BLOOD TEA AND RED STRING (2006)

I had become jaded without even realizing it. Gone were the days of digging up bizarre old movies and being in awe as I experienced their fantastic worlds. I’d cut my teeth on films like Fantastic Planet and Jason and the Argonauts. This tendency to think I’ve “seen it all” is, I fear, a sign that I have gotten old. But then, I saw Blood Tea and Red String.

A bird-person embarking on a grand adventure.

Directed by Christine Cegavske and released in 2006, Blood Tea and Red String is a somber stop motion fantasy that leaves one wondering what Lewis Carrol and Jan Švankmajer might have accomplished together. The film’s main plot is centered around a group of birdlike humanoids travelling far from home, in search of a doll. The doll is made by the bird-people at the request of a group of aristocratic white mice. But upon the doll’s creation, the bird-people form a bond with it and return the mice’s money. The mice, of course, steal the doll (along with an egg which was sewn inside of it by the bird-people). They take it to their home where they indulge themselves over cup after cup of blood tea. What follows is a proverbial ‘tug-of-war’ as the two parties fight over the doll. Obstacles arise along their path as they meet a powerful frog wizard and later, a giant spider.

Blood Tea and Red String is a mesmerizing adventure story that walks the fine line between James and the Giant Peach and Eraserhead without ever leaning too far in either direction. It is a complex web of contradiction and visual incongruity. Perfectly balanced, Christine Cegavske’s film is equal parts fun dreamy fantasy and surreal gothic nightmare. It’s aesthetic and atmosphere are so distinct, so carefully and deliberately considered. One might assume that the person for whom Blood Tea and Red String was made might be Cergavske herself because this is a clear labor of love.

cheers!

10/10

IRON WARRIOR (1987)

Imagine the illegitimate child of Conan the Barbarian and Indiana Jones; throw in some Star Wars and Superman for flavor and you’ve got Alfonso Brescia’s Iron Warrior (original Italian title, “Ator il Guerriero di Ferro”). An inexplicable mash-up of everything that was cool in 1980’s fantasy-adventure, Iron Warrior manages to be compelling despite its unabashed lack of originality.

The mysterious “Iron Warrior” who is definitely NOT Darth Vader

Iron Warrior opens on a scene straight from Superman II – complete with rotating hula hoops and disembodied heads – the malevolent Phoedra is put on trial by her fellow goddesses. Just as Zod before Jor-El in Superman II, Phoedra is unrepentant for her misdeeds and is likewise cast into another realm of existence. That other realm of course, is the world of mortals. Phoedra takes her banishment in stride, brushes off the loss of her ability to take life, and doubles down on her commitment to make life hell for everyone.

Phoedra gets cast into the Phantom Zone a la Zod in “Superman II”

Her first move is to kidnap a child, the twin brother of the hero Ator. Played by Miles O’Keefe – playing Ator here for the third time –  he is everything that a generic 80s fantasy hero should be. Muscles flexed and hair in a French-braid, he is a man of few words. We first meet Ator as he swings his sword in front of a mirror on a cliff. Oh yeah, he’s cool.

Our hero.

Despite Iron Warrior being the third in a series of four films, this installment requires no prior knowledge of the others. And really, this is the only one worth checking out. The direction by Brescia shifts the tone of the series to something of a surreal art-house project rather than the lame Conan clones that the first two were.

Princess Janna lost in a moment of artsy moodiness

Overall, Iron Warrior’s plot revolves around Phoedra’s efforts to bring chaos and confusion to the world of mortals. Shapeshifting Loki-style, she makes life hell for Ator. Janna, cast out from her kingdom by a scenery-chewing Phoedra, seeks the protection and aid of Ator.

To defeat Phoedra, Ator and Princess Janna must retrieve the mysterious plot-contrivance cube.

Together, Ator and the Princess are guided by the benevolent witch-goddess Deeva as they navigate a series of obstacles (most of which being “borrowed” from the Indiana Jones movies) to return the Princess to her home and free her father the King.. All the while, Phoedra is there with her mysterious sword wielding servant – the titular silver skull-faced Iron Warrior.

Ator, chased Indiana Jones style by a giant boulder.

If not for a plot which revolves around illusion and deception, the surreal dream logic of Iron Warrior might leave the viewer feeling a bit confused. Not that the film isn’t confusing at times, but it at least feels deliberate and serves the overall themes. The hero Ator is continuously faced with trickery and deception and the audience is right there with him. The utter strangeness of the Iron Warrior is ultimately its saving grace. What could have been a predictable fairy tale ending is subverted nicely and the viewer is left with a conclusion that is ambiguous yet satisfying.

Princess Janna for Covergirl.

Iron Warrior might not be for everyone, but if you’ve any appreciation at all for cheap 1980s Italian art-house fantasy…