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.
When last we left the dastardly, skeleton-suit clad Kilink — self-proclaimed King of Rogues and master of all evil — he was in his secret island lair (well stocked with randomly placed and artfully-posed bikini girls), casually bragging about his super-weapon (a rickety looking laser gun) while harassing a scientist and the scientist’s beautiful daughter, who just happens to be the fiancée of a man whose scientist father was previously murdered by Kilink, causing the man to swear vengeance and thus be granted super powers and a bad costume by a crazy hobo in the cemetery.
When last we tuned in, skeleton motif-clad fumetti anti-hero Kriminal was skyrocketing to fame, and in doing so, seeing the nasty edge that had made him so popular and controversial (so it is possible to be banned in France) softened somewhat to make him more palatable to a wider audience. But no worries, because even as Kriminal began to only kill a lot of people instead of a whole lot of people, another character in basically the same skeleton get-up arrived on the scene to make sure that critics and censors were still incensed by the make-believe actions of a grown man wearing a novelty skeleton body stocking. That hero — and by hero, I mean psychotic mass-murdering terrorist — was known appropriately enough as Killing.
Ten years into his film career, Santo had already faced off against zombies, witches, mummies, mad scientists, vampires of both the male and female variety, hatchet-wielding ghosts, homicidal table lamps, and Martians. So it was only a matter of time before the denizens of Atlantis got to the front of the queue. When that time came, Santo would also find himself mixing it up onscreen for the first time with one of his greatest adversaries from — and I use the term advisedly — the “real world” of lucha libre. And just who would that adversary be? Well, I could try to be coy about it, but the journalistic specificity of Santo vs. Blue Demon in Atlantis‘ title would render the effort redundant.
Seeing Diabolik was — well, to call it life-altering is to be a bit overly dramatic, I think. But it was something like that, and the movie did have a curious influence on me. For years, there had been this certain look and style of movie playing in my head. I knew it existed, but I had no clue where to start looking for it. Keep in mind that this is some years before the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web, DVD, and the rise of digitally remastered two-disc special collectors’ editions of Porno Holocaust. I knew these movies I wanted were very much like James Bond without being James Bond movies — sometimes a little cheaper, often more fanciful and outlandish. But just as in those disconnected days with a dearth of information I was unable to find a manufacturer or store where I could purchase a black, slim-cut three-button suit (I’m quite particular about such things), so too was I at a lost as to where I might find these mythical movies I’d invented in my mind and filled with go-go dancing Eurobabes and dudes in fezzes and sunglasses throwing stiletto daggers at each others’ backs.
My odyssey through the strange world of Russian fantasy films began in earnest many years ago, when I moved to a prominently Russian and Ukrainian neighborhood and started prowling around the DVD stores of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Up until then, I’d caught glimpses of this strange and wonderful looking avenue of cinema in the form of dubbed and edited American versions of the films, where Ilya Muromets became The Sword and the Dragon and Sadko became The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. These movies made regular rounds on broadcast television back when I was a kid, and I loved them without having any idea they were Russian fantasy films tailored by crafty American distributors to become nationless adventure spectacle. They were colorful, they were full of monsters, and they had lots of guys with swords running at each other. When I crept a little closer to old age, I decided I wanted to find the original versions of the films — much as I did with Eastern Bloc science fiction films — not just to see what had been changed, but also to see them in a better quality than I’d enjoyed on independent broadcast television with rabbit-ear antennae reception.
My introduction to Hong Kong cinema came in the form of a crash course between the years of 1991 and 1993, when I began to discover and voraciously devour a seemingly endless parade of mind-blowing films made in the past decade. Finding the movies was hard. Finding information on them was even harder, but there was an explosion in the popularity of these films among cult film fans in the United States around that time, so though it took some leg work, we soon found that we were not alone. Together, then, we stumbled through the dark, trading tapes, raiding Chinese grocery stores that stocked videos, writing reviews for one another, publishing fanzines, and doing our best to spread, pre-internet style, every scrap of information we were able to dig up on these amazing movies. In the course of two weeks (maybe less), I think a few friends and I huddled around my massive 10-inch screen TV and watched A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Swordsman, Zu, Once Upon a Time in China, and A Chinese Ghost Story. We sat there another week and just drooled. Though I love each of those movies, there was something about the elegance, beauty, and melancholy of A Chinese Ghost Story that made it stick out as my favorite of the time. Decades later, it’s still one of my absolute favorite movies.