I think I’m detecting a pattern here, thanks in large part to the number of cheapjack genre films that used The Philippines and local Filipino crews and extras during the 80s and 90s. Need to make a cheap Rambo rip-off? Let the lush jungle landscape of The Philippines stand in for Vietnam. Need to make a crappy movie about a martial arts tournament that features bare-breasted female fighters? Don’t worry; The Philippines is the place for you. Want to make a post-apocalyptic adventure film featuring nude Amazons and kabuki little people? Even then you need not fear, for The Philippines truly is the Promised Land, so long as your vision of Paradise includes nude Amazons, kabuki midgets, topless kickboxing, and lots of slow motion explosions. And that damn well better be your vision of Paradise.
Cirio Santiago’s Future Hunters resembles some ancient horror buried for millions of years at the bottom of a pit beneath some black and unnamed ruin of a city comprised primarily of forms and colors that have no corresponding point of reference in our own universe. In fact, when first I purchased this movie on VHS, I ended up returning it as defective. I bought it used from a video store that was liquidating its stock back in 1995 or so, and a few days later I popped it in the VCR and set about watching it while I did some simple household chores. The film started out as a Road Warrior rip-off, with occasional Hong Kong action film villain Richard Norton tearing around the post-apocalyptic wasteland in a muscle car. Familiar enough territory. Then I got distracted, possibly by the discovery that our refrigerator had been leaking, and the leakage had turned into a putrid yellowish goo underneath the crisper drawers (man, talk about unspeakable Lovecraftian horrors). When I finished toweling up the gelatinous gloop and throwing the towel onto the roof of the credit union across the parking lot (I was young and punk then — take that, society), I returned to the living room and found that someone had recorded a different movie over the one I’d purchased. Because there on my massive ten-inch screen was a Bruce Le kungfu film, with the famous Bruce Lee imitator locked in mortal kicking combat with Hwang Jang Lee wearing a silver wig.
If you wanted to live in the Philippines, it would help if you really, really liked Jesus. A lot. With a Catholic majority of at least 85%, the nation is the third largest predominately Catholic country on Earth, and the largest in Asia (with East Timor being its lone competition). And, for the most part, we’re not talking about fair weather Catholics, either — say, the types who only make it to mass on Christmas and slack off for the rest of the year — but instead Catholics of an especially devout nature. Did I mention that their Christmas season lasts longer than that of any other country on Earth? That‘s a lot of masses.
Some great directors die in the midst of their career and leave behind an inadvertent final film that does not reflect the quality of their larger career. Few would argue, for example, that Family Plot is a fitting capstone for the career of Alfred Hitchcock, or that Stanley Kubrick’s career was well served by having Eyes Wide Shut as his swan song or that Sam Peckinpah’s career ended well with The Osterman Weekend. On the other hand, some director’s die while working and leave behind a final film so stunningly perfect as their final statement that it seems hard to believe the whole thing wasn’t planned by some benevolent supreme being. Had the legendary Bruno Mattei’s life and career ended on any note other than Zombies: The Beginning, then truly this would have been a cruel and uncaring universe. But end with Zombies: The Beginning it did, and so Mattei departed this mortal coil via a film that is the perfect summation of everything he ever contributed to the world of cinema.
I ended up owning Naked Fist through my desire to beat Teleport City head honcho Keith in our race to both own as many nude kickboxing movies as possible. I’m not doing too well in this race mind you; my ineptitude at competitiveness has never been more obvious than when, as soon as I got a copy of Naked Fist, I immediately ripped it and sent it to Keith. This despite knowing he has at least 3 nude kickboxing movies I don’t own. I guess my only hope now is that he doesn’t have TNT Jackson, Duel to the Death, Golden Ninja Warrior or any of those Alexander Lo Rei/Godfrey Ho flicks where Alice Tseng fights ninjas while taking a bath. I don’t hold out much hope though; this is Keith we’re talking about. Ninjas in the bath are his bread and butter.
This movie features an army of well-armed, leather clad Filipinas with shaved heads. If you know me, you know that alone qualifies this as one of the greatest movies of this or any generation. Everyone is all crowing about Citizen Kane all the time, but to those people I ask 1) have you ever even seen Citizen Kane; and 2) did it feature even a single well-armed, leather clad Filipina with a shaved head? It didn’t, did it? So stop calling it the greatest film of all time. And since W is War is Filipino trash cinema, it’s not satisfied with just cute women with shaved heads, even though that was enough for me. W is War is the sort of movie that just keeps giving and giving. Cartoonish villains in capes, dune buggies, motorcycles shaped like sharks, massive shootouts, dudes in leather pants, exploding huts, sloppy kungfu fights, scenes shot from between the legs of hairy men wearing yellow Speedos — truly W is War is the movie that has something for everyone, and plenty of it.
Here’s how to test whether or not you are a true resident of Teleport City: if I tell you there’s a movie starring Richard Harrison, Anthony Alonzo, and Tetchie Agbayani, do you look at me quizzically and shrug, or do you start to shake with giddy anticipation? If it’s the former, then let us soothe the wound by agreeing that you have much yet to learn, and the path before you is rich with astounding discoveries. If it’s the latter, then we are all together as one, like a rag-tag band of misfits soldiers fighting our way across ‘Nam on some mission whose objective is entirely unclear but never the less must be undertaken.
Back in the 1980s, American pop consciousness got really obsessed with the Vietnam War. Serious questions about what the war meant to the American psyche manifested in a variety of mediums, none so readily exploitable as film. And film, like Bo Gritz, became obsessed with exploiting the notion that American POWs were still being held captive in Communist Vietnam. Gritz, amid a flurry of self-promotion and with a team comprised at least partly of bikini chicks wearing t-shirts about how awesome Bo Gritz and his howlin’ commandos were, set up shop in Thailand and began crowing about mounting rescue expeditions. Dealing with a KIA family member can be devastating; dealing with an MIA is often even worse. As far as I know, Gritz never actually amounted to much other than a huckster, and although Vietnam began a program of finding and returning remains of American servicemen, there was never any secret cache of POWs discovered. But the idea had taken root, and once that idea took root, American cinema was quick to send a seeming endless parade of would be heroes who didn’t fight in the actual war to win it for us after the fact in make believe. Uncommon Valor was the most respectable. Rambo: First Blood Part II was the most iconic.
And Ultimax Force is the movie that asked the question: what if Rambo was ninjas?
In retrospect, I cant believe it didn’t happen more frequently. I mean, combining the American obsession with ‘Nam movies with the American obsession with ninja movies — that just seems like common sense. I’m surprised Cannon, who were kings of both genres, didn’t just spontaneously spawn a dozen movies about ninjas saving POWs without even having to commission the production of them. As far as I know, ninja and “rescue the ‘Nam POW” movies just appeared magically overnight in Golan and Globus’ office, created presumably by a team of elves who had little else to do ever since they helped make that cobbler rich. At the very least, you’d think Godfrey Ho would have gotten in on the action.
Surprisingly, though, there were very few movies that thought to take the proverbial American ninja and plop him down in the middle of a ‘Nam POW movie. Godfrey Ho was too busy splicing ninjas into movies where guys with mustaches fought other guys with mustaches in the jungles of The Philippines, but this was always over the drug trade. So the potentially ripe field of movies about ninjas rescuing POWs from the clutches of the VC remains sadly under-exploited.
However, if you have to have a sole example of the genre, Ultimax Force is as good as you’re probably going to get. It has pretty much everything a “ninjas meets Rambo” movie needs. The plot is pretty bare: four ‘Nam vets who also happen to be ninjas are asked by their old master to rescue one of their ninja brothers, languishing still in a VC prison camp. With that groundwork laid, you get what you need from such a film. There’s a bar room brawl, a cute Vietnamese woman played by a Chinese woman who assists the heroes, a lot of exploding huts, guys falling out of guard towers, sadistic prison commandants, dudes doing the exaggerated “I’m getting peppered with machine gun bullets” dance, and lots of walking or boating through the jungles. Plus the heroes, when they aren’t dressed as ninjas, wear the requisite 80s American adventure wear: acid washed jeans cuffed tight around the ankle, white sneakers, loose fitting checkered shirts with the sleeves rolled up to the shoulders, and of course, headbands. They look like their “rescue mission” checklist included “sharpen ninja swords, to some push ups, stop by Chess King.”
Aside fromt he requisite notes, Ultimax Force does a couple things a little different from your standard Namsploitation movie — apart from, you know, ninjas. Chief among these is the fact that the rescue mission is a dismal failure. Once the prison commander gets wind of a bunch of American ninjas heading his way to liberate the POWs, he just guns down all the prisoners, including the ninjas’ brother. There you go. Problem solved, though it lacks the panache of some of the more flamboyant sadistic prison commanders, who would keep the prisoners alive but do something like crucify them or put them in those half-submerged cages full of leeches. So points off for style, but I guess you can’t argue with the effectiveness of the more mundane “I’ll just shoot ‘em” approach. James Bond is lucky he never ran into this guy. There’s also no talk of government conspiracies or corrupt American businessmen and officers colluding to foil the rescue mission.
Ultimax Force is a pretty low budget but enjoyable trash war film. It delivers on the action and exploding huts and doesn’t bother with much else. While Italian ‘Nam movies are often full of ripe, ridiculous dialogue, Ultimax Force (pretty sure it was Filipino) offers almost nothing in the way of cornball lines. It sticks mostly to gratuitous name calling and those tortured insults that are too convoluted to have come from the mind of a native speaker of English. And the plot is as thin as the dialogue. This isn’t a movie that has a lot to say. Like the ultimax force itself, this movie has a job and gets it done as quickly as possible. It’s only about 80-something minutes long, and most of that time is spent on the point: ninjas mowing down VC. I appreciate that they keep this one lean and mean, especially after more meandering, twisty movies like The Last Hunter.
The actors here have worked hard to be completely emotionless, even when they’re supposed to be screaming vengeful, “I’ll get you, you fucker!” proclamations. One of ninjas harbors considerable racist rage against the Vietnamese, but this is never explored as anything more than an excuse for him to get to say things like “slant-eyed mother fucker.” A couple of the other ninja are whiny “dude, let’s just go home and forget this” sort of guys, which while understandable, doesn’t make them particularly compelling adventure heroes. When people fire machine guns, they just make half-hearted yellface and wave their machine guns around wildly, somehow managing to hit people despite their technique looking similar to just flailing a garden hose around. And also, for some reason, the machine guns make pew-pew-pew laser noises. Heroes also die for no reason other than they do incredibly stupid stunts for no reason. Case in point — one guy swan dives off a bamboo platform into the waiting throngs of well-armed VC, who shoot him all to hell before he finally reveals he was also holding a grenade that kills a couple guys. Why wouldn’t you just throw those grenades from cover? Why the swan dive?
Oh, because you’re a fucking ‘Nam vet ninja.
Release Year: 1986 | Country: The Philippines | Starring: Vivian Cheung, Brad Collins, Sauro Cotoco, Vincent Giffin, Eric Hahn, Debbie Henson, Jeremy Ladd, Audrey Miller, Arnold Nicholas, Ronnie Patterson, Patrick Scott, Henry Strzalkowski, Ray Uhen | Screenplay: Joe Mari Avellana | Director: Willy Milan | Cinematography: Joe Tutanes | Music: Willie Cruz
Eddie Romero is an important figure in the history of U.S. – Philippines relations, or at least he is to the extent that U.S. – Philippines relations depend upon the import and export of quality drive-in fare. As a producer and director, Romero pioneered the practice within the Filipino film industry of tailoring product for the American market, usually with the participation of American producers. Who knows what butterfly-effect-like calamities might otherwise have befallen our great country, denied exposure to the films in Romero’s Blood Island trilogy, or his classic WIP picture Black Mama, White Mama? The mind positively reels.
The Twilight People, like many of Romero’s U.S. releases, began life as a co-production in which Roger Corman had a prominent hand, in this case via Corman’s recently formed New World Pictures. However, the film ultimately saw release in the States under the Dimension Pictures banner, having changed hands in the split between Corman and his New World co-founder, Lawrence Woolner, who had gone on to found Dimension. On the Filipino end, the film was made under the auspices of Four Associates Ltd., a production company formed by Romero and actor/producer John Ashley, who also starred in the picture. As legend has it, Ashley –- who is a familiar face to many due to his appearances in the Beach Party movies and other AIP teen fare –- fell in love with the Philippines during the filming of Romero’s Manila Open City, in which he starred in 1968. Ashley then proceeded to consummate that love by producing and/or starring in a string of Filipino exploitation films, a number of them with Romero, that would keep his career Philippines-bound for the better part of the next several years.
Among the biggest of Romero and Ashley’s Stateside successes was the trio of Blood Island films that started with 1968’s Mad Doctor of Blood Island. The Twilight People, with its monster-fied tale of science gone mad in an exotic setting, could be seen as a spiritual sibling to those films. But it can just as clearly be seen as Romero’s undisguised homage to both The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Most Dangerous Game. Ashley, who seems to have had no qualms about using his grip on the purse strings to secure a flattering star turn, plays Matt Farrel, a figure whom another character in the film at one point describes thusly:
“Scholar, soldier of fortune, hunter… What did that magazine call you? ‘The Last Renaissance Man'”.
Of course, a person of such extraordinary stock as Farrell will naturally be attractive to a mad scientist bent on creating a race of supermen, which is why Farrell finds himself abducted and taken to the island hideaway of one Dr. Gordon (Charles Macaulay). Though it should be said, as Gordon points out, that what the doctor is creating is not so much a race of supermen as it is a race of super beings. At this point, however, Gordon’s radical hot-wiring of the evolutionary process is only at the stage where his otherwise human-looking subjects all appear to be wearing carnivalesque masks of one type of animal or another. What is missing is that certain x factor that Gordon is hoping Farrell can provide, the renaissance man brain patterns with which to imprint his creations.
At the same time, Gordon has a strong-arm man by the name of Steinman (Jan Merlin) who makes a secret neither of his admiration for Farrell or of his desire to hunt Farrell like a wild animal. As such, he is constantly goading Farrell to make a break for it, and even, at one point, offers to help him… and then to give him a head start before he comes after him guns blazing. What’s interesting is that, despite the antagonism bred by their roles as captive and captor, there is an unmistakable affinity between Farrell and Steinman, one that is well played by both actors. Later in the film, the implications of this are bluntly underscored when Steinman accuses Gordon’s attractive daughter Neva (former Petticoat Junction star Pat Woodell) of having “hot pants” for Farrell. “That makes two of us,” she retorts.
And then, of course, there are the film’s beast people, the most difficult among whom to ignore is Ayesa, the Panther Woman, who is played by Pam Grier. Granted, this was early in Grier’s career, but not so early that she hadn’t already had prominent speaking roles, perhaps most notably in the previous year’s The Big Bird Cage. Nonetheless, the lithe limbed actress is here limited to dialog consisting entirely of overdubbed growling as, clothed in nothing more than an abbreviated shift, she prowls around on all fours. She looks fantastic doing this, of course, even with the cut-rate cat face prosthetics that the make-up department have fitted her with. It’s just that Grier’s status as a powerful screen presence is today so widely acknowledged that it’s a bit startling to be reminded that her status at the time was such that she could be simply tossed into such a supporting role as eye candy.
Also among the movie’s more prominent beast people is a winged bat man played by Tony Gonsalvez, a character whose struggles to take flight make up an ongoing subplot — the final payoff of which makes for, depending on where you stand, either one of the movies most ridiculous or giddily enjoyable visual moments. (Gonsalves does a fine job as an actor here, especially considering that he appears to have been employed more frequently as a sound effects man in Filipino productions.) Then there is the gentle and soft hearted Antelope Man, Kuzma, played by Ken Metcalfe, the Wolf Woman, Lupa, with whom he seems to have formed a romantic bond (Mona Morena), and Primo, the Ape Man (Kim Ramos), who will later show himself to be a little too handsy when it comes to Gordon’s daughter.
All of these critters get the chance to show what they’re made of when Neva, who indeed does have “hot pants” for the generously sideburned Farrell, decides to help him escape, and in doing so ends up taking all of the beast people along with them. From there, the hunt is on, with Steinman and his men tracking the escapees through the jungle surrounding Gordon’s mansion. What Steinman, in all his eagerness, hasn’t counted on, however, is the alliance between the animal people and the people people, and the fierce resistance that those caged-too-long beasties are capable of putting up.
Put simply, The Twilight People is much better than it needs to be, and manages to be so without giving the appearance of trying to compete outside of its class. Not only does Romero know how to tell a story, but he also knows how to make an attractive looking picture on limited means. His camera angles are frequently imaginative, and studiously avoid the kind of nailed down camera work so frequently seen in similar quickie productions. He also combines an eye for striking found locations with an ability to liven up minimal sets with offbeat lighting effects, giving the end product a gloss that’s beyond what most people would expect from what is, in essence, just a cheesy drive-in monster movie. Furthermore, the film’s script — written by Romero with Jerome Small –- is tightly composed, and devoid neither of a fair share of pithy dialog or of interesting character notes, the edgy bromantic tension between Farrell and Steinman being chief among them.
If The Twilight People fails anywhere, it is in its admittedly shoddy makeup effects, which go a long way toward undermining Romero’s attempts to portray the tragic nature of the film’s beast people. Nonetheless, it is to Romero’s credit that, despite that, he still manages to hit some poignant notes, especially in his depiction of the tentative, budding romance between the childlike Kuzma and Lupa. Whether you are affected by that, of course, depends on how much you are willing to cast your lot in with a film of such straight-faced silliness as this. In my opinion, you should. The Twilight People is what it is, but it is also an example of the best of what it is: an outstanding and colorful piece of trash entertainment. Almost makes me wish I could time travel back to those drive-in days and see it as was originally intended.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: Philippines, United States | Starring: John Ashley, Pat Woodell, Jan Merlin, Charles Macaulay, Pam Grier, Ken Metcalfe, Tony Gonsalves, Kim Ramos, Mona Morena, Eddie Garcia | Screenplay: Eddie Romero, Jerome Small | Director: Eddie Romero | Cinematography: Fredy Conde | Music: Tito Arevalo, Ariston Avelino | Producers: Eddie Romero, John Ashley
The enormous popularity of pocket-sized Filipino action star Weng Weng — in the wake of his successful debut as Agent 00 in For Y’ur Height Only — was destined to be short-lived. And apparently no one was more aware of that than the people guiding his career. As a result, the dawning years of the 1980s saw the P.I.’s theater screens deluged with a mini-flood bearing the Weng Weng brand. The sequel to Height, The Impossible Kid, followed hot on the heels of it’s predecessor, seeing release in 1982, while Weng Weng’s first headlining foray into the Western genre, D’Wild Wild Weng, hit screens that same year.