Look, I never said I was proud of the things I liked when I was kid, alright? And I’m even less proud of some of the things I watched now, some twenty years later, all excited about realizing how stupid they are only to realize that while, yes, they are pretty stupid, I still don’t dislike them nearly as much as I probably should. The fact of the matter is that those movies I saw as a wee sprout camped out on the floor of my friend’s house soaking in the warm glow of satellite television absolutely will not budge from their lofty spot of “fun” no matter how much rational thought and taste I apply in my vain attempt to dislodge them, and you all know that I am, if nothing else, a man of impeccable taste.
As has been and will forever be apparent, I harbor an epic number of obsessions, fetishes, and curiosities that provide me nigh endless material for exploring and exposing to the public. Among the ones that have yet to be mentioned is a fondness for movies about the French Foreign Legion. Not the modern one, with their modern weapons and uniforms. I mean the old one, with the white pants, blue coats, and kepis, marching through the desert because that’s what the French Foreign Legion does. Desert Sands is a high-spirited desert adventure in that style they only seemed to do in the 1950s, with plenty of dashing heroes, daring-do, romance, fiendish locals, and a French Foreign Legion battalion that seems much more like a British officers’ club.
Most folks cite the slick gangster film A Better Tomorrow as the breakout film for both director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-fat. And that is, in part, true. It was the film that made them both household names (Chow far more than Woo, at least at the time, when the name of a star was much more important than the name of a director), and it spawned hundreds of imitations. Where Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple made mainland Chinese kids want to quit school and go join the Shaolin Temple, A Better Tomorrow made Hong Kong kids wear Ray Bans and overcoats and quit school to join triad gangs. Woo the Christian pacifist must be really proud of that.
In recent years, pop culture fascination with the end of the world has resurfaced after years of dormancy during which we were all enjoying the good ol’ years of Bill Clinton, the dotcom industry, and a relatively peaceful time as long as you ignore that whole Balkan thing. Yeah, we might have used a giant asteroid to destroy Paris just for kicks from time to time, but when it comes down to ending the world, we pretty much became disinterested during the 1990s. The end of the Cold War seems to have dashed our post-apocalyptic fantasies. Gone were the days of an Evil Empire and a Red Scare. Gone were the days when middle school youths would organize themselves out in the woods to build a bomb shelter that would eventually evolve to resemble a foot deep hole covered by a sheet of warped plywood.
See, it all started back around 499 B.C. The Persian Empire was having some serious trouble with their territories along the Greek coast. The city-state of Miletus led a revolt against the Persian conquerors, but their hope that the famously fierce Sparta would rush to their aid did not come to fruition. Sparta was having enough trouble just keeping its serfs from revolting and didn’t have time to go helping other cats in a revolt of their own. The rebel city-states did find aid from Athens, however. A victory in the provincial capitol of Sardis encouraged other conquered Greek cities to rise up as well, and before they knew it, Persia was looking at a good chunk of its empire suddenly breaking away. The key to sustaining the empire was in whuppin’ the Greek mainland, specifically, in whuppin’ Athens. Sparta was a threat as well, but their hesitance to travel very far out of their own territory meant Athens was in the bullseye.
If you are familiar either with me or with my work on this site, it probably comes as no shock that I rank Gymkata as one of the most valuable players on an amazing and occasionally sparkly team. I’ve been pushing this movie on people for decades, armed at first with little more than my cherished VHS copy in its oversized gray MGM/UA box. Since then, and much to my delight, Gymkata has become a touchstone of pop culture references. People know it, even if they haven’t seen it, and knowing, as you know, is half the battle. And while some people get irritated when something they’ve been name-dropping for years suddenly gets embraced by the larger mainstream non-mainstream society (Chuck Norris karate jeans being the most recent example), I bear no ill will toward those who are late in coming to Gymkata. Lord knows there are plenty of things for which I showed up late. I don’t consider it to be some secret to be guarded jealously and to the death by fanatic soldiers armed with weird masks, AK-47s, and scimitars. As far as I’m concerned, the more people who have the word “gymkata” on their lips, the better.
In 1958, Dracula would return in name but not with the familiar face of cinema’s best-known and most beloved Dracula, Bela Lugosi. Bela would return to the screen several times as a vampire, but never again as Dracula. So Dracula returned in Return of Dracula without Bela, and Bela returned in Return of the Vampire, without Dracula. Granted, Return of the Vampire pushes Bela’s character, Armand Tesla, as close to Dracula territory as it possibly can without getting slapped with a lawsuit, but that’s all part of the fun of vamping in the aftermath of Universal’s 1931 landmark Dracula, to say nothing of the need to occasionally satisfy/pay the estate of Bram Stoker. And Dracula or not, Return of the Vampire feels like the legitimate sequel to Dracula, even if intellectual property says it isn’t. Disentangled from all that, however, we are still left with an exceptionally enjoyable horror film with a unique setting and interesting lead character.
Toei Movieland Studio hadn’t been on our official itinerary, but I convinced people to give it a try even though I was the only big Japanese movie fan in the bunch. Toei had given some of my absolute favorite sci-fi superhero shows, and the chance to see one of their studios was too good for me to pass up. After shelling out a rather hefty ¥2500 per person to get in (note: this was in 2001; it is probably more now), I quickly began to realize it wasn’t going to be as cool as I’d hoped. The entrance was was a museum of samurai and ninja articles, most of them from then upcoming movie Red Shadow. A large screen television played clips of various Toei samurai movies and histories of the studio. None of it was especially interesting, unfortunately.
In the wake of the success of Universal’s 1931 shocker Dracula, there were many attempts to continue and/or cash in on its success, but for one reason or another, Universal itself was never able to capitalize on Dracula the same way it did when it turned both Frankenstein and The Mummy (and later, The Creature from the Black Lagoon) into franchises. Even in the later monster team-up House of… films, Dracula was at best a supporting player, even when his name was in the title, and the vampire prince of darkness didn’t really interact with the other monsters (or the main storyline). The fact that Dracula was so closely identified at the time with Bela Lugosi, and that Lugosi himself never returned to the role (at least in an official capacity), probably hindered Dracula from becoming the same sort of series as did the other Universal monsters. But where Universal failed, others were ready to step in and try to hitch their wagon to the Dracula gravy train…err, or some metaphor like that. Dracula liked gravy, right?
Kaiju films were old hat in Japan by the 1970s, but elsewhere in Asia the giant monster film industry was only just getting going. Inspired by Japanese movies like Godzilla and, even more so, television shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, aspiring (or canny) filmmakers (or hucksters) in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea decided they too would pit their cities against giant monsters and invading aliens against super-sized superheroes. South Korea was among the first kaiju copycats out of the gate with 1967’s Yongary. Because it’s Asian and features an irritating little kid in tiny shorts and a dinosaur-like giant monster, most people chalk it up as a Godzilla clone. It has far more to do, though, with that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even more to do with Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961’s Gorgo. Eh, whatever the case, a dude in a rubber suit was kicking over buildings and swatting model jets out of the matte painted sky much to the delight of all.