For my money, this is where the wheels started to come off the Jackie Chan cart. Sure, we had already written off his American career after The Tuxedo (though I personally love Shanghai Knights and think Forbidden Kingdom is bland and stupid but largely inoffensive), but this is where the Hong Kong movies that were our refuge started to show signs of rot as well. I was with him through the 1990s, even when he was working with Stanley Tong, a director who has an impressive ability to make even the most talented action star seem dull and uninspiring. I was even with Jackie through the first part of the new millennium, and while some people didn’t care for output like Who Am I and Accidental Spy, I really enjoyed them.
My introduction to Hong Kong movies was, without a doubt, one of the best things to ever happen to me as a direct result of my writing about film. The year was 1989, and I was writing for one of the weekly arts papers here in San Francisco. I’d like to say that I was “working” for one of the weekly arts papers here in San Francisco, but the truth is that I was actually working as a clerical temp downtown, and that I was, at best, just making a meager dent in my nightly bar tab by writing a couple of film or album reviews a month for the lordly sum of a nickel a word.
Anyway, one day my editor tells me that he’s pegged me as the right guy to cover a certain film festival that’s coming up at one of the city’s small repertory cinemas — a film festival dedicated to this crazy popular cinema that’s been coming out of Hong Kong in recent years. Though I was intrigued, I have to admit that my exposure to Asian cinema at that time was limited to the output of Japan and the Bruce Lee movies I’d seen as a kid. I really didn’t know what to expect. Still, what little I had heard about these films included the fact that they were extremely fast paced and filled with all kinds of crazy stunts, which, then as now, was more than enough for me. I accepted the assignment, and was in turn handed a stack of VHS tapes that had been provided by the festival organizer.
I hadn’t actually planned to watch all of those tapes in one sitting. In fact, upon arriving home, popping the first of the tapes into the VCR, and witnessing its dire picture quality, I despaired at being able to get through even one of them. Those of you who were fans of Hong Kong films during that era know exactly what I’m talking about: The Tai Seng logo, the washed out, dupey images, and just enough of the English subtitles poking up at the bottom of the screen to taunt you with their presence while at the same time remaining completely illegible.
Still, this proved to be less of an impediment to my enjoyment than I anticipated, and I was soon popping in one tape after another, devouring them greedily like a fat kid with a box of bon bons. As a result, my introduction to Hong Kong films was less of a gentle easing in than it was a process of total immersion, like learning to swim by being tossed into the deep end. In that one afternoon and evening I watched Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors and the first Police Story, as well as a couple others whose titles escape me at the moment. Then, on the following day, I skipped work to go to an early morning press screening that featured back-to-back showings of A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II.
As you might imagine, to say that my mind was blown would be an epic understatement. This was a pivotal event in my life as a film fan, one that would change the way that I watched movies forever. But to understand just how blown it was, you really have to understand how different these movies were from what I, like a lot of other Americans, was used to at the time. It seems silly, thinking of it now, but previous to that time I had dedicated a lot of word count to decrying what I saw as Hollywood’s then increasing reliance on action spectacle, singling out now fairly conventional films like Lethal Weapon II and The Abyss for reeling out fast paced series of big “events” at the expense of those things that thoughtful and sensitive folks such as myself were supposed to place a higher premium on, like plot and characterization.
What I had yet to realize, though, is that it wasn’t that those Hollywood action films were going too far, but that they weren’t going far enough. With Hong Kong movies, I experienced for the first time the joys of pure cinema, of movies that you experienced viscerally as a blur of motion, speed and undiluted style. This is not to say that I had previously been a stranger to the thrills of genre and exploitation cinema, mind you. Thanks to the variety of theaters available to us, my friends and I came of age as film geeks on a steady diet of equal parts art- and grind-house cinema, and back in the day were just as likely to be found at a matinee showing of Death Race 2000 or Don’t Go In The House at the St. Francis as we were a Bunuel retrospective at the Castro.
It’s just that, in these Hong Kong films, I saw consistently demonstrated something that, in my long experience of watching American genre films, I had only very seldom seen: and that was a solid commitment to actually delivering. Though about as mercenary as could be, these movies paradoxically displayed a desire to entertain that seemed completely untainted by cynicism, refreshingly free of the air quotes that modern Hollywood tends to put around anything as corny as the idea of actually trying to inspire wonder in their audience, as well as of the short-cutting, bait-and-switch tactics of the exploitation game. With movies like Eastern Condors or Police Story, your mind was blown because their makers saw it as their duty to insure that your mind was blown, no matter how limited they were by their means.
Of course, who wouldn’t be blown away by their first encounter with Jackie Chan in his prime? Or by the Better Tomorrow films, whose on-screen body count was at the time greater than anything I’d seen before — to the point of being exponentially so — yet also exuded visual poetry, along with an awful lot of not-so-subtly gay undertones? Or the, at the time, very discordant seeming collisions of ruthless violence, wacky slapstick, and overweening sentimentality found in most of these films? And then there was Zu, my initial reaction to which I have been striving to recreate throughout all of my subsequent years of trolling through world pop cinema. I quite honestly had never seen anything like it. So taken with it was I that I excitedly subjected the girl I was dating at the time to an impromptu screening, which she effectively shut down after twenty minutes with an indignant cry of “I can’t believe you thought I would like this!” (We didn’t stay together too long after that.)
So, needless to say, there were a lot more of those warbly Tai Seng videos in my future, as I spent much of the next few months trying to make up for all the time I’d spent on Earth not knowing that these movies existed. Then, in 1990, I moved to Los Angeles, and during the period of adjustment to a new town, a new job, and a new relationship, I started to lose sight of some of my old interests, including, for a time, my pursuit of crazy Hong Kong movies. This dark period, I’m sad to say, went on for far too long, finally coming to an end in the mid 90s, when an old friend, who thankfully hadn’t realized how lame I’d become, gifted me with a copy of the book Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head — a book which I now know featured contributions from an upstart young film scribe by the name of Keith Allison.
It didn’t take long for that book to rekindle my passion, and I was soon down at my local video store –- which, like many non-chain video stores by that time, had a lovingly curated section dedicated exclusively to Hong Kong movies — trying to catch up on what I’d missed. With the Sex and Zen book as my guide, I chose as my first two rentals Johnny To’s The Heroic Trio and the film that I am eventually going to get around to reviewing here, Naked Killer. Both films have gone on to count among my very favorites — not just in terms of Hong Kong films, but films, period. And while watching them for the first time, along with being blown away anew, I was struck by the fact that Hong Kong films had changed while I was gone. For starters, everything was blue! And, as Naked Killer clearly evidenced, there was lots of sex now!
Of course, one of the biggest changes in Hong Kong cinema during my several year period of inattention was the transformation undergone by the country’s “Category III” rating, which went from simply being part of the ratings code to becoming a distinct genre all its own. Essentially the Hong Kong equivalent of the U.S.’s NC17, Cat III was notable for being the one tier on the HK ratings system that was actually enforceable by law; underage audience members who flaunted it could be subjected to heavy fines. Though the rating had been around for a while, it was not until the late 80s, with the success of films like the explicit war atrocity expose Men Behind The Sun, that producers recognized a substantial potential audience for exactly the kind of taboos that the rating was designed to prohibit. Thus came forward a wave of films that courted the Cat III rating with depictions of almost every kind of depravity imaginable, as well as, of course, copious amounts of those age old friends of the exploitation filmmaker, nudity and simulated sex. Rape, cannibalism, sexual mutilation and graphic child murder were not uncommon in the Cat III films. And if the film happened to be directed, written, or produced by Wong Jing, it likely added to those disturbing elements a jarring dose of lowbrow slapstick comedy.
I want to say that Wong Jing is a controversial figure in Hong Kong cinema, but the truth is that there seems to be a pretty broad consensus around the fact that his films are generally awful. Or, I should say, a consensus among those who do not include the many, many, many filmgoers who made Jing a very wealthy man as a result of his not underestimating their appetite for trash. Jing was one of the most prolific and successful commercial filmmakers in Hong Kong, thanks to a factory-style production technique, a shrewd ability to identify and shamelessly copy popular trends, and a willingness to stoop as low as necessary to provide his audience with what he deemed their desired (very generous) level of sex, violence and vulgarity. This last quality, unsurprisingly, made him a pretty heavy presence in the Cat III scene. And while I have not exactly sought Jing’s work out, I have to say that, in my experience, his name in the credits is not necessarily an impediment to a very enjoyable viewing experience. For instance, he acted as a producer on The Seventh Curse, which, alongside The Eternal Evil of Asia, is one of the most crazy and flat-out fun examples of Cat III supernatural nonsense out there. He also both produced and wrote the Clarence Ford directed thriller Naked Killer, which, as I’ve already said, is one of my favorite movies.
Now I should say here that Naked Killer definitely exists on the tamer end of the Cat III spectrum. In terms of sex and violence, its content doesn’t go far beyond what you’d see in the kind of direct to cable erotic thrillers that Cinemax was showing at the time. But while, in the case of those thrillers, the most you could hope for, in the best of circumstances, was that they would actually deliver those promised elements, Naked Killer sets itself apart by being so much more than even the most unrealistic thrill seeker could hope to expect. This means that, along with our very generous apportionment of skin and gore, we also get a raft of bizarre characters, a seemingly inexhaustible series of outlandish situations, and one jaw-dropping plot twist after another, all thrown at us at the reckless, head-spinning pace that we’ve come to expect from Hong Kong at the top of its game. And to put the bow on the package, the whole is at once coolly stylized to within an inch of its eroticism-oozing life and as slick as a stretch of rain covered blacktop.
Naked Killer demonstrates its good will toward its audience by making good on its title within scant minutes of its opening credits. And by that I mean that there is a killer, and that she is indeed, by all appearances, naked. This automatically makes Naked Killer better than approximately 80% of all other non-porn movies with the word “naked” in the title. After an opening shot of a mysterious woman hurrying down a rain slicked street bathed in atmospheric blue light, we see an armed man making his way through a darkened apartment and surprising a woman in the shower. “What are you doing in my apartment?”, he asks, effectively making our expectations do a quick somersault. Well, it turns out she’s there to kill him, which she does by handily disarming him, then hobbling him with his own workout equipment before crushing his skull and sealing the deal with a well placed bullet to the groin.
We later learn that this woman is Princess (Carrie Ng), a professional assassin who, along with her partner and lesbian lover Baby (Madoka Sugawara), is responsible for a string of castration murders that have the Hong Kong police baffled. Participating in the investigation is improbably fashion-forward young police detective Tinam, played by former model Simon Yam. And, because this is a Wong Jing film, Tinam has a partner named Shithead (or “Dickhead”, as he’s referred to in certain, more dainty translations of the film) who we will later see mistakenly eat the severed penis of one of Princess’s victims thinking that it’s a sausage, as well as verbally abusing a Filipino maid with all kinds of sexually inappropriate questions. Comedy!
This being a Wong Jing film, poor Tinam is also not without a few peculiarities of his own. It seems that, ever since a recent shooting incident in which he mistakenly killed his policeman brother, he is unable to handle a gun without becoming physically ill and vomiting. He also can’t get it up. In order to allay his blues, his superior officer suggests that he go get a haircut.
At the salon, Tinam witnesses a beautiful and provocatively dressed young woman named Kitty flirting with, and being aggressively hit upon by, one of the hairdressers. Things heat up when the hairdresser’s pregnant girlfriend shows up demanding to know why he dumped her. Kitty at first eggs the guy on in his contemptuous treatment of the woman, but then reveals that she is in fact the woman’s friend, and that she was merely setting him up in order to demonstrate to her friend what a scumbag he was. Then she takes the hairdresser’s cutting shears and stabs him repeatedly in the groin with them.
Kitty is played by the actress Chingmy Yau, here saying goodbye forever to the nice girl roles that she had played previously and embarking on her career as one of HK cinema’s biggest sex symbols of the 90s. Yau was the girlfriend of the married Wong Jing at the time, and the producer had — and would continue to — cast her in a number of his films, including, in the wake of Naked Killer‘s success, quite a few Cat III titles. Intimations of the casting couch aside, it’s easy to see why this was. Yau is a star with enormous sex appeal, and, in Naked Killer the camera just can’t get enough of her. Cinematographer William Yim takes great care to insure that no opportunity is missed to milk the beautiful star’s every pose and gesture for all of its fetishistic potential, whether she be zipping herself in or out of some picturesquely restricting pleather or spandex garment, or suggestively wielding an automatic weapon.
Interestingly, despite her status as a star of erotic films, you will never see Yau fully nude in any of her pictures — though the lengths gone to strategically place mussed sheets, picturesquely out of place strands of hair and resplendently splayed limbs to accomplish this render her “not nude” in only the most technical sense. This is a product of the general desire to avoid the stigma of nudity on the part of those actresses who appeared in Cat III films but also wanted to maintain their foothold in mainstream fare. Such career-protecting reticence is also the reason for the absurd lengths to which the actress Amy Yip went in almost every one of her films to conceal her nipples while at the same time showing us virtually all of the goods. In the case of Naked Killer, Japanese pinku actress Madoka Sugawara had to be imported in order to deliver the necessary quota of skin, as all of the other lead actresses keep their wardrobes within teasing yet strictly PG-13 parameters. (Note that this only holds true if you have something other than the US DVD of the movie, which has all of Sugawara’s full nude scenes, among much else, edited out. So be forewarned: If you are not seeing a naked Madoka Sugawara, you have been sold an inferior product.)
After witnessing Kitty’s de-balling of the hairdresser, Tinam pursues her out of the salon, only to be overcome with nausea when she grabs his gun from its holster and points it at him. Apparently fascinated by this strange and pathetic creature, Kitty uses her shrewd skills at manipulation to convince Tinam to leave the scene without arresting her, but then uses the excuse of his left-behind pager (ah, the 90s) to contact him later. With some dogged persistence on Kitty’s part, a cautious, teasing courtship between the two begins, one which soon show signs of developing into a full-blown case of amour fou. Before this can happen, however, Kitty comes home one day to find that her father, a humble food cart operator, has been killed by his much younger wife’s lover, a Triad type by the name of Bee. Kitty responds to this by showing up at Bee’s offices with a sub-machinegun and killing absolutely everyone in sight –- receptionists, secretaries, file clerks, everyone –- before finally doing in the man himself. With some of Bee’s goons in pursuit, she then takes as a hostage an older woman who, it appears, just happened to be visiting the office at the time, and makes her way to an adjacent high-rise parking garage.
Once in the garage, however, it is quickly revealed that Kitty’s hostage is much more than she initially seemed. As the goons close in, this woman suddenly whips off her dowdy business attire to reveal a skintight cat suit, then assumes one of those cat-like, battle ready ninja poses that lets you know that the shit is on in no uncertain terms. What follows is an absolutely spectacular set piece in which quick cutting, masterful stunt work, and lots of blood packs combine to present us with the vision of two female badasses making hash out of an army of hapless stuntmen. 70 seconds later, when it’s all ended with an explosion and the two women using a fire hose to rappel down the face of the parking structure, one can only catch one’s breath and immediately reach for the replay button. Truly, what’s most amazing about the sequence is that, despite it’s skittering pace, chaotic staging and lightning fast edits, the viewer is never left confused as to what exactly is happening or whom is doing what to whom. Michael Bay take note.
Kitty’s new friend, it turns out, is a sort of hitwoman mother superior by the name of Sister Cindy (Taiwanese singer Kelly Yao, aka Wai Yiu), and, when Kitty next awakens, she finds herself in Cindy’s house, which is basically a multicolored comic book funhouse well suited to being a villain’s lair in an old episode of Batman. She also finds that her fingertips have been removed. Cindy tells her that she has decided to take her under her wing and train her as an assassin, and given that the alternative is for Cindy to either kill Kitty or turn her in to the police, Kitty reluctantly agrees. And so the training begins.
Like any hitwoman worth her salt, Cindy has a violently psychotic pedophile chained up in her basement, and Kitty’s first lesson involves her being locked in with him with no choice but to kill him in order to get the key, which Cindy has planted on his person. Once this is out of the way, much of the other lessons involve Cindy drumming into Kitty’s head the idea that her most formidable weapons are her body and feminine wiles, all the while groping and fondling her suggestively. Finally, school is out and it’s time for Kitty’s first assignment, which involves icing a Yakuza at one of those classic 1990s erotic thriller nightclubs where there are half naked people in masks on the dance floor, orgies going on in the bathroom, and men quite literally snorting coke off the backs of whores. While Kitty’s mission is completed successfully, it has the unfortunate consequence of the Yakuza hiring a rival pair of female assassins in order to get payback against her and Cindy –- and these turn out to be none other than Princess and Baby. Princess, we learn, is a former pupil of Cindy’s, one whom Cindy has warned Kitty to be wary of, as, unlike the two of them, who only kill people who “deserve” it, Princess and Baby would kill their own mothers –- or mentors –- for the right price.
Along with being something of a classic among Cat III films, Naked Killer is also a key entry in the whole “Girls With Guns” sub-genre that flooded Hong Kong’s screens during the late 80s and early 90s. And, truly, it’s hard to imagine a film that makes more explicit the already none-too-subtle “chicks with dicks” subtext of those particular movies. (Though, in saying that it’s hard to imagine, I’m not suggesting that, in the varied and perverse world of Cat III and GWG cinema, another such film might not exist.) The film’s world of male characters is made up either of violent, sexually predatory curs who deserve nothing less than the castration meted out to them by the female leads, or ineffectual neurotics like poor Tinam, who appears to have some difficulty with getting his “gun” to work properly in the first place. Really, in the end, it’s only Naked Killer‘s chicks who have the dicks. And while the film’s depiction of lesbianism is — let’s not kid ourselves –- clearly intended to titillate, it ultimately ends up looking less “naughty” than it does to be the only sane alternative in the world the film presents. In this sense, Naked Killer reminds me a lot of the Japanese films in the Pinky Violence genre, as, like those films, it comes to its male viewers with the self loathing already built in, reflecting them back to themselves as an unseemly parade of slavering potential rapists and impotent boy-men. I suppose all the better to be squished under Chingmy Yau’s imposing thigh high boots.
And, of course, first in line to be squished is Tinam, whose investigation of the castration murders ultimately leads him to Sister Cindy’s doorstep. However, by this time, Kitty has assumed a new identity, and, upon seeing Tinam, pretends to have no idea who he is. At this point, Naked Killer briefly feints toward being a sort of Hong Kong new wave take on Vertigo, but Tinam and Kitty’s mutual attraction soon proves too strong to allow this situation to stand. We are treated to a montage of each masturbating languorously in his and her separate corners of Hong Kong, cluing us in that the mounting pressure will soon place them in bed together where we all now want them. When this does happen, I imagine that few will be surprised to learn that Tinam’s former erectile difficulties are now firmly consigned to history. In fact, so heated is this coupling that Princess, spying on the two through her rifle’s telescopic site, finds herself instantly in the throes of sexual obsession with Kitty, and, at the height of her arousal, discharges her weapon skyward in frustration.
Clarence Ford has said that his primary inspiration in making Naked Killer was Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen’s 1972 film Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, while Wong Jing had wanted a Hong Kong version of the recent American hit Basic Instinct. Interestingly, the finished product does, to some extent, come across as a combination of Chor’s more refined and elegant approach to eroticism and Paul Verhoeven’s coarser one. Though I think that, in the end, Chor Yuen won out. Ford was uncomfortable with filming sex scenes, as well as with requiring nudity of his actresses, and so kept both to a minimum (certainly by Cat III standards, at least). He compensated for this by conveying sensuality through lushness of atmosphere and luxuriousness of texture, along with a voyeur’s obsessive focus on the physical beauty of his actors. In other words, by an engagement with the truly erotic. Dated 1990s fashions and trip hop music notwithstanding, I don’t think anyone can deny that Ford’s is a movie that’s oozing with a potent sexuality — one of the type that only gains intensity by it’s proximity to mayhem.
And mayhem there indeed is, with Sister Cindy taking it upon herself to kill everyone who can establish a connection between Kitty’s new identity and her former life, including Tinam’s boss. Tinam himself only escapes as a result of Kitty’s constant interventions. Meanwhile, Princess combines her stalking of Sister Cindy with an increasingly fevered erotic pursuit of Kitty, inspiring not a small amount of ire in the heart of the lethal Baby. It probably goes without saying, given all that has lead up to it, that the end will come in an epic conflagration fraught with grand tragic gestures and operatic bloodletting. Who would expect anything less?
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss a film like Naked Killer. But, to me, it’s only the subpar exploitation films that give sex and violence a bad name, while the ones like Naked Killer put sex and violence back on the pedestal where they belong. Rather than the nihilistic sleaze-fest that one might typically expect from the Cat III genre, Naked Killer is a film that rages with vitality, and offers about as good an example as I can think of of cinema’s unique ability to show us a vision of our waking world merged with that of dreams. And by “dreams” I don’t mean the kid stuff that Hollywood usually sells, but the sweaty adult variety, teeming with submerged guilt and forbidden desires. It’s an aestheticized orgy of sex, death, lust and murder that, when it’s all over, somehow leaves you feeling like the world is a pretty damn wonderful place. And for that I can only say this: Thanks once again, Hong Kong, for delivering.
Release Year: 1992 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Chingmy Yau, Simon Yam, Carrie Ng, Madoka Sugawara, Wai Yu (as Kelly Yao), Ken Lo, Shiu Hung Hui, Cheung Jing | Writers: Wong Jing | Director: Clarence Ford | Cinematographers: William Yim, Peter Pau | Music: Lowell Lo
Producer: Wong Jing
At this point in Teleport City’s existence, I think we can skip the introductory material regarding the post-apocalyptic films of the 1980s. Suffice it to say that the wake of the good ship Road Warrior is cluttered with some truly ridiculous flotsam, the vast majority of which seems to have drifted over from Italy, occasionally with a grinning Fred Williamson clinging to it, trademark cigarello clenched firmly between his teeth. And we don’t want to short-change The Philippines, whose contributions to the genre may be fewer and less “famous” but are even battier than their Italian counterparts. And occasionally, the United States would decide that if it was the country that most movies would hold at least 50% responsible for the post-apocalyptic setting, then the US might as well get in on the game.
Perhaps because we were stocked with the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, many US productions wrong-headedly tried to present a more “realistic” interpretation of what the world would be like after the collapse of society, rather than relying on the tried and true leather-clad mohawk guys tearing about in dune buggies that the rest of the world seemed to happy with. Less Road Warrior, more Mad Max, in that way. But every now and then, the United States would get its head out of its ass, stop producing dull claptrap like The Day After (so dangerous and shocking that the people made it weren’t even sure if we should watch it — seriously, they claimed to expect people flocking in for shock and post-traumatic stress disorder after witness the stark horrors the mini-series had in store for us. That’s near William Castle levels of brilliant), and make something that just through its hat into the ring of goofball post-apocalyptic adventure.
Coming as it did in 1991, Neon City sort of missed the boat. The Soviet Union was no more. The threat of nuclear annihilation was receding into the background. It was looking like that bomb shelter I’d built with my friends back in the woods and stocked with tins of Dinty Moore and Beanie Weenies was not going to be needed (though as far as I know, it’s still back there, right about here). Despite a brief foray into Middle Eastern warfare in 1990 and a mild recession, things were looking up. The environment for a post-apocalyptic action film was less inviting than it had been during the height of Reagan era Cold War paranoia. Luckily, Neon City decided to eschew nuclear annihilation as the way to get us all into football pads and assless leather pants and relied instead on a more 1970s style of tearing the world apart: environmental devastation. Contending with a ravaged environment is a standard part of any post-apocalypse movie, but more times than not, at least during the 1980s, that environment had been ravaged by nuclear war, which for some reason, the people of the near future could call nuclear war, opting instead to always give it some hokey, vaguely Biblical name like “the great cleansing” or “the time of fire.”
I guess something gets into the drinking water that causes our post-apocalyptic to give things more flowery, poetic, and creative names than what we did with wars like “World War II” and “The Hundred Years’ War.” But movies in which the wrecked environment is the cause, rather than a symptom of, the end of the world are farther between than the more common “you blew it up!” variety of film. However, with the two great super powers of the world turning their ICBMs into planters and having their old war bunkers blessed by crystal wielding new age priestesses (or something like that), a post-apocalypse latecomer like Neon City had to cast its net back to the decade of gas rationing and the great paranoia about the environment. It’s not that big a surprise, then, that the fish this movie pulls back into the boat resembles something more from the 1970s than the Reagan era post-apocalypse action movies with which we’d grown so familiar. Ozone layer depletion was still a hot topic at the time, so seizing on that as the cause of our doom was only natural.
Neon City is a decidedly more somber affair than movies like New Barbarians, 2020 Texas Gladiators, or Cherry 2000, to name just a few. It still boasts the hallmarks of the 1980s post-apocalypse movie — a big ass truck, marauders on motorcycles, questionable trends in fashion, a droning synth score — but it presents them in a much less cartoonish fashion, opting instead of a tone that is bleak, depressed, and surprisingly believable. The world of Neon City is successfully convincing as an actual post-apocalyptic society, one in which law and order exists in miserable, grimy pockets alongside large swaths of the country that have devolved into lawlessness. The future is such shit because the ozone layer was being eaten up at a frightening pace. In an attempt to halt and repair the damage, NASA hired a brilliant scientist who concocts some crazy sort of laser experiment. Unfortunately, all it does it accelerate the decay, thrusting the earth into a gloomy future where clouds of poison dust roll across the wasteland and people can be fried alive during certain conditions that create some crazy sort of intensification of sunlight. Civilization, or at least large swathes of it, couldn’t be sustained. The United States fractured into fiefdoms, each one ruled by a security force that seems at least tangentially loyal to whatever government remains, but ultimately cut off from any real central authority and thus left to fend for themselves.
Through this stark land strides Stark (Michael Ironside, from everything), a bounty hunter with a haunted past. He’s bringing a fugitive named Reno (Vanity, The Last Dragon), but discovers that he can’t actually collect her bounty in the city at which he arrives. Instead, he has to travel to Neon City, the major remaining hub of civilization in the region. Travel to Neon City isn’t unusual, but it is dangerous thanks to a gauntlet of brigands, nutcases, and environmental madness. The local lawman wants Stark to ride shotgun with the Neon City Express, the beast of a truck that makes the run with civilian passengers. Stark would rather take his chances on his own, at least until his truck “mysteriously” explodes. Stark and Reno thus end up boarding the armored transport along with a group of other travelers who hope to make the risky run to Neon City, each one with hopes of a better life. If you’ve ever seen the classic John Huston/John Wayne western Stagecoach, you may recognize the scenario. Neon City draws heavily from that movie, and in general, the greater portion of post-apocalypse movies can be easily compared to westerns, though most of them opt for a sort of Sergio Leone vibe — not surprising given the Italian lineage of both Leone westerns and 1980s post-apocalypse movies. So perhaps it’s no accident that the US-produced Neon City looks a bit further back, to American produced westerns of the early era, just as it did in plucking environmental disaster from the 70s.
What this means, however, is that we have an ensemble cast, and as just about any fan of b-movies can tell you, that almost always devolves immediately into poorly written, endless bickering and sniping. The set-up seems to point to exactly that sort of tedium. Besides gruff, angry Stark and his equally pissed off charge, the driver turns out to be Bulk (former football player Lyle Alzedo), Stark’s former partner who stark put away for five years on account of Bulk beating a guy to death. You might think that this ends up being important, but Bulk seems to have adopted a live and let live attitude, so whatever tension might have depended on that dynamic is dissipated pretty quickly. There’s also Sandy (Valerie Wildman), who happens to be Stark’s estranged ex-wife. Seems that whatever government remains in the blighted year of 2053 doesn’t take too kindly to “mutants,” making sure they are killed off at birth. When Stark and Sandy had a child, it suffered from a couple relatively mild abnormalities which the government identified — incorrectly, Sandy maintains — as mutations. So the child was killed. In a rage, Stark decided that Sandy had been covering up some sort of mutation in herself that was manifested in the child. Needless to say, the marriage had as much chance of surviving as the baby.
It may seem contrived for so many people with personal connections to one another to end up on the same trip to Neon City, but it seems there are so few people left that it doesn’t come across as improbable as it might otherwise. Fleshing out the cast are a vaudeville style comedian (Richard Sanders — you know him as Les Nesman), a doctor with abysmal taste in shirts and hairstyles (Nick Klar), a sheltered socialite who’s been riding the collapse of society out in Sweden (Juliet Landau, daughter of Martin and eventual reoccurring actress in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Justice League Unlimited, and a bunch more voice work), and an old Asian guy (Sonny Trinidad). I wasn’t in the mood for ninety minutes of clumsily written character conflict, and luckily, Neon City surprised me. Although we hit some of the expected notes — Stark and Sandy don’t get along, socialite Twink can’t understand why the government allows everything to be so dangerous, Vanity is pissed off at everyone — the movie never wallows in it. Most conflict is dealt with quickly, and we move on. Hell, for the most part, most of the people seem to get along with and help each other, and this is one of the few low budget post-apocalyptic movies where pretty much everyone we’re supposed to like is actually likable. Who ever heard of such a thing?
The only real fly in the ointment is sleazy Dr. Tom, who we know to be an impostor with sociopathic tendencies, but even that is handled in a relatively deft manner. We know the eventual conflict is coming, but we don’t have to sit through endless scenes of “who’s the bad guy.” And in fact, even though he’s the scumbag, he’s also well aware of the fact that he needs to pitch in and help out if any of them are going to survive the run. It seems almost that he doesn’t even want to hurt anyone, but his masquerade as a doctor keeps getting him called upon to perform some actual medical service, for which he has no talent. The only way he sees to cover his ignorance is to make sure the patients tragically pass away. Even though most of the characters are one-note caricatures, they were an easy lot to get along with, especially Sander’s ever chipper Dickie Devine (whom I expected to become odious comic relief, but he never does) and big galoot Bulk.
The expectation is that Alzedo — a former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman who, sadly, passed away shortly after this movie in May of 1992 — will be terrible, or he’ll just do the silent, dangerous act. But he really gives it his all and comes across with a lot of charisma. He has a freak-out scene that’s a little overplayed, but he tears into it with such earnestness that it doesn’t really matter. I’m primed for everyone in these types of movies to be cynical, unsympathetic, and overly acidic. It’s a bit of a joy to discover one where both the script and the performers have decided that maybe it’s OK to actually enjoy the company of the characters. Alzedo’s Bulk could have been the heavy or the jerk. Instead, he’s the center of the film’s charm.
Most of the cast is similarly committed. there’s no sense that anyone was handling this as though they thought it was just some idiotic straight-to-video sci-fi film, and there’s charisma enough to go around. The one failing is in the relationship between Stark and Reno, which is supposed to go from enemies to lovers. Which it does, but with almost no transition or development at all and with no chemistry between the two. But like everything else in this movie, the plot doesn’t linger on it for very long, so you can keep rolling without too much fuss. The relationship between Stark and Reno fails not because of the actors as much as it does the script. Vanity had a lot of natural charm, but the few times I’ve seen her act, she wasn’t all that great. Her character probably could have used more to do and say in this, although limited as it is, it doesn’t give Vanity’s weaknesses as an actress any time to surface. Unlike, perhaps, more current movies, the movie doesn’t try to pass her off as an unstoppable killing machine. She knows her way around a fight, having grown up as an orphan in the wasteland, but she makes believable mistakes and is never anything more than barely competent — just like everyone else.
For his part, Michael Ironside is, well, Michael Ironside. It’ll always be hard for him to convince me he’s actually the good guy, so recognizable is he as a guy who does things like make people’s heads explode. His character, like Vanity’s is the focus of the story while also being the least interesting. He turns in a fine performance. And I really like the idea of Ironside as the hero. He’s in shape but not ripped. He’s losing his hair. He looks like a regular guy with an unusually effective steely-eyed glare. Like everything else in this movie, he looks lived in, worn down, and how you’d expect someone surviving in this future to look. Whether it’s a conscious decision or merely a function of the film’s low budget, no one looks glamorous — not even Vanity, and that’s quite a feat. Well, OK, maybe you can still tell it’s Vanity underneath the rags and ponchos, but even she manages to be convincing otherwise. She was, for those of you who may not remember the 80s quite so clearly, one of several female proteges of Prince when he was at the absolute height of his power. Vanity, Apollonia Kotero, and Sheila E. all tried their hand at acting. Apollonia did OK in Purple Rain and continues to pop up from time to time in TV work. After playing herself in Krush Groove, Sheila E. decided to rely more on the fact that she was the one protege who had a staggering abundance of actual musical talent.
But Vanity…Vanity starred not only in Neon City, which as you may be gathering, I think is a pretty good movie, but also appeared in one of the greatest movies of the 1980s: The Last Dragon. If she never did anything else, those two things alone would qualify her for the much coveted Teleport City Medal of Merit. Sadly, she retired from the business in the middle of the 1990s and launched a career as a born-again evangelist, which I cannot say I have followed as closely as I did her turns in Action Jackson and Tanya’s Island.
And I won’t claim that I’m the only person to own albums by both Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 (as well as most of The Time and Sheila E’s albums, but that’s a lot more common), but that’s got to put me in some sort of elite crowd. I even have a Wendy and Lisa solo albums. Damn, Prince made a lot of money off of me. It’s a wonder I never bought solo albums by “that guy from The Revolution who dressed like a doctor” or “that guy from the Revolution who looked like a less stately version of Prince.”
I do think that the main characters of Reno and Stark are actually the supporting players, and the journey toward redemption for both Wing and Bulk is the film’s real heart. The best scenes belong to Lyle Alzedo and Sonny Trinidad. The friendship that develops between the hulking driver and the wispy old man is far more organic and interesting than the rushed and clumsy romance between Stark and Reno. All in all, though, the cast does well, and even moments of bad acting come across with a naturalness that makes them work with the characters. I think it might have something to do with the fact that director Monte Markham was an actor by trade, having worked for years as a supporting player and one-off character in countless television shows. He got one starring turn, in the series Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but for the most part, he was strictly a one or two appearance performer. So I think he must have a soft spot for supporting casts, which is why they perhaps get the better end of the deal in this script.
Even Twink, who should be the most annoying character, is written and played with sympathy. She’s naive, but she’s basically nice and naive, rather than the usual “bitchy sheltered rich girl,” and that was, after so many years of Sci-Fi Channel movie characters, unbelievably refreshing. Thank God Juliet Landau had the good sense or lack of experience enough to take the tolerable, likable route with the character. She does a lot of work on cartoons I like a like — most notably as Tala on the much missed Justice League cartoon, as well as roles in the more recent Ben Ten series and the direct to DVD movie Green Lantern: First Flight (which, incidentally, was absolutely awesome).
Lest you think this is all character drama, let me assure you that the army of writers that worked on this movie (there were four, though only Markham and Jeff Begun had any experience before — or after — Neon City) never forget to pepper it with action. Stark and the gang are pestered every step of the way by roving gangs of killers, culminating in a few well-executed action scenes and a lot of competently executed action scenes. Neon City is surprisingly adept at balancing character drama and action, and while we’re not looking at stunts and adrenaline on the level of Road Warrior (though the final chase and fight scene is obviously plucked from that movie’s finale), it still manages to be pretty exciting. There are some pretty hairy looking motorcycle crashes, a lot of explosions, and plenty of gunfights.
Tying the whole movie together is the world these characters inhabit. As you no doubt know, post-apocalypse movies tend toward either the grimly dull or the outlandishly cartoony. Neon City does its best to walk the line between the two. Sure we have the biker gangs, and most of the clothes and decor are the typical post-apocalyptic mish-mash of antiques and what people int he 80s thought stuff int he future was going to look like, but it’s all put together with an expert eye. This stuff doesn’t look like prop room leftovers that some thoughtless art director threw together and called the future. It looks lived in. It looks, if not exactly real, then at least awful close to it. There are, of course, anachronisms. Though we’re not entirely certain when things got as bad as they are in 2053, it’s still safe to assume that we would have better computers than the 1980s. At the same time, I always like seeing old computer equipment, and I think anyone who rips into a film from, say, the 1980s for not accurately predicting what computers would like in the future really is missing the point. And int he case of Neon City, it even sort of works. the world is so believably run down and worn out that it almost seems plausible that we’d all be back to using 286 computers with monochrome displays. Similarly, the outside world seems believable enough. Filmed in Utah at least partially during the cold months, Neon City achieves the “driving across the desert” look that was requisite of all post-Road Warrior movies while still being something a little more — though not entirely — unique. It reminded me a lot of the look of an earlier, not as enjoyable post-apocalyptic movie, Warlords of the 21st Century starring Michael Beck.
The movie also gives the characters a believable reason to be farting around out in the wasteland. Unlike many post-apocalypse movies, where people seem to drive around the desert for no reason at all other than it’s cheap to film in the desert and Road Warrior was filmed in a desert, Neon City at least explains it. Our heroes don’t want to be there; it just happens to be the only road to where they need to be. And the biker gangs are out there because, well, they’re bandits. Furthermore, the existence of cities and pockets of civilization, however miserable they may be, lends Neon City an extra dynamic. We get the feeling that things are bad in a lot of places, but not everywhere. Neon City itself seems like a little nation-state, though one that is relatively safe and stable, and apparently the Swedes are getting along just fine. There is a lack of cohesive centralized government in the United States, but it’s not total anarchy. You get the sense that someone, somewhere, is desperately trying to keep things from unraveling any more than they already have.
I was surprised by Neon City. I didn’t expect much from it, but it really entertained me. I like sci-fi films that have nothing to say, and I like sci-fi films that are so preposterously ham-fisted with what they have to say that it becomes absurd. Neon City is the rare sci-fi film that has a little to say and says it well. Not a whole lot, but just enough to give it that extra bit of depth. Mad Max was really the opening salvo in the Reagan era post-apocalypse boom, even though it’s more outrageous sequel became the template. It’s debatable whether or not Neon City is the last film in the trend, but regardless, it’s fitting that it would be among the last and is, in spirit so much more similar to Mad Max than it is Road Warrior. If Neon City has one big weakness, it’s that it’s a good movie. Not a great movie that can enthrall anyone, and not a terrible movie that can amuse anyone. It’s merely good (though I think very good), and that means for it to be entertaining, you have to like it, not like laughing at it. It’s not like indulging in some gloriously ludicrous nonsense like New Barbarians. It’s a pretty serious movie, executed competently, which means it doesn’t have that party film vibe about it. But if you’re looking for some decent sci-fi action, or if you have an affinity for post-apocalypse movies in general, then low-key, modest little Neon City is really a forgotten gem.
It is perhaps a sign that I’ve succumbed to the stressors of the season that I’ve been re-watching a lot of these earlier lucha movies lately. While the Mexican wrestling movies of the late 60s and 70s can be amusingly trashy, those made a decade previous exhibit an appealing hokeyness and sincere desire to entertain that makes them, for me, the ideal form of cinematic comfort food. They also, in the case of films like 1960′s Neutron vs. The Death Robots, exhibit a not inconsiderable amount of appealing, old school style
Neutron vs. The Death Robots, the second in a series of five Neutron films, was directed by Federico Curiel, one of the most prolific directors of Mexican lucha films. Working with literally every major star in the genre, Curiel helmed a steady stream of entries that lasted from the early 60s until the twilight of the Mexican wrestling film’s popularity in the late 70s, in the process providing the genre with its last box office hurrah with 1972′s wildly successful Las Momias de Guanajuato.
Like a lot of lucha film directors, Curiel seemed to lose his artistic footing a bit with the transition to color in the late 60s. As a result, many of his later films have a harsh, overlit look to them and an unimaginative approach to composition. This may very well be due to the drastically reduced budgets that directors had to work with during the genre’s waning years, which likely necessitated a reductive point-and-shoot style both for the sake of haste and to cover for the lack of elaborate sets. (One notable exception to this practice is Braniac director Chano Urueta, who compensated for his lack of materials by infusing the two Blue Demon features he directed – Blue Demon contra Cerebros Infernales and Blue Demon contra Las Diabolicas – with an abundance of bright primary colors that turned them into vivid, live-action cartoons.)
By comparison, in the case of Death Robots, Curiel — at the time still working within the relative security of the Mexican studio system, with its comparatively generous budgeting for art direction and set design, and filming in rich black and white — is clearly in his element. The director had recently completed the twelve-part vampire serial The Curse of Nostradamus, and seems to have carried the moody, gothic ambience established there over into the first three Neutron films, which were all shot by Curiel in close succession using the same cast and resources. (Curiel also had to shoot each film in half hour long “chapters”, which were then assembled into feature form — a sort of “go-around” to circumvent regulations enforced upon the studio, Estudios America, due to its affiliation with the union STIC, whose authority had been limited by presidential decree to the production of short films and serials.)
The combination of the shadowy tones of classic Hollywood horror and noir films with the wholesome thrills of the Republic superhero serials of the 40s was a hallmark of early lucha films, and the Neutron films offer an example of the practice at its most visually sumptuous and alluring. To some extent the films even prefigure Hollywood’s current vogue for “going dark” with costumed hero tales. And Neutron could hardly present us with a better hero to receive such treatment, blessed as he is with mysterious origins, a disturbing habit of popping up unexpectedly in peoples’ bedrooms, and what one could easily be forgiven for describing as a gimp mask.
While Santo is unquestionably the most famous face in lucha cinema, it might surprise some to learn that Mexico’s most famous wrestling star almost missed the boat altogether in terms of his onscreen career — and that the genre nonetheless managed to chug along without him for the better part of its fledgling decade. Santo’s first missed opportunity for movie stardom came in the early 50s, when producers approached him about appearing in a personally tailored, twelve chapter serial entitled El Enmascarado de Plata (meaning “The Silver Mask”, an appellation with which Santo had already become popularly identified). Santo refused, and the serial was eventually released in 1952 with rival wrestler El Medico Asesino as its star, though not before the producers had exacted a little symbolic revenge by making “El Enmascarado de Plata” the name of the villain rather than the hero of the piece.
With or without Santo’s participation, the popularity of lucha libre among the Mexican public insured that masked wrestlers were going to have a pronounced presence on the country’s cinema screens. And so, throughout the 50s, a variety of fictional wrestlers and masked heroes were concocted to fill the vacuum. These included the masked luchador Huracan Ramirez, as well as more traditional, serial-inspired heroes like La Sombra Vengadora, who, while not presented as wrestlers per se, encouraged the association by way of their lace-up masks, bare chests and frequent employment of flying drop kicks.
It is to this last mentioned category that Neutron belongs. And while he did not technically beat the silver-masked one to the big screen, I think he can still be said to be a product of the aforementioned Santo gap. As for Santo, when he finally did decide to make his leap to the screen, he somewhat curiously chose to do so as a co-star in a couple of fairly inauspicious, low budget Cuban productions, both released in 1958. The following two years saw Santo’s acting career bear no further fruit, which resulted in him not making his debut in a Mexican production until his starring turn in Santo contra los Zombies, which was released nearly a year after the initial Neutron film, Neutron, el Enmascarado Negro and its two immediate sequels.
Starring in the Neutron films was a Latvian born actor and professional wrestler by the name of Wolf Ruvinskis. Ruvinskis spent a lot of his screen career playing heavies, and is probably most recognizable to cult film fans for his role as Argos, the impressively buff and ring-ready leader of the invading Martian force in Santo vs. the Martian Invasion. Three years previous to his debut as Neutron, he had appeared in Fernando Mendez’s Ladron de Cadaveres, a film that was important in the history of lucha cinema for being the first to place elements of the classic horror film within a wrestling milieu. The story of the film — which was later essentially recycled to provide the plot for the first of the Lorena Velazquez/Elizabeth Campbell Wrestling Women movies, Las Luchadoras contra el Medico Asesino (aka Doctor of Doom) — concerned a mad scientist who switched the brains of an ape and a wrestler (Ruvinskis) with predictably monstrous results. More important than the story, however, was the visual grammar employed by Mendez to tell it, which, in borrowing the German Expressionist-inspired look of the early Universal horror films, paved the way for later Gothic-tinged masked wrestler outings like the classic Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro and, of course, the Neutron films.
While Ruvinskis’ part in the Neutron films required him to play Neutron’s alter ego Carlos, I can’t say with absolute certainty that in all cases he appeared on screen as the masked hero himself. I will say, though, that, from seeing him in films like Ladron de Cadaveres and Santo vs. the Martian Invasion, he certainly appeared to possess the proper amount of athleticism for the role, and that there are definitely moments when it looked to me like it was him behind the character’s distinctive black, lightning bolt adorned mask. In any case, whoever played the part, Neutron definitely makes for a credibly super-heroic presence, sporting a trim, sculpted build that stands in sharp contrast to the more stocky frames of some of the considerably older, real-life wrestlers who would soon be appearing in these type of films as idealized versions of themselves. The masked man also proves no slouch in the fighting department, including among his arsenal of moves an impressive flying drop kick, as well as some fairly convincing looking fist work. (Yes, that’s right. I said “fist work”. Even though I know what associations the phrase — when thought of in connection with Neutron’s head-enveloping, black mask – will conjure.)
Now, there are a number of reasons why I have singled out Neutron vs. The Death Robots as the most noteworthy of the Neutron films. (For one thing: Best. Title. Ever.) As I mentioned earlier, it was the second Neutron film, and as such stood as the middle part of a trilogy comprised of the first three, which together tell one continuous story. However, while the first film is burdened with having to establish the many characters and conflicts that will play out throughout the trilogy, and the third film, Neutron contra el Dr. Caronte, has the chore of tying up all of the loose ends, Death Robots is largely left free of such expositional baggage to just go about the business of being an exciting little adventure yarn. As such, it is easily the most action-packed of the three, boasting a propulsive forward momentum that neither of its two, considerably more talky companion films can hope to match.
Second of all, Death Robots has a great villain, present in the first film, but given far more prominence here. Dr. Caronte is a classic movie megalomaniac, prone to grandiose, fist-shaking proclamations that never leave the audience in any doubt as to what exactly his evil schemes entail, or what his glowing estimation of his own capabilities might be, much less his withering disdain for all the haters and wannabes who, one assumes, bear some real or imagined responsibility for him choosing his current, super-villainous path. The masked Caronte also boasts an outfit that speaks of a certain career ambivalence, one part surgeon’s scrubs and one part wrestling togs, that makes for a pretty memorable visual image, especially for the way its blinding whiteness stands out against the backdrop of Caronte’s gloom-enshrouded laboratory hideaway.
And then there are the film’s monsters, the titular Death Robots, who are basically an army of faceless, coverall clad zombies — hirsute but for the encroaching male pattern baldness that each exhibits — whom Caronte appears to bake into life in a series of what look like futuristic pizza ovens. As ridiculous as they may sound, Curiel puts a lot of work into giving these silent, lumbering killers a delicious creepiness, frequently announcing their arrival in a scene by first showing their slowly advancing shadows looming up on a wall behind an unsuspecting victim.
But Caronte’s crew is not comprised entirely of Death Robots. There is also his assistant Nick, a bowlegged dwarf with a fearsome unibrow, who — in both the Spanish and English language versions of the film — is dubbed with a strangled, high-pitched voice that makes him sound like a constipated muppet. Caronte generally treats Nick like a sort of fetish object, even referring to him at one point as his “good luck charm”, and the two have a tendency to walk hand-in-hand as they tool around their lair. As with the Death Robots, Curiel brings all of his cinematic flair to bear on the task of accentuating the odd and disquieting nature of this character’s appearance, and is especially fond of using Nick’s height as an excuse to shoot scenes by angling up from his eye level, all the better to take advantage of the impressive, three-leveled set that stands in for the Doctor’s laboratory. In fact, it is during those scenes with Nick, the Doctor and the Death Robots in Dr. Caronte’s laboratory that Neutron vs. The Death Robots most seems to spring to life, giving you the clear sense that it is in the more spooky aspects of the film’s world that Curiel most feels at home.
Death Robots begins by briskly recapping the events of the first film by means of a handy television newscast, and in the process reintroduces us to the series’ recurring cast of characters. That film strove to create an air of mystery around Neutron’s identity by providing us with three leading men, each of whom could ultimately be revealed – and at various times were hinted to be – the masked hero’s alter ego. These three included Ruvinskis in the role of playboy Carlos; biologist Jaime, played by Armando Silvestre; and popular television commentator Mario, played by Julio Aleman. Several years later, Aleman would get his own chance to play a masked movie avenger, in the flatly ridiculous Rocambole series, which took a Fantomas-like 19th century French pulp character and turned him into a Batman-style hero complete with a risible costume featuring a chest emblem of a giant arrow pointing downward into his trunks.
Carlos and his two handsome buddies seem to be inseparable, working out and showering at the gym together and, even, by appearances, living together in the big mansion that Jaime inherited from his dad, a scientist who was killed in the first movie. But lest you get the wrong idea, all three men also share the same love interest, Nora (Rosita Arenas), a singer at the popular nightspot La Roca. Nora’s choice of vocation affords the filmmakers plenty of opportunities to pad Death Robots running time with musical numbers, and not just Nora’s, but those performed by her fellow nightclub performers as well. Some have complained that these interludes only serve to slow the picture down, but, personally, I like them; Curiel employs the same noirish play of light and shadow evident elsewhere in the film in capturing these numbers and, as such, I think they provide Death Robots with a nice touch of B movie glamour.
Rounding out Team Neutron is Dr. Thomas, a European scientist who also seems to live in the house with Carlos, Jaime and Mario, and who keeps a pretty impressive laboratory filled with blinking control panels there to boot. Dr. Thomas is played by Grek Martin, aka Jack Taylor, aka George Randall, an American expatriate actor who, after relocating to Spain, made his living by appearing in quite a few European and Mexican genre pictures over the course of his career. The former included a healthy(?) number of films for Jesse Franco, including Bare Breasted Countess, French Emanuelle and Porno Shock, among others. Martin/Taylor has a sinister quality that has you continually expecting him to be revealed as the bad guy throughout the Neutron pictures, even though he never is. Or I should say, technically he never is, since in the third film Dr. Caronte uses black magic to transmigrate his soul into Dr. Thomas’ body.
The first Neutron film concluded with Carlos unmasking himself as Neutron to his friends. However, at some point between the production of that film and Death Robots, it was decided that it was best to keep the whole “who is Neutron?” gimmick going, and so we begin Death Robots with all of the characters having conveniently forgotten the whole incident. As a result, we go back to the earlier movie’s routine of having everybody intermittently accusing one another of being Neutron, while having occasional clues dropped by the filmmakers implicating one or the other of them as the hero’s alter ego. It would contribute a lot to the general air of fun that the film sustains if you hadn’t seen the first film — or if you hadn’t read all of the spoilers in this review.
The MacGuffin that drives Dr. Caronte’s actions throughout the first three Neutron films is a device somewhat confusingly referred to as the Neutron Bomb. In this context, one might expect this to be a bomb that only kills Neutron, but it is instead a spiky metal ball that emits a gas that dissolves everyone within a certain radius. The rather heavy-handed efforts of Caronte and his associates to get their hands on the bomb’s formula in the first film resulted in all of the scientists responsible for its creation — including Jaime’s father — being killed in one way or another. And as we catch up with Caronte in the opening moments of Death Robots, we find that he has had little Nick exhume those scientists’ corpses to further his evil scheme. The Doctor has since removed the brains from those corpses with the intention of combining them into one super-brain, which he will control and communicate with via an infernal machine he has created for the purpose. In order to do so, however, he will need “LOTS of blood”, and so the Death Robots are sent forth to find some hapless citizens of Mexico City to exsanguinate.
Unfortunately, Dr. Caronte’s worst enemy turns out to be his own egomania, as his insistence upon leaving a distinctive coin at the site of each murder quickly alerts Team Neutron to the fact that he is far more not dead than he appeared to be at the end of the last film. Soon Neutron enlists the gang in helping him set up a sting operation of sorts to capture one of the Death Robots, with the plan being to then follow the thing back to Caronte’s hideout. With his disembodied super-brain having filled him in on the necessary ingredients for the bomb, Caronte is now having the robots raid local chemical warehouses for the materials, and it is at one of these that Neutron, along with police Inspector Lozano (Rodolfo Landa), makes the catch. Things fail to go as planned, however, because as soon as the targeted Death Robot realizes it is being followed, it commits suicide by pulling off its own head — in what I probably don’t need to tell you is Neutron vs. The Death Robots‘ crowning moment of awesomeness.
Eventually Caronte gathers all of the materials he need to make the Neutron Bomb, but then decides that he needs Dr. Thomas to help him assemble it. Thus Neutron’s primary task becomes defending Thomas against Nick and the Death Robots’ repeated attempts to abduct him. Meanwhile, all of Neutron’s three possible alter egos still find plenty of time to hang around La Roca, watch an assortment of musical numbers in their entirety, and simultaneously hit on the understandably put-upon Nora. This all comes to an end when Caronte succeeds, not only in kidnapping Thomas (by employing a Death Robot disguised as Neutron!), but Nora, as well. Thus, by bartering Nora’s life, is the villain able to strong arm Thomas into helping him.
Once the bomb is completed, Caronte initiates a somewhat harebrained extortion scheme that involves having the bomb placed in a flight bag that Nick, disguised as a miniature cab driver, then stashes among other pieces of luggage on a baggage cart at the Mexico City airport. This, of course, sets the stage for the old suitcase switch-a-roo, and an innocent couple, mistaking the bag for their own, ends up grabbing it and heading off home. This leads to a hilarious series of scenes in which Neutron, the cops, and the Death Robots alternately barge unexpectedly into various citizens’ homes looking for the case. One imagines that the acting abilities of the bit players involved were taxed to their limits as they attempted to portray the reactions of normal people to having their homes invaded by either a bare-chested man in a black wrestling mask or a dwarf accompanied by a contingent of long-haired, faceless zombies.
Eventually the bomb is recovered and taken to Thomas’s lab to be diffused. Here Dr. Caronte makes an unexpected appearance, leading to a protracted smack-down between him and Neutron that, after a break for a bit of chasing around, has its windup in Caronte’s hideout. At this point, we get an example of that classic exchange in which the villain exhorts the hero to join him, with Caronte telling Neutron that together they “could be invincible” and Neutron, of course, voicing his staunch refusal. This dialogue goes on for quite some time, and the great thing about it is that Neutron and Caronte never once pause from furiously beating the shit out of one another while delivering it, with the result that what sounds like an argument between two people sitting across a table from one another is heard as the participants flip and hurl one another all over the room.
Unlike in Neutron, el Enmascarado Negro, no reveal of Neutron’s identity is made at the end of Death Robots. In fact, pretty much every aspect of Neutron remains shrouded in mystery, other than the obvious – i.e. that he works out a lot, likes to expose his nipples to open air while having his head encased in nylon, and lives to smote evildoers, though not necessarily in that order. Basically, we experience Neutron as the other characters in the film do, only seeing him when he shows up to do his job and never being privy to what the behind-the-scenes of being Neutron is all about. This extends to us not knowing just how Neutron always knows exactly where and when trouble is going to pop up. Unlike with Santo, we don’t get to see him tooling around in a laboratory served by live feeds from cameras seemingly placed randomly all over Mexico. All we know is that he shows up in the nick of time, and does so pretty much without fail.
And if there was one bone I’d pick with Neutron vs. The Death Robots, it would be that one: That the predictability of Neutron showing up — completely without explanation — whenever peril arises ends up robbing the film to some extent of drama and suspense. In a couple of cases, Neutron arrives so swiftly on the heels of the Death Robots that we don’t even have time to register the threat. On the other hand, though, I think that this is in part a result of the film’s approach to action being more about velocity than build-up, and scenes such as those certainly do contribute to an air of breathless excitement — almost as if we are watching a story projected directly from the brain of a sugar-addled eight-year-old boy who’s caught up in the excitement of recounting the action of the cartoon he’s just watched.
Dr Caronte would return for one last go around, in Neutron contra el Doctor Caronte, in which he would battle a gang of foreign agents for possession of the Neutron Bomb and engage in the aforementioned black magic shenanigans before being unmasked and served his final comeuppance at the film’s conclusion. After that, Neutron would disappear from Mexico’s cinema screens for several years, until 1964, at the height of the lucha movie boom, when the character would be revived for two one-off features, Neutron contra los Asesinos del Karate and Neutron contra el Criminal Sadico. With the exception of Ruvinskis in the title role, gone would be the earlier films’ cast of regular characters, as would be director Curiel (German import Alfredo B. Crevenna — another ubiquitous presence during the heyday of lucha cinema — would take the helm instead). As a result, these titles lacked the dense, spook show atmosphere created by Curiel for the earlier films and, as such, had little to distinguish them from the typical Mexican wrestling fare that was being produced at the time. An unfortunate revamping of Neutron’s mask — which, if anything, made it look even more gimp-like — did nothing to help matters.
Soon thereafter, four of the Neutron pictures, including Death Robots, were picked up and dubbed into English for American television (a fifth, unrelated lucha film, El Asesino Invisible, was also included in the package under the revamped title Neutron Traps the Invisible Killers). These would become staples of Saturday afternoon TV at roughly the same time that K. Gordon Murray’s dubbed versions of the Santo films were hitting the U.S. airwaves, with the result that — in the USA at least — Neutron garnered nearly as high a profile as Mexico’s number one Luchador.
Of course, in Mexico it was a different story. Though that is not to say that Neutron didn’t have some cultural impact of his own. The initial trio of films spawned a fumetti-style series of Neutron photo comics that, for a while, competed on the country’s newsstands with Santo’s own popular comic, and, in later years, both the Neutron name and classic mask would come to be adopted by some real-life practitioners of lucha libre. Still, the enormity of Santo’s fame — not to mention that of his closest competitors, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras — nonetheless consigned Neutron once and evermore to the category of also-ran.
That their hero was something of a second-class citizen in lucha movie circles does not, however, take away from the fact that the early Neutron films, and Death Robots in particular, are excellent examples of their genre — better, in fact, than many of those films that starred Neutron’s more well-known competitors. In fact, to my mind, there are few films that, when combined with a suitable quantity of alcohol, could provide a better cure for the blues, holiday or otherwise.
Release Year: 1960 | Country: Mexico | Starring: Wolf Ruvinskis, Julio Aleman, Armando Silvestre, Rodolfo Landa, Rosita Arenas, Jack Taylor (as Grek Martin), Ernesto Finance, David Lama, Roberto Ramirez Garza | Director: Federico Curiel | Writer: Federico Curiel, Alfredo Ruanova | Music: Enrico C. Cabiati | Producer: Emilio Gomez Muriel | Also known as: Los Automatas de la Muerte, Neutron the Atomic Superman vs. the Death Robots
HP Lovecraft, much discussed pulp horror author and Woodrow Wilson lookalike, was either born or transferred into this world from a watery beyond in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, a traveling salesman, went insane as a complication of syphilis when young Howard Phillips was but three years old, and the elder Lovecraft was confined to a mental hospital until his death in 1898. Sickly and somewhat unstable as a lad, HP Loevcraft showed a knack for writing (poetry, mostly) despite the fact that he spent little time in school. He was raised by his mother, aunts, and grandfather, and it was his grandfather who first read old gothic horror stories to HP. His mother disapproved, fearing that the stories would upset the child, who already suffered from, among other things, night terrors. Lovecraft’s academic studies, such as they were — he dreamed of becoming a professional astronomer — were stymied by his inability to do well in higher mathematics. Upon the death of his grandfather in 1908, the Lovecrafts hit upon hard times. The family moved into a smaller home, and Lovecraft led a nearly hermetic existence, his mother being more or less the only person with whom he spent any time.
Although England’s Hammer Studio made a variety of films, the trio of Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy solidified the direction of the studio and its identity with the public for the remainder of its life. And not without good reason. In their heyday, and even long after the studio had fallen into disrepair, Hammer showed a panache for producing lavish looking Gothic horror that was simply unmatchable. America’s AIP came close with Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe inspired cycle of films starring Vincent Price, but no one could approach Hammer’s consistency and longevity in producing world-class horror. Starting in 1958 and continuing throughout the 60s, and into the studio’s final days in the first half of the 1970s, Hammer produced an unbelievable string of incredible horror films — almost every one of them a hit — buoyed by the one-two punch of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee’s Dracula films and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein series.
It’s understandable that Hammer would focus on the genre that helped define them as a major player on the global film production scene, but even as the monsters and madmen were overrunning the studio, Hammer was still doing its best to make non-horror fare, including some noir-style thrillers, war films, and a series of swashbucklers. Over the years, these films have been largely overshadowed by the horror product, and in fact most have been extremely difficult to get a hold of them, with very few being released on home video, at least here in the United States. Thus, they became all but forgotten, even though they often used the same directors, writers, and stars (specifically Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee) as the horror films and were often films worth remembering.
With the bulk of Hammer horror films now released on DVD (with the exception of Twins of Evil and Vampire Circus, both of which remain curiously MIA in the United States), and with these releases bringing in some new fans and revitalizing interest among the older fans, distributors have begun dipping into the vast body of Hammer’s non-horror work. Over the past year or two, two volumes of Hammer noir and crime films were released, along with some of the more obscure psychological thrillers. And in early 2008, it was announced that Hammer’s collection of swashbuckling pirate movies was finally going to be released. With any luck, the near future will also see the release of Hammer’s war films and the remaining caveman adventures.
The first of Hammer’s pirate films to make it to DVD in the US was Captain Clegg, a curious beast of a film that got released first primarily because it was marketed in the US, at the time of its original release, as a horror film. Appearing under the title Night Creatures, the movie found its way onto a recent double feature release with The Evil of Frankenstein. And while Night Creatures does contain an element of horror, anyone who goes into it looking for scares is going to be confused.
Hammer’s dalliance with pirate films began in 1961 with the release of The Pirates of Blood River, starring venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, 7th Voyage of Sinbad‘s Kerwin Mathews, and Hammer bit player Michael Ripper in a rare feature role. Hammer’s production values were never higher than they were in the first half of the 1960s, where seemingly everything they touched came out looking astounding, and The Pirates of Blood River benefits from Hammer’s attention to detail — not to mention from venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee in one of his best Hammer performances and a chance to see Michael Ripper doing more than playing “the suspicious barkeep.”
It also starred young Oliver Reed, for whom 1960-1961 was an exceptionally good year. His first film as the lead — Curse of the Werewolf — came out in 1960, and he was charged with the task of supporting the film entirely on his own, in the middle of a Hammer horror frenzy that was defined almost entirely by Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. For Oliver Reed, a totally untested leading man, to be trusted with the lead in Hammer’s first color horror film that didn’t star Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was both a tremendous opportunity and a huge gamble. It paid off, though, and although Curse of the Werewolf never attained the iconic status of the Dracula and Frankenstein films, it became one of the most respected. From there, Reed was paired with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee for The Pirates of Blood River, and then, that same year appeared alongside Peter Cushing in Captain Clegg, the second of Hammer’s pirate outings. But while The Pirates of Blood River was a somewhat more traditional swashbuckler, Captain Clegg is a crazy mix of pirate, horror, and detective films.
Things start off piratey enough, with the mutilation and stranding of a crew member (big Milton Reid — one of those actors you know by sight if not by name) for attacking the wife of the captain, a mysterious and ruthless pirate by the name of Clegg. Leaving the dastardly crewman to his fate sans food, water, ears, or tongue, the film then skips ahead a number of years to the remote British town of Dymchurch, which is being visited by no-nonsense British Navy captain Collier (Patrick Allen and his magnificently manly chin — only Chuck Conners stands a chance against him) who suspects the small hamlet of being an offloading center for liquor smugglers. But Dymchurch hardly seems to be a den of smugglers and rapscallions, populated as it is by jolly coffin makers (Michael Ripper), upstanding squires (Derek Francis), upstanding squire’s sons (Oliver Reed), and the benign local parson, Blyss (Peter Cushing). Collier, however, is an experienced hand at flushing out smugglers, so he’s hardly taken in by innocent looks alone. However, a number of surprise inspections and raids lead to nothing but property damage and the ruffling of the town Squire’s feathers as Collier and his men accuse various townsfolk of ill doings only to come up empty handed every time. At this point, the film resembles a thriller or mystery far more than it does a pirate adventure.
Parson Blyss himself remains cordial with the captain, reminding the townsfolk that the man is just doing his job, but even the kindly parson is offput when he is attacked by one of Collier’s crew — the very man stranded and mutilated by Clegg, it turns out. Collier apparently discovered the man shortly after Clegg abandoned him, as Collier was hot on the trail of the pirate at the time. Since then, they’d kept him on as a crewman for heavy lifting, menial tasks, and amusement, even though the former pirate is prone to getting drunk and attacking people. Collier’s pursuit of Clegg, ironically enough, ended in Dymchurch, where the wily pirate was finally captured and hanged, Blyss himself delivering the final rites and convincing the local church to allow Clegg a proper burial in exchange for an apparent change of heart the pirate had while incarcerated. Plus, Blyss just likes to believe int he good of everyone.
Clegg isn’t the only dead man causing Collier. Legend has it that the marshes around Dymchurch are haunted by phantoms. In fact, a man was recently killed by them. Collier, ever the enlightened man of reason, sees little reason to believe in the phantoms, and in fact he is highly suspicious of them since the man most recently killed by them happened to be Collier’s own man, who had previously tipped the captain off to the smuggling going on in Dymchurch. And it isn’t very long before the viewer is clued in to the fact that smuggling is going on, and pretty much the entire town is in on it. Blyss is the brains behind the operation, coffin maker Mipps the operations man, and any daring-do that needs to be performed is handled by the Squire’s son and lookout, Harry Cobtree. Using a series of secret compartments and tunnels centering around the church and Mipps’ coffin shop, the town regularly runs illegal French wine, even under the very nose of Collier. The phantoms — glowing skeletal horsemen — are, naturally, just members of the local smuggling ring, who find the threat of ghostly marsh phantoms to be advantageous to the smuggling profession.
Things start to get complicated for our merry smugglers not just because Collier is so persistent in his investigations, but also because one of their member is lusting after a barmaid, Imogene (Yvonne Romaine), who is in love with Harry Cobtree. In a drunken rage, he attacks the young woman and, when rebuffed, reveals to her than she is actually the daughter of the notorious Captain Clegg, and that furthermore, he is willing to expose the smuggling operation to Collier. Imogene is terrified by the revelation that she is Clegg’s daughter, for fear that this knowledge will spoil her in the eyes of young Harry, who should already be forbidden from her on account of their different classes. But Harry is hardly phased by such outdated constraints, and Imogene discovers that he and Blyss already knew she was Clegg’s daughter. Blyss, sensing that Collier is close to unraveling their smuggling plot, begins arranging for Harry and Imogene to be wed then escape the town before the net is drawn closed around them. When Harry is wounded while serving as lookout for one of the operations, Collier launches an all-out attack on the smugglers, but Blyss and Mipps are his equal, and a game of cat and mouse ensues that comes to a dramatic end inside Blyss’ chapel.
Despite the fact that the revelation at the end of the movie is hardly a surprise, Night Creatures succeeds in being a cracking good yarn that draws its suspense not from the solving of the mystery — the smugglers are all named very early in the film — but by developing those people as characters then allowing you to revel in the race and maneuvering against Collier. Captain Clegg was originally meant to be called Dr. Syn, a remake of an earlier film which itself was based on Russell Thorndike’s novel, Dr. Syn. But by a strange coincidence, Disney happened to develop an interest in this otherwise forgotten novel and film from the 1930s at the same time as Hammer. Needless to say, Hammer wasn’t in a position to challenge Disney, who had already obtained the rights to the Syn title and character. However, Disney was willing to play ball with Hammer, and aside from requiring that they change the name of the title character, Disney was more than happy to allow Hammer to proceed with production.
Disney’s version, called The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh but also known as Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow, was released in 1963 and featured Patrick McGoohan (of The Prisoner fame, among other things) in the lead role. Being a made of television movie, it was decidedly more family-friendly than Hammer’s version, with its horse-mounted ghouls, exhumed bodies, mutilated pirates, and other such trappings. Still, there’s very little in Captain Clegg to prevent being a rip-roaring good time for young and old alike, and any foolhardy young lad such as I was would have been delighted by it (remembering, of course, that there was a time when children’s films could contain murder, shrieking ghosts, drunks, and Sean Connery punching people in the face).
I’ve not seen the Disney version, and I won’t dismiss it out of hand because Disney has been known to produce some damn fine pirate and adventure entertainment (such as the three Treasure Island films). Although Disney’s competing version kept Captain Clegg off the American radar, these days Hammer’s version is the one you can find on DVD, while Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow has become wickedly hard to track down. It was released on VHS a long time ago and played at some point on the Disney Channel (as bootlegs bearing the channel’s logo attest to). I know there has been some word of the old Wonderful World of Disney series — of which Dr. Syn was a part — finally finding their way on to DVD, so one can only hope that this little pirate adventure sees the light of day once again.
Night Creature‘s script by Anthony Hinds (one of Hammer’s most reliable producers-turned-screenwriters, having penned Curse of the Werewolf, Kiss of the Vampire, and a number of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies) is expertly paced and hues closely to the original film. Even though it never really becomes a swashbuckling adventure (although Peter Cushing does get to swing from a chandelier) or a horror film, Hinds exploits the trappings of both genres to create a thrilling hybrid driven by strong characters and solid British acting. Although Cushing is the star attraction (and rightfully so), most Hammer fans are overly delighted that Michael Ripper gets such a meaty role. Ripper’s career is defined by tiny roles, almost always as a cranky innkeeper or barman who refuses to give our hero a room for the night, then makes a horrified face when someone says the name Frankenstein or Dracula. Despite the brevity of each of these roles, Ripper never gave anything that his absolute all. With Night Creatures, he gets a meaty role, and he makes the most of it. In fact, despite Cushing being the headliner, the bulk of the on-screen action is in the hands of Ripper and young Oliver Reed. Neither lets the film down, just as the script doesn’t let them down.
It’s hard to believe that Reed was so inexperienced an actor. He exhibits an easy charisma and likability that pulls you in and really makes you care about the character. Reed’s career was a rocky and uneven one, owing primarily to a fondness for the drink. In the 1960s, Hammer was hungry for someone young to augment the team of Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Reed seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and indeed after turns in Curse of the Werewolf, The Pirates of Blood River, Captain Clegg, and some of Hammer’s psychological thrillers, it seemed like Hammer had a winner on their hands. Good looking, athletic, and possessed of abundant charisma that could be channeled with equal skill into warmth, intensity, and pathos, Reed was a star on the rise. He was even on the short list (which actually seems to have been very long, given the number of people that are always mentioned as having been on it) to replace Sean Connery as James Bond, and the thought of Oliver Reed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — well, I liked Lazenby, and I love that movie, but had Reed been allowed to bring that deadly combination of charm and smoldering intensity to the role, I think he would have done then what wasn’t really accomplished until Daniel Craig took over the role in Casino Royale.
Unfortunately for Reed, his professional successes were balanced with personal trials. Stormy marriages were one thing, but when Reed was forced to endure endless barrages of questions about his drinking. Such interrogation by TV hosts and reporters often lead to the actor losing his temper, and his reputation for a drunk and a hothead plagued him for years, even when he was still making quality films. Unfortunately for Hammer, Reed never became the pair of shoulders that could carry the studio through tough times, as he was by then on to different opportunities. The task of being Hammer’s “next big thing” then fell on the shoulders of Ralph Bates, who certainly had the chops. But by the time Bates was on the Hammer scene, it was too late, and nothing was going to stop Hammer’s collapse.
Reed enjoyed success throughout the 60s and into the 70s, but by the 1980s, his star had faded considerably. Reed seemed to take it in stride. Although he continued drinking, he seemed happy to settle down to a relatively quiet life with his wife, at least until 1999 when Ridley Scott came knocking and offered Reed a part in Gladiator. It ended up being one of those rare parts perfectly suited for reviving the career of an old hand who had gone through stormy times and emerged older and wiser, ready to take on the role of elder statesman. Sadly, it was not to be for Reed, and he died of heart failure during the making of the film. Still, it must have felt good to be in the saddle again, and although it is done so posthumously, his role in Gladiator ended up being one of his best.
Of course, none of this praise for Ripper or Reed is meant to sell the rest of the cast short. It’s just that, in the case of Peter Cushing, do you really need me to tell you how good he was? It’s Peter Cushing, for crying out loud! He was always good. As the resident piece of Hammer glamour (I spell it with a “u” for England), Yvonne Romain doesn’t have terribly much to do other than look pretty (which she does with ease — if not for Caroline Munroe, she might be the prettiest of all Hammer’s starlets), but I always found the Hammer beauties to be as able at acting as they were at being eye candy, and when she’s given something to do, Romain is as solid as the rest of the cast. She was already experienced with both period adventure films and horror, having appeared in such cult favorites as Circus of Horrors, Curse of the Werewolf (where she co-starred alongside Oliver Reed), episodes of The Saint (which, granted, pretty much every actor in England appeared in at some point), and Patrick McGoohan’s espionage series Danger Man.
And let’s not leave off poor ol’ square-jawed Patrick Allen as Captain Collier. It would have been easy for this film to make us root for the smugglers by making Collier a grade A jerk, but instead, Collier is ever noble, if a bit stiff, and the smugglers are forced to make us like them by force of their own character rather than depending on him as a foil. Collier is nothing other than completely honest and straight-forward, a model officer of the British Navy. And Allen is perfectly cast, not just because he has that incredible jaw and an air of authority. His accomplishments as an actor are too numerous to list, and long with Cushing, he’s probably the most experienced of the cast members. He even showed up in the Japanese sci-fi film Gorath!
Director Peter Graham Scott wasn’t a Hammer films regular, working primarily in television, but he does an excellent job here with a script that allows him to wander between creepiness (the marsh phantoms, the old windmill and the scarecrow) and adventure. This is really an actor’s movie, though, as many Hammer films were, and the chief function of the director in these cases was to know what he was doing and do it without getting in the way — which is exactly what Scott does. As such, he’s not a name a lot of people know, but sometimes the best director for a movie is the one who can make you completely unaware of the director. He does lend the film rather a unique look for Hammer films of the time by shooting on location and outdoors, rather than relying entirely on the Bray Studio sound stages.
I’m looking forward to the release of Hammer’s other pirate films, because while this one may be tangential at best to the swashbuckling genre, it still manages to be a superb adventure film with a real “boy’s own adventure” feel to it. What with long dead pirates, ghosts in the swamp, scarecrows, secret passages, and smugglers, it could have easily been a Hardy Boys adventure. I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t said more about Peter Cushing, but like I said, what more can you say? The man went into everything with total commitment, and Captain Clegg is one of his finest roles. The script plays wonderfully off Cushing’s slight appearance. When first we meet him in this film, he looks dainty and frail, and hardly the sort of man who could command a band of smugglers prone to dressing up like skeletons and galloping through the swamps. But when it comes time for him to take charge, the transformation is remarkable, and you absolutely believe him as the leader of men. “Absolutely believing him” is pretty much the very definition of Cushing’s film career, as he was remarkably gifted at making whatever was happening, no matter how outlandish, seem absolutely real.
Here, he benefits greatly from Hinds’ script, which affords him a degree of complexity and depth very similar to what he enjoyed and challenged audiences with in the Frankenstein movies. He is ostensibly the bad guy, heading up a smuggling ring, killing off informers, and foiling Collier’s attempts to do an honest man’s work. But if he’s a bad guy, Cushing’s Blyss is hardly evil, and his scenes with Oliver Reed and Yvonne Rainer allow him to radiate warmth and care. As with the movie itself, Cushing’s role here is not among his iconic performances, but it probably should be.
We’ll have plenty of chances to talk further about Peter Cushing. It’s not every day that you get to say more about Michael Ripper than, “he was excellent as the grumpy bartender.” Whether you call it Captain Clegg or Night Creatures is unimportant. By any name, it’s top notch adventure all the way around.
All I ask of an action film is that it entertains me. I’m not a demanding viewer most of the time. I’m easy to satisfy, and I don’t think that makes me simple-minded. No, there are plenty of other things that do that. As long as the movie isn’t god-awful boring or just plain full of crap, I’ll probably at least enjoy my time watching it, even if it isn’t the sort of thing I’d ever buy. Frankly, I’d much rather sit through a dumb but exciting action film than a boring one that tries to be smart and fails miserably. At least a dumb action movie lets you know immediately where you stand. At the same time, I hate a lot of big, dumb action movies. Is this a contradiction? Hypocrisy? Well, don’t try to figure me out. I’m one of those hedge mazes, baby, and you could get lost in my leafy green complexity.