It’s customary (and a tad predictable) at this point for me to preface any review of an older anime title with some rose-tinted reflection on how it was in “the old days,” when we were trading VHS tapes by U.S. mail and had but a smattering of titles available for rent or purchase here in the United States. So let’s skip that part, since as fun as it is to drag those hoary old chestnuts out into the realm of public discourse yet again, the truth of the matter is it was never very much fun when we all had to do it. Nostalgia for “a simpler time” aside, I really don’t miss running off tapes on clunky old VCRs, waiting in disorganized lines at the overcrowded post office, then hoping that the virtual stranger at the other end of the transaction actually receives the package and, even more importantly, actually gets around to reciprocating. And then you finally have your own copy of whatever it was you were trading for, complete with shaky quality and occasional tracking problems.
Ever since his rediscovery, it seems like Seijun Suzuki has had the term “Maverick Director” permanently affixed to his name like some kind of mandatory honorific. However, given the rigidity of the Japanese studio system within which he spent his peak years, Suzuki never would have had the opportunity to achieve that maverick status had he not at some point been able to tow the line and deliver the straightforward genre pictures that he had been hired to create. That he was capable of doing that and then some is more than amply demonstrated by Underworld Beauty, an outstanding little noir programmer that he directed during his early years at Nikkatsu.
When the idea was pitched for a “counter culture” theme for a B-Masters Round Table, I was both excited and apprehensive. On the one hand, it was a subject with which I had acute first-hand experience, which meant I wouldn’t have to rely simply on theory and supposition to extract some sort of a review from the material. I could ramble on endlessly about some obscure thing that happened to me back when I was sixteen and the world was new. I was, however, also apprehensive, as I am sometimes loathe to throw myself into public discourse regarding the counter-cultures with which I have some connection. Not because I’m ashamed, mind you. Hell, I’m still associated in some way with pretty much every loony thing I ever believed in or adopted as an identity. But I’ve read a lot of the “studies” about these things.
Let me be up front: the whole reason I wanted to watch this film in the first place was because the poster art featured a torch-wielding naked woman riding atop a tormented centaur. I knew it was probable nothing like that would ever occur in the actual movie (and I wasn’t disappointed in my pre-disappointment), but I felt like I owed it to the movie never the less to give it a look see. And while it doesn’t feature a naked woman galloping about on a centaur, it still turned out to be, to my old eyes, a surprisingly effective and creepy, if somewhat modest, tale of Satanism and revenge from beyond the grave.
The chances were slim to none that any of Hollywood’s early attempts to depict the punk/new wave scene would be anywhere near on the mark, but that didn’t stop me and my friends from dragging our black clad, funny haircut havin’ asses to every single one of them. I think that we were flattered by these films’ failure to pin us down, as if that was somehow a testament to both our own uniqueness and the singularity of our cultural moment. The truth, of course, was that such misfires were less the result of failed effort than they were of the filmmakers’ halfheartedness in their attempts to cash in on what I’m sure they considered to be a fleeting fad. In any case, few of these movies were more destined to get it wrong than Times Square. A film whose promotion rode hard on both the vaguely punkish look of its two leads and a soundtrack choked with some of the era’s biggest names in radio-friendly new wave, Times Square was ultimately too confused in its execution and garbled by post-production mishandling to come off as clearly being about anything, much less a movement in music and style that, by 1980, was starting to look a bit confused and garbled itself.
People, Estus Pirkle is not screwing around. When this diminutive Baptist preacher from New Albany, Mississippi looks into the camera and describes an America whose small towns’ streets are littered with the corpses of murdered children, he is not presenting us with a “what if” scenario. He is telling us in no uncertain terms what will happen — within twenty-four months, no less — if America doesn’t get serious about Jesus. And if those words alone aren’t chilling enough, he has in his service a seasoned veteran of 1960s Southern exploitation cinema who will utilize all the tricks of his trade to bring them to vivid, bloody life for your terror and edification. Never mind that drive-in theaters are counted among the litany of evils that Pirkle says are driving our country to ruin; the man is obviously not stupid. As long as it’s God’s work that’s being done, it’s safe to assume that he doesn’t mind if it’s the Devil doing it.
The years 1976 to 1986, roughly spanning ages four to fourteen for me, seem to be when I discovered the bulk of what I would end up liking for the rest of my life. At the time, my enthusiasm for entertainment that was sometimes, to be charitable, of dubious merit, could be chalked up to simple naivety — the juvenile tastes of a juvenile. Perfectly acceptable, even if it did mean that I was prone to celebrating things like Treasure of the Four Crowns and Gymkata. However, years — nay, decades — later, I find that when I go back and revisit these films so beloved in my youth, rather than having a quiet chuckle at how silly I was back then, I actually enjoy them just as much. And sometimes even more.
As I said way back when in our first review of a Chor Yuen film, and likely in every subsequent review of a Chor Yuen film, discovering his body of work was one of the best cinematic things to happen to me in years. Since that day I first brought home the then newly released DVD of Killer Clans, I’ve made it a point to purchase any of the wuxia films he directed for the Shaw Brothers Studio. Needless to say, the films are not as surprising as they were during those heady first few dates, but I can say we’ve definitely settled down into a very comfortable and happy relationship. His films still prove immensely entertaining, and the more familiar I become with it, the more I notice the differences that occur from one film to the next within what I reckon we should refer to as Yuen’s Martial World.
It seems like there was a period in the history of Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio when Sir Run Run Shaw had a bright red rotary telephone stored under a cheese dome sitting atop his desk. Whenever a completely loony script landed on his desk, he would calmly pick up the phone and it would automatically dial a pre-programmed number which would be answered by Danny Lee, sitting across the studio, presumably wearing a tight polyester shirt adorned with some distasteful paisley pattern. How else can you explain the man’s appearance in a string of the studio’s first real forays into the world of crazy kungfu? Although the Shaws would produce no small number of truly batty kungfu films, especially during the late 70s and early 80s when the company was on its final leg, their early forays into left field all seemed to have the common denominator of young star Li Hsiu-hsien, soon to become Danny Lee.
It wouldn’t be difficult to interpret The Web of Death — the third in director Chor Yuen’s long cycle of films adapting contemporary popular wuxia novels — as something of a cold war parable. In it, a Martial World clan by the name of The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of a super-weapon so powerful that the clan’s leader has decreed that it should be put under wraps and hidden away for the good of the Martial World as a whole. That weapon, the Five Venom Spider, is revealed to us in the film’s opening minutes, and that’s a good thing; while definitely kind of neat in a cheeseball sort of way, the Five Venom Spider is not the kind of thing that could live up to an extended build-up. What it is, in fact, is a normal-sized tarantula that, when released from its ornate cage, glows green, emits the roar of a raging elephant, and then shoots a deadly, electrified web to the accompaniment of much billowing of smoke and flying of sparks. It’s a weapon that will be deployed to amusing effect throughout Web of Death, but which has the unfortunate side effect of saddling Chor with a conclusion in which a room full of fighters who have been established as the Martial World’s bravest and most accomplished cower away from a spider. But more about that later.