Try to imagine that, like me, your life has become a steady parade of disappointments and squandered potential, but then one day, the following happens: having previously been enlightened as to the existence of a Bollywood ninja movie — a rip-off of American Ninja from the same cast and crew that brought the world Disco Dancer, no less — you go to your little website forum and theorize that, given the popularity of kungfu films in India and the proliferation of Bruce Lee imitators and crappy “Bruceploitation” films during the 1970s, there was no way Bollywood didn’t produce at least one film cashing in on the death and popularity of Bruce Lee.
Man, what is it with the directors of z-grade Indian horror films sharing names with yoga masters who have lots of information about themselves on the web? Don’t these yogis know that their online self-promotion makes it harder to find information about the director Harinam Singh, or in this case, Kishan Shah? And what is a yogi doing with a web presence anyway? Shouldn’t he be balancing on one leg in a cave somewhere in Rajasthan?
If you were one of the few who followed the joint Magic Lizard Twitter-thon that involved The Cultural Gutter, Die Danger Die Die Kill, WtF-Film, and Teleport City, you might recall that proclamations of Magic Lizard‘s status as the worst movie ever made were challenged — legitimately — by The Cultural Gutter, who maintained that even the deepest of wounds inflicted by Magic Lizard were mere surface abrasions when measured against the to-the-core cutting of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a cheap and lazy starring vehicle for Martin and Lewis copycats Duke Mitchell (yes, the same Duke Mitchell who later went on to make Massacre Mafia Style) and Sammy Petrillo (yes, the same Sammy Petrillo who later went on to star in Doris Wishman’s Keyholes are for Peeping). The movie had previously been experienced as one of Drive-In Mob’s Tweet-alongs. And as you might guess from the title, Bela Lugosi shows up (though he barely seems cognisant of the fact) to earn himself a little more morphine money and does indeed encounter a gorilla from — but not in — Brooklyn. While the Cultural Gutter’s Carol boasts writing about comics as her primary forte, she’s no slouch when it comes to cinema, and so I did not take her challenge to Magic Lizard‘s throne lightly. In fact, I’d been hearing for years how awful Brooklyn Gorilla was from people possessed of substantial strength when it comes to tackling the very worst cinema has to offer.
There was nothing about the old VHS box for Shaolin Invincibles that made us think we were renting anything other than a standard “kungfu orphans get revenge on villains who murdered their parents” story. We plucked it from the shelves because, well, why not? We were up for renting anything that wasn’t Unique Lama. By the time Ocean Shores video splashed that bright red “The End” graphic onto the television screen, we’d seen tongue-waggling ghosts, bug-eyed zombies, and that most treasured of kungfu film appearances — the kungfu gorilla. I won’t say that the impact of Shaolin Invincibles on our mental faculties was as pronounced as it was after watching Young Taoism Fighter for the first time, but that’s a pretty high bar to set.
At the time, though my friends and I were voracious consumers of any and every kungfu movie on which we could get our hands, we were also operating more or less in a vacuum. Pre-internet days, you know. So while I wanted to know more about the movies I was watching, there simply didn’t exist the resources that would help me complete the task. I learned to recognize various stars and directors, I didn’t have much historical context beyond that I could paste together based solely on movies I’d seen. There was no way for me to tell a Hong Kong film from a Taiwanese film, and no way for me to understand that I should know the difference — I didn’t suspect that the most bizarre kungfu films we were renting were the product of a Taiwanese film industry that seemed to think acid-fueled fever dreams were the best source material for kungfu movie scripts.
We live in a more enlightened time now, and thanks to the tireless efforts of of sites like Die Danger Die Die Kill!, I have a clearer picture of the Taiwanese kungfu film market. With the ability to put everything into context, I’m no longer surprised that director Hau Chang cranked out a movie as bizarre as Shaolin Invincibles. It was really just standard operating procedure for a man who gave us films like Ape Girl and the truly inspired martial arts fantasy Legend of Mother Goddess. In fact, Shaolin Invincibles is one of his more normal films.
Things start out familiar enough. A murderous Ch’ing ruler (Chen Hung-lieh, Temple of the Red Lotus and Come Drink with Me) has a family murdered, but the little daughters are spirited away by a convenient group of Shaolin monks. Years later, the girls ave grown into Lu Szu Liang (Chia Ling, The Legend of Mother Goddess) and Lu Yu Liang (Doris Lung Chun-Erh, Master of the Flying Guillotine and Young Hero of Shaolin), masters of several secret Shaolin techniques. Now that they’re grown, the abbot allows them to leave the temple to seek revenge on the men who slaughtered their family. Along the way, they’ll be helped by Kan Feng Chih (Carter Wong, 18 Bronzemen and Big Trouble in Little China).
Captain of the guard Lei (Yee Yuen), who happens to own the most splendid robe in all of China (and dolls himself up with matching cosmetics), soon figures out that the guys dropping by the dozens are being offed by the Lu sisters, and even though he’s never seen them, somehow he’s able to mobilize every thug in the province to try and take them out. This results, as you can imagine, in a lot of dead thugs. Also, one of the women disguises herself as a man for no reason other than there was a law in Taiwan that every kungfu movie had to feature a woman who is obviously a woman but passes for a man simply because she dons traditional men’s attire. Afraid that the king will find out that he lied about slaughtering the whole Lu clan, Lei then turns to the sorriest bunch of elite killers I’ve ever seen. It’s your usual assortment — monk with bushy eyebrows, fey dude with fan, dirty old beggar — but this lot seems especially easy to dispatch, even without Carter Wong dropping by at random times to lend a fist.
Lei probably could have spent a little more time shopping around for exotic hired killers, as the king seems preoccupied with the latest additions to his court: a couple of capering gorillas that are, as was usually the case, played by a couple stuntmen in ratty costume store gorilla outfits, complete with loosely flapping pant legs and occasionally crooked masks. As if it that wasn’t enough, the gorillas’ wranglers are a couple of ghosts. I’m not entirely as up on my Chinese folklore as I should be, but I think these guys are supposed to either be Diao Si Gui — the spirit of someone who has died by hanging (thus the long, engorged tongue) — or Hei Bai Wu Chang — the black and white guardians of hell, recognizable for their tall hats, black and white robes, and the accouterments they usually carry (you can see Billy Chong beat a couple up in Kungfu from Beyond the Grave).
I think these dudes are a couple of Diao Si Gui who were spookin’ around one day and found a box of hell guard hats and robes and were like, “We can get free food if we wear these around town!” Otherwise, they’re a desultory couple of hell guards who obviously lucked into the job, and so incompetent were they that the king of hell made up the most ridiculous job he could and convinced them that it was super-important that they take these, uhh… I’m gonna say gorillas, and deliver ‘em to this guy in the fancy robe. Yeah, that should keep ‘em out of my hair for a couple weeks. Sort of like how Lucky the Leprechaun is such a shitty leprechaun that while all the other leprechauns get to guard pots of gold, he has to guard a bowl of cereal. Anyway, the gorillas are almost completely invulnerable except for the top of the head. If you such much as slightly brush against the top of their heads, it sends them into howling fits of agony and, if sustained, they will become totally loyal to you for some reason. I guess this sounded like a decent enough weakness, at least until they ended up in a movie where the heroes’ signature move is to leap up into the air and jam a sword into the top of your head.
While the king is farting around with the gorillas, the Lu sisters get jobs as maids so that they can infiltrate the palace and get their final revenge. Even though Lei was able to describe the women to every two-bit killer in the kingdom, and even though he and his men drew up a whole bunch of wanted posters with really detailed sketches of the sisters, no one — including Lei — seems to recognize them when they start skulking around the palace. Killing Lei and the king proves a tricky task, however, as the palace is kitted out with the usual assortment of secret passages, traps, and for some reason, a dude who has been in prison so long that he has turned into a monster. Luckily for Carter Wong and the girls, famed leg fighter Dorian Tan Tao-Liang will pop up out of nowhere, announce “It’s me, that one guy who you’ve all been waiting for even though I haven’t been in the movie until now,” and then he’ll kick a lot of people in the name of helping the Lu’s.
Shaolin Invincibles isn’t as crazy as I remembered, but it’s still a lot of fun. There’s a ton of action, pretty good fights, and there’s the gorillas and the ghost and the zombie guy just for the hell of it. A little, something for everybody, really. The best part has to be when the Lu’s are sneaking through the woods and spy the two gorillas from a distance. The gorillas are doing that usual capering and hopping about that bad actors do when they are trying to play gorillas, even though I don’t think a real gorilla has ever moved like that. Upon seeing the two galoots lumbering awkward down a hill, Lu Yu Liang instantly surmises “those beasts seem to know kungfu.” This is pretty sloppily made, and I could have used more Dorian Tan Tao-Liang, but as was often the case with Taiwanese martial art cinema from the 70s, the energy, frequent action, and flat out strangeness is more than enough to result in a fun film.
Release Year: 1977 | Country: Taiwan | Starring: Carter Wong, Chia Ling, Doris Lung Chun-Erh, Dorian Tan Tao-Liang, Chen Hung-Lieh, Yee Yuen, Jack Lung Sai-Ga, Blacky Ko Sau-Leung, Lee Keung, Lam Chung | Screenplay: Yeung Gat-Aau | Director: Hau Chang | Music: Eddie H. Wang Chi-Ren | Producer: Geung Chung-Ping | Original Title: Yong zheng ming zhang Shao Lin men
It seems like there was a period in the history of Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio when Sir Run Run Shaw had a bright red rotary telephone stored under a cheese dome sitting atop his desk. Whenever a completely loony script landed on his desk, he would calmly pick up the phone and it would automatically dial a pre-programmed number which would be answered by Danny Lee, sitting across the studio, presumably wearing a tight polyester shirt adorned with some distasteful paisley pattern. How else can you explain the man’s appearance in a string of the studio’s first real forays into the world of crazy kungfu? Although the Shaws would produce no small number of truly batty kungfu films, especially during the late 70s and early 80s when the company was on its final leg, their early forays into left field all seemed to have the common denominator of young star Li Hsiu-hsien, soon to become Danny Lee.
Lee is best known for two things: being the determined cop in John Woo’s internationally adored love letter to male bonding and the wholesale slaughter of gangs randomly dressed up as rugby players (The Killer), and his role as the super-powered costumed hero with atomic fists, Infra-Man. But scattered throughout Li’s early career with the Shaw Bros. are films that are just as colorful and bizarre as Infra-Man, only usually with a lot more sleaze and nudity thrown in. It was Danny Lee who was tapped to play Bruce Lee in the studio’s tawdry softcore sexploitation version of the Little Dragon’s final days. It was Danny Lee who became the high-jumping Oily Maniac and ran around town killing rapists before finally succumbing to the temptations inherent in being a creature imbued with all the fearsome powers one attributes to a pile of dirty auto shop rags. And it was Danny Lee who bravely stood by the side of a mostly naked jungle girl as they tried to stem the wrath of the rampaging giant ape known as Goliathon.
Movies were never part of Lee’s plan. As a kid, he idolized policemen and dreamed of one day being able to himself don those khaki shorts and the gun attached to a cord that so identify Hong Kong police of the time. Unfortunately, Lee wasn’t the brightest guy, and he could never successfully pass any of the exams to become a police officer. With few options in his future, Lee entered the TVB Acting School in 1970. By 1971, he was popping up in Shaw Bros. films like Deadly Duo and, a year later, the star-studded epic Water Margin. Lee was not exactly a major player at the studio, at least not when compared to contemporaries like Ti Lung and David Chiang. Though he appeared in many of the studio’s biggest productions, he was usually a supporting player, very often inhabiting a “blink and you’ll miss him” role.
In 1973, he got his first starring role, in River of Fury, though it was less as Danny Lee and more as a guy who could comb his hair into the same style as Bruce Lee. It was 1975′s Infra-Man — Hong Kong’s ode to Japanese tokusatsu heroes like Kamen Rider — that started Lee’s long career in appearing in the studio’s weirdest productions. He continued in this capacity for a while — starring in crazy B films, appearing in small roles in more prestigious films. When the studio hit the skids, Lee started up his own production company and decided that if he couldn’t be a real cop, he would do the next best thing, which was pretend to be a cop in the movies. Splitting his time between acting and directing, Lee produced a steady but somewhat unremarkable string of action and comedy films, the notable exception being the highly regarded Law With Two Phases, in which Lee played the archetypal “hot headed but just” cop role that would come to define his career. In 1989, he appeared as one half of the “male bonding experience on steroids” in John Woo’s The Killer. The movie was an international hit, and it made Lee a familiar face to cult film fans around the world. And then things got really weird.
I don’t know Danny Lee. I’ve never really heard him express his thoughts on political or social matters. All I can do is interpret him from afar, and that leaves me with the following impression: Danny Lee is insane.
After his success in The Killer, Lee appeared as a cop in pretty much every movie made in Hong Kong. Under his own production company’s banner, and often under his guiding hand as director, Lee established the dominance of the sleazy Category III crime film. Cat III films, for those who missed the boat, are often characterized as “Hong Kong’s NC-17 movies.” This isn’t entirely accurate. Many Cat III films could pass for R, and many still could pass for PG. While it is often obvious why a film receives a Cat III ratings, other times the classification of a particular film as forbidden fruit has to be chalked up to some cultural offense lost on overseas viewers or, more likely, the fact that no matter what country you live in, the ratings boards seem to operate without any basis in logic or reason.
In 1992, as the New Wave was becoming old hat in Hong Kong but being freshly discovered in the United States, Lee directed and appeared in Dr. Lamb. The film combined Lee’s beloved police procedural style film with the grotesqueness of extreme horror, then doused it all with the sort of sleazy tastelessness that would come to define much of Hong Kong’s output in the 1990s. Dr. Lamb spawned dozens — if not hundreds — of imitators, many of them made by or starring Lee. It’s willingness to go where no film would dare go before, it’s gleeful embrace of the basest, most irredeemably gratuitous, callous, and scummy aspects of the human condition, made it an instant classic. The Cat III craze was born, fueled by the “we don’t give a shit about anything anymore” abandon of Hong Kong in the years leading up to the 1997 reunification of the British colony with the communist Mainland. Like college students on an “end of youth” bender in Juarez, Hong Kong indulged every vice. Nothing was taboo. Nothing was too extreme or tasteless. And standing in the middle of it all was Danny Lee.
The next year, Lee topped himself, turning the extreme violence and wickedly misanthropic sense of humor present in Dr. Lamb into high art, or at least high low art. Co-directed by and starring Danny Lee, The Untold Story quickly became one of the most infamous films in the world. Telling the story of a completely unhinged killer who dices people up and serves them as ingredients in the pork buns offered by his restaurant, the movie garnered critical and fan acclaim, as well as a passel of awards for Lee and his star, Anthony Wong.
Through his direction and portrayals, Lee continuously escalated the insanity of the “cop on the edge”, and it eventually became impossible to tell when he was joking and when he truly believed the police should be allowed to do things like shove gushing garden hoses up Simon Yam’s ass or rape female suspects with condoms filled with ice cubes. In the end, though, you simply have to go with the flow. Danny Lee was insane, but pretty much all of Hong Kong was insane. I like to imagine that Lee and the rest of the Hong Kong film industry spent June 30, 1997, adrift in Kowloon Bay on a raft covered with screaming monkeys, a la Klaus Kinski’s ill-fated character in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God. But Lee probably just spent it getting ready for some variety show. Whatever. By the time Handover rolled around, Cat III films had exhausted every disgusting, perverse pleasure imaginable. The entire Cat III industry collapsed. The entire Hong Kong film industry collapsed, gutted from the inside by years of corruption, Triad control, and perhaps a general exhaustion brought on by the orgiastic excesses and Caligulan revelry that represented the island nation’s last bash before the more somber, less liberal Chinese government took control and decreed that all action stars should be pretty young male model types with floppy emo haircuts.
Battle Wizard finds the future “crazy cop” smack dab in the middle of his role as the go-to guy for any weird thing the Shaw Bros. threw up on screen. Hot off Goliathon and about to appear in the deliriously torrid Call Girls, this ultra-strange slice of kungfu fantasy casts Lee in a position that might take people familiar with the bulk of his work somewhat off-guard. He’s not stoic. He’s not mean. He’s not pretending to be Bruce Lee while banging Bruce Lee’s real-life mistress. He even laughs and smiles. But don’t worry — his basically likable character is still surrounded by a movie that includes a lascivious green goblin man, a legless fire-breathing kungfu master who has replaced his missing limbs with electrified robotic chicken legs, guys who shoot lasers out of their fingers, and a woman who can throw snakes at you that will burrow through your face and crawl around in your chest as they busily eat your internal organs.
The story begins with hero Prince Tuan Zhengchun in bed with his beloved. However, Tuan proves to be slightly less than heroic when we learn, during a rapid succession of events, that this is a mistress, he’s gotten the mistress pregnant, the mistress’s husband is outside waiting for a fight, and Tuan is more than willing to smugly ditch the mistress as soon as his wife — who doesn’t seem to care that her husband sleeps around — shows up to escort him back to the palace after being nasty to the pregnant mistress. In the fight between Tuan and his mistress’ proper husband, Wong Po-yen, Tuan uses his magical pew-pew-pew finger lasers to blow the poor guy’s legs off. Enraged by everything that has transpired that afternoon, Wong vows revenge on the Tuan family, and honestly, it’s hard not to sympathize with him.
Years pass, and Tuan’s illegitimate daughter grows up. Tuan also has a son with his actual wife. Tuan’s estranged daughter, Xiang Yaocha (Chor Yuen film regular Tanny Tien Ni) has become a kungfu master who has had instilled in her by her mother a burning hatred of all things male in general and Tuan in particular. Decreeing that no man is worthy of seeing her daughter’s face, Xiang is adorned with a black veil and sets out to wreak havoc on the Martial World. Tuan’s legitimate son, Tuan Yu (Danny Lee) has grown into an affable scholar more interested in poetry and philosophy than the martial arts, much to the consternation of his father. When pops insists that his son start taking the physical culture of youth more seriously, Tuan Yu wonders if it is indeed so important in this modern world to know kungfu, or if a man might survive purely on the merits of his refinement, charm, and intelligence.
Not surprisingly, the answer is, “You need kungfu,” but don’t think that this film is given to any deep meditation on this quandary. Tuan Yu’s quest for enlightenment lasts about three minutes, just long enough for him to meet a pretty young woman named Zhong Ling-ehr (Lin Chen-chi), whose martial arts specialty is throwing snakes at people. After Tuan Yu proves himself worthless in a fight and admits that the world is a violent place where even a scholar must hone the fine art of doing something like throwing a gob of snakes at some guy’s face, Zhong agrees to teach him kungfu. As is typical in movies of this type, the lesson begins right then and there, with no real preparation or plan other than for Tuan Yu to hobble, arms flailing wildly, at Zhong so she can toss him around. It’s the martial arts equivalent of looking for a good math tutor, then having that tutor, immediately upon being hired, punch you in the face repeatedly while demanding that you solve the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture.
When the duo is set upon by members of one of what must be eight million Poison Clans that operated in medieval China, Tuan Yu must seek the assistance of Zhong’s friend, Xiang Yaocha. No sooner does Tuan Yu come into contact with the half-sister he does not know exists than they are set upon by old Wong’s chief minion: a green goblin guy with a retractable hook on a chain for a hand. And it’s round about here that the movie starts to get completely weird. Bye and bye, Tuan Yu sucks the blood of a fabled red python that gives a man instant kungfu super powers. He and Xiang Yaocha pledge to marry one another, only to soon discover (thankfully before he’s done anything more than suck some poison out of a wound on her shoulder) that they are brother and sister and Tuan Yu’s parents are the people Xiang swore to her mother to kill. Then Wong, hobbling about on the electrified, extensible chicken legs he used to replace the legs Tuan Zhengchung blasted off, shows up to capture Tuan Yu and Xiang Yaochi, all of which leads to a colossally insane finale full of fire breathing, finger lasers, tornado punches, and poison frog eating. Oh, and somewhere in the middle of it all, Danny Lee and Tien Ni fight a kungfu gorilla.
While Battle Wizard isn’t the weirdest or most outrageous kungfu film ever made (I still think that honor belongs to Buddha’s Palm and collected works of the Yuen clan), it’s still plenty weird. Real martial arts take a back seat to fantasy fu and guys shooting beams at each other, though there’s still a decent amount of foot and fist action. In a fairly rare turn of events for ultra-weird kungfu action, the story itself is pretty straight-forward and simple to follow. There are no secret clans betraying each other, and there’s a fairly manageable cast of characters. The script by Ni Kuang, who wrote every single movie in Hong Kong during the 60s and 70s (or so it seems), is based on the novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, written in serialized fashion over the course of four years by famed wuxia novelist Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha) and by Ni Kuang himself, when Jin Yong had to take a leave of absence from his authoring duties. Yong’s novels more famously served as the basis for many of director Chor Yuen’s most complex and intriguing wuxia movies made during the 1970s, and anyone familiar with the convoluted, labyrinthine plots of those movies might marvel at how streamlined, realtively speaking, Battle Wizard is by comparison.
Don’t worry, though. Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is just as fantastically overstuffed with plot twists and confusion as the rest of Jin Yong’s work. When adapting it for the screen, Ni Kuang chose to stick purely to a single character’s story in the otherwise sprawling epic, leaving the myriad dozens upon dozens of other characters, clans, gods, and plots for other movies. I don’t know if the novel explores the hinted at but largely unaddressed moral quandaries of the story as presented in the movie. For example, aside from breezing through the “can a man live without being violent” philosophical question, there’s the question of who here is the bad guy. Tuan Zhengchung certainly acts like a dick when we first meet him, but later in the story he and his brother, the emperor, become erstwhile good guys. He even welcomes his estranged daughter back into the family, though it probably would have been a more admirable gesture if he hadn’t callously abandoned her and her mother in the first place.
Similarly, it’s hard to see crazy ol’ Chickenfoot Wong as a thoroughly bad guy given that he tried to prevent his wife from having an affair and got his legs blasted off by her lover as a result. That’s bound to unhinge anyone at least a little bit. The wife, incidentally, disappears from the movie entirely right after she sends a masked Xiong out into the world to shoot people with laser darts launched out of a femur. Most of this is more hinting at complexity than it is actual complexity. It certainly makes the characters more interesting, but ultimately, it’s less like getting to know the nuances of flawed characters than it is reading the ad copy on the back of a book about these characters. From what I can gather, the elder Tuan is taken more to task for his womanizing ways in the original novel, which spends a portion of time on poor Tuan Yu falling in love with a variety of beauties only to discover that every one of them is his half-sister, since his father apparently slept with, impregnated, then abandoned every comely lass in the Middle Kingdom.
However, such thematic questions are quickly swept under the rug as soon as the fire-breathing chicken-leg wizard, toad eating, and gorilla scuffles parade onto the screen. Given the movie’s slight running time, it’s a wonder that Ni Kuang packed any character complexity at all into the story on its brisk march toward the outer reaches of kungfu insanity. When it arrives at its destination, however, it becomes one for the ages. The studio learned a lot during the making of Infra-Man, and many filmmakers seemed keen on employing the sort of optical and animation effects present in that film. Up until Battle Wizard, director Hsueh Li Pao plied his trade in pretty normal kungfu films. I don’t know the events that lead to his directing Battle Wizard instead of someone like Chor Yuen, but the end result is a satisfying smattering of kungfu mixed in with a whole lot of animated laser beams and random flashes of color.
Wong’s subterranean lair looks straight out of Mario Bava, awash as it is in gratuitous but never the less gorgeous multi-colored lighting. One half expects Reg Park to come swaggering through, stopping just long enough to apologize for the intrusion and ask the direction to Christopher Lee’s similarly lit underground abode. Art director Johnson Tsao, who worked on pretty much every Shaw Bros. movie you can think of, blends the sort of stylized sets such fantasy films demand with a lot of outdoor location work, which is one of the primary reasons Battle Wizard feels similar to but also very different from Chor Yuen’s entirely set-bound wuxia fantasies. When the sets do show up, they’re impressively otherworldly. Aside from Wong’s cave (which is actually a very simple, small, and cheap set made interesting by the way it’s lit and filmed), there’s his weird pagoda of death and, particularly effective, the multi-colored mist enshrouded swamp in which the Poison Clan dwells. The rest of the sets are pretty standard Shaw. Bros. interiors.
The acting is pretty good across the board. Danny Lee, as I might have alluded to earlier, never struck me as a particularly engaging performer. He has more range than, say, Derek Yee would later demonstrate, but very little in the way of true skill or charisma, especially when held up alongside contemporaries like David Chiang, Ti Lung, or Alexander Fu Sheng. However, he works well within his limited range for this movie, creating a character with a decent degree of charisma who teaches us the valuable lesson that you can loaf around all your life, and as long as you eventually bite a snake and swallow a toad, you will become the world’s most invincible kungfu hero. As with many of the films in which Lee was the star, this is a decidedly B-Team effort. There’s no Ti Lung, no Lo Lieh, none of the big names and matinee idols you’d find in films directed by Chang Cheh or Chor Yuen. As is often the case, letting the B-Team be the stars once in a while generates good results. They really put their backs into the effort.
Positioned where it is, Battle Wizard works sort of as a gatekeeper to the even weirder, wilder stuff the studio would find itself producing as it limped into the 1980s. It’s pretty bizarre, but it’s not as bizarre as what was lingering just on the horizon. It comes from the same source material as most of Chor Yuen’s movies, but where as his films focused on the Byzantine machinations of the men and women in the Martial World, Battle Wizard disengages itself completely from reality and dwells within a world populated by, as the name of the source material spells out, demi-gods and devils possessed of expressly supernatural power. One can see in it not just the path that would lead to bonkers affairs like Buddha’s Palm, but also to films like Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and the several other supernatural martial arts films from the Hong Kong New Wave.
For fans of weird kungfu, I can’t imagine the charms of Battle Wizard would be lost upon them. It comes at the viewer with tremendous energy and a willingness to throw onto the screen as much goofy, wonderful nonsense as it can think of. The underlying story — about a man discovering the world beyond the safe confines of his palace home, as well as discovering the sordid past of his otherwise heroic acting father — may take a back seat to all the chicken leg kungfu and lasers, but its presence at all makes Battle Wizard a cut above the usual fare. It’s nice to see Danny Lee shine in a movie which, like Infra-Man, is just as weird as most of the stuff he made but a lot less sleazy. It’s hard to imagine that a few years later, he’d be using condoms full of ice cubes to extract confessions from female bank robbers. And I need hardly even mention that having so much Tien Ni on screen is always a good thing. Her sleepy eyed beauty and willingness to shoot men with a laser dart gun made out of a human leg bone endears her to me endlessly.
Which, I suppose is an apt metaphor for this movie as a whole. It sets out to give you a rip-roaring, high-energy, higher-weirdness kungfu adventure, and it succeeds on every level, especially the level that includes finger lasers and fire-breathing wizards with mechanical chicken legs.
Here’s a quick way to make yourself appreciate The People That Time Forgot much more than you might otherwise appreciate it. Go watch The Mighty Gorga. In fact, watching The Mighty Gorga will pretty much improve the standing of any film, no matter how reviled, by comparison. Well, except perhaps White Pongo. But short of White Pongo and maybe White Gorilla, pretty much any movie looks good when compared to The Mighty Gorga. But don’t get the wrong idea. There are plenty of movies that look better when compared to The Mighty Gorga, but a lot of those movies aren’t going to be nearly as enjoyably torturous as this unique tale of a down on his luck showman looking to salvage his business by capturing and showcasing a legendary giant gorilla. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
The Mighty Gorga comes from a time in cinema history that will probably never come again. The most tempting comparison is to the world of shot on video DIY horror films, but that comparison doesn’t bear close scrutiny. On the surface there are similarities. The Mighty Gorga is a product of an era in low budget filmmaking that ran from the sixties until sometime in the 1970s and traces its roots back to the fast-buck junk films of the 30s and 40s — like the aforementioned White Pongo and White Gorilla — and the low-rent sci-fi films of the 1950s. The big difference is that those films, even when awful, were often made by professionals and sometimes under the aegis of an actual production studio. The 1960s saw the rise of a sort of alternate Hollywood, based largely out of Florida but certainly not limited to the Sunshine State. Unlike today’s crop of DIY video movies, which are primarily the product of a guy and his friends operating out of their living room, this was an actual industry, and their films played across various distribution circuits back when things like regional distribution areas existed.
Most of these films were cranked out to fill screens at drive-ins throughout the South, and the men who made them were as much carnival hucksters and showmen as they were filmmakers. In fact, in some cases, they were literally carnival hucksters. This era in film produced a number of names that most fans of obscure film don’t consider to be obscure: H.G. Lewis, Harry Novaks, Doris Wishman, and perhaps the king of them all, David Friedman. By hook and by crook, these people forged a movie industry totally outside the boundaries of Hollywood, and many would maintain, also totally outside the boundaries of any actual talent. But the fact remains that this was a real industry, producing films for theatrical runs and often employing a core circle of actors who were never very good but always seemed available.
The Mighty Gorga is one of the few films of that particular type that wasn’t shot in Florida, even though for most of the running time I assumed they were doing location work in the Everglades. But it comes to us courtesy of one of one of the “great” names of the era, David L. Hewitt. Hewitt, like many of the men and women working in this arena, was a jack of all trades, master of none: writer, producer, director, effects supervisor. His early work includes now infamous cult “classics” such as The Wizard of Mars, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, and Journey to the Center of Time — one of my all-time favorite movie titles because, frankly, what the hell does it mean? What is the center of time? Noon? Amazingly, his later work purely in the realm of special effects includes some movies even casual movie fans ended up seeing, and some work that was actually good: Willow, Leprechaun (hey, compared to The Mighty Gorga, it’s a mainstream film), Shocker, and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Of course, there was also Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was made like ten years after the first film and yet had special effects that were ten times worse. His work on these films is amazing because his work on all his other films is just so awful. The Mighty Gorga is probably the magnum opus of his self-written, self-directed, self-produced special effects extravaganzas, and watching it, all you will wonder is how the hell the guy ever scored a gig on a film being done by ILM or Disney.
And so we open with shots of a horrifying sacrifice, as a listlessly writhing maiden is chained to an altar while post-production sighs of either terror, protest, or boredom are looped in. In prompt fashion, she is plucked up and eaten by the film’s title monster, Gorga, a gigantic ape that is realized by taking a guy, putting him the cheapest novelty store gorilla costume possible (complete with googly eyes), then filming him from a low angle as he peers out from behind some bushes. It’s going to be tough to top such a thrilling opening, but Hewitt does his best by cutting to a circus performance that is slightly less listless than the sacrifice. But times are bad at the circus, as some big time corporate circus is going around and buying up all the top acts so they can shut down the independents. This leaves manly-named circus owner Mark Remington (Anthony Eisley) on the verge of bankruptcy, as is explained to us in an extremely long-winded monologue by a clown who is in the process of wiping off his grease paint as he talks to a concession vendor, yet never actually removes any grease paint from his face. The clown, though a relatively unimportant addition to the cast, is played by Bruce Kimball, who does double duty as said clown and as the leader of the mysterious tribe that sacrifices women to mighty Gorga and curses the intrusion of the white man, even though the tribe itself is played entirely by white people or, at the very darkest, a couple Latinos.
Mark has a last ditch plan to save the circus from going out of business, at least for a little while. And it turns out that his plan seems to involve spending a whole lot more money than it would cost to just pay off the debts. On the third-hand story of a guy who was talking to a guy who works for a Africa-based big game trapper named either Tonga Jack or Congo Jack, Mark plans to fly to Africa, hook up with Jack, and help him capture a legendary giant ape, so that Mark can then purchase him to put in the circus as the new headlining act. Mark doesn’t seem to understand just how many jugglers and carnival strippers he could hire for that amount of money. So off we go to Africa, which looks a lot like a clean, space age airport that you might find in California, complete with air conditioning and pay phones.
I’ve clocked some hours in third world airports, and I can’t imagine how I’ve always managed to miss the ones that are this nice, instead always ending up in some dingy, hot hellhole with malfunctioning equipment, a guy asleep on the tarmac, and two-week flight delays. I assumed that any airport you fly into in order to meet a guy named Congo Jack would be of similar quality, but I guess that’s just my First World snobbery. I also assumed that most Congolese airports would probably be full of black people, or at least contain a few black people. But I was wrong there, as well. It’s almost as if this movie isn’t filming in Africa at all, but that can’t be right, because after some stock footage of planes taking off and landing, Mark walks out the door of the airport and says, “Well, here I am in Africa!”
Once in “Africa,” Mark attempts to meet up with Congo Jack, or maybe it’s Tonga Jack, but not before he tours a local zoo, which is surprisingly nice. I would guess that, for Africans, going to a zoo full of monkeys and antelope would be sort of like me going to a zoo full of house cats and sewer rats. But they needed to pad out the running time, and this way we get a nice look at all the animals that inhabit Africa. Eventually, Mark heads off to meet Tonga or Congo Jack, but first there’s an hilarious bit where he meets one of the three black men in all of Africa and attempts to speak to him in some pidgin form of whatever language they speak in whatever country this is supposed to be. I assume it’s The Congo, but only because one of the characters is named Congo Jack. But since “Congo” was often used in crummy movies to mean “pretty much all of Africa, except the parts which are the Sahara,” we could really be anywhere. And if the guy’s name is actually Tonga Jack, then we’re way off the map, because even though my geography doesn’t enable me to label every country on an unmarked globe, I’m pretty sure Tonga is not in Africa. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s about as far away from Africa as is physically possible. Anyway, after a couple stuttering sentences in the local tongue, Mark is interrupted by the black guy who says, “I don’t understand what you are saying. Do you speak any English?” in a perfect Sydney Poitier accent. That’s pretty much the film’s one stab at intentional humor, and predictably enough, it’s not as funny as any of the unintentional humor.
It turns out that the local, George (Lee Parrish), works for Tonga Jack (at this point, I revised my early waffling; they’re definitely saying Tonga Jack), but that Tonga Jack is missing, possibly having returned to Tonga. Instead, the business is being run by Jack’s daughter, Tonga April (Megan Timothy). April explains that her father disappeared while searching for the legendary Gorga. Also, there is an unscrupulous competitor who keeps trying to force her to sell the business, even going so far as to set her prize water buffalo on fire then show up seconds later going, “I heard your prized water buffalo was set on fire.” Empathizing with Rachel, Mark whips out a thousand bucks in cash and a cashier’s check for another five thousand, and pays off the woman’s debt. Once again, perhaps someone should remind Mark that he’s spent probably over ten grand at this point on a scheme to save his circus from bankruptcy. One gets the feeling that Mark could pretty much drive anything into bankruptcy no matter how many giant gorillas and trapeze artists he had working for him.
Mark, April, and George decide to head off into the jungle to capture Gorga and, with any luck, find and rescue Tonga Jack. How exactly three people plan to transport a twenty foot tall gorilla with googly eyes through the jungle, and then later across the ocean to America, is probably not worth wondering about. April’s rival, Morgan, has decided that the put-upon trio is seeking some lost treasure, so he decides to shadow them on their quest. Unfortunately, we too must shadow them on their quest, and at this point, the film settles down into a really long series of shots featuring April and Mark (George, being the most competent, stays behind to guard the camp) in their Woolworth safari outfits walking through whatever park they filmed this movie in. And this goes on for a long while.
Worst of all, it’s not even intercut with any gratuitous stock footage of interesting animals. Every now and then, they’ll stop and say, “My God! Those are giant prehistoric mushrooms!” but they never show us any giant prehistoric mushrooms, even though chicken wire and paper mache must have been within the budget of this film, assuming as I do that the budget was roughly equal to the budget we had for building a homecoming parade float my senior year in high school — and I managed to make a paper mache football player kicking a paper mache eagle on that budget! About the only effort The Mighty Gorga makes to convince us we are in a prehistoric lost world is scattering some tissue paper flowers around the bushes.
Things get even worse when Mark and April begin the tortuous mountain climb. This effect is achieved by having them pretend to struggle mightily up what is obviously a very mild incline, only the camera is tilted so as to make it appear much steeper. This goes on forever, with the mind-bending tedium only broken from time to time by the movie cutting to scenes of the high priest jabbering away to Gorga, who shows up in the village from time to time with no real purpose other than to allow the film to use the same shots of “natives” running away a couple times. Actor Bruce Kimball enunciates his lines in a way I can’t quite describe. I guess…imagine that you are a first year student in a community theater drama class, and your mentor is a horrible actor who insists that you enunciate with passion and clarity every single syllable. Or, if you haven’t the background to know what that ends up sounding like, recall Futurama‘s Dr. Zoidberg’s acting in The Magnificent Three when he says, “GOOD MOR-ning MEE-stir VICE PRES-ee-dent!” It truly is a tour de force.
After what feels like an eternity, April and Mark reach the top of the plateau, and all our hard work watching them make fakey grimace faces while climbing over very small rocks pays off when the two are attacked by a tyrannosaurus rex! Now there are good special effects, and there are bad special effects, and there are awful special effects. But this one…this one transcends all that has come before it and may very well be the nirvana of awful special effects. Mark and April cower helplessly on a projection screen while the screen is menaced by what looks like one of those plastic toy dinosaurs mounted on the end of a stick. You know the ones — they sell them at museums all the time. It’s a crude dinosaur upper body attached to a stick, usually with a trigger so your kid can make the mouth open and close. No exaggeration, this special effect is no more advanced than those toys.
That its incredible size is realized by making it menace a projected screen image of Mark and April shot from a long distance only sweetens the deal. As hard a slog as this film has been up until this point — and believe me, even I almost bailed out — this one scene more than makes up for all the horrible scenes of Mark walking around a zoo and Mort the Clown rubbing at his clown make-up. But wait, there’s more! Because Gorga shows up to fight the T-Rex! Yes, it really is as beautiful as you’d think. Where as the rest of the film nearly reduced me to tears of bitter defeat and surrender, this scene brought tears of joy to my eyes and made me believe that yes, despite all that is wrong in the world, there is still much that is good and worth fighting for.
From here on out, the movie trucks along at a pretty brisk pace. Well, brisk compared to everything that came before this point. Mark and April are captured by the tribe. They find Tonga Jack. There is talk of sacrifice. It all goes wrong and Gorga smashes things. There’s a desperate race through some tunnels where they discover there really was a treasure, and that it’s made up mostly of Mardi Gras beads and guarded by one of those skeletons you put in your fish tank. Then a volcano erupts for no good reason other than volcanoes always erupt at the end of lost world adventure films, and there’s footage of a cool stop motion dragon from one of the old Italian Hercules films. How they got through this whole sequence without using that footage of the two lizards with fins taped to their backs fighting with each other that appeared in dozens of other cheap films is a great mystery of cinema. Then after all that, the movie remembers to deal with evil Morgan and that there is a competent black character who needs to be killed off. And I guess Mark uses the plastic treasure to pay off his debt or something, because Gorga just sort of wanders back off into the jungle.
What we have here, folks, is a bona fide classic. This is the sort of film that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Anyone can laugh their way through Plan 9 from Outer Space, and most who would read this site can get through far worse. But The Mighty Gorga is a true challenge. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s the worst King Kong rip off ever made, even worse than the 1976 King Kong where the monkey die and everybody a-cry, or that one where Linda Hamilton brings King Kong back to life so he can save the future from the terminators. Pretty sure it was something like that. But forget it. The Mighty Gorga is so much worse than any of those that it’s hardly worth mounting a comparison. This is bad filmmaking at its most potent. Bad movie moonshine, if you will. It tests the viewer on every level, really makes you earn that scene where the witch doctor beseeches Gorga and Gorga fights a plastic dinosaur toy. But the reward, should one endure, is not unlike the plastic treasure the cast discovers at the end of the film. In fact, one could argue that The Mighty Gorga itself is an allegory for the trials of watching The Mighty Gorga, making it one of the very first “meta” films that are so common today. Or it could be a movie about a guy in a ratty monkey suit.
Let’s talk a bit now about the acting. To put it bluntly, no one is very good, although Bruce Kimball is at least memorable. Seriously though, I’ve seen better acting from tough actin’ Tanactin. Anchoring the film is heroic Mark, as played by Anthony “One Episode” Eisley. Much of his career is comprised of one-time appearances in various television shows. In 1959, however, he appeared in Roger Corman’s classic B-movie from 1959, The Wasp Woman. After that, he started spacing out his one-off appearances as minor characters in TV shows with appearances as minor characters in movies, mostly of relatively low profile, though he did manage to show up in some recognizable titles, including the Elvis film Frankie and Johnny as well as The Navy Versus the Night Monster, where he got to act alongside Mamie Van Doren’s bombshell figure. So really, not a bad career.
He also started appearing in David L. Hewitt films, including Journey to the Center of Time and the lost world epic The Mighty Gorga. He continued this pattern up until the early 1990s, when he finally retired. Now it’s easy to make fun of Eisley, especially based on his performance in The Mighty Gorga. But forget that. Eisley is the kind of actor I’d really love to do an incredibly long interview with. Between appearing in one episode of practically every TV show ever made and appearing in films from Corman, Hewitt, and Ted V. Mickels, the man has got to be full of stories about the pitfalls of being a working actor. It would be far more interesting than the usual A-list interview where they just gush about whatever awful film they have coming out that month. The directors who make movies like this can sometimes be overly sensitive and pompous about their work (I have no idea if that applies to Hewitt, mind you), but the actors almost always have a good sense of humor about it. And when they pass on, all those stories go with them, never recorded.
Eisner’s female co-star might not be as interesting, as she appeared in hardly any other films besides The Mighty Gorga. Megan Timothy seems to have no idea what to do, as one minute her character is suspicious of Mark, and the next minute she is wearing a bosomy summer dress and making nice with him, and then the next scene, with no reason at all detailed, she’s back to being mean. Huh. Dames. Either way, she gives a pretty horrible performance. Luckily, Bruce Kimball is there to enunciate “Oh Mighty Gorga!” as if he’s reciting a foreign language phonetically. Kent Taylor, who plays her father, delivers the closest thing this film has to a good performance, but he’s only in the film at the very end, so what’s the point? He’s another one who would be great to talk with, though. I wish there were fewer biographies of big stars and more biographies of guys who did things like appear in The Mighty Gorga or go make films with Al Adamson in the Philippines.
In fact, The Mighty Gorga, as boring and as incompetent as it is, is the type of film that really interests me — if not as a viewing experience, then certainly as a subject for discussion. I’m fascinated by the ways in which these films got made. Listening to a guy like David Friedman talk about the old Florida film industry is something I can do all day, and even though it was made in California, I can’t imagine that a film like The Mighty Gorga has any shortage of similar anecdotes surrounding it. It does make reviewing these kinds of films hard, though, because my enthusiasm for what happened behind the scenes generally colors my enjoyment of what is actually shown on-screen, infusing the film with more value than one gets simply by enduring scenes of two people stepping over rocks for ten minutes. I mean, Hewitt went on to do visual effects work for some huge movies — some more successful than others. Was the Gorga versus a T-Rex scene in his portfolio? What was Bruce Kimball thinking? When they wrote all the “white man is evil” dialog, did they know all their African natives were going to be played by white people in Aztec wigs? Where the hell did they find that atrocious gorilla costume?
Even I wouldn’t claim that The Mighty Gorga is an enjoyable viewing experience, but I found it fascinating never the less, for the same reasons I’m fascinated with films like Death Curse of Tartu or Santa Claus Meets the Ice Cream Bunny or whatever weird stuff Doris Wishman was cranking out at the time. These truly are the heirs of Ed Wood, Jr., filmmakers who forge ahead no matter how ludicrous their solutions to working around their lack of budget and/or talent may be. The results are not always pretty, but they are usually fascinating if you are a scholar of truly obscure cinema. My only regret is that there is no commentary track for The Mighty Gorga. I would love to hear from someone involved in the production regarding what sort of an experience it was and how the film ever managed to see the light of day. So no, The Mighty Gorga isn’t a good movie. Except for Bruce Kimball’s performance and the monkey versus dinosaur scene, it’s not even entertainingly bad. But it’s the sort of movie you should have a look at never the less, because it’s awful in such an interesting way. Heck, The Mighty Gorga at its worst is still better than most shot on video microbudget horror films at their best. None of them have a guy in a googly eyed gorilla suit fighting a plastic novelty dinosaur.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: United States | Starring: Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady, Kent Taylor, Gary Kent, Greydon Clark, Lee Parrish, Bruce Kimball | Writer: David Hewitt | Director: David Hewitt | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Charles Walden | Producer: John Hewitt