Tag Archives: 2000s

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Hellraiser: Deader

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See, here’s the thing about Kari Wuhrer: I don’t know what the thing is with Kari Wuhrer. I mean yeah, she’s hot, but plenty of men and women are hot, and most of them didn’t star in Beastmaster II: Through the Portal of Time. There is very little in the career or Kari that I’ve liked, and yet my obsession with her as an actress continues to urge me toward watching whatever goofball piece of junk in which she appears. The way some people think Angelina Jolie is the hottest woman on the planet, or Aishwarya Rai? That’s sort of how I feel about Kari. I just like the woman, and I have ever since Remote Control.

That said, it was inevitable that, even after the dismally dull part six, any meeting of Kari Wuhrer and the Hellraiser franchise was going to get my attention. So I sat down for this seventh installment in the the long-running horror series with some degree of anticipation that, at the very least, it would offer me something more than a jackass having hallucinations while sitting in his office cubicle. And hey, what do you know! Hellraiser gets itself back on track, at least to some degree. Deader, like most of the sequels, is far from being in the same class as the original, but it’s also far from being in that other class occupied by Hellseeker and Hell On Earth, that dimension of pain where even Pinhead dare not tread. This means the movie falls somewhere in the vicinity of Bloodline (part four) and Inferno (part five) in being a flawed but ultimately decent horror film.

Kari stars as perpetually smoking Amy Klein, one of those ace “reporters on the edge” who covers the sort of stories that are only covered in movie versions of what an ace reporter on the edge would cover. Which means, less war in Gaza and Somali pirates, more exposes on sleepy drug addicts and Eastern European resurrection cults. After her editor receives a videotape of a young Eurotrash goth type committing suicide only to be raised from the dead by a guy with stringy hair while other Eurotrash goth types stand around and sway, Amy is off to Bucharest to investigate the story. Eastern Europe is, as you all probably know, the favored haunt these days of pretty much every low budget horror film being made. Here’s an instance where the location works, though. Certainly more so than when a filmmaker tries to pass Prague off as Las Vegas. The Eastern European aesthetic — or at least what we in America imagine to be the Eastern Europe aesthetic — lends itself nicely to the Hellraiser world. Certainly Pinhead is going to seem more imposing when he appears in some crumbling ancient stone building or dripping concrete tenement than when he shows up in Terry Farrell’s posh Manhattan penthouse apartment.


Speaking of which — here’s a movie that at least puts its reporter in the right tax bracket. As someone who works professionally as a writer, despite all the evidence present here that I should be kept away from words, I’m always amused when a film’s struggling young writer can still manage to live in a sprawling multi-story, multi-room penthouse with a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline, as did our intrepid reporter in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. By contrast, Amy Klein is already an established reporter, but she still lives in an alcohol and cigarette smoke stained shithole. Now that is the sort of reporter’s life to which I can relate.

Anyway, Amy follows the trail of the videotape to an apartment where she finds a corpse and the fabled Lament Configuration puzzle box. So begins her descent into the usual Hellraiser madness, which includes industrial music party trains, an over-reliance on hallucinations and “dream within a dream” red herrings, shoehorning in of the word “flesh,” and token appearances by Hell’s favorite bail bondsman, Pinhead. All in all, as I said, it’s a pretty huge step up from the last film, and there are some sequences that are genuinely effective. My favorite is the dream-within-a-dream nonsense in which Kari finally discovers the location of the “Deaders” cult, as they call themselves, only to find herself forced to undergo their ritual. Then it turns out that was all a dream, then it turns out that dream was a dream, and she really does have a huge gaping hole in her chest. So begins a nightmarish yet blackly comical sequence where she tries to continue her investigation even though she has a huge chest wound that is continually oozing blood all over the place. In addition, her discovery of the industrial music party train after everyone in it has been slaughtered is another wonderfully creepy moment, as is her claustrophobic journey to the Deaders’ hideout.

The film also features one of Pinhead’s most overtly evil moments. The revelation that Amy was sexually abused by a father she eventually stabbed to death is pretty standard shock movie territory, so much so that at this stage in the game, it’s more likely to illicit rolled eyes and “ho hums” than any real horror. But when Pinhead finally shows up for his cameo, he remarks, almost off-handedly, that Amy will have ample time to spend with her father when she has been carried off to Hell, it makes the tired “sexual abuse” background worth the trouble, because that’s flat out creepy. Up until this point, really, the suffering delivered by Pinhead seemed too fanciful (remember the evil carnival in part two) or supernatural (the ever-present flying hook chains) to really be scary. Gross, maybe, but rarely scary. When Pinhead suggests that Amy will be spending eternity trapped with her sexually abusive father — that’s a horror a person can comprehend, and that makes it far more effective than any of the more fantastical nonsense Pinhead might throw at you. After being served up as sort of a cool anti-hero for the past several movies, that one moment makes Pinhead more recognizably evil and terrifying than at any other point in the series.

We also get something that we haven’t had in any of the Hellraiser movies, even the original, which is a downbeat “no one gets out of here alive” ending. In the other films, despite all else that happens, good triumphs over evil, the heroine escapes, the scumbags get ripped apart by hook chains, Pinhead is banished back to Hell by being covered in animated lines while he yells “Nooo!” and we’re pretty happy with how things turned out. Not so in Deader, however, which is thoroughly pessimistic and grim from start to finish. Amy Klein is a damaged but still somewhat decent person, but there is no redemption or catharsis waiting for her at the end of the journey.


Of course, as is standard with the direct to video Hellraiser sequels, Deader is not without its many problems. Once again, we have a script for an entirely unrelated movie that has been retooled to function as a Hellraiser movie. This means that much of the Hellraiser related material feels as shoehorned in as awkward uses of the word “flesh.” The plot depends on the actions of the Deaders and their leader somehow representing a “trespass” into the world of the Cenobites, but how exactly this becomes the supernatural equivalent of Pinhead telling kids to stay off his lawn remains unclear. As far as I know, merely committing suicide isn’t enough to get you into Pinhead’s wing of Hell; you have to actually summon the Cenobites. So I don’t know why Pinhead is so steamed that these kids are killing themselves then being brought back to life. Similarly, the movie links Deader “messiah” Winter (Paul Rhys) to the Le Merchant bloodline that created the puzzle box, but it doesn’t seem to have much of an idea with what to do with that subplot other than mention it. Certainly Winter doesn’t exhibit any of the traits that Bloodline lead us to believe are part of the Le Merchant character. And needless to say, there’s absolutely no explanation of how Winter is able to revive the dead, though in a movie series where people use a puzzle box to summon demons who promise pleasure and pain but only deliver on half their promise, I suppose worrying about the unexplained ability of one guy to revive dead Rumanian goth kids is a bit petty.

And there’s also the problem of the ending. While I appreciate the bleakness of it, it’s also pretty poorly thought out. It feels as if they had themselves a decent enough supernatural horror movie, did a fair job of tweaking it into a Hellraiser movie, then had no idea at all how to bring it all together in a cohesive, satisfying finale. It’s not enough to tank the film by any measure, but it is a shame they couldn’t pull the thing together.

I said with part five that I didn’t mind the rarity of Pinhead and the Cenobites in these sequels provided the surrounding movie was interesting enough to put off their appearance until the end. Five was. Six was not. Seven is back to being interesting enough to survive without Pinhead and his entourage making themselves known until the very end (minus the occasional appearance in a dream within a dream within an hallucination).

What we have here is an able cast, some great location work that takes advantage of the oppressive cityscapes and urban decay, and a plot that, while hardly perfect, is at least good enough for its running time. Kari Wuhrer is solid in her role and puts effort into it, and most of the supporting cast is either able or bad in that familiar way foreign extras are bad in English language films. That’s something I’ve long since learned to live with. I liked this one.

Which is good, because I’ve also seen part eight, and…well, let’s leave that suffering for the next review.

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Hellraiser VI: Hellseeker

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Ehh, ya lost me, Hellraiser. I was with you through part five. I mean, sure, part three was pretty stupid, but it was enjoyably stupid. And I thought that parts four and five put you back on track. But the wheels sort of come off the wagon with part six. As with part three, this one promises us something big then never delivers. With part three, it was “pinhead wages war on earth!” That meant that Pinhead caused some manholes to erupt on a backlot set. This time around, we’re promised the return of Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence), the woman who battled the Cenobites at their meanest in the first two films. What we end up with is a cameo appearance that is so wrong-headed it’ll make you happy it’s only a cameo appearance. The only person in this film less than her is Pinhead. Where as part three was hilariously bad, this one is just dull and lifeless.

When I reviewed part five, I said I actually like having Pinhead be an ominous presence throughout the movie with his actual appearance reserved for when it really matters. But that only holds true if you operate under the assumption that the rest of the movie is filled with other weird stuff building up the final reveal of Pinhead set to his obligatory “Pinhead has revealed himself!” blast of bombastic orchestration. Part five, I thought, did that, giving us a gruesome serial killer movie with surreal Cenobites and oddness sprinkled throughout. Part six is basically that movie again, but instead of a disillusioned cop and creepy Cenobite chicks, it’s a douchebag in an office cubicle.

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Faust: Love of the Damned


You know in action films when there’s that scene where two dudes get in a fight, and after one dude has kicked the other dude’s ass, he picks the fallen opponent up, buys him a beer, and they become friends? Well, that’s sort of what it’s like to watch Faust: Love of the Damned. This movie will sucker punch you in the face, knee you in the groin, and generally beat the crap out of you, but in the end, somehow, you’re willing to shake hands with it and help it rescue a damsel from some secret society or something. At least that’s how I felt about it, so you better get ready for another one of those reviews where I spend 99% of the time talking about how terrible the film is, only to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it come the final paragraph.

Back when I was in high school, someone gave me a copy of the comic book Faust, which by then had become an underground sensation and darling of all the horror film nerds who were also comic book nerds, which I don’t need to tell you constitutes a pretty significant cross-over population. Although much is said in retrospect about the poetic nature of the comic book and the epic struggle of the main character, the flat out truth is that most teenage boys read it because it was full of explicit gore and nudity. “Porno Spawn” as some called it. Nothing about the comic book really caught my attention. I didn’t like the artwork. I thought the story was dumb and derivative. But most of all, I wasn’t into comic books. Although I read a few titles regularly in middle school, ultimately the medium has never held my attention. It’s simply not a mode of storytelling that speaks to me. And yes, that includes all the independent and offbeat comic books that people always challenge me with by saying “Sure, you may not like superhero comics, but wait until you see this!” And then they make me read page after page of some Adrian Tomine story where two quiet girls sit in the back of a station wagon driven by their emotionally remote father until finally, in the last panel, one of them says “It’s cold outside,” and stares at a dead tree or something. I don’t devalue the medium or consider it innately “childish,” and I have no bad words about people for whom comics do work. I’m just not among them.


I will, however, take a few potshots at the concept of “adult” and “edgy” as defined by many comic books. The whole “comics are edgy and not just for kids” thing started, oh, I don’t know. I think it really started in the late 1980s and came to fruition during the 90s, coinciding largely with the dotcom windfall and the onset of the “fifty year adolescence” that now defines the mental and emotional growth patterns of most Americans, Japanese, and probably a few other populations. Until then, it was pretty common for people in their thirties to be buying houses and cars and sending their kids to middle school. But by the time I hit thirty, my contemporaries were more likely to be interested in things that interest middle schoolers than they were to have middle schoolers of their own. And I was certainly part of it all, working as I did for Toyfare magazine and having, at the time, an abundance of disposable income to waste on 12-inch action figures and Fonzie sleeping bags. Needless to say, comic book buying was a big part of this culture for a lot of people. Only there was this whole batch of comics that had stopped attempting to appeal to kids and set their sites instead on adult age collectors. This meant that these comics in theory could be much more involved, much more complex, much deeper, and much more sophisticated. In reality, however, they were mostly just dumber and cruder. Thus featuring tits and gratuitous cursing was labeled “sophisticated,” “edgy,” or “mature.” I have no problem, as you might guess, with dumb, crude, or gratuitous; just don’t try to sell it to me as something more highbrow than what it is.


It was the sort of edginess that one expects of a sullen teenage boy who thinks saying “fuck” a lot is somehow a bold confrontation of society. It’s the most juvenile interpretation of “adult.” And more times than not, it stinks of desperation. Witness, for example, the number of nerds and goofballs who think wearing a black Wolverine or Punisher t-shirt makes them as bad-ass as the characters they worship. First of all, the comic book characters themselves are often embarrassingly desperate in their bad-assness, though not as much so as, say, you might find in a Steven Seagal film. So it goes double to say that buying and wearing a Punisher t-shirt doesn’t make you tough, even if you also purchased a bo staff and a wooden katana at the state fair.

Keep in mind that I kid because I have walked among you, been one of you. I once owned a three-section staff, even though it takes a super master to use that thing without whacking himself in the face. That thing was displayed prominently in my bedroom like I was going to have to whip it out any minute and deal out some justice to a bunch of gangsters who wanted to knock down the community center to make room for a shopping mall — because subscribing to Inside Kungfu made me an instant 110-pound kungfu master even though I only worked out once every two months for about fifteen minutes.


Anyway, we’re not here to discuss the time my girlfriend was kidnapped by the yakuza and I had to fight my way, armed with nothing but a three-section staff, through their throngs to rescue her. Everyone knows about that anyway, as it was in all the local papers. The comic book Faust represents everything I always thought was wrong with “comics aren’t just for kids.” It’s edgy and adult in the most juvenile of fashions, like something a dork such as I would have written then said, “Take that, society! You can’t handle how controversial this is!” But regardless of my opinion, Faust has its fans still, and I’m sure many of them get some genuine value out of what I saw even at a young age as rather goofy tits, gore, and fanfic level attempts at Shakespearean (or Marlowean, I reckon) tragedy. I’m sure these people, in turn, are just as baffled by my ability to garner some degree of enjoyment and meaning from The Mighty Gorga.

Wait, wait, wait. I don’t need to go over the full literary history of Faust, aka Doctor Faustus, do I? The man who sold his soul in order to attain unlimited knowledge, only to discover that making a deal with Mephistopheles (who holds power of attorney for Satan) usually means you get shafted? You know that one, right? If not, you should read it, or at least watch the hilariously overblown Richard Burton vanity project, Doctor Faustus. It’s my favorite of the many, many cinematic adaptations of the play, mostly because it’s so insanely pompous and absurd, but also because it features an in-her-prime Elizabeth Taylor naked and painted green. Say what you want to about the misguided over-indulgence of the rest of the project; at least Burton gave us a nude, green Liz Taylor.


Anyway, round about the same time teenage gorehounds were latching onto the Faust comic book, they were also massing behind the banner of filmmakers Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. Gordon and Yuzna were the duo responsible for the black-hearted horror-comedy Re-Animator, which to this day remains one of the defining films of modern horror cinema. Now, while Faust the comic book may have never kept my attention, I was more than happy to throw my lot in with Re-Animator. The movie blew me out of the water when first I saw it, and over twenty years later, it’s still one of my favorites. At a time when horror franchises ruled the roost and horror directors were largely unknown even by many fans (everyone can name horror franchises of the 80s, but only places like And You Call Yourself a Scientist can you find people who will be able to name the director on every Friday the 13th film), Stuart Gordon became a name people knew and looked forward to seeing attached to another project.

Similarly, producer Brian Yuzna generated a tremendous amount of goodwill thanks to his involvement with Re-Animator, and when he decided to try his hand at directing, fans were eager to see the results. Well, looking back, it’s safe to say that Yuzna was a better producer than he was director, as his directorial efforts remain a shockingly uneven batch. Although the first film he directed was called Society, the first film he directed that anyone remembers was Bride of Re-Animator, the sequel to his and Gordon’s cult mega-hit. Bride of Re-Animator is a film that divides many people. I haven’t seen it since probably 1991 or so, and at the time, I didn’t like it at all. I should probably give it another go and see if my opinion of it has changed in the same way it has for From Beyond, another Gordon-Yuzna collaboration based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story.


Similarly, Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead III divides critics and fans alike, with some heralding it as a dramatic recovery after the idiotic Return of the Living Dead II, while others consider it a clumsy, poorly written piece of junk (I happen to be in the camp of the latter). Still, when it came out that Yuzna was slated to direct a film version of Faust, fans were hopeful. At the very least, there was little chance that the man who gave us Barbara Crampton getting eaten out by a disembodied head was going to pull any punches when it came to bringing Faust‘s sex and gore to the screen.

Whether this timidly positive outlook was justified has divided fans just as it has on pretty much everything Yuzna has done without Stuart Gordon. However, I’m willing to bet that most fans of the comic book did not want to see Faust turned into a wisecracking Freddy Krueger in a ridiculous looking Power Rangers villain outfit. Well, that’s what they got. In retrospect, you really should have seen it coming.


Bland actor Mark Frost is John Jaspers, a painter (not to be confused with real life painter Jasper Johns) who we first meet after he has, for some reason no one ever bothers to try and figure out, just massacred everyone inside a Chinese consulate building. While the SWAT team is keen to kill the guy, the fact that he lapses into a docile, near catatonic state means they have no choice but to simply arrest him instead. He then becomes the burden of idiotic psychiatrist Jade De Camp (Isabel Brook). She’s the kind of doctor who walks into the padded cell of a man who has just slaughtered an entire building full of people and then covered his cell with esoteric scratching and runes using his own blood, and proceeds to hand him a pointy pen, a stack of CDs in pointy plastic jewel cases, and a CD player. Just once, I wish someone writing one of these movies would do some basic research into what is and is not done when walking into the cell of a guy who just murdered a hundred people.

Doc Jade eventually makes a breakthrough with Jaspers, and via flashback he relates to her the bizarre tale that never really explains why he had to go slaughter everyone in the Chinese Embassy. It turns out that Jaspers has made a deal with the devil, or at least with the devil’s duly appointed representative on earth, M (Andrew Divoff, with the requisite black overcoat and long fingernails everyone assumes these guys always have — what if the devil showed up and was expertly manicured and showcased some basic sartorial taste? Or what if he showed up and instead of being some goth guy, he was just a hideous monster?), after being driven to suicide because of the murder of his beloved Blue (Jennifer Rope). Jaspers was granted the strength, skill, and requisite tools (in this case, big ol’ Wolverine razor claws) to extract revenge. In exchange, he would have to serve M after the task of revenge was complete. Exactly why M needed to take out the Chinese embassy is a detail I don’t think we ever quite have delivered to us, though one can assume it is part of some nefarious scheme for world domination, or possibly retaliation for there being so many Chinese who don’t believe in Satan.


Whatever the case, that’s how Jaspers ends up in the insane asylum, or so he says. Jade isn’t sure how much of the goofy madness to believe, but she seems to believe pretty quickly that something strange is up and that M and his secret society really exist, even if he doesn’t actually possess the devil powers that might justify his ill-clipped fingernails. She is warned off the case by a number of people, and before she has much time to think about it, Jaspers is spirited away by unknown abducters. Her only trustworthy ally is a cop named Margolies (the always welcome Jeffery Combs), who becomes obsessed with M’s cult and does one of those web searches where the first thing to come up is a website that details every single thing you need to know about the cult.

Exactly why a secret society bent on unleashing darkness unto this world and headed up by a demon, needs a webpage is a bit of a mystery, but then, 90% of the sites that offer a “social network” have no real need for it, either. I guess even Mephistopheles can get swept up in dotcom exuberance. I imagine that M was really excited about websites (this film being made in 2001 means that we were at the tail end of the dotcom boom), so on his own time, he made a site, complete with lots of animated gifs of dancing devils, that Java applet that made watery wavy text and crashed everyone’s browser, and an embedded autoplaying midi file of “Danse Macabre.” He got all excited about it and showed it to Satan, but being old school, Satan didn’t really get the whole idea, though he did like the animated gifs of dancing devils. Still, it seemed to mean a lot to M, so Satan let him put it up on Geocities (because although he was willing to humor M, Satan wasn’t willing to pay for hosting).


I guess the alternative explanation is that the site was started by one of those conspiracy freaks who tracks such things as secret societies, but then all that does is beg the question of what kind of security this secret society has if a conspiracy theorist outsider can make a webpage about them and get every single detail correct. Either way, at the end of the business day, Satan grabs his temple with his thumb and index finger and just shakes his head, muttering, “M, I swear, if you weren’t Beelzebub’s nephew…”

As we discover through the exposition of M’s right-hand woman who can’t keep her clothes on (Monica Van Campen), Jaspers was supposed to die after completing the mission. With that bit of the plan having gone awry, they decide to bury Jaspers alive. Unfortunately, the damage to their secrecy is done, as Jade and Margolies are already on their trail. Plus, rather than dying, Jaspers is sent to hell, where he has to watch a 1980s Judas Priest video, complete with a poorly realized yet strangely cool skeleton crawling around. As a result of being straddled by this skeleton from the “Turbo Lover” video, Jaspers returns to earth with all new super demon powers, which include the ability to swish around a cape made of his own skin, the ability to wear black lipstick, the ability to have absolutely perfect white movie star teeth, and the ability to bug out his eyes and make wisecracks.


He gets to use his new demon powers to save Jade when she is being attacked by some of M’s goons. It’s at this point that you realize just how far off the rails this movie is going to go. I don’t know why movies feel the need to have everyone make wisecracks, but they do, and we’re all worse off for it. Jaspers, now Faust, spews one-liners with the rapid speed and stomach-turning insipidness of the Crypt Keeper, and he does it while wearing what is supposed to be his new demon body. It actually looks like a goofy Power Rangers/Guyver rubber monster outfit, complete with monster-foot-shaped shoes. Any chance that this film had of pleasing fans of the comic probably went out the window as soon as floppy-foot Power Rangers Faust comes backflipping into the scene with his Freddy Krueger wisecracks and tendency to make “Oh mammy, how I love ya!” Al Jolson faces.

So the game is on. M wants to kidnap Jade to get to Faust. M’s henchwoman Claire wants to usurp M’s power, possibly because he made her endure the movie’s most hilariously stupid scene, where he turns her into a tits-and-ass monster so ludicrous that it’ll make you think more fondly of the Faust costume. Margolies is continually tempted to sell his soul for more knowledge about whatever the hell it is M is supposed to know. The whole thing ends with a showdown during M’s “summon the giant demon” ritualistic orgy.


Man, this movie is goofy. Really goofy. It explores the darker regions explored by the comic book, topics such as corruption of the innocent, abuse, selling your soul, S&M, so on and so forth, but it’s done within a movie that is so silly, so juvenile, and starring a wisecracking demon in a rubber monster suit, that any attempt to be twisted, sinister, dark, or otherwise anything other than absurd is completely undercut by the schizophrenic tone. Yuzna, as we know, has an addiction to cornball comedy and wisecracks, but without the steady hand of Stuart Gordon or screenwriter Dennis Paoli to reel in the more ludicrous ideas, Yuzna is left to wallow in his own one-liners and baser comic tendencies. There is some attempt here to mine the same balance of comedy, terror, and sex as Gordon and Yuzna achieved in Re-Animator and From Beyond, but it fails miserably. Hilariously and miserably.

There’s not any single reason the film fails, though the script is obviously one of the bigger reasons out of the sundry. Mark Frost hasn’t starred in many movies, and his performance here is a pretty good example of why. He overacts and chews scenery with ravenous abandon. When he has to express pain and despair in human form, he does so by making a bug-eyed sad face that would embarrass most middle school actors. When he is in Faust form, it’s all tongue waggling and that thing where you sort of exhale, sort of exclaim, “Yeah!” If you hear, it, you’ll know it. It’s impossible for anything that happens to possess any degree of gravitas, and it’s impossible to feel anything we’re supposed to feel for Jaspers when his performance is so ridiculous.


I would say he could have looked to Jeffery Combs (Re-Animator, From Beyond, and too many others to list) for guidance on how to play a character that is equal parts pathetic, admirable, insane, and doomed, but for this trip out, Combs has to dial his usual quirk and weirdness down to a more mundane level. The film would have been better severed by having Frost play it straight while Combs’ Margolies shoulders the silliness, as he has a remarkable talent at taking something absurd and still making it have an air of menace. Combs’ performance here is not bad, mind you, and I know he can’t be crazy ol’ Jeffery Combs every time, but in this case, I think it would have been good. Actually, I wish he’d been playing here the twitchy freakish FBI agent character he plays in The Frighteners.

The rest of the cast is actually pretty good. Monica Van Campen makes a perfect succubus, and Andrew Divoff plays M with predictable but confident “furrowing my brow” style. Still, even though he was perfectly acceptable in the role of M, all I could think of during the film was “Imagine if this was Richard Lynch! No, no, no! Wait! Imagine if it was Billy Drago!” He does fall back on the “standing with outstretched arms” pose a little too frequently. Isabel Brook can’t help her character being written so stupidly, but she’s still pretty good within the confines of a poorly written psychiatrist. When Claire transforms her into “Harlot Jade,” she gets a chance to compete with Frost for hammiest overactor, but where as his is all grinning and tongue waggling, hers is all writhing about and feeling her own boobs while hissing, so by my standards, she’s the winner.


Yuzna’s direction is decent enough. The movie has that fakey setbound look that so many similar direct-to-video films of the time possess. He pulls off some nice shots without ever really letting his direction intrude on the story. Although maybe it should have intruded on the story, because the script is the film’s biggest weakness. It’s not the story itself, which is pretty run of the mill with some sex stuff thrown in; it’s the vision of the characters. The script comes to us courtesy of David Quinn, one of the creators of the original comic book, so I guess I can’t blame Yuzna for all the comedy and wisecrackin’. These guys must share responsibility. My assumption is that the comedy is there to take the edge off the sex and violence and deflect any potential criticism of the blending of such things — as if it hadn’t been done before, more explicitly, and better. It’ feels like this movie preemptively neutered itself in anticipation of moral outrage that never came and never really does come for obscure direct to video cult items.

So if you are looking to be scared or wowed, or if you were hoping the film would somehow be gritty or grim or edgy, you’re going to be disappointed. However, if you can roll with the goofiness of a demon anti-hero who seems to be taking acting queues from Jimmy Walker, this movie is fun enough, stupid enough, and warped enough to be a pretty entertaining, dumb time. It is crammed full of weird stuff, from a demon in a rubber suit to a hot Eastern European chick who gets turned into a fakey looking boobs-and-butt blob. The entire thing is a mess, but it’s a pretty glorious mess and one that, as I said in the beginning, felt like a friend after it finally finished pummeling my sense with how bad it was. It may not be the movie Faust fans wanted, but Faust fans read Faust, so you can’t really trust their taste any more than you can trust mine.

Release Year: 2001 | Country: United States, Spain | Starring: Mark Frost, Isabel Brook, Jennifer Rope, Jeffrey Combs, Monica Van Campen, Leslie Charles, Fermi Reixach, Junix Inocian, Robert Paterson, Marc Martinez, Andrew Divoff | Writer: David Quinn | Director: Brian Yuzna | Cinematographer: Jacques Haitkin | Music: Xavier Capellas | Producer: Julio Fernandez, Brian Yuzna

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Hellraiser V: Inferno

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Hellraiser V: Inferno marks the point where the series officially became a direct-to-video franchise (people claim Bloodlines was released to theaters, but I don’t remember ever seeing it in one). It marks the departure of Clive Barker in any capacity whatsoever other than source of the original movie. It also marks the arrival of a new screenwriter and a new approach to what was, by then, becoming a pretty stale formula. The people behind Bloodlines must have recognized the moldiness of the central concept as well, as they tried to do something a little different with it, then ultimately tried simply to end it by setting up the final battle between Pinhead and those he would rip apart with spiky chains.

But final confrontations have never successfully put down a lucrative horror franchise, and even if public interest in the series was waning, horror fan interest was more than enough to sustain another movie. so what do you do when the previous film killed off your main villain? Well, you thank whatever hell Pinhead comes from that the movie was set in the future, which means you an spend the next hundred years making sequels that take place before that eventual final outcome.

I was set to into part five all ready to think the movie was total garbage. It seems to be a pretty polarizing film, and in my opinion, a fairly well misunderstood and misinterpreted film. I was taken by surprise when I ended up really liking this offbeat entry, both for what it accomplishes and for what it admirably tries to accomplish but fails. Franchise films have to walk that thin line between “same old, same old” and doing something different that is “too different.” Many fans of the Hellraiser series felt that Inferno went to far to the side of “different,” but I think those departures from what is perceived to be the tortured soul of the Hellraiser stories are only superficial. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the closest film in spirit, if not execution, to the original.

Inferno begins with the story of corrupt but not entirely irredeemable Denver cop Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer, Nightbreed) investigating the gruesome murder of an old acquaintance. At the scene of the crime, Thorne finds the now iconic Lament Configuration puzzle box and takes it with him. We soon learn that Thorne’s life is a mess. though he has a nice home, a wife, and a child, he’s also addicted to the dark side of life that his job as a homicide cop exposes him to. Thus he takes drugs, carouses with the healthiest, hottest streetwalkers I’ve seen in a long time, blackmails and abuses people, and isn’t above the occasional frame-up. He’s never truly despicable, though, but rather is simply a man who seems to possess a need to wallow in the filth from time to time. Although he loathes much about he life, he also seems addicted to it. In other words, there is nothing really that keeps him from having a better life; parts of his life are awful because he wants them that way, despite what he may say otehrwise.

Shortly after discovering and accidentally opening the box (though Pinhead maintains that the box is never opened by accident), he finds himself suffering on two different fronts. On the more comprehensible side, he becomes involved with a case in which someone known as The Engineer has kidnapped a child and uses the child’s fingers as a calling call left at the scene of other murders. On the slightly weirder but no less gruesome side, Thorne is suddenly suffering bizarre hallucinations and dreams in which he is stalked and occasionally licked by a pair of semi-faceless female creatures with long black tongues and their friend, the deformed faceless white humanoid with no lower torso. We recognize them as Cenobites, and for the first time in a while, a Hellraiser movie has delivered Cenobites that are truly creepy. Like something straight out of Silent Hill, they seem still to be trying to make up for Camcorder-Head, and this trio is so effective that I say to Hellraiser, “Apology accepted.” I won’t mention Camcorder-Head again.

Needless to say but about to be said anyway, the dreams and the case will become increasingly connected, and it soon looks as if Thorne himself might be committing the murders. He seeks the advice of  police psychiatrist played by James Remar, and all I could think of at first was, “Man, I can’t believe it was the fifth movie before James Remar showed up in one of these.” He’s a little more open to the battier end of Thorne’s stories, seeing as he has previous knowledge of the Lament Configuration and what it can supposedly do.

So you may notice that, up until this point, Pinhead has been most noticeable by his absence. This is one of the things that irks a lot of people, but I welcome it with open arms. Although they did some rehabilitation in part four, Pinhead was overexposed and poorly used in subsequent Hellraiser films. Inferno goes the route of being about the tortured soul rather than the torturer, and I thought it was a nice change. Pinhead’s presence looms over everything, since we as viewers know that he has a hand in everything that is happening, but he doesn’t make an actual appearance until the end of the film, where he belongs.

On the surface, this feels like a grim, somewhat averagely written serial killer cop procedural that had a Hellraiser movie grafted onto it to help rental numbers. I think that’s short-chaning the film, though. Another criticism is that the movie gets Pinhead all wrong, presenting him when he appears as sort of a karmic judge who doles out a moral about selfish living. Again, I think this is missing the point of what happens. By part three, Pinhead’s approach to damnation was pretty tired. Someone opens the box, Pinhead shows up to deliver a few lines about flesh, then he shoots the hooked chains into you and tears you apart. There’s no realization of the theory behind what he does, that the punishment should be as exquisite as it it is painful. here was a singular lack of imagination in the chain gag after the first couple times. The way I read part five, everything that happens from the moment Thorne first opens the box is part of Pinhead’s torture of the man. Only instead of just stepping out of some lighting effects and whipping him with chains, Pinhead constructs a scenario in which Thorne is plunged into the depths of everything to which he has an addiction — drugs, a macabre job, corruption — and finally offered a chance at redemption. When he takes it, Pinhead shows up not to deliver a sermon about selfishness, but to reveal that the chance for redemption never existed in the first place. Isn’t that a far worthier form of torture — to send a man to the depths, offer him a chance at salvation, then reveal that salvation is just a mirage — than just falling back on the hook gag again? The gradual temptation and breakdown, the exploitation of weaknesses and vices, allowing a man to wallow in his faults and take a sick pleasure in them (even the child abduction case is the sort of thing that thrills Thorne just as much as it disturbs and disgusts him) even as they’re destroying him — aren’t these the things we expect from Pinhead? Leaving a person with a complete and utter sense of inescapable desolation after giving them a taste of redemption? That is exquisite suffering.

I really liked this one. It’s not a perfect film, but few films are. The acting is generally good, the direction a bit small-scale but competent, and the story is a combination of the fresh and the stale, sometimes smartly delivered, other times awkward. The Engineer case drags on perhaps too long toward an obvious conclusion, and the bizarre kungfu cowboy scene feels like it was edited in from a completely different movie. But the positive outweighs the negative here. This is a much more thoughtful approach to the idea of damnation; you get three genuinely creepy Cenobites; and there are some pretty good setpieces, like Thorne’s greenlit living room with it snowing inside, danglign chains, and his wife and daughter strapped to that rotating slab of stone. And Pinhead is actually a figure of diabolical menace — sort of the “final boss.” It didn’t really make sense to me that every time someone opened the box, they instantly got Pinhead on the line. He is the architect of the pain, leaving it up to the victim to do the actual inflicting — at least until the very end, when the hooked chains come out. He should be, and in this is, the guy to whom you work up. He should be, at least at this point in the series, the guy who shows up at the end to wrap everything up and rob the characters entirely of any hope they may have once had.

It’s nice to get a movie like this, one I go into expecting to hate but end up liking a lot. It’s much better than the other way around, when I expect to love something and it ends up being Saazish. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if Pinhead isn’t setting me up, giving me hope just so he can take it away and relish my suffering in part six. Well, I guess I understand those whoa re tempted by the incomprehensible pleasures and pains and pains as pleasures that the Lament Configuration represents, because despite my hesitation, even as I sit here writing this, I am making plans top open the puzzle box hell that is Hellraiser VI.

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Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani

That some of Bollywood’s worst sins have been committed in the name of nepotism is a fact which anyone who has borne witness to Karisma Kapoor‘s early career can sadly attest to. For the Hindi film industry’s directors, stars and producers, dynasty building seems to be a top order of business, right alongside the practice of their chosen craft. For a fearsome reminder of this, one need look no further than director Raj Kumar Kohli’s 2002 film Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, as terrible a monument to a father’s love for his son as has ever been erected.

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R-Point

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Among the many things that puzzle me in life is the question of why there aren’t more horror films set amidst military conflicts and wars. Not that aren’t any, but there aren’t nearly as many as one might think, giving how easily wartime settings should lend themselves as backdrops to horror films, to say nothing of the fact that it was the landscape of World War I that informed the art and set design on many of the old Universal and German horror classics. That conflict in particular, with one foot in the horror of modern warfare and the other in…well, the horror of 19th century warfare, seems particularly well suited for horror films. The strange combination of Industrial Revolution weapons and vehicles with ornate imperial uniforms, peasants, kingdoms, horse-drawn artillery, and of course, No Man’s Land, trench warfare, bombed out old European buildings and castles — horror films set amongst this carnage seem to practically write themselves, and yet wartime horror films are all but non-existent.

Certainly, some exist, and perhaps I’m the only one who look sat the battlefields of past wars and sees potential for horror-themed entertainment. Chalk it up to my childhood obsession with Weird War Tales comic books, those oft-mentioned on this website stories about skeletal Nazis drifting across war-ravaged, mist-enshrouded landscapes while a terrified GI crouches in a trench. Or my personal favorite, the one with a cover where a centaur is attacking a Panzer. What the hell was going on with that one? I guess if I had my millions, I’d blow a lot of it on the usual stuff people blow easy millions — top hats, monocles, stuff like that — and the rest I’d devote to remastering and releasing on DVD obscure Eurospy films mostly for myself, and to producing a long series of horror films set during the two World Wars and featuring green fog and skeletal specters clad in tattered military uniforms. Heck, it’s better than losing it all to some shyster investment banker.


Anyway, like I said, there aren’t many horror films set amidst wars. There was one about two guys stuck in a trench in WWI, I think. And I’m not sure I count Manticore, even though I seem to have watched that movie like a dozen times. There are thousands of films in my “to watch” pile, including many incredible classics, and I never get around to viewing them. How is it, I ask myself, I continue to fail to watch these films but have seen Manticore and Zoolander like ten thousand times? But other than a precious few, and discounting movies that feature soldiers but are not set in actual wars, this weird little subgenre with which I’m obsessed remains curiously unpopulated. Maybe it’s because most horror films are incredibly low budget affairs, and they simply can’t afford the costuming, props, locations, and scenes of battle that would be required to properly set the stage. Maybe horror film screenwriters are just young, and they don’t know enough about such conflicts to use them as a backdrop for a film — not that not knowing much has ever stopped a screenwriter, especially a horror film screenwriter. Their offenses against even the most basic of police procedures are long-running and often astounding.

Perhaps war is simply a horrible subject in itself, and lending a supernatural air to it is seen as tasteless. Ha ha ha! Yeah, I know. The genre that gave us sub-genres like torture porn, slashers, and Rob Zombie is worried about offending the sensibilities of the world’s remaining Great War veterans. Perhaps, then the problem is that the people who have ideas for World War horror films (One or Two, either would be effective), like me, are lazy, like me, and the scripts remain as little more than half-finished ideas inside their heads. I also tend to wonder why there are so few movies about the American Revolution, what with it being kind of a big deal not just in American history, but in shaping the course of the world as a whole. I suppose the rest of the world isn’t as excited about watching a cast of thousands in powdered wigs run at each other with matchlock rifles and bayonets. Maybe I’ll do an American Revolution horror film.


Among the few battlefield horror films we find the Korean production R-Point, set during the Vietnam War and involving, among other things, spooky ghosts, cemeteries, swamps full of corpses, and a spooky old French Plantation mansion. Unknown to many of my generation and later — and probably earlier than that — South Korea had the second largest contingent of non-Vietnamese troops in the conflict, after the United States. For them, the conflict in Vietnam played out much like an extension of the Korean War, with the North Koreans playing a role on the side of the North Vietnamese. Over the course of the war, and starting in 1964, South Korea sent over 300,000 troops into Vietnam, where they developed a reputation for being highly skilled and effective combatants — so much so that the Americans looked to Korean theaters for guaranteed safety while the North Vietnamese warned their troops to avoid engaging Korean battalions if at all possible.

Sadly, very little of that effectiveness seems to be on display in the troops that make up the special squadron of this film, unless we are measuring their effectiveness at screaming, flailing, falling down, and blubbering like little babies at even the slightest of inconveniences. R-Point centers around a group of soldiers who are assigned the task of traveling to a remote station — Romeo Point — to investigate the disappearance of a previous platoon of Korean soldiers. The previous group was presumed dead as a result of some sort of guerrilla attack until a distorted, bizarre distress message was radioed in by an unidentified member of the platoon.


The assembled task force includes pretty much all the war movie stereotypes: the stoic CO, the world weary veteran, the nerdy radio operator, the blowhard, so on and so forth. I don’t know the Korean equivalent of a guy from Brooklyn who wears a New York Yankees baseball cap and is probably nicknamed Brooklyn, but I’m sure whatever it is, this movie had one. Stoic Lieutenant Choi (Kam Woo Sung) leads the bunch and is one of the only guys with any sort of stand-out personality — that personality being “stoic guy.” Things start of predictably enough, with the task force traveling up river to R-Point, only to be ambushed by a Vietcong commando. After an intense firefight, they discover the commando is a woman. Badly wounded, Choi orders her shot to finish the job, but no one can bring themselves to do it, instead leaving her to die a slow death — which seems considerably worse, if you ask me.

Upon arrival at R-Point, they discover it to be a vast lakebed, now largely drained and overgrown, not to mention prone to severe bouts of ominous fog. After holing up in a decaying French mansion, they set about searching for some trace of their comrades. It isn’t long, however, before things start to get really weird. Soldiers start catching glimpses of other people disappearing into the shadows or running through the treeline. A group of Americans chopper in one night and deliver further ominous warnings about R-Point, detailing the location’s long history of slaughter and mass graves. And then one by one, members of Choi’s detachment start vanishing, turning up dead, or going insane.


There is much that R-Point does incredibly well, and several things it does poorly. So as to end on a high note — because I really did like this movie — we’ll tackle the negative first. And nothing stands out as a bigger negative than the behavior of the soldiers. They quickly degenerate into a state of shrieking and crying and falling over, becoming largely indistinguishable from one another, as well as becoming keenly irritating. I don’t expect people not to be scared when they are being hunted by ghosts and staying in a creepy old bombed out mansion, but one expects at least some degree of discipline and training to be on display at some point. But almost from the very beginning, with the exception of Choi and grizzled vet, Sergeant Jin (Byung-ho Son), the entire group is crying, cowardly, and incompetent. A better balance between soldiers trying to get their heads around their increasingly macabre circumstances and soldiers who are overwhelmed by it would have made for a much better movie, and one that deals with the complexity of entering a warzone and coming face to face with literal ghosts in a much more intelligent fashion. Instead, the movie becomes a long succession of crying, scares staged around dudes squatting over the latrine, and guys going, “Wait! Where did Corporeal So-And-So go???”

The film also falls back on the now-tired old Asian horror film chestnut of a spooky girl with long hair, which is a shame after the film goes through so much trouble to set itself up as something wholly different from the usual piles of Ring-inspired spooky girl horror films from Japan and Korea (among others). What really makes this a crime is that she is so blatant and obvious a presence in a film that otherwise relies very heavily on the effective exploitation of half-seen shapes in the shadows and momentary glances of something that was maybe there, maybe not. Shoehorning the female ghost into things not only undercuts the basic mystery, but seems wildly out of place, as if a producer somewhere along the way panicked and insisted that they put a female ghost with long hair into the film at some point. Her scenes are weak not just because she is photographed with such solidity, but also because the film doesn’t seem that committed to her presence, as if it is shrugging and saying to us, “Look, I didn’t want her in, either, but that producer insisted. Stick with me, and we’ll get to more scenes of creepy caves and ghostly soldiers pretty soon.”


So those are the negatives — provided one takes the appearance early in the film of an anachronistic DHL deliveryman in modern, bright yellow uniform to be amusing but ultimately harmless — and each negative is acutely noticeable and undermines the film in a way that can’t really be ignored. Because of these, I can understand people dismissing this film as an interesting failure. But it can be made up for if the movie exhibits strengths in other categories, and in that regard, R-Point succeeds admirably. First and foremost, this movie is creepy. Really creepy. The initial reveal of the French mansion that will become Choi’s base of operations is incredibly effective, fading into view as the sun rises on a gray and foggy day, and looming over the soldiers like the embodiment of all the death and decay perpetrated by the war. As far as the “old dark house” trope of ghost films go, this place is one of the best.

But it’s not left up to the mansion to shoulder all the creep factor. Drawing perhaps on the influence of Apocalypse Now in making the jungle seem surreal and eerie, R-Point works wonders with its surroundings, bringing out not just the fear of wartime attack in the jungle, but a very palpable sense of supernatural dread lurking behind every banana leaf and twisted root. The endless swaying fields and swamps of R-Point itself are equally as spooky, allowing any number of half-seen bugaboos to come and go in the corner of your eye. Among the most effective of these is a scene in which one of Choi’s men becomes separated from his search team, only to catch up with what he thinks is them, silently moving forward through the weeds and ignoring his attempts to catch their attention. Slowly, each soldier crouches down to take cover, fading into the brush around them and disappearing. It’s a damn good scene and really plays to this film’s strengths far more than the gratuitous female ghost nonsense.


Other effective scenes include the discovery of a downed helicopter, a swamp full of decaying bodies, and Jin’s exploration of a cave. In each of these scenes, as with the one above, the film draws its strength from the feeling that something might be there. The juxtaposing of very familiar wartime iconography — the HUEY helicopter, the fact that the soldiers moving through the weeds look almost exactly like the statues in Washington DC’s Korean War Memorial — with things that are otherworldly and not quite right. It infuses the entire film with a sense of creeping unease, that odd feeling one gets when one realizes that something they thought was familiar has been transformed into something recognizable buy also wholly alien in nature. Had R-Point stuck to that, instead of falling back onto the now unwelcome female ghost cliche, it would have been a great movie. Even with these missteps, though, it manages to be a good movie, if somewhat disappointing because it’s obvious how much better it almost was. If nothing else, it proves that the combination of war with supernatural horror makes for some striking, effective imagery.

Director-screenwriter Su-Chang Kong, who also wrote the thriller Tell Me Something, wasn’t terribly experienced when he penned this script, and that perhaps goes a long way to explain the failure of the film to avoid the ghostly girl cliche and do something more with the soldiers than make them cry and complain and whine about going home because they are scared. Man, the more I think about that, the more it irks me. Still, when his script is strong, it’s really strong, and for the most part, he keeps the horror oblique and never fully explained. At times, it seems like Choi, and then Jin, might know more than they are letting on. At no time is the exact nature of what is haunting, possessing, and killing them fully explained. This makes the horror much scarier. Attempts to lend some explanation through the appearance of the female ghost collapse, and R-Point would have been better off never offering any clear explanation at all.


As a director, Kong fares much better, even though this was his first film. Working with cinematographer Hyeong-jing Seok (Kilimanjaro), Kong creates a thoroughly eerie atmosphere without resorting to lots of CGI. He allows the camera to linger just as often as he employs fast editing to imply ghostly appearances. Kong is also successful at turning everything into something spooky looking, including the jungle, the decrepit mansion, an old cobweb-covered radio unit, and a crumbling temple choked by vines. He also keeps the film well-paced for the most part — though even solid direction and art design has a hard time interesting me in yet another scene of two guys getting scared while squatting over the latrine. For the most part, though, R-Point moves at a slow pace punctuated by moments of surprising wartime violence or chilling horror film imagery. It’s too bad that Kong the screenwriter lets down Kong the director from time to time.

There’s little point in analyzing the acting, as most of it is comprised of guys crying, falling down, and begging to go home. I mean, you certainly believe these guys are scared, but it gets annoying. It also makes it hard to tell who is who — which actually works to the film’s advantage when the soldiers have their revelation about the first soldier to die. The non-blubbering, non-hysterical acting is largely left up to Woo-seong Kam as Choi and Byung-ho Son as Jin. I’d never seen Kam in anything before, or since for that matter, and he has few films to his credit despite being quite good in his role here as a man attempting to hold onto his sanity and decipher the weirdness occurring around him. Byung-ho Son I’d seen once before, in 1999’s Yuryeong (aka Phantom Submarine). He’s also quite good here as the older, more experienced soldier trying to hold the force together while they all go to pieces and Choi becomes obsessed with figuring out what the hell is going on.


R-Point is a decent entry in the war-horror film, creating many incredibly effective scenes but ultimately proving to be a bit of a disappointment because it’s almost a great film, which is often worse than just being a bad film. This is one of those movies that just needed one more revision of the script to really make it something special. Still, if you can get over how great the film could have been, you can still enjoy how good it is. Not without noticeably flaws, many of which are large enough to make not liking the film perfectly understandable, R-Point still manages to be creepy as hell in many places and an interesting film to think about. It also seems to know when it’s doing something right, and when it’s doing something wrong. Less female ghost with long hair, more war-horror would have been a vast improvement. R-Point still succeeds at being scary, and at having a little more going on upstairs than the usual horror film — especially when it comes to transposing supernatural horror on top of real world war horror, and letting the decay and spookiness of one frequently stand in for the other. It’s just too bad that, like the soldiers in the film, it couldn’t prevent itself from taking those missteps it so obviously recognizes as such.

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DOA: Dead or Alive

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While some video games really do have a rich enough mythology or back story to serve as a decent foundation for a movie (Resident Evil, Silent Hill — even if you don’t think the movies were good, the games at least provided enough meat for the framework), many others do not. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from being made into movies anyway. Such is the case with DOA. As best I can gather, DOA started life as a fighting video game, with the hook that most of the characters were hot cartoon chicks with tiny outfits and huge breasts, and you could somehow set the jiggle rate on their boobs. Then somehow the DOA games became beach volleyball games, with the attraction being the same. Someone thought this was about all you needed for a movie plot, and so thousands of years of intellectual evolution and technological innovation has finally resulted in our ability to watch a movie with the plot, “bikini models play volleyball and fight.”

DOA the movie was directed by Hong Kong action director Cory Yuen, who has a track record that boasts more high points than low and who specializes in turning otherwise non-athletic women into believable on-screen kungfu bad-asses. Under his tutelage, Cynthia Rothrock, Joyce Godenzi, Michelle Yeoh, and Shannon Lee were all transformed into believable martial arts powerhouses (OK, Rothrock was already a kungfu powerhouse; he just figured out how best to choreograph her). And while Hsu Chi, Karen Mok, and Vicky Zhao may not have been 100% believable as ass-kicking superwomen, that doesn’t change the fact that Yuen’s So Close was completely awesome. Yuen is also one of the few Hong Kong directors to have a big hit as a director in the United States, that hit being the Luc Besson-produced The Transporter starring Jason Statham, who has never fought in a bikini but is never the less appreciated around these parts for his inability to keep his shirt on.


When news that there was going to be a DOA movie produced first hit cult film fandom, there was a lot of eye-rolling and “yeah, whatever, man” reaction. But when it was further revealed that Cory Yuen would be director, ears (among other things) pricked up and a lot of action film fans were suddenly a lot more willing to give the film a try, even if the inevitable PG-13 rating meant it would be all tease. If anyone was going to be able to direct a dumb fun “bikini models play volleyball and fight” movie, it would be Cory Yuen. So people waited. Trailers played, and the reaction was tentatively positive after the initial negative reaction. Sure, the movie looked colossally goofy, but it also looked like it would sport high energy and be sort of fun. And then the release date came and went, and there was no movie. DOA vanished, bumped from the release schedule and shelved for any number of reasons, the most likely of which was probably, “Wow, this movie is awful.” Which is a shame. I mean, how bad could the film possibly be? They released Pluto Nash, for crying out loud, and Epic Movie. And those had to be worse than DOA . Right?

DOA eventually began to trickle out to theaters in other countries, though it still remained absent from American theaters, and fans of Cory Yuen, action movies, video games, and bikinis started looking to foreign DVD releases to see the movie. Was it worth the wait? Or the trouble to see it? Yes and no. DOA is pretty much exactly what you would expect it to be from the elements listed above. It is dumb. Extremely dumb. It is full of cheap titillation and gratuitous bikini ass shots. The script is paper thin, and what little story there is makes no sense anyway. Most of the cast doesn’t even seem to realize they are supposed to be acting in a movie. The fight choreography, involving almost no trained martial artists, is heavy on editing, camera trickery, and computer manipulation.

But Eric Roberts wears magic kungfu sunglasses. So…


The plot revolves around a group of women invited to compete in a semi-secret martial arts tournament where, of course, shady shenanigans are being engaged in behind the scenes. Enter the Dragon‘s plot has proved useful so many times, the writers of this film decided there was no reason not to dust it off once more. First we meet Katsumi, head of a ninja clan with a massive temple complex you would think someone in modern-day Japan would notice. Katsumi’s brother disappeared during the last tournament, presumed dead, and she is determined to uncover the truth behind his disappearance, even if it means violating the laws of her clan. She leaves for the tournament with two more ninjas in hot pursuit: the noble Hayabusa, who has a thing for Katsumi, and the vengeful Ayane, herself the former lover of Katsumi’s brother. Katsumi is played by the indescribable Devon Aoki, whose continued presence in the world of cinema is one of the great mysteries of the entertainment world. She’s a horrible actress, completely incapable of anything beyond a single blank expression and a single, monotone style of dialog delivery. OK, credit where credit is due. She’s actually much more animated than usual in Fast & Furious 2, but beyond that she handles herself with the seeming belief that to have any expression on her face would cause it to shatter. And yet, I don’t know. Over the years, I’ve sort of grown to appreciate her.

Accompanying her, Hayabusa is played by none other than Kane Kosugi, son of the legendary (to me, anyway) Sho Kosugi and a performer who makes Devon Aoki seem positively histrionic. Sho, of course, starred in many of the best ninja exploitation films of the 1980s and then went on to host Ninja Theater and release a ninja exercise video in which he was accompanied by scantily-clad Ninjettes. One gets the feeling that Sho probably appreciates DOA. Kane started his acting career alongside his dad, always playing the son of whatever ninja guy Sho was playing at the time. Kane never developed much in the way of an American acting career, but he clicked in Japan and managed to forge a pretty consistent string of jobs, including a role in a Japanese sentai television series (those superhero shows that get turned into the Power Rangers in the United states), a role in one of those crappy new Ultraman shows, and more recently one of the leads in Godzilla: Final Wars (even though the lead role should have gone to Godzilla). He does handle action scenes well, which is generally all he’s expected to do. As he gets older, he is looking a lot like his father, so much so that I’m beginning to wonder if Kane isn’t Sho Kosugi, his revitalized youth the result of some esoteric ninja ritual. Oh sure, you say, but what about all those times Sho and Kane appeared alongside one another? Well, yeah. Maybe — or maybe they just told us that was Kane Kosugi. Honestly, they could have hired any kid.


Anyway, Hayabusa is along for the ride, trying to convince Katsumi that she should return home while also helping her out with her investigation. Ayane is a little more hostile. Despite her love for Katsumi’s missing brother, Ayane holds clan law more important, and clan law dictates that when Katsumi abandoned her post as leader, she was marked for death. Ayane is played by Natassia Malthe, who has a string of cult film credits to her name but is probably most recognizable, to people who might recognize such an actress, for her role as Typhoid in Elektra or for her turn in the title role in the sequel to video game based movie Bloodrayne. I may be one of the few people in the world who would think, “Elektra and Bloodrayne II? Sounds good to me!”

Second on the list of DOA combatants is Tina Armstrong, played by Jamie Pressly of My Name is Earl fame. Pressly is pretty much the only person who showed up to this film with the intention of acting, and she steals the movie (no impressive feat, mind you) as a pro wrestler looking for the opportunity to prove she’s a genuine fighter. The film introduces us to her as she reclines aboard her yacht while wearing an American flag motif bikini, stirred out of her sunbathing just long enough to beat the snot out of a bunch of pirates (lead by none other than Robin Shou, former star of such movies as Mortal Kombat, and, umm, well, just that and Mortal Kombat II, really). When our founding fathers first set forth the basic premise of this great land of ours, I’m sure that they could conjure up no greater symbol of American awesomeness than a woman in an American flag motif bikini beating up pirates. OK, maybe Thomas Jefferson would disagree. But whatever. Fuckin’ Jefferson. Ask Ben Franklin. He’d be on board.

Tina’s pro-wrestling dad is also in the tournament, play by real-life pro wrestler (there’s something…ironic? about the phrase “real-life pro wrestler”) Kevin “Big Daddy Cool Diesel” Nash, who is dressed up more or less like Hulk Hogan in a somewhat lame gag I’m sure Nash found amusing. Since Kevin Nash’s job in this movie is to drink beer and go, “That’s my little girl!” he turns in the second best acting job after Pressly.


Finally there’s Holly Valance as Christie Allen, a posh thief who shows up to the tournament while on the run from the Hong Kong police. Or someone like that. Valance is definitely no actress. I think she was some sort of mid-level Aussie pop star before this movie, and it’s unlikely much will change after this movie. She’s attractive though, and just bad enough an actress to still be somewhat acceptable in a movie of this nature. And she does the thing where she throws a gun and a bra up into the air, then sticks her arm up so that her bra goes magically on just as she catches the gun, then whups the butt of the world’s most incompetent bunch of cops. I mean really, when a kungfu dame asks you to hand her a bra, do you really offer it to her as it dangles from the barrel of your gun? And I don’t mean that figurative gun. I mean the actual gun, the one she can now kick out of your hands. Everyone knows the flying bra technique is like the first thing they teach you at Shaolin Temple. Or if not at Shaolin Temple, it’s definitely the first thing you learn when you join the Black Fragon Fighting Society.

Along with a bunch of other fighters you will never care about (and most of whom just disappear at random throughout the movie with no explanation presented anywhere other than deleted scenes), the three ladies head to the island fortress lorded over by brilliant mastermind and DOA tournament manager Eric Roberts. Yes, folks, Eric Roberts, looking like a dude who would hang around the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame a lot, telling young kids about what a genius Jimmy Page was. In a feat of casting not rivaled since the days when Black Belt Jones cast Scatman Crothers as a karate master, crummy movie mainstay Eric Roberts is the lord of DOA, and with the help of his nerdy assistant Weatherby, Roberts aims to use the DOA tournament as a way to inject the world’s best fighters with nanotech robots that will harvest their genetic information and make it downloadable to a pair of sunglasses which will then instill the wearer with nigh invincible kungfu prowess.


Seriously, man, that’s the plot. All Eric Roberts needs to do for his nefarious scheme to work is, 1) capture each of the best fighters in the DOA tournament, 2) strap them into his gigantic info downloading machine, and 3) manage to keep a clunky pair of sunglasses on his face while fighting. And the end result of all that effort is that you will be a slightly better fighter than most other people. On the grand scale of nefarious schemes, this one ranks pretty close to the “moronic” end of the bell curve. I mean, how is being a marginally better kungfu guy than most other kungfu guys going prove profitable to anyone other than, say, a guy in the Ultimate Fighting Championship? And then, you have to get the ref to allow you to wear sunglasses while you’re fighting. And it’s not like Eric Roberts put a sports band or anything on those glasses, so they will eventually just fall off. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because we’re a few centuries away from the era when being good at kungfu guaranteed global supremacy. You remember when the world was ruled by kungfu guys, right?

Complicating Roberts’ already goofy plan is the fact that the original DOA founder’s daughter, Helena, is an aspiring DOA combatant herself and is beginning to suspect Roberts is up to something her father wouldn’t have approved of. Oh, and there’s Katsumi’s missing brother. In between that nonsense and all the awful dialog are a whole bunch of choppy fights of varying quality, a game of volleyball, and well, that’s pretty much it. DOA has absolutely no surprises to offer even the most easily surprised viewer. But does that mean this movie is as awful as it sounds? Not actually.


The script, such as it is, comes to us courtesy of a trio of writers who actually have, if not a respectable track record writing good action films, then at least a modest record writing halfways decent action films. J.F. Lawton scripted two of the better Steven Seagal films (as odd as that statement may seem to some), Under Seige and Under Seige II, as well as the cult film spoof Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. His big gig, however (besides writing Pretty Woman, but what does that have to do with us?), was as a regular writer for the goofy television series VIP, in which a group of models (I really liked Natalie Raitano) run a private investigation service. And when you realize that was one of Lawton’s former jobs, the entire look and feel of DOA makes perfect, predictable sense. With a few tweaks here and there, this really could pass as a VIP movie, right down to the three-letter title. Lawton worked on more serious action films like The Hunted starring Joan Chen and Christopher Lambert fighting ninjas, and he worked on goofier action movies, like the Damon Wayans superhero spoof misfire Blankman. So you can pretty much see where the script for DOA came from.

Script contributors Seth and Adam Gross were writers for Bill Nye, the Science Guy. I guess they came up with Eric Roberts’ crazy science scheme, although I think the sheer goofiness of it all makes it more of a Beakman thing, really.

I’m also guessing that producer Paul W.S. Anderson — who I like to mix up all the time with Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson — had a pretty heavy hand when it came to both the script and the direction. Anderson is divisive writer, producer, and director whose sole purpose in life is to make as many Resident Evil movies as possible. I actually like more of his stuff than I don’t, though when I hate his movies (both Aliens vs. Predators), I really hate his movies. Still, I enjoyed a lot of his movies: Event Horizon, the first Mortal Kombat (but definitely not the second), those Death Race remakes, even the Resident Evil movies. I think he had the idea for this movie when he was rewatching Mortal Kombat 2 (making him the only person in the world who ever rewatched Mortal Kombat 2) and got to the clumsy mud fight between two women in the rain and thought to himself, “This should be an entire movie.”


Cory Yuen’s direction is a little uninspired compared to other efforts, though he puts his craft to good use in filming the ladies (Yuen has previous experience with cheesecake kungfu thanks to his turn in the director’s seat of Women on the Run, which features some rather interesting, um, kung-nude). DOA lacks the slick polish of So Close, though Yuen is still adept at making cheap films look flashy. Even though the cinematography may be lacking, he misses no opportunity to randomly cut to a shot of someone’s ass or cleavage, so he’s not totally off his game here. And while Yuen is used to making non-martial artists look like martial artists, he really has his work cut out for him in this movie. Aoki and Valance seem to possess almost no athletic ability whatsoever, and so to pass them off as fighters, Yuen relies on gravity-defying wirework and jumpy editing, as well as a dollop of CGI. He does the most he can with what little he has, but no one is going to be mistaking these gals for legitimate fighters.

Jamie Pressly fares better largely because she has a pretty athletic build and looks like she really could deliver some punches and kicks and make you feel them. There’s a reason why she’s the one out of all these women who went on to have the biggest acting career (well, if you consider a cameo on Entourage to be a big career). She’s adept at both the job of acting and the job of looking believable in the fight scenes. Kane Kosugi gets to have one fight scene all to himself, which ends up being the only fight scene that looks anything like vintage Cory Yuen, since this is a guy who knows martial arts fighting a bunch of stuntmen. But even though this fight is pretty good, the award for best fight scene has to go to the one between Valance and Sarah Carter, who plays Helena. And that’s because that fight is between two fighters in bikinis. On the beach. In the rain. In slow motion. Cory Yuen knows how to keep it classy, though to be fair, he did also give us the “Jason Statham topless in oil” fight scene in The Transporter, so there is something to be said for his equal opportunity nature. A shame Kane Kosugi wasn’t game for a similar scene. Did you see him climbing Mount Midoriyama in the rain on Ninja Warrior? Surely they could have worked something like that into here.


I can’t speak to the sexism of the games, because I have never played them. Given that they have breast jiggle settings however, I could make an educated guess that most of the fans are not the same gender as the one whose D-cup physics are being tweaked. As for the sexism in this movie — eh, I would not argue in its defense. It is, after all, a movie about bikini models in a fighting tournament. That in itself is not particularly controversial. You know we here at Teleport City avidly promote the unclothing of all people who are willing. But Yuen’s camera has a Jess Franco-like tendency to dwell on rear ends and pelvic areas, although unlike Franco’s, Yuen’s are at least partially clothed. There’s a creepy dissecting vibe to shots like this that could have been defused if he’d been as willing to leer at the men. I know he’s willing to do this. Like I said, this is the guy who could not wait to get Jason Statham out of a shirt. He’s also the man that gave the world Billy Chow fighting in his tighty-whities, and I feel like he’s probably given us a bare-assed Sammo Hung or Yuen Biao at least once in his career. I’m not going to claim that I found the PG-13 sleaziness of this movie offensive; Lord knows I’ve rolled with infinitely worse, and this at the end of the day is really little more than a Frankie and Annette beach party movie with a fight-to-the-death tournament in it.

Yuen manages to wring a few other choice action sequences from a game but largely incapable cast. He also manages to film someone’s crotch framed by someone else’s crotch, which has to be some sort of first. His skill alone is what elevates this film above the level of, say, an Andy Sidaris action film. Aoki and purple-wig wearing Malthe have a decent wirefu match-up in a bamboo forest, which many people have pegged as a cheap knock-off of the bamboo forest fight in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even though it has more in common with the same type of scene as presented in Andrew Lau’s Stormriders. The finale against a super-powered Eric Roberts (who’s acting suggests that if you asked him today, he might not even be aware of the fact that he ever even appeared in this film) isn’t exactly solid fight choreography, but it’s still funny and exciting because, well hell, it’s Eric Roberts. What the hell is even going on? And by this point, Yuen has resorted to his trademark jettisoning of any and all semblances of logic or reality, and believe me when I say that semblances of logic and reality are the last thing a movie like this needs.

Release Year: 2006 | Country: United States | Starring: Jaime Pressly, Holly Valance, Sarah Carter, Devon Aoki, Natassia Malthe, Eric Roberts, Matthew Marsden, Kevin Nash, Collin Chou, Kane Kosugi, Steve Howey | Screenplay: J.F. Lawton, Adam Gross, Seth Gross | Director: Corey Yuen Kwai | Producer: Paul W.S. Anderson and about 20 other guys | Music: Junkie XL

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Asoka

Asoka is a pretty funny guy to know absolutely nothing about. In terms of ancient world history, he was a man the caliber of Julius Caesar or Ghengis Khan or Qin Shi-huang, the first emperor of China. And like these men who were more familiar to me, Asoka embodies all that is noble and ruthless, admirable and despicable, about men who live lives of epic scale. These complexities in great men — “great” referring to the scope of the accomplishments and the impact they had on the world around them more than being a description of their demeanor or potential as a drinking buddy — make for superb cinema if you are willing to deal with these complexities. Many times, a movie is not, and you get a rather shallow, white-washed impression of the man (Julius Caesar more so than any of the others, at least in the West).

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Boom

Whenever someone names a predictable title like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Robot Monster or Yor, the Hunter from the Future as one of the worst movies of all time, my inevitable response is that if they think that’s one of the worst movies of all time, then they obviously haven’t seen enough movies. Certainly not enough to be making such bold proclamations such as naming it one of the worst of all time.

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House of Fury

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Above and beyond all else, kungfu films have always existed so that they can teach to us valuable life lessons. At their best, they are practically training manuals for how to live a healthy, productive, and socially relevant life. For instance, if your pupils are killed by a one-armed kungfu master, then you as a blind master of the flying guillotine should go about avenging their deaths by killing every one-armed man in the province. Far more potent than the moral litmus test, “What would Jesus do?” in the daily life of the average person is the question, “What would the blind master of the flying guillotine do?” And you know what he would do? Jump through a roof, throw the flying guillotine, and send a severed head rolling across the floor. Not surprisingly, this is often what Jesus would do as well, as far as I can reckon.

Kungfu films also serve as a road map for building rewarding, emotionally rich familial relationships, teaching us the most productive way (snake fist) to deal with conflicts within the family structure. The landscape of kungfu films is littered with films in which a son and a father, or a daughter and father, or two siblings, must struggle both against one another as well as together against a greater outside threat. This often manifests itself as some wholesome bonding activity, such as jumping from pole to pole over a field of knives, or trying to grab the chicken bits out of each other’s rice bowls. Visit any modern family or marital therapist, and you find that, nine times out of ten, they employ the same — or at least very similar — methods for working through the issues that complicate interpersonal relationships.

House of Fury is a more modern look at the nuclear kungfu family, and while its look and style have been updated for modern sensibilities, the core message at the center of the film remains consistent with the many that came before it: the family that trains in kungfu together will deal out swift kungfu vengeance together.


Anthony Wong stars as Yu Siu-bo, a somewhat boring practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and physical therapy. He delights in spinning outrageous yarns about his past adventures fighting ninjas and assorted supervillains, a practice which embarrasses his two teenage children, college-age slacker Nicky (Stephen Fung, Avenging Fist, Gen-X Cops, Gen-Y Cops) and high schooler Natalie (Gillian Chung, one-half of the Hong Kong pop superduo Twins and star of The Twins Effect), both of whom assume their dad is just a world-class bullshitter. At least, they assume that right up until a wheelchair bound psycho named Rocco (your buddy and mine, Michael Wong) shows up hoping to drag the identity of a retired secret agent out of Siu-bo. Suddenly, the two siblings realize everything their father has ever told them has more or less been true, and now they’re caught right in the middle of a frenzied kungfu battle between their father and Rocco’s thugs. Luckily, this being a kungfu film, dad trained his kids well.

House of Fury is a family film in more ways than simply being about the evolution of the relationship between two children and their father (involving the “tall tale” characteristic that allows me to actually compare the themes of a film full of crazy flying ninjas and kungfu and Tim Burton’s Big Fish). For starters, the number of familiar old faces on parade is more than enough to counterbalance the presence of shining new stars like Gillian Chung and Stephen Fung. Anthony Wong is a welcome addition to any cast, and when he’s interested in his role, there are few actors in this world that are finer at their craft. He’s top notch as the good-hearted but drab Siu-bo, padding about the place, weaving spectacularly crazy adventure tales, and talking to a photo of his dead wife. He’s both comical and poignant without ever being overly saccharine. He plays the comedy and action as well as he does the loneliness of the character. Inhabited by Anthony Wong, Siu-bo simply feels like a real guy. When his secret comes out and he jumps into action, he’s just as much fun. His best friend and patient is the aging Uncle Chu, played by Hong Kong movie stalwart Wu Ma. We’ve seen Wu Ma for decades, and watching him in action) even if it’s heavily aided by wires and CGI) is great fun. He and Wong represent the older generations perfectly.

On the other end of the scale are Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung (and to a lesser extend, Gillian’s fellow Twins member and Twins Effect co-star Charlene Choi). Fung, like a seeming endless parade of pretty young faces that started way back with Aaron Kwok and continued through Ekin Cheng and on to Fung, has been regarded as the “hot new thing” that is finally going to salvage Hong Kong cinema from the doldrums in which it’s drifted for years, revitalizing the industry and returning to it the spark and magic that made the 70s, 80s, and first half of the 90s so memorable and beloved. He hasn’t fulfilled that expectation, but then, it’s not really fair to expect it of him. Of the host of hot guys who emerged at the turn of the century to become the somewhat unmemorable and interchangeable faces of the next Hong Kong new wave (which has also yet to really materialize), Fung was a fair enough performer, but he was always a little hollow and cardboard and unspectacular. It was hard, especially for fans who weren’t screaming teenage girls, to tell one hot new thing from the next, even when they were all collected together in movies like Gen-X Cops. Thus, when a director wanted to make a “real” film, they still went to the last men standing from the 80s and 90s — Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau, Simon Yam, and of course, Anthony Wong (Stephen Chow doesn’t make the list, simply because he’s always been sort of a whole film industry unto himself). Thus, especially for me, guys like Fung, Edison Chen, and Nick Tse continue to fail to make the same impression as the guys from whom they were supposed to inherit the mantle.

What Stephen Fung is to the men, Gillian Chung is to the women. As one-half of the pop megastar duo Twins, producers hoped she would carry the name recognition to become a movie superstar where so many other hopeful starlets have simply been swallowed whole, unable to become the next Brigette Lin or Maggie Cheung or, quite frankly, even the next Hsu Chi, or even the next Joey Wong Tsu-hsien. Funny, isn’t it? Back in the 80s and 90s, Maggie Cheung was most often described as “irritating” or “insipid,” known as she was for little more than being the squealing, whining girlfriend in Jackie Chan’s Police Story films. And Hsu Chi? She was just some softcore porn nobody. And now? They’re two of the biggest, best respected actresses on the international scene. Who would have guessed it, watching Police Story or whichever the hell The Fruit is Swelling film it is that stars Hsu Chi?

While Gillian is no Hsu Chi, and she’s certainly no Maggie Cheung, she’s still a pretty solid performer with a lot of charisma. Handled properly, and should there ever be more than one good script every other year coming out of Hong Kong, she does indeed show the potential to become something more than a cute face that will disappear in a couple years. Stephen Fung — I don’t know. He’s still kind of a bore, and he still doesn’t exude much charisma. I have hope for him, but not nearly as much as I do for Gillian Chung.

As for Chung’s Twins partner, Charlene Choi, there’s really not much that can be said about her in this film. She has a very small role that doesn’t really give her much to do beyond tease Stephen Fung’s Nicky for a couple scenes.


I would be remiss, however, if I left my review of the cast at the above. That’s a lot of good actors doing good work up there. How can I celebrate them without screwing up my courage and looking at the performances of American-born actors Michael Wong and Daniel “Michael Wong for the next generation” Wu. Wu I first encountered in Gen-X Cops, and I was awed by how spectacularly awful he was. Daniel Wu originally went to Hong Kong simply to “get in touch with his roots,” get the feel of the place from which his parents came. An extended stay lead to some modeling work, and from there he found his way into film. He seems like a decent guy in interviews, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was really unbelievably horrible in Gen-X Cops. However, each subsequent movie in which he’s appeared has seen him improve in tiny increments, so that by the time we’ve gotten to House of Fury, he is merely bad. And if nothing else, Daniel Wu rolled naked on the beach with Maggie Q where as I simply watched him roll naked on the beach with Maggie Q. Wu was never sold as the next Andy Lau, Tony Leung, or Jackie Chan, but if he keeps working at his craft, he could, at the very least, be the next Aaron Kwok or Leon Lai.

The same can’t be said for Wu’s countryman, Michael Wong, though Wong did have Ellen Chung naked and grinding away on him in one movie, so that caveat about our relative accomplishments still stands. Michael Wong has been plying his acting craft for a couple decades now, and in every film in which I’ve seen him, he has wowed me with his ability to never get any better no matter how much experience he has. It’s amazing just how consistent he’s been over the past many years. It’s a sustained level of badness of which Keanu Reeves could only dream. It’s absolutely astounding. He never gets better, but he never gets worse. Michael Wong is superhuman in his ability to sound like every role is his first role. And despite being surrounded by world-class veterans and promising young upstarts, Michael Wong manages to deliver the exact same bad level of performance he’s always delivered, doggedly refusing to let the presence of Anthony Wong cause him to accidentally step up his game.

I have no idea how Michael Wong has sustained his career for this long. He’s good looking, but not that good looking. He’s fit, but he’s not any good at kungfu and only marginally passable at performing other forms of action choreography. In all aspects of his acting career he is merely below average — so much so that he’s not even bad to the point of being funny. Well, no, sometimes he’s funny-bad (witness his anguished plea, “You’ve gone over to the dark side!” in The First Option), but mostly he’s just bad. And yet, the man has never gone wanted for roles. Usually they’re in B-team movies, but from time to time he manages to sneak into an honest-to-goodness movie like House of Fury. He must totally baffle his brother Russell (New Jack City and Joy Luck Club, plus a bunch of his own movies, as well as some television work). As for me, I embrace Michael Wong. I don’t really like calling anyone “the Ed Wood of…” but if ever there was an Ed Wood of acting, it has to be Michael Wong, and I love him for it.

Of course, all my love can’t make anyone think that Michael Wong is any good in House of Fury. He’s awful. He’s so bad he makes Daniel Wu look good, though he doesn’t make Daniel Wu in Gen-X Cops look good. You might think that Wong is trying to play Rocco as a cool, calculating, emotionless man consumed by vengeance and just failing at the characterization, but anyone who has seen Michael Wong in any movie before will simply say, “No, that’s just Michael Wong. He can’t act.” His soft-spoken monotone is made even worse by the fact that he’s surrounded by performers the caliber of Anthony Wong and Wu Ma, and even young Gillian Chung. Heck, even charisma-vacuum Stephen Fung seems positively animated and warm next to Michael Wong’s utterly bizarre performance as the wheelchair-bound Rocco. And in case you think that strapping Wong with a wheelchair means he’s not going to have a bad action scene, think again. Action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (he of too many decades and too many credits to list) figured that the best way to get a decent action scene out of Wong was simply to film him in fast speed rolling around in his wheelchair. Sadly, director Stephen Fung (more on that in a moment) resists the natural urge to set the entire scene to “Yakkety Sax.”

The final piece of the main cast is this kid named Jake Strickland. I have no idea who this kid is (this is his first and currently only listed film credit), but I assume Yuen Wo-ping discovered him on some youth martial arts circuit and couldn’t resist throwing him into the film as Rocco’s son. As an actor, he’s not much, but then, what do you expect from a fourteen-year-old American making a foreign language film. He’s still better than Michael Wong (both he and Wong deliver their lines in English). The kid is really just here to twirl a staff and kick some ass, and in that sense, he’s surprisingly good. Hong Kong films have always had better luck with martial arts kids than American films — just compare any of the Three Ninjas to that little kid with the perfectly spherical head kicking ass alongside Jet Li in New Legend of Shaolin and My Father is a Hero. It seems that being a decent kiddie kungfu performer doesn’t really have much to do with race (obviously), but instead has to do with whether your action director is Yuen Wo-ping or John Turteltaub. Jake Strickland looks fantastic in action, and his fight with Anthony Wong is priceless. Wong is torn between the fact that he doesn’t want to beat up a fourteen-year-old kid and the fact that this fourteen-year-old kid is kicking his ass and flipping around with a staff and running up walls, and it makes for a great fight scene. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Jake Strickland again, but he does a fine job here — and he has a great name for being either an action star or Hank Hill’s boss at the propane shop.


The rest of the action is a pretty good mix between old style kungfu, wire-fu, and a little CGI enhancement here and there. Stephen Fung and Gillian Chung are not accomplished martial artists, and from time to time you can tell that, but most of the time, Yuen Wo-ping poses them and flings them about pretty well. Their fight with Josie Ho and the rest of Michael Wong’s thugs is a stand-out moment, as is the finale (in which, among other things, Stephen Fung also faces off with Jake Strickland). Anthony Wong, of course, is no martial artist either, but the man has been around long enough to have picked up the tricks of the trade, and he looks good in his few action scenes. Even elderly Wu Ma gets in on the fun. For years, I railed against the tendency to cast non-martial artists as kungfu masters, then mask their lack of skill with wire tricks and flashy editing — a trend that was largely championed by Yuen Wo-ping (with plenty of help from Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark). In my old age, I’m getting soft, or simply accepting that the days of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao are over — even for Sammo, Jackie, and Biao. House of Fury delivers fantasy kungfu but it does it well, and from time to time, it allows itself to be a throwback, if not to the glory days of Sammo Hung choreography, at least to the solid, no-wires choreography that made Yukari Oshima and the girls with guns genre so much fun.

Now comes the funny part. Although I continue to be unimpressed by Stephen Fung as an actor (calling him a hot young thing really isn’t fair — he’s only a year or two younger than me), I was surprised to see that as a writer and director, he’s surprisingly accomplished. I have no idea hos much of House of Fury was directed by Fung, and how much was the work of his mentors Yuen Wo-ping and Jackie Chan, but the fact is that Stephen, for whatever amount he directed, showcases a steady hand and the ability to let the film’s story speak for itself, rather than piling on lots of irritating flashy editing and intrusive directorial tricks. Surrounded by such talent (as well as Willie Chan, another producer on this film and cohort of Jackie Chan), Stephen Fung may not emerge as the next Jackie Chan in front of the camera, but he has an excellent chance to emerge as the next Jackie Chan behind the camera. There are definitely some signs of the old Jackie and Sammo directorial styles, which were also influenced by the directorial work of Lo Wei (who directed Wu Ma, among others like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee) and Bruce Lee himself. Although House of Fury boasts the wirework and CGI that seems to be part and parcel of modern kungfu films, the direction itself is surprisingly down to earth and reminiscent of the good ol’ days.

Fung also co-wrote the script, along with Yiu Fai-lo (previously the screenwriter for the dreadful Jackie Chan flop Gorgeous and the even more dreadful Andrew Lai horror disaster The Park). Given how dreadful Yiu’s previous scripts are, I have no problem attributing the bulk of the work on the script for House of Fury to Stephen Fung. As a guy in his early thirties who no doubt grew up a fan of everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, this is exactly the sort of movie you’d expect him to write. However, we’ve seen thanks to countless gigabytes of fanfic that being a fan of something doesn’t mean you’re going to write a good story about it. Fung’s script, on the other hand, is well-written, well-paced, and surprisingly…I don’t want to say complex, really. Touching? Maybe that’s it. Let’s just say it’s good. The homage to Bruce Lee exists in the title and in some of Anthony Wong’s fight choreography, but other than that, it doesn’t play much of a role in the story. At this point, though, fans of Hong Kong cinema should be used to gratuitous Bruce Lee gags and imitations. It’s almost as if Stephen Fung wanted to make an 80s style Hong Kong action film and knew that he couldn’t do that without throwing in some random Bruce Lee allusions.

Bruce Lee nonsense aside, what Fung has done is write a very good modern-day reinvention of all those old “quarrelling kungfu family” movies that were made in the 1970s — right down to a “sitting at the table” kungfu fight over bits of chicken. Although being a fan doesn’t make you a good writer, a good writer who is fan enough to throw in obscure homages like that makes for a real treat. The relationship between the family is also well-written. The whole “discovering the secret past” thing isn’t anything new, but Fung executes the story well. The central theme seems to be that the older generation shouldn’t be dismissed, that they have plenty to teach us, and sometimes their rambling stories are true, or at least interesting. As an avid listener to my grandfathers’ stories about World War II — many of which seem as embellished as Siu-bo’s stories about fighting ninjas that can vanish into thin air — I understand and fully appreciate the message at the heart of Fung’s cracking good kungfu movie. It seems especially apropos in a film that owes so much and pays such close attention to the films of the generation before. In fact, to stick with the analogy about my grandfathers and World War II stories, it’s easy to see the films of the 70s and 80s as “the greatest generation.” Whenever anyone talks about the Golden Age, they inevitably point to these films. The next Jackie Chan, we say. The next Tsui Hark (if only Tsui Hark could be the next Tsui Hark). The next Chinese Ghost Story or A Better Tomorrow. And amid all that are the new films and new actors, largely dismissed, often disdained, living in the shadow of the greatest generation, looking at them with a mix of awe, contempt, and envy and the knowledge that they will never live up to but will always be compared to those films.


Also central to the plot are the two fathers, Siu-bo and Rocco, and different ways in which they have raised children adept at kungfu. Siu-bo trained his children hard, but there’s a tenderness to his training as well. He does it because he knows one day someone might come for him, and by default them, and they’ll be better off if they can defend themselves. For the most part, however, they are allowed to be regular young adults who regard their father as a bit of an oaf. Similarly, Rocco has trained his son in the martial arts, but in his case, it’s to use him as an instrument of attack. And Rocco’s son is an interesting juxtaposition to Nicky and Natalie. Where as both Nicky and Natalie are involved in active social lives (he works at a marine park, she is involved in school plays), Rocco’s son is a shut-in who knows little beyond his PSP and staff fighting in the basement. He’s like one of those anime otaku who collect martial arts weapons, except that he can actually use his.

Something that makes the script more complex than it might otherwise be, however, is the relationship between Rocco and his son. Rocco isn’t necessarily a heartless villain. He’s in a wheelchair because he was a special ops sniper assigned to assassinate some terrorist leader. However, an agent for the Hong Kong secret service needed said terrorist alive for a different assignment, and in order to prevent Rocco from killing the man (Rocco was working for the United States), he attacked and crippled him. Now all Rocco wants is revenge on the man who paralyzed him — and Siu-bo happens to know who that agent is. So it’s not like Rocco is simply evil — and we see this when, after he’s nearly killed in the final showdown, his son drops his staff and runs to protect and plead for his father’s life. Obviously, Rocco isn’t a complete dick, and the scene is nice even if Jake Strickland and Michael Wong are both bad actors.

House of Fury finds a way to embrace that as it reconcile its young protagonists with their father. With new and old talent both in front of and behind the camera, House of Fury is more than just a lot of fun (though it is certainly that); it’s the closest we’re going to get, in my opinion, to mixing the past with the present. It’s not a ground-breaking film, but it’s plenty enjoyable in the same gee-whiz way that the films of the 80s were., with al the same ham-handed goofiness and melodrama that people seem to forget was so omnipresent in those films. Sure, it doesn’t best the best of the 1980s. It’s not Dragons Forever or Project A. But if more new films were more like House of Fury — fast-paced, action-packed, a blend of legit kungfu choreography and special effects, but also full of good humor and heart — then maybe we wouldn’t miss the past and bemoan the future quite so much.