One of the many things that makes Lovecraft interesting, at least for me, is the discussion of why his writing work, if it does work for you (and despite my jokes about gambrel rooftops and fishmen, it does work for me most of the time). Everyone has their own reasons. Some can be agreed upon by the larger body of Lovecraft fans. Others are acutely personal. My example has always been my tendency to go backpacking in the wilds of New England, seeing firsthand how, even in our modern, developed world, civilization can vanish abruptly, leaving you surrounded by nothing but the night and woods. Even in those small states, the amount of land that gives way to untamed solitude is vast, and when you walk into the middle of it with nothing but boil-in-bag stroganoff and a headlamp to fend off the grip of the wilderness, it becomes a lot easier to believe Lovecraft’s tales of ancient things lurking in the mountains and foothills. You look up and realize how tiny you are. You look around an realize how vulnerable you are. Wolves, bears, and rutting moose are bad enough. I guess if I had to also deal with chattering crab monsters from space, I’d find them a lot scarier than I might have while sitting at home with a dram of Glenmorangie, reading The Whisperer in the Darkness. Because as has been pointed out to me in discussion, it’s not so much the monster as it is the isolation.
I have stared into the abyss of unspeakable madness, and in it I saw myself. I was taller, had darker hair, and was wearing a Miskatonic University sweatshirt, but other than that, the likeness was both striking and disheartening. His name was Paul, and he was the protagonist in Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I didn’t like him at first, and then at some point during the movie, I realized that I probably didn’t like him because he was the protagonist I and many of you would be — confused, irritating, panicky, awkward — rather than the protagonist we like to assume we’ll be — manly, brave, competent, and possessed of 20/20 vision. Of all the unnameable horrors that are HP Lovecraft’s stock in trade, none is perhaps more terrifying than staring into the eyes of a spastic dweeb with ill-fitting spectacles and realizing with horror that, yep, that’s me.
Several years ago, I got a Netflix account. I did it for a variety of reasons, though the two biggest were the fact that the selection of movies at the average video rental store was abysmal and the price of a rental at the un-average video store was outrageous. Netflix — not to sound like a commercial for the service — offered an astounding number of titles, and because one of their main distribution centers is in Queens, the turn-around time for receiving new movies was lightning fast, provided the lightning is that ball lightning or swamp gas stuff that drifts slowly from Queens to Brooklyn over the course of a day and is often mistaken for a UFO or gnome. Let it be said right now that on my list of things to do before I die is see swamp gas or ball lightning, or at least photograph a weather balloon that could be mistaken for a UFO. But that is neither here nor there.
When the idea was pitched for a “counter culture” theme for a B-Masters Round Table, I was both excited and apprehensive. On the one hand, it was a subject with which I had acute first-hand experience, which meant I wouldn’t have to rely simply on theory and supposition to extract some sort of a review from the material. I could ramble on endlessly about some obscure thing that happened to me back when I was sixteen and the world was new. I was, however, also apprehensive, as I am sometimes loathe to throw myself into public discourse regarding the counter-cultures with which I have some connection. Not because I’m ashamed, mind you. Hell, I’m still associated in some way with pretty much every loony thing I ever believed in or adopted as an identity. But I’ve read a lot of the “studies” about these things.
The chances were slim to none that any of Hollywood’s early attempts to depict the punk/new wave scene would be anywhere near on the mark, but that didn’t stop me and my friends from dragging our black clad, funny haircut havin’ asses to every single one of them. I think that we were flattered by these films’ failure to pin us down, as if that was somehow a testament to both our own uniqueness and the singularity of our cultural moment. The truth, of course, was that such misfires were less the result of failed effort than they were of the filmmakers’ halfheartedness in their attempts to cash in on what I’m sure they considered to be a fleeting fad. In any case, few of these movies were more destined to get it wrong than Times Square. A film whose promotion rode hard on both the vaguely punkish look of its two leads and a soundtrack choked with some of the era’s biggest names in radio-friendly new wave, Times Square was ultimately too confused in its execution and garbled by post-production mishandling to come off as clearly being about anything, much less a movement in music and style that, by 1980, was starting to look a bit confused and garbled itself.
Cecil B. DeMille’s final silent film, The Godless Girl, had the misfortune of being released in the shadow of The Jazz Singer, making it a casualty of the rapid shift in public tastes from pictures that didn’t talk to those that did. As a result, it became something of a footnote in DeMille’s career, which is a shame. For people, like myself, who entertain a fairly narrow conception of the director based on his association with Bible-thumpers like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, viewing it can be an eye-opening experience — because even though it is, in part, concerned with the spread of atheism among the young people of its day, it doesn’t quite come down on that topic in the way you might expect.
This movie offers so many potential avenues from which I could approach it that I’m finding it almost as overwhelming as climbing the north face of the Eiger while an unknown assassin tries to kill me because he knows I’m trying to kill him. There’s the career of geologist-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, whose fascination with mountains and mountaineering resulting in a series of films possessed of breathtaking beauty and power. There’s the subject of mountaineering itself, and of the depiction of mountain climbing in film. There’s the subject of silent film, and more specifically, silent spectacle and action films, which were far more lavish and epic in scope than most people ever imagine. And perhaps the 900 pound gorilla in the room is the bizarre and difficult career of German actress turned Nazi propagandist and, until her death in 2003 at the age of 101, the world’s oldest living certified scuba diver, Leni Riefenstahl. Hers is a story of incredible talent, revolutionary film technique, terrifying loyalty to Adolf Hitler, arrest by a naval intelligence officer working with a John Ford film crew, war crimes, and after the dust settled, a career as an underwater nature photographer.
I’ll try to cover them all, but forgive me if I’m a bit scattershot in my style. Well, more scattershot than usual, which is really saying something. After all, it’s rather nice outside right now, and I’m thinking about going climbing instead of finishing this review.
So let’s begin at the beginning, a very good place to start. Oh man, this review is chocked with the potential for awful Alps-related film references. I prmise that, as far as I know, that is going to be the only one I make. Heidi. There. I said it, just to get it out there. Now we’re done.
But the beginning to which I’m referring is the beginning of modern feature filmmaking. When I was a young lad full of energy and vim, I did not have very much interest in silent film. I’d seen plenty of them, all the usual suspects a horror film fan sees early in his viewing career: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis (including the one with the rockin’ 80s soundtrack). They were interesting, but I preferred movies with talking. Later in life, I grew to appreciate and adore silent films much more, but even now I don’t get excited about discussing any of the classic silent horror films from Germany — not because I don’t love them, but rather because such a tremendous amount of ink has already been spent on them by much smarter people than me, and there’s really not a lot I can add to the discussion of German expressionism, the Weimer Republic, or vergangenheits-bewaltigung that hasn’t been covered by someone who, unlike me, actually knows what the hell they’re talking about.
In high school, we had to watch The Birth of a Nation because it was a valuable lesson in the history of perceptions regarding the Civil War and race relations, and also because cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith was buried in the small Methodist church a couple minutes away — the very same church I attended as a youth and had my first and eventual ruinous run-ins with religious authority. It was a pretty typical looking small-town country church: whitewash wood, a steeple, no air conditioning, heavy wooden pews filled with sweating men and women in their Sunday finery, furiously fanning themselves with those cardboard fans attached to a Popsicle stick and featuring a painting of kindly Jesus waving at you or blessing you or possibly just fanning you because he grew up in the Middle East, and he understands what it means to be hot. Anyway, in the church cemetery were a variety of crumbling old graves, and right in the middle of them was the grave of D.W. Griffith.
Griffith, for those who may be unfamiliar with the early days of feature film making, was one of the fathers of the modern feature film. Along with a group of film makers in Europe, many of them Italian, and inspired by the Italian costumed spectacle Cabiria, Griffith was at the forefront of exploring what could be done with a motion picture camera and the ability to work on location rather than being bound to stages and sets like plays. Unfortunately, Griffith chose to explore these new possibilities in the form of a film called Birth of a Nation. The movie tells the story of the Antebellum South, when all the black slaves were suddenly free and immediately set about raping white women and dancing while getting drunk on cheap booze on the floor of the Senate. So basically, the slaves were all freed and acted like legally elected, white congressmen. The only thing standing between these unruly throngs of free, violent black folks (who, I should mention, were all happy and content as slaves,with gumdrop smiles and the freedom to hambone solo on the banks of rivers filled with chocolate and gold) and proud white America was the noble and chivalrous order of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yeah, so you pretty much get the picture, right? regardless, this was where it all began: the first American feature film. At the time of its release, Birth of a Nation was wildly popular — America wasn’t exactly racial paradise in 1915, and there were veterans of the Civil War still floating around. Civil rights groups protested the film, but that did precious little to diminish it int he eyes of a white America for which black freedom was still a relatively new thing. It seems that Griffith himself was ultimately horrified by the reaction many audiences had to the film, reactions that often involved race rioting and violence. His next film, Intolerance, was an attempt to undo some of what he’d wrought with Birth of a Nation, by showing the evils slavery has caused through time. The film was another lavish spectacle in the spirit of the great Italian spectacles like Cabiria, but it was a failure both politically and financially. Griffith’s career never recovered. Though he was one of the founding artists of United Artists, he wasn’t with the company for long, and the final years of his life were spent in relative seclusion. Despite all he may have contributed to the history of cinema, Griffith’s name was forever linked with that single movie, and it forever shadows — perhaps rightfully so — everything else he did.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this in 1977, darting around the cemetery at Mount Tabor and poking around his grave. The grave is still there, of course, though the quaint church building has been replaced by one of those generic, pre-fab deals Methodists seem oddly fond of. Still, that grave connects to the movie we’re actually here to discuss, as the career of German actress Leni Riefenstahl is very similar. Riefenstahl began her career in front of the camera, but it was behind it that she made her lasting contribution to cinema. Many of the techniques we now take for granted — moving the camera around, crane shots, dolly shots — can be traced back to Riefenstahl. Along with a host of other German filmmakers, she made cinema far more kinetic, far more dynamic, than it had been before. Unfortunately, she chose to showcase much of her incredible talent in Triumph of the Will, a film whose primary aim was to show how glorious Hitler and the Third Reich was. Like Griffith, pretty much anything you did before and after a film like that is going to be overshadowed. And among the things Riefenstahl did before Triumph of the Will was star in a series of sweeping mountaineering epics directed by geologist and outdoor sporting enthusiast Arnold Fanck.
The White Hell of Piz Palu represents the middle entry in a thematic trilogy that began with The Holy Mountain and ended with Storm Over Mont Blanc (SOS Iceberg is sort of a cousin), all three starring Riefenstahl, directed by Fanck, and concerning people who get in a lot of trouble up in the Alps. In the case of Piz Palu, the trouble begins straight away with a trio of climbers making an ascent up the titular mountain. Piz Palu was and remains notable for being covered in a lot of ice, and it is this ice, in combination with a warm wind, that causes such trouble for healthy young lovers Dr. Johannes and Maria Krafft (Gustaff Deissl and Mizzi Gotzel respectively) and guide Christian (Otto Spring). A snow slide catches them off guard, and poor Maria plunges into a crevasse, leaving Johannes kneeling helpless at the edge while Christian makes his way down the mountain in search of help, though both men know there’s precious little hope of it amounting to anything other than body recovery.
Skip ahead a bit, to the same mountain, where hearty newlyweds Hans (Ernst Peterson) and Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) have decided, apparently, to celebrate their marriage by hiking up into the Alps and staying in one of the many shelters that dot all the popular hiking and climbing routes. From time to time their friend Flieger (real life World War One flying ace Ernst Udet) buzzes them in his biplane and drops little bottles of champagne attached to wee parachutes. It’s all very healthy and fun and vigorous, so much so that Maria is more than happy to cavort happily in the snow while wearing a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Things turn dour, however, when Johannes shows up at the shelter. Maria does her best to befriend the haunted climber, who returns to Piz Palu every season in a vain search for his wife’s body. Hans, on the other hand, seems alternately fascinated by the gloomy man and irritated that he’s lurking around. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your honeymoon in a public cabin in the Alps. You’re just asking for a damned soul to show up and recount his haunted past to you.
Maria discovers that, while he was waiting for Christian to return with help from the town at the foot of the mountain, Johannes thought he could hear Maria (his Maria — that the two women have the same name is no accident, I’m sure) shouting for help. Both horrified and elated by the thought that his wife might still be alive, injured at the bottom of the crevasse, Johannes begins a reckless solo descent into the cavernous crack. But when he reaches the literal end of his rope, there is no one there and no sign of Maria. Since then, he has combed the mountain for her, but to no avail and with no ability to do it effectively without a support team. Well, obviously, he’s about to get one, and this trio’s ascent isn’t going to go any better than the first time Johannes attempted Piz Palu.
There’s a lot of stuff to admire in this film, but you’re really going to need to like mountaineering, because that’s the film’s obsession. Fanck was a naturalist, after all, and Piz Palu itself is the star of this film. I thought it was fascinating. Being a beginner climber myself, though one with no aspirations to go anywhere where the photo of me includes having an ice-encrusted beard (I’ll stick to boulders and mountains of a shorter stature than The Matterhorn), these movies serve as an incredible, documentary-like look at Alpine climbing in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, this movie could very well be regarded as a documentary about mountain climbing with some make believe drama injected. Fanck, working alongside co-directed G.W. Pabst, films much of the movie on location and with actual mountaineering going on. And given modern clothing and safety systems, watching it done old school — in heavy wool and with almost no equipment other than a rope, and ax, crampons, and that famous German/Swiss physical culture can-do vitality — is interesting. But make no mistake, given the choice between climbing in heavy wool and knee socks or performance fleece and ultra-5000 space age wicking material, I’m sticking with modern gear, regardless of how cool someone looks kitted out in the old style duds.
And the climbing in this film is truly breathtaking, especially when it concentrates on Johannes’ dangerous descent into the crevasse. Watching the way the climber wedges his way into small spaces, makes crazy leaps, dangles over nothing — there have been decades of mountain films made since this one, but few capture the activity with such raw energy. Fanck is a documentarian by nature, and he doesn’t rely on camera tricks and snazzy editing. He simply puts the camera in place — which itself must have been quite a feat of climbing and rappelling — and lets the action speak for itself. Most of the film’s drama stems from this approach, as one gets the feeling that the actors are in as much danger as the characters they are playing. A second descent into an icy network of caverns and crevasses, this one performed by a rescue team searching for the bodies of a university climbing team caught in an avalanche — succeeds in creating a completely alien, eerie universe. Shadowy men with flares move through the ice tunnels, casting reflections and smoke in all directions.
Secondary to the presence of the mountain and the act of climbing, then simply trying to survive, it, is the human drama. One of the things that sets this film apart from many of the silent era is that the acting is subdued and natural, never reverting to any of that extremely exaggerated pantomiming that has become synonymous with performances of the era. I love films of the silent era, but even I have to admit that many of the performances in even the best of films are so stylized and artificial that it becomes hard to relate to the characters. Not so in The White Hell of Piz Palu. Everyone looks and acts like a regular person, and as such, it becomes very easy to identify with them. It would have been easy for Gustaff Deissl to express his melancholy by doing the “crazy panic face” and “furtive glancing back and forth before burying head in hands.”
Instead, we get a deceptively powerful scene where he sits in stoic contemplation, listening to the dripping of a melting icicle that reminds of the melting icicles that surrounded him as he waited desperately at the edge of the cliff for Christian to return with help. But instead of doing the freak out or the over-sold “making an O with my mouth” face, he simply sits there, winces slightly, then quietly gets up, walks outside, and breaks off the icicle. It’s a perfect example of how complicated acting can be. There’s the hammy over the top way to go, and there’s the very accomplished and dramatic but still obviously acting way to go (the “win an Oscar” method). Deissl goes the third, less journeyed route, which is to act in a way that makes the audience forget you are acting. Simply put, I believe this guy.
The film hints at but never develops a romantic triangle. It’s obvious that Maria (the Riefenstahl one) is entranced by this dark, brooding, rugged man who climbs the most dangerous mountains in Europe by himself in a hopeless search for his dead wife. And it’s just as obvious that Hans develops an almost immediate inferiority complex, feeling that measured against Joannes, he himself is less of a man. But once again, the film plays the melodrama with subtlety, and never turns Hans into some cartoonish jealous lover. His insecurity around Johannes first manifests itself in a need to engage in a bout of manly firewood chopping, and later to accompanying Johannes on his quest, thus enabling Johannes to cover territory that can’t be covered solo. Finally, it culminates in Hans insisting on walking point for a while, and it’s then that the trouble really begins, even though it’s not entirely Hans’ fault.
An avalanche injures Hans, and the ensuing rescue attempt results in Johannes breaking a leg, leaving the trio stranded atop the mountain hoping that Christian will notice their entry into the mountain hut log and assemble some sort of rescue. Hans eventually succumbs to high altitude cerebral edema (altitude sickness to you and me), resulting in him becoming delirious and, at times, even suicidal. Needless to say, the romantic triangle that could have developed never trudges into such predictable territory as romantic triangles often do, and it is soon replaced by the simple tale of three people attempting to survive near impossible odds.
Riefenstahl impresses as an actress, and if you are able to forget for a moment that she would go on a few years later to turn Hitler into a godlike Wotan figure descending from the clouds to deliver rousing speeches to masses of Sieg Heiling Germans, she exudes an instant likability. She’s not exactly attractive — not in the way one could instantly accept the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, or Josephine Baker — but there’s such a natural air of vitality and energy about her that she endears herself. She’s sort of like the tomboy best friend, the cute one you don’t date but love to go hiking with. Of course, this best friend eventually turns out to be a Nazi propagandist, and that sort of sours the milk.
In 1933, after making her last film as an actress (SOS Iceberg, again with Fanck), Riefenstahl launched her career as a director. The Blue Light treads familiar territory, as it is set in the Alps and once again prominently features mountaineering. But where as Fanck strove for as much realism as possible, Riefenstahl’s film goes whole hog in on mysticism. It was while watching her in movies like these that Hitler became infatuated with Riefenstahl and began the process of bringing her into the Nazi party. Riefenstahl directed a series of pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, documentaries, all of which are considered landmark technical achievements. These included a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and 1933’s Victory of Faith, a propaganda piece that became something of an embarrassment when one of the chief subjects, Ernst Rohm, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. Rohm was an open homosexual, as were several other prominent members of the paramilitary stormtrooper organization Sturmabteilung, of which Rohm was in command. Rohm was eventually caught up in the purge and charged by Himmler and Goring with plotting to overthrow Hitler. Hitler, however, still considered Rohm a friend, and did as much as he could to put off the man’s death. When Rohm refused to commit “honorable suicide” however, he was executed, with his homosexuality being the on-record reason.
Once the war was rolling, Riefenstahl’s career became even harder to sort out. She was active in filming a number of victory parades, such as Hitler’s triumphant parade through conquered Poland, and was on hand during the killing of a number of civilians in retaliation for resistance efforts. Pictures of Leni at the execution were used to both condemn and exonerate her. She was indeed present, but she is also noticeably upset. What’s the story? In her own words, she attempted to prevent the executions but was forced back a gunpoint by German soldiers. War being what it is, who knows? She continued her propaganda work, though, filming the aforementioned victory parade in 1939. She also began work on a feature film adaptation of Tiefland, a production that included in its crew a number of forced labor conscripts from German concentration camps.
Fate seems to have been committed to keeping the actress-director’s life as weird as possible. When the war in Europe ended, novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was with the Navy at the time working on Allied propaganda films being directed by John Ford (some of which can be downloaded from archive.org and are really worth a look), wa tasked with arresting Riefenstahl. The Allies wanted her in Nuremberg for the War Crimes trials, so that she could identify various people in her films. Riefenstahl herself did not stand trial, but many were skeptical of her claims that she was just an innocent bystander who had no idea what concentration camps were or “what the Nazis were really up to” — especially when that statement was coupled with a statement that she made propaganda films because Goebbels threatened to send her to a concentration camp if she didn’t. History, of course, is a nasty knot to untangle, especially in times of conflict.
That was pretty much it for her career. She attempted to return to film making but found few people willing to finance her projects. Tiefland was finally released in 1954. Eventually, she turned to still photography and worked for a while in The Sudan. At the age of 72 — though she lied and said she was 52 in order to do it — she became a certified diver and began a career as an underwater photographer. Her contributions to the history of cinema are as great as they are terrible, and she remains a very divisive person to discuss. However, divorced of its political context and the frightening results it helped yield, her pioneering contributions to film making cannot be denied. In her films we find the birth of much of the modern language of cinema. Even as her subject matter repulses most, her technique is breathtaking. It’s hard, even knowing what we know, to watch something like Triumph of the Will or Olympia and not get swept up by how beautiful it is. It’s not unlike watching the work of D.W. Griffith, who was, in my opinion, nowhere near the league of Riefenstahl. But he still made sweeping films, and one can’t help but get caught up momentarily in the spectacle before the reality of what you’re watching sets in again.
Director Arnold Fanck apparently ran afoul of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels early on. After making such films as Storm Over Mont Blanc — a film featuring a French hero — Fanck found it increasingly difficult to work, until he finally capitulated and began working on projects for both the German and Japanese government. When the war ended, Fanck’s career was dead, and he faded into obscurity, his final days being spent working as a lumberjack. It wasn’t until more recently that Fanck’s adventure films were rediscovered and he collected groups of admirers who appreciated his much more natural approach to film making.
At the behest of Leni Riefenstahl, White Hell of Piz Palu was co-directed by G.W. Pabst. Pabst split his time between German and American projects, as well as between cinema and opera. It was in one of Pabst’s films, in fact, that Deissl had his first role. In the end, though, they are all of them the human subplot dominated by the Alps-sized shadow cast by the leading lady.
But even she is outsized by the mountain itself. Mountain adventure films have come and gone since then, and most of the movement has been toward the goofy and embarrassing. Arnold Fanck is really where this type of adventure begins, though, and even if his became a largely forgotten name, his adventure films still stand as some of the best ever made, and his combination of documentary and drama informs many modern films. His camera studies the mountain intently, dwells on the natural wonders such behemoths generate: the dance of cloud shadows over snow fields and rags, the glistening tunnels and pits of ice fields, the bizarre swirls of powder kicked up by winds cascading over the peaks. One gets a feel for every nook and cranny, every nub, jug, and crimpy little handhold. And that helps us understand the pain of the characters as they toil up the spine of this beast. Unencumbered by the modern thirst for special effects, madcap editing, and overblown theatrics, Fanck simply lets the mountain be a mountain, and the end result is both hypnotic and scary. It’s going to brutalize you, probably even kill you. But you can’t stop yourself from going anyway.
As exciting as White Hell of Piz Palu is in many places, it’s also unevenly paced. After the opening disaster, the film settles down for nearly forty minutes of drama that alternates between being effective and simply dragging on for too long and becoming tedious. Even though the acting is natural and there is much in the film that is subtle, it also has its moments of clunkiness, specifically in the overly long way it goes about telling us just how happy and delightful Hans and Maria are. And while it is punctuated by Johannes’ panicked descent into the crevasse — quite possibly my favorite part of the film — his time in the mountain hut consists of far too much pensive staring while symbolic snow melts. But then, Fanck goes and does something like the shot of Johannes outside, smoking a cigarette while sitting on an old wooden fence with the whole of the Alps spreading out behind him, and it pulls you right back in. Silent films trade in images, by necessity, and Fanck manages on many occasions to capture scenes of iconic beauty.
Still, despite these missteps, White Hell of Piz Palu emerges as a truly fascinating and exciting film from the dawn of action-adventure cinema. Once we’re on the mountain itself, the film is tense and well-executed, not to mention jaw-dropping in some of the stunts that aren’t even stunts as much as they are just examples of how dangerous mountaineering was (and is). If I had to compare it to any modern movie, it would be the docu-drama Touching the Void, or the slightly older documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest. Both films, like White Hell of Piz Palu, capture both the menace and the beauty of such natural wonders and our enduring fascination with trying to climb them. When our trio suffers onscreen, it’s easy to feel their suffering. When they stand on the threshold of rescue only to have hope vanish, we feel it. And when Fanck shows us ice-encrusted Piz Palu towering over the landscape, we feel the oppressive weight of its menace as well as the stunning allure of its beauty.
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.
Doing a quick survey of Yahoo, Google, and the external reviews linked to from the Internet Movie Database will turn up a body of reviews almost unanimous in their disdain for this movie. Yor, The Hunter from the Future certainly isn’t an unknown movie, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person out there, even among aficionados of bad movies, who doesn’t feel that it probably should be an unknown movie. Sometimes it seems like the lone voice in post-apocalyptic wilderness is the guy who writes for www.antoniomargheriti.com, though even the film’s own director has publicly stated that the film is awful. Given that I am apparently one of the two members of the Yor fanclub, it behooves me to write a decent defense and review of this maligned slice of early eighties Italian exploitation.