Category Archives: Film & TV

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Bloodmoon

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Regular readers to this site may have noticed my curious affection for the DTV martial arts flick. Thus it would be churlish of me to ignore Bloodmoon, a 1997 example of the genre, seeing as it features not one but TWO of my fellow Brits. A handful of Britkickers have made names for themselves as nasty roundeye bad guy types in Hong Kong martial arts films; the likes of Mark Haughton, Sophia Crawford and Jude Poyer have all spent time getting beaten on by Asian stars du jour. Probably the most successful of these is one Gary Daniels, a remarkable martial artist who has a Judge Dredd-style square jaw, the physique of Schwarzenegger and amazing kung fu/karate/kickboxing skills, coupled with the acting ability of a wooden badger. Daniels has appeared in some 30-odd films, but is still best known as the imposing ‘Pony tail fighter’ in Wong Jing’s lame Jackie Chan vehicle City Hunter.

Joining Gary in Bloodmoon is fellow Brit Darren Shahlavi, another action type who came to video by way of Hong Kong. He has a spectacular fight at the end of arguably the last of the New Wave of period martial arts films, Yuen Woo Ping’s Tai Chi II. Also appearing is American martial artist Chuck Jeffreys, who among his other acting and stunt credits was fight choreographer on Spider-Man (the 2002 one, not the woeful old TV show). Anyway, that’s far too much trivia on fifth-banana action stars for anyone, so on with the review of Bloodmoon.

Our story opens on the nighttime New York skyline with some reassuringly bad superimposed-moon special effects — so bad in fact that they make the Evil Dead ones look downright polished. We move to a boxing gym where a badass fighter named Eddie Cunningham (Hakim Alston) is training. A banner proclaims the gym as “Home of the light heavyweight CHAMPION of the World.” Pretty soon the gym is empty and the light heavyweight CHAMPION of the World is left to lock up, standard practice for boxing CHAMPIONS I assume. Suddenly a figure appears, who intones, “there is blood on the moon” (cut to shot of fake window with big red circle painted on it). This is our villain (Shahlavi), and he cuts an imposing figure; black leather trousers, lined opera cape, metal-tipped engineer boots, Gene Simmons hairdo and a curious mask which sits somewhere between a yin-yang symbol and one of Elton John’s more outlandish eyewear choices. After a reasonably spectacular fight the boxing CHAMPION is killed by our villain’s Iron Finger technique.


Next we see a figure on a high-powered motorcycle zooming around some of Manhattan’s more memorable landmarks, in case we’d forgotten we were in New York. Apparently to get to a seedy Harlem gym you have to go via the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, and Columbus Circle, stopping on Mulberry Street for some clams at Sal Anthony’s. Although I’ve visited “la grande pomme” three times admittedly I’ve never ridden a motorbike there, so maybe this is the best way. The figure pulls up outside the boxing gym, doing a little spinning jump kick to amuse the police officers guarding the entrance. This is Detective Chuck Baker (Jeffreys) and he is a droll fellow. So droll in fact that he does a few conjuring tricks over the bloody corpse of the boxing CHAMPION. In a line of dialogue so obvious it could have come from Ed Wood’s pen, he looks down at the corpse and says, “Boys and girls, it looks like we got ourselves a homicide.” No clue is too complex for this detective it seems.

On his return to the police station Chief Hutchins chews him out. A shockingly bad Frank Gorshin plays Hutchins, in fact I haven’t seen scenery-chewing on this scale since, um… Frank Gorshin in that episode of Buck Rogers with the Legion Of Death. Hutchins is upset because the killer is taunting him with emails featuring the words “Blood on the moon”. Clearly his expertise with basic email and cheap Photoshop effects means the police consider him to be a computer genius.Meanwhile in the back room of a bar, a Tough Man CHAMPION named Dutch (played by Mr. PPV, The Whole F’n Show, Mr. Monday Night himself Rob Van Dam) is attempting to copulate with a female on top of a pinball machine. Dutch is a bit of a sh*t, we know this because he… well, he looks like one, and is played by Rob Van Dam. Oh, and he calls the girl a ‘b*tch’. Not surprisingly (and because there hasn’t been a fight for about five minutes) the killer arrives and picks a fight with Dutch, using his nifty Iron Finger strike again (I’m not kidding, he actually has two iron fingers). That’s two CHAMPIONS dead then, I wonder if the cops will notice. Sadly the police aren’t going to make this staggering revelation for another hour or so, but bear with them as there’s plenty of fun to be had before then.

Killing Rob Van Dam just isn’t on, so the Chief calls in retired cop Ken O’Hara (Daniels). Now, forgive me if your name happens to be Ken and/or O’Hara but that particular nomenclature just doesn’t have the ring of a true action hero name. Usually he would have been called Steve Ninja or Barry Fist or something, but KEN… I kept wanting to refer to him as Stig O’Hara, the famous lead guitarist of The Rutles. Anyhow Stig, I mean Ken, is introduced to us playing on the beach with his young daughter. I’m not familiar with Manhattan having only visited there a few times (I may have mentioned it in passing), but I can’t recall any beaches. Anyway I digress once again. Some nasty Manhattan beach Hell’s Angels arrive and start to cause a ruckus. Ken, man of peace that he is attempts to smooth things over, until the foolish biker thugs decide to rough up his eight year old. Boo, meanies. This is all it takes for Ken to leap, punch and spinning jump kick into action. He’s still a man of peace at heart of course, as he says, “I didn’t want to fight them; I didn’t have a choice.”


Ken is a Mind Hunter, a super-smart serial killer profiler who quit the job when he got ‘too close’ to the mind of a killer he was tracking and incidentally was horribly injured. Yes folks, we now have a kung fu cop action buddy movie Manhunter ripoff. Chuck arrives at Ken’s house to find his (estranged, naturally) wife waiting to collect their daughter. Seems that all the profiling got in the way of his marriage too. Chuck tries to convince Ken to return, but Ken refuses. “I don’t do this anymore!” he cries, the acting very nearly detectable. Next time we see Ken he is walking around his house at night. There is a thunderstorm outside, mournful soft rock on the soundtrack and angst in the air. He gazes at a photo of an old Japanese guy with a horribly fake moustache before he slips into a monochrome flashback of his torture at the hands of a psycho. “Not again!” screams Ken, in slow motion naturally.

AT THAT VERY MOMENT, the Japanese guy with the fake moustache (Ken Kensei) is meditating in his dojo. He is Master Takaido, and we assume he is a CHAMPION at something. Bad facial hair possibly. Our villain enters and sets up a nifty live video camera-modem link before Master Takaido notices him and declares his spirit unclean. There then ensues a neat Katana fight that is being beamed live by computer to police HQ. Chuck realises that they are seeing the killer at work but is too late to save the Master. Good thing too because Chuck and Ken are still at the ‘mutual dislike’ stage. They won’t reach ‘grudging respect’, let alone ‘admiration and understanding’ for a good half-hour. Of course the two are now thrown together since Master Takaido is Ken’s former Sensei, but not before they accidentally bump into each other at the darkened crime scene and duke it out for a bit.

At the crime scene they also run into Takaido’s adopted American teenage daughter Kelly (Brandie Rocci), who is probably best described as ‘spunky’. She wants to be involved with the investigation, adding a new annoying wrinkle to the plot. Chuck and Ken shake her off long enough for them and their visible boom mike to see sleazy computer hacker Justice (Jeff Pillars), who can figure out the complicated email trickery. Naturally he is a repulsive fat weasel who downloads porn and pees in a thermos. They get a location on the killer, but it’s all a big trick and they end up surrounded by drug dealers. Of course they beat the crap out of them but there’s no masked killer to be found.


Meeting Kelly in the obligatory strip club, the petite blonde takes out a gang of unruly guys who are hitting on her. Ken neglects to help, claiming she is “a former national CHAMPION”. Good job the killer wasn’t there to overhear that, eh? Oh, hang on…who’s that guy in the Gene Simmons wig? Naturally the killer turns up at Kelly’s place shortly thereafter, and a fight ensues. A word on this. I have no problem with guys in wigs doubling women in fight scenes, even when the woman in question is wearing panties and a bathrobe. However if this is a road you choose to go down, it’s not a good idea to let said male stunt double do backflips in which his pink-cotton clad hairy nutsack is clearly visible.

After a short interlude while Ken saves his marriage by going on some fairground rides, our heroes find another dead guy, this time with the word “CHAMP” written next to the body in blood. This actually gives the game away to our doofus cops. “It’s been here all along!” says Ken. No shit, Sherlock. It seems that Master Takaido once held a tournament called the Masters’ Challenge, in which different martial arts champions fought each other. Most of them have been victims, except for two — have a guess if you think our guys pick the wrong one. Meanwhile the real killer lures Kelly to his house and kills her.

By the time Chuck and Ken find Kelly, the killer has kidnapped Ken’s newly reconciled wife and kid. He straps them to a bomb and demands Ken face him in Mortal Kombat…sorry, wrong movie. Naturally it only remains for Ken, Chuck, and the killer to face of in an abandoned factory, the discerning bad movie’s location of choice. If you think Ken kills the bad guy and saves his family…you’d be wrong actually. This movie has a very odd cop-out ending which makes very little sense.

Apart from all that, how is the movie? Well, I daresay there’s some acting in here somewhere but I’m buggered if I can find it. Gary Daniels has spent a long career saying very American-sounding lines in an English accent, something that never works very well. Jeffreys is OK, Rocci is irritating, and Shahlavi has an evil laugh that he must have borrowed from an 80s cartoon. Frank Gorshin deserved an award of some kind for his performance, which is hammier than the pork products stand at a pig auction. Still, all of them are better than the daytime TV rejects playing Ken’s wife and daughter.

Still, this is a kung fu movie so who cares about acting? How does he movie fare to those who like extra chop with their socky? Well, fortunately it does quite well. Director/choreographer Tony Leung Siu Hung worked on such Hong Kong fare as In The Line Of Duty 3, To Be Number One, and Satin Steel, and he puts together some nice action scenes. Luckily he has three very talented martial artists to perform them, with a decent cast of support victims, who lay just enough smack down before dying horribly. There are even some Crouching Tiger-style wire stunts, including at least two where the wire isn’t clearly visible.

My main criticism of the film is that it looks cheap – Ng See Yuen and Seasonal films, the folks behind seminal classics like Drunken Master, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, and Secret Rivals produced it. The problem here is the same one that has dogged other Seasonal American productions; you get a lot more bang for your buck in HK than in the USA. The amazing computer graphics look like the sort of thing I could have done on my previous PC with the software that came free with my old printer. A shame, because with a bit more attention to detail this could have been a bargain-basement classic.

As it is the best thing to do is fast-forward to the fight scenes and try not to laugh at the killer’s costume. Or he’ll kick your ass, CHAMP.

Release Year: 1997 | Country: United States | Starring: Gary Daniels, Chuck Jeffreys, Frank Gorshin, Darren Shahlavi, Nina Repeta, Leigh Jones, Jeffrey Pillars, Brandie Rocci, Keith Vitali, Joe Hess, Rob Van Dam, Jen Sung Outerbridge, Michael Depasquale Jr., Ken Kensei, Joe Lewis, Rebecca Rogers, Hakim Alston | Screenplay: Keith W. Strandberg | Director: Kuang Hsiung | Cinematography: Derek Wan | Music: Richard Yuen | Producer: Ng See-Yuen, Keith W. Strandberg

ultifeat

Ultimax Force

Back in the 1980s, American pop consciousness got really obsessed with the Vietnam War. Serious questions about what the war meant to the American psyche manifested in a variety of mediums, none so readily exploitable as film. And film, like Bo Gritz, became obsessed with exploiting the notion that American POWs were still being held captive in Communist Vietnam. Gritz, amid a flurry of self-promotion and with a team comprised at least partly of bikini chicks wearing t-shirts about how awesome Bo Gritz and his howlin’ commandos were, set up shop in Thailand and began crowing about mounting rescue expeditions. Dealing with a KIA family member can be devastating; dealing with an MIA is often even worse. As far as I know, Gritz never actually amounted to much other than a huckster, and although Vietnam began a program of finding and returning remains of American servicemen, there was never any secret cache of POWs discovered. But the idea had taken root, and once that idea took root, American cinema was quick to send a seeming endless parade of would be heroes who didn’t fight in the actual war to win it for us after the fact in make believe. Uncommon Valor was the most respectable. Rambo: First Blood Part II was the most iconic.

And Ultimax Force is the movie that asked the question: what if Rambo was ninjas?

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The Tell-Tale Heart

TTheart_feat

Yes, it’s yet another review where I talk about a British movie company that isn’t Hammer wherein I mention Hammer every other word. Sorry about that, I’ll try and get it out of my system early on. Hammer Hammer Hammer. The problem is, most writing on the lower tier of British film companies in the 50s and 60s was on H*****, since they were the most successful both commercially and artistically. Other companies that made genre films, such as Amicus, have garnered critical interest by association through shared casts and crews. Part of this is because Hammer (and Amicus too on some occasions) could take a B-movie budget and create something that looked like an A-movie, um, movie. But beneath Hammer there were a whole strata of other companies that made real B-movies, the ones that were only ever destined to be second features or, with a bit of luck, entries in cheap TV anthology shows. It’s only recently that these films have gained any sort of academic and collector interest.

The businesses in question have pleasantly workaday, provincial names; Butcher’s Film Service, Grand National Films, Present Day Productions, Adelphi Films and the legendary cheapest of the cheap, Danziger Productions. This company was founded by Jewish-American brothers, Edward J. and Harry Lee Danziger, who had what one would have to describe as chequered pasts. Edward was a lawyer who had been involved in the Nuremberg trials during his army service. Harry Lee studied music at the New York Academy, and depending on whose account you believe had either played trumpet in a cruise ship band, or been first violinist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He’d also found time to explore the Amazon and win a Silver Star and Purple Heart. At some point he even managed to market a brand of liqueur, Danziger Gold, so called because of the bits of gold floating in it.


The brothers had previously operated a sound studio in New York, specialising in the dubbing of foreign films for American release. Later they switched to producing features of their own in the US before trying their luck in Britain. The reason the Danzigers abandoned their homeland is, like everything else about them, somewhat murky, though it may have been to avoid the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist. They saw the film business as just that; the cheaper you could make the product, the more profit you stood to retain. And the Danzigers made them cheap; as Edward once observed, “nobody makes ‘em cheaper!” It was something of a running joke/horror story among the London acting community, if your current employment was less than salubrious; ‘it could be worse, you could be making a film for the Danzigers.’ Actors who were smart took their salaries in cash on a daily basis.

Initially Edward and Harry Lee rented space from existing facilities, but this was uneconomical for their thrifty productions. After failing to buy Beaconsfield Studios, the brothers purchased some land not far from the famous Elstree. The site contained abandoned aircraft engine testing sheds from world war II. They expanded and converted these buildings into well-equipped soundstages, naming the complex with some hubris ‘New Elstree.’ From here they could knock out a movie in ten days and an episode of TV in two and a half. And knock them out they did; like the rest of the B-producers, mostly murder mysteries and comedy, though with the occasional foray into sci-fi (Devil Girl From Mars, Satellite in the Sky). They called on a stable of solid actors who weren’t stars, or at least not yet – Venerated Horror Icon Christopher Lee starred in a pre-Hammer film entitled Alias John Preston for the company, bemoaning his salary of £75. Other actors would pop up regularly, including Francis Matthews and Dermot Walsh (there was some kind of rule that two out of every three Brit B-pictures had to star Dermot Walsh). Occasionally other companies would rent space at the studio – Quatermass II (a.k.a. Enemy From Space) was filmed there. The Danzigers actually became very successful at TV series, with Mark Saber/Saber of London and Richard the Lionheart (starring, yes, Dermot Walsh) being especially popular.


I’m not really sure why the brothers chose to go with an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, outside of their habit of ‘adapting’ previously existing material, often without credit (rip-off is such an ugly word, isn’t it?). True, interest in horror films based on classic literary works was exploding thanks to, er, some outfit who’s name may or may not begin with an ‘H’. It’s even possible The Tell-Tale Heart was an attempt to hitch a ride on the success of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation Fall of the House of Usher. This was released in the UK in the summer of 1960, and if anyone could knock out a cash-in movie in record time, it was the Danzigers. As it happened, The Tell-Tale Heart sat on the shelf for a further three years, and wasn’t released until after the brothers had pulled out of film and TV production altogether (again for somewhat murky reasons, though the studio not being profitable enough is one likely cause). But more on that a little later.

The film starts with a classic Universal-style warning, including a title card with the following cautionary information: “To those who are squeamish, or react nervously to shock…” (there follows a blank screen with the sound of a relentless, sinister beating heart) “close your eyes, and do not look at the screen again until it stops!” The effect is spoiled a little by the ‘boingggg!’ of a kettle drum as the beating starts – composers Tony Crombie and Bill LeSage seemed to think this was a sinister sound as they used it throughout the score, but the effect is sadly more comedic.

When we rejoin the action, we find a man screaming in the grip of a nightmare. His landlady and a friend burst in on him, crying “Mr Poe! Edgar!” The author (for it is allegedly he) takes some form of medication, then drifts off into another dream, where he is now Edgar Marsh (Laurence Payne, TV’s Sexton Blake and both versions of The Trollenberg Terror). Marsh is a timid reference librarian, desperately shy around women, and only able to express any kind of sexuality via his stash of smutty, nude daguerreotypes. Poor guy, if only there had been a worldwide web in Victorian times. Maybe with some kind of cool, steam-powered brass computers to download from ‘Mrs. Arbuthnot’s Celebrated Collection of the Empire’s Finest Suicide Girls, dot com.’ I’m pretty sure speculative fiction writers have imagined a steampunk version of everything else, so why not steampunk internet porn?


Where was I?

Oh yes. From the window of his bedroom, Edgar can see into the chamber of sexy flower shop employee Betty Claire (the lovely Adrienne Corri, Vampire Circus). Edgar is immediately smitten, but is too nervous to talk to her. He asks his much more worldly friend Carl Loomis (the inevitable Dermot Walsh, Ghost Ship) for advice. With Carl’s help, Edgar manages to persuade Betty to join him for dinner, but he’s still painfully shy. Escorting her home, Edgar is afraid the stairway to Betty’s room is too dark and asks to see her to the door. This is somewhat amusing since the interior set is extremely well lit, though we’re clearly meant to think it isn’t. To Corri’s credit she manages to read her line – about a mean landlady refusing to waste money on candles – with a straight face. Anyway, at the door Edgar makes a clumsy pass, and is given his marching orders.

The next day, Edgar is distraught and apologises profusely. Betty, taking pity on the shy fellow, agrees on another date. Unfortunately at the restaurant it’s quickly obvious she is finding Edgar very tiresome, though he remains oblivious. By coincidence Carl is dining there too. Edgar is delighted to see his friend, while Betty is immediately taken with the confident and handsome Carl. Betty is so besotted she fabricates an excuse to interrupt Edgar’s chess game the next day, because she knows Carl is his opponent. To Carl’s credit he warns Edgar not get in too deep, as he can clearly see what sort of woman Betty is. His words fall on deaf ears though; Edgar is already planning to ask for Betty’s hand in marriage. Poor Edgar is now looking like something of an idiot, what with Carl’s reluctance to hurt his friend crumbling, and Betty all but tearing Carl’s pants off in public. Unfortunately that night Edgar, having been rebuffed once more, observes Carl having his fiendish way with Betty in her room. The next morning Carl says he’ll break it to Edgar gently, though Betty doesn’t care as long as they’re together. But Carl never gets the chance; that night the supposedly sick Edgar sends for him, only to beat him to death with a poker.


After Carl has been missing for a few days, Betty contacts the police. The Inspector (John Scott, who had a long career playing policemen in bit parts) is unimpressed. This is not the first time Carl as fled town to avoid either gambling debts or an overly-attentive woman. She visits Edgar at work, and he feigns surprise at the level of her concern for his friend. In fact Edgar seems generally more relaxed and confident around her. However, later that night he is disturbed by persistent, repetitive noises; a clock, a dripping faucet, and finally the beating of Carl’s restless heart from beneath the drawing room floorboards. Betty observes the deterioration in Edgar’s behaviour as the heart torments him, and becomes suspicious. She sees Edgar return from hacking out Carl’s heart and burying it in the park, and realises that he must have have seen their deceitful night of passion. The police are still not interested though, what with Edgar being a respectable member of the community (I love the idea that a reference librarian is surely not capable of committing such a horrible crime).

Betty has no option but to sneak into Edgar’s house while he’s out trying to drown his sorrows. She finds the bloodstained, bent poker and takes it to the police. Finally the Inspector agrees to question him, but Edgar can hardly make out his words as he now hears nothing but the beating of the heart. Unable to stand it any more, Edgar is driven to make a mad confession. He is shot and killed by the Inspector as he tries to escape, and for good measure gets impaled on a spike (which just happened to have been standing in his hallway, apparently). We then jump back to author-Edgar, who tells his friend Carl about this latest horrible dream, how they were both there along with a mysterious girl. Looking from the window, Edgar sees a woman resembling Betty, and the heart begins to beat once more…


The Tell-Tale Heart was among Poe’s most filmed stories even by the time of this adaptation, including a celebrated animated version from a couple of years earlier. The Danzigers’ regular writers, Eldon Howard (Edward’s father-in-law) and future Avengers creator Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter), got around this by throwing out almost all of the original text. In the short story – which like a lot of Poe’s work, puts the emphasis firmly on ‘short’ – the narrator kills his elderly landlord because he’s afraid of the old man’s evil eye. Howard and Clemens add an entirely new framework in much the same way Richard Matheson did with Pit and the Pendulum, retaining only the element of the beating heart itself. And the script is extremely good, providing just enough character beats for us to know immediately who these people are. We aren’t explicitly told why Edgar is so terrified and repressed around ladies, but the way he gently caresses a portrait of a stern older woman (presumably his mother) tells us all we need to know.

The cast, despite being made up of B-listers, is excellent. Laurence Payne has to do most of the heavy lifting, and he’s well up to the task. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom as Edgar guilelessly raves about his best friend to Betty, oblivious to the fact that she’s almost drooling in his presence. Edgar’s rage and descent into madness could slip into the ridiculous in the hands of a lesser actor, but Payne makes it feel very real and tragic. It’s to his credit that Edgar remains sympathetic even after his terrible crime. Dermot Walsh is also very good, mixing the confidence of the cad-about-town with a genuine reluctance to hurt his friend, and then guilt at having done so. Adrienne Corri has the least enviable task, as her character is probably the least likeable. Betty does little to hide her boredom with Edgar or her lust for Carl, and is clearly indifferent to hurting her first suitor’s feelings. It’s quite satisfying that, although she survives the film (or story-within-a-film), she has to live with the death and dismemberment of her lover.


Director Ernest Morris was a regular on television and the B-picture circuit, working with the Danzigers frequently. He turns in some excellent work here, helped by Jimmy Wilson’s stark black & white cinematography and Norman G. Arnold & Peter Russell’s production design. The Danzigers’ movies often borrowed furniture from The Mayfair Hotel, which they also owned, but the results are impressive. The studio-bound nature of the film (including backlot exteriors on New Elstree’s standing street set) serves to reinforce the sense of claustrophobia and repression in Edgar’s life. Morris makes the most of close-ups on Laurence Payne’s distraught, haggard face, and the sparingly-used special effects (a rug or patch of grass pulsing along with the heartbeat) are very effective. Morris’s best work comes in a scene where Edgar, Betty and Carl go out to dinner. As Edgar and Betty dance, the camera focuses on her gaze, always fixated on Carl even as she is spun around the floor by the delighted, oblivious Edgar.

Which isn’t to say that the film is perfect by any means. The score doesn’t always jibe with what’s happening onscreen, especially as far as that bloody kettle drum goes. The scenes with the police inspector smack a little too much of filler, though not to the extent of most B-pictures of this era. And there are a few amusing missteps, such as Edgar living on the Rue Morgue – it’s pretty clear the film is supposed to be set in London, or at least another English city. This certainly isn’t the only film to make the mistake that Victorian prostitutes were sexy young things rather than prematurely-aged, gin soaked derelicts, but it’s an anachronism that always amuses me.


Though The Tell-Tale Heart must rank among the best work to come out of the Danzigers’ operation, it wasn’t released until after they’d abandoned filmmaking. The movie struggled with the British Board of Film Censors due to the gory and sexual content. In particular, a film where the main character is a voyeur with definite women issues, was troublesome coming in the wake of Peeping Tom earlier the same year. It seems the Danzigers didn’t have the same type of collaborative relationship with the BBFC that Hammer did, and The Tell-Tale Heart languished unreleased until 1963. Thankfully it’s now available on DVD, though if you want to see it I’d recommend the remastered UK release. The American disc from Alpha Video uses a misframed, blown-out print that does the film no favours at all. As well as being a great little movie and one of the best British B-films, The Tell-Tale Heart is a pleasant reminder of when movie producers were fast-talking, cigar-chomping* chancers who were out to make a quick buck, but could sometimes create great work almost by accident. As Brian Clemens said of the Danzigers in a recent interview, “they weren’t the Mafia. But they were close.”

*n.b. I have no evidence that the Danzigers spoke above normal speed or smoked cigars, chomped or otherwise. But you get the idea.

Release Year: 1963 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Laurence Payne, Adrienne Corri, Dermot Walsh, Selma Vaz Díaz, John Scott, John Martin, Annette Carell, David Lander, Rosemary Rotheray, Suzanne Fuller, Yvonne Buckingham, Pamela Plant, Graham Ashley | Screenplay: Brian Clemens, Eldon Howard | Director: Ernest Morris | Cinematography: Jimmy Wilson | Music: Tony Crombie, Bill LeSage | Producer: Edward J. & Harry Lee Danziger

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Legend of the Werewolf

As the only contributor to Teleport City who resides in the fine country of Great Britain (and it is fine, despite most of it seeming to be on fire as I write this), I like to be able to bring you the occasional bit of Brit weirdness. Of course the brilliant minds at T.C. are already familiar with much of the classic and cult cinema exported by the likes of Hammer, Amicus and others, but today I’m going with something a trifle more obscure. Today’s review subject is one of the few releases by an ill-fated outfit named Tyburn Film Productions.

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feats

Taking of Beverly Hills


Every old fart knows the 80s were the golden era of the big, stupid action movie. As for exactly which of the many bloated, gloriously moronic 80s action movies was the ultimate 80s action movie — well, I’m sure no one agrees on that. Cases can be made for everything from Commando to Die Hard to Bloodsport. For my money, though, the ultimate 80s action movie might be the awesomely boneheaded The Taking of Beverly Hills. It’s not the biggest 80s action movie, and certainly not the best or best known. And in fact, it wasn’t made in the 1980s at all, but came out in that transitional year of 1991 when we had put away our parachute pants but still hadn’t forsaken our billowy Chess King shirts. Despite the production date, however, no other action film contains such a perfect and complete distillation of the 80s attitude as The Taking of Beverly Hills, a movie about a bunch of spoiled millionaires who are taken advantage of by a slightly meaner millionaire until another millionaire steps up to the plate to blow stuff up. It’s the cinematic embodiment of the Me Generation, even more so than Wall Street (which purports to moralize about geed and selfishness) and with way more exploding Rolls Royces. Hell, The Taking of Beverly Hills is like someone got drunk and was like, “What if Wall Street was Die Hard?!?” Even the music, which is dripping with synths and saxophones, is quintessentially 80s.

Star Ken Wahl, who who once shot an uzi at Klaus Kinski while pulling sweet 360s on the ski slopes and listening to Tangerine Dream in the movie The Soldier, stars here as lunkheaded superstar quarterback Boomer Hayes, though I think we’re actually supposed to think he’s somewhat smarter and more sensitive than the average football player — a character trait communicated by having him trade charity guest appearances for sex. Wahl, looking beefier than he did just a few years earlier, never really made it to the upper echelon, or even the second tier for that matter, of action stars, though it’s not necessarily any fault of his. The second tier was occupied by Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme, and those egos took up a lot of space.

Boomer and his wicked mullet (there was a law at the time that every quarterback, real or fictional, had to sport a mullet) are making an appearance at a posh Beverly Hills charity event also attended by smug millionaire Robert Masterson (the always awesome Robert Davi, who I think has played a smug criminal in every single role he’s ever had). Masterson is the usual “money can’t buy you class” sort of asshole these movies love, so all the people who were born into money can tsk-tsk the uncouthness of the guy who actually earned his millions. Boomer also meets harried cop Ed Kelvin (Matt Frewer), who provides us with the movie’s trite lesson about how all the people who work in Beverly Hills can’t afford to live there, and heiress Laura Sage (Harley Jane Kozak), with whom he will engage in the aforementioned sex-for-donations transaction — and you thought that was going to be between Boomer and Matt Frewer!


Boomer and Laura retire to his mansion to cavort in a bubble bath, where they don’t have to see or hear about poor people. Weirdly, it’s Boomer who does most of the sexy writhing in the bath — score one for equality, but only if you think “sexy writhing” includes flailing your feet around and sculpting yourself some wicked wizard beards out of bubbles. Meanwhile, Officer Kelvin runs across a careening tanker truck that soon crashes and spills toxic chemicals all over the place. A state of emergency is called, and Beverly Hills is evacuated of all its residents — except for Boomer, who was too busy making bubble beards to hear all the sirens or the sounds of his bedmate shouting downstairs and being escorted away by the cops. Then comes the kicker — there is no toxic spill. The entire thing was a ruse orchestrated by a gang of bitter ex-cops who were sick of watching over a bunch of self-centered Beverly Hills millionaires and so have now decided to rob the neighborhood blind. Of course, they didn’t count on that most classic of action movie evil-scheme monkeywrenches — the righteous football player.

Before too long, Boomer has stumbled onto the plot, and in about the same amount of time, Ed Kelvin discovers that his fellow conspirators aren’t as hesitant to shoot innocents in the head as he is. This leads to the confused beat cop teaming up with the quarterback to put an end to the madness. They’re an interesting duo, though Frewer plays his semi-dirty cop a little too whiny for my taste. Neither of them are particularly good at being action heroes. Kelvin is too distraught over a combination of having had a part in the plan, trying to extricate himself from the madness, and worrying about the fact that even if he survives, he’s doing time. Boomer is a football god, but unlike most movies where being a football player equips you with the skills and technical knowledge of a Navy SEAL, it’s obvious he’s in way over his head. As the two alternately try to escape from Beverly Hills or put an end to the robbery scheme, a lot of windows get broken, and a lot of stuff blows up. There will be more tortured football analogies than you could possibly imagine, and at one point Ken Wahl fights a SWAT tank!

Then he gets a bag of ninja throwing stars.


Much of The Taking of Beverly Hills is dumb as a brick, but at the same time, some of it is kind of clever. The robbery scheme is pretty well thought out if entirely implausible, but it’s only implausible in the real world. In the world of action cinema, it’s a perfectly workable scheme. Because Beverly Hills is to Los Angeles what The Vatican is to Rome, it’s the perfect place for the heist. The police department, electrical grid, and phone system are all self-contained. Many of the action movies of the 80s and early 90s spillover could be summarized as “Die Hard in a…” and it’s pretty obvious that The Taking of Beverly Hills is really just “Die Hard in a city,” before Die Hard With a Vengeance was “Die Hard in a city.” And The Taking of Beverly Hills is a better “Die Hard in a city” than Die Hard with a Vengeance was. Even if it’s just a Die Hard clone — complete with a ridiculously convoluted scheme meant to cover a different, even more convoluted scheme — the movie moves along at a quick pace and manages to be, if not actually clever, then at the very least breezily enjoyable.


Director Sydney J. Furie was an accomplished director with a couple classics (including the spectacular Michael Caine spy thriller The IPCRESS File) and a couple not quite classics (the strange Vietnam war soccer movie The Boys in Company C) under his belt, as well as more than a few goofy 80s action films (including Iron Eagle) and one certifiable abomination (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), though blame for that dung pile is squarely on the shoulders of Christopher Reeves and the Cannon Film Group far more than it is on Furie. For The Taking of Beverly Hills, Furie brought with him his long-time screenwriting collaborator Rick Natkin, who brought with him his sometimes collaborator, David Fuller. You wouldn’t think a movie as mindlessly silly and entertaining as this would need three writers, and you’d be right. It actually had four writers. Somehow, TV writer David J. Burke was thrown into the mix as well.


Usually, the more writers you have on a film, the worse it gets, but this team somehow managed to click, and they keep the plot relatively lean and fast-moving. You have to forgive certain aspects of the film, mind you, chief among them being that the story never really gives us any reason to like Boomer all that much. He’s a rich football player who trades charity appearances for sex, but I guess in the roll call of football player crimes, the fact that the sex he solicits is at least consensual elevates him above most. Still, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the snotty millionaires getting robbed of things that are insured anyway — yeah, it turns out that the whole scheme has actually been orchestrated by Robert Davi (no spoiler — it’s fucking Robert Davi! Did you think he was going to be a good guy?) so he can shame and bankrupt Laura’s father, who happens to be CEO of the insurance company most of Beverly Hills uses. The script has to have the cop gang senselessly killing people, otherwise, as far as most Americans would be concerned, the crooks would be the good guys.

Ultimately, Boomer succeeds as an action hero because Ken Wahl — and not necessarily because he’s good. Wahl seems perpetually confused throughout the movie. Whether this is intentional or simply the result of Wahl being a bad actor in this instance is unknown and unimportant, because perpetually confused is the exact state of mind a guy like him should be in when caught up in the middle of such an ludicrous criminal scheme. Plus, his Boomer copies the one thing from Die Hard that many clones forget — he’s wounded. When the movie begins, Boomer has been hobbled by a knee injury, and for most of the movie, he’s plagued by the injury that keeps him from being any sort of unstoppable killing machine. He also doesn’t know much about guns (I would say he could learn a thing or two from Plaxico Burress, but all Plaxico did was manage to shoot himself in the leg), and much of his success in fighting the gang of cops comes from luck, knowing the lay of the land, and help from his reluctant sidekick Officer Kelvin. Speaking of which, I have to say that although I like Matt Frewer (Max Headroom, Eureka) a lot, he’s pretty annoying in this. The script’s one misstep is mistaking “whiny and annoying” for comic relief. It is, of course, not the first script to do that, nor would it be the last.


There’s very little to say about the rest of the cast. Former Fear frontman turned competent character actor Lee Ving (Streets of Fire) is basically wasted. I feel like Davi, one of those great “assholes” of the era (though no one is as good at it as William Atherton), is somewhat under-exploited. We know he can be a lot smarmier than he’s allowed to be here. The dame in the story has even less to do than usual, and most of the cops are just there to stand at roadblocks or jump backwards into swimming pools after Ken Wahl throws something at them. The only supporting character of note is Branscombe Richmond — whose real name sounds like he should be one of the millionaire characters in this movie. Richmond is “best known” for his recurring roll as Bobby Sixkiller, Lorenzo Lamas’ buddy in Renegade, but he pops up in all sorts of the more outrageous action films, including Commando, Showdown in Little Tokyo, and the unspeakably awesome Never Too Young to Die. In this one, he’s hooting and hollering and gunning people down and tearing around (and through) Beverly Hills in a SWAT assault vehicle.

Buried somewhere beneath all the exploding and things being thrown (although there are guns everywhere, Boomer is a QB, so naturally he prefers throwing things at people) there might be the hint that The Taking of Beverly Hills is playing itself as a straight-faced satire of the genre. By 1991, 80s action films were obviously self-aware (not that they hadn’t always been a largely tongue-in-cheek genre), so playing one for laughs without drawing attention to the fact really wouldn’t have resulted in a movie substantially different from one that wasn’t satire. Whatever the case, critics and audiences were unkind to The Taking of Beverly Hills. It was pretty roundly savaged by reviewers and never made a splash with viewers. There had apparently been some hope that it would be a hit — someone even tried to make a video game of it back in the day! Too bad it didn’t pan out. I honestly enjoyed the hell out of The Taking of Beverly Hills. It is phenomenally dumb and ridiculous, but always in a highly enjoyable way. There’s massive amounts of (relatively bloodless) carnage, the wanton destruction of lots of luxury items, an uneven but enjoyable cast, a quick pace, and a few laughs. Oh, and ninja stars! I might even consider it a forgotten classic of the genre.

Release Year: 1991 | Country: United States | Starring: Ken Wahl, Matt Frewer, Harley Jane Kozak, Robert Davi, Lee Ving, Branscombe Richmond, Lyman Ward, Michael Bowen, William Prince, Michael Kehoe, Mark Haining, Jason Blicker, Tony Ganios, Ken Swofford | Screenplay: Rick Natkin, David Fuller, David Burke | Director: Sidney J. Furie | Cinematography: Frank E. Johnson | Music: Jan Hammer | Producer: Graham Henderson

TWI09

The Twilight People

Eddie Romero is an important figure in the history of U.S. – Philippines relations, or at least he is to the extent that U.S. – Philippines relations depend upon the import and export of quality drive-in fare. As a producer and director, Romero pioneered the practice within the Filipino film industry of tailoring product for the American market, usually with the participation of American producers. Who knows what butterfly-effect-like calamities might otherwise have befallen our great country, denied exposure to the films in Romero’s Blood Island trilogy, or his classic WIP picture Black Mama, White Mama? The mind positively reels.

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Little Big Soldier

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You are probably like me, at least in some ways. Many of you were Jackie Chan fans. You came in during the wild, wild days of Police Story, Project A, and Dragons Forever, or maybe a couple years later it was Drunken Master II that turned you on to Jackie. Or hell, maybe you’re even older than me, and you were around for Young Master and Dragon Lord. Whatever the case, you knew the first time you saw one of those movies that it was something special. You became obsessed, started haunting the local VHS-stocking Chinese supermarkets in search of Jackie Chan movies you’d never heard of. You began scouring other video stores for the rare dubbed domestic releases. Or you decided that it was time to enter the seedy shadow world of tape trading. Anything to get your hands on another movie, or hell, even a scrap of information. At the time, there was no world wide web. There was no Netflix. If you wanted info on Jackie Chan, or any other Hong Kong movie makers, your only sources were Rick Meyers’ column in Inside Kung Fu magazine, and word of mouth.

I’ve been a fan of Hong Kong cinema since about 1989. Pretty much all of us who got into the films around that time did so by seeing either The Killer or Police Story, released in the United States as Jackie Chan’s Police Force. For me, it was Police Story. I was over at my friend Dave’s house. He was the one who was responsible for really sending me off the deep end of obscure film collecting. Usually, we convened in his basement to watch whatever ridiculous splatter film had been released that week, but on that night, he decided to trot out a sampling of stuff that had recently been sent to him. And that’s how I first saw Police Force.

Oh, I’d seen Jackie Chan movies before; I just didn’t know it. We had the old “Kung Fu Theater” broadcast on the weekends, so I’d caught Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Spiritual Kung Fu, and a few others. But I didn’t know Jackie Chan from Hwang Jang-li at the time. It wasn’t until I was watching that ridiculously insane opening action sequence in Police Story, with Jackie dangling off a speeding bus and driving through — literally through — a shanty town, that I learned his name and knew there was something about him that… well, to be honest, something about him that wasn’t quite right, but in the most glorious way.

For years, being a Jackie Chan fan was challenging but rewarding. If you lived somewhere other than a major urban area, you really had to work to find any of his movies. I used to drive upwards of an hour to a Vietnamese grocery store on Preston Highway in Louisville. They stocked a modest but well-chosen selection of Hong Kong films there, most dubbed into Vietnamese. And if you think English language dubbing is bad, well let me tell you: nothing can prepare you for the horrors of a bad Vietnamese dub. I remember sitting down to watch A Chinese Ghost Story II off a tape that had been dubbed into Vietnamese. There were like four people doing the dubbing for all the characters, not bothering to try and do different voices. Whoever wasn’t working at the moment was sitting in the background having a conversation of their own, unrelated to the movie, and at some point, everyone started eating lunch. If one of them had to do a line while their mouth was full, well, no worries. Just mumble it out as best you can.

When I moved to Florida, things were better and worse. There was only one store in Gainesville that stocked any movies at all — an extremely meager selection of bootlegs, though that didn’t matter to me since the cranky middle aged guy behind the counter refused to rent his crummy bootleg videotapes to non-Chinese people. Luckily, Orlando has a pretty huge (for Florida) Asian population, and there was a grocery store there called Trung My that stocked hundreds and hundreds of tapes – originals, at that. It was a glorious wonderland with absolutely no organization whatsoever. Tapes were piled three rows deeps on the shelves. If you had a particular movie in mind, you better have worn your expedition gear and brought a sleeping bag, because you were probably going to be there for a while. But if you simply wanted to stumble across something amazing, then you didn’t have much work to do.

The drawback, though, was that Orlando was about a two hour drive from Gainesville. For a college kid with no money for food, let alone gas, it was a substantial investment of time and money just to rent a movie. It was good fortune, then, that Trung My’s tapes cost a buck to rent for a whole week. So we could assemble a team of hungry Hong Kong movie fans, split the cost of the trip, and rent four or five movies at once, also picking up some tasty treats from the local bun shop. Oh yeah — we’d also stop in at Fairvilla Video, but umm, well… I guess if you’re from the Orlando area, you know what that means.

During our whole era of discovering something a billion other people already took to be common knowledge, a couple things were occurring that would begin to alter the landscape for Jackie Chan fans. First, Jackie was getting older. And second, the end of British stewardship of the island nation was fast approaching. Staring down the gun of a return to being governed by the Chinese mainland — the last time Hong Kong had been subject to Chinese rule, there were still emperors in the Forbidden City — a lot of the big names in the Hong Kong film industry started looking toward England, Canada, and the United States as a new base of operation. The US, in particular, meant having a stab at Hollywood, and even for a film industry as huge and accomplished as Hong Kong’s, making it in Hollywood still held an undeniable seduction — like how even the most accomplished online writer still dreams of getting a book deal, even though a book would probably be read by fewer people than a successful website.

So in the middle of the 1990s, a lot of the people who built the Hong Kong film industry into the global juggernaut it became in the 1980s jumped ship. Some did so with no intention of returning to Hong Kong and subjecting themselves to the uncertain tenderness of the Communist government in Beijing. Many others decided to try a balancing act, working in Holly wood while also maintaining their career in Hong Kong. What we all should have foreseen, though, was that handover in 1997 was the least of Hong Kong cinema’s concerns. for years — decades, actually — the industry had been controlled by organized crime. For a while, this meant that there was enough money being pumped into the industry to finance any ridiculous piece of crap a film maker could crank out. But as uncertainty over the future began to grow, and as actors and directors began to organize opposition to triad control, the gangsters who controlled huge chunks of the film industry began to gut it.

At the same time, piracy reached such rampant levels that even the most popular movies struggled at the box office. Dirt cheap VCDs of big movies were available weeks before the movie itself was released, resulting in no one bothering to go see a movie at the theater. It was all too much for the increasingly fragile shell to support. By the new millennium, the Hong Kong film industry came crashing down.

Jackie Chan’s career seemed to be on a similar trajectory. He tried his hand in Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Things started out promising. Rush Hour was watchable, and Shanghai Noon was, in my opinion, quite good. Each movie got a sequel (or two), and while I like Shanghai Knights pretty well, I can’t remember a thing about Rush Hour 2, and I never even bothered to finish Rush Hour 3 — and that was on while I was on a plane, with nothing else to do. The need in Hollywood to stuff Jackie into increasingly dopey comedies resulted in him starring in all sorts of stuff that probably never should have been made, and his age coupled with the much heavier focus on insurance and avoiding broken necks that prevails in American film making meant that the Jackie we got in America was not the Jackie we’d grown to love in Hong Kong.

His Hong Kong films fared better for a while. the late 90s and early 2000’s saw the release of a lot of Jackie Chan films I liked: Who Am I, Accidental Spy, Mr. Nice Guy — no classics among them, but for me, plenty enjoyable. Jackie himself seemed to have entered a self-destructive phase, though. Drinking heavily, making a tabloid spectacle of himself multiple times, getting exposed as a rotten husband and father in a series of scandals — if it was a lukewarm time to be a Jackie Chan fan, it was a bad time to be Jackie Chan (and an even worse time to be his wife). His personal demons seemed to manifest themselves most famously in 2006, when a drunken Chan meandered out of the audience and stumbled onto the stage in the middle of a concert by Taiwanese pop idol Jonathan Lee. Chan capered about, demanded to sing a duet, tried to conduct the band, and then threw some slurred insults at the crowd. It didn’t do a lot to revive his waning popularity.

And then the movies really started to reflect the crumbling personal life. His Hong Kong films went from good to bad, and his American films went from middling to unwatchable, with pretty much everyone pegging The Tuxedo as the worst Jackie Chan movie ever made. Through it all, a core group of people stuck with him, hoping against hope that we would once again see the light of day, that Jackie would pull himself together, make amends with his estranged family and fans, and remind us all of why we came to love him so much. Things were grim through these years, filled as they were with Robin B. Hood, The Medallion, The Myth, and The Spy Next Door. One by one, those who had done their best to stick by Jackie — not excuse him, mind you — fell away, until eventually, even the most die hard of his fans had no reason at all to do anything other than give up on him.

And then something happened. In 2009, Chan made Shinjuku Incident. It was not the Jackie Chan movie people expected. Even his best films have been filled with dippy comedy and ham-fisted mugging for the camera, but this movie saw a much grimmer Chan, something more along the lines of the glimpse we got in Ringo Lam’s Crime Story. Here was a Jackie Chan who was no longer trying to deny his age. Here was a Jackie Can who was trying to make a good movie, with a good script and good acting. After years of poopy diaper jokes and Jennifer Love Hewitt striking Karate Kid poses, Shinjuku Incident seemed to be saying that it was time to start paying attention to Jackie Chan again.

And then, in 2010, came Little Big Soldier, and Jackie Chan fans, covered in cobwebs and the dust of the wasteland, knew that our time in the wilderness was finally at an end.

Little Big Soldier returns Jackie to the period setting of his older movies, something he hasn’t done often since the late 1970s. The Myth saw Chan trying his hand at the sort of sweeping period epics that became all the rage in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and just not getting it right. For this second attempt at a period setting, Jackie eschews trying to mimic the wire-fu antics of recent epics and just makes an old fashioned kungfu film. He plays the old soldier, a happy-go-lucky farmer who has spent the last several decades of his life serving against his will in the army. He has lasted that long because of his unique approach to warfare, which is to shout, trigger a spring-loaded arrow mounted to his breastplate, then fall down and play dead until the fighting is over.

When the film opens, the nameless old soldier is the only apparent survivor of a bloody battle that saw both sides annihilated. As he roams the corpse-strewn battlefield, he soon discovers that he’s not as alone as he thought. The two opposing generals are beat up and near death, but not so near death that they can’t try to kill one another. The younger general (New York-born Wang Lee-Hom, recently of Lust, Caution and previously appearing in the execrable China Strike Force) best the older, but then collapses from his wounds. Realizing the opportunity suddenly in front of him, Old Soldier binds up the fallen enemy general and sets off to turn him in for the reward about which the farmer has dreamed: a modest parcel of land and lifetime exemption from military service.

Making his way across the war-ravaged countryside, however, is not as easy as Chan’s frequently-singing farmer hoped, especially once the general wakes up and slowly begins to recover from his wounds. The duo soon realize they are being pursued by a force commanded by the general’s younger brother (the seemingly fey but freakishly buff Yoo Cheng-jun). It’s the old chestnut about the younger brother, jealous of the older. So begins a game of cat and mouse that gets even more complicated with the arrival of a band of volatile brigands and occasional warring armies.

If Little Big Soldier‘s backdrop is epic in scope, the central story is intensely intimate. Jackie Chan wrote the script, and it’s a very personal, introspective meditation on a variety of subjects, not the least of which would be getting older, but the most obvious of which is the nature of warfare and loyalty. Chan’s farmer is torn between several different forces. His loyalty to his country means that he must answer the call when he is conscripted. But his father’s dying wish was that, since Chan’s two other brothers had already been killed in the war, Chan somehow survive to carry on the family name. Thus he comes up with the playing dead ploy. He sees no honor in battle and shakes his head wearily as the captive general gives him speeches about patriotism and warfare and the glory of dying on the battlefield. All Jackie can see are the shattered lives, sad people, and ravaged farmlands.

Jackie’s movies have been called many things; “deep” has never been among them, but Little Big Soldier has a world-weary yet somehow optimistic philosophical edge to it that immediately lets you know Chan is putting his heart and soul into this one. The result is equal parts charming, quaint, refreshing, and poignant. As he nears sixty, and with enough injuries to kill a normal man, Jackie can’t pull off the stunt work he used to do. Anyone who expects that of him at this point in the game is, frankly, kind of an asshole. Not that Little Big Soldier is bereft of action — there’s plenty, some of it involving Jackie, much of it being shouldered by the younger members of the cast. In place of Jackie Chan the stuntman, we’re getting Jackie Chan the actor and Jackie Chan the writer. I don’t know what sort of shape his personal life is in, but Little Big Soldier feels like a lot of personal demons being looked square in the eye. The movie hits the perfect notes — balancing the action and comedy (which is generally pretty funny, for a change) with hint of melancholy and an ending that is truly heart-wrenching. This might be the first Jackie Chan movie that makes people cry (no, Heart of the Dragon didn’t make me cry, no matter how many times Jackie and Sammo cried at each other). And unlike many times before, the shifts in tone feel completely organic.

There are some familiar faces sprinkled throughout the cast, but for the most part, they were actors with whom I was unfamiliar. Great performances all the way around. Jackie tones down his mugging, when mugging is called for, to a more believable level, and the rest of the cast are giving it their all as well. Yoo Sung-jun seemed like he might be a weak link at first — the feminine acting pampered guy being a stock character in kung fu films, usually handled with as much over-the-top-hamminess as possible — but he really pulls a great performance out of the character. He’s aided by the script, which doesn’t allow the character to become a cartoon. By the time we’re nearing the end, he’s not even really the bad guy anymore. Although the story of Jackie’s old soldier is the center of the plot, the relationship between the two estranged brothers is no less powerfully realized.

If any portion of the story gets short shrift, it’s that of actress Lin Peng, playing a woman who has escaped a life of being forced to entertain troops. Where Jackie’s farmer is eternally optimistic despite the carnage through which he must maneuver, the singing woman is much more bitter. Unfortunately, while we understand Jackie’s quest, both physically and spiritually, hers seems just as interesting but largely undeveloped. She simply drifts in and out of the movie in a couple spots. I suppose, though, that’s the point. As Old Soldier and the general travel across the countryside, their journey intersects with multiple people whose lives have been wrecked by the war: farmers turned to brigandry, scholars turned to slaves, soldiers turned to deserters. It lends a creeping sense of sadness to the atmosphere of the film, a particularly effective way to write a movie about war without ever showing the war.

The other aspects of the film achieve the same high quality. The cinematography is gorgeous. One of the benefits of Chinese governance of Hong Kong is that filmmakers can now take full advantage of the mainlands uncountable sweeping vistas and dramatic scenery. The sort of half-assed setting, uneven pacing, and other rough around the edges elements of some of Jackie’s recent films are not present here. This is a near perfect, well-polished piece of film making. Director Sheng Ding is no one I’d ever heard of, and it turns out that’s because he’s never done anything else. The hand behind the direction is remarkably deft and able, so much so that I think Jackie must have had more than a passing involvement in what went on behind the camera.

To be blunt, I was stunned. I’d heard good things about the movie going into it, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. It might not be Jackie’s best action film — that honor probably still belongs to Project A or Drunken Master II — but it’s Jackie’s best film. It balances the action and comedy we hope for and expect with a truly moving story. Even if I hadn’t spent the last decade being increasingly disillusioned with his work, even if my exuberance over his films had never faltered I don’t think I would have been prepared for just how good Little Big Soldier is. Seriously — you will ever be able to hear the phrase “A big road passes through my house…” without tearing up.

Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jackie Chan, Yu Rong-guang, Wang Lee-Hom, Ken Lo, Yoo Sung-jun, Wang Bao-qiang, Lin Peng, Mei Xiao-dong, Wu Yue, Jin Song, Du Yu-ming | Writer: Jackie Chan | Director: Sheng Ding | Cinematographer: Zhao Xiao-ding, Ding Yu | Music: Xiao Ke | Producer: Jackie Chan | Original Title: Da bing xiao jiang

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Blood of the Vampire

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I just happened to throw this movie on the other day, not planning to review it, just in the mood for a bit of 50s gothic horror. The next day, the news broke of the sad death of the film’s writer, Jimmy Sangster. As one of the small group responsible for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (Horror of Dracula as it’s known in the US) and The Mummy, Sangster helped change the face of horror movies. He penned many other excellent films both for Hammer as well as other studios, not to mention TV scripts and novels. He was also a witty and engaging speaker, happy to hold court on his life and work. He’s one of those people who, although he lived to the ripe old age of 83, you can’t help feel went too soon. So by way of a personal and entirely inadequate tribute, here’s my review of Blood of the Vampire.

The film opens with a title card informing us that it’s Transylvania, 1874, where those suspected to be vampires are staked through the heart before burial. We immediately see this in action, the eagle-eyed among you possibly recognising future Bond villain Milton Reid as the stake-weilder. As the burial party leaves, a deformed, mute hunchback named Carl (Victor Maddern, Circus of Fear), kills the lone gravedigger and swipes the damaged body. Carl then seeks out a drunken doctor (Cameron Hall), who previously knew the victim and performs a heart transplant on the body. The doctor then makes the mistake of asking for more money, which earns him a stabbing from Carl as an animated bat flutters by. Because, y’know, vampires.


Meanwhile, at the Transylvanian High Court of Justice, Dr. John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is on trial over the death of a patient. The judge (John Le Mesurier, Dad’s Army) claims the testimony Pierre is relying on, from his teacher Professor Meinster, says the alleged mentor has never heard of Pierre. Thus the defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment. In the courthouse lock-up, after being menaced by a crook played by Hammer and Carry On regular Bernard Bresslaw, Pierre is allowed a few moments to speak to his fiancee Madeleine Duval (Barbara Shelley). She vows to find out why Meinster responded in such a strange fashion. Madeleine gives Pierre a locket with a rather fetching image of herself inside. By the way, is it me or are there a lot of people with French-sounding names in Transylvania?

Soon Pierre is transported to different prison than the one he was expecting. The head guard Wetzler (Andrew Faulds, The Flesh and the Fiends) is unpleasantly sneery and confiscates the locket. Pierre is placed in a dungeon with a guy named Kurt (William Devlin, Treasure island), who explains the place is worse than Hell, with horrible fates awaiting the inmates. The hunchback Carl, who now lives at the prison, swipes the locket from Wetzler and is mesmerised with Madeleine’s beauty. Hey, it’s Barbara Shelley after all. Pierre is put to work with other prisoners digging graves. One of the sickly inmates collapses, and even Wetzler’s vicious doberman can’t compel him to continue. But on hearing the warden Dr. Callistratus has suddenly returned, the terrified sick man gets up and carries on working. Later, Pierre is Summoned by Callistratus (Sir Donald Wolfit, Dr. Crippen), a strangely vampiric-looking man. Callistratus reveals he deliberately send for Pierre to come to his jail; as a doctor he can assist Callistratus in his research. The warden is working on identifying the different blood groups (it was by not correctly understanding these groups that Pierre killed his patient). As a reward, Pierre gets better quarters, and the run of the prison so he can take samples from the prisoners.


Unbeknown to Pierre, Callistratus has a second laboratory in the basement. Here he has Carl drain the blood from the previously collapsed prisoner, which he then transfuses to himself. Callistratus makes some cryptic comments about his work will go more quickly now that Pierre is helping. Carl discovers Callistratus’s housekeeper (Barbara Burke) spying on them, and before long she’s also an unwilling blood donor. Back at the high court, Madeleine has tracked down Professor Meinster (Henri Vidon), who confirms the letter read out during the trial was a forgery. The chief of justice sends Monsieur Auron (Bryan Coleman, The Hand) of the prison commission to look into the matter.

At the prison, Kurt tells Pierre about the lab beneath the other lab, and of terrible experiments that take place there. Pierre tries to bluff his way in and Carl attacks him, making Callistratus angry (well, more angry – his default setting seems to be furious). He reveals that he is trying to cure a rare blood condition, one which causes healthy cells to change to a new blood group that attacks all others. Callistratus is trying to find a combination of groups that can be transfused into a diseased subject to cure the condition. Pretty sure that’s not really how blood groups work, but never mind.


Pierre and Kurt try to escape, but it’s a set-up. Kurt is savaged by the guard dogs, apparently to death. Callistratus refuses to call them off as an example to the other prisoners. He tells the authorities that Pierre was killed in the escape attempt. Of course the whole case was a ruse to get Pierre to the prison in the first place, including Auron (who’s in on the whole thing) forging the letter from Meinster. Madeleine doesn’t believe Pierre is dead, so sets herself up as the new prison housekeeper and goes undercover. She quickly finds Pierre is alive, and has discovered evidence of Callistratus performing experiments on the supposedly-dead Kurt. After night falls, Pierre sneaks into Madeleine’s room. Their happy reunion is interrupted by Carl, who is smitten with Madeleine thanks to the locket. Pierre picks the stupidest hiding place in the room (right next to a mirror), allowing Carl to see him. After leaving Madeleine’s room Pierre checks Kurt’s grave and finds it empty. He’s spotted by Metzler, and in the ensuing struggle the guard is killed.

Madeleine is summoned to Callistratus’s chambers, where Auron is also waiting. The prison official recognises her, but does not reveal this immediately. Instead he follows her back to her room and tries to force himself on her. Carl sees this and, thanks to his infatuation, attacks Auron. With things falling apart, Callistratus lures Pierre to the other laboratory, where Madeleine is chained to a wall. Callistratus explains that because of his experiments with blood, superstitious locals branded him a vampire and he was sentenced to die. He infected himself with a blood culture to feign death and enable him to survive a staking and heart transplant, but the infection is now causing his blood to attack the other cells in his body. Now with Pierre’s help, Callistratus thinks he’s made a breakthrough that will cure the condition.


As a final experiment, Callistratus intends to transfuse all of Madeleine’s blood into the barely-alive Kurt, who has been deliberately infected with the culture. Carl though doesn’t want the new object of his affections to be hurt, so Callistratus is forced to shoot him. What’s left of Kurt doesn’t feel like co-operating either, grabbing Callistratus long enough for Pierre to get the better of him. With the mad doctor as a hostage, Madeleine and Pierre escape from the prison. Our hero vows to return after clearing his name, but Callistratus won’t be around to face justice; with the last of his strength, Carl releases the dogs, who in a nicely poetic bit of payback rip Calistratus apart. The end.

Blood of the Vampire’s producers, Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, met in the army film unit during World War II. At the end of hostilities, they partnered up to produce a slew of b-movies from 1948 well into the sixties. Berman and Baker were canny operators, keeping a close eye on what their successful rivals Hammer were doing. To this end they hired regular Hammer writer John Gilling to pen a bunch of the cheap thrillers the future House of Horror were making at the time. When Hammer had hits with sci-fi films based on television serials, they secured the remake rights to ATV’s The Trollenberg Terror (the resulting film better known as The Crawling Eye). Then when Hammer had an even bigger hit with their bloody, Eastmancolor gothic horror pictures, Berman and Baker wanted a piece of that action too. And what better way than by employing the proverbial goose laying all those golden eggs for their rival; Jimmy Sangster.


Blood of the Vampire was released in the summer of 1958, shortly after Hammer’s Dracula and around the time of The Revenge of Frankenstein, both also scripted by Sangster. As you’ve no doubt gathered from the synopsis, despite the vampire trappings (and the rather misleading opening scene) this is more of a Frankenstein story. In particular the theme of using prison inmates as raw material for medical experiments is remarkably similar to Frankenstein’s scheme in the aforementioned sequel, though in that particular film the unwilling participants are patients in a poor hospital. Also the theme of a disfigured servant falling for the female lead, with unfortunate consequences, is almost identical between the two films. I’m not complaining mind you; Sangster usually had to knock out finished scripts at some speed, often after the film had already been announced, and even the best writers only have so many ideas. What’s impressive is that even despite sharing elements, the two projects are different enough to be enjoyable on their own terms. The Revenge of Frankenstein is one of Hammer’s best films, and while Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite up to the same standard, it’s still very good. It’s also worth noting that Tony Hinds’ script for the last of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, borrows heavily from this film.

The Hammer formula called for a distinguished actor in lead role. This was usually Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, though André Morell was an acceptable substitute. Berman & Baker went for the prestigious name of Sir Donald Wolfit, one of the famous group of actor/managers that included Sirs Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Wolfit appeared in a number of genre films, most likely to fund his theatrical productions, though if you were to suggest to him he was a horror star you’d probably receive an angry response. Wolfit was by all accounts a nightmare to work with; unable to take criticism, awful to his stage companies, and known for filling them with mediocre supporting players who wouldn’t give him any competition. His peers saw him as something of a joke. After Wolfit’s death, his dresser Ronald Harwood wrote a play (later an Oscar-nominated film) entitled The Dresser (good title), about a dresser (see?) trying to keep an ageing, tyrannical leading actor called ‘Sir’ from going off the deep end. I’m sure it was totally fictional and in no way based on real life. Suddenly, Venerated Horror Icon Sir Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula sequels doesn’t seem so bad.


So with that in mind, how is Wolfit as Callistratus? Well, he’s pretty angry throughout; either because he’s a good actor and the part calls for it, or because he wasn’t pleased to be slumming in a derivative horror cheapie, or simply because he’s Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit. That said, it suits the character very well and thus he’s enjoyably nasty. Australian actor Vincent Ball is also good; he mostly did supporting roles in movies including a Carry On (Follow That Camel) and one of my favourite terrible British B-pictures, The Black Rider. Given the chance to step up to the lead, he’s great. After all of the interchangeable, rubbish Pauls and Hanses in Frankenstein and Dracula sequels, when the good-looking hero can actually act (and has a character), it’s worth taking note. Later Ball went back to Australia and worked on TV, including a stint in a soap much beloved of my wife in our university days, A Country Practice. Personally I wasn’t a fan; it was OK but it was no Young Doctors.

Then there’s Barbara Shelley, who requires me to find some way of expressing in words the action of gazing fondly into the distance and sighing. Barbara is one of my all-time favourite horror actresses. She was a step above the usual leading starlet, bringing a fierceness and determination to her characters even if, as written, they didn’t get much to do outside of being menaced. Her transformation from uptight wife to seductive vampire in Dracula, Prince of Darkness is among my favourite Hammer memories, and she was the company’s most prolific lead actress. At this point Barbara hadn’t yet appeared in a horror film for Hammer, though she gave an excellent performance in 1958’s The Camp on Blood Island (and had in fact made her film debut for the company in the little-seen 1952 thriller Mantrap). Her previous genre role had been as the titular Cat Girl in 1957, but this was her first foray into a gothic horror. Naturally, she’s brilliant. That fierce doggedness is very apparent in Madeleine, who despite her obvious fear still puts herself in harm’s way to save Pierre. Strong characters are a trademark of Sangster scripts; note that it was only after he stopped writing gothics for Hammer that those bloody Pauls and Hanses started to creep in.


One of Hammer’s selling points was their ability to make no-budget films look incredibly lavish and expensive, thanks to production designer Bernard Robinson. Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite on a par with Robinson’s work, but it’s pretty damn close. The prison sets are completed on an impressive scale, and only some dodgy matte paintings spoil the effect. Sadly the makeup is less successful, with Carl’s fake eye being the worst culprit. It’s plastered on with little care, can’t move or blink with Victor Maddern’s real eye and it’s not even the same colour. People complain about the prosthetics in Hammer films, but nothing Phil Leakey or Roy Ashton produced is as bad as this. Still, it’s an impressively gory film for the time, especially in the longer ‘international’ version (if you’re really interested this is available on DVD in Italy, though the print used is pretty poor).

Direction is by Henry Cass, who worked with the producers, Berman and Baker, often. His style is serviceable; he’s no Terence Fisher, but he gets the job done. It would be remiss of me not to mention that Berman and Baker found much greater success in the 60s on television. They secured the rights to Leslie Charteris’ character The Saint, which became a massively popular show starring Roger Moore. This led to a variety of other series including Department S and The Champions. But I digress.

I’ve just counted and for the second review in a row, I’ve managed to mention the word ‘Hammer’ multiple times for a film not made by that company. This time I’m doing slightly better; 20 uses on Legend of the Werewolf as opposed to 15 here. The problem is, it’s hard to discuss any gothic period horror, or indeed any British B picture from this era, without bringing them up. Such was Hammer’s (make that 16) influence that comparisons are inevitable, and a major reason for that influence was the pen of Jimmy Sangster. Personally I think that’s an awesome legacy.

Release Year: 1958 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Donald Wolfit, Vincent Ball, Barbara Shelley, Victor Maddern, William Devlin, Andrew Faulds , John Le Mesurier, Bryan Coleman, Cameron Hall, Barbara Burke, Bernard Bresslaw, Hal Osmond, Henri Vidon, John Stuart, Colin Tapley, Otto Diamant, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster | Director: Henry Cass | Cinematography: Monty Berman | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman

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The Stranger

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Back when we had to really scrounge for every scrap of information about Hong Kong action films, one of the places one had to turn was Ric Meyers’ monthly article in Inside Kungfu magazine. This was back before Meyer lost his mind, or whatever the heck happened to him and the quality of his work. Anyway, a subscription to Inside Kungfu meant you were going to learn a lot of other stuff too, like who Grandmaster Philip Holder was. It was somewhere in the pages of that magazine that I first stumbled across Kathy Long, a beautiful woman, with biceps to die for and a long string of martial arts accomplishments, tournament championships, and martial arts magazine cover appearances to her name. She wasn’t as active in movies as she was in the ring, but she quickly entered my pantheon of worship worthy American fighting femmes, right alongside Michele “The Mouse” Krasnoo, Karen Shepard, and of course, Cynthia Rothrock.

Shep and Cynthia had the benefit of having worked in Hong Kong in the 1980s, and even got to face off against each other in the action classic Righting Wrongs, before they came to America and appeared in an assortment of direct to video martial arts movies that, while not always terrible, paled in comparison to what the women had shown off in Hong Kong. Krasnoo and Long would have been right at home in Hong Kong but sadly never got the opportunity. Instead, The Mouse was saddled with supporting roles in films like Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor (God, I love her in that movie), though she did apparently have a blink and you’ll miss it appearance in the Ringo Lam/Chow Yun-fat gangland actioner Full Contact. I don’t remember seeing her in it, but I don’t mind taking another look). Kathy Long — the Princess of Pain — popped up in movies like Albert Pyun’s Knights and this, director Fritz Kiersch’s retelling of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, only with bikers and more skintight black leather. She also did some high profile stunt doubling — you should see her in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman outfit.


Many of the leading female fighters in Hong Kong’s “girls with guns” heyday were dancers or gymnasts by training, while the Americans who made the long flight over almost always come from a legitimate martial arts background — not that that matters, really, for film since we’ve seen time and time again that a great fighter in a poor director’s hands will crash and burn, while a non-fighter in the hands of a good action director can be made to look like, well, Michelle Yeoh or Moon Lee. They could bring the grace, and the action directors knew how to showcase the power of the American fighters without making them look like slow-footed lugs. It would have been great to see Long go toe-to-toe with the greats of that era, as she had the look and the background to make a formidable…well, she would have been a villain, undoubtedly. Only Cynthia Rothrock was allowed to be a hero.

But man, Long vs. Yukari Oshima or Michiko Nishiwaki, or Long vs. Rothrock for that matter, in the hands of a director like Sammo Hung or Yuen Kwai… anyway, it’s a case of the should-have-beens that never were, and I guess it’s too late now. Not because Long couldn’t still cut it — she could only stay retired from beating the shit out of people for so long, and in 2009 started fighting in MMA tournaments — but because the opponents and girls with guns movies just aren’t there anymore. That said, a fella who harbors a tendency to crush on bad-ass women can still hope to one day see Kathy Long throw down against Jiang Luxia.

Well, my boyish crush on Kathy Long notwithstanding — which might be charming instead of creepy, if I was still a boy — since she never made films in Hong Kong, all we have are her few American films. The Stranger paints a skintight black outfit onto Kathy Long as The Stranger and sends her to a tiny town in the middle of the American southwest. Like every tiny town in the middle of the American southwest that ever appeared in a B-movie, this one is lorded over by a group of bikers who ride in, Mongol Horde like, every now and again to demand tribute and drink a lot of beer. The Stranger apparently has some sort of problem with the bikers, which she expresses early in the film by breaking out some poorly choreographed martial arts fury and breaking their necks.


The town, including drunken but obviously redeemable sheriff Cole (Eric Pierpoint), doesn’t seem to have much of a reaction to the killings, and they are content to just let The Stranger sort of coast along, snapping necks if people piss her off. They don’t even pull a First Blood and ask her to leave. Some of the townspeople admire the fact that she cracked the necks of a couple of the local murderous scumbags, while others think that having a hot karate woman in black leather prowling around, killing bikers, is going to bring down the wrath of gang leader Angel (seasoned B movie and TV actor Andrew Divoff, looking like a creepy combination of Josh Brolin and Kevin Bacon). The Stranger puts that to the test, offing the occasional biker to lukewarm civic reaction. Thrown into the mix are a jealous harpy (Ginger Lynn), your standard issue feral child, and a plot that soon reveals that, though no one knows The Stranger, she has a mysterious past that involves the town and Angel’s bikers. Oh, and also, she looks a lot like Cole’s late wife, murdered by Angel’s gang some years before.

Fritz Kiersch once had the unenviable task of trying to convince audiences that James Spader could be a bad-ass (in Tuff Turf). Here, there’s no issue with trying to convince audiences that Kathy Long is a bad ass. The woman is all toned musclecrowned by a big ol’ head of frizzy blonde hair. Here, Kiersch’s task is convincing audiences that his leading lady bad ass is also an actress. In this task, he is, well, he was about as successful as he was at convincing me that James Spader was a bad-ass. Kathy cuts an impressive figure, but she’s not that great an actress (which is why she would have worked so well in Hong Kong). She’s doing her best Clint Eastwood, which means she’s at least limited for the most part to squinty-eyed stares and icy looks. But Clint was able to do that and still have it be good acting, thanks in no small part to an abundance of charisma that Long simply cannot match. She’s awkward and stilted, but to be fair, she’s no more awkward and stilted than the usual fighters-turned-thespians that populate American martial arts movies from the 1990s. She can deliver most of her lines pretty well, but when she has to summon up more anger or emotion, she doesn’t really pull it off.


She could salvage things with a good action performance, but Kiersch has no idea how to shoot a fight scene. Nor does Long have any choice opponents. I don’t understand why so many American martial arts movies did this. The same thing happened to Cynthia Rothrock in her first starring role in an American film, China O’Brien. They take an awesome fighter (or in the case of that movie, two, since Keith Cooke was pretty awesome too), plop her in small town America, then have her face off against a bunch of lumbering rednecks with no fighting skills at all. I guess I understand the hick town setting. It’s cheap to film in the desert. And I guess it wouldn’t be “realistic” to have a small southern town populated by a bunch of accomplished martial artists. Actually, no. You know what? Every town, no matter how shitty and small, always seems to have a strip mall with a karate school in it. Can’t there be an evil sensei in league with the local rednecks, so at least the Kathy Longs and Cynthia Rothrocks of the world have something to do other than kick fat rednecks in the face?

Not that I have much faith that, even if the town was being menaced by a Richard Norton (with who she would eventually pair up, in Under the Gun) or whoever, we would have gotten good fight scenes. Kathy Long has the right stuff, no doubt, but there’s a reason “action director” is something you work really hard to be good at. Long gets to throw a few good punches and delivers a handful of impressive roundhouse kicks, but for the most part, the people behind the camera don’t really seem to know what to do when it’s time for an action scene. The end result are a handful of showdowns that are as awkward and stilted as Long’s acting. Kathy Long could look a lot better in action than she does here.


For me, it’s impossible not to compare Long and Rothrock, and not just because they both did time beating up bikers and hicks. To be fair, I’ve seen a ton of Cynthia’s movies, but only Knights and The Stranger for Kathy. Rothrock and Long would appear together only once, in Honor and Glory, but the pairing was little more than a wasted opportunity (in fact, Long spends her brief fight scene clumsily locking up with Richard Norton). While there are similarities between the two women — they both ruled tournament fighting, they’re both blonde, they both beat up rednecks — Kathy is by far the more menacing looking fo the two. She’s more muscular, and she fights meaner fights (as much as I love Rothrock, I can’t see her throwing down in MMA fights. Cynthia, by contrast, is more adept at coy smiles and a playful attitude. She’s no less deadly, we all know, but she hides it a lot better than Long, who usually looks like she’s one second away from pounding your face in.

So, I guess much of this review sounds like a pile of negative. Thing is, I didn’t really dislike the movie. It’s no gem, but it’s serviceable direct-to-video action. That’s in part because Kathy Long just looks so damn awesome in it. But it’s also the sort of cheap, half-assed direct-to-video action film that littered the 1990s and provided so many hours of mild entertainment. B-movie comfort food, if you will. You might groan over this film being a remake of High Plains Drifter, but the screenplay by Gregory Poirier, while certainly not sparkling, gets the job done. The Stranger is the sort of movie that I can throw on and watch without really having to pay too much attention to and without being terribly disappointed in the end.


Sure, I really wish Kathy Long’s film career had amounted to more, and I wish that the few films she did star in had paired her with better opponents (why couldn’t she have gone to the small redneck town where Cynthia Rothrock and Keith Cooke lived?) and directors who were better at choreographing and shooting martial arts action (or any sort of action, for that matter). But this is what she got, a western-turned-biker movie dripping with lots of fake Ennio Morricone sound music and lots of shots of her in skintight black leather walking down dusty streets.

And that was enough for me. Kiersch may not handle the action well, but the rest of the film is professionally directed, decently paced, and competently acted. Long may not have Clint’s charisma, but she does have charisma, thanks in large part to her physical presence. I know you get tired of me complaining about movies that cast whisper-thin waifs as unstoppable killing machines, but seriously. Long is the perfect blend of sexy and strong and proves that you don’t have to chose one or the other. I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone who isn’t a hardened veteran of such films, but if you are such a person, then you’ll probably be able to roll with this movie as easily as I did and come out saying, “Eh, it was OK.”

Release Year: 1995 | Country: United States | Starring: Kathy Long, Andrew Divoff, Eric Pierpoint, Robin Lynn Heath, Ash Adams, Ginger Lynn Allen, David Anthony Marshall, Nils Allen Stewart, Danny Trejo, Faith Minton, Jeff Cadiente, Randy Vasquez, Billy Maddox, Robert Winley, Chris Pedersen | Screenplay: Gregory Poirier | Director: Fritz Kiersch | Cinematography: Christopher Walling | Music: Kevin Kiner | Producer: Donald P. Borchers

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2011 New York Asian Film Festival

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I really should write a full review of Tsui Hark’s landmark Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, but until that happens, I wanted to pop in with a few random thoughts and reminiscences inspired by watching it this past weekend at the New York Asian Film Festival. The festival this year was honoring director-producer Tsui Hark, so the line-up was pretty heavy on Hark films — all of which I’d seen before, and all of which I would gladly have watched again. Well, that’s not saying much, because I own them all and do tend to watch them not just again, but again and again. But the thrill of seeing one of Hark’s films on an actual movie screen –his films often being big on eye-popping visual spectacle — is usually too good to pass up no matter what I have sitting at home on DVD.

Unfortunately, the realities of professional life often clash with my NYAFF aspirations, and this year I was unable to see The Blade due to work schedule, despite that being the one I really wanted to see since it’s so persistently difficult to find. I don’t know what conspiracy keeps that thing so doggedly in the MIA on DVD pile. I also didn’t get to see Hark’s new film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, because going to buy tickets eleven days in advance of the premiere of the film (with Tsui Hark in attendance and doing a Q&A session) is not soon enough.

Ah well. I consoled myself with Zu, which is pretty satisfying consolation indeed. Like many people who got into Hong Kong film in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Zu was one of the first films I saw — first in random clips, and then finally in its entirety on VHS. It was a staggering, dizzying experience, the kind that leaves you slack jawed and only able to communicate via insane howls and arm flailing for days after. I had never seen anything like it, and thirty years after it was made — around two decades after I first saw it — the movie has lost none of its power to astound. The sheer madness, breakneck pace, and audacity of the film is still almost more than I can process. I sat through the packed NYAFF screening with a permanent, giddy grin on my face. Every time I watch the movie, it’s like I’m discovering it for the first time, and I’m a giggling schoolboy during the whole experience.

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Zu has a doubly special place in my heart, though. I moved to New York in 1998, around the same time the storied Chinatown movie theater Music Palace was beginning its painful decline. My first trip to the theater was in 1994, when a friend and I made the trip up to New York City from Gainesville, Florida. I had a girl in Massachusetts at the time, and New York City was a good place to meet — not in the middle, but in the middle between Gainesville and Northampton is, I think, South of the Border, and you can only take a girl to Pedro’s Motel so many times. We had no idea we were showing up in New York the same week as Drunken Master II was premiering at the Music Palace, but once we happened by and saw the poster, we knew what the hell we were going to be doing that night. The movie was an absolute madhouse, as shows at the Music Palace usually were.

For those who were never able to see a movie there, it was a classic single-screen theater, complete with a balcony and a dingy concession stand selling dried cuttlefish. The crowd for Drunken Master II was massive. It was a new Jackie Chan film, after all, when such a thing still got people excited, and it was Lunar New Year to boot. The crowd was an eclectic mix of rowdy young kids and phlegmy oldsters — having a phlegmy, coughing old man sitting behind you being a requirement of seeing movies at the Music Palace. Predominantly Chinese in make-up, this was no staid and quiet crowd. People cheered, hollered, hooted, and a couple teens were so excited by the movie that they were running wild in the aisles, throwing down with mock kungfu moves. the Music Palace was never very big on crowd control.

By the time I was a New York resident, the Hong Kong film industry had pretty much collapsed, and new movies garnered very little excitement. As a result, the Music Palace started struggling. The other theater, a block down Bowery, had already succumb to the downturn, transforming itself to a strictly Cat III softcore porn theater and then, finally, into its current incarnation: A Buddhist temple. In order to spackel the cracks that were beginning to show, The Music Palace augmented new film releases with double features of older movies, mostly from the 80s and 90s. Although it was sad to see the theater struggling, I was overjoyed for the chance to spend Saturday afternoons at a $6 double feature of films like Fist of Legend, Fong Sai Yuk, and Swordsman — all these amazing films I’d watched on shitty Tai Seng VHS tapes but could now witness is glorious, massive 35mm projection.

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The front row of the balcony became my home for four hours just about every Saturday. The Music Palace really didn’t give a crap about much, so if you wanted to bring in a whole meal and sit there all day, you could — and many people did, mostly families and homeless old dudes who either loved the old movies or wanted a place to sleep and cough a lot. every now and then, a group of Triad dudes young or old would show up to watch a double feature, because I guess there was no one to shake down during those hours. In time, I got myself a New York girlfriend and enlisted her as a partner (she was already well-versed in Chinatown culture and all the expectorating it entails). One of the first movies we saw together (the actual first was The Big Hit in Manhattan’s late lamented $4 budget theater, and we didn’t even get to sit together), and the last movies I ever saw at the Music Palace, was a double feature of two of my all-time favorite movies: Zu and Dragons Forever.

The Music Palace itself went derelict shortly after that double feature and sat, empty and crumbling, for years. It took monumental effort on my part to not break in and see what leftovers might still be in the lace. OK, confession. I actually did try to break in. I’m just not very good at it. Eventually, the theater building was demolished, and fans of Hong Kong cinema gathered to lament the loss of one of our last, great landmarks in the United States. For a while, that block also hosted the best DVD stores in Chinatown, but even that is gone now, and all that remains are a few stores that peddle almost nothing but bootlegs, though you can go around the corner to a street stall and get awesome little yellow cakes filled with custard.

Watching Zu at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this year as part of the NYAFF was a different, less greasy experience — though I saw it with the same girl, and for The Music Palace’s sake, we snuck in some roast pork buns (we’d also just that day come off a three day cleansing program and were starving). But nicer setting not withstanding, watching that giant projection of a truly giant film brought an incredible flood of memories and emotion. Movies like Zu, places like the Music Palace, events like the New York Asian Film Festival — these are why Teleport City exists. It was a night long ago spent watching bad VHS bootlegs of Once Upon a Time in China, Project A, Chinese Ghost Story, and Zu that made me start writing about film. My first weeks and months in New York, I didn’t really know many people, but the weird old men, homeless dudes, gangsters, and fellow awkward film nerds who turned up for The Music Palace’s double features were a strange but comforting sort of family.

It was heartening to be in a crowd that cheered wildly for the Golden Harvest logo, for the first appearance of Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, for the first appearance of Brigitte Lin. Sadly, Moon Lee, Meng Hoi and Adam Cheng got less reaction, but what can you do? And Brigitte Lin… my God, Brigitte Lin. She’s so beautiful, so graceful, so perfectly posed and filmed, so elegant in this film that it’s physically painful to behold. I would say my love for Brigitte Lin is rekindled every time I watch this movie, but seriously — who the hell ever loses their love for Brigitte Lin? The NYAFF screening of Zu also had the added bonus of featuring Tsui Hark — these days sans his once trademark mop of curly hair — in a post-screening Q&A session. he was a bit uncomfortable with the movie — what director isn’t squeamish around their old work? — but seem to appreciate how much people appreciated the film.

Although there’s nothing at this year’s festival that will match seeing Zu on the big screen again, it’s been a pretty great year. We kicked off with Karate Robo-Zaborgar, which was quite a bit of fun, then followed up with the more somber kungfu epic Shaolin, which had its faults but was still entertaining. There was also The Man from Nowhere, which friends got to see while I was at work. I have that queued up on Netflix for this weekend, though. Then came the double feature of Zu and Reign of Assassins — with director Su Chao-Pin present (he actually sat in and watched Zu and remarked how awesome he still thought the movie was). Not quite as powerful as Zu and Dragons Forever at the Music Palace, but still a fantastic few hours at the movies.

You can’t really complain about a film festival that has so much awesome stuff showing that you miss a lot — next year, I’ll know to just schedule my vacation around NYAFF. the films I’m missing that I wanted to see — Man from Nowhere, Troubleshooter, The Blade, and Yellow Sea, I’m queuing up on DVD, so I’ll be there at least in spirit, if not physically or at the same time. As for the New York Asian Film Festival, as I did last year, I heartily recommend it. If you’re not in New York, it’s worth the trip. My only complaint — every year, they come out with awesome NYAFF artwork t-shirts and run out of of small and medium within the first couple days. Come on, NYAFF! Not all of us are Sammo Hung! You gotta take care of the Yuen Biaos out there!

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