Sunday, March 4, 2012

Listomania!: Thomas' February 2012 Viewings

TNT JACKSON (1974): Just because Cirio H. Santiago is the man, doesn’t mean everything he does is a classic, but for some reason this movie is one that I keep coming back to. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a bad, bad movie. Diana “TNT” Jackson (Playboy Playmate Jeannie Bell) arrives in Hong Kong looking for her missing brother who has been killed by karate badass Charlie (Stan Shaw) for double crossing the local drug cartel. After the mob catches wind of her plans, the hit is on and many badly choreographed (and I mean badly choreographed) martial arts brawls ensue. Sure Bell can’t kick her way out of a doggie bag, but if you came for some Corey Yuen fight scenes, you are missing the point. Cirio decides that shooting on location in Hong Kong is much too costly, so he makes a hilariously feeble attempt at dressing up the sparse Filipino locations with a random Chinese banner or movie poster. Presto chango! Manila is now Hong Kong! But wait, we need some “chinamen”, what to do? Don’t worry, we’ll just throw a bunch of Filipinos in kung fu uniforms! Nobody will know the difference! For the lingering doubters in the audience, Santiago throws in a couple of scenes of an alleged Chinese New Year’s celebration with a Dragon Dance that wouldn’t fool a nine year old. He doesn’t even worry about the police uniforms; they are just typical Manila cops. If that isn’t enough for you, there are lots of bad attempts to imitate the tough trash talk of black action classics such as SLAUGHTER (1972) and COFFY (1973) and as far as I know, Santiago pioneered the topless fight scene. Yep, ESCAPE FROM THE BROTHEL (1992) and the stunning ANGEL OF DESTRUCTION (1994, produced by Santiago) were just bowing their heads in respect for the master. It should be noted that most of the prints of this movie were in really bad shape, some of them being from censored 16mm prints. The recent Shout! Factory DVD is nothing short of stunning in its uncut and widescreen glory.

SON OF DRACULA (1943): I haven’t seen this since I was a kid and at the time I did not appreciate its finer points at all. The concept itself seemed so lame at the time, but I now feel it is a stroke of brilliant outside-of-the-coffin thinking. Ok, “brilliant” may be pushing it, but seriously, the idea of transplanting Dracula’s dirt from a European gothic castle to a Southern gothic plantation took some real ingenuity. I can’t even imagine how the pitch meetings must have gone over. The Universal execs must have been really broad-minded in those days. In addition to the Louisiana setting, the film is more of a pulp-noir thriller than a horror movie and is actually conceived as a sequel to Bram Stoker’s novel, rather than a direct sequel to the Bela Lugosi film! Pull that shit in a pitch meeting these days and Universal’s security would work you over with a rubber hoses before throwing you out into the street. Sure, you could say that Lon Chaney jr. was hooooooribly miscast as Dracula and I can’t really argue that point other than to say that I think it adds to the movie’s charm. Chaney’s sad, hound-dog visage adorned with a stylish (for the era), little mustache is, errrm, unique to say the least. He genuinely seems like a fish out of water. Maybe not exactly what you would traditionally be looking for in an interpretation of Dracula, but hey, it definitely makes the film interesting and unusual if nothing else. Of course, I’m one of those that thinks A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (1985) is the best sequel of the lot, simply because it is so completely off base.

ENTER THE NINJA (1981): Damn, I love this flick. I had forgotten about all the things that made me obsess over it back in the day; Susan George jiggling braless on horseback, or really in every single scene; the guy with the rubber neck, the cool ninja outfits (before Godfrey Ho turned ninjas into a rainbow coalition). There's lots of stuff that I never really picked up on before though. They were totally trying to rip off Lalo Shiffrin’s score for ENTER THE DRAGON, but actually turned out a really cool percussion based theme that makes what are some of the cheapest opening credits, really entertaining. I never really picked up on the fact that Franco Nero has absolutely no martial arts skills whatsoever (check out the scene where he’s practicing with the nunchucks - phew!). Remember that awesome scene where he punches the tall guy with the rubber neck? If you look at Nero’s expression, he actually looks concerned, until the guy’s head swings back around. The Japanese guy they allegedly go to Japan to get to help the bad guys find a ninja? Totally Filipino. I need this on DVD with audio commentary. I’d love to know how they got the idea to set the badguy’s office in an indoor swimming pool. The movie is so great that second unit director Emmett Alston went on to direct 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA in 1985! He must have caught the Sho bug like the rest of us and spent four years working on his dream project, only to be laughed at. Damn, I love that movie too. Blackie Dammet in a wheelchair dressed up like Prince? What's not to like?

REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1982): Why did it take me so long to revisit this? I haven’t seen it in years! I remember being obsessed with it back in the ‘80s, but I had totally forgotten why. It’s like Sam Firstenberg was so excited to have a budget and a white-hot genre to exploit that he went nuts with ninja awesomeness and forgot that movies usually have plots! Of course, it’s got slightly more plot than a Tony Jaa movie, but that’s beside the point. It’s non-stop action complete with a sequence that Jackie Chan totally ripped off for POLICE STORY (1985), except with a van instead of a bus! That’s right, Jackie Chan ripped off Sho Kosugi and Sam Firstenberg. Is that not freakin’ awesome? As usual Toru Tanaka is completely wasted in another big-guy-who-beats-up-on-hot-chicks role, but the action is really well done for a cracker martial arts film of the era and in its uncut form, it is really violent with a plethora of ninja weapons being put to good use. In addition to the action there are some pretty damned amusing moments, such as one of the best lines ever to be uttered in a ninja movie: "do you really think I forgot my pants?". Plus, you have the thugs stealing the drug-filled dolls and, as Will pointed out, taking the time to carefully pack them in newspaper-filled boxes and best of all, the scene in which Sho goes to meet some hardened ex-cons and finds them sitting in a children’s playground looking like a Village People cover band. Priceless.

SPITFIRE (1994): Albert Pyun decides to try his hand at some international espionage and ends up with a hit and miss hodgepodge of IF LOOKS COULD KILL (1991) and GYMKATA (1985). Permanently tuxedoed, international super-spy Richard Charles (Lance Henriksen) is kidnapped by a spurned ex-lover and rival spy Carla Davis (super-evil Sarah Douglas), who also shoots his main squeeze (1978 Playboy Playmate of the Year, Debra Jo Fondren) in probably the most prolonged topless death scene ever filmed. The McGuffin here is a set of nuclear missile launch codes and Charles takes a moment to slip them into the purse of one of his many illegitimate children, Charlie Case (1987 US Champion gymnast Kristie Phillips). Case is conveniently on a global gymnastics tour which allows her to be chased through locations such as Greece, Malaysia and The Bahamas. Pyun clearly has a decent budget to work with (unlike, say, his follow up film, NEMESIS 2), and sets up a great first act. It’s fast-paced, the breezy send-up is amusing and the fights with Phillips using her gymnast training are cheesy, but a lot of fun (it’s clear that they had to shoot around the fact that she is not very good at choreographed film fights). Unfortunately, Pyun commits two cardinal sins that plague the rest of the film. First and foremost he forgets to exploit the thing that got us to buy a ticket in the first place: Kristie Phillips using her mad gym skills to kick butt. This is really what cripples the movie. The second crime is miscasting one of the greatest comics-turned-actor of our generation, Tim Thomerson. Thomerson is consigned to play a klutzy, booze-soaked, tabloid journalist, which doesn’t sound like a tough gig for a one-time comedian (because alcoholism is inherently hilarious), but the part completely plays against his strengths and is so poorly written that it is painful to watch. Aside from that, it’s still worth a spin for those of us who, in spite of repeated beatings, still keep coming back for more Pyunishment.

Albert Pyun: "Ok, we only pay scale, but you'll get to go to bed with a Playboy Plamate!"
Lance Henriksen: "I'll take it!"

THE CONCORDE AFFAIR (1979): In between his two infamous cannibal epics of the late ‘70s Ruggero Deodato tried to ride the wave of popularity for the AIRPORT disaster epics with some seriously yawn-inducing results.
A divorced, washed up, and burned-out reporter (James Franciscus looking as perfectly flossed and scrubbed as always), finds himself in the middle of the murder of his ex-wife and a conspiracy by terrorists to bring the Concorde project to its knees. The terrorists plot? To have their man in the food service line hide vials of heat-volatile acid in the in-flight meals, so that when they go in the oven, they will rupture and the acid will eat through the trays and destroy the sensitive electrical wiring for the entire plane which is conveniently bundled directly underneath the hotboxes! Now that is what I call a plan! I really, really wanted to like this movie, but damn, it’s tough. It's a bone dry plot pushed along by flat dialogue delivered by talking heads in little rooms. The action is minimal and equally flat, plus we get lots of padding that really does a lot to crush any entertainment value mustered by the bloody scuba-diving scenes and cheesy model miniatures. If only Enzo Castellari had made this, then we’d have something.

COHEN & TATE (1988): I remember liking this quite a bit back in the day. Eric Red has always been a bit erratic with well-crafted exploitation like NEAR DARK butting heads with stunningly inept dross like BAD MOON (1996). If you’ve ever read some of his unfilmed scripts (such as his proposed X-rated ALIEN 3 draft), you will know that he is either out of his freakin' mind or that his deformed, basket-dwelling twin occasionally uses his typewriter. In spite of Red's stability issues, COHEN & TATE holds up today as one of his better outings. To be honest, I'll take it over THE HITCHER (1986) any day of the week. I get irritated by movies in which the hero is just a completely helpless twit. In COHEN & TATE, there are no heroes.
Essentially a gritty crime drama that could have easily been a stage play, a pair of mismatched buttonmen, Mr. Cohen (Roy Scheider) and Mr. Tate (Adam Baldwin), execute a family of mob informants, kidnapping the 9 year old son in the process. The film is essentially their attempt to take the boy back to the mob and avoid the police, while the kid uses the tension to bait them into fighting each other. Fairly simple, but the tension is well paced, the performances are excellent (particularly from the late Mr. Scheider), and Mr. Red does a great job of punctuating the effective character drama with fiery car stunts and bloody shootings.
Speaking of bloody shootings, Red had a run in with the mafia of the filmmaking world with this movie. Originally the two major scenes of gun conflict were so extremely bloody that Jack Valenti and his mob of bible-thumping housewives refused an R-rating without significant cuts. In the opening execution is cut in half with many of the killings completely deleted from the R-rated print. The end sequence where Cohen and Tate resolve their differences in an oil field is also shorn of nearly half of its original running time. The film builds up to this point and the audience knows it’s coming, but in the R-rated version it’s a pretty quick affair. The uncut version is so brutal and bloody, that there is a great moment where Tate cannot slide his pump-action shotgun because it has become slippery due to all of the blood on it. Maybe someday this will get an uncut release, but since Mr. Red has, err, understandably, fallen out of favor in Hollywood, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

1 Reactions:

  1. Great stuff Thomas. Very entertaining read.

    I love TNT Jackson. Jeannie Bell has to be the least athletic woman to ever attempt martial arts on-screen, but that only adds to the films charm. I’ve only recently discovered Cirio Santiago (thanks Shout Factory!), but I am now hooked on bad Flipino actions films. Can’t get enough topless kung fu.

    I didn’t care for ENTER THE NINJA when I saw it for the first time last year. Sure, there is some entertainment to be found in Susan George’s swaying breasts, Franco Nero’s lack of martial arts skill and his majestic mustache. But it goes on far too long and has some serious dry spots. That said, after reading your post I decided to give REVENGE OF THE NINJA a run. It is amazing from beginning to end. It rarely goes more than 10 minutes without a WTF moment. My favorite being the Ninja vs Grandma fight. I lost it when she used a smoke bomb to disappear. Sho taking on the Village People/playground thugs was another highlight.

    Kinda bummed that SPITFIRE doesn't have a DVD release.


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