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.
60s garage rock is my preferred late night listening, offering a pleasurable chill deeper than that provided by the usual combination of challenged fidelity and ennobling obscurity that I find in other vintage recordings. It truly seems like something was haunting the garages of suburban America during the mid-60s, as if white teenagers, unable to pull off the perceived sexual menace of the black bluesmen they sought to emulate, instead turned to more accessible models, such as those found in B Movies and horror comics. As examples, there was the night stalking, vampiric image of groups like the Count Five and the Shadows of Knight, the Standells’ smirking shout-out to the Boston Strangler in “Dirty Water”, and David Aguilar growling like a ghoulish master of ceremonies over the hellish abyss of reverb and indecipherable backing vocals that was The Chocolate Watchband’s “Let’s Talk About Girls”. And then, of course, there was The Sonics’ “Psycho”, a proto-shock rocker that was also one of the most unaffectedly savage punk singles of its, or any, era.
Samurai films have a curious knack for expressing compassionate, humanist ideals via soul-crushing bleakness and violence. One would be hard-pressed to find a bleaker, more violent indictment of the romance of the samurai — and the culture of violence in general — than director Tai Kato’s blood-drenched and aptly named Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This is samurai drama stripped entirely of any pretense, robbed of the myth of the noble samurai code, and devoid entirely of any sense of heroism. In the eyes of this film, the samurai of the historic Shinsengumi clan are brutish exploiters and backstabbers at best, and murderous, paranoid psychopaths at their worst. The Shinsengumi were an actual group of samurai, charged with keeping the peace in Kyoto and defending the Tokugawa Shogunate from threats both foreign and domestic — this being the period in which Japan had finally been pried open to contact with the Western world. In popular Japanese culture, the Shinsengumi have been portrayed as everything from heroic defenders of the Japanese heart to thuggish throwbacks mercilessly defending their own power at the expense of progress. Brutal Story at the End of the Tokugawa Shogunate is a particularly harsh look at them and at the entire concept of samurai.
I am breaking little new ground when I point out that the original 1954 film Godzilla was a serious sci-fi horror film that is taken seriously by serious critics (seriously!), even the more annoying ones who usually refuse to give genre films the time of day. Few people would argue that it was a cinematic milestone, that it was to the crossover scifi/horror film what Citizen Kane was to movies about grumpy newspaper moguls and what Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was to the road trip film. Whatever the franchise may have become, Godzilla’s contribution to film history was as big as the monster itself, and not even Michael Medved will argue that one. Or maybe he will. I don’t really know him personally, so I can’t account for him.
Austrian writer and director Rudolf Zehetgruber had two shots at the Kommissar X franchise, and Death is Nimble, Death is Quick, the second entry in the seven film Eurospy series, was the first of them. It’s a commendable, if not especially controversial effort on his part, although, thanks to a particular directorial quirk it revealed, it has resulted in me becoming damn near obsessed with the man. In my review of Death Trip, the fourth Kommissar X film, I described how Zehetgruber, the director and writer, inserted himself – i.e., Zehetgruber the actor — into the action, casting himself as a sort of all-purpose deus ex machina who single-handedly bridged an impressive array of narrative gaps and plot holes.
For me, one of the hazards of watching one of the Kommissar X movies is that it means I’ll have that “I Love You, Jo Walker” song stuck in my head for the next two weeks and will be at constant risk of bursting into it at any given moment, which is actually more of a hazard to those around me than it is to myself. Personally, I don’t care if the world knows that I love Jo Walker (though my wife might have some questions about it). Given that he’s a character with all the depth of a walking Playboy cartoon, it’s actually surprising how lovable he can become with repeated exposure. Death Trip, the fourth entry in the Kommissar X series, is also quite lovable, though only once you get past the expectations that it raises and learn to love it for who it really is.
In the opening moments of Kill, Panther, Kill! we see the daring escape, during a prison transfer, of master criminal Arthur Tracy (Franco Fantasia). Tracy has been in stir for four years after thieving a fortune in jewels worth three million dollars. Now his loyal henchmen, Anthony and Smokey, lie in wait beside a desolate hillside road that’s apparently intended to be overlooking Malibu — but is actually some anonymous European location — as the LAPD van baring Arthur approaches. After dispensing with Arthur’s guards in a hail of machinegun fire, the three pile into a getaway car, at which point Anthony (Siegfried Rauch) says he knows of an ideal place for them to hold up. “They’re holding a rodeo this week in Calgary,” he says. “Nobody will look for us there.” And truer words were never spoken. The only thing that I’d be looking for at a rodeo in Calgary would be a thorough ass-kicking.
When we reviewed 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, we stated that it was one of two Nikkatsu Studio espionage films released onto the home video market in the United States, both starring studio mainstay Akira Kobayashi. We also said that 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, daft though it might have been, was the more conservative and conventional of the two. That’s because the second espionage film, Black Tight Killers, was constructed out of some mad fever dream by director Yasuharu Hasebe and production designer Teruyoshi Satani after they stayed up all night at a psychedelic go-go cabaret, drunk on Suntory whisky and overdosing on a steady stream of pop art and spy movies. When they awoke the next morning, two things had happened. One, their clothes had vanished; and two, they had apparently made a movie about a photojournalist who gets tangled up with a gang of black leather clad go-go girl assassins who fling razor sharp 45rpm records and are armed with ninja chewing gum, among other things.
When Nikkatsu Studio began to gain steam once again in the 1950s, thanks to the success first of their “Sun Tribe” films and then their “borderless action” style, their marketing department struck upon the clever idea of selling the studio’s top young stars as a brand name — the Diamond Line, as they would be dubbed in 1960. The original Diamond Line consisted of Yujiro Ishihara (upon whom almost all of the studio’s early success was dependent), Koji Wada, Keiichiro Akagi, and Akira Kobayashi. “Membership” was fluid, though, especially among a group of suddenly very famous young men who found every vice and indulgence now available to them. Ishihara for example, who built his early career in the studio’s popular “Sun Tribe” films was perceived as the real-life embodiment of his on-screen characters: brash, amoral, decadent, disrespectful — an affront to everything that was good and decent in polite Japanese society. Needless to say, restless young boys and girls, especially those in their late teens and twenties, flocked to support him.