You’d think that the isolation of Soviet-style communism would have at least shielded the citizens of East Germany from the worst excesses of seventies fashion, but the 1976 space opera In the Dust of the Stars tells us otherwise. Neither, apparently, did it prevent the creatives at the state-run DEFA studio from falling under the influence of such decadent western cultural products as Jess Franco movies and the swinging sci-fi TV series of Gerry Anderson. That this film never saw release on this side of the Iron Curtain is no surprise, given that the vision of a socialist utopia it presents — marked by free love, frequent casual nudity, and a distinctly lopsided female-to-male ratio — is one that many healthy young Western men could easily get behind. The resulting sudden spike in defections Eastward would have been truly crippling to national security.
Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
One of the most obvious changes that this second entry makes to the Scorpion template is in the presentation of its heroine. The fact that the first film had dealt with the pedestrian niceties of back-story allowed Ito — aided by another astonishing performance from his star, Meiko Kaji — to free Matsu/aka Scorpion from the moorings of earthbound considerations of character and move her completely into the realm of archetype. As such, Kaji portrays her as an extra-human engine of vengeance with a nuclear core of rage forged from the countless injustices done her by men and the corrupt, male-driven society that they represent: In short, the terrible price of all her nation’s sins given human form.
While Female Prisoner #701 sought to provide Matsu with a narrative that gave her recognizably human motivations, Jailhouse 41 renders all of that irrelevant by telling us everything we need to know about her character in a brief, opening credits sequence of startling power and economy. It is this increased sure-handedness that relegates the first film — although an impressive and unique work in its own right — to being clearly the least of the three Scorpion films that Ito directed, and marks Jailhouse 41 as the film in which the series came decisively into its own.
In Jailhouse 41, Ito builds a lot upon those elements of his creative arsenal that he put to use in the first film — his visual references to traditional Japanese theater and the use of hallucinatory sequences involving horror movie-like imagery among them — but he also introduces many new ones. One of those is his practice here of having the actors freeze in tableau during certain scenes — something that comes off looking a lot weirder than a simple freeze frame would. Creative sound design also plays a much bigger part in this film, and even extends to abruptly cutting the sound completely at some points in order to better portray — as many of these effects are intended to — Matsu’s interior reality. It is this expressive use of sound that serves so well to make our introduction to Matsu in Jailhouse 41 such a memorable one.
The film begins with an echoing, disembodied female voice repeatedly calling the name “Sasori” (Scorpion), as if in incantation, as the camera snakes through the dark, cavern-like hallways leading down into the bowels of the prison. Finally we reach the door to Matsu’s subterranean cell, and the haunting call gives way to a steady and methodically persistent scraping sound. As the sound continues, we see Matsu, lying with her hands chained behind her back on the damp floor of the dungeon-like cell, her back to us, much as she was at the beginning of the last film — though this time, we will learn, she has been chained alone in that cell for a full year’s time. We are unable to make out the source of the sound until the camera moves around to face Matsu, at which point we see that she has clenched tightly between her teeth a metal spoon, which she is tirelessly working to sharpen by scraping it repeatedly against a very well-worn groove in the concrete floor — her face all the while frozen in a look of cauldron-eyed fury that is almost terrifying beyond description. As the credits roll, she is shown over the course of time (Days? …Months?), her position changing very little as she ceaselessly sharpens away, the piece of metal clasped in her jaws gradually transforming from a spoon into a blade. By the time this sequence is over, we have seen more than enough to convince us of Matsu’s preternatural singularity of purpose, and wouldn’t doubt for a minute that she could spend the entirety of a year in sleepless pursuit of fashioning an implement of vengeance.
As the credits end, Matsu’s labor are interrupted by a visit from the warden (Fumio Watanabe). Since losing his eye to Matsu in the first installment, the warden has clearly become as obsessively dedicated to Matsu’s unhappiness as she is to his, and he informs her in no uncertain terms that he intends for her to be locked in her underground tomb forever — with the exception of today, when she will be briefly trotted out in order to keep up appearances for a visiting prison official. The warden further informs her, with some regret, that he has accepted a promotion that will place him outside the prison, and, as a result, he will no longer be able to personally supervise her constant brutalization. Matsu responds to this news with a subtle amplification of what I referred to in my review of the first film as THE LOOK, letting us know that she sees this as her last chance for payback.
That look, now honed to a lacerating acuity, will get a serious workout over the course of Jailhouse 41. Because, while Kaji’s performance in the first Scorpion film wasn’t a particularly verbal one, her turn here renders it positively chatty by comparison. Matsu speaks a mere two lines over the entire course of the film, both of which occur within the final fifteen minutes and are comprised of less than four words (and one of which, “You sold me”, is, fittingly, a testament of betrayal). This makes Kaji’s performance here even more of a wonder to behold. Certainly, there are moments in which Matsu speaks through action, but it is those moments of stillness — of watching, of waiting — that most indelibly define her character. Given this, Kaji’s take on Scorpion comes across as nothing less than an iron-willed assertion of sheer presence — and goes a long way toward justifying her cult icon status today.
When Matsu is herded into the prison’s exercise yard — manacled and, by all appearances, barely able to walk thanks to her months spent in chains — we see that her long absence from the general population has made her something of a legend among the other inmates, and her presence is greeted by them with hushed awe. Propped up by two guards, she is forced into formation with the other prisoners as the visiting official walks among them, spouting stultifying rehabilitory bromides. Matsu is less hobbled than she seems, however, and, when the first opportunity arises, she make a lunge for the warden. She fails narrowly in her intended goal of taking out the warden’s remaining good eye, but succeeds spectacularly in putting the fear of God into the visiting official, who promptly drops to his knees and shits in his pants. Inspired by Scorpion’s example, the other prisoners run riot through the yard.
Punishment comes for the inmates in the form of hard labor in the rock quarry, though Matsu is relegated to simply walking among them with a heavy cross-shaped tree stump lashed to her back. Observing this, the warden lets the guards know that, if their intention was to break Scorpion’s influence over the prisoners, their semiotics are a little off. He instead proposes to humiliate Matsu in front of her peers once and for all by having her gang raped by a group of guards in monks robes and stocking masks. This brutal act is perpetrated by the guards with all of the nightmarishly caricatured grotesquerie that we’ve come to count on from the Pinky Violence genre’s depictions of male rapacity, and accomplished with Matsu, glaring molten daggers all the while, still spread-eagled upon the makeshift cross, proving that Norifumi Suzuki was not the only Japanese exploitation director who delighted in flailing away at Christian iconography.
Sadly, this defilement seems to achieve its intended purpose, and, with the exception of a sensitive young inmate named Rose, Matsu is promptly turned upon by her deliriously stir-crazy fellow convicts. On the meatwagon ride back to the prison, she is beaten mercilessly by a gang lead by Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi), a vicious older inmate with a face frozen in the stylized grimace of a Kabuki demon. With this beating, however, Oba has unwittingly aided Matsu in effecting the gang’s escape, for when the guards, believing her dead, come to check on her condition, Matsu manages to overpower and strangle one of them with her chains. After taking out the remaining guard, Matsu, Oba, Rose and four other prisoners escape into the surrounding wilderness. When the warden and his lieutenants later arrive upon the scene, they find the van trashed and both guards dead — one of them, a participant in Matsu’s rape at the quarry, gorily castrated with a tree stump (one of those sights that is all the more horrible for how it sets you to imagining just how on Earth the act was accomplished).
A couple weeks back I reviewed Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film The Godless Girl, an early example of the youth-in-prison genre that took a different, but equally allegorical, approach to its depiction of prison life vs. life on the “outside” as Jailhouse 41. In that film, the young protagonists make a break for it and are able to escape momentarily into the countryside beyond the prison’s walls. This is presented as a brief, idyllic episode, with the lush natural surroundings representing an Eden-like paradise that stands in stark contrast to the Hell on Earth represented by the prison. In Jailhouse there is no such contrast, as the women, once “free”, find the outside world to be every bit as harsh and filled with cruelty as their former confines. To underscore this, the landscape they travel through after their escape is shown as a blasted, volcanic wasteland, and their first shelter a desolate ghost town half buried in black ash. The message is clearly that, being that these are women whose lives and actions have placed them outside the narrow roles defined for them by society, theirs is a world that has no place for them, and offers no true freedom.
Of course, under these circumstances the women prove to be just as much of a threat to each other as anything else in their environment, as their time in prison seems to have left most of them too addled to take any kind of effective or concerted action. It is Matsu alone who maintains a composed — albeit hyper-vigilant — facade, and the volatility and caterwauling that surrounds her serves even more to underscore her unnatural stillness. This eerie calm — and the way that Matsu watches Oba as if in deep recognition of something Oba herself seems desperate to avoid understanding — leads Oba to see Matsu as a threat, and to tirelessly seek to engage her in a power struggle that Matsu invariably wins by virtue of abstaining from it. Despite this adversarial relationship, the two are repeatedly framed as being inextricably linked, and it is predictably Oba’s resistance to seeing her and Matsu’s fates as being bound together that leads to her end.
It is hard to single out one moment in Jailhouse 41 as being the film’s most haunting, because there are many such moments. From the outset of the women’s dash to freedom through this nightmarish terrain, Ito creates an atmosphere that makes even those moments that, on paper, read like simple convicts-on-the-run boilerplate fraught with a creeping sense of horror and unease. But the moment that takes the most decisive turn toward the supernatural occurs during the women’s brief hideaway in the ash-blasted ghost town. The night brings a violent storm, during which the women are drawn to a small hut whose walls suddenly collapse to reveal a mad-eyed old woman, cowering in a blanket with a knife tightly gripped in both hands. Later, as the women gather around a fire, the old woman, still clutching the knife, sings an eerie song, lamenting — in an echo of the Scorpion series’ theme song, sung over the credits of each film by Kaji herself — that “women commit crimes because of men”. Over a series of surreal tableaus staged in the formal, stylized manner of Kabuki theater, she goes on to sing of each woman’s crimes, and we learn that Oba, in a fit of rage against a philandering husband, murdered her own children, one of them an unborn whom she killed by stabbing herself in the womb.
Later, when the warden and his men are closing in on them, the prisoners escape with the old woman into a forest of maple trees that Ito has bathed in a disconcertingly artificial looking autumnal glow. The old woman collapses and, before dying, relinquishes the knife to Matsu while mumbling something about a curse. A ghostly wind whips through the trees and partially buries the body of the woman in fallen leaves, after which it vanishes into thin air. We then see Matsu, now holding the knife, as her hair whips wildly in the wind, a sudden unearthly glow rising upon her face. For anyone who might have stumbled upon Jailhouse 41 with the expectation of seeing a run-of-the-mill women’s prison picture, this has to be the movie’s most resounding WTF moment.
The women’s further adventures on the lamb yield no less amount of strangeness or misfortune. Once they have taken shelter on the outskirts of a small village, it’s demonstrated how straying from the group leads to tragic consequences. One women is lured by the warden, using her small child and elderly parents as bait, and coerced into betraying the others, which leads to a bloody confrontation that leaves two guards and one of the women dead. Later, young Rose wanders off and encounters a group of drunken salarymen on holiday, one of whom has just been regaling his companions with tales of raping Chinese civilians during the war. The world that Jailhouse 41 has sketched for us decrees only one possible outcome for this meeting, and so Rose is brutally raped and murdered, her body tossed like a rag doll from a cliff into the rapids of a nearby river. In just one of many of the film’s instances of surreal visual poetry, the waterfall runs deep crimson as a result, and the women, seeing this, intuit exactly what has happened. Matsu and the others trail the men to the tour bus from which they came and hijack it, taking all of the passengers onboard hostage.
During the siege that follows, the escapees terrorize their captives in a vindictive frenzy, while Matsu, still clutching the old woman’s knife, watches in her usual impenetrable silence from the front of the bus. She entertains a hallucination of the bus suddenly converting into a minimalistically-rendered courtroom with the passengers as a hectoring jury and the women kneeling in chains before them. This morphs into an even stranger fantasy scenario in which the women are each shown being trapped in fishing nets and prodded at by a jeering crowd of villagers, until Matsu manages to cut through the net with the old woman’s blade and stand triumphantly before her stunned persecutors. You think for a moment that Matsu might intervene on behalf of those hostages who appear to be innocent, but these visions seem to advise her otherwise.
Jailhouse 41 ends similarly to the first Scorpion film, with Matsu, the sole survivor out of the original gang of seven, back on the streets after having successfully avoided capture by a variety of single-mindedly ruthless means. Now clad in the same black pimping ensemble she wore at the end of Female Prisoner #701, she is now intent on enacting the vengeance that she has been thirsting for since the outset. Unlike the first time, however, her target is the warden, and she dispatches him in much the same protracted manner she did her betraying boyfriend the first time around, stalking him relentlessly through the streets and slashing him to ribbons with the blade bestowed upon her by the old woman. Once this is accomplished, we see Matsu reflected in the Warden’s glass eye, laughing hysterically — after which she is seen reunited with her fellow escapees, all back in their prison uniforms and running through the streets of the apparently deserted city, handing the knife one off to the other as they go.
As jarring as it is to see a smile on Meiko Kaji’s face after all that has gone before, this fanciful coda was the only such sequences in Jailhouse 41 that fell a little flat for me. For one thing, that Scorpion’s killing of the warden would appear to so effectively lift her burden seems to contradict the tone of the entire film, as it would more likely be a hollow victory, and leave no fewer insurmountable battles in its wake. Furthermore, the image of the women passing the knife between them, while fashionably militant, represents an offering up of a somewhat glib and depressingly limited concept of girl power. Of a piece, it seems like a pat, conciliatory gesture tacked onto the end of a film that has to this point been uncompromising in its vision. Of course, that vision may be unrelentingly bleak, but there is enough redemption to be found in the beauty and inspired ingenuity of its unveiling to render any tacked-on upbeat ending unnecessary. After all, one of the things that carved out a special place for this film in my heart is how it manages to be so oppressively nihilistic in its content while being so transcendent in its presentation.
So what is Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, you might ask. Is it a women-in-prison film? A horror film? An exploitation film? An art film? The answer — as it is when anyone poses those kind of rhetorical questions in the context of a film review — is that it’s all of those in fairly equal measure. It is also a film that is filled with more ideas than its somewhat loosely structured screenplay at times seems capable of holding, and as a result it can come across to some as little more than a series of dazzling but only tangentially connected set pieces. This is an impression that will, I feel, be allayed by repeat viewings. Because — other than those that I singled out above — each of those set pieces ultimately reveals itself to be true to the film’s emotional and moral core. As I said, this film is like a nightmare, and, in taking the form of a dream, it gains cohesion from the beating heart of emotional truth that hides within it, rather than from anything approaching a tidy narrative structure. Also like a nightmare, it has a way of sticking with you long after it has come and gone.
While Jailhouse 41‘s final sequence feels like it wants to be the end of the story, the truth, as most of you know, is that that was far from the case. Shunya Ito had one more Scorpion film in him — and while it’s arguable that, with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, the director topped Jailhouse 41, it is certain that he contributed yet another bold addition to the series.
Release Year: 1972 | Country: Japan | Starring: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi, Hiroko Isayama, Yukie Kagawa | Writers: Hiro Matsuda, Tooru Shinohara | Director: Shunya Ito | Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi | Also known as: Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Scorpion: Female Prisoner Cage #41, Joshuu Sasori: Dai-41 Zakkyo-bo
Angelfist, aside from being a nonsensical title, was a video box cover that haunted my friends and I for many years. It was perched right up at the front entrance of Pick of the Flicks in Gainesville, Florida, and featured a blonde woman in an ugly leotard doing what has to be one of the most awkward high kicks I’ve ever seen, while holding her arms in this weird little curled-up T-Rex position. It was perhaps the single most ludicrous martial arts movie box cover pose I’d ever seen, at least until those Matrix movies made that completely silly looking Spiderman-meets-chicken jump/pose/kick inexplicably popular. I know guys did it in old kungfu films too, and it looked just as silly then, unless they happen to be wearing one of those silver wigs that is supposed to make you look like an old master even if you have the face of a guy in his twenties. Also, if you do that kick, the only way to get any power from such an awkward position is if a foley artist loops in the screech of a hawk or an eagle right as you jump
Anyway, as much as we pointed and laughed at Angelfist, which also triumphantly proclaimed “Starring Eight Billion Time American Karate Champion Cat Sassoon” or something to that effect, we never actually got around to renting it. At the time, we had so many old Shaw Bros. and Ocean Shores releases to work through that piddling around with a Roger Corman karate movie seemed rather a poor use of our time. Alas, I was so young and naive back then, and in my then recently discovered fervor for Hong Kong action cinema, I turned my nose up at so many films that… well… deserved to have noses turned up around them. But now I know better and willingly embrace such films. Thus, back when skinnyguy.com was still around and you could buy 50 crappy VHS action and kungfu films for like five bucks, I ended up with my very own copy of Angelfist, along with about a hundred Godfrey Ho/Thomas Tang/Joseph Lai ninja movies starring Richard Harrison. So whenever I complain to you about my financial woes, you can always respond by going, “Don’t you own copies of Ninja Phantom Heroes and Diamond Ninja Force?” And I will have to hang my head in shame, even if deep inside I am secretly proud of owning such movies.
Just as I was pleased that “post apocalyptic rollerskating movie” is not a description of a single film but of an entire genre, so too am I happy that “movies featuring nude kickboxing” yields expansive enough results that I can sit back and say, “You know, I think I’m going to become an expert in films that feature nude kickboxing.” Angelfist certainly doesn’t fail to deliver in the nude kickboxing arena, though it does fail to deliver in just about every aspect that a movie might otherwise strive to achieve. It joins a storied list of films that includes Angel of Destruction, Redline, Girls on the Run, Rolls Royce Baby, Naked Fist, and Kungfu Leung Strikes Emanuelle in my collection of nude kickboxing movies. Rolls Royce Baby in particular teaches us that there’s nothing appealing about watching a sleazy Eurotrash lounge lizard do full frontal nude katas. In general, nude karate is not a sport that lends itself to the male anatomy, though I don’t begrudge any man who chooses to make it his chosen form of exercise. If only they’d had the good sense to accompany his workout with a similar scene of Lina Romay, but she’s spending too much time in that movie standing on her head while nude for no good reason other than it never hurts to feature Lina Romay nude and standing on her head. I know there are plenty of other films out there featuring nude martial arts, and I intend, one by one and while dressed like Coffin Joe, to possess them all.
So it turns out the awkward looking blonde on the video box isn’t Cat Sassoon at all. We’ll get to the blonde later. It turns out Cat Sassoon is the daughter (in real life, that is) of shampoo empire tyrant Vidal Sassoon, who I assume achieved his high rank in society through liberal use of karate fighting thugs, and even now he forces hobos and prostitutes to fight in underground martial arts tournaments where the combat takes place in huge pools of mousse. Catya’s biography is one of a typical “live fast, die young” (she did both) Hollywood kid, and I’m not sure at what point she picked up the various karate championships the movie celebrates as being in her possession (actually, she picked them up when Roger Corman invented them and assigned them to her via movie poster). She seems to have spent most of her short life doing drugs and being a supermodel thanks, in large part, to the fact that she was the daughter of Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adams. At some point, she parlayed her modeling and “daughter of Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adams” gig into a movie career and appeared in the film Tuff Turf, the movie that had the unenviable task of making James Spader seem like a bad-ass. From there, it was straight to the bottom of the barrel, and before too long she found herself in The Philippines working in films by our main man, Cirio Santiago.
As far as authentic martial arts bad-assery, and despite the claims made on the cover of this movie, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Cat Sassoon was possibly one of the very worst of the many “next female martial arts superstars” that surfaced in the 80s and 90s with dubious claims about winning international tournaments and Vidal Sassoon Hair Mousse Kumites. She’s definitely not to be measured alongside actual bad-asses like Cynthia Rothrock and Karen Shepherd, both of whom made awesome movies in Hong Kong before coming back to America to make movies that were just awesomely bad. But they both knew their stuff, cut their teeth in Hong Kong, and had easy to verify martial arts careers. The waters get murky really quickly beyond them, though.
I’m ranking Sassoon — who must have been slapped on the back while eating lemons, thus freezing her face in an expression of pouty disgust (Joe Bob Briggs described her as having “the fist of an angel and the face of a fist”) — below Mimi Lesseos (who at least worked as pro wrestler before trying her hand at being the next direct-to-video female martial arts superstar), although Angelfist is remarkably better than anything Mimi Lesseos ever starred in. Probably above Maria Ford, who did time in her own bargain basement Filipino nude kickboxing movie, Angel of Destruction). It’s a hard call. And maybe above some of the women who tried to do martial arts in various Andy Sidaris T&A masterpieces. But whatever the case, when you’re locked in a battle for last with Maria Ford and former Playboy Playmates, well, you’re a long way from the surface. Plus, the trailer for Angel of Destruction has the narrator saying “She gets caught between a rock…and a hard place!” as they show Maria Ford kicking a rapist in the balls, so that might actually get the edge.
The claim is that she’s a “WKA North American Forms and Weapons champion,” but if this is true, the WKA doesn’t seem aware of it. Of course, I suppose Cirio Santiago could have created a different WKA than the World Kickboxing Association. Maybe it stands for “Women Kick Ass” or “Wonderfully Krappy Awfulness.” I think everyone who ever starred in a martial arts movie got to be the champion of some organization or tournament. In 1992, my friends and I shot about two minutes of an epic we were going to make about a Misfits-loving zombie who returns from the grave, is disillusioned by how punk went all hippie-crusty or metal, and so decides to destroy the world, with only the staff of a local Chinese restaurant to stop him. I think as a result of filming those two minutes, which consisted I think of footage of me jumping over a railing in a parking garage, I became de facto two time world champion in forms and combat for the Global Regional Karate Union of North Florida.
So if we’re going to drown at the bottom of the barrel with the late Cat Sassoon, we might as well do it in the company of another daft movie by Cirio Santiago. Of course, this movie, with its gratuitous martial arts tournament footage, is positively rational compared to some of his more feverish efforts, but that still leaves plenty of room for you to shake your head and say, “No! No. Wait, what?” The gist of the thing is this: while either vacationing or working as a photographer or participating in a karate tournament, a woman named Kristie (Sibel Birzag, who appeared in Angelfist and…oh, just Angelfist) catches an assassination on film. Although she phones the American embassy with news that one of their top generals has just been murdered by dudes with pantyhose on their head, and that she has photographic evidence, no one seems to consider it all that big a deal. Must be the same army as we saw in American Ninja, where the continuous slaughter of American soldiers at the hands of Filipino ninja hijackers didn’t really raise much of an eyebrow. So rather than go into the embassy or the police or anything, she goes and competes in a round or two at a karate tournament where all the women wear sexy leotards, halter tops, and thongs instead of actual martial arts clothing. She then has the film delivered not to the embassy or the police, but to a friend who works as a nude dancer at a club that specializes in the world’s least enthusiastic stripping. And then, of course, she gets murdered.
When the woman’s Los Angeles cop sister (Cat Sassoon) gets wind of the murder, she travels to the Philippines to solve the case and deal out plodding kungfu justice to those responsible, even though the local authorities use the “I know you’re a cop back in LA, but this is Manila. We do things different here,” shtick, which has never deterred a single rogue cop ever. It’s no more effective than “I just spent the entire morning getting my ass chewed out by the mayor,” or “your methods are too extreme, Inspector Nico!”
Along the way, Cat will enter the martial arts tournament in place of her sister, since movies have taught us that all gangsters and would-be revolutionaries are also shady martial arts tournament promoters. Ostensibly, this has something to do with getting close to…I don’t know. There were some Mexican drug dealers, or something, and some of the revolutionaries responsible for the murder are involved. Look, I sort of lost track, so I’m going to say that Cat enters the tournament so that she can keep land developers from knocking down the local community center in order to make room for a shopping mall. The primary purpose of the tournament really is to pad out the film’s running time with lots of really bad martial arts bouts and only slightly more interesting shower scenes in which Cat Sassoon proves that no amount of shampoo empire money can buy you decent martial arts skills or a decent pair of fake boobs in the early 1990s. I’m sure hers, which she shows often in this film, cost a lot of money, but that doesn’t stop them from looking like someone took a couple honeydews, wrapped them in those pointy little knit caps worn by Tibetans and hippies, then strapped them to Cat’s chest. Thhis is one of those extremely rare moments where the nudity comes and I say, “You know, why don’t we just put those away for now?”
Anyway, you better get used to them, because as I said, she pulls them out pretty often, God bless ‘er, including during a scene where she is attacked in her hotel room by a bunch of ninjas and has to fight them off while wearing nothing but a pair of panties. The two most striking things about this scene are how awful Cat’s martial arts are, and how no matter how much she tumbles and stumble around, her breasts remain completely motionless, like a couple of gyroscopes with a fake tan.
And she’s not alone. Joining her in her quest to showcase gratuitous boob shots and astoundingly awful karate fights is lovely Melissa Moore (and her much more natural breasts), a Versailles (that’s vur-sails to y’all — if the French didn’t want you to pronounce the “L’s” then they shouldn’t have put them in the word), Kentucky native who found herself slumming it in all sorts of movies like Hard to Die, Vampire Cop, and Sorority House Massacre 2, among many others. The martial arts she showcases in the film don’t look any less awkward. You know though, maybe it’s me. I mean, I’m no kungfu master, so maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe the proper fighting stance for the martial art they’re using is indeed to curl your arms up like an Incan ice mummy and mash them against your chest.
Whatever the case, I like Melissa regardless, even though her part consists mostly of sitting in the audience and watching Cat fight while nodding to herself. Well, when she’s not busy taking showers. And apparently someone else likes her too, because there’s a comic book about her, Melissa Moore, Bodyguard from Draculina Publishing. I’m not a big reader of comic books, so I don’t know too much about it. Somehow, I think that even if I was a big reader of comic books, I still wouldn’t know too much about it. Never the less, I’m still glad it exists.
So now that I’ve had some fun ribbing the ladies, let me say that I love that both of them are willing to give their all, however much that may be, for a movie like this. I mean, good or bad, Moore and Sassoon are in there, taking their lumps and starring in crummy kungfu films. I love ‘em both for it. Working the Corman-Santiago Manila circuit can’t be steak and onions, as stories from the likes of Walter Hill and Pam Grier attest to. And I don’t know about Melissa Moore, but Cat Sassoon certainly didn’t have to do anything more than sit back and live off the sudsy wealth of her family. Instead, she went to the Philippines and made low-budget action films. Good for her! And as for Moore — what can I say? I have a soft spot for Kentucky girls. I’d love to do a long interview with her or pay to have her write a book. As I’ve said many times before and will doubtless say as long as I keep reviewing crappy low budget Roger Corman productions shot in the Philippines, the stories behind these films are probably way more interesting than both the films themselves and the making of stories behind the standard Hollywood project. So if I poke fun at the ladies, it’s done out of love and with nothing but good nature.
Not so much, though, for the comedy relief male sidekick and the usual host of “You kicked their ass? But…but…you’re a woman!” and “That was amazing! Could you teach me some of that kungfu jazz?” shtick that invariably follows him and his Chess King wardrobe around. And since I’ve cracked jokes at the expense of poor Cat Sassoon, who wanted nothing more than to make shitty kungfu films and show us her fake boobs as often as possible (and don’t think I don’t appreciate her for that), I might as well mention that actor Michael Shaner looks like someone mashed Matthew Modine and John Malkovich together. There’s something not quite human about him, like he’s a clay-faced shape shifter doing its best to approximate what a human douchebag looks like. The big difference between Shaner and Sassoon is that by the end of the movie, Sassoon’s crappy acting, terrible martial arts, willingness to show off her weird fake boobs, and her overall strange appearance won me over. Heck, I’m ready to buy more Cat Sassoon action films on 50 cent VHS. Conversely, I want to punch Shaner in the face, even though I know it’s sculpted out of clay and butterscotch pudding, or whatever shape shifters are made of. You know what, Shaner? Your wardrobe isn’t even good enough to be Chess King.
Both Moore and Sassoon turn in nude kickboxing scenes, though I think Moore’s only counts half a point since it’s just a ripped shirt. But Sassoon goes full on, in just her lacy red panties, showing off her otherworldly fake boobs and accompanying fake tan that, coupled with the oily misting job they did on her to give her that fresh out of the shower appearance, makes her look like a particularly aggressive Nathan’s brand hot dog. This is without a doubt the second finest nude kickboxing scene I’ve witnessed (it’s going to be hard to beat the scene from Girls on the Run, though, because that’s a nude kickboxing scene directed by Cory Yuen Kwai). But Cat Sassoon holds nothing back. She throws all her energy into the scene, jumping around awkwardly, growling, yelling, and a few times doing spinning kicks while her face is obscured by a huge dollop of Vaseline or something on the lens.
I think they might have been trying to obscure the fact that a male stuntman with fake orange boobs attached to him was standing in for Sassoon. If that’s the case, oh man! What must that guy’s day have been like? One stuntman shows up and hears, “Well, you’re in the fight, and Cat Sassoon is going to be all greased up and naked, and she’s going to kick you then straddle your face.” And yeah, Cat may look a little weird, but whatever man, and if she’s nude and straddling my face then I still call that a good day at work. So the other stuntman is like, “This is gonna be an awesome day!” until he finds out that his job is to grease up, put on fake boobs and a pair of red lace panties, and be a stand-in for a nude kickboxing woman. And then his children will ask, “What did you do at work today, daddy?”
The rest of the cast seems comprised largely of Filipino kickboxing women who show up for matches and disappear again during the shower scenes (I’ve never seen a Filipino martial arts tournament locker room with so many white women in it). I guess most of these women have some actual martial arts background, but that doesn’t matter all that much since real life tournament martial arts are pretty boring to watch if you’re not an avid practitioner. They’re not any better here and are probably somewhat worse. There are also a couple rebels, and the usual assortment of white guys playing generals, diplomats, and other figures of authority. None of them are really worth mentioning. There is a guy named Mr. Carrion, which I suppose is a slightly better name than Mr. Rottin’ Guts McGee, but just barely.
This is one of the films, one of the many films, that force me to grapple with an assortment of moral questions related to passing judgment. Because this is a terrible, terrible movie, and I like it. It’s completely idiotic, and I like it. I have no justification for this adoration, and certainly I hesitate to tell others they should check it out. The acting is bad, the martial arts are worse, and the direction is nondescript. But like Cat Sassoon herself, somehow all the negatives add up to a decently dumb and entertaining 80 minutes. The action may indeed be bad, but there’s a lot of it. Like Melissa Moore and Cat Sassoon, all this movie wants to do is entertain you. And like its stars, the results are pretty feeble even if the effort is enthusiastic. Liking bad movies is pretty common. Liking bad martial arts movies is a much more, let’s say exclusive, calling. They’re still way easier to like than bad comedies and bad Steven Seagal films, but in a genre where bad stories and acting are glossed over in light of good action scenes, you better have good action scenes. When you don’t, there’s not much going on.
Except, you know, nude kickboxing.
Odd that movies like this are why, in the 1990s, I would write long screeds about how dreadful American martial arts movies are and how it’s a shame the US isn’t paying more attention to Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Now that the US is paying more attention to those guys — a bit too late for them to really deliver much that is worth paying attention to, sadly — I find that the crummy little low-budget productions from America and the Philippines have grown more attractive to me. And isn’t it funny that a number of the Hong Kong action stars of the 80s and 90s, once the action boom faded, sought to ply their trade in The Philippines. Somewhere in Hong Kong, the Chinese Roger Corman has Yuen Biao and Yukari Oshima in his office and is, no doubt, reaching for the bright red rotary dial phone that connects all producers in the world directly to the ghost of Cirio Santiago.
Release Year: 1993 | Country: Philippines and United States | Starring: Cat Sassoon, Melissa Moore, Michael Shaner, Sibel Birzag, Tony Carreon, John Crank, Roland Dantes, Sheila Lintan, Ken Metcalfe | Writer: Anthony Greene | Director: Cirio Santiago | Cinematographer: Joe Batac | Music: Stephen Cohn | Producer: Cirio Santiago and Roger Corman | Alternate Titles: Fatal Angel
In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
We find ourselves in “the future,” something like a thousand years from now, after the wars have turned the world into a vast tract of scrubland and desert. The remnants of the human race live in fortress style city-states and are called statesmen, leaving the majority of the blighted world to be the domain of mutant cannibals and a race of mystic wanderers known as range guides. Machines are rare, used only by the “statesmen” — people who live in the cities. So, wait. Didn’t you just tell us that pretty much everyone lives in the city and is a statesman? Now I haven’t been good at math or logic since sixth grade, but I’m pretty sure that if almost everyone is a statesmen, and only statesmen use machines, then almost everyone uses machines. So I don’t see what’s so special about it.
The mad leader of Helix City, Lord Zirpola (David McClean), wants to attack a neighboring city for no real reason we can understand other than he is mad and evil. To accomplish this act of war, he has invented the future’s ultimate weapon: a motorcycle with some aluminum attached to the front end, and two lasers on the side that are of the same power as lasers people carry and fire by hand, only the lasers on the so-called “death machines” are more awesome because they are a hell of a lot harder to aim. Zirpola wants to prove to his people that the death machines are super bad-ass, so he decides to capture some range guides and showcase their obliteration by death machine in the city’s gladiatorial “deathsport.” This will convince the population that an unjustified war with the other city will be fun and easy, so long as everyone is riding a death machine.
The future as projected by the cheap sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s is jam packed with incredibly lame ultimate weapons. The death machines are pretty high up on the list, though they will pale in comparison to some of the other ultimate weapons we’ll be seeing later in this series of reviews. The death machines may be stupid and unwieldy as weapons, but at least they are still motorcycles. At the very least, you can ride them around and have fun up until Barry Bostwick shows up on his own futuristic motorcycle with crap attached to the front end and brags about how his can also fly. But still, when we first see the death machines in action, a couple female range guides, one of whom is the late Gator Bait herself, Claudia Jennings, take them out with no real problem. Range guide Kaz Oshay (Carradine) will also take a few out all by himself — and range guides are armed with nothing but clear plastic swords that whistle when you swing them around. I’m pretty sure I had a toy that did the same thing. That’s all it takes to make a death machine explode? At no point, though, does the army of Helix City think that the death machines are a stupid idea, let alone an especially stupid idea in a world with lots of tall, steep rock formations people have no problem scurrying up to escape the death machines. Oh if only Lord Zirpola has listened to Barry Bostwick and put rocket wings on the motorcycles!
Eventually Carradine’s Kaz and Jenning’s Deneer are captured, though that has less to do with the death machines than it does sheer force of numbers. They come face to face with the leader of Helix City’s army, the black-clad Richard Lynch. Yes, his character has a name (Ankar Moor), but anyone who knows Richard Lynch knows that he plays the same evil guy character in every movie, so we might as well just call him Richard Lynch. I guess the same could be said of David Carradine as well. Lynch has the sinister air of a young Rutger Hauer crossbred with the condescending sneer of William Atherton and the hair of Gladiator Malibu from the 80s version of American Gladiators. Can even David Carradine stand up to such a foe?
It turns out that not only is Richard Lynch evil, but he’s also a former range guide who betrayed The Code and killed the most powerful of all range guides, who just happens to be Kaz Oshay’s mom. Deneer and Kaz don’t take too kindly to being caged like animals. While Kaz kicks the wall a lot and yells “I am my only master,” Deneer is made to wander around nude in a room full of neon tubes that shake around, howl, and electrocute people. Don’t ask me, man. I didn’t write it. Eventually, the two guides are forced to compete against the death machines in deathsport, an event that takes up about ten minutes of the film’s running time and has almost no real bearing on the plot, but is never the less the source of the title. Earlier in the film, Zirpola was angry that Ankor Moor lost a couple death machines whilst pursuing Claudia Jennings, yet here he seems unphased by the fact that the two captive rangers take out like a dozen of the infernal contraptions. Maybe if he’d put trained soldiers on the machines instead of chumps he just picked out of jail, his little dog and pony show would have gone better. The two rangers escape along with a couple hangers on, thus ending the deathsport portion of Deathsport. All that’s left now is for the bad guys to chase the good guys across the barren wasteland until we get a final showdown between Kaz Oshay and Ankor Moor. All in all, Zirpola’s death machine coming out party went over about as well as one of those corporate seminars where the presenter has all his stuff stored online and then can’t get an internet connection (possibly because the internet has become sentient and is too preoccupied with cataloging its vast store of Naruto slashfic).
To enumerate the various points at which the plot doesn’t make any sense would be to wandering into a Minotaur’s labyrinth from which there is no real hope of emerging alive. The death machines having already been covered as being idiotic, we could turn to how much is made of Carradine’s ability to sense the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to him predicting the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to a scene of people going “The dangerous weather is coming,” which then leads immediately to a scene of people coming out of a cave and going, “Whew, I sure am glad that dangerous weather is over.” Cannibal mutants kidnap a little girl, and one assumes that the reason cannibal mutants would kidnap a little girl is to eat her. But weeks later, when Kaz and Deneer finally show up to rescue her, she’s still there. I guess they wanted to soften up the meat. The cannibal mutants had her in a little cage, after all, so I reckon that the world may have collapsed but our love of veal has not. There are also multiple scenes were someone who is supposed to get killed stands right in front of a death machine, but instead of shooting the person with the lasers, the guy on the death machine just does a little wheelie or jumps over a convenient dirt pile next to the person. And then usually the death machine explodes. You may not have realized that hitting a motorcycle with a clear plastic sword would make it explode, but that’s why you’re not a range guide.
And then there’s the matter of Lord Zirpola’s neon tube torture forest. Seriously, just what the hell? I mean, I can understand having a chamber where people dance naked for you. And I can understand that in the future, poledancer poles will need to be more futuristic, and thus making them transparent tubes filled with flashing neon lights is inevitable. But what kind of torture is it to then make them shake all around and howl? That’s not torture; that’s just ugly windchimes, and you can get those all over the place down South. Still, at least the movie does right by us and has not one but two gratuitous scenes of nude dancing in the neon tube forest, one of which goes on for a while and features a woman (Valerie Rae Clark, star of…ummm…Breast Orgy and Breast Orgy 2) we’ve never seen before and will never see again but, for some reason, apart from dancing nude, also gets to kill Lord Zirpola by…umm…offering her hand to him while he’s busy making the tubes shock her or whatever it is they do. Zirpola also has a torture tunnel where he straps you down and flashes lights at you, causing you to scream. This requires Claudia Jennings to be nude for the torture to work. Luckily, it does not require the same of David Carradine.
So let me address this right here. David Carradine in his youth — not really a bad looking guy. In pretty good shape. But the loincloth simply does not become him. It becomes very few men, especially when they are shot from such awkward angles, like leaping spread legged through the air or rolling around on their back with their legs stuck up. It’s just not a good angle. That’s why you don’t see male strippers constantly jumping all spread eagle off the backs of chairs and stuff. They know that it looks goofy. They’ll straddle a chair, but they’ll never jump awkwardly off it. And when it comes to rolling around on their backs in a crouching position, they’re going to skip that and fill the time with a little trick I like to call “around the world.” So while we get to see plenty of David Carradine flesh, most of it is unwelcome because it just ends up looking so goofy. Still, I suppose we should be happy he wasn’t forced to do full frontal nude dancing in the forest of shaking, howling neon tubes.
Probably my favorite part of the movie is when Kaz Oshay leads Ankor and his minions on a motorcycle race through a fuel depot which has no reason to exist out in the middle of the desert. The depot is full of gasoline barrels stacked apparently at random throughout the facility, sometimes in front of ramps so that people can jump their motorcycles through flames once the barrels have inevitably exploded. In classic Corman fashion, scenes of jumping motorcycles are recycled a few times to increase the number of times we get to watch a guy jump a motorcycle over some candy cane colored barrels. This fuel depot was apparently built by the same people who were doing the construction on the building where Jackie Chan has his final fight scene in Mr. Nice Guy. If you don’t recall or never saw the film, that building features a framed-up but not entirely drywalled floor that was apparently comprised of nothing but hundreds of 5×5 rooms with doors in every wall. It was fun for a fight scene, but really, what the hell were they building?
Watching Deathsport is mind-bending enough on its own right, but where the film really shines is in the backstage drama. The movie was written by Nicholas Niciphor. Though he had no experience as a director, Niciphor was also hired to direct — presumably because the vision for Deathsport was so grand and amazing that only the film’s writer could hope to fully realize it, or something. Now, who you believe about what has a lot to do with sorting out what happened, but I’m going mostly with David Carradine’s version. According to Carradine, Niciphor was not only inexperienced, he was also unstable. He was so clueless about directing that he didn’t even now what it meant to set up a camera. He was prone to freak out, especially at Claudia Jennings or whenever anyone had trouble maneuvering the awkward death machines. According to Niciphor, this was often because the cast was drunk, stoned, and unruly, especially Jennings. I don’t really doubt it. Carradine himself admits that there was a bit of partying going on. Former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings was well known as a wild child anyway. But then, you’re making Deathsport. What the hell is there to be so serious about? Niciphor, however, was deadly serious about his film, and if the cast was clowning around, it only served to push him further over the edge. If things didn’t go right on the first take, he would throw a fit and throw out the entire scene and brood about it.
Things came to a head when he tore into Jennings over her inability to effectively handle the clunky death machines. Everyone was having problems with the front-heavy contraptions, but Jennings in particular irked him. It got so heated that Niciphor allegedly struck Jennings, though David Carradine says he can’t verify this since he was down at the other end of a gully waiting to do a take. Jennings was ready to quit the movie, and it was only after speaking with the producer who then spoke to Roger Corman that she was convinced to stay on. Niciphor was eventually phased out, spending most of his time skulking in the background, and Alan Arkush was brought in to complete the film — but not before Niciphor got his nose broken by David Carradine when he walked too close to a fight scene rehearsal in progress. Niciphor claims it might not have been an accident. But that’s nothing, since apparently the temperamental (or perhaps just mental) writer-director also berated Jennings and Carradine to the point where David actually just hauled off and kicked the guy’s ass.
Niciphor refutes many of the claims without actually refuting them. According to his side of things, the altercation between he and Claudia Jennings happened because Jennings was coked out while trying to operate the death machine, and that’s why she was having a hard time. I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility. Jenning’s cocaine addiction was well known. Niciphor further claims that Carradine was smoking hashish the whole time. Again, I don’t think this is outside the realm of believability — especially when you witness how stoned Carradine looks for most of the movie. But none of this really counters any of what Carradine said, either. The entire thing sounds like a snobs versus slobs teen sex comedy, with Carradine and Jennings cast and the lovable freewheelin’ slobs and Niciphor as the stuffy dean who hates fun. Assuming that the truth is to be found in some mix of all sides of the story, the final verdict is that the the making of Deathsport would probably be a much better film than Deathsport itself.
Things like that are why I like movies like this so much — apart from the fact that this movie is just plain weird. It’s handled with such seriousness, with such earnestness. You can feel that poor Nicholas Niciphor really believed in every line, really wanted this film to have meaning and depth. Does a film this lousy really deserve that much behind the scenes drama? I would love for the DVD to have had some commentary attached to it, either by Carradine or Niciphor — or hell, put ‘em both in the room and let them duke it out. This was the first and last time poor Nick directed a film, though he did go on to work as a writer for a few more films, including Alejandro Jodorowski’s Tusk. Beyond that, he’s been relegated to the realm of writing irate letters to Psychotronic magazine, complaining about David Carradine’s doobie habits in 1978.
Carradine, of course, needs no real introduction here. A dancer who sprung into the American consciousness courtesy of the show Kung-Fu, Carradine went on to become one of the mainstays of exploitation cinema, especially when it was produced by Roger Corman. Carradine could be quite good in a role, and when he was bad, he mostly seemed harmlessly sleepy and stoned. That’s how he plays it here, meandering through Niciphor’s ponderous faux-mystic dialogue with the laid back style of a dude who was eating a lot of pot brownies. His fight scenes are awkward, but that’s more the fault of the movie itself. What can you do when you’re forced to swing around a huge plastic sword? His nemesis in Richard Lynch is…well, Lynch is actually understated compared to some of his other performances, but it’s still the exact same performance you expect and always want from Lynch. I can’t say much more than that.
Claudia Jennings is another well known, albeit far more tragic, figure in B-Movie history. Jennings became one of the most recognizable faces in exploitation cinema when she appeared in the film Gator Bait, which is well known not so much because the movie is worth being well known, but more because every single video store in the universe seemed to have a sun bleached copy of the VHS tape sitting on the shelf. Jennings isn’t a great actress, and she has a sort of sleepy eyed beauty that makes her seem like she was stoned the entire time — which she apparently was. Between her and Carradine, the munchies-related catering bill must have eaten up half the film’s budget. She had her moments of glory in film, though. Unholy Rollers, for example, and Moonshine County Express. Deathsport really isn’t one of those moments, though she does get to wander naked through that neon tube room. This film comes at the end of her career, when she was heavy into drug and alcohol abuse and had a tumultuous relationship with some real estate guy (though rumors have her connected to Deathsport co-star Jesse Vint, and someone — Niciphor I think — also claimed she was attached to David Carradine, a claim that Carradine laughs off as preposterous). She cleaned up her act shortly thereafter, but amid a breakup with the realtor, fell asleep at the wheel of her car and was killed in the ensuing wreck.
But even if Jennings and Carradine were whooping it up, smoking pot, drinking whiskey, and arranging huge Deathsport orgies, nothing in their performance can come close to being as awkward or awful as that of young Will Walker, who plays one of the guys who breaks out of the deathsport competition with the range guides. This is one of those performances that is so weird and horrible that it deserves far more attention than it receives. He looks kind of like Miles O’Keefe in Sword of the Valiant, with the blond page boy haircut and the same dazed thousand yard stare. But Miles is a much better actor than Walker, believe it or not. Walker’s character of Marcus spends most of his time yelling “Kaz! Help me!” in a bland monotone. If the film has an humor at all, it’s to be found in Kaz’s flashes of annoyance at having to carry this load around on his awesome adventure with Claudia Jennings. She was totally willing to go all the way, but then Marcus kept showing up and ruining the mood.
Post apocalyptic cinema from the 1970s was often slow and ponderous, not to mention incredibly self-important and pretentious. Sometimes the results are pretty great, sometimes they were ridiculous, and often they were just dull. Deathsport is sort of a missing link between the post apocalyptic films of the 70s and those that would come in the wake of Mad Max and, more importantly, its sequel, The Road Warrior. Those films featured much less cornball philosophizing and much more high octane action. Or at least attempts at high octane action. Deathsport has plenty of the corny mysticism and dime store attempts at Zen koans that one expects from 1970s sci-fi, but it also has lots of exploding motorcycles and…well…it has lots of exploding motorcycles. And it is one of the first post-apocalypse films to save itself some cash by predicting that, in the future, the world would mostly look like scrubland dotted with matte paintings of distant cities. It’s pretty fair to draw the line from this movie directly to Mad Max, Road Warrior, and from there you quickly find yourself in the domain of Warriors of the Lost World and Warlords of the 21st Century — movies that, many years after Deathsport, manage to be just as cheap and goofy as it was, but not nearly as much fun. I mean, those later movies have practically no David Carradine crotch at all!
Deathsport presents us with a loopy sort of myticism not unlike The Force as presented in Star Wars and before George Lucas turned it into some sort of genetic disease, but more accurately, it reflects the same sort of New Age filtered half understanding of Buddhism and spirituality that you find in a movie like Circle of Iron (also featuring David Carradine in a loin cloth) or in pretty much any pow wow held by some white dude claiming to be enlightened. Our range guides speak in monotone a lot about consciousness and spiritual union, and we know they are wise because they do not use contractions, but it all sounds pretty much like what a high schooler might come up with. Circle of Iron covers much of the same ground but in a more effective way and with a greater grounding in actual Zen philosophy rather than Zen as filtered through some hippie who read a couple pamphlets and then set himself up with an American ashram. But we’ll come to that movie in good time, and if nothing else, it’s probably safe to say that as many hashish brownies went into its making as went into the making of Deathsport. Star Wars must also have had some effect on this film, though, because the foley artist thought enough of it to take the TIE fighter sound effect and use them whenever David Carradine drives his motorcycle through a tunnel.
Deathsport is a pretty clumsy film, full of bad writing, plot points that make no sense, ominous talk about things that end up never happening, and a titular event that ends up being, at best, a footnote in the film’s action. The acting is lazy, the writing is ridiculous, and the props are laughable. And it’s all worth seeing, just for the sheer spectacle of it. Ill advised motorcycles as ultimate weapons movies wouldn’t have it this good again until Megaforce rolled off the assembly line. The fact that a movie this bad generated so much behind the scenes drama fills me with a sick sense of giddiness, as does the thought that Carradine and Jennings were toking up while an uptight German guy yelled at them to take his film more seriously. I don’t even know if Nick was German. I just like imagining him that way, possibly dressed in the monocle and jodhpurs get up all good directors wear. It may not be a shining example of 70s scifi, or even a shining example of a middling Roger Corman production, but it is pretty entertaining. Plus, neon disco windchime nude dancing, and so many David Carradine buffalo shots per minute that to merely gaze upon them is enough to drive sane men mad.
Perhaps that’s what happened to poor old Lord Zirpola.
Release Year: 1978 | Country: United States | Starring: David Carradine, Claudia Jennings, Richard Lynch, William Smithers, Will Walker, David McLean, Jesse Vint | Writer: Nicholas Niciphor, Donald Stewart | Director: Nicholas Niciphor | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Andy Stein | Producer: Roger Corman
At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.
Dracula films had been, along with Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein films, the studio’s bread and butter, but Hammer experimented from time to time with non-Dracula vampire films, with varying degrees of success. The first of these, oddly, was the first sequel to the studios smash hit Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula finds Peter Cushing reprising his role as Dr. Van Helsing, but other than a few mentions here and there, Dracula is out of action for this film, and the action instead focuses on a second bloodsucker. Hammer had it in their head that the film series would be about Van Helsing, cruising around Victorian Europe fighting the various vampires Dracula had spawned, or something to that effect — sort of like the Sons of Hercules, only instead of huge bodybuilders in tunics, it was a skinny British guy in a greatcoat. Hammer’s reasoning may have seemed sound at first. Peter Cushing was their biggest star, after all, and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was, at the time, just promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee.
But Hammer sorely underestimated the appeal of promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee and, more importantly, the desire to actually see Dracula in any film that used the name Dracula in the title. So while Brides of Dracula is a spectacularly entertaining film, wasn’t what audiences or distributors were looking for. When Hammer dipped its tow back into the Dracula waters with Dracula, Prince of Darkness, they made sure that Dracula — played once again by now venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — was in the movie. But Hammer still liked to toy with the occasional non-Dracula vampire film, usually with great artistic success. 1963′s Kiss of the Vampire is wonderful, for example. But after the release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Hammer went into “all Dracula, all the time” mode, and any script for a vampire film had to be a Dracula film, because otherwise, the British public would miss out on another round of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula movies.
Time passed, and many Dracula films came and went. So many, in fact, that eventually Hammer had no idea what to do with the guy. He’d been killed once and for all more times than The Ramones had farewell tours. So in 1970, as the studio was entering its downward spiral years, someone decided to revive the old idea of a Dracula movie without Dracula. This time, however, distributors nipped the temptation in the bud, and Taste the Blood of Dracula has the iconic count crowbarred into the script so he could stand in the shadows and provide a running countdown of the people who had been killed. It’s quite a good movie, but Dracula himself is more superfluous than usual, and he was pretty superfluous in most of the films. The count would limp on through a couple more features, including Scars of Dracula (which I like more and more as the years go on) and Dracula AD 1972, before The Satanic Rites of Dracula put the final stake through the heart of the franchise, completing Dracula’s transformation from a raging force of nature into a supernatural demon and, ultimately, into a cartoonish spy movie style mad villain. All he lacked was a TV transmitter that allowed him to broadcast taunts directly onto an oval-shaped monitor on the wall of Van Helsing’s study.
At the same time the Dracula films were making their grim march to the grave, however, Hammer did succeed in bringing one corpse back from the dead: the idea of a vampire film unrelated to Dracula. This came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, but more specifically, it came in the form of star Ingrid Pitt and the newfound permission to feature nudity in their films. The Vampire Lovers was enough of a success that it spawned two loosely connected sequels — the weak Lust for a Vampire and the exceptional Twins of Evil. It also opened the doors for a flailing Hammer to try and find some way of mixing the old with the new, of sticking to the tried and true vampire film that had supported them for so many years, but without relying on Dracula. Modern twists on old formulas, if you will. This lead to two of Hammer’s very best vampire movies, and had the studio had more time, more money, and more faith in its product, they might have had themselves two new franchises capable of carrying the studio through hard times when madcap On the Bus comedies could not. One of these films was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. The other was Vampire Circus.
Both films felt very different from any of Hammer’s previous vampire films. Vampire Circus, in particular, is probably one of the weirdest feeling films Hammer ever produced. It’s not psychedelic, mind you, but it’s like one of those psychedelic themed novelty records made by some old guy still trying to be hip with the kids. Or like Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations. That’s a good album, but no one was really going to buy The Temptations as a trippy psychedelic band, especially in 1970. Similarly, Vampire Circus is a really good film, possibly even a great film, but it never quite succeeds in feeling “modern,” not when it’s up against something like Blacula, for example, or the glut of Satanism movies that were coming out around the same time. Instead, Vampire Circus becomes its own really weird creature, rather unique and unlike any of the vampire films that came before it. In fact, though you could draw a connection to the old Universal House Of… movies because of the inclusion of a traveling gypsy circus, Vampire Circus has more in common with a film like Freaks or The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao than it has with Hammer’s previous vampire films.
The best and worst the film has to offer is right at the front, before the credits even role. A simple yet eerie and effective intro finds a local village man and his daughter in the woods. The little girl is tempted away from her father by a woman we know just isn’t quite right. The father, upon noticing, shrieks with terror and clamors to rescue his daughter, but it’s too late, and she disappears with the woman inside a creepy looking castle. The distraught man then rounds up a posse to carry torches and shake pitchforks at the inhabitant of the castle, a mysterious and threatening character named Count Mitterhouse (TV bit actor Robert Tayman). So far, so good. Everything has been really creepy in the same way the picture on the cover of that first Black Sabbath album is creepy. Yeah, it’s just a grainy photo of a weird looking chick in black robes standing in a clump of dead trees with a spooky house behind her, but it’s always scared me a little, even today. That woman would have definitely been in league with Mitterhaus, and if she lead you back to her lair with the beckoning of a slender (apparently green) finger, you’d be in for about two minutes of passionate spooky lovemaking and nudity, and then she’d rip your throat open or somehow manage to have gotten you lashed onto a series of hooks that pull off your skin or something like that.
However, what awaits within the walls of the castle is a bit different, and this is where the worst comes into play. Mitterhaus is absolutely ludicrous. He’s like a spoof vampire played by a drag queen in a disco musical written, directed, starring, and only seen by the world’s most flamboyant drag queens, and then at the end they all agree that the play was good but Mitterhaus was a little too campy for them. When you’re too campy for a theater full of drag queens, you are definitely too campy for a Hammer film, especially one that is otherwise so weird and serious. Not that Mitterhaus doesn’t have his strong suits as a character. For one, he lives in a cool castle populated by a couple sexy naked orgy women. He has lovely taste is sashes. And the fact that he’s kidnapped and lured a little girl into his sleazy lair gives the character an air of scummy, almost pedophiliac menace that really makes him a villain. You could always root for Dracula, even when he was at his worst and whipping Dr. Who with steel switches, but Mitterhaus just gives off a creepy uncle vibe. All this in and of itself is good for the movie, but Tayman’s performance is just ridiculous. It’s all mincing and eye rolling and silly face making. Even when he’s slaughtering his would-be attackers, he’s less frightening than he is…well, like a flailing dancer who got lost on his way to a John Waters film. Everything about the character is well written, but it’s like having it all and then delivering it in an Easter bunny outfit.
Still, when the worst thing about your film is that your vampire is a little too campy, that’s not bad. And when I say it’s the worst thing about the film, one has to measure that on a relative scale. Because silly though he may be, it’s hardly enough to spoil the film. In a way, I guess it makes Mitterhaus even more formidable. It’s like having your ass kicked by Mick Jagger’s character from Performance. You keep telling yourself, “This can’t be happening! He’s much to fey to kick my ass!” But that thought doesn’t stop him from doing it.
Eventually, Mitterhaus gets a stake through the heart and makes a face like a disgusted Southern bell who just won second place in the county fair beauty contest. With his dying breath, or whatever it is vampires have, he curses the town, swearing that the children of his killers will die to give him life again. Once again, it’s all really well done, easily one of the best vampire film intros ever, but it’s hard to take seriously with Mitterhaus camping it up to a degree that even Shatner and Vincent Price would tell him to take it down a notch. But with him in the grave the film can settle down and find its groove.
And that groove, as I’ve already said, is a mighty quirky one. The story picks up some years later. The town has been quarantined due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone caught attempting to leave the boundaries of the town is shot by unseen soldiers, or whoever is in charge of shooting people who try to escape from plague infected European towns. But other than tat, live seems OK. The elders, most of whom were in on killing Mitterhaus, while away their days figuring out plans to get the quarantine lifted. The village doctor doesn’t believe in vampires or that old queen Mitterhaus’ curse. Young people are in love. The inn, believe it or not, is not owned by Michael Ripper. In fact, there are very few familiar faces in this town, and no Hammer heavies in front of or behind the camera.
To this blighted town, though no one can explain how they get there, comes the Circus of Night, a small time, fairly creepy affair that employs, among others, a scary dwarf harlequin, an accordion playing mute strongman who will eventually grow up to be Darth Vader (David Prowse),a gypsy matron, a naked bald chick who does sexy tiger dances, a couple of potentially incestuous acrobatic twins who can turn into bats, and a hot young guy who can turn into a panther. Desperate for anything to take their minds off being a quarantined plague town cursed by a campy yet ass-kicking vampire, overlook the peculiarities of the circus and settle down for some good old fashioned family fun.
And man, what a circus it is. I attended a few circuses when I was young, and I remember a guy named Gunter who put his head in a lion’s mouth, and then I think a clown shot another clown with a seltzer bottle and they fired someone out of a cannon. That was cool and all, but I kind of wish I went to the circus where a tiger ran out and turned into a naked, chick painted with tiger strips, who then proceeded to do sexy dancing while being “tamed” by a guy before they finally just end up writhing around on the ground and practically doing…you know…it. And people seem to be amused by but not terribly upset by the fact that the people in this circus seem to be able to shapeshift into bats and panthers, or that a dwarf keeps grinning and running around making surprised “O mouth” faces. I guess they chalk it up to gypsy magic. Things aren’t as much fun once members of the circus break out the fangs and start preying on the children, usually after corrupting them in some sexual fashion. Each kill brings Mitterhaus a step closer to resurrection.
Vampire Circus benefits from the fact that Hammer was lost at sea, allowing new(er) directors to take a chance in hopes that something, anything, would stick and keep the studio afloat just a bit longer. That coupled with the relaxing of regulations regarding nudity meant that writer Judson Kinberg, in his first of only two career screen credits, could be much more explicit about the sexuality that has always existed in Hammer’s vampire fare. When first we meet Mitterhaus, he’s cavorting in bed with two naked women. He’s a rakehell and hedonist with a bit of the Marquis De Sade about him, and Vampire Circus gets to show more of that than they ever did in the past. He’s also a child murderer and has questionable taste in chest-exposing frilly shirts. Hammer’s Dracula was a combination of animal rage and desire, driven to do things not because he takes pleasure in them, but because it is his instinct, his thirst.
Mitterhaus, on the other hand, seems to take great pleasure in his lifestyle. He’s less animal, more decadent. Similarly, his minions in the circus use explicit sexuality to ensnare and kill their young victims. Emil the Panther seduces the burgomaster’s daughter and feeds on her during a series of sexual encounters. The incestuous acro-bats similarly seduce young men and women to take part in funky threesome action. It is not just important that they deliver fresh blood to Mitterhaus; they must also thoroughly corrupt their victims. Their master seems to draw as much power from this as he does from the fresh blood they dribble on his moldy corpse. If only he’d known that by the 1970s, all it too to bring Dracula back to life was a random bat flying into his window and dribbling some blood on his face. Heck, by the final Dracula film, you didn’t even need to bring Dracula back to life. He was just there, already in action (as much as “sitting behind a desk” can be action), and Hammer seemed to be saying, “Look, at this point do you even care how Dracula got brought back to life?” By comparison, Mitterhaus has to work pretty hard at it.
Tackling sexual politics has always been tricky for Hammer, and they’ve always walked the “have your cake and eat it too” thin line of cramming their films with naked sex appeal and heaving bosoms while skirting censorship issues by half-assedly grafting on “but in the end, the pure ones prevailed. Hooray!” final scenes. By their own admission, this was usually to keep uppity vicars and morally outraged censors off their backs while still being able show plenty of half naked women. As a libertine, rakehell, and dandy cad about town, I always roll my eyes when movies see no other outcome but tragedy for anyone evil enough to actually enjoy sex and a spot of hedonism. Victorian horror films usually counter that by expressly showing that it’s not the sexuality so much as it is the repression of sexuality that causes things to go sour. But the end result is the same. People who like sex usually die.
But ultimately, what it comes down to is that I am not inclined to worry myself about the sexual politics of Vampire Circus. These movies, like most movies, have to jump through so many hoops to satisfy so many cranky people that eventually, almost all politics, sexual or otherwise, are confused to the point of contradicting themselves, sometimes even in the same scene. I’m much happier to lie back in my reclining throne, slosh about my goblet of wine, and bark, “Send in the naked tiger dance woman!”
On the other hand, I do spend a lot of time thinking about other philosophical question as relates to entertainment. For instance, did every singer for a psychedelic 60s British band have a fling with a vicar’s daughter, and are all vicar’s daughters hot, blonde free spirits yearning to run naked and free through a field of barley? But then, I’m from the United States. I actually don’t even know what a vicar is. What is it, like some sort of a sports car? I did once have a crush on a Methodist minister’s daughter, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “vicar’s daughter” or “son of a preacherman” does.And anyway, it turned out she wasn’t a repressed girl yearning to rebel against her strict upbringing by letting me unbutton her blouse. She wanted to teach me about God, and I wanted to fondle her boobs in the choir balcony during church lock-ins. Needless to say, our relationship was as successful as my entire career as a churchgoer.
Anyway, where was I? I’ve gone and gotten myself all distracted now. Let’s move on to the general air of weirdness that’s instantly generated by setting a film in or around a traveling circus. In a way it’s a cheat, like those movies that film on location on the plains of Africa or the steppes of Mongolia and then expect awards for their sweeping, epic cinematography. The land itself did all the heavy lifting; all you really needed to do was set up the camera and pan around a spell. Similarly, old time traveling circuses are inherently creepy and awkward, just as they are inciting and mysterious. They infuse anything around them with those same characteristics. Vampire Circus definitely benefits from the “old time traveling circus weirdness” vibe that seems ingrained in our very psyches. It still works on me. I’m middle aged and I still dream of going to a parking lot circus and meeting some raven-haired gypsy beauty who will tell my fortune and embroil me in supernatural brushes with death as we fight the dark fate looming on my horizon. Or barring that, I dream of sitting around with carnival strippers and Johnny Eck, drinking whiskey and swapping stories about the rubes.
When I was little, I used to go with my Grandpa Bud to horse shows during the Kentucky State Fair every year. It was a pretty sweet deal for a little kid. You got to set up a campsite in a veritable city of horse stalls, sleep in the stalls (the horses were across the aisle in other stalls), and basically have the run of the fair. And the Kentucky State Fair, at least back then (I haven’t been in ages) was huge. There was a flea market back when cool stuff could be found at flea markets instead of on eBay, with all the flea markets now just selling OxyClean and ShamWows. The flea market took up two buildings the size of stadiums, and you could wander through all the weird junk and 4H dioramas for days. But best of all was that no one gave a rat’s ass about security, so even as young as I was, I was allowed to wander in and out of every building, through every door, every nook and cranny. I crawled through tiny maintenance access tunnels, wandered around in boiler rooms where hissing pipes seemed to go on for miles, and best of all, was never told to shoo off the midway, even in the middle of the night.
I’d sneak out and wander around, doing my best to avoid the teenagers who were doing the same but apparently had some sort of activity the boys and girls would do together. Not sure what it was. I got to watch people setting up and breaking down rides and attractions, pal around with creepy old men running the bumper cars and moon walk, and best off all, got after-midnight rides on the various disappointing spook house type rides which, despite being disappointing, continue to this day to delight me to a disturbing degree. Somehow, I did all this without ever once being molested or murdered by someone’s deformed son they kept locked in the bowels of their haunted house attraction.
At the time, I was high on a number of movies that involved similar settings. I saw Freaks at an early age, and it was right around the time Disney released Something Wicked This Way Comes. he Kentucky State Fair never had any stripper tents or freak show, but it was still pretty awesome running around in the middle of the night, with all those lights still flashing and the occasional hair trigger animatronic gorilla growling at me. Watching Vampire circus is sort of like wandering down a deserted midway int he middle of the night. There’s something undeniably spooky about it, but it’s also got this hallucinogenic allure. Whether born of myth or reality, circuses always have the air of something else going on, just behind the tent flap. Secret things, a whole other world to which you are not privy and only the select few can see. Ground down by daily humdrum, this world of beautiful gypsy fortune tellers and good natured strongmen, of devious managers and shifty mesmerizers, seems a much better alternative. Ignoring, of course, the backbreaking work and touring schedule, and the fact that if you join the traveling spooky circus, you may thing you are going to romance the gypsy girl or the sexy guy who turns into a panther, but mostly, you’re probably just going to be cleaning up chimp shit and taking care of Dracula’s corpse, which is in a poorly made display case.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? Carnivals, traveling circuses, gypsies — these things are awesome, pure and simple. And they infuse Vampire Circus with an atmosphere that is unique among Hammer horror films. In this strange world — almost, but not quite like our own — everyday items take on a sinister second nature. Most Hammer films aren’t scary these days, even f they are still quite good. But a film like Vampire Circus, while not exactly scary, manages still to be very…unsettling, perhaps. This works on a meta level as well. This is a Hammer film. Parts of it are very Hammer-esque. But it’s also not quite the same. The location shooting makes it different, for one, and the cinematography is off-kilter. There are no familiar faces. Certainly no Peter Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, but also no Michael Rippers, not even Ralph Bates. I was hard pressed to pick out any recognizable faces other than Anthony Higgins and Thorley Walters, and no one really gets all excited when, “That new Anthony Higgins film opens this week.” Not that this a cast of newbies, or that the cast lacks talent. Quite the contrary. Many of the faces are familiar from other movies, other television shows (Lalla Ward undoubtedly being the most recognizable thanks to her role as Romana in Doctor Who), but none of them are really familiar as Hammer stalwarts. It’s like walking into work one day and seeing that everyone has been replaced by someone else who does the same job, does it well, and is likable. You get along with them, even enjoy their company, and you certainly respect their work; you just can’t help glancing nervously around from time to time and wondering where the hell Michael Ripper went.
Thing is, I don’t think this movie would have worked as well if there had been familiar faces in it. After all, Hammer was ostensibly trying to break from the past, and nothing would signify that attempt quite as much as keeping the old guard off camera. If I see Peter Cushing, I know I’m in familiar territory, and I relax and enjoy the ride. But with a cast I don’t know, I have no idea what to expect. Who’s going to live, who’s going to die? Beats me. I just have to sit on the edge of the seat and watch the movie. Keeping the big guns off screen also means that B-teamers and background players get a chance to step forward and strut their stuff, proving why so many Hammer films are so good. Even the people who don’t have any lines are good actors. The lack of familiar faces onto which we can latch means that the characters get caught up in the bizarre events surrounding them far more easily. If it was Cushing out there, we’d expect him to say, “My God, man, it can’t be! Mitterhaus is dead!” Then he would competently go about exterminating the vampires and saving us all. But Cushing isn’t there to protect us, and that uncertainty is palpable.
Of the cast that is present, most are forgettably competent, which is kind of how they need to be for the film to succeed. The film continues Hammer’s trend of featuring young protagonists in hopes that would lure kids into the theater. This really started in Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula, and culminated in the groovy hep kids in Dracula AD 1972, though they still needed Peter Cushing to show up, research some books, and make a grim face of determination as he engaged Dracula in their latest final showdown. In Vampire Circus, bot the heroes and the villains skew young. Some adults are on hand, of course, though their primary function is to prove too weak to stand up to these freaky young vampires. Our nominal heroes Dora (Lynne Frederick, who went on to star alongside Peter Sellers in The Prisoner of Zenda) and Anton (John Moulder-Brown, who looks like some of the Pauls from Hammer’s last few Dracula films) don’t make much of an impression, but they are serviceable enough when surrounded by so much oddness.
This anonymity applies to the crew as well. There’s no Anthony Hinds here, no John Gilling or Terence Fisher. Instead we have first-time director Robert Young and first-time (almost only time) writer Judson Kinberg. Bringing in some fresh blood helped Hammer shake the formula up while still allowing it to remain recognizable. Vampire Circus feels much more like a continental horror film, like the dreamy, often illogical horror films of Italy or France where ambiance and imagery is more important than logical procession and and solid plot. This was pretty new territory for Hammer. Hammer horror may have relied on the fantastic, but it often presented it in as scientific and logical a fashion as possible for a horror film. Although Vampire Circus still follows a logical narrative — things still make sense — where as French and Italian horror films would not, it still boasts a very dreamy, supernatural state of being. That said, it also differs significantly from continental horror films in that there is a lot more action — plenty of vampire attacks and wanton point blank assassination of circus animals by drunken villagers. It may be dreamy, but it’s rarely ponderous.
Apparently, Young was given more or less free reign by Michael Carreras to do what he wanted, and Young wanted to make the film unusual. He certainly did that, and even though he ran out of time and had to edit around missing scenes he’d not had time to shoot, the film was ultimately one of Hammer’s most innovative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of their most successful. Critics and fans alike seemed confused. After years of complaining that Hammer product was stale and old fashioned, they seemed upset that Vampire Circus wasn’t stale and old fashioned. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break, can you? Young went on to work steadily in film and television, and in 1997 directed the all time classic…ummm…Blood Monkey. And no, that isn’t one of my frequent typos. The movie is not Blood Money, but Blood Monkey. F. Murray Abraham was in it, so you know it was classy.
It’s a shame that, as of this writing, Vampire Circus remains missing in action in the United States. In fact, I believe it’s missing in action in England as well. It’s really one of Hammer’s most impressive, quirkiest efforts. I’m afraid that I’ve gotten lost and dreamy in my review of the movie as well, and at this point I’m making no sense and ought to just wrap it up by saying that regardless of how bad things were for Hammer in the 70s, the movies that came out of it were usually very good and very interesting. I don’t know that Vampire circus had the franchise potential Captain Kronos had, but I could have seen a series of films tracing the horrors that follow around a sinister circus of shape-shifting bloodsuckers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, and Vampire Circus ended up being a one-time deal. It’s a really good one-time deal, though, so if you get the chance to check it out, do it. It’s a much better way to have ended Hammer’s vampire film cycle than was Satanic Rites of Dracula.
Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent film, The Godless Girl, had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of The Jazz Singer, making it a casualty of the rapid shift in public tastes from pictures that didn’t talk to those that did. As a result, it became something of a footnote in DeMille’s career, which is a shame. For people, like myself, who entertain a fairly narrow conception of the director based on his association with Bible-thumpers like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, viewing it can be an eye-opening experience — because even though it is, in part, concerned with the spread of atheism among the young people of its day, it doesn’t quite come down on that topic in the way you might expect.
Though an “A” picture in its time (it was produced at DeMille’s own studio in Culver City for a cost of $722,000), The Godless Girl bares all the hallmarks of a classic exploitation picture, in that it boasts sensational content housed within the legitimizing framework of social concern. This is not to say that DeMille was disingenuous in that concern — as we’ll see, he put a good deal of effort into insuring the accuracy of the film’s didactic content. He was, however, an entertainer first and foremost, and a crusader somewhere below that, and it would have been a betrayal of his instincts to not present the lurid details of his expose in a manner as thrilling to his audience as possible. That said, those parts of The Godless Girl dedicated to presenting the harrowing conditions of Coolidge-era reform schools might come off as tame to those steeped in the conventions of modern prison movies (in my case, for instance, the last reform school movie I watched subjected its inmates to depradations that would have made Pasolini blush).
The incident that inspired The Godless Girl was reported in the Los Angeles Times in 1927 and involved the discovery, on the campus of L.A.’s Hollywood High School, of pamphlets for an atheist student group. Tensions subsequently erupted between Christian-identified students at the school and those associated with the group, leading to a noisome confrontation at one of the group’s off-campus meetings. DeMille and his regular scenarist, Jeanie Macpherson, set out to blueprint a film based on this event and, somewhere along the line, also decided that said film should serve as an expose of the nation’s juvenile reformatories. To this end, DeMille commissioned six month’s worth of research on the topic that involved extensive interviews and information gathering, and even extended to him hiring a young woman to go undercover as an inmate in one such institution. This resulted in DeMille being able to make the claim that, no matter how titillatingly brutal the depictions of reform school life in his film might be, they were all based on documented facts and eyewitness accounts.
As fascinating as The Godless Girl is for being a sort of proto-youth-behind-bars movie, for me its real interest lies in the atheism-themed hijinks of its first act. Given DeMille’s Christian preoccupations, we — looking back upon the film from these ostensibly more enlightened and tolerant times — might expect The Godless Girl to demonize and vilify those who would renounce God. But the surprising fact is that, while DeMille certainly doesn’t advocate the atheist position, he takes pains to present zealotry on the part of the film’s believers as being equally divisive and intolerant as that of the atheist students. In addition, he clearly takes the position that the apparent ferocity of these beliefs, as expressed by his characters on either side, is merely the product of youthful enthusiasm, and in no way cancels out those characters’ essential decency (and certainly doesn’t make them deserving of the punishment that is meted out to them). The end effect is of a plea for calm and understanding, as if DeMille is trying to assure the adult America of 1929 that, yes, the kids really are alright — and, as such, it’s an authoritative, mitigating voice that no doubt would have served the country well during the many youth-focused hysterias that would sweep it during the generations to come.
The film begins with high school student Judy (Lina Basquette), the leader of the atheistic Godless Society, distributing fliers throughout the school for one of the group’s upcoming meetings. These fliers, displaying a gift for deft rhetoric sure to win many converts among the Christ-preferring members of the student body, read “Join the Godless Society – KILL THE BIBLE!” Predictably, much uproar and consternation ensues among both the students and faculty, not the least on the part of young Bob, the president of the student body and one of the school’s most outspoken mouthpieces for imposingly waspy piousness. Bob is portrayed by a ruthlessly handsome young actor named George Duryea, who would not long after enjoy considerable success as a cowboy star under the name Tom Keene — a somewhat vanilla career lived out between the exotic bookends of this film at its beginning and Keene’s role as Col. Tom Edwards in Plan 9 From Outer Space at its close. Interestingly, despite their mutually-antagonizing viewpoints, there are obvious sparks of attraction between Judy and Tom, and Judy even appears to get noticeably turned on by the righteous fury that Tom beams in her direction. Of course, given that DeMille was more of a “big picture” director who left actors to their own devices, this randyness on Judy’s part could easily have been a result less of the text than of the inclinations of the particular actress assigned to play her.
In Keith’s review of The White Hell of Piz Palu, he remarked upon how the naturalism of the acting in that film contrasted with what one would typically expect from a silent film of its day. Lina Basquette, on the other hand, provides pretty much exactly what one would expect — and, if she doesn’t, it is perhaps by dint of her performance being anachronistic even for its time. Eye bulging, breast heaving, and elaborate, spidery hand gestures are her best friends here, sometimes to the extent that she is at odds with the other cast members, none of whom are slouches in the histrionics department themselves. On top of that, when called upon to express any type of passionate feeling on the part of her character — be it ideological fervor, furious indignation, or what-have-you — Basquette seems to fall back upon an exaggerated carnality as her guiding principle. And, lord knows, no one can express exaggerated carnality like a silent movie actress. After all, while the relaxed standards of later eras may have allowed actors to do and say nasty things, these actresses were required to exude nastiness on a molecular level. In the case of Basquette, this overheated comportment — along with the corresponding reaction to it on the part of George Duryea — gives the distinct impression that much pain could have been avoided had Judy and Bob dedicated those energies spent on petty religious squabbling to what was actually on their minds. Again, whether this was DeMille’s intention is another matter, but it still provides The Godless Girl with an amusingly steamy little subtext, accidental or not.
Anyway, the fateful evening finally arrives, and it is time for the Godless Society’s meeting, held “in a shabby hall on a squalid street… where little rebels blow spitballs at the rock of ages”. (Anyone who holds up silent films as an example of purely visual storytelling is forgetting just how much editorializing tended to sneak its way into the title cards.) It’s during this scene that we’re put on notice that the film’s sober subject matter is not seen by DeMille as necessarily requiring sober treatment — a rude wakeup call delivered by the comic relief stylings of Judy and Bob’s classmate Bozo Johnson (Mack Sennett regular Eddie Quinlan), who, over the course of this sequence, will do several pratfalls and have a monkey run up his pants leg. This monkey, of course, is part of Judy’s characteristically fiery presentation to the group, and is introduced to the assembled blasphemers as “your cousin” — a reference that was probably pretty edgy at the time, given that the Scopes trial was a very recent memory. Despite this scandalous talk, the Society’s meeting is clearly being conducted in an orderly manner, and well within the limits of the law. This places in unflattering contrast the actions of Bob, who shows up at the meeting with his own sizeable God squad in tow, all of whom come armed with crates of rotten eggs and are obviously spoiling for a fight. They get it, of course — after a brief stand-off, during which the devout demand that the meeting be shut down and Judy stands her ground — and soon the scuffle devolves into a full scale melee, at its height spilling out onto the rickety stairwell outside the meeting room.
The multi-leveled set that represents the stairwell is a truly impressive construction, and in this scene is the setting for the first of two breathtaking set pieces that bookend The Godless Girl‘s action. (If you thought that the subject matter of this film would put a damper on DeMille’s predilection for spectacle, you were wrong.) The frantically battling crowd ends up surging out along the entire length of the structure like one giant writhing mass, causing the railings to bulge ominously with their weight. Finally, an unintentional shove from Bozo sends one of the Godless Society’s young female members — identified in the credits only as “The Victim” (Mary Jane Irving) — plummeting from the uppermost landing to her death. DeMille makes the interesting choice of shooting the girl’s fall from her perspective, and presenting it as playing out unnaturally slowly, so that we see the horrified faces of the kids lined up along the stairway watching her as she passes (perhaps affording The Victim the opportunity to say a few quick goodbyes to her friends among the crowd as she goes by — though, since it was shot from her POV, I couldn’t tell you if she was waving or not.)
Once The Victim finally touches down, a distraught Judy rushes to take her in her arms. Asked by the dying girl for reassurance that there really is something on the other side after all, Judy is only able to deliver a series of deliriously overwrought facial expressions. Fortunately, there is a kindly old cop on hand to tell the girl — in a soothing Irish brogue, I imagine — that the J Man is indeed awaiting her arrival with open arms and, probably, a gift bag of some kind, after which the child blissfully shuffles off this mortal coil. With the crime established, and the law present, it is now time for Judy and Bob, as the instigators of the riot — along with Bozo, for his apparent part in the girl’s accident — to be carted off to the youth reformatory.
The reformatory — represented by a surprisingly convincing set constructed by designer Mitchell Leisen on DeMille’s back lot — is a bleak, castle-like structure of brick and mortar with an electrified fence neatly bisecting its yard to separate the male and female inmate populations — a clear visual reference to the divisions wrought by intolerance and zealotry that DeMille is seeking to decry. Here, Judy and Bob, obviously upper middle class kids accustomed to a not inconsiderable amount of creature comforts, step up to the hard slap in the face that the institution’s harsh, military style of discipline has to offer them. For Judy, of course (being, you know, a girl, and all) the first insults are the unflattering haircut and the sack-like clothing (though, I’ve got to say that the hats look oddly fashionable), followed by the lack of privacy and the frequent dressing downs from the shrewish wardens. For Bob, the Civil War-like uniforms and the borderline-emo asymmetrical shearing he gets are also an issue, but are no doubt eclipsed by the frequent, enthusiastic beatings he receives.
Fortunately for Bob, he’s not alone in his confinement, because Bozo is right there with him — which, actually, upon consideration, has got to be nearly as awful for Bob as it is for us. So Judy is clearly the winner here. However, she also ends up with a friend and confidante on the inside: a tough talking, Bible-toting blonde by the name of Mame. Mame is played by Marie Prevost, an actress who is likely known to readers of Teleport City more for having the ignominious circumstances of her death immortalized in song by Nick Lowe than for any of her actual screen performances. It seems that the talkies were not kind to Marie, and, in January of 1937, a lethal combination of anorexia and severe alcoholism lead to her death from malnutrition at the age of 38. As legend has it, some few days passed before her body was discovered, and when it was, the cadaver showed signs of being the subject of some postmortem noshing on the part of Marie’s pet dachshund. Contrary to that legend, the police report at the time indicated that the bite marks were assumed to be the result of the dog trying to rouse Marie, rather than eat her. But being that consumption of humans by domestic animals has always been such a favored subject of popular song, Lowe couldn’t resist that spin, and so, in his song “Marie Provost”, blessed the world with that evergreen couplet, “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner.” (As much of a fan as I am of Lowe — and that song, for that matter — I must say that I think it’s a little raw that, while making light of Marie’s pathetic demise, the singer didn’t even bother to get her name right.) Those sad facts aside, we can here enjoy Marie in her heyday. And I’m happy the report that, as the movie’s representative tough cookie, she’s blessed with all the best, colloquialism-riddled lines, variably referring to her fellow inmates as “Mama”, “Sister” and “Bimbo” while striking all manner of slouchy bad girl poses.
Back on Bob’s side of the fence, we see that one time-honored prison movie convention really is, in fact, time-honored, and that the boys’ wing of the reformatory comes complete with a sadistic head guard, billed only as “The Brute” and played by perennial silent movie heavy Noah Beery. In classic fashion, a battle of wills breaks out between Bob and The Brute, with Bob’s spirited refusal to be broken resulting in ever more severe beatings, blastings with the fire hose, and unwarranted stints in solitary. The Brute even delivers a crippling beat-down to Bozo, which, admittedly, is kind of awesome. Meanwhile, Bob and Judy’s separation has allowed for the nature of their true feelings for one another to dawn upon them, leading to a furtive tryst at the electrified fence. The Brute, unfortunately, is a witness to this meeting and, seeing it as an opportunity to forge new frontiers in bastardry, turns up the juice on the fence just as the two lovers are clasping onto its wires and gazing at each other longingly. Being that electrified fences are notoriously unsubtle, this incident leaves Judy with identical burns on each palm in the shape of a cross, something she chooses to see as a “sign” of some kind — probably related in some way to Jesus, and perhaps having something to do with the fact that she’s been making a halting journey toward Christian belief ever since setting foot within the reformatory walls.
Eventually an opportunity for escape arises when Bob gets the drop on The Beast during a scuffle in the solitary block. After locking the monstrous guard in one of the cells, Bob disguises himself as a laundry cart driver, collects Judy, and flees with her into the countryside beyond the reformatory gates. A brief, idyllic interlude follows in which the lovers enjoy their newfound appreciation for the simple fruits of freedom and the beauty of the open landscape before them. Both, we see, have undergone a shift in their beliefs during their confinement, with Bob coming to question his faith just as Judy is coming to embrace it, and the result is that each is now able to see and respect the other’s position free from the distorting influence of dogma. It’s a development that seems to indicate some confusion on the part of DeMille as to what his message is exactly, since the very harsh conditions that he’s decrying appear to be what has brought about the attitude of humility and tolerance that he is simultaneously making a plea for.
Of course, Bob and Judy’s liberty is short lived, and they are soon recaptured and returned to their prison, setting the stage for The Godless Girl‘s apocalyptic finale — a spectacular fire that consumes the reformatory as Bob struggles to free Judy, who is shackled to her bunk in a solitary cell. The fire effect here is achieved by the most analog means possible — i.e. by lighting the set on fire and forcing the obviously-in-real-peril-actors to struggle their way through it while being pelted by huge pieces of flaming debris from all sides. By reports, DeMille seemed to get a bit of a kick out of putting his actor in harm’s way like this, and was known to berate them when they objected to the notion of being killed in pursuit of his vision. Callous? Perhaps — but, hey, you sure can’t argue with the results. It’s a really riveting sequence, and you certainly have no trouble buying the looks of abject terror that play over the faces of Basquette and Duryea as it plays out.
Though our modern eyes might see The Godless Girl as containing, at best, the makings of a solid “B” type feature, DeMille clearly saw himself as making an epic, and the resulting two hour-plus running time of the original cut might come across to most as spreading the movie’s content just a tad too thin. Its final acts, after all, are largely comprised of prison movie tropes that have become all too familiar in the ensuing years — and the interest they hold pales in comparison to both the juicy subject matter and surprising even-handedness presented in the film’s opening moments. You have to wonder what this movie might have been like had DeMille not gotten distracted by his reformist crusade and instead tried to plot out a path to understanding between Judy and Bob that was less dependent on drastic dramatic interventions like sudden death and imprisonment. Chances are that, at the very least, audiences of today would get a clearer picture than the one hinted at of what popular attitudes regarding these — amazingly — still controversial issues were during the picture’s day. It’s a common assumption that attitudes in eras previous to ours were by their nature less “modern” than our own, even though the reality of our current era often renders that notion ridiculous. In light of that, The Godless Girl — just like any high school teacher worth his or her salt — might handily reminds us of the perils that lurk within the word “Assume”.
Release Year: 1929 | Country: United States | Starring: Lina Basquette, Tom Keene (as George Duryea), Marie Prevost, Noah Beery, Eddie Quinlan, Mary Jane Irving | Writer: Jeanie Macpherson | Director: Cecil B. DeMille | Cinematographer: J. Peverell Marley | Producer: Cecil B. DeMille
Who’d have thought, back in the 1960s, that our nation’s youngsters were being fed communist propaganda by one of the most mercenary elements within the American film industry? Well, a lot of people, probably. It was a pretty paranoid time. Still, had they known, those people could have at least taken comfort in the fact that it was being done out of only the most purely capitalistic motives. After all, Eastern Bloc science fiction movies presented an irresistible lure to B movie producers like Roger Corman and his ilk. Being that they served as representations of the bright, technologically-advanced future achievable through socialism, these films were often the beneficiaries of relatively lavish government funding, and, as a result, boasted special effects and production design that were well beyond what makers of American sci-fi cheapies could afford. All that remained for these yanks to do, then, was to acquire these films and then strip them of everything that might identify them as being the product of a communist country — a process of Americanization that often resulted in the original films being disfigured almost beyond recognition.
You might think that the women-in-prison genre is so rigid in its conventions that it wouldn’t allow room for much experimentation, but leave it to the Japanese to prove that assumption wrong. The first three films in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, all of which were directed by Shunya Ito, stand out for me as the pinnacle of artistically-rendered 1970s Japanese exploitation. Each film is stuffed full of surrealist imagery, imaginative compositions and breathtaking visual lyricism. Of course, being that they are women-in-prison films, they are also stuffed full of shower scenes, lesbianism and graphic violence. But, unlike the previously discussed Norifumi Suzuki, who was content to just let the sleazier elements of his movies sit uneasily alongside his occasional moments of cinematic inspiration, Ito somehow managed to make all of those elements blend together into a more or less cohesive whole.
Though the first Female Prisoner Scorpion (or Joshuu Sasori) film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was Ito’s debut as a director, he had already served an apprenticeship in trangressive genre filmmaking as a frequent assistant director to Teruo Ishii during his early years at Toei Studio. Ishii, who directed the popular Abashiri Prison films, is probably best known outside of Japan for controversial mindbenders such as Horrors of Malformed Men and the Joy of Torture series, as well as for the Super Giant serials that were repackaged for US television as the Starman films (and which were, despite being aimed squarely at the kids, some of the most disconcertingly dark examples of Japanese superheroism committed to film). It’s hard not to assume that some of Ishii’s hallucinatory sense of invention rubbed off on Ito, especially given the aversion to the ordinary that’s apparent in his filmmaking style.
The source material for the Scorpion films was the popular manga series Sasori, which was created by artist Tooru Shinohara and began its run in Japan’s monthly Big Comics magazine in 1970. This inspiration explains a lot of Ito’s more striking visual constructions, which were clearly an attempt to emulate the violent expressiveness of manga’s graphic style. While he was successful in this regard, Ito would have a tougher time preserving Shinohara’s conception of his heroine in translating her to the screen. As presented in the manga, Sasori was a foul-mouthed street brawler, an earthy characterization that lead to some objections on the part of the star who was assigned to play her — a star who clearly had very definite ideas about how she did and did not want to be represented on screen.
That star, of course, was Meiko Kaji, who has gone on to achieve cult icon status worldwide due to her role in Toho’s Lady Snowblood films, as well as for her turn as Scorpion. Kaji had recently come over to Toei from Nikkatsu, fleeing her former studio when it made the turn from action movies to the almost exclusive production of kinky soft-core films. Before that time, she had attained stardom with her lead role in Nikkatsu’s Stray Cat Rock series of films, which were somewhat milder early forays into the Pinky Violence genre. Now being groomed as an action star at Toei, Kaji was likely a natural choice for the role of Sasori. However, the actress didn’t take kindly to the comic character’s expletive-spouting demeanor, which resulted in Ito taking Sasori’s screen incarnation in a markedly different direction.
As resonant as it is, Shunya Ito’s style is anything but subtle, and the director wasn’t averse to presenting his characters as boldly drawn archetypes. As such, Sasori was reimagined as something far more elemental than in her manga depiction, as a wraith-like embodiment of feminine rage. The Scorpion films are essentially Pinky Violence movies, after all, and are even more explicit and mantra-like than other films in that genre in presenting the state of balance between the sexes as being a literal war, with men as an oppressive force representing all of society’s ills. As the series’ theme song — a mournful enka ballad sung by Kaji herself — makes abundantly clear, all that women can expect from these men is betrayal — or, as Kaji’s character says at one point, “To be deceived is a woman’s crime”.
Female Prisoner #701 even goes on to extend culpability for that betrayal to the nation itself. Ironically framed images of the Japanese flag abound. And, early in the film, when Matsu — aka Scorpion — loses her virginity to the man who will ultimately sell her out, we’re shown a red spot of blood on a white sheet that spreads in mimicry of the flag’s design. (I’ve got to say that, in their desperate attempts to lure audience members of both sexes with seemingly very opposite types of catharsis, the makers of Pinky Violence movies really came up with a unique combination, seemingly drawing in part from the Hollywood “Women’s Pictures” of the forties: Think Mildred Pierce with lots of tits and gore.)
So clearly Matsu has a lot to be angry about. And, indeed, her rage goes so deep that it seems to render her almost superhuman, burning within her like an empowering nuclear core. She is capable of dying, you imagine, but is just too pissed off to ever let it happen. Given that this is the character’s one essential trait, Kaji’s portrayal of her basically boils down to one facial expression. Which is not meant in the least as a criticism of Kaji’s performance — because, you see, it’s a really good facial expression. In fact, during those moments in Female Prisoner #701 when Kaji is not making that expression, the audience is left in a tense holding pattern, waiting for that expression to make its appearance. Because, when it does, it means that some deserving soul is about to do some serious suffering.
While not conventional on its own merits, Female Prisoner #701 is definitely the most conventional of the three Scorpion films that Ito directed. This is partly because it’s saddled with the responsibility of telling its protagonist’s back-story, a seeming necessity that, once you’ve seen the other films, doesn’t end up seeming all that necessary at all. As portrayed by Kaji, Matsu is such a force of nature that it doesn’t really matter why she became who she is. She just is. Still, that this element is included in Female Prisoner #701 certainly doesn’t take away from the film. And being that it shows our heroine’s transformation from a naive and vulnerable young woman into the dagger-eyed vengeance engine that she becomes, it affords Kaji the opportunity to show a bit more range, as well as say a few more scattered lines of dialog than she does in the subsequent films, in which she’s practically mute.
Providing Matsu with a story of how she came to be in prison — one that, while not presenting her as innocent, clearly shows her as a victim, and hence worthy of audience sympathy — is also one of the aspects that makes Female Prisoner #701 hew more closely than the other films to the conventions of the typical WIP film. Another is that it is the only of the original Scorpion films whose action — beyond flashbacks — takes place almost entirely within the prison’s walls. The two succeeding films would increasingly stretch their creative and locational legs, gradually doing away with their dependence on the prison setting as they set out to explore more and more bizarre thematic territory (culminating in Ito’s farewell to the series, the sublime, hauntingly beautiful Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, which tops the previous two both in terms of depravity and genuine emotional impact).
Female Prisoner #701 begins with an escape attempt by Matsu and her partner Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), which is foiled when Yuki is injured and Matsu refuses to leave her side. (Matsu’s relationship to Yuki is never spelled out, but the younger prisoner is the only other character in the movie toward whom Matsu shows any amount of tenderness or concern.) It’s clear that this escape is not the first act of defiance on Matsu’s part, and it further strengthens the resolve of the dictatorial warden (Fumio Watanabe) to break her will once and for all — a project he pursues variably on his own or by proxy through the efforts of his cretinous guards and the cackling group of hags who have been granted trustee privileges by him. Resolve is something that Matsu is no stranger to, of course, and she matches the warden’s every attempt at suppression, not only with increasing deployments of THE LOOK, but also with increasingly creative acts of payback against his minions. It’s a cycle of perpetually regenerating enmity between Matsu and the warden that we will see continue into the next film in the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41.
In the aftermath of the scuttled breakout, as Matsu lies hog-tied in a dungeon-like solitary cell, we’re given a dream-like flashback of the events that lead to her ending up in the nick. It seems that on the outside Matsu fell hard for a narcotics cop named Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi) — so hard, in fact, that when Sugimi asked her to take part in an undercover sting operation he was involved in, she readily agreed. It is only after we’ve seen Matsu’s cover blown, and her viciously raped by the members of the gang she’s infiltrated, that we find that Sugimi is actually working in league with a rival Yakuza gang, and is about as crooked as they come. His true nature revealed, the evilly chuckling Sugimi callously tosses a few crumpled bills in the ravaged girl’s direction and summarily casts her aside. As might be expected, this occasions the first appearance of THE LOOK, and, not soon thereafter, Matsu is accosting Sugimi in a freaky, topless, street corner knife attack. This attack, sadly, is nowhere near as effective as it is picturesque, and soon our scorned heroine is in custody.
Now I realize that the above related plot details are women’s prison picture rote to the point of being generic. But you have to keep in mind that, as they are playing out, director Ito deploys all the tools available in his visual arsenal to keep the viewer as disoriented as possible. The camera pivots restlessly so that you can never know, when a person enters a room, whether he or she will appear to be walking on the wall, the ceiling, or the floor. Self-conscious use of live theater-style movable sets is made to shift background locations as the foreground action remains the same. Bold comic book-style visual signifiers are used to express intense emotion, as when Matsu’s hair arranges itself into the shape of flames as she lies atop a red back-lit glass floor. There’s a haunting, horror movie feel to many of these visuals, made most explicit in a scene where a fellow inmate who is attacking Matsu transforms into a leering kabuki demon — at which point the lighting abruptly switches from naturalistic to that patented Mario Bava green, and the remainder of the scene plays out as a surreal, slow motion nightmare. All of this serves to underscore the fact that the ritualistic predictability of the movie’s plot is not beside the point, but rather the point itself, since Ito is far more interested in presenting archetypal conflicts than he is in exploring the peculiarities of character, or presenting us with novel situations.
The aforementioned kabuki demon attack has the unfortunate side effect for the warden of him ending up with a shard of glass embedded in his eye socket, an injury which understandably further stokes his desire to crush Matsu’s spirit. (I won’t get all Women’s Studies and touch upon the whole “male gaze” thing here, but the wound is definitely significant, foreshadowed as it is by a shot earlier in the film in which the image of Matsu is framed within the watching eye of one of the guards.) This leads to him really turning the screws, subjecting not just Matsu to all kinds of humiliations and forced labor, but the other prisoners, as well, in the hope that they will turn against Matsu as a result. Meanwhile, Sugimi and his boss begin to worry that Matsu will tell the authorities what she knows about Sugimi’s crooked dealings, and decide to have her eliminated. Of course, what Sugimi doesn’t realize is that Matsu’s overwhelming desire to carve him up like a Christmas turkey is pretty much the only thing that is keeping her going, and she would lose all hope of making that dream a reality if he were to be locked safely away in prison. On the contrary, the corrupt cop is so deluded by arrogance and self-regard that he entertains the notion that Matsu still has feelings for him. And so, just to be on the safe side, he recruits Katagiri (Rie Yokoyama), a sociopathic fellow inmate of Matsu’s, to do his dirty work.
Eventually the warden’s quest to get under the scorpion’s shell leads him to send a young female guard into Matsu’s cell posing as an inmate. The hyper-vigilant Matsu is quickly clued in by her new roommate’s inquisitiveness, however, and, being a true Pinky Violence heroine, proves that she is not above using her body to turn the tables. Apparently those bottomless reserves of white hot rage of hers provide Matsu not only with the power to endure all manner of physical hardships, but superhuman lovemaking skills as well. Because, after only a few moments of Matsu’s ministrations, the guard, Kitoh, is reduced to being little more than a pleading love slave. Later, when the warden relieves the young rookie of her spying duties, she has a melt-down that is one of the film’s most hilariously over-the-top moments, hysterically begging her superiors to send her back into the cell with Matsu to continue her mission. As depicted by Ito, Matsu’s seduction of Kitoh provides an example of another distinction between the director and his aforementioned fellow in artsy grindhouse excess, Norifumi Suzuki. While Suzuki wasn’t shy about piling on scenes of nudity and soft-core sex, he frequently neglected to make those scenes the least bit erotic, perhaps because he was more preoccupied with being shocking than arousing. (Some moments in Convent of the Holy Beast are exceptions to this… Either that, or I just have a thing for nuns.) Shunya, on the other hand, shows here that he is capable of delivering an erotic scene that packs some serious heat.
By the way, the actress playing Kitoh is Yumiko Katayama, who might be recognizable to those of you who grew up with Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot as the lone female member of that Tokusatsu series’ heroic Unicorn organization. Not too long after that, Katayama changed her focus a bit by becoming the Pinky Violence genre’s go-to girl for extensive nudity. I’d like to think that this change in direction was the result of generosity, rather than desperation, on her part. But, whatever the case, I have to say that it escapes me as to why she never made it beyond playing supporting roles in these films, because she is not only striking, but possessed of an intense presence, and has delivered solid and memorable performances in every film I’ve seen her in — the final Delinquent Girl Boss film, in particular.
Female Prisoner #701, beneath it’s hallucinatory exterior, pretty much follows the narrative rules of the prison picture through to its conclusion, which means that the warden’s draconian policies ultimately lead to a prison revolt — though one played out on a wildly expressionistic set complete with a painted backdrop of a sky consumed by a blazing red vortex. The prisoners take several guards — who are subsequently gang raped — hostage and hold up in one of the prison’s supply warehouses, where the hired killer Katagiri sets about trying to turn her keyed-up fellow inmates against Matsu.
This leads to Matsu being hung in chains from the rafters and mercilessly beaten, a predicament which she endures with predictably Christ-like stoicism. Finally, a raid by the guards and a fire in the warehouse provide the cover Matsu needs to escape, in turn giving her the opportunity to hit the streets of Tokyo and prove the deservedness of her nickname. It is in these final scenes where Meiko Kaji really puts the weight of action behind THE LOOK, methodically dealing out retribution to Sugimi and his gang like a silent angel of vengeance — albeit a particularly pimped-out angel of vengeance in a wide-brimmed hat and dramatic ankle-length coat.
Female Prisoner #701 is a thrilling piece of exploitation cinema, as well as a challenging work of visual artistry. But, as great as it is, it merely set the stage for what was to come. With its follow-up film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, director Ito would give much freer reign to his experimental tendencies, and the result would haunt and intoxicate in equal measure.
This movie offers so many potential avenues from which I could approach it that I’m finding it almost as overwhelming as climbing the north face of the Eiger while an unknown assassin tries to kill me because he knows I’m trying to kill him. There’s the career of geologist-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, whose fascination with mountains and mountaineering resulting in a series of films possessed of breathtaking beauty and power. There’s the subject of mountaineering itself, and of the depiction of mountain climbing in film. There’s the subject of silent film, and more specifically, silent spectacle and action films, which were far more lavish and epic in scope than most people ever imagine. And perhaps the 900 pound gorilla in the room is the bizarre and difficult career of German actress turned Nazi propagandist and, until her death in 2003 at the age of 101, the world’s oldest living certified scuba diver, Leni Riefenstahl. Hers is a story of incredible talent, revolutionary film technique, terrifying loyalty to Adolf Hitler, arrest by a naval intelligence officer working with a John Ford film crew, war crimes, and after the dust settled, a career as an underwater nature photographer.
I’ll try to cover them all, but forgive me if I’m a bit scattershot in my style. Well, more scattershot than usual, which is really saying something. After all, it’s rather nice outside right now, and I’m thinking about going climbing instead of finishing this review.
So let’s begin at the beginning, a very good place to start. Oh man, this review is chocked with the potential for awful Alps-related film references. I prmise that, as far as I know, that is going to be the only one I make. Heidi. There. I said it, just to get it out there. Now we’re done.
But the beginning to which I’m referring is the beginning of modern feature filmmaking. When I was a young lad full of energy and vim, I did not have very much interest in silent film. I’d seen plenty of them, all the usual suspects a horror film fan sees early in his viewing career: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis (including the one with the rockin’ 80s soundtrack). They were interesting, but I preferred movies with talking. Later in life, I grew to appreciate and adore silent films much more, but even now I don’t get excited about discussing any of the classic silent horror films from Germany — not because I don’t love them, but rather because such a tremendous amount of ink has already been spent on them by much smarter people than me, and there’s really not a lot I can add to the discussion of German expressionism, the Weimer Republic, or vergangenheits-bewaltigung that hasn’t been covered by someone who, unlike me, actually knows what the hell they’re talking about.
In high school, we had to watch The Birth of a Nation because it was a valuable lesson in the history of perceptions regarding the Civil War and race relations, and also because cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith was buried in the small Methodist church a couple minutes away — the very same church I attended as a youth and had my first and eventual ruinous run-ins with religious authority. It was a pretty typical looking small-town country church: whitewash wood, a steeple, no air conditioning, heavy wooden pews filled with sweating men and women in their Sunday finery, furiously fanning themselves with those cardboard fans attached to a Popsicle stick and featuring a painting of kindly Jesus waving at you or blessing you or possibly just fanning you because he grew up in the Middle East, and he understands what it means to be hot. Anyway, in the church cemetery were a variety of crumbling old graves, and right in the middle of them was the grave of D.W. Griffith.
Griffith, for those who may be unfamiliar with the early days of feature film making, was one of the fathers of the modern feature film. Along with a group of film makers in Europe, many of them Italian, and inspired by the Italian costumed spectacle Cabiria, Griffith was at the forefront of exploring what could be done with a motion picture camera and the ability to work on location rather than being bound to stages and sets like plays. Unfortunately, Griffith chose to explore these new possibilities in the form of a film called Birth of a Nation. The movie tells the story of the Antebellum South, when all the black slaves were suddenly free and immediately set about raping white women and dancing while getting drunk on cheap booze on the floor of the Senate. So basically, the slaves were all freed and acted like legally elected, white congressmen. The only thing standing between these unruly throngs of free, violent black folks (who, I should mention, were all happy and content as slaves,with gumdrop smiles and the freedom to hambone solo on the banks of rivers filled with chocolate and gold) and proud white America was the noble and chivalrous order of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yeah, so you pretty much get the picture, right? regardless, this was where it all began: the first American feature film. At the time of its release, Birth of a Nation was wildly popular — America wasn’t exactly racial paradise in 1915, and there were veterans of the Civil War still floating around. Civil rights groups protested the film, but that did precious little to diminish it int he eyes of a white America for which black freedom was still a relatively new thing. It seems that Griffith himself was ultimately horrified by the reaction many audiences had to the film, reactions that often involved race rioting and violence. His next film, Intolerance, was an attempt to undo some of what he’d wrought with Birth of a Nation, by showing the evils slavery has caused through time. The film was another lavish spectacle in the spirit of the great Italian spectacles like Cabiria, but it was a failure both politically and financially. Griffith’s career never recovered. Though he was one of the founding artists of United Artists, he wasn’t with the company for long, and the final years of his life were spent in relative seclusion. Despite all he may have contributed to the history of cinema, Griffith’s name was forever linked with that single movie, and it forever shadows — perhaps rightfully so — everything else he did.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this in 1977, darting around the cemetery at Mount Tabor and poking around his grave. The grave is still there, of course, though the quaint church building has been replaced by one of those generic, pre-fab deals Methodists seem oddly fond of. Still, that grave connects to the movie we’re actually here to discuss, as the career of German actress Leni Riefenstahl is very similar. Riefenstahl began her career in front of the camera, but it was behind it that she made her lasting contribution to cinema. Many of the techniques we now take for granted — moving the camera around, crane shots, dolly shots — can be traced back to Riefenstahl. Along with a host of other German filmmakers, she made cinema far more kinetic, far more dynamic, than it had been before. Unfortunately, she chose to showcase much of her incredible talent in Triumph of the Will, a film whose primary aim was to show how glorious Hitler and the Third Reich was. Like Griffith, pretty much anything you did before and after a film like that is going to be overshadowed. And among the things Riefenstahl did before Triumph of the Will was star in a series of sweeping mountaineering epics directed by geologist and outdoor sporting enthusiast Arnold Fanck.
The White Hell of Piz Palu represents the middle entry in a thematic trilogy that began with The Holy Mountain and ended with Storm Over Mont Blanc (SOS Iceberg is sort of a cousin), all three starring Riefenstahl, directed by Fanck, and concerning people who get in a lot of trouble up in the Alps. In the case of Piz Palu, the trouble begins straight away with a trio of climbers making an ascent up the titular mountain. Piz Palu was and remains notable for being covered in a lot of ice, and it is this ice, in combination with a warm wind, that causes such trouble for healthy young lovers Dr. Johannes and Maria Krafft (Gustaff Deissl and Mizzi Gotzel respectively) and guide Christian (Otto Spring). A snow slide catches them off guard, and poor Maria plunges into a crevasse, leaving Johannes kneeling helpless at the edge while Christian makes his way down the mountain in search of help, though both men know there’s precious little hope of it amounting to anything other than body recovery.
Skip ahead a bit, to the same mountain, where hearty newlyweds Hans (Ernst Peterson) and Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) have decided, apparently, to celebrate their marriage by hiking up into the Alps and staying in one of the many shelters that dot all the popular hiking and climbing routes. From time to time their friend Flieger (real life World War One flying ace Ernst Udet) buzzes them in his biplane and drops little bottles of champagne attached to wee parachutes. It’s all very healthy and fun and vigorous, so much so that Maria is more than happy to cavort happily in the snow while wearing a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Things turn dour, however, when Johannes shows up at the shelter. Maria does her best to befriend the haunted climber, who returns to Piz Palu every season in a vain search for his wife’s body. Hans, on the other hand, seems alternately fascinated by the gloomy man and irritated that he’s lurking around. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your honeymoon in a public cabin in the Alps. You’re just asking for a damned soul to show up and recount his haunted past to you.
Maria discovers that, while he was waiting for Christian to return with help from the town at the foot of the mountain, Johannes thought he could hear Maria (his Maria — that the two women have the same name is no accident, I’m sure) shouting for help. Both horrified and elated by the thought that his wife might still be alive, injured at the bottom of the crevasse, Johannes begins a reckless solo descent into the cavernous crack. But when he reaches the literal end of his rope, there is no one there and no sign of Maria. Since then, he has combed the mountain for her, but to no avail and with no ability to do it effectively without a support team. Well, obviously, he’s about to get one, and this trio’s ascent isn’t going to go any better than the first time Johannes attempted Piz Palu.
There’s a lot of stuff to admire in this film, but you’re really going to need to like mountaineering, because that’s the film’s obsession. Fanck was a naturalist, after all, and Piz Palu itself is the star of this film. I thought it was fascinating. Being a beginner climber myself, though one with no aspirations to go anywhere where the photo of me includes having an ice-encrusted beard (I’ll stick to boulders and mountains of a shorter stature than The Matterhorn), these movies serve as an incredible, documentary-like look at Alpine climbing in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, this movie could very well be regarded as a documentary about mountain climbing with some make believe drama injected. Fanck, working alongside co-directed G.W. Pabst, films much of the movie on location and with actual mountaineering going on. And given modern clothing and safety systems, watching it done old school — in heavy wool and with almost no equipment other than a rope, and ax, crampons, and that famous German/Swiss physical culture can-do vitality — is interesting. But make no mistake, given the choice between climbing in heavy wool and knee socks or performance fleece and ultra-5000 space age wicking material, I’m sticking with modern gear, regardless of how cool someone looks kitted out in the old style duds.
And the climbing in this film is truly breathtaking, especially when it concentrates on Johannes’ dangerous descent into the crevasse. Watching the way the climber wedges his way into small spaces, makes crazy leaps, dangles over nothing — there have been decades of mountain films made since this one, but few capture the activity with such raw energy. Fanck is a documentarian by nature, and he doesn’t rely on camera tricks and snazzy editing. He simply puts the camera in place — which itself must have been quite a feat of climbing and rappelling — and lets the action speak for itself. Most of the film’s drama stems from this approach, as one gets the feeling that the actors are in as much danger as the characters they are playing. A second descent into an icy network of caverns and crevasses, this one performed by a rescue team searching for the bodies of a university climbing team caught in an avalanche — succeeds in creating a completely alien, eerie universe. Shadowy men with flares move through the ice tunnels, casting reflections and smoke in all directions.
Secondary to the presence of the mountain and the act of climbing, then simply trying to survive, it, is the human drama. One of the things that sets this film apart from many of the silent era is that the acting is subdued and natural, never reverting to any of that extremely exaggerated pantomiming that has become synonymous with performances of the era. I love films of the silent era, but even I have to admit that many of the performances in even the best of films are so stylized and artificial that it becomes hard to relate to the characters. Not so in The White Hell of Piz Palu. Everyone looks and acts like a regular person, and as such, it becomes very easy to identify with them. It would have been easy for Gustaff Deissl to express his melancholy by doing the “crazy panic face” and “furtive glancing back and forth before burying head in hands.”
Instead, we get a deceptively powerful scene where he sits in stoic contemplation, listening to the dripping of a melting icicle that reminds of the melting icicles that surrounded him as he waited desperately at the edge of the cliff for Christian to return with help. But instead of doing the freak out or the over-sold “making an O with my mouth” face, he simply sits there, winces slightly, then quietly gets up, walks outside, and breaks off the icicle. It’s a perfect example of how complicated acting can be. There’s the hammy over the top way to go, and there’s the very accomplished and dramatic but still obviously acting way to go (the “win an Oscar” method). Deissl goes the third, less journeyed route, which is to act in a way that makes the audience forget you are acting. Simply put, I believe this guy.
The film hints at but never develops a romantic triangle. It’s obvious that Maria (the Riefenstahl one) is entranced by this dark, brooding, rugged man who climbs the most dangerous mountains in Europe by himself in a hopeless search for his dead wife. And it’s just as obvious that Hans develops an almost immediate inferiority complex, feeling that measured against Joannes, he himself is less of a man. But once again, the film plays the melodrama with subtlety, and never turns Hans into some cartoonish jealous lover. His insecurity around Johannes first manifests itself in a need to engage in a bout of manly firewood chopping, and later to accompanying Johannes on his quest, thus enabling Johannes to cover territory that can’t be covered solo. Finally, it culminates in Hans insisting on walking point for a while, and it’s then that the trouble really begins, even though it’s not entirely Hans’ fault.
An avalanche injures Hans, and the ensuing rescue attempt results in Johannes breaking a leg, leaving the trio stranded atop the mountain hoping that Christian will notice their entry into the mountain hut log and assemble some sort of rescue. Hans eventually succumbs to high altitude cerebral edema (altitude sickness to you and me), resulting in him becoming delirious and, at times, even suicidal. Needless to say, the romantic triangle that could have developed never trudges into such predictable territory as romantic triangles often do, and it is soon replaced by the simple tale of three people attempting to survive near impossible odds.
Riefenstahl impresses as an actress, and if you are able to forget for a moment that she would go on a few years later to turn Hitler into a godlike Wotan figure descending from the clouds to deliver rousing speeches to masses of Sieg Heiling Germans, she exudes an instant likability. She’s not exactly attractive — not in the way one could instantly accept the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, or Josephine Baker — but there’s such a natural air of vitality and energy about her that she endears herself. She’s sort of like the tomboy best friend, the cute one you don’t date but love to go hiking with. Of course, this best friend eventually turns out to be a Nazi propagandist, and that sort of sours the milk.
In 1933, after making her last film as an actress (SOS Iceberg, again with Fanck), Riefenstahl launched her career as a director. The Blue Light treads familiar territory, as it is set in the Alps and once again prominently features mountaineering. But where as Fanck strove for as much realism as possible, Riefenstahl’s film goes whole hog in on mysticism. It was while watching her in movies like these that Hitler became infatuated with Riefenstahl and began the process of bringing her into the Nazi party. Riefenstahl directed a series of pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, documentaries, all of which are considered landmark technical achievements. These included a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and 1933′s Victory of Faith, a propaganda piece that became something of an embarrassment when one of the chief subjects, Ernst Rohm, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. Rohm was an open homosexual, as were several other prominent members of the paramilitary stormtrooper organization Sturmabteilung, of which Rohm was in command. Rohm was eventually caught up in the purge and charged by Himmler and Goring with plotting to overthrow Hitler. Hitler, however, still considered Rohm a friend, and did as much as he could to put off the man’s death. When Rohm refused to commit “honorable suicide” however, he was executed, with his homosexuality being the on-record reason.
Once the war was rolling, Riefenstahl’s career became even harder to sort out. She was active in filming a number of victory parades, such as Hitler’s triumphant parade through conquered Poland, and was on hand during the killing of a number of civilians in retaliation for resistance efforts. Pictures of Leni at the execution were used to both condemn and exonerate her. She was indeed present, but she is also noticeably upset. What’s the story? In her own words, she attempted to prevent the executions but was forced back a gunpoint by German soldiers. War being what it is, who knows? She continued her propaganda work, though, filming the aforementioned victory parade in 1939. She also began work on a feature film adaptation of Tiefland, a production that included in its crew a number of forced labor conscripts from German concentration camps.
Fate seems to have been committed to keeping the actress-director’s life as weird as possible. When the war in Europe ended, novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was with the Navy at the time working on Allied propaganda films being directed by John Ford (some of which can be downloaded from archive.org and are really worth a look), wa tasked with arresting Riefenstahl. The Allies wanted her in Nuremberg for the War Crimes trials, so that she could identify various people in her films. Riefenstahl herself did not stand trial, but many were skeptical of her claims that she was just an innocent bystander who had no idea what concentration camps were or “what the Nazis were really up to” — especially when that statement was coupled with a statement that she made propaganda films because Goebbels threatened to send her to a concentration camp if she didn’t. History, of course, is a nasty knot to untangle, especially in times of conflict.
That was pretty much it for her career. She attempted to return to film making but found few people willing to finance her projects. Tiefland was finally released in 1954. Eventually, she turned to still photography and worked for a while in The Sudan. At the age of 72 — though she lied and said she was 52 in order to do it — she became a certified diver and began a career as an underwater photographer. Her contributions to the history of cinema are as great as they are terrible, and she remains a very divisive person to discuss. However, divorced of its political context and the frightening results it helped yield, her pioneering contributions to film making cannot be denied. In her films we find the birth of much of the modern language of cinema. Even as her subject matter repulses most, her technique is breathtaking. It’s hard, even knowing what we know, to watch something like Triumph of the Will or Olympia and not get swept up by how beautiful it is. It’s not unlike watching the work of D.W. Griffith, who was, in my opinion, nowhere near the league of Riefenstahl. But he still made sweeping films, and one can’t help but get caught up momentarily in the spectacle before the reality of what you’re watching sets in again.
Director Arnold Fanck apparently ran afoul of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels early on. After making such films as Storm Over Mont Blanc — a film featuring a French hero — Fanck found it increasingly difficult to work, until he finally capitulated and began working on projects for both the German and Japanese government. When the war ended, Fanck’s career was dead, and he faded into obscurity, his final days being spent working as a lumberjack. It wasn’t until more recently that Fanck’s adventure films were rediscovered and he collected groups of admirers who appreciated his much more natural approach to film making.
At the behest of Leni Riefenstahl, White Hell of Piz Palu was co-directed by G.W. Pabst. Pabst split his time between German and American projects, as well as between cinema and opera. It was in one of Pabst’s films, in fact, that Deissl had his first role. In the end, though, they are all of them the human subplot dominated by the Alps-sized shadow cast by the leading lady.
But even she is outsized by the mountain itself. Mountain adventure films have come and gone since then, and most of the movement has been toward the goofy and embarrassing. Arnold Fanck is really where this type of adventure begins, though, and even if his became a largely forgotten name, his adventure films still stand as some of the best ever made, and his combination of documentary and drama informs many modern films. His camera studies the mountain intently, dwells on the natural wonders such behemoths generate: the dance of cloud shadows over snow fields and rags, the glistening tunnels and pits of ice fields, the bizarre swirls of powder kicked up by winds cascading over the peaks. One gets a feel for every nook and cranny, every nub, jug, and crimpy little handhold. And that helps us understand the pain of the characters as they toil up the spine of this beast. Unencumbered by the modern thirst for special effects, madcap editing, and overblown theatrics, Fanck simply lets the mountain be a mountain, and the end result is both hypnotic and scary. It’s going to brutalize you, probably even kill you. But you can’t stop yourself from going anyway.
As exciting as White Hell of Piz Palu is in many places, it’s also unevenly paced. After the opening disaster, the film settles down for nearly forty minutes of drama that alternates between being effective and simply dragging on for too long and becoming tedious. Even though the acting is natural and there is much in the film that is subtle, it also has its moments of clunkiness, specifically in the overly long way it goes about telling us just how happy and delightful Hans and Maria are. And while it is punctuated by Johannes’ panicked descent into the crevasse — quite possibly my favorite part of the film — his time in the mountain hut consists of far too much pensive staring while symbolic snow melts. But then, Fanck goes and does something like the shot of Johannes outside, smoking a cigarette while sitting on an old wooden fence with the whole of the Alps spreading out behind him, and it pulls you right back in. Silent films trade in images, by necessity, and Fanck manages on many occasions to capture scenes of iconic beauty.
Still, despite these missteps, White Hell of Piz Palu emerges as a truly fascinating and exciting film from the dawn of action-adventure cinema. Once we’re on the mountain itself, the film is tense and well-executed, not to mention jaw-dropping in some of the stunts that aren’t even stunts as much as they are just examples of how dangerous mountaineering was (and is). If I had to compare it to any modern movie, it would be the docu-drama Touching the Void, or the slightly older documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest. Both films, like White Hell of Piz Palu, capture both the menace and the beauty of such natural wonders and our enduring fascination with trying to climb them. When our trio suffers onscreen, it’s easy to feel their suffering. When they stand on the threshold of rescue only to have hope vanish, we feel it. And when Fanck shows us ice-encrusted Piz Palu towering over the landscape, we feel the oppressive weight of its menace as well as the stunning allure of its beauty.
The Pinky Violence films of Norifumi Suzuki represent one extreme of the tendency of Japanese exploitation films of the seventies to combine a very high level of craftsmanship with an unflinching preoccupation with human behavior at its most sleazy and mysteriously perverse. I’ve found some of his films very difficult to get through, while others — such as Convent of the Holy Beast and the film I’m discussing here, Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom — I was able to ride out on a seductive wave of Norifumi’s combined visual imagination and sheer audacity. However, unlike Shunya Ito, whose distinctive vision lifted the Female Prisoner Scorpion films damn near the level of art, Norifumi produced trash that, while littered with artistic touches and surprising moments of beauty, never really quite rose above the level of trash. This is in part due to the fact that, unlike Ito, he had a habit of punctuating the episodes of exaggerated sexual violence that characterize much of his work with moments of direly unfunny juvenile comedy, a mixture that in most cases added up to one pretty noxious cocktail.
Further making Norifumi’s films a tough proposition is the fact that — unlike tamer examples of the Pinky Violence genre, such as those in the Delinquent Girl Boss series — he never gives us a relative innocent to root for amongst the hard cases that populate the amoral universe he creates. His heroines have typically been reduced by their surroundings to being little more than cold-eyed engines of vengeance, and we side with them only because they are the least odious of the options we’re given to choose from. Furthermore, because the society they inhabit is one that has so clearly gone completely off the rails, we can’t realistically root for them to triumph over it, but rather to simply tear the whole fucking thing down once they’ve come out the other side.
Still, I have to admit that I get a kick out of some of Suzuki’s films — Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom in particular — for how he so spiritedly endeavors to offend seemingly every conventional notion of decency that he can get within his sights. His masters at Toei Studio, seeking to boost their audience by courting controversy, encouraged him to do this, of course — and judging from the results, that encouragement was akin to coaxing a chronic binge eater toward a free buffet. While I’m pretty sure that his motivations didn’t go beyond the commercial, Suzuki, in the course of exercising his aesthetic scorched-earth policy, seems to have tapped into the subversive spirit of certain underground filmmakers of his era, delivering an all-inclusive “fuck you” to society and its combined pieties and hypocrisies with the gleeful enthusiasm of a confirmed outsider. In fact, if its female cast were to be replaced with a troupe of drag queens, Lynch Law Classroom would be in many ways indistinguishable from one of John Waters’ early movies.
But the stars of Lynch Law Classroom are, of course, not drag queens, but real women, a fact which the film offers ample proof of by having their clothing rent from their bodies as often as possible. In the case of leads Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike, they are so womanly, in fact, that, despite both actresses putatively being in their early twenties at the time, its difficult to buy them as highschoolers. However, this is not only pretty much par-for-the-course for this type of film, but also one of the least credibility-challenging aspects of the insane alternate reality that it presents, and in the end is only one of the things that contributes to the movie coming off as some kind of surreal allegory.
The Terrifying Girls’ High School series, which was comprised of four films in total, came into being as sort of a companion to Toei’s popular Girl Boss — or Sukeban — series, the first four of which were directed by Suzuki. Running from 1971 to 1974 — and spanning six entries in total — the Girl Boss movies each starred one or both of the studio’s top two ass-kicking, clothes-shedding female stars, the aforementioned Ike and Sugimoto. Though Ike was the bigger star of the two, Sugimoto was a close enough second to keep Ike on her toes, and the two, when sharing the screen, were usually cast on equal terms, often as leaders of rival girl gangs. Being that they were so identified with the Girl Boss films, it was only good business to cast them as the leads when Suzuki set out to direct the first Terrifying Girls’ High School film, Women’s Violent Classroom, in 1972. Sugimoto would only stay with the series as long as Suzuki, however, and both she and the director would leave after the second entry, making Lynch Law Classroom their farewell to the franchise. (I know next to nothing about the remaining two films in the series, but the title of the third entry, Delinquent Convulsion Group, is pretty hard not to be tempted by.)
Lynch Law Classroom lives up to any possible interpretation of its title by setting its action in a girls’ reform school that is not only terrifying as advertised, but also populated by girls who themselves are mostly terrifying. That this institution is named The School of Hope for Girls is just one of its many distinctly Orwellian attributes, seeing as its dungeon-like jail is referred to as the “Introspection Room” and its doddering, clueless administrator, Principal Nakata, natters on about turning wayward girls into “good wives and wise mothers” while all manner of depravity and vice plays out under his nose. Those who truly set the tone at the school are its chairman, Sato (Nobuo Kaneko), a corrupt politician with ties to the Yakuza and seemingly the entire city bureaucracy in his pocket — and who treats the student body as his personal harem — and the cravenly ambitious vice principal Ishihara (Kenji Imai), who operates the school as a front for Sato’s various unseemly dealings while scheming to further his own designs on power. Acting as Ishihara’s personal police force within the school is the Disciplinary Committee, a sort of schoolgirl Gestapo lead by the sadistic Yoko, who keep their fellow students in line by means of lots of diabolically imaginative — and mostly genital-based — torture, while also assisting Ishirara in his criminal activities outside the school walls. The members are compensated by Ishihara with funds from a bogus scholarship.
This film is indeed strong medicine, but the faint-hearted viewer can at least be assured in the knowledge that he won’t be lulled into a false sense of security before it delivers its worst. On the contrary, you will know in no uncertain terms within the first thirty seconds of Lynch Law Classroom whether it’s something you’re going to be able to hang with, and can then plan your next ninety minutes accordingly. Greeting us with the distorted sound of a woman screaming in agony and fear — accompanied by the familiar Toei logo — the film quickly proceeds to a shot of a bound woman’s blouse being torn open, and then of a scalpel being drawn across the exposed breast beneath. This is the handiwork of the Disciplinary Committee — kitted out in school uniforms uniquely accessorized with fascistic armbands and matching bright red surgical masks — who have decided to teach their latest charge a lesson by forcing her to watch as her blood is slowly drained into a series of beakers in the school’s science-lab-cum-torture-chamber. Before this can be completely accomplished, however, the terrified captive manages to make a break for it, ending up on the school roof, where, outnumbered by the evil Yoko and her fellow D.C. members, she is forced over the edge and plummets to her death. Making this sudden visual assault just that much more jarring is composer Masao Yagi’s nerve-jangling musical accompaniment, which is made up of ominous analog synth washes perforated by hysterical stabs of abstract guitar and saxophone.
We will soon learn that this latest victim of the Disciplinary Committee was a student by the name of Michiyo Akiyama, who, in her life on the outside, was lieutenant to a notorious Yokohama girl gang leader known — thanks to her ever-present crucifix necklace — as Noriko the Cross — or, more poetically “The Boss With the Cross”. And it’s not long before Noriko (Sugimoto) — either by coincidence or design — arrives at the school herself, bringing along with her two other hard cases, Kyoko Kubo (Seiko Saburi) and the inexplicably cowgirl-attired Remi “The Razor” Kitano (Misuzu Ota). Noriko is soon made aware of Michiyo’s fate by Tomoko, an over-achieving young innocent whose angelic demeanor (a) makes it something of a mystery as to how exactly she ended up at the School of Hope in the first place and (b) in the shark infested waters of Lynch Law Classroom, has the virtual effect of painting a gigantic, day-glo target on her forehead (which doesn’t make her eventual fate, however predictable, any less disheartening when it comes).
Noriko vows to avenge Michiyo’s death, shrewdly perceiving that it’s not just the girls of the Disciplinary Committee, but the whole school (and by extension — given that the film so obviously presents the school as merely an organ of the corrupt society it serves — the whole world) that is her enemy. Remi and Kyoko pledge to help her bring the school down, and are joined in doing so by two other inmates, Junko “The Jacker” and Nobue “The Pipe Basher”, both of whom are former gang members impressed by Noriko’s street credentials. Eventually the group also comes to benefit from the assistance of Wakabayashi (Tsunehiko Watase), an unscrupulous tabloid journalist who hopes to in turn use the girls in a blackmail scheme against Sato and the various officials who make up his power base.
It’s fitting that Wakabayashi, the only man to side with Noriko and her crew, would do so out of purely mercenary interests. Lynch Law Classroom is a Pinky Violence film, after all, and as such presents a world whose male population is made up exclusively of cartoonish grotesques who are as oafish as they are predatory (in one scene, for instance, Principal Nakata is shown literally drooling). Less “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”, these films’ portrayal of the disparate spheres in which the sexes travel is more like “Men are from the Hell, Women are Just Visiting… and Will be Leaving as Soon as They Can Work Out How”. In the meantime, while negotiating this hostile terrain, the only way that these women can survive is by hewing close to their own. In this light, the women of the Disciplinary Committee are as despicable for being traitors to their gender as they are for their murderous acts (a fact that’s placed in unflattering relief when, as we’ll later see, other of the film’s female rivals initiate a temporary laying down of swords to deal with the threat at hand). Other movies in the genre mitigate this message somewhat by including at least one marginally sympathetic male character, who is usually a love interest for one of the female leads. But Lynch Law Classroom is the rare exception that doesn’t even toss us guys — nonetheless drooling oafishly at home over all of the flesh and smut that’s being proffered — that thoroughly gnawed-over bone. The result is that the most flattering reflection of ourselves that we have to gaze upon is the oily, cash-driven manipulator Wakabayashi.
Given this milieu, it’s not surprising that the women of Lynch Law Classroom view sex as little more than a tool of brute exchange. Correspondingly, most of Noriko and her crew’s master plan to bring about the school’s downfall involves them plying their bodies like so much insensate meat. The first such gambit involves the bisexual Kyoko engaging in a furtive bathroom stall seduction of Toshie, a member of the Committee who, after a little below-the-belt coaxing, freely confesses to the group’s involvement in Michiyo’s death. This indiscretion leads to Toshie being on the receiving end of one of the Committee’s more creative acts of pelvic retribution, involving her doing lots of push-ups with a light bulb housed in her nethers. This is followed by an episode in which the girls lure old Principal Nakata to a no-tell motel and basically gang rape him. His resistance is short-lived, of course, and soon his cries of joy at winning the jailbait jackpot are being broadcast over the school P.A. system with predictably career-ending results.
The girls’ final act of strategic harlotry involves them tricking a group of Sato’s influential supporters into participating in an “orgy” while Wakabayashi secretly photographs them for blackmail purposes. This is an inexplicably creepy scene, shot under an eerie red light and depicting the girls, all wearing masks to hide their identities, lying as silent and motionless as corpses as the goonish officials maul and grope them to their hearts’ content. Filmed with the same voyeuristic eye for pervy detail as the previously described erotic episodes, this was just one of the sex scenes in Lynch Law Classroom that left me wondering exactly who was meant to be titillated by it. (Another was the one in which a profusely sweating Nobuo Kaneko gives a matronly middle-aged teacher a thorough going over with a vibrator.) These films are, after all, meant to function as soft-core sex films to some extent, but Suzuki, in signature fashion, seems to have abandoned that mandate in favor of simply trying to freak his audience out.
Reiko Ike finally makes her entrance at Lynch Law Classroom‘s midway point, playing Mako, a rival gang leader who shows up at the school to settle an old score with Noriko. (An interesting aspect of The School of Hope is that, despite it being a reform school, both students and outsiders are apparently free to come and go as they please.. or at least whenever the plot requires it.) Noriko pleads with Mako to set aside her beef until after Noriko has settled her own score with the school, and Mako agrees, though not before forcing Noriko to jump over a bunch of oil barrels on a motorcycle — a scene that will no doubt hold a special place in the hearts of audience members with a fetish for schoolgirl stunt cyclists. Ike doesn’t really end up having a whole lot to do in the film, and seems to be gracing Lynch Law Classroom with her presence mainly for her marquee value. Still, she’s a welcome presence, injecting the film with a bit of flashy style thanks to her gold lame motorcycle jacket and pleather pants ensemble, as well as providing a mutually complimentary contrast with Sugimoto. The pair work well together, Ike being more of a traditional sexpot, and Sugimoto, lean and intense, cutting a figure more akin to that of fellow Toei action heroine Meiko Kaji.
From this point out, both the action and the depravity in Lynch Law Classroom kicks into high gear, with Noriko and her gang’s clashes with their enemies escalating toward the final showdown. With all of the Christian iconography that’s getting hurled around — not to mention the Pinky Violence genre’s typically literal approach to feminine martyrdom — it can’t come as too much of a shock when the girls of the Disciplinary Committee finally manage to get Noriko trussed-up in a crucifixion pose with electrodes jiggered to her tender bits. Fortunately, Mako barges in to save the day before too much of a crack can be put in Noriko’s stoic exterior. Meanwhile, the powers that be at The School of Hope prepare for the institution’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, and Chairman Sato’s first order of business, upon arriving in town, is to select a virgin to defile from among the student population. We know, with a queasy sense of inevitability, that when he points into the yearbook and says “that one” he’s singling out the trusting young innocent Tomoko.
Given all of the callous and exploitative sexual shenanigans that have preceded it, it’s somewhat surprising when Suzuki ends up playing the rape of Tomoko for all its tragic weight. Though neither graphic or prurient in its presentation, it’s an excruciating scene to watch, and Suzuki — who has spent a good piece of the preceding running time training the camera on his actresses’ crotches — suddenly transforms himself into an outraged moralist, effectively shouting at the audience “My god, look what is happening to this child!” Amazingly, it’s an abrupt tonal shift that works, and we’re startled to learn that, all this time — and despite all appearances — Lynch Law Classroom actually had a soul and a conscience. And it was Tomoko. Which of course means, given the film’s worldview, that Tomoko is not long for this life. Suzuki handles Tomoko’s subsequent suicide with the same solemnity and funereal sense of visual poetry as he did her defilement, closing the episode with a visceral emotional punch and setting the stage for the unhinged catharsis that is to follow.
That Lynch Law Classroom ends with a nihilistic orgy of violence pretty much goes without saying. Given all that has lead up to it, it really couldn’t be any other way. Still, that doesn’t make the sight of hundreds of screaming schoolgirls frantically smashing the School of Hope to pieces with bats and throwing rocks at cowering riot police from behind makeshift barricades any less exhilarating. It’s the hard-earned, protracted howl of rage that the film has been implicitly promising us all along, and Suzuki doesn’t shortchange us in the least. In fact, he even throws in a shot of a burning Japanese flag for good measure. Sure, no solutions to society’s ills are offered, but for anyone who has ever, in a weak moment, seen the world as this movie presents it — as a place in which anything innocent or pure exists only to be shit upon — it definitely hits a sweet spot.
There’s no escaping the fact that Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom is one nasty little beast, and I have never been more serious in saying that a film is not for everyone than I am in this case. There is, however, the possibility that some viewers might even get a secret thrill out of hating it, and decrying it for all of the many things it contains that are vile and offensive. Me, I like it. Sure, it has a sleaziness that prevents it from completely rising above its tawdry skinflick roots, but it also has a genuinely feral quality that goes way beyond the bounds of typical exploitation fare. And the intermittent flashes of beauty that it contains only serve to further spotlight that convulsive wildness. The movie has real teeth, and it makes me glad that, for all the antisocial madmen out there who have devoted their energies to activities that have perhaps left this world a worse place than they found it, others, like Norifumi Suzuki, have simply picked up cameras and committed their visions of it to film, as seriously fucked up as those visions may be.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: Japan | Starring: Miki Sugimoto, Reiko Ike, Seiko Saburi, Misuzu Ota, Rie Saotome, Tsunehiko Watase, Yuuko Mizusawa, Yukiko Asano, Ryoko Ema, Emi Jo, Rena Ichinose, Rika Sudo, Takako Yamakawa, Kaya Hodumi, Nobuo Kaneko, Kenji Imai, Nobuo Kaneko | Writer: Tatsuhiko Kamoi | Director: Norifumi Suzuki | Cinematographer: Jubei Suzuki | Music: Masao Yagi | Producer: Kanji Amao