The chances were slim to none that any of Hollywood’s early attempts to depict the punk/new wave scene would be anywhere near on the mark, but that didn’t stop me and my friends from dragging our black clad, funny haircut havin’ asses to every single one of them. I think that we were flattered by these films’ failure to pin us down, as if that was somehow a testament to both our own uniqueness and the singularity of our cultural moment. The truth, of course, was that such misfires were less the result of failed effort than they were of the filmmakers’ halfheartedness in their attempts to cash in on what I’m sure they considered to be a fleeting fad. In any case, few of these movies were more destined to get it wrong than Times Square. A film whose promotion rode hard on both the vaguely punkish look of its two leads and a soundtrack choked with some of the era’s biggest names in radio-friendly new wave, Times Square was ultimately too confused in its execution and garbled by post-production mishandling to come off as clearly being about anything, much less a movement in music and style that, by 1980, was starting to look a bit confused and garbled itself.
People, Estus Pirkle is not screwing around. When this diminutive Baptist preacher from New Albany, Mississippi looks into the camera and describes an America whose small towns’ streets are littered with the corpses of murdered children, he is not presenting us with a “what if” scenario. He is telling us in no uncertain terms what will happen — within twenty-four months, no less — if America doesn’t get serious about Jesus. And if those words alone aren’t chilling enough, he has in his service a seasoned veteran of 1960s Southern exploitation cinema who will utilize all the tricks of his trade to bring them to vivid, bloody life for your terror and edification. Never mind that drive-in theaters are counted among the litany of evils that Pirkle says are driving our country to ruin; the man is obviously not stupid. As long as it’s God’s work that’s being done, it’s safe to assume that he doesn’t mind if it’s the Devil doing it.
Since it first flickered on the walls of rural Southern churches back in 1971, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? has gone on to become one of the more notorious classics of off-the-beaten-path cult cinema. It also represents a rare instance of such a film actually living up to the breathless hype that trash aficionados have built up around it. No matter how weird and disturbing your various trollings around the online forums have lead you to believe Footmen is, you can pretty much rest assured that it will more or less live up to your expectations. However, given that the film has existed so far outside the normal cinematic channels, it’s doubtful if it would have ever received such notice had its director not already had an established track record in the secular world of Z-grade moviemaking.
Footmen director Ron Ormond is probably today best remembered for a toxic little 1953 gem by the name of Mesa of Lost Women, a film that combines boredom, incoherence and a wildly inappropriate musical score to create something almost supernatural in its ability to inspire trance-like fascination on the part of its viewer. At the time of making that film, Ormond was already a veteran exploitation professional, a no-nonsense showman with a workman-like ethic who, working closely with his wife Ruth, had made a number of micro budget programmers for low-rent production houses like Howco and Lippert. As I remember it, my initial viewing of Mesa, occurring when I was still in high school, was for me almost as much of a religious experience as first seeing Footmen must have been for its original intended audience. At the time I felt that I was truly seeing the worst film ever made, an epiphany that provoked exactly the same kind of tongue-lolling ecstasy with which I had greeted my initial viewing of The Creeping Terror a few months previous. Needless to say, that was a long time ago, and I now sadly shake my head at that pathetic innocent who was naïve enough to believe that such films represented the worst that cinema had in store for him.
Ron Ormond would eventually leave his days as a hired gun behind, and, in 1965, he, his wife Ruth and their son Tim left California and moved their filmmaking operation to Nashville, where, under the Ormond Organization banner, they began churning out product for the still-thriving Southern drive-in circuit. Availing themselves of the numerous country performers who were hungry to promote their music by appearing in their films — as well as the services of assorted friends from the local music industry — the family produced a series of corn-pone-flavored expoitationers with titles like White Lightnin’ Road, The Girl From Tobacco Row and Forty Acre Feud, and also dabbled in straightforward sleaze-horror with 1968′s The Monster and The Stripper. Things changed for Ormond in 1967 after a small plane he was piloting crashed during takeoff. The entire Ormond family was onboard the craft, but somehow managed to survive — a seeming miracle that prompted a spiritual awakening in Ormond. Thus was the filmmaker set on the path that would lead, in 1970, to him making the decision to devote his cinematic talents to the service of the Lord. It was not long after that that Ormond would be introduced to Estus W. Pirkle.
If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? was the title of one of Pirkle’s signature sermons, one that the preacher had also seen fit to release in book form. Given that — and the fact that Pirkle’s uncompromisingly scathing text was rife with lurid imagery ideally suited to Ormond’s visual talents — it was an obvious choice to be the subject of the first collaboration between the two. Ormond’s approach to committing it to film was to film Pirkle’s sermon and then insert into it vignettes that he had filmed illustrating some of the more sensational episodes described therein. He was aided in this by performances from the usual cast of Ormond regulars, as well as by a large number of Pirkle’s parishioners, who had secured their turn at stardom by contributing to the film’s production costs.
As I alluded to before, the content of Footmen is indeed shocking — especially if you are coming to it with expectations grounded in feature-oriented genre cinema. However, when viewed within the context of the instructional films of its era, I think it becomes somewhat less so. To me, it is most reminiscent of the type of bloody scare-a-thons they used to spring on us in drivers ed when I was in high school — scarifying one-reel automotive grand-guignols that included notorious titles like Red Asphalt and Signal 30. Only in Footmen‘s case, rather than being terrorized into practicing safe driving habits by the prospect of having the top of your head graphically shaved off in a horrific car wreck, you’re being spooked into accepting Jesus as your savor by the prospect of being mowed down or chopped to pieces by a horde of grinning communists.
Pirkle’s sermon draws its title from apassage in the book of Jeremiah. In it, he recites a list of those “footmen” who are preying upon America’s youth, weakening the nation’s backbone and leaving it unprepared for the tribulations ahead. This list essentially comprises a litany of hard-line Baptism’s usual suspects: Dancing (“the front door to adultery”), public education (a teacher with a groovy mustache is shown telling his students that the day’s lesson will concern “the seven erotic zones of passion in women”), drive-in theaters, drinking (a pair of licentious youths are shown primly pouring their cans of beer into plastic cups before drinking), second marriages, television (especially cartoons) “joy riding”, etc. And those tribulations that such things are leaving us too softened and consumed by hedonism to deal with — the “horses’ of the title and, more specifically, of the apocalypse — are in this case represented by the invading forces of international communism, here represented by a sextet of mounted Red Army soldiers lead by the generously sideburned Cecil Scaife, a Nashville-based Columbia Records executive and Ormond family friend who is here billed as “The Commissar”.
Despite their apparent pre-industrial circumstances, the commies, Pirkle tells us, have a plan that will see them in control of the United States within fifteen short minutes. Toillustrate this, Ormond presents us with a sequence in which a stunned television news anchor — filmed against a newsroom backdrop that looks to be a garage door with a page from an atlas pinned to it — informs his audience that the president, the secretary of state, the speaker of the house, and many of the larger states’ governors have all been murdered. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he solemnly intones. “This is the communist takeover of the United States. This is the end of democracy.” This particular takeover tactic seemed to me to imply that foreign communist leaders occupy an actual spot somewhere way down in the presidential line of succession, but I may be misinterpreting. In any case, it is at this point that the real terror begins.
Scaife and his men descend, Red Dawn-like, upon the small, God-fearing Southern town in which all of Footmen‘s action takes place and quickly make it clear that they really enjoy mowing down innocent civilians — especially women and children — with their submachine guns. Parents have their children rent screaming from their arms and are summarily slaughtered, after which the tykes are thrown into the back of the reds’ Ford pickup truck and taken to a camp for re-education. There a mustached apparatchik — played by Wes Saunders, and referred to as “Comrade Teacher” in the credits — uses his baffling accent to mesmerize the children with devious communist logic. Commanded to pray to “Jeeesus” for candy, the kids come up empty handed. “Your Jeeesus didn’t bring us any candy!” scoffs the teacher in haughty, mock incomprehension. In short order, a prayer addressed to Fidel Castro brings candy by the bucket load, and a classroom full of newly-minted young Bolsheviks is primed and ready to hit the streets. I must say, though, that while Pirkle’s point about the communists’ amoral cunning is well taken, he never did address to my satisfaction why Jesus wouldn’t give those kids any candy.
Once the communists have taken control, Pirkle tells the camera, the viewer will see “hundreds of dead bodies in the streets” of his or her town. And as the corpses pile up, Ormond’s camera returns again and again to pan slowly up and down the immobile, red syrup-splattered bodies of Pirkle’s parishioners, exhibiting a kind of anti-narrative, pornographic focus on the aftermath of violence that, but for the context, would be indistinguishable from the work of Ormond’s contemporary Herschel Gordon Lewis. Soon, Pirkle goes on, we will see “a communist soldier with a sub-machinegun in every pulpit stand in America”. But, as it turns out, getting shot will be the least of our worries. A later scene shows a group of children forced by the Commissar and his men to hoist their father up by a rope and repeatedly drop him into a nest of pitchforks. Elsewhere, in the movie’s most audacious gross-out moment, a young boy who has been caught receiving the word of God is shown vomiting copiously after having a bamboo shaft driven in one ear and out the other. Adding to the disconcerting nature of this particular scene is the fact that the post-dubbed retching sounds that accompany it are obviously being made by an adult man.
Pirkle caps off his accounting of the reds’ torture practices with a tale of a huddled group of staunch Christian souls who were forced by their communist captors to sit in the freezing cold on back-less chairs for “seventeen hours” (Pirkle, true to the conceit that the episodes recounted by him all actually occurred in one communist country of the other, throws out a lot of very specific-sounding, but uniformly un-sourced, figures over the course of the film) while an affectless, amplified voice recited the following phrases in mantra-like repetition:
“Communism is good.
Communism is good.
Christianity is stupid.
Christianity is stupid.
Now, if that bit of dialogue sounds familiar to you, well, first off, you are obviously some kind of smirky, art-damaged, big city boho who is well beyond the help that Footmen is seeking to offer you, and, secondly, that is because it is by far the most well-known passage from Footmen, thanks to it being sampled for a track by the Bay Area based sound collage group Negativland.
Which brings me to a point that I feel needs to be made. I think that any review of If Footmen Tire You, What will Horses Do? written by a smug urban hipster type such as myself should necessarily be viewed with suspicion, because it offers such an individual far too many easy opportunities to ironically mock timeworn countercultural punching bags like “small town American values” and uncomplicated expressions of Christian belief. And to be sure, there are enough stern-faced, boxy-haired church ladies and Johnny Unitas buzz-cuts on display in the film to insure that the temptation for such mockery is very hard to resist — impossible, in fact, ifmy previous paragraphs are any indication. Still, it would be a grave act of dishonesty if I failed to confess to you that, on some level, Pirkle’s scare tactics actually get to me. And this despite the fact that I was raised in a staunchly secular household, never attending a church service once throughout the entirety of my formative years. One might think that such an upbringing would lead to me having a somewhat more detached and rational approach to spirituality, but in many ways it has had quite the opposite effect. Instead it has made me view spiritual practices that are mundane parts of many Americans’ lives as being possessed of an almost Lovecraftian otherworldliness, to the extent that those people might as well be taking part in some kind of crazy voodoo ritual for all the terror and mystery that their actions hold. It is only in recent years, out of family obligation, that I have had to attend actual church services, and on those occasions I have remained poised on the edge of my seat throughout, waiting for the inevitable moment when the believers will turn upon me, pointing and hissing like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
It is for this reason perhaps that, despite the larger portion of my consciousness being devoted to exactly the sort of skepticism towards hard-line Christianity’s claims that you might expect, there is also that tiny part of me that on occasion wonders, “What if they’re right?” And then thinks, “That would suck balls.” So I am not completely immune to the rhetorical flourishes of Estus Pirkle and Ron Ormond. This was made especially clear to me when I viewed one of the pairs’ later films, The Burning Hell, in which a bunch of smirky know-it-alls are shocked to find upon dying that — oh shit! — there really was a fiery eternal Hell filled with endless, unspeakable torment after all. Sure, I LMAO as I watched stiff non-actors standing amidst what looked like a field of burning tires, tearing their hair and lamenting about “why, oh, why didn’t I listen”. But, again, I would be totally lying if I didn’t admit that there was a little piece of me that paused to soberly reflect upon the possibility, thinking, “Boy, that would really blow”. That piece of me then went on to imagine myself in the same circumstances, rending my garments as the flames licked at my heels, screaming “Why didn’t I listen? My baaaaad!”
Anyway, once Pirkle has set the scene for us, Ormond introduces a parallel narrative of sorts with the story of Judy (JudyCreech). An obvious wayward soul, Judy is dropped off by her boyfriend — a guy with a wispy loser ‘stache — in the parking lot of the church where Pirkle is giving his sermon. Romeo bristles at the notion of going inside, protesting that he’s “a lover, not a Christian”, and Judy conspiratorially assures him that she is only doing so in order to “keep up appearances”. She then steps out of the car, buttoning her dress as she goes, and steps into the church. Once Judy is seated inside, we see her crisis of faith playing out on her face as Pirkle speaks, mostly by way of various degrees of lower lip biting. Over the course of the film, we will return again and again to Judy as she intermittently listens to the preacher’s words and flashes back to her poor elderly mother’s attempts to get her to read the scripture. I would say that Judy’s ultimate “come to Jesus” moment is something of an inevitability, but given the film she’s inhabiting, she is in all honesty just as likely to be mowed down by automatic weapons fire or disemboweled. So it’s safe to say that there is some small element of suspense surrounding the matter.
The straw that finally breaks Judy’s spiritual back comes in the form of an episode that Pirkle relates during the film’s closing moments — an event that, according to Pirkle, “actually happened in another country”. A kid carrying a portrait of Jesus confronts Scaif’s Commissar about the murder of his parents, an atrocity that the villain, in response, cheerfully acknowledges. He tells the kid that he is better off, because he now belongs to the state, and then throws the kid’s picture of Jesus on the ground and orders him to step on it. This kid, I have to admit, is kind of a badass — the kind who could conceivably give Christianity a good name among attitude-heavy twelve-year-olds across America — and in refusing he fixes Scaif with a pretty stirring look of righteous, steely-eyed defiance. In response, the Commissar produces a big knife and threatens to cut his head off if he doesn’t comply. The kid then turns those steely eyes of his heavenward and pledges to give his life for Jesus as Jesus did for him, after which we see his bloody severed head rolling across the lawn. This proves to be too much for Judy — as I imagine, true to the film’s intentions, it did for many of Footmen‘s devout viewers — and she jumps to her feet screaming, after which Pirkle leads her to the altar, where she tearfully accepts Jesus.
For those of you who intend to seek out If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? for your personal viewing pleasure, I have one word of warning — that is, of course, if you don’t consider all of the words I’ve expended on the subject so far words of warning. While the film indeed delivers all of the outrageous low-rent gore, hilariously amateurish acting, and general offbeat strangeness that whatever accounts of it you have read promise, what those accounts may have failed to prepare you for is Estus Pirkle himself. Put simply, the man’s style of oratory is far more insistent than it is dynamic. Perhaps he simply felt that injecting any level of flamboyance into his rhetoric would be ungodly. But, whatever the reason, the result is that a little bit of his hectoring monotone goes a long way, and over the course of Footmen‘s fifty minute running time, you may find yourself struggling against lapsing into a defensive coma.
In fact, the only break in Pirkle’s robotic harangue occurs, quite effectively, during the film’s fading final seconds. Films such as Footmen, as mentioned before, would typically be shown in small churches, and would be followed by an altar call, during which those audience members who had yet to do so, shaken by what they had seen, would step forward and, just as Judy had done at the film’s conclusion, accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. As a prelude to that moment, Pirkle looks into the camera as the closing music swells and, in a tone that is suddenly both gentle and beseeching, softly repeats the words “Won’t you come?” The effect is startlingly disarming, and, after having been hostage to the relentless, auctioneer-like stream of oratory issuing from Pirkle’s expressionless head for the previous near-hour, almost provocative of a Stockholm Syndrome-like reaction. Which is to say that, even as I sat there, sniggering imperiously at all of the unbelievable claptrap I had just witnessed, there was a tiny little part of me that found itself inching imperceptibly toward the screen.
Release Year: 1971 | Country: United States | Starring: Estus W. Pirkle, Judy Creech, Cecil Scaife, Gene McFall, Wes Saunders, La Quinta Scaife, Jim Rose, Billy Kent, Jimmy Little, Carl Haselton, Joe Scaife, Nathan Blackwell, Max Cannon, Bell Kent, Bondy Kent, Greg Pirkle, Tim Ormond, Ron Ormond | Writers: Ron Ormond, Estus W. Pirkle | Director: Ron Ormond | Cinematographers: Ron Ormond, Tim Ormond | Producers: Estus W. Pirkle, Monnie Stanfield
It wouldn’t be difficult to interpret The Web of Death — the third in director Chor Yuen’s long cycle of films adapting contemporary popular wuxia novels — as something of a cold war parable. In it, a Martial World clan by the name of The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of a super-weapon so powerful that the clan’s leader has decreed that it should be put under wraps and hidden away for the good of the Martial World as a whole. That weapon, the Five Venom Spider, is revealed to us in the film’s opening minutes, and that’s a good thing; while definitely kind of neat in a cheeseball sort of way, the Five Venom Spider is not the kind of thing that could live up to an extended build-up. What it is, in fact, is a normal-sized tarantula that, when released from its ornate cage, glows green, emits the roar of a raging elephant, and then shoots a deadly, electrified web to the accompaniment of much billowing of smoke and flying of sparks. It’s a weapon that will be deployed to amusing effect throughout Web of Death, but which has the unfortunate side effect of saddling Chor with a conclusion in which a room full of fighters who have been established as the Martial World’s bravest and most accomplished cower away from a spider. But more about that later.
As the films opens, a number of the Five Venom Clan’s chiefs — including the Snake Chief, Liu Shen, played by Lo Lieh — are beseeching its leader to allow that the Five Venom Spider be brought out of mothballs. It seems that, since the weapon was taken out of play, the clan has fallen somewhat in the eyes of its peers, which is not surprising. You see, the clan has sort of made the Five Venom Spider its whole “thing”. This is evident not just from the clan’s name, but also from the fact that both their palatial lair and their garments are covered with spider and web motifs. So the whole situation is similar to if the United States’ flag, rather than being covered with stars and stripes, was instead covered with atomic symbols and mushroom clouds, and then we tried to present ourselves as a model of restraint. In that case I think even the most lily-livered country would be justified in snickering at us behind its hand a little bit.
Of course, the Five Venoms leader, being a man of principle, refuses to back down. This turns out to be of no matter, however, because, as we will soon learn, Liu Shen is screwing the leader’s wife (Angela Yu Chien), and is secretly plotting with her to obtain the spider for himself so that he can rule the Martial World. Now, I’m unclear whether, in the universe of these wuxia stories, the Martial World comprises the entire world, or is just a discreet part of the larger world. I mean, is there still a Europe and an Africa, for instance, with just a large chunk of Asia delineated as the Martial World? If this is the case, the greater, non-martial world has nothing to fear from the Martial World, because its inhabitants are way too busy warring amongst themselves for dominance to bother with anything going on beyond its borders. This is what they’re all about, you see.
Coming at this early stage, Web of Death is something of a transitional film in Chor’s wuxia series. It lacks the rough, exploitation movie edge of his earlier Killer Clans — which I think was the result of Chor being influenced by the types of films that were coming out of Japan at the time — and, to a much lesser extent, The Magic Blade, while at the same time being not quite as mannered and dreamlike as his next feature, the more distinctly Chinese-feeling Clans of Intrigue. That latter film would set the tone for all of Chor’s wuxia adaptations to come, one that would be crystallized by the time of films like Murder Plot, and would approach the point of self parody with the ridiculously convoluted and stylized-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber movies. While, like those later films, Web is not without its elements of romance and tragedy, those elements are not as heady and enveloping as they would become, nor is the world that the director creates on screen so completely sealed off from reality. Yes, the set-bound exteriors with the conspicuously phony-looking painted-on moon and clouds are still there, but not at the expense of a certain amount of actual location and back lot shooting.
This is not to say that all of those thing that would become hallmarks of Chor’s swordplay films are in short supply in Web of Death. To the contrary, I think that fans of his films will be more than satisfied with the number of beautiful and atmospheric sets, Bava-esque green and red lighting schemes, frequent and often spectacularly staged fight scenes, and the abundance of exotic weaponry on display. After all, in this last regard alone, there is not only the Five Venom Spider itself, but also the centipede-shaped sword wielded by the Centipede Clan’s chief, the Venom clan’s array of poisonous darts and vapors, Lo Lieh’s snake-shaped bazooka (for lack of a better word), and an entire clan of fighters equipped with flaming metal gloves. To my mind, the most interestingly conceived of these death-dealers is the Venom Clan’s “Poisonous Nether Flower”, which is capable of turning a person’s actual blood into a weapon against the spider — although once that blood is released, it will not stop flowing until its owner is completely drained.
Added to this is the fact that Web of Death compensates for the comparative lack of its successors’ swoony romanticism with a surfeit of something fairly unique to the series: the type of cheap “B” horror movie thrills seemingly derived more from 1950s American drive-in fare than from the Chinese folklore that martial arts films typically look to for their spook-show elements. This is again, of course, largely due to our friend the Five Venom Spider. Both the whirlwind of crude special effects he stands at the center of and the rigors that cast and crew alike put themselves through to convince us that he’s scary make this whole enterprise seem like spiritual kin to the work of shlockmeisters like Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon. As a result, the movie is lent a sort of ragged, three-legged-dog charm that’s far from what Chor’s other more stately and genteel offerings typically convey.
Another thing that sets Web of Death apart from most of the other films in Chor’s wuxia catalog is the fact it is one of a very few of those films not to star either Ti Lung or Derek Yee as its hero. Instead we here get Shaw mainstay Yueh Hua, who also had a prominent role in Killer Clans that same year. Probably Hua’s earliest claim to fame was starring opposite Cheng Pei Pei in King Hu’s game-changing martial arts classic Come Drink With Me. He would go on to become a prolific Shaw player, appearing in dozens of the studio’s productions. And while Web of Death marked the last time he would take top billing in one of Chor’s wuxia movies, he would take substantial supporting roles in a number of those that followed, including Clans of Intrigue with Ti Lung and Death Duel with Yee. While an adequate performer, Hua lacks the charisma of Ti Lung — as well as the striking, teen idol good looks of Derek Yee — and, because of that, largely fails to register in Web of Death. Of course, to give the actor his due, it takes a star with an extraordinarily forceful presence to stand out in one of these movies, given the small army of characters they have to compete with for attention, as well as the distractions provided by the relentless, rapid-fire convolutions of the plot.
In any case, Yueh Hua’s low-impact performance has the effect of handing the film over to his leading lady, an actress who would prove to be a constant and legitimizing presence in Chor’s swordplay epics, Ching Li. Ching’s character here is one of the female archetypes of wuxia cinema: the “headstrong” girl who, despite her noble upbringing, insists on being part of the action — all the better to put in practice her formidable martial arts skills. In this case she is Susu, the daughter of the Five Venom clan’s leader, who enacts her rebellion by way of a ruse that is also archetypal in wuxia cinema. She masquerades as a man, albeit in a manner that makes it more than obvious to the viewing audience that she is anything but, while everyone else on screen, despite this evidence, takes it as a given. Granted, Susu’s guise as a grubby male beggar, while not convincing at all, is a lot more so than the typical wuxia movie version of cross-dressing, which simply involves a glamorous actress in full makeup wearing pants and being referred to as “lad” and “sir” by everyone she encounters. It also helps that these sequences are contrasted with those in which Susu appears in her undisguised form, as a radiant beauty made even more so by Chor’s employment of all the old school glamour-imbuing tricks of his trade, swathed in a series of diaphanous gowns. However, it is not just by virtue of her enchanting presence that the actress ends up taking charge of Web of Death, but also as a result of the fact that, at the film’s close, it is her character’s actions, more than those of any other in the film, that prove to be the most heroic.
First in her beggar drag, and then as herself, Ching’s Susu ends up assisting Yueh Hua’s swordsman character, Fei, in his mission to find the truth regarding the Five Venom Spider. Liu Shen and the master’s wife, in their quest for the weapon, have spread a rumor that the Five Venom Clan is again contemplating its use, hoping that, by doing so, they will incite members of the rival clans to try to track it down for themselves, thus doing the hard work of divining the weapon’s hiding place for them. It is for this very reason that Fei, the eldest student at the Shaolin Temple, has been sent forth by his master. Over the course of the film, his journey will have him continually crossing swords with those rival clans — both in dreamlike, fog-enshrouded marshes and cavernous, surrealistically-lit tombs fraught with elaborate booby traps — while fending off all of the depredations that Lo Lieh at his cackling bad guy best can visit upon him. At some point, Fei’s younger brother, Yingjie (Wong Chung), also joins in the search, joined by a young female disciple, Quixin (Lilly Li Li-Li), who makes no secret of her affection for Fei. As might be expected, all of the rivalries, jealousies and complex betrayals that we’ve come to count on from the denizens of Chor’s Martial World will come into play to make sure that the road to Web of Death’s conclusion will be far from a straight and narrow one.
If this all sounds complicated, it is. But to be truthful, Web of Death‘s narrative is actually one of the more transparent ones as far as Chor’s wuxia movies go. If you pay attention, it’s relatively easy to keep track of who’s who, who’s doing what to whom, and why they’re doing it, which, in the case of, say, the aforementioned Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, would be a truly Sisyphean task. Of course, because this is a Chor Yuen film we’re talking about, you can also just choose to abandon any efforts to follow what’s going on and simply immerse yourself in all the gorgeous art direction and well-staged action. Honestly, you’ll probably end up enjoying it just as much. It’s a win-win, really.
In Web of Death‘s final act, Lo Lieh and his minions finally get their hands on the film’s much ballyhooed doomsday device, putting it to its ultimate test at a summit held by their rivals at the headquarters of the Wudang clan. And, as I alluded to before, it is here, in the film’s conclusion, that Web of Death runs up against its biggest flaw. You see, the typical Chor Yuen wuxia movie rewards you for the effort of keeping track of its many characters by giving you a climax in which you get to see almost all of those characters fighting each other in a wild and protracted sword battle, complete with lots of crazy acrobatics and people spitting up candy-apple-red blood. Here, we indeed get to see all of the characters brought together, but instead of fighting, they’re all cringing and clawing at their faces in terror as a little spider crawls across the floor toward them. And keep in mind that this is the Martial World we’re talking about, and that all of these characters’ lives are defined by both their constant proclaiming and demonstration of their fighting prowess — which, furthermore, we have paid more than ample witness to over the previous eighty-or-so minutes.
Granted, all of this is amusing for its unintentional absurdity, but Chor Yuen isn’t Ed Wood. That kind of campy hilarity isn’t normally what I turn to his films for. As a result, I expect that this sequence might make the film a little bit of a disappointment for anyone coming to it with expectations based on the director’s other work. For those coming to it unburdened by expectations, however, it’s actually kind of awesome, filled with cheap gore effects, a spider roaring like an elephant, and lots of people shooting lightning bolts out of their hands via crude, drawn-on animation.
So, ultimately, The Web of Death is one of those martial arts films in Chor Yuen’s catalog that is inessential, but nonetheless enjoyable. It provides a nice break for completists like myself, who have had to suffer through far worse in their mission to watch every single one of the man’s films. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to his movies, I think it’s well worth checking out for those who have already made their way through all of his top tier works. Especially those who felt that those works didn’t bare a strong enough resemblance to Earth vs. The Spider.
Release Year: 1976 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Yueh Hua, Ching Li, Lo Lieh, Ku Feng, Wang Hsieh, Angela Yu Chien, Wong Chun, Lilly Li Li-Li, Cheng Miu, Kong Yeung, Chan Shen, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Heo Li-Jen, Lee Sau-Kei, Wang Han-Chen, Norman Chu Siu-Keung | Writer: Ni Kuang | Director: Chor Yuen | Action Directors: Tong Gai, Yuen Cheung-Yan | Cinematographer: Wong Chit | Music: Frankie Chan Fan-Kei | Producer: Sir Run Run Shaw
With a driving funk theme and blood-dripping title graphic, Khoon Khoon‘s opening credits clearly announce that the film’s director, Bollywood B movie maestro Mohammed Hussain, has changed with the times, moving on from the gee-whiz swashbuckling thrills of sixties efforts like Faulad, Aaya Toofan and Shikari to lurid subject matter much more in tune with the tenor of the seventies’ less restrained Indian cinema. What’s still intact, however, is Hussain’s tendency to hew very closely to Hollywood models in the crafting of his films. This is the man, after all, who helmed one of Bollywood’s earliest adaptations of Superman, and who based his successful Dara Singh vehicle, the aforementioned Aaya Toofan, on Nathan Juran’s “Harryhausen” pastiche, Jack the Giant Killer.
I think that one of the most forbidding things about Bollywood cinema for those Westerners who might dare to sample it is its apparent hostility to Western notions of genre. For armchair adventurers through world popular cinema like ourselves, such notions normally provide a reliable safe harbor, even when we’re struggling through the most alien of terrains. While a given country’s cinematic repertoire might present us with some disorienting cultural peculiarities, we generally feel secure in the knowledge that we can find within it such universals as horror movies featuring ghosts and monsters, thrillers pitting detectives against masked killers, and adventure films showcasing the exploits of costumed superheroes — any of which we can use as a familiar jumping off point from which to explore those aspects of the landscape with which we are less acquainted.
There are certain films that become associated with one indelible image. For example, it’s hard to think of North by Northwest without conjuring a mental picture of Cary Grant being chased by that crop-duster, or of Singin’ in the Rain without immediately seeing Gene Kelly hanging off of that lamppost. In the case of the Filipino action film They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong, the image that invariably comes to mind – for those familiar with the film, at least – is that of comely star Marrie Lee brandishing an imposing looking, quadruple-barreled, sawed-off shotgun while dressed in a nun’s habit and wimple (thanks, El Santo).
Con Licencia Para Matar (aka With License to Kill) is the second of a pair of films featuring Las Tigresas, a trio of catsuit-wearing female secret agents for hire. The first Tigresas film, Munecas Peligrosas (aka Dangerous Dolls) was a barely-there affair, with just enough of a plot on which to hang its numerous instances of padding. Con Licencia Para Matar, by contrast, would seem to be packed with enough plot for the both of them, complete with two competing sets of villains, including a beatnik scientist with a trio of super-powerful, green-faced androids at his command, and a blonde bombshell revolutionary who conceals her true designs under her cover as the owner of a posh go-go club. Despite all of this business, the film still manages to devote plenty of time to what seems to be the Tigresas films’ first order of business, that being the inclusion of lots of random musical numbers and scenes of the Tigresas lounging around their well-appointed bachelorette pad in various stages of undress.
Love and Murder is a rough-edged, fast paced and ever-so-slightly sleazy little Bollywood B thriller that satisfyingly combines noirish stylistic flourishes with elements of the James Bond movies. If you’re going to crib, you might as well do it from the best, and Love and Murder certainly cribs well, also pilfering here and there from the German Krimi thrillers and even Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. The addition of a classic femme fatale turn by Helen and an appearance by a mysterious killer in a skeleton suit almost compensates for the fact that the print from which the M.H. One VCD was made looks like it spent a good deal of time marinating on the bed of a stagnant lake.
While they were certainly responsible for their share of cinematic flotsam, American International Pictures can also be credited with creating a good few films that are today considered genre classics, as well as some films that are extraordinary solely for the fact that, given the circumstances of their production, they were even made at all. As far as AIP’s ventures into the Blaxploitation arena go, 1973′s Black Caesar definitely falls within the former category, while its sequel, that same year’s Hell Up In Harlem, serves as a perfect example of that last mentioned type of film.
Black Caesar was initially conceived by writer/director Larry Cohen as a vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr. Instead, he ended up taking the project to AIP, where it became hitched to the star of former pro footballer and emerging blaxploitation leading man Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. While I think that this was probably the best outcome for all involved, I have to admit to growing a bit misty at the thought that, had things worked out differently, I might now be reviewing a film in which Sammy Davis Jr. beats a white man to death with a shoeshine box. In any case, AIP had already struck black gold with 1972′s Slaughter and Blacula, and saw Cohen’s reworking of the classic gangster film formula for a black milieu as a suitable next step in their venture into the black action genre. From this point, it was only a matter of second-time director Cohen hitting the streets of New York with his camera and delivering the goods.
Made in eighteen days for less than half a million dollars, Black Caesar went on to become a big hit, and AIP were quick to demand that Cohen provide a sequel as soon as possible. Adding to the time pressure on Cohen was the fact that his star, Williamson, would soon be leaving the country for some shooting overseas, which meant that production had to begin more or less immediately. Unfortunately, Williamson was at the time stuck in L.A. — far from Black Caesar‘s New York locations — filming That Man Bolt for Universal, while Cohen was working five days a week to complete It’s Alive, the first of his reputation-making creature features, for Warner Brothers. The solution that Cohen came up with to this problem was to shoot Hell Up In Harlem on the weekends using his It’s Alive crew and equipment, trying all the while to cope as best he could with the fact that he had neither his main actor or anything close to a completed script on hand.
Now, if you were a religious person, you might look at the obstacles that Cohen and his crew faced and conclude that Hell Up In Harlem was a film made in defiance of God’s will. And if you were a religious person and a fan of Black Caesar, you might look at the finished product and conclude that you were doubly justified in that opinion. Still, the lengths that were gone to complete it, combined with Cohen’s “shoot first, ask permission later” guerilla filmmaking style, make Hell Up In Harlem just about as good an example as you could find of classic B movie, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, as well as a crystalline artifact of a long gone era in the American movie game.
While filming Hell Up In Harlem‘s many New York location scenes, Cohen employed a mixed bag of tricks in order to conceal Williamson’s absence, including frequently shooting from his character’s point-of-view. His primary ruse, however, involved the use of a double — always shown either from behind, at a distance, or with something obscuring his face — whose presence was later augmented by the insertion of close-ups of Williamson that were filmed in L.A., as well as a generous amount of post-dubbed Williamson dialogue. Cohen also managed to shoot quite a few of the film’s interior scenes in Los Angeles, relying a great deal on his Coldwater Canyon home as a location (Cohen’s wood paneled home office, in particular, shows up in a couple of different guises throughout), with the result that, once he was able to get Williamson to New York for some brief location shooting, those actors who had appeared in the Los Angeles scenes with Williamson, but could not make the trip back East, had to be doubled themselves. Given this patchwork approach, it’s a testament to Cohen’s ingenuity that the seams in the finished product are less obvious than they might have been. Nonetheless, it has to be said that, even when you don’t consciously notice them, they still contribute to the overall impression that there is something ineluctably “off” about Hell Up In Harlem –- and that’s without even considering those dialog scenes in which it’s all too clear that you’re watching actors performing monologues in completely different locations.
As far as the writing of the film went, Cohen basically decided to make up the considerable, unscripted portion of Hell Up In Harlem‘s story as he shot. In this case that meant that he not only structured the narrative to accommodate Williamson’s absence (of which the most absurd instance is the placing front-and-center of the character played by Julius Harris — the father of Williamson’s character, Tommy Gibbs, who was a comparatively minor presence in Black Caesar), but also around whatever locations became available at any given time, whichever of Cohen’s friends and acquaintances happened to decide they’d like to be in a scene, or just whatever off-the-cuff scenario struck the director’s fancy at the moment. Surprisingly, given Cohen’s background as a screenwriter, working outside the confines of a script proved to infect him with a serious case of directorial ADD, since much of Harlem‘s footage turned out to be of exactly the capricious nature described above, with the result that he essentially had to “write” the film in the editing room with the aid of lots of randomly inserted narrated exposition.
Given all of the above, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that Hell Up In Harlem is a film that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Even I, a man who has managed to provide coherent synopsis of films watched on un-subtitled Hindi and Cantonese language DVDs, shudder at the thought of reigning its disparate narrative components into a recognizable structure. This is largely due to the fact that Cohen, whenever presented with an opportunity to shoot an improvised scene, seems to have invariably made that scene one involving Fred Williamson killing some anonymous actor or friend of the production who happened to be on the set that day. Such opportunities clearly arose quite often, with the result that Harlem consistently connects its plot points by way of countless scenes of our hero offing characters who we have not previously seen and will never hear mentioned again.
One of the casualties of this approach is the idea that Hell Up In Harlem is anything but a sequel to Black Caesar in name only. Black Caesar, after all, was a relatively sober effort — one that, with its grim story of an inner city gangster’s precipitous rise and calamitous fall, stood in contrast to most other films in the Blaxploitation genre, which had a tendency to present their heroes as invincible black supermen who always triumphed over adversity in the end. Hell Up In Harlem, on the other hand, by positioning Williamson’s character as simply the driving force behind a string of randomly connected, violent action set pieces, becomes exactly the type of film that Rudy Ray Moore and D’Urville Martin were parodying with Dolemite. Even Tommy Gibb’s trademark limp –- an injury sustained at the hands of the film’s villain at the beginning of Black Caesar, and a motivating force for Williamson’s character throughout –- is gone here, making it that much easier for Williamson to sprint back and forth from one nonsensical bit of mayhem to the next.
In this spirit, Hell Up In Harlem spends it’s opening act frantically undoing everything that Black Caesar established in its last scene. This is necessitated primarily by the fact that, in the overseas cut of Black Caesar, Williamson’s character ends up dying an ignominious death at the hands of a gang of vicious street urchins. Or, at least, so it would appear. Because, as we see at the beginning of Harlem, Tommy Gibbs has not, as we have been lead to believe, either alienated or caused to be killed every last one of his friends and associates, but instead still has a gang of loyal flunkies ready at the call to come to his rescue. Not only that, but Tommy’s formerly absentee father (the aforementioned Harris), whose sheepish overtures of conciliation were harshly rejected by Tommy in the first film, is also waiting anxiously by the phone and ready to pitch in. From here it’s just a matter of the gang getting Tommy patched-up, which turns out to be a simple matter of taking over Harlem Hospital at gunpoint — a scene that was essentially accomplished by Cohen and his crew, on very short notice and without shooting permits, taking over the real Harlem Hospital at camera-point.
It is exactly that practice of “stolen” location shooting, practiced by Cohen with neither a union crew or the benefit of permits, that, along with the improvised nature of the production as a whole, marks Hell Up In Harlem as an artifact of, not just a lost style of filmmaking, but also of an America that, in spirit, has long since ceased to exist. Often filming from a concealing distance and with one camera, Cohen and company here pull off things that, if attempted in a major city in today’s security-obsessed United States, would result in them being thrown in jail at best and taken down by a SWAT team at worst. These stunts range from having gun-waving actors run down the middle of crowded mid-town Manhattan streets to sending cars careening along city sidewalks — with, in that last instance, the only precaution being ropes hastily strung across doorways to prevent the innocent from straying into harm’s way. Of all of these, though, the one sequence that really seems to have originated from some strange yet familiar shadow Earth is one that was shot — if Cohen is to be believed, at least — without permission at LAX, in which Cohen stages a fight between Williamson and actor Tony King that takes place on a baggage carousel in front of a crowd of stunned and very real travelers. To top this off, the director then has his combatants run up the luggage shoot to continue the fight on the actual airfield, after which we’re treated to the sight of Williamson strutting around on the tarmac with an airliner taxiing just yards away. For those of us living in today’s locked-down society, scenes like that amount to a veritable pornography of unfettered access. And, whether you love or hate Hell Up In Harlem, you simply have to thrill to the spectacle of combined institutional innocence and individual chutzpa that they present.
Once Tommy Gibbs is again at large and in charge, Hell Up In Harlem introduces us to a new villain, corrupt District Attorney D’Angelo (Gerald Gordon), who, if I understood correctly, turns out to have been behind everything that happened in the first film. There is still a lot of talk about a pair of ledgers containing the names of on-the-take politicians that motivated a good deal of the first film’s action, but Tommy’s primary concern is with getting payback against those who brought about his downfall, which, of course, turns out to involve him and his gang randomly killing a bunch of unidentified people who are only notable for their complete absence from Black Caesar. Somewhere in all this, Tommy’s mild mannered dad ends up killing a couple of crooked cops in self defense, putting himself on the wrong side of the law as a result. The only proper response to this, of course, is for dad to officially become part of Tommy’s gang, a turn of events which somehow leads to him being put in charge of his son’s entire East Coast operation. “Big Papa” quickly grows accustomed to the pimping threads and lavish lifestyle that such a position entails, and we are soon treated to a montage of Julius Harris gleefully gunning people down that nicely bookends a similar montage of Fred Williamson that we saw toward the beginning of the picture.
To accompany all of this nonsense we have a soundtrack by Edwin Starr that literally provides a song for every occasion. Seriously, if Cohen had asked for a theme to accompany someone walking across the street, Starr would have come up with a song called “Walkin’ ‘Cross the Street” that consisted of nothing but him shouting the phrase “Walkin’ ‘cross the street” over and over again on top of a driving funk track. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, until you consider that James Brown, who also scored Black Caesar, had already provided a score for Hell Up In Harlem that was written and recorded entirely on spec. Unfortunately, the execs at AIP had been unhappy with Brown’s soundtrack work on Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off –- apparently Brown had a problem with timing his compositions to match the action on screen –- and rejected his Harlem score over Cohen’s objections, leaving Brown to release the work as The Payback, which is widely considered to be the last great album of Brown’s career.
Despite Hell Up In Harlem‘s many problems, I have to say that I think I prefer it over its predecessor. While it’s certainly true that Black Caesar is the more earnest and ambitious of the two, I don’t think that the abilities of Cohen and his cast were always up to that level of earnestness and ambition. Williamson, for instance, while undeniable blessed with a glaring surplus of charisma, gives an enthusiastic performance in both movies, but is seemingly incapable of giving a convincing line reading, with the result that Caesar’s level of melodrama is really not his friend. Leading lady Gloria Hendry, on the other hand, is just a little too cozy with melodrama, and comports herself throughout much of her screen time in both films as if she were chained to the wailing wall. Factors like these, along with the rough edges of Cohen’s direction, combine to make Black Caesar a bit of a bumpy ride for fans of consistent narrative tone. By contrast, Hell Up In Harlem, with its frenetic opening deconstruction of Black Caesar‘s final act, lets you know from the get-go that it’s going to be a wild ride through crazy town, and never disappoints.
One way that Hell Up In Harlem gains a lot is if you simply appreciate Cohen’s random set pieces on their own terms without attempting to tie them in with any larger narrative, because the fact is that many of them evidence a crazy sort of amphetamine-edged inspiration. The most famous of these is the entirely pointless scuba assault by Tommy and his gang on a mob summit being held on an “unnamed island off the Florida Keys”. This sequence involves, among many other things, a kung fu fight between Williamson and a bikini babe, a body count seemingly in the triple digits, and middle-aged black women in maids’ uniforms smiling serenely as they gun down central casting goombahs who, if anyone had bothered to name them, would surely have to a man gone by either “Guido” or “Sal”. Another highpoint is a hit that takes place at a hotdog stand that leaves all of its victims with half-eaten hotdogs sticking out of their mouths. And of course let’s not forget the scene in which Williamson sprints across a crowded Coney Island beach to pole vault the sharp end of a beach umbrella into the chest of yet another unidentified and previously unseen character.
Hell Up In Harlem‘s final scene sees Tommy lynching D.A. D’Angelo with his own necktie while crowing about how he’s “the first whitey hung by a nigger”. This was intended by Cohen as a topper to the previously referenced final scene in Black Caesar, in which Gibbs makes his white nemesis wear blackface and sing “Mammy” before beating him to death with a shoeshine box. It fails of course, which is not surprising. From the sound of it, the scene, like much of Hell Up In Harlem, was made up on the spot, and owed its existence to Cohen just happening at that moment to make a visual connection between Gerald Gordon’s tie and a convenient tree branch. Still, the scene is a fitting conclusion, in that it so appropriately sums up the spirit of Hell Up In Harlem as a whole. It is at once off-the-cuff, ultimately pointless, and, at the same time, possessed of that fascinating aura denoting a thing that someone, at one very particular time, and for only one fleeting moment, thought was a great idea, even though it totally wasn’t.
And then someone rolled film, and it was too late to turn back.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: United States | Starring: Fred Williamson, Julius Harris, Gloria Hendry, Margaret Avery, D’Urville Martin, Tony King, Gerald Gordon, Bobby Ramsen, James Dixon, Esther Sutherland, Charles MacGuire, Mindi Miller, Al Kirk, Janelle Webb | Writer: Larry Cohen | Director: Larry Cohen | Cinematographer: Fenton Hamilton | Music: Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, Edwin Starr | Producer: Larry Cohen
In recent days I’ve been pouring over Jasper Sharp’s just published history of Japanese sex cinema, Behind the Pink Curtain — certainly for the purpose of broadening my world cinema knowledge, but mainly because I really, really want to understand the way that sex is presented in the Japanese movies I watch. And right now, to be honest, I really, really don’t. I sometimes suspect that we — in this case meaning “we Americans” — are more to blame for this than the Japanese, that the overwhelming impression of Japanese films as dealing with eros only in its darkest and most perverse manifestations is the result of us yanks, in our eagerness to point a mocking finger at “those crazy Japanese”, focusing only on those films that enable us to do so.
Perhaps the reality is that Japanese cinema is teeming with examples of people having loving, mutually pleasurable, consensual sex, and we’re just not seeing it because we’re choosing not to look. Admittedly, I’ve yet to see evidence of that being the case. In fact, I’ve seen more than my fair share of evidence to the contrary. Still, I suppose that if you wanted to stretch things, you could consider In the Realm of the Senses to feature loving, mutually pleasurable, consensual sex — lots and lots of it, in fact — until, of course, you get to the part where the man dies during an act of erotic asphyxiation and the woman cuts off his penis. So, well, there you go.
Not that a few shafts of light haven’t penetrated my benighted state regarding this matter. For instance, I now know that the Japanese sex film, or Pinku Eiga, came of age alongside of Japan’s politically radical underground cinema of the 1960s, and that the two, thanks to many of their creatives maintaining a foothold in both worlds, are so intertwined as to be in many cases indistinguishable. (For instance, the films of Koji Wakamatsu, which always struck me as being more about politics than sex, but are still considered part of the Pinku Eiga genre.) As such, they share a confrontational aesthetic that can still be seen even in the pink films of today.
America’s military presence in Japan was a hot button issue at the time of pink cinema’s emergence, sparking student protests that, in many cases, lead to violent confrontations with police. Because of this, pink filmmakers often positioned the abused and violated female bodies at the center of their movies as being symbols of the motherland, which had, in their eyes, been itself violated by the presence of an invading army on its soil. Such pervading sentiments at the dawn of Pinku Eiga’s existence may serve to explain what came to be a seemingly ingrained habit of taking anti-Western potshots, often without any apparent underlying political context. A good example of this would be the frequency with which Christian iconography is put to aggressively blasphemous uses, a practice that would be baffling if directed at Japan’s pathetically under-represented Christian minority, but makes a lot more sense as a swipe at Western sensibilities. Such is the case with our review subject here, 1986′s S&M Hunter, a film with no agenda other than to be as freaky as possible, but which nonetheless equips its bondage-happy protagonist with a priest’s collar and a sex slave wearing a nun’s habit (and usually not much else).
Of course, another factor that has influenced the content of Japan’s sex films is the country’s notorious censorship laws, which ban the depiction of genitalia or penetration, but really not that much else. Because of this, Japanese filmmakers have often had to travel far outside of the usual territory in order to fulfill pornography’s promise of showing taboos broken, usually veering in the direction of fetish, perversion, and, all too frequently, the idealized depiction of rape and sexual assault. I also imagine that, in a culture that puts as high a premium on shame as Japan’s does, the spectacle of characters simply taking what they want sexually without fear, consequence, or remorse serves as a pretty potent fantasy of liberation — though, given those characters are virtually without exception male, one that comes at the expense of excluding half of the potential audience.
The titular hero of S&M Hunter is just such a character, a bondage-crazed, manga-style superhero, complete with his own hilarious, Spaghetti Western style theme tune, who not only takes what he wants from the women he encounters, but also puts in their place – or, in his parlance, “tames” – those women with the audacity to attempt to do the same themselves. S&M Hunter may just be the film that signals my arrival at the point where I have finally seen too much, which I knew was going to come sooner or later. Despite its much-touted ability to shock and offend, it managed, for most of its sixty minute running time, only to leave me vaguely amused, and in its most outre moments prompted little more of a reaction from me than a sedate but heartfelt “Huh. Now there’s something you don’t see every day.” This may not simply be due to my having collapsed irretrievably into a state of decadence and moral decay, however. For one thing, the notion that a woman’s unfettered expression of her sexuality would require her to be tamed in such a manner, if you take it at all seriously, speaks to such a profound sense of impotence on the part of the film’s intended male audience that the only appropriate reaction to it would be an embarrassed kind of pity.
More than that, though, I think that my becoming acquainted, over the years, with people who were into S & M play has made me aware of the extent to which the practice is just that: play. With its over-the-top, bluntly archetypal characters and wildly outlandish bondage scenarios, this is, to me, clearly the area that S&M Hunter inhabits, a world of fantasy and elaborate play — a fact driven home by the depiction of the women on the receiving end of S&M Hunter’s signature brand of justice as taking very obvious pleasure in the experience. Given that, I don’t think that S&M Hunter plays to an audience of potential B&D vigilantes any more than Harry Potter movies play to an audience who will immediately run out and carve lightning bolts into their foreheads and then expose their genitals to men in stylized horse costumes.
S&M Hunter is the second in a trilogy of S&M Hunter films directed by Shuji Kataoka, a regular Pinku Eiga director of the era who, in later years, would go on to become a popular director of DTV action films. Here Kataoka casts two stars who were both frequent presences in his films and prominent fixtures in the world of Japanese sex cinema as a whole. Shiro Shimomoto, who plays the title role, was one of the most prolific actors in pink films during the seventies and eighties, and, judging from the titles of more recent films like Tokyo Booty Nights, still keeps a foot in the game even today. Hiromi Saotome was also a fairly ubiquitous presence in such films during the eighties, specializing in bondage and S&M roles. She would go on to become such an enthusiastic proponent of her art that, in 1987, she would famously have herself strung-up and dangled from a footbridge in front of one of Tokyo’s most heavily trafficked commuter train stations.
As far as I can tell, having only seen the trailer, the first S&M Hunter film’s recounting of its title character’s origin depicts him starting out as an ordinary businessman who gets on the wrong side of the Yakuza. This leads to him being attacked and blinded in one eye by a vicious gang of delinquent schoolgirls -– all in full uniform, of course — lead by the hard-eyed Meg (Saotome). In the aftermath of this attack, he is discovered and taken in by the master of an S&M parlor called the Pleasure Dungeon. A true S&M Hunter, we see, is not born but made, as the master (Yutaka Ikejima) then puts our hero through a rigorous training course that ultimately results in him becoming a rope master of near-supernatural ability, a fearless avenger of the pussy-whipped, clad in a distinctive uniform comprised of tweed suit and riding boots, the aforementioned priest’s collar, a skull-and-crossbones emblazoned eye patch, and bowler hat. From here, S&M Hunter sets out to put Meg and her gang in their place.
However, the Hunter’s roping skills are not employed to merely punish and restrain, but rather to gain his prey’s unquestioning obedience via the administration of near-unendurable levels of sexual pleasure. Each of his elaborate, cat’s cradle-like constructions is designed for this purpose, with every knot and wind somehow honing in on a different pleasure zone, with the coups de grace being a long strand of rope that he musically thrums like a giant bass string, sending vibrations straight to his victim’s sweet spot. As he states at the outset of the second film, his method is to “defeat” women, not with violence, but with love, their emotions being their true weak point. And as a result of his ministrations, they are rendered his willing slaves. For those of you who are skeptical of S&M Hunter’s prowess in this regard, and can only be convinced by way of the employment of a dated eighties pop culture reference, heed the words of the Dungeon Master himself: “Even if Hulk Hogan was a girl, she’d be his slave.”
The second entry in the series begins with a gay man named Joe (Bunmei Tobayama) coming to the Pleasure Dungeon with a tale of woe about how his lover, Jack (Akira Fukuda), has been kidnapped and made a sex slave by an all girl gang called the Bombers. S&M Hunter quickly agrees to take on the task of freeing Jack and taming these wanton women, after which we are taken to the hideout of the Bombers, where the gang, lead by Machi (Ayu Kiyokawa), are keeping Jack naked and strapped to a bed for their pleasure. To S&M Hunter‘s credit, I fully expected Jack to be eventually “converted” by these ladies’ sexual attentions, but that never happens. In fact, once Jack is freed and reunited with his lover, the two men are allowed a tender moment that seems, by all appearances, to be a prelude to a full-on sex scene, albeit one which never arrives. I had to wonder if this was the result of something being left on the cutting room floor, or if it was simply a fake-out perpetrated with some kind of humorous intention. To be sure, S&M Hunter is filled with things that I recognize as having the formal appearance of jokes, but whose comic intent, for reasons that I assume are culturally based, ended up zinging right past me.
Finally the man-hating Meg, still in full schoolgirl uniform, shows up at the Bomber’s door, hoping to join the gang and enlist their aid in seeking revenge against the S&M Hunter for the humiliation she suffered at his hands. Meanwhile, the hunter is bearing down on the gang’s hideout, accompanied by the Master, his nun’s-habit wearing sex slave, Maria (Naomi Sugishita), and Joe, who by appearances is himself falling prey to the rope master’s irresistible sexual charisma. With his target in sight, S&M Hunter then declares that he prefers to go on alone, causing the Master, in an actually funny instance of the script drawing attention to its own haphazardness, to wonder aloud why the hell he had asked them all along in the first place. From there, our hero proceeds to work his ropey magic on the gang of uppity women.
The straight sex scenes in S&M Hunter feel fairly obligatory, and are interesting mainly for the lengths they go to make sure that you don’t actually see anything. (Think lots of conveniently placed visual obstructions of the type that could serve as gags in an Austin Powers movie.) Where the real creativity is invested is in the film’s breathtakingly surreal bondage scenarios. And it is with those scenes in particular that we see a softening of the movie’s potentially offensive edge, based in the fact that they’re aestheticized and rendered fantastic to the point of bearing little relation to any type of real world brutality. (According to Sharp’s book, a film like this would typically have on hand a real life rope master, or kinbaku, to supervise the intricate binding that was necessary to completing these bizarre tableaus.) Also, while I know that many would be offended by the notion of a woman actually enjoying being the subject of such humiliations, I have to say, for my own part, that after being subjected to the endless parade of cretinous male predators in Toei’s Pinky Violence films, it was nice to see a member of my gender being depicted as masterful, desirable and actually capable of giving a woman sexual pleasure, no matter how unorthodox his methods of doing so might have been.
The first real gasp-inducing example of the Hunter’s particular brand of artistry comes when he trusses up one of Machi’s gang in a giant spider web that is designed to increase its victim’s pleasure with every rope that’s cut. After Machi shoots through a couple of the knots, the Hunter warns her that any further attempts to free her friend will send her to “the ecstasy of hell”. Machi curses the Hunter, but he responds that she is only jealous that it’s her friend and not her who’s being subjected to this treatment. And, sure enough, soon after he has taken leave of Machi, she turns up at S&M Hunter’s ranch (yes, you heard me), saying that she now wants “to give control” to him. Since it is one of the film’s few portrayals of a consensual sexual act, what follows is played as a love scene, though one in which one partner is elaborately bound up in the rafters of a barn while the other stands far below thrumming vibrations at her nethers through a taut length of rope.
The scene has the ridiculously gauzy quality of a romantic dream sequence in an old Hollywood movie, and throughout it and the one that follows, actress Ayu Kiyokawa is given the full, halo of soft light treatment, rendering her unrecognizable from the hard-looking Machi we saw in the stark, harshly-lit earlier sequences at the gang’s hideout. Clearly the ministrations of S&M Hunter’s long, ropey fingers have caused a transformation in her, and once the act is complete, she pledges her love to him. “You only love the ropes”, he replies. Still, once she has departed, S&M Hunter graces us with a tender moment in which the Hunter, having second thoughts, runs after Machi and, upon catching up to her, hands her the rope he used to bind her. “This now belongs to you”, he says solemnly, obviously fighting to contain his emotions. It is in this moment that we’re afforded a glimpse of the S&M Hunter as a tragic figure, one who’s calling to discipline all of the world’s wayward women forces him to turn his back on love. (“All of the masochists need me,” he tells Machi. “I’m a charitable sadist. I can’t love only you.”) It’s as if director Kataoka, in an uncanny moment of long-range prescience, is preemptively providing his hero with the emotional complexity that a later Christopher Nolan reboot would otherwise affect. Later, moved by what she has seen and experienced, Machi says to her fellow gang members of the Hunter, “You don’t know him. His strength knows gentleness.”
S&M Hunter is irresistibly quotable. Its main character spouts all kinds of pretentious nonsense, and even, true to his ecclesiastical garb, quotes the New Testament (while other utterances — “I see your heart. Your heart wants my ropes” — seem more secular in origin). What I enjoyed most about the film was how it hijacks the terse moral shorthand and glib certitude of evangelism for its own anarchic ends. During the movie’s talky prologue, the Hunter essentially preaches to the audience, explicitly laying out the story’s conflict and moral, after which we see both briskly played out, with the gum-snapping, leather-clad Bombers playing the transgressors whose wayward actions meet with exactly those consequences that the moral predetermines. In the end it all plays out like some Bizarro World version of a Chick tract, with those who have given in to evil, rather than being cast into the lake of fire, instead being bound up and helplessly racked with consecutive multiple orgasms.
S&M Hunter concludes with the final showdown between the title character and the revenge-minded schoolgirl Meg, who has dressed for the occasion in full Nazi regalia. True to the movie’s aesthetic of escalation, it’s a real head-spinner, capping off with S&M Hunter managing, despite having his remaining good eye gouged out, to bind Meg and hoist her into the heavens with an industrial crane. All in all, it’s one of those endings that casts all that preceded it in a far better light, since, throughout S&M Hunter, you can’t help but wonder how it could possibly tie things up with a suitably crowning WTF moment. Well bravo, S&M Hunter. Well played. Well played, indeed.
In the end, I’d be a fool to deny that S&M Hunter traffics in misogyny, though I think there’s room for debate over how deeply held it is. That said, it did elicit a wince from me during its opening scene, at the moment when the Master says, on the subject of hitting women: “Even if you hit them hard, they recover. They go back to normal.” In response to this, I have to wonder: is writer/director Kataoka referring there to women’s emotional resilience, or is he actually saying that they’re literally indestructible? In any case, it is for this reason, according to the Master, that, rather than trying vainly to beat them into submission, “You need to train women to obey.” Again, it seems like we’re seeing a suggestion that, rather than being objects of contempt, women represent some kind of overwhelming, otherworldly force that needs to be contained – a viewpoint that would in turn suggest coming from such a standpoint of infantile helplessness that, again, it’s difficult to avoid feeling an aghast sense of pity in response.
It also just may be that there’s an element of obstinacy in my inability to be really offended by S&M Hunter. The whole thing has a bratty quality to it that suggests that getting riled by it would simply be letting S&M Hunter win. What’s worse is that I actually kind of liked the movie, which may very well make me a horrible person. Still, if that be the verdict, it won’t prevent me from maintaining my regular program of affectionately patting all human beings under four feet tall on the head, slinging old ladies over my back two at a time to carry them across the street, and cooking elaborate meals for homeless people. You see, that’s the kind of guy I am. But I’m also the kind of guy that has to take his hat off to a movie that manages to top itself as enthusiastically as S&M Hunter does, even though I know in my heart that tying up a lady in a giant spider web and sending her “to the ecstasy of hell” is fundamentally wrong. I hope you can all find it in your hearts to forgive me.
Oh, and also? Those fucking Japanese are crazy.
Release Year: 1986 | Country: Japan | Starring: Shiro Shimomoto, Hiromi Saotome, Ayu Kiyokawa, Yutaka Ikejima, Utako Sarashina, Naomi Sugishita, Bunmei Tobayama, Akira Fukuda | Writer: Shuji Kataoka | Director: Shuji Kataoka | Cinematographer: Toshio Shimura | Music: Takashi Akutagawa | Producer: Daisuke Asakura