Who Knew Too Much", "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", Spellbound", "High Anxiety" and "Lolita" around in sentences. It creates a fun diversion for movie lovers.

The introduction by Forrest J. Ackerman was a nice touch, especially since the movie's so short (about an hour). He gives us a little tour of his "Acker Museum" where he humbly shows off his world famous collection of priceless movie memorabilia. Looking as festive as a Horror Host, Forry, dressed in a black cape is as adorable as can be while he casually shows off the rings worn by Boris Karloff in the Mummy and Bela Lugosi in Dracula on each hand. I love him dearly; every time I see his darling face I feel cheated out of the Grandpa I deserved.

He speaks affectionately of I Was a Teenage Mummy, comparing his encounter with the film and director Ralph Bluemke to his first meeting with a young John Landis after the screening of Schlock. He talks about how the poor 15 year old in the mummy costume endured the same endless torment as Karloff did having undergone the extreme cosmetics in the Mummy. He mentions subtleties like how they achieved the aged look of the bandages by dying them with tea. It's this attention to detail that makes the viewing experience so endearing. A lot of heart went into the film and by the end, you're really wishing that the unavailable semi-sequel "I Was a Teenage Apeman" advertised after the credits had seen the light of day.

Some of the shots are really quite beautiful. Can't beat the raw talent of youth!

Cute kids dressed as monsters, lines such as "Oh, Camel Muffins!" and the Forrest J. Ackerman seal of approval. What else do you need really?

The Imp - 1981

The Imp is an unusual little Hong Kong horror flick. I'm by no means an expert on HK cinema but as far as I've noticed, in Hong Kong they're all about silly scares. Take Mr. Vampire for instance. Possibly the most successful HK genre film of all time, no? It has at very least spawned the largest franchise. It mixes horror and comedy in a way that creates a Scooby-doo-esque kid-friendly supernatural atmosphere. It's been my experience that the craze of Jiangshi films set the standard for what horror movies would be in Hong Kong for decades. Bearing this in mind, The Imp is a stark contrast to all the fun and frills you would find in a chop socky Hopping Vampire flick.

Keung is a hapless young man. Struggling to find work while his pregnant wife is constantly harshing his mellow. After a series of failed interviews, he finally lands a job as an overnight security guard in a shopping center. It would seem that misfortune is following him because shortly after he takes the job, one of his colleges chokes on their lunch (puppy stew, ugh) and dies. At the funeral Kueng meets a priest who senses a dark energy surrounding him. While his other co-workers continue to turn up dead in a variety of mysterious circumstances, the priest discovers that Keung was born at a very unlucky time. At the time which the yin is strongest and the yang is weakest making him susceptible to evil spirits. In short, there's some spooky shit out to get Keung. At first attempting to take over him physically, then deciding it would be easier to be reincarnated into his unborn child. Mayhem and creepines ensues.

While taking a more serious approach to horror film making than it's predecessors, The Imp makes a gallant effort but somehow falls a bit short. Although interesting, atmospheric and certainly worth the watch, it never seems to fully realize it's potential. It suffers a bit from it's own pacing, which would be ok if there was some kind of extravagant pay off. What we're left with is an eerie, beautifully shot film that leaves you wishing they'd taken it a little further. So close to perfection yet the fact that it didn't quite make it leaves you feeling high and dry. It's no wonder that the Imp has gained a cult following over the years. It certainly is different. More Western influenced that any other HK horror flick I've seen, using simple but effective John Carpenter-esque ambiance. While it never produces the epic monster battle I've become accustomed to receiving , it delivers a fair amount of ghoulishness that you would find in a really scary Halloween haunted house. This lends more to the horror/comedy style I was talking about earlier, which explains why I was left wanting more.

I would recommend it to those who are already connoisseurs of Hong Kong horror (though you're probably are already familiar with it). Perhaps I've just been spoiled by the Shaw Brothers and Sammo Hung. The Imp falls somewhere in between a solid good horror movie and an amazing horror movie. That line is so thin that it would be completely up to the individual which direction it would sway.