Referring to anything that happens in a Lupin III cartoon as “realistic” is folly, but the teleivsion special Lupin III: Elusiveness of the Fog pushes the boundaries even for the Lupin universe, where purple midgets in leisure suits threaten the world and Fiats somehow can drive up castle walls. I’ve always preferred Lupin’s slightly more grounded in reality exploits. Granted, we’re talking relative frames of reference here, but at the core of things, I like Lupin and his crew matching wits against their foes and pulling heists in a world that seems at least vaguely familiar. Elusiveness of the Fog, however, puts an entirely scifi/fantasy twist on the Lupin formula and gives us a goofy, breezy time travel adventure that manages to be disposably entertaining without being all that good.
People who are not familiar with the character of Lupin the Third are still likely to have heard of and perhaps even seen this movie thanks entirely to its being the directorial debut of Hayao Miyazaki in the world of feature film. Even many non-anime, non-animation moviegoers know Miyazaki’s name thanks to the man having single-handedly directing more “timeless classics” than the entirety of the Disney animation studios. These films include My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Several of his films (most notable Nausicaa) rank among my top films of all time, and I’ve never let a friend have a little kid without me sending them a copy of My Neighbor Totoro as a gift (usually accompanied by a copy of Godzilla’s Revenge, as both should be required viewing for any wide-eyed and adventurous kid who needs to be brought up proper).
Created by Japanese artist Monkey Punch (surprisingly, not his real name) in the 1960s, Lupin the Third was a mixture of James Bond, Matt Helm, Cary Grant from To Catch a Thief, and whatever guy you can think of who grabs boobs a lot. Bill Clinton, I guess. Lupin the Third was meant to be the jet-setting super-thief great grandson of Arsene Lupin, a beloved French pulp character who was very much the “gentleman thief.” Lupin the Third jettisons the gentleman part most of the time but excels in the thievery department. Quite in contrast to his famous relative, Lupin the Third is a crass, horny, occasionally sleazy, always smart-alec guy with a weakness for beautiful girls. Together with his parters in crime Jigen (a former yakuza hitman and reportedly the greatest crack shot in the world) and Goemon (a guy who identifies a little too heavily with the romantic ideal of the mysterious, wandering samurai), Lupin trots the globe in search of treasure to be found, banks to be robbed, chicks to be nailed, and smug rich guys to be kicked in the jaw. Complicating Lupin’s life are two more characters: dogged Interpol inspector Zenigata, whose entire life revolves around finally arresting the wily Lupin; and Fujiko (whose name means “peaks”), a big-breasted flirt who is sometimes Lupin’s partner, sometimes his rival, and usually both.
At first — and even second — glance, Last Tycoon is a movie that seems custom-made for me and based entirely on some of my favorite obsessions: Shanghai during the 20s and 30s, old-time fashion, Jazz Age decadence, shidaiqu (that unique Shanghai brand of jazz that combined American swing with traditional Chinese music), a title stolen from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and Chow Yun-fat in a cool suit blowing suckers away. Pretty perfect set of ingredients, right? Unfortunately, the chef is the frequent butt of jokes here at Teleport City, Wong Jing. Under his stewardship as director, all these wonderful elements almost come together into something great. There are moments of brilliance in this film, and moments of stunning beauty and excitement. But there are also some moments that are just terrible, and many that are just sort of stumbling. The whole thing is a bit awkward. In other words, it’s a pretty typical Wong Jing directorial effort, with more good than bad but not as much great as I was hoping for.
In the spirit of sleazy old “true confessions” magazines, here’s my confession: I am a life-long easterner, raised in Kentucky, schooled in Florida, happily living the rest of my life in New York City. All three locations are awash in hardboiled, noirish, and/or Southern Gothic credibility. And while I have no intention of leaving New York, and even less intention of moving to the West Coast, I never the less have a strange fascination with Los Angeles. Granted, this fascination is built entirely on assumptions I know to be wholly inaccurate — that L.A. is or ever was the L.A. of Philip Marlowe, seedy detective magazines, and faded Hollywood glory. Residents of Los Angeles, feel free to do the same with New York. I would love to, but I deal with the city on a daily basis so my image of Gotham as Gotham, full of Prohibition-era suits and Weegee crime scenes is too often undercut by the reality of pleated Dockers and people wearing sweatpants. In my misconception of L.A., there is no room for what Los Angeles actually is. And since there is an entire country between it and me, I am going to ignorantly cling to my illusion of a city designed entirely by Raymond Chandler and David Lynch, safe in the knowledge that it makes no difference to me what L.A. “is really like.”
In 1982, cult film fave Tobe Hooper got his shot at the big time. He was already an infamous character and major figure in the horror film world thanks to his first film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He enjoyed some mainstream success as the director of the original made for television Salem’s Lot, a movie that made a whole generation of children afraid to look out a second story bedroom window. A year after Salem’s Lot, Hooper got a plum job directing a big-budget horror film to be produced by Steven Spielberg. Fans were excited to see what the king of survival horror could do with a Spielberg size budget. Unfortunately, whatever it was he was going to do never came to be.
If there’s one lesson to take away from this lavish Thai swashbuckler, it is this: if you are a dick to whales, don’t go to war against a guy who is nice to whales and can also ask them for favors.
These days, when folks like us think of Thai cinema, we think mostly of Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin, but mostly Tony Jaa. We might think of Panna Rittikrai, but his name is harder for casual fans to remember. And occasionally, some of us may think of Fireball, since, you know, full contact muay thai basketball to the death. Whatever the case may be, we’re thinking about bone-crunching martial arts fights and outrageous stunts. But the movie that really put Thailand on the international action movie map and started making people outside Thailand think maybe they should be paying closer attention to the country’s output was the mustache-heavy period piece Bang Rajan. It was the story of a group of burly men with burly facial hair and burly war hammers beating the shit out of the Burmese. Although based on history, the movie was really just a more muscular, shirtless remake of The Seven Samurai — if there’s one thing Thai epics hate, it’s shirts. By the numbers spectacle film making, yeah, but that didn’t really matter to a lot of viewers; it certainly didn’t matter to me. I loved Bang Rajan and, in fact, saw it before I’d ever heard of Ong Bak or Tony Jaa. Those two films together, though, with maybe an assist from The Eye, drew a lot of attention to Thailand, especially from Hong Kong film fans, who were still shivering, cold and alone in the wilderness the collapse of their favorite film industry had left them to die in.
If any actor in the world was born to play Ichabod Crane, it would be Jeff Goldblum. So thank God someone thought to cast him in just that role. 1980′s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is, along with Dark Night of the Scarecrow, a made-for-television movie I seem to remember watching just about every single Halloween when I was a wee sprout. In actuality, I probably only watched it a couple times, and even though I begin every description of Dark Night of the Scarecrow off with, “Man, I watched that like a thousand times when I was a kid,” I’m pretty sure I actually only watched that one once. All I remember from it is some guy I could swear was M. Emmet Walsh drowning in a silo full of corn. All I remember from Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a scene where Brom Bones puts on a hood to disguise himself as the Headless Horseman. Heck, I didn’t even remember Jeff Goldblum was Ichabod Crane, and I could have sworn that Brom was played by Stacey Keach.
Well, it turns out that M. Emmet Walsh isn’t even in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Brom Bones was played by football legend Dick Butkus, not Stacey Keach. That’s what I get for listening to eight-year-old me. Though I will defend my younger self — it seems almost impossible that M. Emmet Walsh wouldn’t have been in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Dick Butkus and Stacey Keach do look a lot alike. What can you do?
Anyway, back in 1980, I watched Legend of Sleepy Hollow while spending the night over at my friend Rowman’s house. Rowman and his house played a significant part in my life up until middle school, when he and his family moved away. In our newly planted little neighborhood in Centerfield, Kentucky, his was the house that was farthest out in the woods, and therefore, our favorite place to spend the night. It was from his house that we launched our many Bigfoot expeditions. It was in his basement that we tried to summon the ghost of the recently deceased John Belushi. And it was there that I was once terrorized by an ax murderer. That was during a slumber party convened to work on our Greatest American Hero stage show, which consisted mostly of Rowman tying a towel around his neck, wearing red pajamas, and jumping off the stairs while flailing his arms and legs wildly. Anyway, his mom was…well, you see…this was the 1970s, right? So things were, you know, different back then. So Rowman’s mom decided a basement full of freakish little boys was too good an opportunity to let pass, so she snuck outside, grabbed an ax, pulled a stocking over her head, and squatted down in front of the basement windows, lightly tapping it with the ax until one of us noticed. Our reaction was, ummm…hey! Why don’t we move on!
Anyway, I was over at Rowman’s house when we watched this, and in my memory Dark Night of the Scarecrow on the same night. That probably wasn’t the case, and I’ll think I’ll stop talking about Dark Night of the Scarecrow until its time to review that movie. Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of my favorite spook tales. When I moved to New York, I made sure to visit the Sleepy Hollow cemetery to see the gravestones of the many people who irritated Irving and so got characters named after themselves in his tale of horror. As a kid, I even used to make my parents go out of their way on drives so we could go over the covered bridge in Goshen. That covered bridge was fabled to be ground zero for all sorts of ghoulish shenanigans and devil worshipping, though it wasn’t until my teenage years that I really got to indulge those fancies. I remember loving Legend of Sleepy Hollow the TV movie as a kid, but then, I wasn’t a discerning viewer. So I thought it would be fun, years after the fact — decades, even — to revisit it. Unfortunately, this like many TV movies from the era has yet to be released on DVD, so tracking it down took some doing. But we here at Teleport City are nothing if not tenacious, and before too long, I was queuing this sucker up in my old VHS player to see what it had to offer.
I guess I was pretty patient as a kid, or I watched this the same way I watched most things at that age — while doing five other things. Pretty much the first hour of the movie is a colonial era romantic comedy, with gangly young schoolteacher Ichabod Crane (Jeff Goldblum) arriving in the remote New York town of Sleepy Hollow and immediately getting on the bad side of local blowhard bully Brom Bones (Dick Butkus). Crane is a happy-go-lucky fellow though, and he reacts to Brom’s needling with a good-natured humor that only makes the mustached thug angrier. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Crane soon becomes infatuated with Katrina Van Tassel (Meg Foster), also the object of Brom’s affection. Thus we set the stage for an hour of romantic conniving and silliness, with the occasional mention of ghosts and that most famous of local bogeymen, the Headless Horseman.
This portion of the film seems like it would bored a young viewer silly, but it didn’t, and I wonder why. Part of it is that there’s just enough spook stuff to string you along if that’s what you’re looking for. Yeah, it’s obvious most of the stuff is hijinks orchestrated by mischievous locals, but it doesn’t matter. You still get people talking about ghosts and apparitions. Also, we kids knew that the Headless Horseman was real, and that he was going to come after Ichabod Crane, so I think we were easily able to tolerate the romantic comedy stuff because we knew what was coming. But also there’s the simple fact that Jeff Goldblum is pretty fantastic in this, an Ichabod Crane that we all loved and related to. He was a nerd, sure, but he was also confident (up to a point), clever, and had luck with the ladies. He makes social gaffes and was put in embarrassing situations, but he always handles them with a wink and dignity, even in the most undignified moments. Goldblum is basically playing Goldblum, but Goldblum is exactly what’s called for in Ichabod Crane.
It’s just enough to keep a kid interested for an hour or so — and it’s at the one hour mark that the movie knows to start bringing on the scares (not to mention a food fight). Although we know that most of the chilling things becoming more pervasive in Ichabod’s life are being perpetrated by Brom and his slack-jawed flunkie in an attempt to disgrace the schoolteacher and drive him mad, it’s soon also apparent that not everything that’s lurking in the dark woods around Sleepy Hollow is a prank or a legend. And the fact that Goldblum makes for such a likable Ichabod means what we know is about to happen is all the tenser. It even makes for an unexpected tone of melancholy despite the fact that the movie up until this point has been relatively breezy and comedic. When the final act plays out along a dark, snowy path, we were (and remain) primed and ready for the Headless Horseman, the appearance of which is made all the sweeter for the fact that he’s been absent the entire movie.
It’s a pretty authentic version of the story, low key but professionally filmed and acted. Though made for TV, it could easily have passed muster as a feature film had the taste in feature film horror not moved toward slashers. director Henning Schellerup was mostly a cinematographer on feature films, and an occasional director on made-for-TV movies. He brings a cinematic eye to the small screen, making good use the snowy landscapes and dark woods. The entire movie only requires a few simple locations, but you never notice how limited it is since Schellerup is an ace at capturing the stark beauty while making sure the picture concentrates on the characters. Luckily, the screenwriters are up tot eh task of having the characters be the center of attention. Jack Jacobs had been writing television for decades, and Malvin Wald cut his teeth writing some fantastic film noir scripts, including The Naked City, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. They create an Ichabod rane that we enjoy following, and a Brom Bones we hate without really hating him. The supporting cast, including Meg Foster and her icy eyes, is solid, but really this is Goldblum’s show, and he nails it.
Unfortunately, being a television movie means it plays out pretty conservatively. Even the ending we knew and expected is turne don its head in favor of a more family-friendly happy ending — the movie’s one real misstep. We knew the story of the Headless Horseman, and we knew what happened to Ichabod Crane. We didn’t need it softened for us and made into an “all’s well that ends well” sort of thing. That keeps this version from being my favorite, though ultimately it doesn’t spoil the whole thing for me. The finale is still pretty thrilling, with Ichabod chasing after a headless horseman he assumes to be an impostor when, in fact, we know it’s the real deal. And the rest of the movie has been charming enough that as kids we were willing to forgive its lack of a covered bridge and jack-o-lantern throwing. It may partly be nostalgia, but other things for which I have fondness born of youth did not survive adulthood re-examination (Return of the Jedi, I’m looking at you). But I really enjoyed revisiting this version of the classic tale. As an adult looking at it, I probably regret the absence of those things more than when I was a kid, but it doesn’t really bother me. Jeff Goldblum is just too perfect, and the film is just too enjoyable, for me to go all sourpuss on it.
Release Year: 1980 | Country: United States | Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Paul Sand, Meg Foster, Laura Campbell, Dick Butkis, James Griffith, Michael Ruud, Karin Isaacs, H.E.D. Redford, Tiger Thompson, John Sylvester White | Screenplay: Malvin Wald, Jack Jacobs | Director: Henning Schellerup | Cinematography: Paul Hipp | Music: Bob Summers | Producer: James L. Conway
As the only contributor to Teleport City who resides in the fine country of Great Britain (and it is fine, despite most of it seeming to be on fire as I write this), I like to be able to bring you the occasional bit of Brit weirdness. Of course the brilliant minds at T.C. are already familiar with much of the classic and cult cinema exported by the likes of Hammer, Amicus and others, but today I’m going with something a trifle more obscure. Today’s review subject is one of the few releases by an ill-fated outfit named Tyburn Film Productions.
Tyburn was the brainchild of Kevin Francis, son of Oscar-winning cinematographer and sometime genre director Freddie Francis. The elder Francis had already made successful films for the aforementioned companies, faring slightly better at Amicus. Here he directed a series of effective portmanteau horrors including Tales From the Crypt and Torture Garden, plus the excellent De Sade-themed feature The Skull (we’ll skip politely past The Deadly Bees and They Came From Beyond Space). His work at Hammer was more patchy; Paranoiac and Nightmare are good, Hysteria and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave less so, and The Evil of Frankenstein is largely awful. Kevin started out as a runner on his Dad’s Dracula sequel, which was seemingly enough to give him the film bug. Kev realised that with the help of contacts from Francis Sr.’s address book, he too could produce some Hammer-style gothic horrors. Thus Tyburn was born.
Sadly Francis the younger made a grave miscalculation: he tried to launch a rival to Hammer and Amicus in 1974, when both those studios were in their death throes. Hammer’s demise has been discussed extensively elsewhere on T.C. so I won’t go over ground that Keith has already expertly covered. Amicus was limping along putting out the occasional adventure film like At The Earth’s Core, but would fold soon afterwards as relations between the company’s founders broke down. Tigon, Hammer’s other main rival, had flirted with more modern, gruesome horror movies, but founder Tony Tenser wasn’t happy with this new direction. Tigon switched to distributing terrible (if successful) sex comedies for a few years, before Tenser retired from the film business.
I’m not entirely sure what Francis was thinking, since there’s not a whole lot of information about him. In the one interview I managed to find, he responded to the question of why he started Tyburn with a glib “I needed to earn a living.” In fact the biggest part of his motivation seemed to be the opportunity to work with Peter Cushing, a childhood hero and the reason Francis cites for getting into films in the first place. I can’t really argue with that; who wouldn’t want to work with someone as awesome as Peter Cushing? Certainly Cushing shows up in the bulk of Tyburn’s product, such as it is. Legend of the Werewolf was the third and final Tyburn film released in 1975, after which the company didn’t do much of anything for a decade. Their first production, Persecution, hewed closely to Hammer’s psycho thriller formula, even down to hiring a fading Hollywood female star in the Bette Davis mould (in this case it was Lana Turner). Their second film, The Ghoul, is a remake in all but name of The Reptile, with a full complement of former Hammer talent. By the same token, Legend of the Werewolf will seem familiar to anyone who remembers Hammer’s earlier Curse of the Werewolf, but more on that later.
The film opens with a voiceover by Peter Cushing, describing how races of people throughout history have been forced to flee their homes by persecution. And thus we see a couple of peasants doing just that in what we’ll later discover is France, the mother heavily pregnant. They are apparently Jews fleeing the Tsarist pogroms in Russia, though the film doesn’t really make this clear. She gives birth as Cusing informs us the child is being born at day-for-midnight on Christmas eve, when wolves are apparently compelled to look after newborns. It doesn’t stop them eating mum and dad, however. A few years later, the hairy feral child is found by Maestro Pamponi (Hugh Griffith, The Abominable Dr. Phibes), owner of the world’s most depressing travelling show. Since his only other attraction is a slightly-tattooed lady, Pamponi seizes the opportunity to parade the caged boy in front of local peasant folk.
But as the boy grows up he loses the excess hair and feral traits, making him largely useless to the show. Now he’s known as Etoile (David Rintoul), a handsome yet simple lad who unfortunately turns into werewolf, when he sees only in red-filter-for-night vision. One full-mooned night he kills Tiny (Norman Mitchell, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), the travelling show’s general dogsbody. Horrified by what happened, Etoile runs away. He finds himself at a rundown zoo on the outskirts of Paris, which has few patrons because of the smell of the sewer running beneath. The zookeeper (Ron Moody, Oliver!) is impressed with Etoile’s affinity with the animals, especially the wolves, and gives him a job.
A group of local young ladies like to come and eat their lunch in the park, and Etoile takes a shine to one of them, Christine (Lynn Dalby). She’s also attracted to the handsome, guileless new arrival. She fails to reveal however that she’s actually a prostitute at a nearby brothel run by Madame Tellier (Marjorie Yates). Incidentally, one of the prostitutes is played by legendary nude model and star of Naked As Nature Intended, Pamela Green. Anyhow, Etoile goes along to the brothel to ask Christine out on a date, and gets turned away. He tries to sneak in and sees Christine with a rich client. Assuming she’s being ravished against her will, he flies into a wolf-like rage and attacks the client. This gets him thrown out and forbidden from seeing Christine again. Later that night in full-on wolf mode, Etoile attacks and kills the punter.
This death proves puzzling for police Inspector Gerard (Stefan Gryff) and judicial surgeon Professor Paul Cataflanque (Peter Cushing!). The signs on the body suggest a wolf attack, but the attacker was too large. More victims, all regulars at the brothel, begin to stack up. Paul investigates and discovers that all of them were clients of Christine. There’s also the body of a poor sewer man with no dialogue other than “Aarrgghh,” played briefly by Hammer’s eternal innkeeper Michael Ripper. Noticing Etoile’s behaviour around the wolves, and a handy sewer grate right by the brothel, Paul puts two and two together. But as his explanation is rather far-fetched, the local Prefect orders all the wolves at the zoo destroyed. Etoile is forced to do it, which causes him to fully wolf out. He escapes into the sewer. Paul follows and tries to help him, but the police are not far behind. Inspector Gerard, armed with a silver bullet on Paul’s advice, shoots Etoile. The hapless wolfman dies in Christine’s arms, along with Tyburn’s hopes of being a successful production company.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the idea behind Tyburn seems to have been to make something akin to classic Hammer. Unfortunately Legend of the Werewolf feels more like a latter day Hammer film, looking massively twee and out of date. Bear in mind it came out in the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, Frightmare, Black Christmas and The Wicker Man to name but a few. Even more unfortunate is how Legend of the Werewolf combines the elements of a mid-60s Hammer gothic (mild gore, no nudity) with the substandard production value and leaden pacing of one of their 70s duds. Sets were mostly recycled from stock flats in Pinewood Studios’ scene dock, and they look downright threadbare.
The script doesn’t do much to distinguish itself either. It comes from the familiar pen of John Elder, actually the nom de plume of former Hammer producer Anthony Hinds. The original idea was a combination of two treatments; Kevin Francis’ ‘Plague of the Werewolves’ and Hinds’ ‘Wolf Boy.’ Having read both I’d say most of the elements come from Hinds’ version, which included the Russian immigrants, the 19th century French setting, the travelling show, the zoo and the brothel. Interestingly, Guy Endore’s novel Werewolf of Paris is not cited as a source, which is surprising; this film is very similar in places to Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf from 1961, also scripted by Hinds. That film WAS based on Endore’s book, despite the setting being switched to Spain to use the sets built for an abandoned Spanish Inquisition movie. According to Freddie Francis, the French setting in Legend… was inspired in part by John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, a film where Francis had served as camera operator. Probably the biggest innovation in the script, which has its roots in the Francis treatment, is the police procedural aspect. This at least gives Peter Cushing something to do.
Cushing is, inevitably, the best thing about the movie. Professor Paul Cataflanque is a typical Cushing hero; a brilliant, educated but compassionate man of science, but one with a mind open to non-scientific explanations. There’s not a great deal to distinguish him from Van Helsing or Sherlock Holmes, except that Paul has more of a sense of humour. Cushing was pleased about this and plays it with an amused twinkle in the eye. And let’s be honest; there’s nobody better at playing this kind of character than Cushing. As always, despite being able to phone it in, Pete gives it his all. It’s the fact that he’s consistently so good with such average material that Cushing is my favourite actor ever. On that, Kevin Francis and I are in full agreement.
The remaining cast members are a mixed bag. David Rintoul in his first film role isn’t bad, though he’s no Oliver Reed; he plays Etoile as largely innocent, almost a bit simple, but this works. It makes the character quite sympathetic, as he’s more of a victim than anything. Rintoul didn’t do much film work, but he’s had a long career on television. The most famous name apart from Cushing is Ron Moody, who plays the zookeeper as rather too broad comic relief. The remaining cast are drawn largely from TV guest-starring roles and don’t make much of an impression.
The direction by Freddie Francis is workmanlike, a far cry from his inventiveness on the likes of The Skull or The Creeping Flesh. Francis has a thing for shooting from the POV of the killer – he does it brilliantly in both of the aforementioned films – but here the werewolf-cam red filter quickly becomes annoying. The score is by another late-period Hammer regular, Harry Robinson (The Vampire Lovers), but doesn’t have much to recommend it. The whole thing was recorded in one day so it’s perhaps not surprising.
Legend of the Werewolf was released by Fox-Rank Distributors on a double bill with Hammer’s Vampire Circus, and the pairing actually did decent business. Quite what the audiences made of the stodgy and old-fashioned Tyburn picture in comparison to one of Hammer’s more inventive later works, I don’t know. Certainly Vampire Circus, along with the rest of Hammer’s output, has had the longevity; it recently had a blu-ray release. Meanwhile Tyburn’s films are almost impossible to find. My copy is sourced from an old, long-deleted VHS tape, the same as my copies of The Ghoul and Persecution. And Legend of the Werewolf was Tyburn’s last release for nearly a decade. According to Francis the company did pretty well out of these three films, so quite what happened behind the scenes that prevented any more productions, I don’t know. Fox-Rank’s deal omitted North America, and perhaps the firm’s financial backers had other problems. In any case, Tyburn returned briefly in the mid-1980s with a TV movie called The Bells of Death, starring a very frail old Peter Cushing in his last appearance as Sherlock Holmes. After that, nothing much.
It’s all a bit peculiar, but given the obscurity of the films and the company, I doubt the truth will ever come out. While volumes have been written on every aspect of Hammer, and there’s a decent amount on Amicus and Tigon, I only know of one book about Tyburn. Making Legend of the Werewolf was published by the British Film Institute’s Educational Advisory Service in 1976, as a textbook on a typical British film production for kids taking media studies at school! It’s a frustrating book, going into exhaustive detail about things like the production budget and shooting schedule, but contains scant information on the company itself. So the only conclusion I’ve been able to draw is the old ‘the British film industry was kinda fucked, as usual’ and leave it at that.
Hrm, I wasn’t expecting this review to go all serious and academic and stuff, with references and everything. But the film is a bit too glum to generate a whole mass of riffing, even with Michael Ripper as a sewer attendent.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: United kingdom | Starring: Peter Cushing, Ron Moody, Hugh Griffith, Roy Castle, David Rintoul, Stefan Gryff, Lynn Dalby, Renee Houston, Marjorie Yates, Norman Mitchell, Mark Weavers, David Bailie, Hilary Labow, Elaine Baillie, Michael Ripper, Pamela Green | Screenplay: Anthony Hinds | Director: Freddie Francis | Cinematography: John Wilcox | Music: Harry Robinson | Producer: Kevin Francis
You are probably like me, at least in some ways. Many of you were Jackie Chan fans. You came in during the wild, wild days of Police Story, Project A, and Dragons Forever, or maybe a couple years later it was Drunken Master II that turned you on to Jackie. Or hell, maybe you’re even older than me, and you were around for Young Master and Dragon Lord. Whatever the case, you knew the first time you saw one of those movies that it was something special. You became obsessed, started haunting the local VHS-stocking Chinese supermarkets in search of Jackie Chan movies you’d never heard of. You began scouring other video stores for the rare dubbed domestic releases. Or you decided that it was time to enter the seedy shadow world of tape trading. Anything to get your hands on another movie, or hell, even a scrap of information. At the time, there was no world wide web. There was no Netflix. If you wanted info on Jackie Chan, or any other Hong Kong movie makers, your only sources were Rick Meyers’ column in Inside Kung Fu magazine, and word of mouth.
I’ve been a fan of Hong Kong cinema since about 1989. Pretty much all of us who got into the films around that time did so by seeing either The Killer or Police Story, released in the United States as Jackie Chan’s Police Force. For me, it was Police Story. I was over at my friend Dave’s house. He was the one who was responsible for really sending me off the deep end of obscure film collecting. Usually, we convened in his basement to watch whatever ridiculous splatter film had been released that week, but on that night, he decided to trot out a sampling of stuff that had recently been sent to him. And that’s how I first saw Police Force.
Oh, I’d seen Jackie Chan movies before; I just didn’t know it. We had the old “Kung Fu Theater” broadcast on the weekends, so I’d caught Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Spiritual Kung Fu, and a few others. But I didn’t know Jackie Chan from Hwang Jang-li at the time. It wasn’t until I was watching that ridiculously insane opening action sequence in Police Story, with Jackie dangling off a speeding bus and driving through — literally through — a shanty town, that I learned his name and knew there was something about him that… well, to be honest, something about him that wasn’t quite right, but in the most glorious way.
For years, being a Jackie Chan fan was challenging but rewarding. If you lived somewhere other than a major urban area, you really had to work to find any of his movies. I used to drive upwards of an hour to a Vietnamese grocery store on Preston Highway in Louisville. They stocked a modest but well-chosen selection of Hong Kong films there, most dubbed into Vietnamese. And if you think English language dubbing is bad, well let me tell you: nothing can prepare you for the horrors of a bad Vietnamese dub. I remember sitting down to watch A Chinese Ghost Story II off a tape that had been dubbed into Vietnamese. There were like four people doing the dubbing for all the characters, not bothering to try and do different voices. Whoever wasn’t working at the moment was sitting in the background having a conversation of their own, unrelated to the movie, and at some point, everyone started eating lunch. If one of them had to do a line while their mouth was full, well, no worries. Just mumble it out as best you can.
When I moved to Florida, things were better and worse. There was only one store in Gainesville that stocked any movies at all — an extremely meager selection of bootlegs, though that didn’t matter to me since the cranky middle aged guy behind the counter refused to rent his crummy bootleg videotapes to non-Chinese people. Luckily, Orlando has a pretty huge (for Florida) Asian population, and there was a grocery store there called Trung My that stocked hundreds and hundreds of tapes – originals, at that. It was a glorious wonderland with absolutely no organization whatsoever. Tapes were piled three rows deeps on the shelves. If you had a particular movie in mind, you better have worn your expedition gear and brought a sleeping bag, because you were probably going to be there for a while. But if you simply wanted to stumble across something amazing, then you didn’t have much work to do.
The drawback, though, was that Orlando was about a two hour drive from Gainesville. For a college kid with no money for food, let alone gas, it was a substantial investment of time and money just to rent a movie. It was good fortune, then, that Trung My’s tapes cost a buck to rent for a whole week. So we could assemble a team of hungry Hong Kong movie fans, split the cost of the trip, and rent four or five movies at once, also picking up some tasty treats from the local bun shop. Oh yeah — we’d also stop in at Fairvilla Video, but umm, well… I guess if you’re from the Orlando area, you know what that means.
During our whole era of discovering something a billion other people already took to be common knowledge, a couple things were occurring that would begin to alter the landscape for Jackie Chan fans. First, Jackie was getting older. And second, the end of British stewardship of the island nation was fast approaching. Staring down the gun of a return to being governed by the Chinese mainland — the last time Hong Kong had been subject to Chinese rule, there were still emperors in the Forbidden City — a lot of the big names in the Hong Kong film industry started looking toward England, Canada, and the United States as a new base of operation. The US, in particular, meant having a stab at Hollywood, and even for a film industry as huge and accomplished as Hong Kong’s, making it in Hollywood still held an undeniable seduction — like how even the most accomplished online writer still dreams of getting a book deal, even though a book would probably be read by fewer people than a successful website.
So in the middle of the 1990s, a lot of the people who built the Hong Kong film industry into the global juggernaut it became in the 1980s jumped ship. Some did so with no intention of returning to Hong Kong and subjecting themselves to the uncertain tenderness of the Communist government in Beijing. Many others decided to try a balancing act, working in Holly wood while also maintaining their career in Hong Kong. What we all should have foreseen, though, was that handover in 1997 was the least of Hong Kong cinema’s concerns. for years — decades, actually — the industry had been controlled by organized crime. For a while, this meant that there was enough money being pumped into the industry to finance any ridiculous piece of crap a film maker could crank out. But as uncertainty over the future began to grow, and as actors and directors began to organize opposition to triad control, the gangsters who controlled huge chunks of the film industry began to gut it.
At the same time, piracy reached such rampant levels that even the most popular movies struggled at the box office. Dirt cheap VCDs of big movies were available weeks before the movie itself was released, resulting in no one bothering to go see a movie at the theater. It was all too much for the increasingly fragile shell to support. By the new millennium, the Hong Kong film industry came crashing down.
Jackie Chan’s career seemed to be on a similar trajectory. He tried his hand in Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Things started out promising. Rush Hour was watchable, and Shanghai Noon was, in my opinion, quite good. Each movie got a sequel (or two), and while I like Shanghai Knights pretty well, I can’t remember a thing about Rush Hour 2, and I never even bothered to finish Rush Hour 3 — and that was on while I was on a plane, with nothing else to do. The need in Hollywood to stuff Jackie into increasingly dopey comedies resulted in him starring in all sorts of stuff that probably never should have been made, and his age coupled with the much heavier focus on insurance and avoiding broken necks that prevails in American film making meant that the Jackie we got in America was not the Jackie we’d grown to love in Hong Kong.
His Hong Kong films fared better for a while. the late 90s and early 2000′s saw the release of a lot of Jackie Chan films I liked: Who Am I, Accidental Spy, Mr. Nice Guy — no classics among them, but for me, plenty enjoyable. Jackie himself seemed to have entered a self-destructive phase, though. Drinking heavily, making a tabloid spectacle of himself multiple times, getting exposed as a rotten husband and father in a series of scandals — if it was a lukewarm time to be a Jackie Chan fan, it was a bad time to be Jackie Chan (and an even worse time to be his wife). His personal demons seemed to manifest themselves most famously in 2006, when a drunken Chan meandered out of the audience and stumbled onto the stage in the middle of a concert by Taiwanese pop idol Jonathan Lee. Chan capered about, demanded to sing a duet, tried to conduct the band, and then threw some slurred insults at the crowd. It didn’t do a lot to revive his waning popularity.
And then the movies really started to reflect the crumbling personal life. His Hong Kong films went from good to bad, and his American films went from middling to unwatchable, with pretty much everyone pegging The Tuxedo as the worst Jackie Chan movie ever made. Through it all, a core group of people stuck with him, hoping against hope that we would once again see the light of day, that Jackie would pull himself together, make amends with his estranged family and fans, and remind us all of why we came to love him so much. Things were grim through these years, filled as they were with Robin B. Hood, The Medallion, The Myth, and The Spy Next Door. One by one, those who had done their best to stick by Jackie — not excuse him, mind you — fell away, until eventually, even the most die hard of his fans had no reason at all to do anything other than give up on him.
And then something happened. In 2009, Chan made Shinjuku Incident. It was not the Jackie Chan movie people expected. Even his best films have been filled with dippy comedy and ham-fisted mugging for the camera, but this movie saw a much grimmer Chan, something more along the lines of the glimpse we got in Ringo Lam’s Crime Story. Here was a Jackie Chan who was no longer trying to deny his age. Here was a Jackie Can who was trying to make a good movie, with a good script and good acting. After years of poopy diaper jokes and Jennifer Love Hewitt striking Karate Kid poses, Shinjuku Incident seemed to be saying that it was time to start paying attention to Jackie Chan again.
And then, in 2010, came Little Big Soldier, and Jackie Chan fans, covered in cobwebs and the dust of the wasteland, knew that our time in the wilderness was finally at an end.
Little Big Soldier returns Jackie to the period setting of his older movies, something he hasn’t done often since the late 1970s. The Myth saw Chan trying his hand at the sort of sweeping period epics that became all the rage in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and just not getting it right. For this second attempt at a period setting, Jackie eschews trying to mimic the wire-fu antics of recent epics and just makes an old fashioned kungfu film. He plays the old soldier, a happy-go-lucky farmer who has spent the last several decades of his life serving against his will in the army. He has lasted that long because of his unique approach to warfare, which is to shout, trigger a spring-loaded arrow mounted to his breastplate, then fall down and play dead until the fighting is over.
When the film opens, the nameless old soldier is the only apparent survivor of a bloody battle that saw both sides annihilated. As he roams the corpse-strewn battlefield, he soon discovers that he’s not as alone as he thought. The two opposing generals are beat up and near death, but not so near death that they can’t try to kill one another. The younger general (New York-born Wang Lee-Hom, recently of Lust, Caution and previously appearing in the execrable China Strike Force) best the older, but then collapses from his wounds. Realizing the opportunity suddenly in front of him, Old Soldier binds up the fallen enemy general and sets off to turn him in for the reward about which the farmer has dreamed: a modest parcel of land and lifetime exemption from military service.
Making his way across the war-ravaged countryside, however, is not as easy as Chan’s frequently-singing farmer hoped, especially once the general wakes up and slowly begins to recover from his wounds. The duo soon realize they are being pursued by a force commanded by the general’s younger brother (the seemingly fey but freakishly buff Yoo Cheng-jun). It’s the old chestnut about the younger brother, jealous of the older. So begins a game of cat and mouse that gets even more complicated with the arrival of a band of volatile brigands and occasional warring armies.
If Little Big Soldier‘s backdrop is epic in scope, the central story is intensely intimate. Jackie Chan wrote the script, and it’s a very personal, introspective meditation on a variety of subjects, not the least of which would be getting older, but the most obvious of which is the nature of warfare and loyalty. Chan’s farmer is torn between several different forces. His loyalty to his country means that he must answer the call when he is conscripted. But his father’s dying wish was that, since Chan’s two other brothers had already been killed in the war, Chan somehow survive to carry on the family name. Thus he comes up with the playing dead ploy. He sees no honor in battle and shakes his head wearily as the captive general gives him speeches about patriotism and warfare and the glory of dying on the battlefield. All Jackie can see are the shattered lives, sad people, and ravaged farmlands.
Jackie’s movies have been called many things; “deep” has never been among them, but Little Big Soldier has a world-weary yet somehow optimistic philosophical edge to it that immediately lets you know Chan is putting his heart and soul into this one. The result is equal parts charming, quaint, refreshing, and poignant. As he nears sixty, and with enough injuries to kill a normal man, Jackie can’t pull off the stunt work he used to do. Anyone who expects that of him at this point in the game is, frankly, kind of an asshole. Not that Little Big Soldier is bereft of action — there’s plenty, some of it involving Jackie, much of it being shouldered by the younger members of the cast. In place of Jackie Chan the stuntman, we’re getting Jackie Chan the actor and Jackie Chan the writer. I don’t know what sort of shape his personal life is in, but Little Big Soldier feels like a lot of personal demons being looked square in the eye. The movie hits the perfect notes — balancing the action and comedy (which is generally pretty funny, for a change) with hint of melancholy and an ending that is truly heart-wrenching. This might be the first Jackie Chan movie that makes people cry (no, Heart of the Dragon didn’t make me cry, no matter how many times Jackie and Sammo cried at each other). And unlike many times before, the shifts in tone feel completely organic.
There are some familiar faces sprinkled throughout the cast, but for the most part, they were actors with whom I was unfamiliar. Great performances all the way around. Jackie tones down his mugging, when mugging is called for, to a more believable level, and the rest of the cast are giving it their all as well. Yoo Sung-jun seemed like he might be a weak link at first — the feminine acting pampered guy being a stock character in kung fu films, usually handled with as much over-the-top-hamminess as possible — but he really pulls a great performance out of the character. He’s aided by the script, which doesn’t allow the character to become a cartoon. By the time we’re nearing the end, he’s not even really the bad guy anymore. Although the story of Jackie’s old soldier is the center of the plot, the relationship between the two estranged brothers is no less powerfully realized.
If any portion of the story gets short shrift, it’s that of actress Lin Peng, playing a woman who has escaped a life of being forced to entertain troops. Where Jackie’s farmer is eternally optimistic despite the carnage through which he must maneuver, the singing woman is much more bitter. Unfortunately, while we understand Jackie’s quest, both physically and spiritually, hers seems just as interesting but largely undeveloped. She simply drifts in and out of the movie in a couple spots. I suppose, though, that’s the point. As Old Soldier and the general travel across the countryside, their journey intersects with multiple people whose lives have been wrecked by the war: farmers turned to brigandry, scholars turned to slaves, soldiers turned to deserters. It lends a creeping sense of sadness to the atmosphere of the film, a particularly effective way to write a movie about war without ever showing the war.
The other aspects of the film achieve the same high quality. The cinematography is gorgeous. One of the benefits of Chinese governance of Hong Kong is that filmmakers can now take full advantage of the mainlands uncountable sweeping vistas and dramatic scenery. The sort of half-assed setting, uneven pacing, and other rough around the edges elements of some of Jackie’s recent films are not present here. This is a near perfect, well-polished piece of film making. Director Sheng Ding is no one I’d ever heard of, and it turns out that’s because he’s never done anything else. The hand behind the direction is remarkably deft and able, so much so that I think Jackie must have had more than a passing involvement in what went on behind the camera.
To be blunt, I was stunned. I’d heard good things about the movie going into it, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. It might not be Jackie’s best action film — that honor probably still belongs to Project A or Drunken Master II — but it’s Jackie’s best film. It balances the action and comedy we hope for and expect with a truly moving story. Even if I hadn’t spent the last decade being increasingly disillusioned with his work, even if my exuberance over his films had never faltered I don’t think I would have been prepared for just how good Little Big Soldier is. Seriously — you will ever be able to hear the phrase “A big road passes through my house…” without tearing up.
Release Year: 2010 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jackie Chan, Yu Rong-guang, Wang Lee-Hom, Ken Lo, Yoo Sung-jun, Wang Bao-qiang, Lin Peng, Mei Xiao-dong, Wu Yue, Jin Song, Du Yu-ming | Writer: Jackie Chan | Director: Sheng Ding | Cinematographer: Zhao Xiao-ding, Ding Yu | Music: Xiao Ke | Producer: Jackie Chan | Original Title: Da bing xiao jiang