When innovative Shaw Bros. studio director Chor Yuen teamed up with martial arts novelist Lung Ku and the Shaw’s top kungfu film star, Ti Lung, they made beautiful music together. In 1977 the trio collaborated to create two of the best martial arts films ever made, Clans of Intrigue and Magic Blade. The success of the films, as well as their recognition as some of the greatest looking films to come from the martial arts genre in decades, made it a pretty simple decision to keep a good thing going. Less than a year after audiences were dazzled with the complexly tangled web of swordplay, sex, and suaveness that made up Clans of Intrigue, the trio got together for a sequel called Legend of the Bat. Legend of the Bat is about Ti Lung smirking and stabbing people and trying to unravel a mysterious plot chocked full of secret identities, ulterior motives, and booby trapped lairs. In other words, it’s more of the same, and the same is worth getting more of when it’s as cool as Clans of Intrigue.
Really? This movie made so many “worst of” lists for the year it was released? I guess this is just one of those instances in which I find myself with a different opinion from the rest and supposedly saner masses of humanity. But is this really “worst of” material, especially in a year that saw the release of Norbit and Daddy Day Camp? I mean, to be sure, Primeval is no great film. In fact, it’s pretty dumb. And the smarter it tries to be, the dumber it gets. I think the film was undone for most people by the things I liked most about it: misguided and moronic attempts at “social conscience,” and a bizarre marketing campaign that framed the movie as a Wolf Creek/Hills Have Eyes new style slasher film while doing everything it could to obscure the fact that this was, in fact, a movie about a giant crocodile. It’s these two key elements that make Primeval one of the most authentic throwbacks to the era of Italian jungle and crocodile/alligator exploitation films. I said of the movie Grindhouse that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez set out to make fake grindhouse movies and failed, while Sylvester Stallone simply set out to make a movie (Rambo) and made the year’s most authentic grindhouse film. Primeval definitely deserves to be placed alongside Rambo in that regard. And heck — both of them even use real-world war atrocities as backdrops for exploitation filmmaking.
The plot involves a recently disgraced journalist (Dominic Purcell) who gets saddled with a seemingly sensationalist assignment: to accompany a TV show host (Brooke Langton) and animal wrangler on a trip to Burundi to capture a legendary giant crocodile that has killed hundreds of people — not, it seems for food or survival, but simply because it enjoys killing people (thus the serial killer angle the marketing took). Purcell is initially disgruntled, because apparently as a journalist looking for big, important stories, he wanted to be in the U.S. to cover an S&L scandal or something. Eventually, it dawns on the idiot that he’s about to be dropped smack dab into the middle of one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars, and that hey! Maybe there’s a big, important story there, too. So he and his trusty (as in, you can trust him to annoy the hell out of you) cameraman Orlando Jones pack up and head to Burundi, where the small crew quickly discovers that there’s just as much to fear from local warlord Little Gustav as there is from Big Gustav, the crocodile.
The set-up is perfect Italian exploitation fare. Take a real-world horror and use it as a backdrop from your monster movie, trying in some ham-handed fashion from time to time to excuse your sleazy tastelessness by making an “important,” poorly communicated, and completely hollow feeling “point.” Primeval‘s point seems to be that civil wars in Africa suck as much as being eaten by a giant crocodile, but as long as the white people make it out alive, who really cares if the civil war, the crocodile, or both keep killing black people? It’s easy to see Ruggero Deodato or Sergio Martino churning out the same type of film (only with nudity) in 1979 or ’80. The results so many years later are pretty much the same, only with flashier camera work and a crocodile made of computer bits instead of latex and chicken wire.
The film stumbles over its desire to tell us civil war in Africa is horrible (because, you know, who could have guessed that?) by also portraying every African as either evil and violent, scared and superstitious, or smiling while splashing in the river just long enough to get eaten by a crocodile. Why not make the reporter black? Or the TV show host? Oh wait, they made the cameraman black. That’s cool, right? Except that Orlando Jones is in minstrel show overdrive, constantly bugging out his eyes (actually, I think that might just be the way his eyes look), trying to teach the Africans how to speak “black” and appreciate hip hop, and generally playing up every “wacky black guy” stereotype that action/horror cinema has thrown at us in the past thirty years. He even does that thing where he walks through the jungle talking to himself out loud in a way that no one actually does.
I don’t know what the deal is with Jones. I really don’t think he’s innately obnoxious and irritating, and I bet he could be a pretty good actor. Perhaps he’s just a victim of the age-old Hollywood prejudice against non-white leading men, coupled with Hollywood’s addiction to wisecrackin’ black men — and especially to wisecrackin’ black cameramen. In a movie that uses the horrors of the war in Burundi as a backdrop for a movie about a crocodile that eats people, you’d think there would be plenty of room for offensive missteps, but nothing of the African content of this film is as offensive and unenjoyable as unleashing Orlando Jones and his steady barrage of dick jokes.
All that said, and despite Jones, this movie is pretty tolerably entertaining if you already of a mindset that lets you tolerate things like Big Alligator River. Most of the performances are pretty good (Orlando Jones may be stupid, annoying, and intolerable — but his acting isn’t necessarily bad) or at least passable. Jurgen Prochnow shows up as the requisite “white guy gone local who is wise and knows the ways of the bush.” If, however, you are hoping for a performance as deliciously batty as Jon Voight’s in Anaconda, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. For some reason I can’t fathom, Prochnow plays the whole thing solemn and understated instead of unhinged and raving, which is the way it should have been. Purcell and Langton are there mostly to look concerned and run away from either the crocodile or Little Gustav’s death squad, and sometimes both.
The characters constantly make stupid decisions that end up with them in the river yet again. If you are being attacked by a 25 foot croc, why would you sleep on a rickety wooden veranda out in the middle of the river? But these fools can’t stay out of the rivier. It’s liek the more definite Gustav’s presence nearby is, the less ability the characters have to keep from randomly splashing around in the river.
From time to time, a pick-up truck full of thugs drive by the hassle and execute people, which becomes a point of concern when Jones’ captures one of the executions on camera, thus making the crew target number one for Little Gustav’s men. Oh, and there’s the crocodile. It doesn’t show up a whole lot, and when it does, it looks a step or two above all the CGI crocs that attack has-been actors in Sci-Fi Channel original movies. However, it does show up whenever it’s opportune for the plot — such as when Langton is about to be raped, only to be saved when Gustav shows up to eat the rapist without also attempting to eat Langton.
So I guess there’s a lot of bad and some good in this film, and both were of a type that made the movie appeal to me even as I was aware of how ridiculous the whole thing was. It’s like someone watched Hotel Rwanda and thought, “Man you know what would make this movie good? If Don Cheadle had to battle a giant crocodile! And also, if instead of the main guy, he was a sidekick who made lots of dick jokes. Get me the guys who wrote Catwoman!”
And the end? Seriously? They let the white people bring the random African kid back on the plane with them? The random kid and a random stray bush dog? Has no one who worked on this film ever gone through customs? you can’t even bring a foreign apple into the United States, let alone a kid and a dog.
So yeah. It’s a bad movie, though the kind I like. But worst movie of the year? Someone needed to see more movies in 2007. The best way to summarize the duality of this film is with a spoiler: the movie is good in that it kills off Orlando Jones. But this movie is bad in that it does it off screen. Had this been released to drive-ins in 1979, it would have been a hit. Instead, it sank at the box office and caused other, better killer croc films to get delayed and eventually end up on DVD (Rogue and Black Water, both from Australia), which is also where Primeval probably deserved to be.
I think that one of the most forbidding things about Bollywood cinema for those Westerners who might dare to sample it is its apparent hostility to Western notions of genre. For armchair adventurers through world popular cinema like ourselves, such notions normally provide a reliable safe harbor, even when we’re struggling through the most alien of terrains. While a given country’s cinematic repertoire might present us with some disorienting cultural peculiarities, we generally feel secure in the knowledge that we can find within it such universals as horror movies featuring ghosts and monsters, thrillers pitting detectives against masked killers, and adventure films showcasing the exploits of costumed superheroes — any of which we can use as a familiar jumping off point from which to explore those aspects of the landscape with which we are less acquainted.
After struggling through the lackluster Resident Evil: Degeneration, I wasn’t overly excited to jump headfirst into another animated feature film prequel to a scary video game. Even less inclined was I to watch Dead Space: Downfall because I’d never played the game and likely won’t play it for a very long time, as I do not own a gaming system for which the game is produced. Still, there was no way I was not going to watch, at some point, an animated sci-fi/horror movie, so I figured I may as well get it over with. If nothing else, at least this one was traditional cel animation (or the computer-enhanced version of cel animation that exists today).
It turns out that Dead Space: Downfall is pretty acceptable. Totally generic, yeah. Completely devoid of originality or imagination, yep. Utterly disposable, sure. But after such a rocky road through recent science fiction, horror, and animated films (a road that brought me to Resident Evil: Degeneration, Diary of the Dead, and Heavy Metal 2000), generic formula executed in adequate fashion was more than enough to draw a sigh of relief and unengaged satisfaction from me. Continue reading
There are certain films that become associated with one indelible image. For example, it’s hard to think of North by Northwest without conjuring a mental picture of Cary Grant being chased by that crop-duster, or of Singin’ in the Rain without immediately seeing Gene Kelly hanging off of that lamppost. In the case of the Filipino action film They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong, the image that invariably comes to mind – for those familiar with the film, at least – is that of comely star Marrie Lee brandishing an imposing looking, quadruple-barreled, sawed-off shotgun while dressed in a nun’s habit and wimple (thanks, El Santo).
Con Licencia Para Matar (aka With License to Kill) is the second of a pair of films featuring Las Tigresas, a trio of catsuit-wearing female secret agents for hire. The first Tigresas film, Munecas Peligrosas (aka Dangerous Dolls) was a barely-there affair, with just enough of a plot on which to hang its numerous instances of padding. Con Licencia Para Matar, by contrast, would seem to be packed with enough plot for the both of them, complete with two competing sets of villains, including a beatnik scientist with a trio of super-powerful, green-faced androids at his command, and a blonde bombshell revolutionary who conceals her true designs under her cover as the owner of a posh go-go club. Despite all of this business, the film still manages to devote plenty of time to what seems to be the Tigresas films’ first order of business, that being the inclusion of lots of random musical numbers and scenes of the Tigresas lounging around their well-appointed bachelorette pad in various stages of undress.
Love and Murder is a rough-edged, fast paced and ever-so-slightly sleazy little Bollywood B thriller that satisfyingly combines noirish stylistic flourishes with elements of the James Bond movies. If you’re going to crib, you might as well do it from the best, and Love and Murder certainly cribs well, also pilfering here and there from the German Krimi thrillers and even Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. The addition of a classic femme fatale turn by Helen and an appearance by a mysterious killer in a skeleton suit almost compensates for the fact that the print from which the M.H. One VCD was made looks like it spent a good deal of time marinating on the bed of a stagnant lake.
Before we get into this article, let me get something off my chest and, in the process, confess to you all that I am going into this movie with a considerable chip on my shoulder. You see, as can be ascertained from the title, this movie deals with a journey to the planet Uranus, and as anyone can tell you, it is the God-given right of people discussing this planet to make as many “Uranus” jokes as they can (and believe me, I can make a lot of them). Especially when a movie turns out to be as dull and uneventful as this one, we who regularly engage in discussion of such films need those Uranus jokes to make it through to the end credits. Now some movies will try and head you off at the pass, using the alternate “Urine Us” pronunciation, but as you can see, even though it is less versatile, that pronunciation comes with its own cargo of hilarity.
While they were certainly responsible for their share of cinematic flotsam, American International Pictures can also be credited with creating a good few films that are today considered genre classics, as well as some films that are extraordinary solely for the fact that, given the circumstances of their production, they were even made at all. As far as AIP’s ventures into the Blaxploitation arena go, 1973’s Black Caesar definitely falls within the former category, while its sequel, that same year’s Hell Up In Harlem, serves as a perfect example of that last mentioned type of film.
Black Caesar was initially conceived by writer/director Larry Cohen as a vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr. Instead, he ended up taking the project to AIP, where it became hitched to the star of former pro footballer and emerging blaxploitation leading man Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. While I think that this was probably the best outcome for all involved, I have to admit to growing a bit misty at the thought that, had things worked out differently, I might now be reviewing a film in which Sammy Davis Jr. beats a white man to death with a shoeshine box. In any case, AIP had already struck black gold with 1972’s Slaughter and Blacula, and saw Cohen’s reworking of the classic gangster film formula for a black milieu as a suitable next step in their venture into the black action genre. From this point, it was only a matter of second-time director Cohen hitting the streets of New York with his camera and delivering the goods.
Made in eighteen days for less than half a million dollars, Black Caesar went on to become a big hit, and AIP were quick to demand that Cohen provide a sequel as soon as possible. Adding to the time pressure on Cohen was the fact that his star, Williamson, would soon be leaving the country for some shooting overseas, which meant that production had to begin more or less immediately. Unfortunately, Williamson was at the time stuck in L.A. — far from Black Caesar‘s New York locations — filming That Man Bolt for Universal, while Cohen was working five days a week to complete It’s Alive, the first of his reputation-making creature features, for Warner Brothers. The solution that Cohen came up with to this problem was to shoot Hell Up In Harlem on the weekends using his It’s Alive crew and equipment, trying all the while to cope as best he could with the fact that he had neither his main actor or anything close to a completed script on hand.
Now, if you were a religious person, you might look at the obstacles that Cohen and his crew faced and conclude that Hell Up In Harlem was a film made in defiance of God’s will. And if you were a religious person and a fan of Black Caesar, you might look at the finished product and conclude that you were doubly justified in that opinion. Still, the lengths that were gone to complete it, combined with Cohen’s “shoot first, ask permission later” guerilla filmmaking style, make Hell Up In Harlem just about as good an example as you could find of classic B movie, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, as well as a crystalline artifact of a long gone era in the American movie game.
While filming Hell Up In Harlem‘s many New York location scenes, Cohen employed a mixed bag of tricks in order to conceal Williamson’s absence, including frequently shooting from his character’s point-of-view. His primary ruse, however, involved the use of a double — always shown either from behind, at a distance, or with something obscuring his face — whose presence was later augmented by the insertion of close-ups of Williamson that were filmed in L.A., as well as a generous amount of post-dubbed Williamson dialogue. Cohen also managed to shoot quite a few of the film’s interior scenes in Los Angeles, relying a great deal on his Coldwater Canyon home as a location (Cohen’s wood paneled home office, in particular, shows up in a couple of different guises throughout), with the result that, once he was able to get Williamson to New York for some brief location shooting, those actors who had appeared in the Los Angeles scenes with Williamson, but could not make the trip back East, had to be doubled themselves. Given this patchwork approach, it’s a testament to Cohen’s ingenuity that the seams in the finished product are less obvious than they might have been. Nonetheless, it has to be said that, even when you don’t consciously notice them, they still contribute to the overall impression that there is something ineluctably “off” about Hell Up In Harlem –- and that’s without even considering those dialog scenes in which it’s all too clear that you’re watching actors performing monologues in completely different locations.
As far as the writing of the film went, Cohen basically decided to make up the considerable, unscripted portion of Hell Up In Harlem‘s story as he shot. In this case that meant that he not only structured the narrative to accommodate Williamson’s absence (of which the most absurd instance is the placing front-and-center of the character played by Julius Harris — the father of Williamson’s character, Tommy Gibbs, who was a comparatively minor presence in Black Caesar), but also around whatever locations became available at any given time, whichever of Cohen’s friends and acquaintances happened to decide they’d like to be in a scene, or just whatever off-the-cuff scenario struck the director’s fancy at the moment. Surprisingly, given Cohen’s background as a screenwriter, working outside the confines of a script proved to infect him with a serious case of directorial ADD, since much of Harlem‘s footage turned out to be of exactly the capricious nature described above, with the result that he essentially had to “write” the film in the editing room with the aid of lots of randomly inserted narrated exposition.
Given all of the above, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that Hell Up In Harlem is a film that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Even I, a man who has managed to provide coherent synopsis of films watched on un-subtitled Hindi and Cantonese language DVDs, shudder at the thought of reigning its disparate narrative components into a recognizable structure. This is largely due to the fact that Cohen, whenever presented with an opportunity to shoot an improvised scene, seems to have invariably made that scene one involving Fred Williamson killing some anonymous actor or friend of the production who happened to be on the set that day. Such opportunities clearly arose quite often, with the result that Harlem consistently connects its plot points by way of countless scenes of our hero offing characters who we have not previously seen and will never hear mentioned again.
One of the casualties of this approach is the idea that Hell Up In Harlem is anything but a sequel to Black Caesar in name only. Black Caesar, after all, was a relatively sober effort — one that, with its grim story of an inner city gangster’s precipitous rise and calamitous fall, stood in contrast to most other films in the Blaxploitation genre, which had a tendency to present their heroes as invincible black supermen who always triumphed over adversity in the end. Hell Up In Harlem, on the other hand, by positioning Williamson’s character as simply the driving force behind a string of randomly connected, violent action set pieces, becomes exactly the type of film that Rudy Ray Moore and D’Urville Martin were parodying with Dolemite. Even Tommy Gibb’s trademark limp –- an injury sustained at the hands of the film’s villain at the beginning of Black Caesar, and a motivating force for Williamson’s character throughout –- is gone here, making it that much easier for Williamson to sprint back and forth from one nonsensical bit of mayhem to the next.
In this spirit, Hell Up In Harlem spends it’s opening act frantically undoing everything that Black Caesar established in its last scene. This is necessitated primarily by the fact that, in the overseas cut of Black Caesar, Williamson’s character ends up dying an ignominious death at the hands of a gang of vicious street urchins. Or, at least, so it would appear. Because, as we see at the beginning of Harlem, Tommy Gibbs has not, as we have been lead to believe, either alienated or caused to be killed every last one of his friends and associates, but instead still has a gang of loyal flunkies ready at the call to come to his rescue. Not only that, but Tommy’s formerly absentee father (the aforementioned Harris), whose sheepish overtures of conciliation were harshly rejected by Tommy in the first film, is also waiting anxiously by the phone and ready to pitch in. From here it’s just a matter of the gang getting Tommy patched-up, which turns out to be a simple matter of taking over Harlem Hospital at gunpoint — a scene that was essentially accomplished by Cohen and his crew, on very short notice and without shooting permits, taking over the real Harlem Hospital at camera-point.
It is exactly that practice of “stolen” location shooting, practiced by Cohen with neither a union crew or the benefit of permits, that, along with the improvised nature of the production as a whole, marks Hell Up In Harlem as an artifact of, not just a lost style of filmmaking, but also of an America that, in spirit, has long since ceased to exist. Often filming from a concealing distance and with one camera, Cohen and company here pull off things that, if attempted in a major city in today’s security-obsessed United States, would result in them being thrown in jail at best and taken down by a SWAT team at worst. These stunts range from having gun-waving actors run down the middle of crowded mid-town Manhattan streets to sending cars careening along city sidewalks — with, in that last instance, the only precaution being ropes hastily strung across doorways to prevent the innocent from straying into harm’s way. Of all of these, though, the one sequence that really seems to have originated from some strange yet familiar shadow Earth is one that was shot — if Cohen is to be believed, at least — without permission at LAX, in which Cohen stages a fight between Williamson and actor Tony King that takes place on a baggage carousel in front of a crowd of stunned and very real travelers. To top this off, the director then has his combatants run up the luggage shoot to continue the fight on the actual airfield, after which we’re treated to the sight of Williamson strutting around on the tarmac with an airliner taxiing just yards away. For those of us living in today’s locked-down society, scenes like that amount to a veritable pornography of unfettered access. And, whether you love or hate Hell Up In Harlem, you simply have to thrill to the spectacle of combined institutional innocence and individual chutzpa that they present.
Once Tommy Gibbs is again at large and in charge, Hell Up In Harlem introduces us to a new villain, corrupt District Attorney D’Angelo (Gerald Gordon), who, if I understood correctly, turns out to have been behind everything that happened in the first film. There is still a lot of talk about a pair of ledgers containing the names of on-the-take politicians that motivated a good deal of the first film’s action, but Tommy’s primary concern is with getting payback against those who brought about his downfall, which, of course, turns out to involve him and his gang randomly killing a bunch of unidentified people who are only notable for their complete absence from Black Caesar. Somewhere in all this, Tommy’s mild mannered dad ends up killing a couple of crooked cops in self defense, putting himself on the wrong side of the law as a result. The only proper response to this, of course, is for dad to officially become part of Tommy’s gang, a turn of events which somehow leads to him being put in charge of his son’s entire East Coast operation. “Big Papa” quickly grows accustomed to the pimping threads and lavish lifestyle that such a position entails, and we are soon treated to a montage of Julius Harris gleefully gunning people down that nicely bookends a similar montage of Fred Williamson that we saw toward the beginning of the picture.
To accompany all of this nonsense we have a soundtrack by Edwin Starr that literally provides a song for every occasion. Seriously, if Cohen had asked for a theme to accompany someone walking across the street, Starr would have come up with a song called “Walkin’ ‘Cross the Street” that consisted of nothing but him shouting the phrase “Walkin’ ‘cross the street” over and over again on top of a driving funk track. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, until you consider that James Brown, who also scored Black Caesar, had already provided a score for Hell Up In Harlem that was written and recorded entirely on spec. Unfortunately, the execs at AIP had been unhappy with Brown’s soundtrack work on Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off –- apparently Brown had a problem with timing his compositions to match the action on screen –- and rejected his Harlem score over Cohen’s objections, leaving Brown to release the work as The Payback, which is widely considered to be the last great album of Brown’s career.
Despite Hell Up In Harlem‘s many problems, I have to say that I think I prefer it over its predecessor. While it’s certainly true that Black Caesar is the more earnest and ambitious of the two, I don’t think that the abilities of Cohen and his cast were always up to that level of earnestness and ambition. Williamson, for instance, while undeniable blessed with a glaring surplus of charisma, gives an enthusiastic performance in both movies, but is seemingly incapable of giving a convincing line reading, with the result that Caesar’s level of melodrama is really not his friend. Leading lady Gloria Hendry, on the other hand, is just a little too cozy with melodrama, and comports herself throughout much of her screen time in both films as if she were chained to the wailing wall. Factors like these, along with the rough edges of Cohen’s direction, combine to make Black Caesar a bit of a bumpy ride for fans of consistent narrative tone. By contrast, Hell Up In Harlem, with its frenetic opening deconstruction of Black Caesar‘s final act, lets you know from the get-go that it’s going to be a wild ride through crazy town, and never disappoints.
One way that Hell Up In Harlem gains a lot is if you simply appreciate Cohen’s random set pieces on their own terms without attempting to tie them in with any larger narrative, because the fact is that many of them evidence a crazy sort of amphetamine-edged inspiration. The most famous of these is the entirely pointless scuba assault by Tommy and his gang on a mob summit being held on an “unnamed island off the Florida Keys”. This sequence involves, among many other things, a kung fu fight between Williamson and a bikini babe, a body count seemingly in the triple digits, and middle-aged black women in maids’ uniforms smiling serenely as they gun down central casting goombahs who, if anyone had bothered to name them, would surely have to a man gone by either “Guido” or “Sal”. Another highpoint is a hit that takes place at a hotdog stand that leaves all of its victims with half-eaten hotdogs sticking out of their mouths. And of course let’s not forget the scene in which Williamson sprints across a crowded Coney Island beach to pole vault the sharp end of a beach umbrella into the chest of yet another unidentified and previously unseen character.
Hell Up In Harlem‘s final scene sees Tommy lynching D.A. D’Angelo with his own necktie while crowing about how he’s “the first whitey hung by a nigger”. This was intended by Cohen as a topper to the previously referenced final scene in Black Caesar, in which Gibbs makes his white nemesis wear blackface and sing “Mammy” before beating him to death with a shoeshine box. It fails of course, which is not surprising. From the sound of it, the scene, like much of Hell Up In Harlem, was made up on the spot, and owed its existence to Cohen just happening at that moment to make a visual connection between Gerald Gordon’s tie and a convenient tree branch. Still, the scene is a fitting conclusion, in that it so appropriately sums up the spirit of Hell Up In Harlem as a whole. It is at once off-the-cuff, ultimately pointless, and, at the same time, possessed of that fascinating aura denoting a thing that someone, at one very particular time, and for only one fleeting moment, thought was a great idea, even though it totally wasn’t.
And then someone rolled film, and it was too late to turn back.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: United States | Starring: Fred Williamson, Julius Harris, Gloria Hendry, Margaret Avery, D’Urville Martin, Tony King, Gerald Gordon, Bobby Ramsen, James Dixon, Esther Sutherland, Charles MacGuire, Mindi Miller, Al Kirk, Janelle Webb | Writer: Larry Cohen | Director: Larry Cohen | Cinematographer: Fenton Hamilton | Music: Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, Edwin Starr | Producer: Larry Cohen
In recent days I’ve been pouring over Jasper Sharp’s just published history of Japanese sex cinema, Behind the Pink Curtain — certainly for the purpose of broadening my world cinema knowledge, but mainly because I really, really want to understand the way that sex is presented in the Japanese movies I watch. And right now, to be honest, I really, really don’t. I sometimes suspect that we — in this case meaning “we Americans” — are more to blame for this than the Japanese, that the overwhelming impression of Japanese films as dealing with eros only in its darkest and most perverse manifestations is the result of us yanks, in our eagerness to point a mocking finger at “those crazy Japanese”, focusing only on those films that enable us to do so.
Perhaps the reality is that Japanese cinema is teeming with examples of people having loving, mutually pleasurable, consensual sex, and we’re just not seeing it because we’re choosing not to look. Admittedly, I’ve yet to see evidence of that being the case. In fact, I’ve seen more than my fair share of evidence to the contrary. Still, I suppose that if you wanted to stretch things, you could consider In the Realm of the Senses to feature loving, mutually pleasurable, consensual sex — lots and lots of it, in fact — until, of course, you get to the part where the man dies during an act of erotic asphyxiation and the woman cuts off his penis. So, well, there you go.
Not that a few shafts of light haven’t penetrated my benighted state regarding this matter. For instance, I now know that the Japanese sex film, or Pinku Eiga, came of age alongside of Japan’s politically radical underground cinema of the 1960s, and that the two, thanks to many of their creatives maintaining a foothold in both worlds, are so intertwined as to be in many cases indistinguishable. (For instance, the films of Koji Wakamatsu, which always struck me as being more about politics than sex, but are still considered part of the Pinku Eiga genre.) As such, they share a confrontational aesthetic that can still be seen even in the pink films of today.
America’s military presence in Japan was a hot button issue at the time of pink cinema’s emergence, sparking student protests that, in many cases, lead to violent confrontations with police. Because of this, pink filmmakers often positioned the abused and violated female bodies at the center of their movies as being symbols of the motherland, which had, in their eyes, been itself violated by the presence of an invading army on its soil. Such pervading sentiments at the dawn of Pinku Eiga’s existence may serve to explain what came to be a seemingly ingrained habit of taking anti-Western potshots, often without any apparent underlying political context. A good example of this would be the frequency with which Christian iconography is put to aggressively blasphemous uses, a practice that would be baffling if directed at Japan’s pathetically under-represented Christian minority, but makes a lot more sense as a swipe at Western sensibilities. Such is the case with our review subject here, 1986’s S&M Hunter, a film with no agenda other than to be as freaky as possible, but which nonetheless equips its bondage-happy protagonist with a priest’s collar and a sex slave wearing a nun’s habit (and usually not much else).
Of course, another factor that has influenced the content of Japan’s sex films is the country’s notorious censorship laws, which ban the depiction of genitalia or penetration, but really not that much else. Because of this, Japanese filmmakers have often had to travel far outside of the usual territory in order to fulfill pornography’s promise of showing taboos broken, usually veering in the direction of fetish, perversion, and, all too frequently, the idealized depiction of rape and sexual assault. I also imagine that, in a culture that puts as high a premium on shame as Japan’s does, the spectacle of characters simply taking what they want sexually without fear, consequence, or remorse serves as a pretty potent fantasy of liberation — though, given those characters are virtually without exception male, one that comes at the expense of excluding half of the potential audience.
The titular hero of S&M Hunter is just such a character, a bondage-crazed, manga-style superhero, complete with his own hilarious, Spaghetti Western style theme tune, who not only takes what he wants from the women he encounters, but also puts in their place – or, in his parlance, “tames” – those women with the audacity to attempt to do the same themselves. S&M Hunter may just be the film that signals my arrival at the point where I have finally seen too much, which I knew was going to come sooner or later. Despite its much-touted ability to shock and offend, it managed, for most of its sixty minute running time, only to leave me vaguely amused, and in its most outre moments prompted little more of a reaction from me than a sedate but heartfelt “Huh. Now there’s something you don’t see every day.” This may not simply be due to my having collapsed irretrievably into a state of decadence and moral decay, however. For one thing, the notion that a woman’s unfettered expression of her sexuality would require her to be tamed in such a manner, if you take it at all seriously, speaks to such a profound sense of impotence on the part of the film’s intended male audience that the only appropriate reaction to it would be an embarrassed kind of pity.
More than that, though, I think that my becoming acquainted, over the years, with people who were into S & M play has made me aware of the extent to which the practice is just that: play. With its over-the-top, bluntly archetypal characters and wildly outlandish bondage scenarios, this is, to me, clearly the area that S&M Hunter inhabits, a world of fantasy and elaborate play — a fact driven home by the depiction of the women on the receiving end of S&M Hunter’s signature brand of justice as taking very obvious pleasure in the experience. Given that, I don’t think that S&M Hunter plays to an audience of potential B&D vigilantes any more than Harry Potter movies play to an audience who will immediately run out and carve lightning bolts into their foreheads and then expose their genitals to men in stylized horse costumes.
S&M Hunter is the second in a trilogy of S&M Hunter films directed by Shuji Kataoka, a regular Pinku Eiga director of the era who, in later years, would go on to become a popular director of DTV action films. Here Kataoka casts two stars who were both frequent presences in his films and prominent fixtures in the world of Japanese sex cinema as a whole. Shiro Shimomoto, who plays the title role, was one of the most prolific actors in pink films during the seventies and eighties, and, judging from the titles of more recent films like Tokyo Booty Nights, still keeps a foot in the game even today. Hiromi Saotome was also a fairly ubiquitous presence in such films during the eighties, specializing in bondage and S&M roles. She would go on to become such an enthusiastic proponent of her art that, in 1987, she would famously have herself strung-up and dangled from a footbridge in front of one of Tokyo’s most heavily trafficked commuter train stations.
As far as I can tell, having only seen the trailer, the first S&M Hunter film’s recounting of its title character’s origin depicts him starting out as an ordinary businessman who gets on the wrong side of the Yakuza. This leads to him being attacked and blinded in one eye by a vicious gang of delinquent schoolgirls -– all in full uniform, of course — lead by the hard-eyed Meg (Saotome). In the aftermath of this attack, he is discovered and taken in by the master of an S&M parlor called the Pleasure Dungeon. A true S&M Hunter, we see, is not born but made, as the master (Yutaka Ikejima) then puts our hero through a rigorous training course that ultimately results in him becoming a rope master of near-supernatural ability, a fearless avenger of the pussy-whipped, clad in a distinctive uniform comprised of tweed suit and riding boots, the aforementioned priest’s collar, a skull-and-crossbones emblazoned eye patch, and bowler hat. From here, S&M Hunter sets out to put Meg and her gang in their place.
However, the Hunter’s roping skills are not employed to merely punish and restrain, but rather to gain his prey’s unquestioning obedience via the administration of near-unendurable levels of sexual pleasure. Each of his elaborate, cat’s cradle-like constructions is designed for this purpose, with every knot and wind somehow honing in on a different pleasure zone, with the coups de grace being a long strand of rope that he musically thrums like a giant bass string, sending vibrations straight to his victim’s sweet spot. As he states at the outset of the second film, his method is to “defeat” women, not with violence, but with love, their emotions being their true weak point. And as a result of his ministrations, they are rendered his willing slaves. For those of you who are skeptical of S&M Hunter’s prowess in this regard, and can only be convinced by way of the employment of a dated eighties pop culture reference, heed the words of the Dungeon Master himself: “Even if Hulk Hogan was a girl, she’d be his slave.”
The second entry in the series begins with a gay man named Joe (Bunmei Tobayama) coming to the Pleasure Dungeon with a tale of woe about how his lover, Jack (Akira Fukuda), has been kidnapped and made a sex slave by an all girl gang called the Bombers. S&M Hunter quickly agrees to take on the task of freeing Jack and taming these wanton women, after which we are taken to the hideout of the Bombers, where the gang, lead by Machi (Ayu Kiyokawa), are keeping Jack naked and strapped to a bed for their pleasure. To S&M Hunter‘s credit, I fully expected Jack to be eventually “converted” by these ladies’ sexual attentions, but that never happens. In fact, once Jack is freed and reunited with his lover, the two men are allowed a tender moment that seems, by all appearances, to be a prelude to a full-on sex scene, albeit one which never arrives. I had to wonder if this was the result of something being left on the cutting room floor, or if it was simply a fake-out perpetrated with some kind of humorous intention. To be sure, S&M Hunter is filled with things that I recognize as having the formal appearance of jokes, but whose comic intent, for reasons that I assume are culturally based, ended up zinging right past me.
Finally the man-hating Meg, still in full schoolgirl uniform, shows up at the Bomber’s door, hoping to join the gang and enlist their aid in seeking revenge against the S&M Hunter for the humiliation she suffered at his hands. Meanwhile, the hunter is bearing down on the gang’s hideout, accompanied by the Master, his nun’s-habit wearing sex slave, Maria (Naomi Sugishita), and Joe, who by appearances is himself falling prey to the rope master’s irresistible sexual charisma. With his target in sight, S&M Hunter then declares that he prefers to go on alone, causing the Master, in an actually funny instance of the script drawing attention to its own haphazardness, to wonder aloud why the hell he had asked them all along in the first place. From there, our hero proceeds to work his ropey magic on the gang of uppity women.
The straight sex scenes in S&M Hunter feel fairly obligatory, and are interesting mainly for the lengths they go to make sure that you don’t actually see anything. (Think lots of conveniently placed visual obstructions of the type that could serve as gags in an Austin Powers movie.) Where the real creativity is invested is in the film’s breathtakingly surreal bondage scenarios. And it is with those scenes in particular that we see a softening of the movie’s potentially offensive edge, based in the fact that they’re aestheticized and rendered fantastic to the point of bearing little relation to any type of real world brutality. (According to Sharp’s book, a film like this would typically have on hand a real life rope master, or kinbaku, to supervise the intricate binding that was necessary to completing these bizarre tableaus.) Also, while I know that many would be offended by the notion of a woman actually enjoying being the subject of such humiliations, I have to say, for my own part, that after being subjected to the endless parade of cretinous male predators in Toei’s Pinky Violence films, it was nice to see a member of my gender being depicted as masterful, desirable and actually capable of giving a woman sexual pleasure, no matter how unorthodox his methods of doing so might have been.
The first real gasp-inducing example of the Hunter’s particular brand of artistry comes when he trusses up one of Machi’s gang in a giant spider web that is designed to increase its victim’s pleasure with every rope that’s cut. After Machi shoots through a couple of the knots, the Hunter warns her that any further attempts to free her friend will send her to “the ecstasy of hell”. Machi curses the Hunter, but he responds that she is only jealous that it’s her friend and not her who’s being subjected to this treatment. And, sure enough, soon after he has taken leave of Machi, she turns up at S&M Hunter’s ranch (yes, you heard me), saying that she now wants “to give control” to him. Since it is one of the film’s few portrayals of a consensual sexual act, what follows is played as a love scene, though one in which one partner is elaborately bound up in the rafters of a barn while the other stands far below thrumming vibrations at her nethers through a taut length of rope.
The scene has the ridiculously gauzy quality of a romantic dream sequence in an old Hollywood movie, and throughout it and the one that follows, actress Ayu Kiyokawa is given the full, halo of soft light treatment, rendering her unrecognizable from the hard-looking Machi we saw in the stark, harshly-lit earlier sequences at the gang’s hideout. Clearly the ministrations of S&M Hunter’s long, ropey fingers have caused a transformation in her, and once the act is complete, she pledges her love to him. “You only love the ropes”, he replies. Still, once she has departed, S&M Hunter graces us with a tender moment in which the Hunter, having second thoughts, runs after Machi and, upon catching up to her, hands her the rope he used to bind her. “This now belongs to you”, he says solemnly, obviously fighting to contain his emotions. It is in this moment that we’re afforded a glimpse of the S&M Hunter as a tragic figure, one who’s calling to discipline all of the world’s wayward women forces him to turn his back on love. (“All of the masochists need me,” he tells Machi. “I’m a charitable sadist. I can’t love only you.”) It’s as if director Kataoka, in an uncanny moment of long-range prescience, is preemptively providing his hero with the emotional complexity that a later Christopher Nolan reboot would otherwise affect. Later, moved by what she has seen and experienced, Machi says to her fellow gang members of the Hunter, “You don’t know him. His strength knows gentleness.”
S&M Hunter is irresistibly quotable. Its main character spouts all kinds of pretentious nonsense, and even, true to his ecclesiastical garb, quotes the New Testament (while other utterances — “I see your heart. Your heart wants my ropes” — seem more secular in origin). What I enjoyed most about the film was how it hijacks the terse moral shorthand and glib certitude of evangelism for its own anarchic ends. During the movie’s talky prologue, the Hunter essentially preaches to the audience, explicitly laying out the story’s conflict and moral, after which we see both briskly played out, with the gum-snapping, leather-clad Bombers playing the transgressors whose wayward actions meet with exactly those consequences that the moral predetermines. In the end it all plays out like some Bizarro World version of a Chick tract, with those who have given in to evil, rather than being cast into the lake of fire, instead being bound up and helplessly racked with consecutive multiple orgasms.
S&M Hunter concludes with the final showdown between the title character and the revenge-minded schoolgirl Meg, who has dressed for the occasion in full Nazi regalia. True to the movie’s aesthetic of escalation, it’s a real head-spinner, capping off with S&M Hunter managing, despite having his remaining good eye gouged out, to bind Meg and hoist her into the heavens with an industrial crane. All in all, it’s one of those endings that casts all that preceded it in a far better light, since, throughout S&M Hunter, you can’t help but wonder how it could possibly tie things up with a suitably crowning WTF moment. Well bravo, S&M Hunter. Well played. Well played, indeed.
In the end, I’d be a fool to deny that S&M Hunter traffics in misogyny, though I think there’s room for debate over how deeply held it is. That said, it did elicit a wince from me during its opening scene, at the moment when the Master says, on the subject of hitting women: “Even if you hit them hard, they recover. They go back to normal.” In response to this, I have to wonder: is writer/director Kataoka referring there to women’s emotional resilience, or is he actually saying that they’re literally indestructible? In any case, it is for this reason, according to the Master, that, rather than trying vainly to beat them into submission, “You need to train women to obey.” Again, it seems like we’re seeing a suggestion that, rather than being objects of contempt, women represent some kind of overwhelming, otherworldly force that needs to be contained – a viewpoint that would in turn suggest coming from such a standpoint of infantile helplessness that, again, it’s difficult to avoid feeling an aghast sense of pity in response.
It also just may be that there’s an element of obstinacy in my inability to be really offended by S&M Hunter. The whole thing has a bratty quality to it that suggests that getting riled by it would simply be letting S&M Hunter win. What’s worse is that I actually kind of liked the movie, which may very well make me a horrible person. Still, if that be the verdict, it won’t prevent me from maintaining my regular program of affectionately patting all human beings under four feet tall on the head, slinging old ladies over my back two at a time to carry them across the street, and cooking elaborate meals for homeless people. You see, that’s the kind of guy I am. But I’m also the kind of guy that has to take his hat off to a movie that manages to top itself as enthusiastically as S&M Hunter does, even though I know in my heart that tying up a lady in a giant spider web and sending her “to the ecstasy of hell” is fundamentally wrong. I hope you can all find it in your hearts to forgive me.
Oh, and also? Those fucking Japanese are crazy.
Release Year: 1986 | Country: Japan | Starring: Shiro Shimomoto, Hiromi Saotome, Ayu Kiyokawa, Yutaka Ikejima, Utako Sarashina, Naomi Sugishita, Bunmei Tobayama, Akira Fukuda | Writer: Shuji Kataoka | Director: Shuji Kataoka | Cinematographer: Toshio Shimura | Music: Takashi Akutagawa | Producer: Daisuke Asakura