Terror Beneath The Sea is a movie with a lot of charm. There are the wondrous conventions of Sixties science fiction: bold colors and sleek design, underwater cities built in miniature, torpedo battles, a safety-striped submarine, and even a Nehru-suited mad man. But Sonny Chiba is the most charming thing in Terror Beneath The Sea. As the romantic lead, Chiba portrays a character with an endearing sweetness he rarely, if ever, gets to present. In a way, Chiba is playing a character other than his usual “Sonny Chiba.”
Italian science fiction is an acquired taste, even more so than most other Italian genre films. They generally have a meandering quality to them, and the low budgets mean that a large portion of any film’s run time is composed of shots of guys sitting in front of decks of blinking lights. However, the Italians can only restrain themselves for so long, and eventually those scenes of people in control rooms will be replaced by wonderful space battles and miniatures of orbiting stations and rockets with upward drifting smoke wafting out of the backs. Antonio Margheriti, better known among the jet set who know Antonio Margheriti at all as the director of a bunch of “just entertaining enough” war and action films during the 1970s, was one of Italy’s first science fiction directors. His 1960s space “adventure,” Assignment: Outer Space proved that despite my interest in old science fiction and my profession as a journalist, combining the two into one talky film is not a recipe for maintaining my attention.
Funny thing about the James Bond movies is that, while they are models of conspicuous consumption, their basic tropes are so much just that –- basic –- that one could recreate them in a backyard home movie and still have them be easily identifiable. Make your bald headed uncle wear his shirt backwards and put him in a high-backed chair with a cat in his lap and you have your villain. Get the babysitter to dance around in a swimsuit to a Ventures record and you have your credit sequence. Make sure that your hero’s suit has at least been recently pressed, and that he can hold a cocktail glass in a somewhat rakish manner, and you’re good to go. Then you can have your mom…Well, that got weird awful fast, didn’t it? Anyway, you see my point.
In the mid sixties, Hong Kong’s Cantonese language film industry, faced with the emerging dominance of the considerably more well-funded and increasingly action-oriented Mandarin language Shaw Brothers Studio–as well as changing audience tastes in a rapidly modernizing society–found itself in need of retooling its output. Melodramas, romances and period martial arts films featuring heroic female swordsmen had been staples of the industry, but it now appeared that films reflecting the cosmopolitan tastes and hyperbolic pace of a more technologically driven age were in order. Of course, nothing celebrated speed, style and technology like the James Bond films, so it only made sense for Cantonese filmmakers to adapt the conventions of those films to their audience and capabilities. Furthermore, since Cantonese cinema was at the time largely driven by female stars–and appealed to a largely female audience–it also made sense that these culturally specific re-imaginings of the Bond film should feature young women as their protagonists. The resulting flood of films, made mostly between 1965 and 1968, left enough of a mark on their country’s cinematic landscape to deserve a genre moniker all their own, and have since been retroactively dubbed the “Jane Bond” films by HK film critic Sam Ho.
The director Chor Yuen is probably today best known for the sumptuous fantasy wuxia films he crafted while under contract to Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio during the seventies and early eighties. Indeed, titles like Killer Clans, The Magic Blade and Clans of Intrigue, marked as they are by Chor’s unique ability to meld gauzy, haunted romanticism and state-of-the-art martial arts action within an immediately recognizable and alluringly narcotic visual style, present themselves as signature works, the result of a perfect marriage of director and genre. This makes it all the more surprising that these films were, to some extent, a lucrative tangent occurring well into a long directorial career stretching back to the late fifties–one encompassing equally prolific and accomplished work in the areas of social realism and romantic drama.
Upon sitting down to write a review of the third film in the long-running Turkish Kilink series, I feared I had painted myself into a bit of a corner. As much as I love the Kilink films — and believe me, I love them — I didn’t know exactly what was left to say about them. Other than a couple paragraphs dedicated to recounting the basic plot of the film, there was precious little back material I could use to fill in a whole review. Kilink’s dubious history as a copyright violation of a copyright violation was covered in previous reviews. Its growth out of the Italian fumetti and fumetti-inspired films was similarly covered. Since solid information on Turkish cult cinema is difficult to find, even in the Turkish language, I wasn’t really brimming over with a wealth of material I could fall back on. And yet, I find that I am both physically and mentally incapable of not reviewing a movie called Kilink Strip and Kill in which a grown man dresses up in a skeleton themed body stocking and punches out dudes with thick Luis Tiant mustaches and black suits with white ties.
1967 saw the release of You Only Live Twice, a James Bond movie full of ninjas, hollowed-out volcanoes, egg-shaped monorail pods, and Sean Connery as the world’s most convincing Japanese man. The Eurospy trend was still swinging, and even Japan and Hong Kong were getting in on the fun. The result is that, soaked in the psychedelic, pop-art sensibilities of the mid-to-late sixties, the best spy movies ever were being made. Indian cinema, which has always been packed with insane set decoration, candy coloring, and fabulous outfits, would seem tailor-made to pump out more than a few eye-popping entries into the world of psychotronic spyjinks. And they didn’t let us down 1967 also saw the release of Farz, an Indian espionage thriller that did major business at the box office. A year later, and doubtless under the influence of both Farz and You Only Live Twice, writer-director Ramanand Sagar gave us Aankhen, another great Bollywood spy film, but this time with the budget to trot the globe in classic James Bond style. Well, at least in classic Jimmy Bond style.
At the risk of sounding even more like a broken record than I usually do, allow me once again reiterate a common theme for much of what we discuss here: exploring the vast world of international cult cinema is as frustrating as it is rewarding. Rewarding because, obviously, it opens a whole world — quite literally — of totally outrageous movies that will completely blow your mind, that the average “man on the street” has no idea even exists, and that are packed to the gills with glorious outlandish beauty. Frustrating because, just as obviously, so many of these films — especially one from outside the United States, Europe, and Japan — are so very hard to find even in their country of origin. Similarly, even finding the most basic information on many of these movies, either in print or online, is often almost impossible.
The sad passing of actor Tony Kendall – aka Luciano Stella – back in November of 2009 inspired me to get back on board with the project of reviewing the Kommissar X films for Teleport City. Not that I can say with authority that the Kommissar X films represent the best of Mr. Stella’s work, mind you – I haven’t, for instance, seen Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century, or Hate Is My God, to name just a couple of his many non-Eurospy efforts. It’s just that it’s those movies, and Kendall’s portrayal within them of dick-both-public-and-private Joe Walker, that won him permanent residence in a very special secret space-age lair located deep within my heart.
It’s time for another visit to that magical land where smarmy cheeseballs can sashay up to any hot dame that strikes their fancy and plant a kiss on her without getting slapped in the face or slapped with a lawsuit. The amazing kingdom where smart suits and cocktail dresses are the norm and endless explosive attempts at assassination are met with nothing more than a cocked eyebrow and a knowing smirk. It’s the astounding universe of the Kommissar X films, among the most enjoyable and most bizarre entries into the spy craze that swept across the world in the 1960s thanks largely to the success of the James Bond films.