Our destination was supposed to close at five. It was already a little past four, so I figured there was no way we’d make it to Adamstown with enough time to do what we needed to do. But then, we’d been lucky throughout the day with everything from traffic to weather to food to destinations, so why not? It’s not like we weren’t going that way anyway. So onto highway 222 en route to Adamstown, Pennsylvania, which is a place with about 30,000 antique malls and flea markets, none of which seem to be open on a late Saturday afternoon. There’s also a microbrew pub, and a place called Black Angus I totally would have eaten at if I’d been the least bit hungry.
At this point in Teleport City’s existence, I think we can skip the introductory material regarding the post-apocalyptic films of the 1980s. Suffice it to say that the wake of the good ship Road Warrior is cluttered with some truly ridiculous flotsam, the vast majority of which seems to have drifted over from Italy, occasionally with a grinning Fred Williamson clinging to it, trademark cigarello clenched firmly between his teeth. And we don’t want to short-change The Philippines, whose contributions to the genre may be fewer and less “famous” but are even battier than their Italian counterparts. And occasionally, the United States would decide that if it was the country that most movies would hold at least 50% responsible for the post-apocalyptic setting, then the US might as well get in on the game.
Perhaps because we were stocked with the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, many US productions wrong-headedly tried to present a more “realistic” interpretation of what the world would be like after the collapse of society, rather than relying on the tried and true leather-clad mohawk guys tearing about in dune buggies that the rest of the world seemed to happy with. Less Road Warrior, more Mad Max, in that way. But every now and then, the United States would get its head out of its ass, stop producing dull claptrap like The Day After (so dangerous and shocking that the people made it weren’t even sure if we should watch it — seriously, they claimed to expect people flocking in for shock and post-traumatic stress disorder after witness the stark horrors the mini-series had in store for us. That’s near William Castle levels of brilliant), and make something that just through its hat into the ring of goofball post-apocalyptic adventure.
Coming as it did in 1991, Neon City sort of missed the boat. The Soviet Union was no more. The threat of nuclear annihilation was receding into the background. It was looking like that bomb shelter I’d built with my friends back in the woods and stocked with tins of Dinty Moore and Beanie Weenies was not going to be needed (though as far as I know, it’s still back there, right about here). Despite a brief foray into Middle Eastern warfare in 1990 and a mild recession, things were looking up. The environment for a post-apocalyptic action film was less inviting than it had been during the height of Reagan era Cold War paranoia. Luckily, Neon City decided to eschew nuclear annihilation as the way to get us all into football pads and assless leather pants and relied instead on a more 1970s style of tearing the world apart: environmental devastation. Contending with a ravaged environment is a standard part of any post-apocalypse movie, but more times than not, at least during the 1980s, that environment had been ravaged by nuclear war, which for some reason, the people of the near future could call nuclear war, opting instead to always give it some hokey, vaguely Biblical name like “the great cleansing” or “the time of fire.”
I guess something gets into the drinking water that causes our post-apocalyptic to give things more flowery, poetic, and creative names than what we did with wars like “World War II” and “The Hundred Years’ War.” But movies in which the wrecked environment is the cause, rather than a symptom of, the end of the world are farther between than the more common “you blew it up!” variety of film. However, with the two great super powers of the world turning their ICBMs into planters and having their old war bunkers blessed by crystal wielding new age priestesses (or something like that), a post-apocalypse latecomer like Neon City had to cast its net back to the decade of gas rationing and the great paranoia about the environment. It’s not that big a surprise, then, that the fish this movie pulls back into the boat resembles something more from the 1970s than the Reagan era post-apocalypse action movies with which we’d grown so familiar. Ozone layer depletion was still a hot topic at the time, so seizing on that as the cause of our doom was only natural.
Neon City is a decidedly more somber affair than movies like New Barbarians, 2020 Texas Gladiators, or Cherry 2000, to name just a few. It still boasts the hallmarks of the 1980s post-apocalypse movie — a big ass truck, marauders on motorcycles, questionable trends in fashion, a droning synth score — but it presents them in a much less cartoonish fashion, opting instead of a tone that is bleak, depressed, and surprisingly believable. The world of Neon City is successfully convincing as an actual post-apocalyptic society, one in which law and order exists in miserable, grimy pockets alongside large swaths of the country that have devolved into lawlessness. The future is such shit because the ozone layer was being eaten up at a frightening pace. In an attempt to halt and repair the damage, NASA hired a brilliant scientist who concocts some crazy sort of laser experiment. Unfortunately, all it does it accelerate the decay, thrusting the earth into a gloomy future where clouds of poison dust roll across the wasteland and people can be fried alive during certain conditions that create some crazy sort of intensification of sunlight. Civilization, or at least large swathes of it, couldn’t be sustained. The United States fractured into fiefdoms, each one ruled by a security force that seems at least tangentially loyal to whatever government remains, but ultimately cut off from any real central authority and thus left to fend for themselves.
Through this stark land strides Stark (Michael Ironside, from everything), a bounty hunter with a haunted past. He’s bringing a fugitive named Reno (Vanity, The Last Dragon), but discovers that he can’t actually collect her bounty in the city at which he arrives. Instead, he has to travel to Neon City, the major remaining hub of civilization in the region. Travel to Neon City isn’t unusual, but it is dangerous thanks to a gauntlet of brigands, nutcases, and environmental madness. The local lawman wants Stark to ride shotgun with the Neon City Express, the beast of a truck that makes the run with civilian passengers. Stark would rather take his chances on his own, at least until his truck “mysteriously” explodes. Stark and Reno thus end up boarding the armored transport along with a group of other travelers who hope to make the risky run to Neon City, each one with hopes of a better life. If you’ve ever seen the classic John Huston/John Wayne western Stagecoach, you may recognize the scenario. Neon City draws heavily from that movie, and in general, the greater portion of post-apocalypse movies can be easily compared to westerns, though most of them opt for a sort of Sergio Leone vibe — not surprising given the Italian lineage of both Leone westerns and 1980s post-apocalypse movies. So perhaps it’s no accident that the US-produced Neon City looks a bit further back, to American produced westerns of the early era, just as it did in plucking environmental disaster from the 70s.
What this means, however, is that we have an ensemble cast, and as just about any fan of b-movies can tell you, that almost always devolves immediately into poorly written, endless bickering and sniping. The set-up seems to point to exactly that sort of tedium. Besides gruff, angry Stark and his equally pissed off charge, the driver turns out to be Bulk (former football player Lyle Alzedo), Stark’s former partner who stark put away for five years on account of Bulk beating a guy to death. You might think that this ends up being important, but Bulk seems to have adopted a live and let live attitude, so whatever tension might have depended on that dynamic is dissipated pretty quickly. There’s also Sandy (Valerie Wildman), who happens to be Stark’s estranged ex-wife. Seems that whatever government remains in the blighted year of 2053 doesn’t take too kindly to “mutants,” making sure they are killed off at birth. When Stark and Sandy had a child, it suffered from a couple relatively mild abnormalities which the government identified — incorrectly, Sandy maintains — as mutations. So the child was killed. In a rage, Stark decided that Sandy had been covering up some sort of mutation in herself that was manifested in the child. Needless to say, the marriage had as much chance of surviving as the baby.
It may seem contrived for so many people with personal connections to one another to end up on the same trip to Neon City, but it seems there are so few people left that it doesn’t come across as improbable as it might otherwise. Fleshing out the cast are a vaudeville style comedian (Richard Sanders — you know him as Les Nesman), a doctor with abysmal taste in shirts and hairstyles (Nick Klar), a sheltered socialite who’s been riding the collapse of society out in Sweden (Juliet Landau, daughter of Martin and eventual reoccurring actress in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Justice League Unlimited, and a bunch more voice work), and an old Asian guy (Sonny Trinidad). I wasn’t in the mood for ninety minutes of clumsily written character conflict, and luckily, Neon City surprised me. Although we hit some of the expected notes — Stark and Sandy don’t get along, socialite Twink can’t understand why the government allows everything to be so dangerous, Vanity is pissed off at everyone — the movie never wallows in it. Most conflict is dealt with quickly, and we move on. Hell, for the most part, most of the people seem to get along with and help each other, and this is one of the few low budget post-apocalyptic movies where pretty much everyone we’re supposed to like is actually likable. Who ever heard of such a thing?
The only real fly in the ointment is sleazy Dr. Tom, who we know to be an impostor with sociopathic tendencies, but even that is handled in a relatively deft manner. We know the eventual conflict is coming, but we don’t have to sit through endless scenes of “who’s the bad guy.” And in fact, even though he’s the scumbag, he’s also well aware of the fact that he needs to pitch in and help out if any of them are going to survive the run. It seems almost that he doesn’t even want to hurt anyone, but his masquerade as a doctor keeps getting him called upon to perform some actual medical service, for which he has no talent. The only way he sees to cover his ignorance is to make sure the patients tragically pass away. Even though most of the characters are one-note caricatures, they were an easy lot to get along with, especially Sander’s ever chipper Dickie Devine (whom I expected to become odious comic relief, but he never does) and big galoot Bulk.
The expectation is that Alzedo — a former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman who, sadly, passed away shortly after this movie in May of 1992 — will be terrible, or he’ll just do the silent, dangerous act. But he really gives it his all and comes across with a lot of charisma. He has a freak-out scene that’s a little overplayed, but he tears into it with such earnestness that it doesn’t really matter. I’m primed for everyone in these types of movies to be cynical, unsympathetic, and overly acidic. It’s a bit of a joy to discover one where both the script and the performers have decided that maybe it’s OK to actually enjoy the company of the characters. Alzedo’s Bulk could have been the heavy or the jerk. Instead, he’s the center of the film’s charm.
Most of the cast is similarly committed. there’s no sense that anyone was handling this as though they thought it was just some idiotic straight-to-video sci-fi film, and there’s charisma enough to go around. The one failing is in the relationship between Stark and Reno, which is supposed to go from enemies to lovers. Which it does, but with almost no transition or development at all and with no chemistry between the two. But like everything else in this movie, the plot doesn’t linger on it for very long, so you can keep rolling without too much fuss. The relationship between Stark and Reno fails not because of the actors as much as it does the script. Vanity had a lot of natural charm, but the few times I’ve seen her act, she wasn’t all that great. Her character probably could have used more to do and say in this, although limited as it is, it doesn’t give Vanity’s weaknesses as an actress any time to surface. Unlike, perhaps, more current movies, the movie doesn’t try to pass her off as an unstoppable killing machine. She knows her way around a fight, having grown up as an orphan in the wasteland, but she makes believable mistakes and is never anything more than barely competent — just like everyone else.
For his part, Michael Ironside is, well, Michael Ironside. It’ll always be hard for him to convince me he’s actually the good guy, so recognizable is he as a guy who does things like make people’s heads explode. His character, like Vanity’s is the focus of the story while also being the least interesting. He turns in a fine performance. And I really like the idea of Ironside as the hero. He’s in shape but not ripped. He’s losing his hair. He looks like a regular guy with an unusually effective steely-eyed glare. Like everything else in this movie, he looks lived in, worn down, and how you’d expect someone surviving in this future to look. Whether it’s a conscious decision or merely a function of the film’s low budget, no one looks glamorous — not even Vanity, and that’s quite a feat. Well, OK, maybe you can still tell it’s Vanity underneath the rags and ponchos, but even she manages to be convincing otherwise. She was, for those of you who may not remember the 80s quite so clearly, one of several female proteges of Prince when he was at the absolute height of his power. Vanity, Apollonia Kotero, and Sheila E. all tried their hand at acting. Apollonia did OK in Purple Rain and continues to pop up from time to time in TV work. After playing herself in Krush Groove, Sheila E. decided to rely more on the fact that she was the one protege who had a staggering abundance of actual musical talent.
But Vanity…Vanity starred not only in Neon City, which as you may be gathering, I think is a pretty good movie, but also appeared in one of the greatest movies of the 1980s: The Last Dragon. If she never did anything else, those two things alone would qualify her for the much coveted Teleport City Medal of Merit. Sadly, she retired from the business in the middle of the 1990s and launched a career as a born-again evangelist, which I cannot say I have followed as closely as I did her turns in Action Jackson and Tanya’s Island.
And I won’t claim that I’m the only person to own albums by both Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 (as well as most of The Time and Sheila E’s albums, but that’s a lot more common), but that’s got to put me in some sort of elite crowd. I even have a Wendy and Lisa solo albums. Damn, Prince made a lot of money off of me. It’s a wonder I never bought solo albums by “that guy from The Revolution who dressed like a doctor” or “that guy from the Revolution who looked like a less stately version of Prince.”
I do think that the main characters of Reno and Stark are actually the supporting players, and the journey toward redemption for both Wing and Bulk is the film’s real heart. The best scenes belong to Lyle Alzedo and Sonny Trinidad. The friendship that develops between the hulking driver and the wispy old man is far more organic and interesting than the rushed and clumsy romance between Stark and Reno. All in all, though, the cast does well, and even moments of bad acting come across with a naturalness that makes them work with the characters. I think it might have something to do with the fact that director Monte Markham was an actor by trade, having worked for years as a supporting player and one-off character in countless television shows. He got one starring turn, in the series Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but for the most part, he was strictly a one or two appearance performer. So I think he must have a soft spot for supporting casts, which is why they perhaps get the better end of the deal in this script.
Even Twink, who should be the most annoying character, is written and played with sympathy. She’s naive, but she’s basically nice and naive, rather than the usual “bitchy sheltered rich girl,” and that was, after so many years of Sci-Fi Channel movie characters, unbelievably refreshing. Thank God Juliet Landau had the good sense or lack of experience enough to take the tolerable, likable route with the character. She does a lot of work on cartoons I like a like — most notably as Tala on the much missed Justice League cartoon, as well as roles in the more recent Ben Ten series and the direct to DVD movie Green Lantern: First Flight (which, incidentally, was absolutely awesome).
Lest you think this is all character drama, let me assure you that the army of writers that worked on this movie (there were four, though only Markham and Jeff Begun had any experience before — or after — Neon City) never forget to pepper it with action. Stark and the gang are pestered every step of the way by roving gangs of killers, culminating in a few well-executed action scenes and a lot of competently executed action scenes. Neon City is surprisingly adept at balancing character drama and action, and while we’re not looking at stunts and adrenaline on the level of Road Warrior (though the final chase and fight scene is obviously plucked from that movie’s finale), it still manages to be pretty exciting. There are some pretty hairy looking motorcycle crashes, a lot of explosions, and plenty of gunfights.
Tying the whole movie together is the world these characters inhabit. As you no doubt know, post-apocalypse movies tend toward either the grimly dull or the outlandishly cartoony. Neon City does its best to walk the line between the two. Sure we have the biker gangs, and most of the clothes and decor are the typical post-apocalyptic mish-mash of antiques and what people int he 80s thought stuff int he future was going to look like, but it’s all put together with an expert eye. This stuff doesn’t look like prop room leftovers that some thoughtless art director threw together and called the future. It looks lived in. It looks, if not exactly real, then at least awful close to it. There are, of course, anachronisms. Though we’re not entirely certain when things got as bad as they are in 2053, it’s still safe to assume that we would have better computers than the 1980s. At the same time, I always like seeing old computer equipment, and I think anyone who rips into a film from, say, the 1980s for not accurately predicting what computers would like in the future really is missing the point. And int he case of Neon City, it even sort of works. the world is so believably run down and worn out that it almost seems plausible that we’d all be back to using 286 computers with monochrome displays. Similarly, the outside world seems believable enough. Filmed in Utah at least partially during the cold months, Neon City achieves the “driving across the desert” look that was requisite of all post-Road Warrior movies while still being something a little more — though not entirely — unique. It reminded me a lot of the look of an earlier, not as enjoyable post-apocalyptic movie, Warlords of the 21st Century starring Michael Beck.
The movie also gives the characters a believable reason to be farting around out in the wasteland. Unlike many post-apocalypse movies, where people seem to drive around the desert for no reason at all other than it’s cheap to film in the desert and Road Warrior was filmed in a desert, Neon City at least explains it. Our heroes don’t want to be there; it just happens to be the only road to where they need to be. And the biker gangs are out there because, well, they’re bandits. Furthermore, the existence of cities and pockets of civilization, however miserable they may be, lends Neon City an extra dynamic. We get the feeling that things are bad in a lot of places, but not everywhere. Neon City itself seems like a little nation-state, though one that is relatively safe and stable, and apparently the Swedes are getting along just fine. There is a lack of cohesive centralized government in the United States, but it’s not total anarchy. You get the sense that someone, somewhere, is desperately trying to keep things from unraveling any more than they already have.
I was surprised by Neon City. I didn’t expect much from it, but it really entertained me. I like sci-fi films that have nothing to say, and I like sci-fi films that are so preposterously ham-fisted with what they have to say that it becomes absurd. Neon City is the rare sci-fi film that has a little to say and says it well. Not a whole lot, but just enough to give it that extra bit of depth. Mad Max was really the opening salvo in the Reagan era post-apocalypse boom, even though it’s more outrageous sequel became the template. It’s debatable whether or not Neon City is the last film in the trend, but regardless, it’s fitting that it would be among the last and is, in spirit so much more similar to Mad Max than it is Road Warrior. If Neon City has one big weakness, it’s that it’s a good movie. Not a great movie that can enthrall anyone, and not a terrible movie that can amuse anyone. It’s merely good (though I think very good), and that means for it to be entertaining, you have to like it, not like laughing at it. It’s not like indulging in some gloriously ludicrous nonsense like New Barbarians. It’s a pretty serious movie, executed competently, which means it doesn’t have that party film vibe about it. But if you’re looking for some decent sci-fi action, or if you have an affinity for post-apocalypse movies in general, then low-key, modest little Neon City is really a forgotten gem.
On occasion, we here at Teleport City are accused of being, perhaps, not the most discerning of viewers, susceptible to pretty colors, flashing lights, and naked flesh that blind us to the fact that a movie might otherwise be one of the most atrocious pieces of crap ever made. Frustration can occur when someone looks to us, sees us shrug and go, “It seemed all right to me,” and takes that as a recommendation that eventually winds up with them writhing on the floor, clutching their head in agony as they succumb to the mind-melting wretchedness of a movie I thought wasn’t really all that bad. I can’t say I have done such things with a completely clear conscience. I may have mislead a few people into thinking the Star Wars Holiday Special was going to be hilariously awful instead of just regular ol’ boring awful. But for the most part, it’s true that I enjoy a lot of really terrible movies that I recognize other people probably should not watch. And the sad, sick thing is that I don’t enjoy these movies with any sense of ironic detachment or “so bad it’s good” emotional distance; I genuinely enjoy Treasure of the Four Crowns.
But never let it be said that I am totally without standards. Every now and then, something will parade across my screen that is too much for even me to excuse. It’s painful when it happens. As I’ve said many times, I’m hear to celebrate movies I enjoy, not rip apart movies I hate. And it’s doubly painful when I discover that a movie I was certain I was going to like ends up being almost totally unwatchable. Alas, such was the case with Amazons vs. Supermen, a movie that, on paper, seems to have been written specifically to delight me. Three super warriors, including one goofball in a bondage mask and chain mail miniskirt, a big strong guy in studded leather, and a kungfu guy, team up to battle scantily clad Amazons. Oh, and Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio is co-producing, which means the kungfu guy is martial arts movie superstar Yueh Hwa. There will also be flame-throwing wooden tanks (which seems like a terrible combination of vehicle fabrication material and mode of attack). And one more thing: Alfonso Brescia is directing. Now those things are prime ingredients in making any cake I will gleefully gobble down. And yet, by the end of the thing, which seemed to take forever to get to, all I could do was shake my head in dazed confusion as I tried to figure out how it could have all gone so terribly wrong. Of course, many people will throw up their arms and exclaim, “Alfonso Brescia was the director? What about that signaled any chance of success?” To which I can but meekly respond, “Well, I kinda like Alfonso Brescia movies.”
Alfonso Brescia’s career trajectory is really no different than that of most Italian exploitation film directors. He started out in the early 60s, directing a few sword and sandal films, as that genre was wildly popular at the time. Among these otherwise routine entries into the cycle was a film called Conquerors of Atlantis, which proffered a world in which Hercules (the perpetually confused Kirk Morris) teams up with a strapping Arab prince to battle the laser-gun wielding, metallic robe wearing, futuristic wizard army of Atlantis, which for some reason is now underneath the Sahara Desert. There’s really nothing abut the movie that isn’t completely awesome.
After that, Brescia moved along with everyone else into spaghetti westerns, sex comedies, and cheap war movies. In the early 1980s, late 1970s, he directed a series of cheap space opera movies that got made because Star Wars was popular. I seem to be one of the only fans of these movies, which used mostly the same cast, sets, and costumes and included War of the Robots, Cosmos: War of the Planets, Star Odyssey, and then culminated in the XXX rated Beast in Space, which once again used the same sets and costumes but, sadly, not the same cast. I would have paid good money to see Yanti Somer and her awesome crew cut in that movie.
Between the period of westerns and the science fiction, Brescia made a few more sword and sandal movies. Exactly what prompted this brief return to a dead genre I don’t know (the earlier peplum phase had died out by 1966). Perhaps it was the promise that now you could show some nudity. I don’t know for certain, but whatever the case, there was a sudden quick revival in sword and sandal movies, almost all of them this time revolving around the mythical Amazons (which lends credence to my thought that it was all about permission to flash a boob or two). Brescia made two such movies — 1973′s Battle of the Amazons and 1975′s Superuomini, superdonne, superbotte, better known (well, relatively speaking) as Amazons vs. Supermen, though the movie has so many alternate titles that you’d think Al Adamson had been involved with its distribution.
Things start off properly enough, with a village of bikini-clad Amazons (located in what looks to be a rock quarry — scenic!) engaging in those random sorts of deadly games that I think must surely have been the invention of movies. The best Amazonian warriors face off in a series of deadly contests that include standing on platforms and shooting arrows at each other, then all going down to wrestle amid a field of spikes. It’s possible that this was a contest to chose the next queen, but I’m not sure. If it wasn’t, then one has to question the strategic wisdom of having your very best warriors — including your queen — kill one another for absolutely no reason. There also seems to be some sort of schism among different factions of Amazons, but this never becomes a part of the plot apart from having a few women cheer for one person in this idiotic games over another. The games duly concluded, the Amazon queen Beghira (played by gorgeous Euro starlet Magda Konopka in a silly looking curly wig that I guess is supposed to make her appear more Greek) triumphantly announces “We’re going to go get Dharma and make him tell us the secret of the eternal fire!” Everyone cheers, but we the viewers have no idea what the hell she’s talking about.
Nor will we for a while, as the next portion of the movie is taken up with the stories of two different wanderers, each of whom is set upon by a gang of profoundly inept and unfunny comic relief brigands lead by Philones (Riccardo Pizzuti). And here in lies the most significant problem with the whole movie. Had it been played as a straight but weird sword and sandal adventure, as Brescia did with Conquerors of Atlantis, the movie probably would have been a lot easier for me to enjoy. Instead, there is a near constant indulgence in woefully unfunny slapstick comedy and shenanigans. Even when the movie is playing it straight, as with its action scenes, they’re accompanied by “wacky hi-jinks” music that make them impossible to regard as anything other than more dumb comedy — which is kind of a shame, because the action scenes on their own are not without merit. But very few things, no matter how well mounted, can survive “diddle-dee-doo” comedy music and slide whistle sound effects every time someone jumps or falls down. As an experiment, try this: watch one of the big fight scenes in Gladiator, and alter nothing else about it, but instead of Hans Zimmer’s rip-off of “Mars, God of War,” dub in “Yakkety Sax.”
The first of the three wanderers set upon by the comical criminals is a hulking strongman named Moog (Mark Hannibal). When Philones and his wormy sidekick wander into a tavern (while holding their cloaks over the faces like Bela Lugosi’s stand-in in Plan 9 from Outer Space) and see Moog enjoying a bowl of stew, they decide that this is “the man they’ve been looking for,” then promptly call in their “hilariously” incompetent goon squad. Exactly why they’re looking for Moog is unexplained. It’s not like they’re working for some king that Moog offended, nor do they seem to have any prior experience with the man. No, they just decide that in the entire movie, the one guy they want to pick to randomly fuck with is the gigantic super-strong guy enjoying a bowl of soup. That’s like walking up to spindly ol’ Steve Buscemi and Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, neither of whom you know anything about, and going, “Roethlisberger, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Needless to say, Moog beats the tar out of his attackers, including punching one them repeatedly on the top of the head so that he bounces up and down like a basketball. he whole fight scene is, naturally, accompanied by wacky sound effects. He also has a golden ball that he throws at people. It has the magic power to ricochet off of things until it has taken out like ten bad guys. Deciding that this was perhaps the wrong target to shake down, Philones and his crew head out to the woods, where they stage an equally inept attack on a passing Chinese guy, Chung (Yueh Hwa, on loan as part of the Shaw Bros. co-production deal). Once again, Philones is on the receiving end of a beat down. The bulk of the bandits high tail it, but one — a Chinese woman (minor Shaw Bros. actress Karen Yeh Ling-chi) — stays behind for a little extra fighting. Sadly, no one that Yueh Hwa fights was very good at fight scenes, and so you don’t really get to be all that excited about his inclusion in the film. You might even hope that pitting him against another Shaw Bros. talent would result in at least a few thrills, but Karen Yeh Ling-chi wasn’t an action star. Aside from 14 Amazons (no relation to this movie), she did mostly dramas, romantic comedies, and a few sex movies. She was, however, no stranger to the Shaw Bros. cross-over experiment, having appeared in 1974′s spaghetti western-meets-kungfu film co-production The Stranger and the Gunfighter, which starred Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh.
Having spent a considerable amount of time watching Philones and his sidekick fall out of trees and trip over things, we finally get back to the plot in which the Amazons appear. A gang of the scantily clad women warriors ride into a nearby village and demand to know the whereabouts of local god Dharma It seems that Dharma is the immortal protector of the village, and the Amazons want to wring the secret of him immortality out of him. No sooner do the ladies start sticking spears in the faces of old men then there’s a big explosion and puff of magical smoke announcing the appearance of Dharma — the aforementioned man in a bondage mask and chain mail mini-skirt. He doesn’t so much protect the people and fight off the Amazons as he simply does lure the women away with a sort of “Run, run fast as you can; you can’t catch me; I’m the gingerbread man” taunt. He leads them on a chase and manages to lose them using his superior “jumping while accompanied by slide whistle sound effects” skills.
The villages dutifully march down to Dharma’s mountain throne (Brescia is really getting his money’s worth from this rock quarry he rented for the day) to sort of half-heartedly pay homage to him and thank him for, I guess, sort of rescuing them from the Amazons, even though they never would have had trouble with the Amazons if it hadn’t been for Dharma’s secret immortality fire. Dharma, however, is confused, though he manages to cover his confusion long enough to be a dick about the quality of the offerings being laid at his feet (“No peppers, no protection!”). Also, it looks like Dharma has transformed from a buff, fleet-footed lad into a spindly-legged old dude with a mustache. Luckily, the fact that Dharma always seem to appear off in the distance make it difficult for the cloddish peasants to catch onto the obvious fact that this is not the same Dharma who just rescued them.
It turns out that Dharma isn’t immortal at all. Like the comic book hero The Phantom, Dharma is simply a mask, passed down through the generations from one man to another. The current Dharma (Aldo Bufi Landi, nearing the end of an epic career in Italian exploitation film) has been training a buff replacement named Aru (Aldo Canti), who looks like a somewhat terrifying mix of Jack Nicholson and John Saxon. It was the young apprentice who donned the costume and bravely ran away from the Amazons. And while current Dharma is impressed with his chosen replacement’s enthusiasm and ability to leap mightily off hidden trampolines scattered around the countryside, he’s also worried that people might get suspicious if there are too many Dharma sightings involving too radically different looking Dharmas.
Aru soon meets and falls in love with a wounded Amazonian warrior named Akela (Alfonso Brescia company player and occasional sex film starlet Malisa Longo), though the severity of her sprained ankle is suspect since we see Aru and Dharma bandaging it in one scene, then later that day the bandage is off and she’s frolicking half nude in the local swimmin’ hole with Aru. Having known each other for several minutes, the two healthy young kids fall in love. Alas that they are from different worlds. Just as Aru looks as though he’s going to get some, he hears a shout. Amazons find Akela and bring her back home, while Aru discovers that Dharma has been fighting with the persistent women and now has a spear in the chest. It’s time for Aru to become Dharma full-time and put an end to the Amazon scourge once and for all.
Reading all that back, I confused myself (a surprisingly easy thing to do). “This can’t be right,” I thought. “This sounds awesome, but I distinctly remember the movie being so incredibly boring that I almost gave up on finishing it.” But then the fog cleared, and I remembered that part of what makes Amazons vs. Supermen such a colossal disappointment is that, in summary, it sounds like so much fun. But it isn’t. I can’t even put my finger exactly on why it’s so awful, though deferring to unfunny comedy hijinks certainly goes a long way in explaining things. Even when the action comes — and this movie does have a lot of action — it’s just not paced right. Star Aldo Canti was a stuntman, and he certainly throws himself into the physical aspect of the movie with reckless gusto. He spends nearly every moment of his screen time running, jumping, throwing things, flipping around, and bouncing up and down on hidden trampolines. He certainly gets an A for effort and even execution, but his zest for jumping over things is undercut by by indifferent direction, bad pacing, and too many comical sound effects.
Brescia mishandles all three of the film’s biggest action scenes, though to his creative credit, he manages to mishandle them in different ways. The first really big action setpiece comes when Moog the Strongman, Chung the Martial Artist, and Aru-Dharma meet for the first time in the local city. For starters, after establishing Dharma as some sort of local god (even if we know he’s a false one), it seems odd that the guy could stroll into the city and have no one give a crap or even recognize him. So I guess he’s a god local to that one village, but even so, if there’s a city within an easy walk from the village, you’d think word would get around that there was an all-powerful immortal guy living a mile away. The whole film suffers from a similar lack of scale. The speed with which people travel from one location to another seems to imply that Dharma’s village, the city, and the Amazon’s beautiful rock quarry are like a mile away from each other at the most.
Anyway, never minding Dharma’s lack of celebrity status in town, the scene in which he, Moog, and Chung meet and beat the crap out of yet another bunch of Philones’ goons should be pretty exciting. And it does have its moments, mostly thanks to Aldo Canti’s willingness to fling his body around with total disregard for his own well-being. Yueh Hua should be impressing us, but once again, there’s no one on hand who has any idea how to choreograph martial arts, and there are no stuntmen well suited for engaging in such choreography with Hua. That leaves him little to do other than wave his arms in people’s faces and swing a sword around a bit. As Moog, big Mark Hannibal has even less to do. The scene’s biggest problem is that in its best moments, it is only decent, and yet it seems to go on forever. If you are a gang of villains, and you are trying to take down a masked hero who is standing on a picnic table and jumping up every time you lunge at him, does it really take like ten times for you catch on to what he’s doing? I mean, if you really enjoy watching muscular men jump over a low angle camera (and I know some of you do) over and over for no discernible reason, I reckon this scene will be more interesting. For the rest of us, though, it gets old.
The movie’s second big action scene is the rescue of villagers from the Amazon stronghold by Moog, Chung, and New Dharma. Once again, our heroes take on the Amazons mostly by frantically running away from them and umping off of high places. There’s not a lot to this one really. It’s the third and final action scene that is the film’s most frustrating. In the tradition of Seven Samurai, the three supermen teach the local villagers how to defend themselves against the marauding women — ignoring once again the fact that the only reason the Amazons are attacking this village is because they want to capture Dharma. The final battle is a flurry of sword fighting and trampoline jumping — and there are even those wooden flame throwing tanks! I think the finale is actually pretty exciting — but I can’t be sure, since it’s set at night and Brescia fails to light the scene in a way that makes it possible to see anything that’s happening. The whole thing is a black, muddy mess. About the only thing you can be sure of is when an Amazon is on screen, since they were wearing white. It’s a shame, because like I said, the finale might have otherwise salvaged the film. As it’s presented, though, it’s just the final flip of the bird at the end of an entirely unsatisfying parking lot carnival ride.
Brescia applies the same degree of disinterest to the characters as he does to the action and the lighting. Normally, I wouldn’t claim that one comes to a sword and sandal film, even a Johnny-Come-Lately production like this, looking for sterling examples of intelligent characterization. That’s not what these movies are about. But what the peplum stars of the 60s had (well, some of them), and what is sorely lacking here, is charisma. It didn’t matter if Mark Forest’s character was thinly sketched. It didn’t matter if Kirk Morris was a wooden actor. Both men, and many of the others, brought charisma to the screen, and that helped you roll with their other short-comings. Aldo Canti was, as I said, a game physical performer, but he has absolutely no charisma. Dharma is a terrible bore, even when he’s doing his best somersaults an slide whistle jumps. And Yueh Hua? The dude doesn’t even speak Italian, so he pretty much does nothing but smile and stare at his co-stars lips in an effort to pick up his next cue.
Mark Hannibal, whose previous credits were bit parts in television shows, has a slightly more complex character. Well, it’s an effort to give him a slightly more complex character. It’s executed with such woodeness that one doesn’t really care, but it’s nice that the two only black people int he whole ancient whatever country this is supposed to be managed to find one another and fall in love. Dharma has his Amazon love interest, too, but they have almost no interaction after their initial romp in the waterfall, and I guess maybe there was supposed to be a hint of romance between Yueh Hua and Karen Yeh’s character, but that’s even less developed than Dharma’s love story. I know, I know — who cares about the love story? Well, I say if a movie is going to spend time on it, then the movie should at least try not to make it so boring.
As wooden and uninteresting as Aldo Canti is, at least Alfonso Brescia had the good sense to surround him with experienced hands. Unfortunately, none of them are really given much meat to work with, since the movie seems happiest when it’s spending time with Philones and his hammy cohorts. Seriously, if you don’t like plodding, idiotic attempts at comedy, this movie is going to be as bad for you as it was for me. Still, it’s nice to see some familiar faces.
Magda Konopka, who here plays the Amazon queen obsessed with possessing the secret of Dharma’s immortality, is a beauty you might remember from the equally disappointing Satanik. But we can forgive her that crappy film, since she was also in Hammer Studio’s prehistoric blowout, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and that movie is great. Malisa Longo is another world class Eurocult starlet. She appears in pretty much all of Alfonso Brescia’s sci-fi films except, predictably, The Beast in Space. However, it’s not appearing in an hilariously sleazy XXX space adventure was above her. She also appeared in Tinto Brass’ ham-fisted Nazi-sexploitation film Salon Kitty, as well as the cheap and sleazy Salon Kitty/Ilsa She Wolf of the SS rip-off (yes, I know the implications of that statement) Elsa Fraulein SS. She would star in another Ilsa rip-off, Helga, She Wolf of Spilberg, then go on to appear in skin flicks like Black Emanuelle, White Emanuelle, so I don’t know why she wouldn’t have shown up in the buff, even in a non-hardcore role, when Brescia decided to pack up all his War of the Robots props and costumes and use them to make a deliciously daft porno movie. When she wasn’t busy flying around in space or taking off her clothes, she managed to pop up in a bit part in Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon, and around the same time as Amazons vs Supermen, appeared in War Goddess (aka Le guerriere dal seno nudo), another early 70s Italian sword and sandal film that, through some bizarre deal I can’t fully comprehend, was directed by Britain’s Terence Young — who you might remember as the director of Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball. Sadly, as with Magda Konopka, this movie doesn’t really have any idea what to do with her, other than hustle her off-screen as quickly as possible so we can split our sides laughing at the latest shenanigans involving Philones.
Karen Yeh was, like Yueh Hua, talent on loan from the Shaw Bros. studio in Hong Kong, who had decided for some reason to partially finance this slapdash snore of an adventure film. I don’t really know too much about her, other than the fact that she wasn’t one of the studio’s major stars. She appeared in a few action films, like the gritty The Teahouse starring Chen Kuan-tai, and Shaolin Handlock starring David Chiang, a few comedies and romances, and the saucy, sleazy Sexy Girls of Denmark. Without a seasoned Shaw Bros. action director on hand (they should have traded one of those as part of the production deal as well), even her scenes with Yueh Hua are slow and awkward. As a character, she’s non-existent otherwise, with only a few lines and no real point.
Fairing slightly better is the last of the film’s bevy of beauties (if this film did nothing else right, it cast a lot of very pretty women and then put them in very tiny togas), American actress Lynne Moody. As Moog’s love interest, she really has little more to do than wander in and hug the big guy, but her character is interesting in part because it’s she who pursues the big man. He’s happy to look at her ass as she walks away, but when it comes to actually making a move, it’s all Lynne Moody. She also appeared in Scream Blacula Scream alongside Pam Grier, the mini-series Roots, and had a number of successful runs on television shows, including recurring characters on Hill Street Blues, That’s My Mama, Soap, E/R, and her longest running role, Knots Landing. She’s a classic sword and sandal starlet — not given a lot to do, but she has such a palpable charm and easy charisma that, as a performer, she rises above the rest. And that smile — my God, that smile!
Amazons vs Supermen came at a time when Shaw Bros., flush with cash and arguably the most powerful production company in the East, was spreading its wings and attempting to find success with overseas productions. Having missed the boat on Bruce Lee, and thus the international success that came to his studio with him, the Shaw Bros. were anxious to make a name for themselves outside the Asian market they already dominated. Five Fingers of Death was a huge success on the American grindhouse circuit, even before anyone had heard of Fist of Fury or The Chinese Connection, so maybe the Shaw Bros. felt like they deserved a higher profile.
Unfortunately, while their co-productions with overseas studios have found fans among cult film aficionados, to mainstream eyes they were shoddy affairs. The Shaws never seemed to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff when it came to selecting partners. So you get things like them teaming up with England’s Hammer Studios for Shatter and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires — impressive, except that Hammer was a dead man walking at that point, nearly out of business and with a devalued reputation beyond repair. At the same time, the Shaws were getting involved with Italian productions like this movie and The Stranger and the Gunfighter, cranked out on the cheap and with little regard for quality (though The Stranger and the Gunfighter, at least, remembered to be entertaining).
As a result, the Shaw product never got the respect they wanted overseas. The precision, energy, and exquisite quality of the Hong Kong productions just never carried over to their co-productions, in which they all too often trusted the quality of the final product to men like Alfonso Brescia. If nothing else, the studio could take solace in the fact that, other than Enter the Dragon, no other Hong Kong studio fared much better entering into co-productions with American and European studios.
Shortly after this movie, Brescia would turn his attention to the slew of space adventures I love so dearly. Now those I will defend. But Amazons vs. Supermen? No, you did me wrong. It’s a lifeless bore, cooked up by a director who didn’t care and even forgot to light the big finale. Hey man, if you can’t afford to shoot at night, then set your finale during the daytime. No one will really care about the time change; they’ll all be too happy they can just see the movie. It’s a shame such an opportunity was wasted and that a potentially fun adventure film got shafted because Brescia wanted to make a sub-Franco and Ciccio style slapstick comedy.
And hell, even if he wanted to make a sword and sandal comedy, all he really needed to do was copy Colossus and the Amazon Queen. That movie already had amazons and was already a comedy. The difference, I suppose, is that Vittorio Sala apparently had some idea how to make a comedy (that idea: “point the camera at Rod Taylor and let him ham it up”). Alfonso Brescia did not.
You let me down, Brescia. After all the time I spent defending your oddball space movies, you served me up a movie with everything I should like, but in a dish that was impossible to swallow. I forgot what I was watching where people were confronted with something that sounded awesome but ended up being terrible, and they summarized it with the question, “I don’t know! Why does cheese taste great on Italian food but it sucks on Chinese food?” Amazons vs. Supermen is definitely cheese on Chinese food.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: Italy, Hong Kong | Starring: Aldo Canti, Mark Hannibal, Yueh Hua, Malisa Longo, Aldo Bufi Landi, Magda Konopka, Genie Woods, Kirsten Gille, Riccardo Pizzuti, Lyn Moody, Karen Yeh | Screenplay: Alfonso Brescia, Aldo Crudo | Director: Alfonso Brescia | Music: Franco Micalizzi | Producer: Ovidio G. Assonitis, Giorgio Carlo Rossi | Original Title: Superuomini, superdonne, superbotte | Alternate Titles: Barbarian Revenge, Return of the Barbarian Women, Super Stooges vs the Wonder Women
We here at Teleport City are no strangers to sword and sorcery films, and chances are, if you are here reading this, neither are you. In the 1980s, when I was going through my formative years and had a friend with satellite TV (back when that meant you had a huge NASA sized satellite in your back yard), I don’t think there was any genre we loved more. That’s because the sword and sorcery movies of the 1980s are perhaps the purest distillation of a ten-year-old boy’s mind that a ten-year-old boy could ever hope for. Yes, yes, I know. Ten year old boys were too young to watch such filth. We were also too young to read Heavy Metal magazine, know who Sylvia Kristel was, and have opinions about the best Playmates. Get with the times, ya squares. Sword and sorcery movies were great because not only could you stay up late and watch the R-rated ones, but even the PG ones were full of everything we wanted: monsters, gore, and big-boobed chicks wearing tiny fur bikinis, if they were wearing anything at all. And if that represents the purest distillation of a ten-year-old boy’s mind, then the movie Sorceress represents a sort of cask strength version of that particular spirit. Because Sorceress asks the question, “Sure, what if you had all that, but also the heroes are hot, naked twins?”
Granted, Barbarians asked that same question, but it answered with twin bodybuilders Peter and David Paul. They aren’t really my type. My taste in lads runs to leaner and more athletic rather than big ‘n’ beefy. But Sorceress… now Sorceress answered the question in the curvaceous forms of Leigh and Lynette Harris, twin sisters from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who appeared together in Playboy magazine and then continued to appear together in the imaginations of lascivious young lads for years to come. You should all regret that I was only ten or eleven when I first discovered their existence, because had I had my way, I would have made a pretty good movie starring them with Mary and Madeleine Collinson, the equally large-breasted, equally nude twin sisters from Hammer Films’ Twins of Evil. I think the title would have been something like Getting Naked…Lots! Also We Fight Robots. I reckon I can go ahead and throw Peter and David Paul in there as well. I’m nothing if not fair minded, after all, and Peter and David had breasts at least as big as the Collinsons and Harrises.
Honestly, I don’t think I ever saw Sorceress during its initial run on cable. I’m not sure what happened, really. It must have been on HBO at some point, sandwiched between Beastmaster, which was followed by Conan the Barbarian, then followed by Beastmaster. My friend Robby and I rarely let something this important slip through the cracks, but I guess no one is perfect. We did, however, know who Lynette and Leigh Harris were, thanks to the stack of Playboy magazine his dad kept hidden… IN THE TOY ROOM! God bless that man. Sure, he kept the harder stuff, your Oui, your Hustler, hidden in his bedroom closet, but he was understanding enough to store the Playboys right there on the metal utility shelves next to Robby’s piles of Battlestar Galactica guys and tauntauns. Good issues, running from the late 60s, through the 70s, and into the early 80s. March, 1981. They appeared in other issues, but March 1981 was the one we had. And that one I remember vividly. The “twins” issue, though for some strange reason, the centerfold was just one woman. But it was in that magazine that we discovered the buxom Harris twins. And dare I say we discovered a little something… about ourselves. I guess not knowing that the twins had also made a sword and sorcery movie was for the better. Had I seen something that awesome at that age, I might have exploded or coughed up my own skeleton.
Of course, there’s a long, sordid, and often laughable history of Playboy Playmates trying their hand at acting, which is why Playboy was happier to shell out lots of money to get established movie stars to pose nude instead. But it seems like every nude model, like every musician, really wants to be an actor (the same way every actor seems to want to record an album). And it says a lot about the acting chops of most Playboy Playmates that the most successful of them was Julie Strain. Oh wait. She was Penthouse, wasn’t she? Well, I bet she showed up in Playboy at some point. So I guess the most successful Playmate turned actress is… I don’t know. Jenny McCarthy, maybe? I suppose Anna Nicole Smith was a success in a certain way, for a little while anyway. Was Pam Anderson in Playboy? I guess so. Wow. There’s just too many of them littering the landscape to keep count. Look, to be honest, pretty much after we worked our way through the stack of from the 60s and 70s, I lost track. Playboy always had a thing for blondes, and I’ve always had a thing for brunettes and red heads. And frankly, once the era of silicone breast implants took hold, I just couldn’t relate. Pretty much all of the other Playmate-actresses crashed and burned, though Andy Sidaris did what he could to support them for a time.
But even aside from Lynette and Leigh, for the moment, Sorceress is a weirdly “important” cult movie. It was the first film for Jim Wynorski (working here as a writer), who would basically become a one-man exploitation film factory shortly thereafter. It was the last film for Jack Hill, who’s storied career as a director and writer of exploitation films included Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Spider Baby. And Roger Corman was the producer, but it was like his eight millionth movie, and there would be like another fifteen million yet to come, so that’s not as much of a milestone. I think it might have been his first producer credit for a sword and sorcery (80s style) movie, which I guess is something. But it’s not like it was for Wynorski on his way in and Hill on his way out. I wouldn’t exactly call it a passing of the torch, though.
Traigon (Mexican television actor Roberto Ballesteros) is your standard-issue sword and sorcery bad guy. He has it on good prophecy that, in order to maintain his black magic powers and control of the realm, he must sacrifice his first-born child. Unfortunately for Traigon, his wife isn’t as keen on the deal as he is, and so she flees. But even once he catches up with the wily wench, Traigon’s woes aren’t over, because his wife has given birth to twins. Traigon needs to know which one was born first, lest he knife the wrong baby, but his wife remains steadfastly stubborn in her unwillingness to make the task of infanticide easy. And since a murderous wizard warlordly type guy can’t catch a break, not only does he not know which baby was born first, but then the guy from the cover of Aqualung appears to slaughter Traigon’s minions, then slaughter Traigon himself! So, movie over, I guess? Oh no, wait. Traigon has three lives and will reincarnate again in twenty years, at which time he will presumably pick up where he left off. In order to protect the twins, the victorious old hero, Krona (Martin LaSalle, who appeared in a number of superb horror films by Mexican director Juan Lopez Moctezuma), takes them from their dying mother, so that he may see that they are raised properly and schooled in the ways of war and wisdom. “But…” the mother says, “they are girl children!”
GIRLS??!!? But… girls can’t be doctors!
Naming them Mira and Mara, Krona leaves the twins with a local couple, instructing them to not only see that the kids learn how to fight, but also that they are raised as boys. If anyone finds out their true identities, the reborn Traigon will surely come to hunt them down. Twenty years pass, and in that time chaos reigns. Actually, no it doesn’t. Even though the forces of Traigon are still in control, well frankly, it looks like they’re running a decent enough kingdom. The cities are thriving, there is law and order, the strip clubs employ exceptionally attractive women. All seems well. Mira and Mara have grown in to buxom young lasses who think they are boys, and while they are whiling away the hours doing what all twenty year old boys do together (skinny dipping), they notice that they are being watched from the bushes by the single most horrific creature ever committed to screen: Pando the Goat Boy.
Pando (David Millbern, who despite this disturbing turn, has a perfectly healthy career, provided you accept that Ice Spiders and Chupacabra Terror are healthy) is an unholy union of Eddie Munster’s hair, Lee Van Cleef’s head, Robin Williams’ chest, and the legs of a guy I once saw at a nude beach. His legs were so hairy that they looked like a couple gorilla legs had been grafted to his body, and he let them remain natural and hirsute — but had shaved his ass completely smooth, so that it looked like he was strutting around in a pair of hair chaps. Mira and Mara don’t know what to make of this curious beast, nor of the mysterious third “horn” dangling between his legs, so they do what anyone would do when they catch a horny man-goat watching them swim naked: they kick his ass and send him scurrying back to the bushes.
Soon after, we find out that Traigon is back, and it’s time to look for those twins once more. This way, we can get to the sword and sorcery movie’s requisite scene of a village full of grass huts getting pillaged and put to the torch. Traigon has done pretty good at tracking down Mira and Mara quickly, which doesn’t say much for Krona’s skills as a hider of prophesied children. Luckily, a Viking (!) named Valdar (Bruno Rey, Santo vs. the She-Wolves) strolls by and rescues Mira and Mara from the marauders. Krona soon reappears as well, now charging Valdar with guarding the twins. You know, Krona, maybe you should watch the stinkin’ twins instead of always pawning them off on the first person you meet. What is Krona doing most of the time anyway? Entering Gandalf lookalike contests? Valdar has nothing better to do, so Mira and Mara tag along with him, clad in their “we’re just a couple of strapping young lads with big boobs, curvy hips, feminine faces, and sexy legs” disguises. It also turns out that Valdar is friends with Pando, so everyone makes up and marches off to a town crowded with the very soldiers they’re supposed to be avoiding. While there, we will get several more standard issue sword and sorcery moments — including the nude dancer scene, the bar room brawl scene, and the “wandering around the bazaar” scene — before Mira and Mara are captured. Valdar also picks up yet another new member for the gang, a young prince masquerading as a gambling barbarian.
So begins the game of escape and recapture, until finally the group is ambushed by a gang of monkey monsters throwing fruit grenades.
So let’s stop right there. You have sexy naked twins. You have a viking. You have Pando the bleating goat boy with an erection (you’d think someone would make him put on some pants). And now you have monkey monsters lobbing fruit grenades. Jack Hill… you, sir, know how to deliver.
Mara is captured, along with the prince guy, Erlick (Bob Nelson), and taken to Traigon and Traigon’s scheming mistress. When they discover Erlick is actually a prince — interrupting Traigon’s plan to cram a metal spike up the wayward barbarian’s butt — they devise some crazy scheme to get Mara and Erlick together, produce an heir, then have Traigon kill the kid. Or something. When Traigon explains to Mara that he is her father, she drops the desire to kill him for murdering her mother and the inhabitants of the village in which she and her sister grew up. Anyway, it doesn’t take much to get Mara and Erlick together. Ever since the girls discovered that they were girls, Mara has been struggling with the mysterious tingling she feels every time she looks at Erlick. Valdar is momentarily distressed when Mira starts writhing around in ecstasy while Mara is getting it one, but he soon figures out that it’s just that psychic sex bond all twins have. Pando, one assumes, was off in the bushes furiously polishing his third horn.
Mira uses the psychic link to lead them to Traigon’s castle, where Traigon unleashes his amazing green animation finger rays on them. Mara and Erlick, under Traigon’s dastardly hypnotic spell, seem undisturbed by the apparently death of their friends and sibling, and one of the monkey monsters is pissed that Traigon killed the other girl, upon who the monkey monster had designs. Hey, with Pando the goat boy lurching about, a hot and bothered monkey monster is the least of the weird things in this movie. Anyway, it turns out that Valdar and Mira aren’t dead; they just sunk down into the catacombs below Traigon’s castle. Does this mean, on top of everything he’s already done for us, Jack Hill is going to give us zombie sword fights, too? Indeed it does. Unfortunately, zombie sword fights always sound cooler than they actually end up being. What with one side being zombies and all.
Of course, everything culminates in the ritual Traigon is throwing to sacrifice Mara and get some sort of undoubtedly disappointing ultimate power. This battle is realized by a super-imposed…what is that thing? I might know if I had my Monster Manual with me. A lion-dragon-horse thing, that battles a superimposed lady’s head. f you ever saw the finale to Wizards of the Lost Kingdom — and Pando the Goat Boy help you if you have — then you’ll recognize the finale of this movie as well. Man, when a movie is so cut-rate that it steals special effects finales from Sorceress, you know you’ve strayed too far from the good and righteous path. The two gods or whatever they are supposed to be float on opposite ends of the screen and shoot beams at each other while a sword fight rages below and Traigon shrieks and capers about like all proper effeminate evil wizard-emperors should.
Hey, you know what? Sorceress is pretty awesome. Cheap and ridiculous, yes, but also packed with badly choreographed action, gratuitous nudity, goat men, monkey monsters, zombies, animated magic death beams, and cackling wizards. Jack Hill is a steady hand behind the camera, which means that this movie, unlike many others that would come from Roger Corman’s 1980s sword and sorcery factory, is actually well paced and pretty exciting. There’s always a lot happening, and most of it is pretty enjoyable. And despite the nudity and the violence, there’s something almost…wholesome about it. Sword and sorcery movies usually work in gratuitous nudity by throwing in rape scenes, lending them an unsavory and mean-spirited edge that takes the fun out of what should be a stupid and hilarious genre, and this movie has at least one such scene. But while Sorceress probably has more gratuitous nudity than many sword and sorcery films, most of it comes in relatively harmless scenes of clothes changing, skinny dipping, and sex between consenting adults.
The acting is also surprisingly better than you might think. Much of the cast is Mexican. I assume it was shot down south of the border somewhere, as many of Corman’s barbarian movies were. But the Mexicans are all old hands, and they perform with an admirable level of professionalism you can detect even through the dubbing (which, for the most part, is actually decent as well). Roberto Ballesteros, in particular, seems to be having a grand old time with all the hissing, eye bulging, and mincing about that defines evil wizard warlords.
As for the twins, they do radiate a certain charm. I know, I know. What set of naked twins wouldn’t radiate “a certain charm”? Leigh and Lynette are two in a long line of Playmates who would show up in a sword and sorcery film. Barbi Benton was in Deathstalker. Monique Gabrielle was in Deathstalker II. Rebecca Ferratti was in Gor and Outlaw of Gor. None of them come across as likable as the twins, though. I think that has a lot more to do with the director than it does with Leigh and Lynette, though. Jack Hill was an exceptional exploitation film maker, one who always made sure that he delivered everything fans of a certain genre expected, but was also capable of making a movie that was a little smarter than the others from the same genre. Only Jack Hill could have made a sexy cheerleader movie and somehow also make it a credibly feminist (well, for a 70s exploitation film) movie, with characters who not only got naked, but also had actual depth to them. Under Hill’s guidance, Lynnette and Leigh come across as likable, if not entirely skilled, performers.
The movie also handles the action well enough, certainly better than you get in a lot of other cut-rate barbarian movies. Everyone throws themselves into the fist fights and sword swinging with gusto. Even Leigh and Lynette take on the physical stuff OK, and by that I mean the fight scenes. Not exactly believable or graceful, but better than one usually sees in such productions. In general, Jack Hill helps the Harris twins be, in every way they need to for this movie, better than they need to be (since all they really need to do is take off their shirts). And the Harris twins, for their part, seem to really be trying to do their best.
After this movie, the twins disappeared almost entirely from movies, though not from public life. They appeared once more on screen, together and naked again, in an adaptation of Micky Spillane’s I, The Jury. That was it for Lynette. Leigh made one or two other small appearances before disappearing. Lynette went on to carry on the tradition of former Playboy Playmates marrying rich old men and inheriting their money. She got into some legal trouble when she failed to claim the money in her income tax, something she argued she didn’t realize one had to do.
This is one of those movies you might go into expecting to laugh at, and sure, Pando is easy to laugh at if he doesn’t make you run into another room and weep in the corner. But it’s also a really easy movie, at least for me, to enjoy the heck out of. It’s not polished. It sure isn’t Conan the Barbarian, but it’s also got some effort into put into despite being “just another dumb barbarian movie.” Even disregarding the naked twins — which few viewers will want to disregard — Jack Hill keeps the movie moving briskly, crams it with action, and really delivers one of the more entertaining entries in the genre.
Jack Hill grew up in the film business. Born in Los Angeles, with a father who worked as a designer for both Disney and Warner Brothers, Hill was more or less destined to go to the University of California film school that served as the incubator for the cinematic revolution that occurred in the 1970s. He was part of the group of young up and coming film students that included, among others, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola, in particular, was close to Hill. The two worked on student films together then later both became apprentices to Roger Corman. In 1963, Roger Corman wrapped shooting of his supernatural comedy The Raven a couple days early. Realizing that he still had horror icon Boris Karloff under contract for like another day or so, Corman figured he might as well throw together another movie and get the most out of having Karloff around. The movie was The Terror, starring Jack Nicholson (who was hanging around because he was a nobody who had also just finished working on The Raven). Making a feature film in under a couple days, from concept to the end of shooting, is a mighty task even for one as famously efficient as Roger Corman, so he tapped his two apprentices, Hill and Coppola, to help direct.
Roughly ten years later, Coppola was collecting an Oscar for The Godfather. Hill, on the other hand, stuck around in the B-movie market. His 1968 film Spider Baby is considered by many to be a classic of off-kilter… not exactly horror. Just unsettling weirdness. While Coppola was busy making The Godfather, Jack Hill was in the Philippines shooting two movies that would spark a whole exploitation genre and make a star out of struggling young actress Pam Grier. 1971′s The Big Doll House and 1972′s follow-up The Big Bird Cage helped define the “women in prison” movies that would flood grindhouse theaters during the rest of the 1970s, while the two movies also served s examples of the genre at its most darkly humorous sand satirical. It was, as I said, largely because Jack Hill was making exploitation movies, but he didn’t seem to be holding exploitation film making in contempt or regarding the source material as a reason to crank out a lazy, sloppy production. No matter how silly the movie was, Jack handled it with professional seriousness.
After doing their tour of duty in the Philippines for Roger Corman, Hill and Grier returned to the states and once again made a duo of genre-defining hits. Coffy and Foxy Brown are a little rough around the edges, a little more independent feeling than low-budget but big studio productions like Shaft and Superfly, but they’re also fantastic fun and set the template for the “chick on a rampage” style of revenge flick that gave so many struggling black actresses a chance to kick some cinematic ass. Shortly after that, Hill was back with Corman, who was producing his batch of cheap cheerleader sexploitation films like The Cheerleaders and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. Jack Hill contributed The Swinging Cheerleaders, and once again, there was a lot more to his movie than the genre demanded, though he didn’t forsake fulfilling genre expectations in favor of thinking what was doing was “important.” No, he just figured that if he was going to take the time to make a movie, even a silly cheerleader sex film, he might as well put some effort into it.
After The Swinging Cheerleaders, Hill made Switchblade Sisters, then seemed to retire. His wife wanted to immerse herself entirely in the study of meditation, and Jack wanted to write. Neither passion was well suited by a side career making quick grindhouse movies with Roger Corman. From 1975 until 1982, Hill wrote a couple screenplays but basically played it cool. Then, in 1982, for whatever reason, he came back to work one last time with Roger Corman, showing Jim Wynorski the ropes as Hill directed and co-wrote Sorceress. His years in the wilderness did little to diminish his desire to handle all his movies with professionalism, which is probably why Sorceress is a whole lot better than most other sword and sorcery films, and why its script, if a bit daft, is otherwise logically put together. Well, logically by the standards of the sword and sorcery genre. And as long as you don’t think about things like, “what the hell was Traigon’s cult doing while he was dead” or “so now that they killed Traigon, who was running a peaceful kingdom other than hunting down the twins, who’s in charge?”
It’s probably not the swan song a director would dream of, but as far as exploitation film swan songs go, Hill could have done a lot worse. Much of what’s wrong with the movie happened once it was turned over to Roger Corman. Although famously able to turn a profit on any old crap for much of his career, Corman was taking a beating in the early 1980s. Production of Sorceress had been a string of calamities that saw location shooting scheduled for Portugal, Italy, and The Philippines (with Cirio Santiago) before they ended up in Mexico. It took forever for the deal to get finalized, and once it was, the shooting schedule was cut short when Dino De Laurentiis showed up with his crew for Dune and seized the backlot. When Sorceress went into post-production, Corman was simply too tired and too broke to deliver on any of the special effects that the movie needed, and in fact, didn’t even bother to finish some of the most basic work. In several spots, dialogue and sound effects were never looped in. Animation was left out where people were supposed to be shooting beams and whatnot. Shots that were composed for matte paintings never got their mattes, meaning you could see equipment and the tops of sets. Jacki Hill was so exasperated by the experience that he took his name off as director and screenwriter, and he hasn’t directed since.
All that said, I still think the movie is fun despite the shoddy construction. Even when defeated by every setback imaginable, Hill never once throws int he towel or treats the film like the sinking ship that had everyone else lounging around and not giving a crap. Released in 1982, Sorceress was a pretty early entry into the sword and sorcery boom. Most of the movies that came after Conan the Barbarian didn’t attempt to mimic that movie’s profound sense of seriousness. They were more than happy to follow the lead of The Sword and the Sorcerer, which saw no need to handle the material with any sense of gravity.
Sorceress is somewhere in the middle. It has its comedic bits (the way the final battle between the heroes and Traigon’s zombie army pans out is pure goofball Wynorski), but it also plays things straight. Light-hearted, I guess you would say. That it isn’t filled with anachronistic one-liners and jokes is something of a small miracle. Writer Jim Wynorski would go on to become a prolific director of goofball genre movies, and almost everything he does is infused with a juvenile sense of humor. When he got to direct his own sword and sorcery film, Deathstalker II, he turned the entire thing into a comedy. That may have been for the best, mind you, but he’s maintained that tendency to yuk it up in most of his movies, which is why it’s no surprise that he eventually fell in with Fred Olen Ray, the two of them together accounting for 99% of the world’s movies about half-naked girls fighting space aliens and dinosaurs. Wynorski rarely seems to have much respect for his own material; Hill always seems to have respect for his material, no matter how dumb. The two of them together actually strike a pretty solid balance.
Wynorski found himself working for Roger Corman in 1980, after moving to LA from New York with dreams of getting into the movie business. Corman put the anxious young man to work making trailers. Considering that Corman’s mode of operation was, as it had been when he himself was a hungry young film maker at American International Pictures, to come up with a movie title and artwork before the movie had even been written, and sell the movie on the merits of its outrageous title and ad art alone, putting together coming attractions previews for Corman productions was a pretty important task. Eventually, Corman let Wynorski start writing screenplays, and it’s likely that he paired the man with Jack Hill because there was no finer director at Corman’s disposal for teaching a kid the ropes of making a solid exploitation film.
After working in that capacity for a couple years, Corman approached Wynorski with another offer. Kids loved hanging out in shopping malls, so a distributor wanted a movie about a killer in a shopping mall. Corman told Wynorski to write it, and if the script was OK, Wynorski would also get to direct. Taking the concept of “a killer in a shopping mall” in a somewhat unexpected direction, Wynorski turned in the script for, and soon got to direct, Chopping Mall, in which high tech security robots at a shopping mall go berserk and start butchering teenagers. Wynorski would stay in the director’s chair for something like 150 movies more — and counting.
Although Wynorski learned how to make a professional looking product during his apprenticeship with Hill and Corman, he doesn’t have the same sense of… seriousness isn’t exactly what I’m thinking. He likes to goof off and cram his movies with silly jokes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. His unwillingness to handle Deathstalker II with even an ounce of seriousness is what probably saved the movie from being as dreary and boring as the original Deathstalker – and if you can find it on DVD, Wynorski’s commentary is hilarious. These days, Wynorski seems to while away the hours making breast-themed spoofs of major motion pictures, including such direct to DVD hits as The Bare Wench Project, The Breastford Wives, and House on Hooter Hill. He’s also a dependable hand for silly Sci-Fi Channel movies like Komodo vs. Cobra and Bone Eater, among many others I’ve wasted a perfectly good Saturday afternoon watching for like the third time. All things considered, Sorceress is one of the best films in his filmography.
But wait, you might say to yourself — where the hell was the sorceress? Shouldn’t a movie called Sorceress contain at least one sorceress? Well, umm… hey look! Naked twins! Zombie sword fight! Pando the goat boy! Wait, Pando, what are you… no! Bad Pando! Bad!
Release Year: 1982 | Country: United States, Mexico | Starring: Leigh Harris, Lynette Harris, Bob Nelson, David Millbern, Bruno Rey, Ana De Sade, Roberto Ballesteros, Douglas Sanders, Tony Stevens, Martin LaSalle, Silvia Masters, William Arnold, Teresa Conway | Screenlay: Jim Wynorski, Jack Hill | Director: Jack Hill | Cinematography: Alex Phillips Jr. | Producer: Roger Corman, Jack Hill | Alternate Titles: Devil’s Advocate
Like many people, I find that there are certain types of films that appeal so strongly to me on a conceptual level that I tend to cut them considerable slack when reviewing them. Often times, even the very worst of these films, like when Santo is old and fat and spends half the film driving a station wagon to the grocery store, muster enough of the elements I like to keep me satisfied. And one of my very favorite genres is the Eurospy film and the various offshoots and influenced tributaries — among them the Italian fumetti-inspired films. As we covered in some weird and convoluted fashion in our review of Kriminal and the three Turkish Kilink films, as well as Danger Diabolik, fumetti were saucy Italian comic books populated by sexy, violent anti-heroes and villains. Super-thief Diabolik became the flashpoint for a whole series of comics and related films that drew both from Diabolik and the James Bond movies. Diabolik himself was a throwback to the old pulp heroes like The Shadow, The Spider, and European counterparts like Fantomas — with a bit of Batman thrown in for good measure.
Most of the heroes and villains of fumetti did not possess super powers. They simply liked dressing up in outlandish body stockings and kicking people in the head. Needless to say, the combination of gratuitous sex appeal in the form of various Eurobabes slinking around in mod 60s mini-wear, combined with garish space-age sets and amoral violence really speaks to a sophisticated man like me. So I tend to gravitate toward these fumetti-inspired films whenever I can find them, and I’m always happy to discover new ones (such as the ones from Turkey). However, it ain’t all steak and onions, and if the 1968 fumetti film Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen proves nothing else, it proves that it is possible to make a film that will disappoint even someone like me with my incredibly low standards.
Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen may be infamous to some for squandering an awesome title and the lovely Lucretia Love in a movie that, in its best moments, manages to be a middling affair. To others, it is infamous merely by association. Wait, let’s backtrack. To most people, it isn’t infamous at all, because they’ve never even heard of it. But among people who keep track of movies with titles like Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen, the film is notable as the debut (or very close to it) directorial effort from Italian exploitation filmmaker Ruggero Deodato.
Deodato is a man who has built his entire career on the shoulders of the controversy generated by his infamous cannibal gore films — specifically Cannibal Holocaust, a film that amazes me in its ability to be simultaneously disgusting and boring, shocking and banal. Cloaked in the taboo surrounding the film’s content — Deodato was put on trial by a prosecutor who was convinced the film contained actual human snuff footage, instead of just actual animal snuff footage — Cannibal Holocaust has passed into the rarefied airs of the best known and most infamous cult films in the world. What gets lost amid all the stone dildo rape and ass-to-mouth impaling is that stripped of these few Grand Guignol scenes of brutality, Cannibal Holocaust is a really boring film helmed by a largely pedestrian director. Hell, even with them, the movie is still kind of dull, though if nothing else, it serves as a very useful intellectual exercise for twenty year olds in film studies classes, wanting to prove how shocking yet insightful their reading of the film is. And yes, shamefully I speak from first-hand experience.
Deodato’s short-comings as a director are made more obvious when you have to watch one of his films that doesn’t benefit from several minutes of controversial cannibal torture footage. As I am a sucker, I have seen pretty much everything he’s done short of the various TV movies he directed, and then something about a washing machine full of dead people or something, and there’s really only been two times that Deodato kept me entertained from start to finish. In my younger and more formative years, I admit I was a booster for films like Jungle Holocaust and even Cannibal Holocaust (actually, I admit I still sort of like Jungle Holocaust), but once the initial gee-whiz shock wears off, you’re left forcing yourself through a really boring couple of movies.
Really, the only times Deodata succeeded for me was with the outlandish Raiders of Atlantis, which propels itself along under power of its own brain-twisting looniness, and Barbarians, a sword and sorcery clusterfuck that is as infamous for being idiotic as Cannibal Holocaust is for being disgusting and boring. I guess my big problem with Deodata is his need to intellectually justify the basest of his works by casting them as “cautionary tales” of the hoary old “who’s the real savage?” vein. Sort of like the endless string of films that teach me heroin is bad for you, or that absolute power can corrupt you. Thanks, movie makers of the world, for these news flashes. I never would have thought to question the brutality of modern man if Deodata didn’t force me to, just like I never would have dreamed that people with untold amounts of power might go mad with it until Caligula taught me otherwise. But heck, at least Caligula is funny, and it has even more film school intellectuals attempting to rationalize and justify its excesses.
Even with the Deodato films I’ve enjoyed, it’s often been despite his direction, rather than because of it. Raiders of Atlantis gets by on weirdness, and on hot pink-haired Filipino Road Warrior chicks. Barbarians gets by on the astounding yet affable ineptness of its twin bodybuilder stars. Neither of these films could ever be taken seriously — unless you see Barbarians as a cautionary tale about letting annoying jugglers and mimes have free passage throughout your kingdom — and that’s probably what makes them tolerable. Most of Deodato’s other work is just as incompetent, but with the added bonus of having a pretentious moral forced in to make the film seem more palatable and smarter.
Given that Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen has the title Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen, and given that it was a comic book movie supposedly cut from the same cloth as Diabolik and Kriminal, I expected to enjoy the hell out of it despite a rookie Deodato being behind the camera. With any luck, his penchant for making boring movies out of intriguing topics would not yet have kicked in. Alas that being boring seems to be the core competency he showed right out of the gate, and rather than ending up being cut from the same cloth as Diabolik and Kriminal, Phenomenal is more assembled as an elementary school art class project out of the scraps left over. Against all logical presumptions based on the title and the subject matter, Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen ends up being a barely watchable bore that is notable only for its ability to turn a movie about villains trying to steal King Tut’s treasures being foiled by a dude in a featureless black pantyhose mask into something fairly uninteresting.
Things start out fairly promising, as we join a drug smuggling operation already in progress. Unfortunately for our dastardly ne’r-do-wells, mysterious superhero Phenomenal has smuggled himself onto their smuggling boat, and as they approach the docks, he sets about kicking some ass. Notable is that Phenomenal, unlike most of the other fumetti heroes who made it onto the big screen, is actually a hero. Diabolik and Kriminal were thieves, and certainly not above the occasional murder. But Phenomenal is expressly on the side of the good guys, operating with the blessing — or at least with the appreciation — of the local police. Also notable is that Phenomenal has the lamest superhero outfit I’ve seen in a long time. He wears the aforementioned featureless black mask, which he somehow manages to see out of despite the lack of eyeholes, and this mask he accessorizes with…a long sleeve black t-shirt and a pair of plain black dungarees. Seriously? Diabolik took the time to buy himself all sorts of cool latex suits, and Kilink spent a whole week knitting himself skeleton themed bodystockings — and Phenomenal shows up in jeans and a turtleneck? That’s like being the obnoxious kid who shows up on Halloween wearing a cardboard box and says he’s a cardboard box when everyone else has awesome Frankenstein and Dracula outfits. Unfortunately, Phenomenal’s lame outfit pretty much embodies the thrill level of the movie as a whole.
To be fair, the opening is good stuff, and exactly what I wanted from the film. And if you, like me, enjoy it, I suggest you watch it a couple times, because that’s pretty much the last you’ll be seeing of Phenomenal or of action for a long time. The drug smuggling foiled, Phenomenal dives into the bay, and the plot proper kicks in. A priceless collection of treasures from the tomb of King Tut are on display at the local museum, so naturally security is skittish since every criminal gang in Europe is plotting to steal the treasures. Since, you know, that’s what criminal gangs spend their time doing, rather than running prostitution and extortion rackets. Seriously, when was the last time you picked up a newspaper and read the headline, “Mafia Steals Tut’s Mask! Scotland Yard Baffled!” Maybe I wouldn’t have put it past John Gotti — he liked to be flamboyant, and has a jacket made from the skin of unborn wolves (or so I was once told). But besides him, I think Tut’s treasures are safe from any gangs of guys in gold chains and jogging suits.
But they are not safe from big Gordon Mitchell, who leads one of the criminal gangs intent on stealing King Tut’s treasures. Of course, they’re not the only ones after the goods, and things are further complicated by the fact that cheap but convincing copies of the treasures were made for security reasons. Also thrown into the mix is the standard issue fun-loving, Bruce Wayne style rich guy, Count Guy Norton, played by Mauro Parenti. We are immediately lead to believe that maybe he’s Phenomenal, but of course, the most obvious character is never revealed to be the masked man — unless the film is exceptionally clever or exceptionally dumb. In the end, I’m not even sure why the film played coy with Phenomenal’s identity, as it never becomes crucial to the plot, and it never manages to make the viewer give a damn one way or the other. I will say that if you do have a secret identity and a signature costume, no matter how lame, you probably shouldn’t carry it folded neatly on top of everything else in your luggage when going to the airport.
Most of the film revolves around Gordon Mitchell’s thugs plotting to steal the treasure, getting double-crossed, and then plotting again to steal the treasure. Seriously, man, you’re a super-powerful gangster. Surely you can hire better help, or I don’t know. Beat up old people who run delis and make them pay you protection money. Or just open a casino. There are lots of ways for thuggish mobsters to get rich without having to concoct elaborate plans to steal stuff from natural history museums. But maybe I’m being crass and shallow, assuming that it’s all about the money. Maybe it’s the thrill of cat burglary, or the beauty of the objects d’art. Or maybe Gordon just wants to put on King Tut’s mask and run around town making groaning noises and scaring Lou Costello and Buckwheat. I guess I can see the appeal in that.
Eventually, Phenomenal shows up to stand on the rocks along a winding country road, where he can put his arms on his hips and laugh at people. This was Kilink’s specialty, but he usually followed it up by doing a plancha onto a gang of bad guys and starting a fist fight. Phenomenal is in it mostly for the standing around with arms akimbo. But at least our title character is finally back in the movie, leading us on what should be a wild chase across Europe and northern Africa as the various sides steal and re-steal the treasures. Unfortunately, by this point, the film has pretty much drained the viewer of any energy and good will at all, so the globe-trotting final half-hour fails to make up for the previous sixty minutes of uninspired tedium and long shots of Gordon Mitchell’s living room.
My standard disclaimer applies: I hate hating movies. Teleport City has never been about “ripping bad films a new one.” I genuinely enjoy enjoying movies, and if my taste is somewhat suspect, that’s really only bad for the people who read these reviews and then get fooled into thinking they want to watch Asambhav just because I liked it. And if there’s anything I hate more than hating movies, its hating movies I really thought I was guaranteed to like. It never occurred to me, before viewing the film, that I would be anything but overjoyed by Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen. So about half way through, I was more than bored; I was genuinely distraught, like something had gone horribly, horribly wrong. “No!” I yelled earnestly and confused at the television as I watched yet another scene of Gordon Mitchell sitting in a recliner. “No! You’re supposed to be a great movie! Come on! Quit messing with me!” but by the time the credits rolled, I had to hang my head in sadness and admit that, despite all the rooting I’d done for it, despite the fact that I believed in it, Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen let me down like a politician six months after getting elected on appealing campaign promises. My opinion of Deodato, already low as you know, was made even worse now that he had wandered into one of my favorite genres and stunk the joint up.
But I try to be positive, and so let me first mention some of the few good things Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen delivers. That first scene was short but cool, with Phenomenal wearing that dress sock on his head and punching out a lot of guys. The music that accompanies that scene, and plays throughout, is far better than the movie in which it appears. Bruno Nicoli was one of the stalwarts of Italian film music, and he’s rarely not on top of his game, even if the movie for which he’s writing music leaves a lot to be desired. And although it’s too little too late, the finale is sort of fun, including a great little fight that stumbles into a women’s steam room — a scene for which there exist several stills featuring the women doing nudity. That was either done for some unseen “international” version, or purely as titillation for the promotional stills, because when the fight actually happens, the women all manage to keep their towels wrapped around them, since even a giant guy beating up a dude in black dungarees with a black toboggan pulled over his face isn’t enough to make a proper lady forget her modesty.
Not that gratuitous boob shots would have helped this movie — they just wouldn’t have hurt. But a couple fun fights and the coy promise of flesh aren’t always enough to salvage a film, and Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen has more problems than can be compensated for with those meager table scraps. Phenomenal himself is an obvious rip-off of Diabolik, minus the menacing cool streak, hot girlfriend, awesome lair, and cool collection of cars. Where as Diabolik makes love on a rotating bed covered in stolen hundred dollar bills, Phenomenal seems more likely to find a penny stuck to his ass after he’s finished jerking off on the couch. He may stand like Diabolik, and laugh like Diabolik, and wear the Wal-Mart Halloween costume version of Diabolik’s outfit, but Phenomenal is certainly no Diabolik. But that’s OK since Ruggero Deodato is no Mario Bava. Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen never achieves that phantasmagoric, sprawling, big budget feel that Diabolik managed without a big budget. Everything here feels small and uninspired.
The performances of the actors deserve a better movie. No one here is bad at all, though Gordon Mitchell does at times look like he’s completely forgotten he’s in a movie and is thinking about something else. Still, are you going to pick on Gordon Mitchell? He’ll kick sand in your face and steal your girl, leaving you in the lurch to contemplate purchasing a “Charles Atlas Secrets of Dynamic Tension” informational package. As Count Norton, Mauro Parenti is serviceably bland. He lacks the smoldering hotness of John Phillip Law, who played Diabolik, and the impish charm of Kriminal’s Glenn Saxson, but if nothing else, he’s too dull to be bad. It’s no big shock that he never became a big star. It’s also not a big shock that he was the producer of this film, not that I’m suggesting he made this film purely as an exercise in vanity. Lucretia Love, who shows up as a love interest/possible criminal/possible good guy, is always a welcome sight, but amid a flimography that includes Battle of the Amazons, The Arena, From Istanbul: Orders to Kill, and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, a lump of a movie like Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen tends to just get forgotten.
There are probably worse fumetti movies out there, but right now, this one is the bottom of the barrel for me. Doedato disappoints on every level and fails to deliver pretty much everything you’d want from a fumetti inspired film. It’s a shame a title like Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen was wasted on a movie that can’t live up to its promise. You really shouldn’t be calling yourself Phenomenal if you aren’t.
Release Year: 1968 | Country: Italy | Starring: Mauro Parenti, Lucretia Love, Gordon Mitchell, John Karlsen, Carla Romanelli, Cyrus Elias, Charles Miller, Mario Cecchi, Agostino De Simone, Teresa Petrangeli, Spartaco Battisti, Bernardo Bruno, Mario De Rosa, Pieraldo Ferrante, Enrico Marciani | Writer: Ruggero Deodato | Director: Ruggero Deodato | Cinematographer: Roberto Reale | Music: Bruno Nicolai | Original Title: Fenomenal e il tesoro di Tutankamen
Back in the 1990s, I did a fanzine that was about as successful as I could hope for given my lack of financial resources. With nowhere to print it but an all-night copy shop manned by a guy named Fred the Bastard (who would let you make thousands of copies for the price of ten), I couldn’t really achieve any impressive sort of circulation. A couple hundred though. Not bad at the time, at least by my standards. It was a pretty standard type of zine for the time. Interviews with whatever punk rock bands had come through Gainesville int he past few months, record reviews, a bunch of random ranting, and of course assorted bits of collage art. Not having a layout program at the time, the whole thing was printed out in bits and pieces using a combination of my old Atari dot matrix printer and a newer HP DeskJet 500, and then I’d paste and tape it all together by hand. Part of the reason I have no photos from 1988-1994 despite having taken thousands is because I cut up almost all of them and pasted them into the zine layout. Double prints? Keeping track of my negatives? Who ever heard of such nonsense?
Back then, as with Teleport City today, I didn’t get much free stuff to review. Occasionally, something would trickle in, but for the most part, the zine got decent reviews in Factsheet Five and MRR, but that never really translated into a record company thinking we were worth sending a few records to. It’s a form of self-promotion the skill for which eludes me to this day. But we weren’t completely in the wilderness and every now and then my PO Box would surprise me with something besides another packet of unreadably awful Paul Weinman poetry “for my consideration.” Once it was an envelope full of someone’s hair — which was still more welcome than more Paul Weinman poetry. And once, it was a promotional kit for the latest Billy Idol album: a bizarre experiment called Cyberpunk.
I’m not going to get into the history of cyberpunk as a literary or social movement. You can read my review of Neuromancer if you want and get a taste (yes, yes, the review of Count Zero is coming soon). My relationship with the concept of cyberpunk was touchy. On the one hand, there was a lot about it that appealed to me. On the other hand, most of the people who considered themselves part of it (as people, not as writers) were way more cyber than they were punk, and ultimately, cyberpunk ended up being little more than a bunch of computer nerds being dicks to one another in IRC chat rooms and usenet groups. Which I guess is a problem one faces when identifying with a pseudo-subculture where many of the basic tenets of it do not exist. Using tin to read alt.cyberpunk or downloading issues of Phrack over a 1200 baud modem wasn’t quite as thrilling as “jacking in,” and wearing a black overcoat and mirrorshades ended up not looking as cool as the people wearing it thought. And as for the much coveted body modifications and cybernetics, well, unless you lost a hand in a car accident and got it replaced with a hook, about the most functional techno-enhancement for the human body was to get veneers put on your teeth.
But still, there was something that always kept me attracted to the whole ridiculous idea, even if I only hovered on the periphery, as I always have with, say, the industrial music scene. I read and made fun of Mondo 2000, as one was supposed to do. I “researched” smart drugs and all the other stuff that was going to catapult us into the future. I wrote articles in the zine about virtual reality and morality, about black-clad federal agents armed with automatic weapons storming the bedrooms of fifteen-ear-old hackers, about FidoNet and how this whole internet thing was going to change us all. Most of it was a load of nonsense, of course, though the internet did pan out, so at least we have that going for our futurist predictions.
Fascinated as I was with such claptrap, I kind of understood where Billy Idol was coming from when he made Cyberpunk. Pretty much everyone dismissed the album. Idol fans didn’t want to hear a bunch of computerized crap. Electronica and industrial fans thought Idol was jumping on a bandwagon, latching on to a word and a vague concept that had recently been discovered by the media. I was firmly with the latter, rolling my eyes and thinking to myself, “Oh brother.” It was quite a shock when the damn thing showed up in my mail one day. And it was a generous package, too: the CD, the album on vinyl, a remix album also on vinyl, and a 3.5″ floppy disk full of Macromedia Director nonsense that was doing its best to look all Blade Runnery or whatever. I wasn’t that big a fan of Billy Idol anyway, so an album that was Billy Idol sitting at his Mac, doing his best to imitate Front Line Assembly or whatever, and writing really cheezy lyrics about the future, instantly got the record thrown in my “fuck this” pile. I listened to the vinyl once to confirm that I hated it (I didn’t have a CD player at the time), then sold everything back to a record store. A few months later, I saw the CD I’d sold to them now sitting in the dollar bin, so I bought it again, then took it across the parking lot to a different record store and sold it a second time. On the merit of that alone, I was mildly positive about the CD.
Looking back, though, I can see how wrong I was about a lot of things. Billy Idol wasn’t just jumping the bandwagon. I think he was genuinely sincere. I don’t know if he stumbled across an issue of Mondo 2000 or just got drunk while he was watching a late-night interview with that absurd looking Jaran Lanier who would never shut up about how awesome VR was going to be, especially once we all had those full body tactile suits that would stimulate our various senses to create a total immersive environment from which we would never emerge. I reckon if they’d foretold that we’d be just as happy with a crappy streaming Flash video of Ava Devine’s grotesquely gigantic bouncing knockers, we could have saved a lot of R&D money that was sunk into virtual reality machines and the movie Lawnmower Man. Well, whatever set him off, I don’t doubt that Billy Idol really started to believe in all this crap, same as a lot of us did. Of course, for him, it all boiled down to lots of interviews about VR sex (most likely with the jailbait chick from the “Rock the Cradle of Love” video).
And if nothing else, Cyberpunk really was a record made by a man taking a huge gamble. He could have crapped out another Billy Idol record of melodic rock and done OK for himself, but instead he decided to go crazy and record an album full of electronic music. And he decided to learn how to do it all (or at least a lot of it) himself, using his own computer and whatever skills he picked up along the way. Sure he probably had some help, but whatever. We’re talking 1993. Most people hadn’t even heard of email, or the internet, and the World Wide Web was only just being launched. And there was Billy Idol, perhaps not doing the best job of being one of the earliest big name artists to turn to the cyber medium to promote himself, but giving it a go never the less. Bully for him! All in all, reflecting on Cyberpunk made me think that perhaps I’d been too rash and prejudiced against it back in 1993. Maybe it was time to give it another listen and see if time and evolving taste hadn’t altered my opinion of it.
Well, what do you know? I love Cyberpunk. Yes, it’s cheesy, ridiculous, goofy, whatever. You know from Billy’s opening narration to the first track, “Wasteland,” that you’re going to get something on the level of alt.cyberpunk fanfic more than the musical equivalent of William Gibson or Bruce Sterling. At the same time:
The future has imploded into the present. With no nuclear war, the new battlefields are people’s minds and souls. Megacorporations are the new government. The computer generated info-domains are the new frontiers. Though there is better living through science and chemistry, we are all becoming cyborgs.
The computer is the new cool tool, and though we say “all information should be free,” it is not. Information is power and currency in the virtual world we inhabit, so mistrust authority.
Cyberpunks are the true rebels. Cyberculture is coming in under the radar of ordinary society. An unholy alliance of the tech world, and the world of organized dissent.
Welcome to the cybercorporation.
Now that sounds exactly like the sort of absurd crap I would have been writing at the time, and if you ever go back and poke through old cyberpunk fanfic, most of the people were flaming Idol for writing such drivel while, at the same time, writing their own drivel that was just as bad or worse. And anyway, what follows the narration is a weirdly catchy blend of electronica and the catchy Billy Idol brand that had us all dancing with ourselves through the eighties. It lacks the aggressiveness of more “authentic” industrial and electronic outfits like Front 242, Front Line Assembly, Aphex Twin, and so on, but it’s still every bit as listenable as it is silly.
The rest of the album continues to be a sometimes awkward but generally enjoyable mish-mash of Idol’s trademark style layered with synthesized computer music, dance beats, and occasionally more aggressive industrial splashes. Plus lots of samples, naturally. Of course, he ruffled cyberpunk feathers not just by calling the album Cyberpunk, but also by naming one of the songs “Neuromancer.” And then he pissed off regular old alternative rock fans by doing a freaky electronic cover of Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” I have some Velvet Underground songs I like, but I’ve never been religious about Lou Reed, so I don’t mind. The second song, “Shock to the System” is purer Billy Idol, still working in some loops and sound effects but mostly being one of those middle-of-the-road punk-pop songs on which Idol build his solo career. “Tomorrow People” sees the bleach blond rocker back into the territory charted by “Wasteland.” He stays there for most of the rest of the album. “Adam in Chains” is almost ambient electronica, and the last song on the album, “Mother Dawn” could pass for someone’s catchy dance tune. Sure, it’s not really on the level of some of the better industrial bands of the time, but if nothing else, it is to electronic music what Billy Idol’s regular music was to punk.
Billy Idol, I stand before you a humbled man. Like the rest of the world in 1993, I scoffed and wrote nasty things about Cyberpunk. I was wrong. I guess it won’t exactly soothe Idol’s soul if I tell him this is actually now the only Billy Idol album I own, but hey. My life can’t revolve around making Billy Idol feel good. That’s what dancing with oneself is for. Most of the cyberpunk subculture didn’t work out, and these days it’s almost totally forgotten even by the VH1 shows where people who weren’t born yet sit around and reminisce about the 70s, 80s, and 90s. VR turned out to be a colossal wash-out. No one wanted to put on a helmet and log into a virtual office to look for a file when they could just point with a mouse and open the file. Smart drugs ended up being a load of dingo bollocks, too, and “better living through chemistry” just ended up being “I’m putting my kid on Ritalin.” I guess we got the Internet, and although you can’t cruise down to the body part shop and get a camera implanted in your eyeball or replace your hand with a metal hand where the fingers open up to reveal five tiny hands holding Derringers, but we are making some incredible breakthroughs in the field of prosthetic limbs.
But Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk? You know what? That one aged all right.
Eight. Nine. Three. In the Japanese card game known as hana-fuda, it’s the worst hand you can get. Eight, nine, and three — ya, ku, and sa. Japanese organized crime families adopted the name “yakuza” because of this hand. Because you need to be lucky to be a yakuza. Because you’ve drawn the worst hand if you cross them. Because winning with a ya-ku-sa hand requires the utmost skill at reading an opponent. Others may claim it’s because it’s bad luck that leads to a life of crime, or because yakuza are born losers. Or because in the Edo period, when the yakuza first emerged on the scene, they might have evolved at least in part out of the tekiya and bakuto social groups.
Like many of my stories, this one starts out with a girl. Nice girl. Well, not that nice. Something of a catch. We were lying around in my apartment in some state of undress or other — not because we were in the throes of passion, but rather because it was Florida in August, and my air conditioner was broken. Such extreme heat and humidity can make one shed one’s modesty as quickly as one sheds pants or shirt. We were watching something dreadful and delightful, as we tended to do. In this case, it happened to be a low-budget exploitation film called Death Curse of Tartu. At the time, I was still young and not so wise in the ways of obscure movies as I am today, so I didn’t know anything about the movie, the director, or the robust little Florida film industry of the 1960s that produced it. But once the movie started playing on my epic 10-inch TV, something strange happened during the credits.
“That’s my step-mom!” my friend exclaimed.
In recent reviews, and as we continue to discuss movies based on the literary works of pulp horror/sci-fi author HP Lovecraft, the names Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon have popped up a lot. More specifically, the title Re-Animator keeps getting dropped into impolite conversation. The team of Gordon and Yuzna have enjoyed considerable acclaim from fans for their adaptations of Lovecraft material and for their ability to take Lovecraft’s work and make it something new without losing the essence of what made the story work in the first place. They did this in a number of ways, but probably the wisest decision they made was to confine themselves to the periphery of Lovecraft’s bibliography, selecting lesser known and all-but-forgotten stories rather than Lovecraft’s best known and most beloved. The first of the author’s story the duo chose to tackle was Herbert West, Re-Animator.
HP Lovecraft, much discussed pulp horror author and Woodrow Wilson lookalike, was either born or transferred into this world from a watery beyond in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, a traveling salesman, went insane as a complication of syphilis when young Howard Phillips was but three years old, and the elder Lovecraft was confined to a mental hospital until his death in 1898. Sickly and somewhat unstable as a lad, HP Loevcraft showed a knack for writing (poetry, mostly) despite the fact that he spent little time in school. He was raised by his mother, aunts, and grandfather, and it was his grandfather who first read old gothic horror stories to HP. His mother disapproved, fearing that the stories would upset the child, who already suffered from, among other things, night terrors. Lovecraft’s academic studies, such as they were — he dreamed of becoming a professional astronomer — were stymied by his inability to do well in higher mathematics. Upon the death of his grandfather in 1908, the Lovecrafts hit upon hard times. The family moved into a smaller home, and Lovecraft led a nearly hermetic existence, his mother being more or less the only person with whom he spent any time.