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.
Mil Mascaras: Resurrection comes to us some thirty years after Mil Mascaras last appeared onscreen in a narrative feature. For those of you who missed out the first time around, Mil, along with Santo and Blue Demon, is one of the “Big Three” stars of lucha libre cinema, as well as one of the biggest stars in the history of lucha libre itself. While Mil’s cinematic efforts never had the same stateside impact as some of Santo’s, thanks to them never being dubbed in English, they are nonetheless every bit as entertaining — and, in some cases, much more so — than many of El Enmascarado de Plata‘s contributions to the genre, and are big favorites of ours here at Teleport City.
Mil Mascaras: Resurrection — which was initially titled Mil Mascaras vs. The Aztec Mummy — doesn’t come to us by way of the normal channels one might expect a Mil Mascaras movie to come through. In fact, it may very well be the only Mexican wrestling film whose writer-producer holds a Ph.D. in robotic engineering from Oxford. (I say “may ” only because that Fernando Oses looks like he might be a bit of an egghead.) Jeffrey Uhlmann brought the idea for the film with him when he took an associate professorship in the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Computer Science Department, and proposed it as an ideal project for exploring the potential for an entertainment technology-related IT program within the University’s Engineering School. Being that Uhlmann is obviously a serious fan of lucha cinema, I imagine that he also decided it would just be really cool to make a Mil Mascaras movie using some of Mizzou’s resources — but in the long run, it’s really all about the kids, isn’t it?
It’s so tempting here to go into all kinds of easy riffs about the crazy things that people get away with in the name of higher education that I practically feel obligated to do it. What? A whole course devoted to Gossip Girl? Snort! How about a major in tasting fine single malt Scotches? Hardy har har. But in truth, I can’t judge. Because anything Jeffrey Uhlmann has done pales in comparison to that time I defended myself against charges of stalking Rosario Dawson by saying that I was doing research for a paper on how the idea of celebrity redefines notions of public and private space. Okay, with that out of my system, let’s move on.
Anyway, given its very DIY nature, work on Mil Mascaras: Resurrection proceeded fitfully, with Uhlmann utilizing a crew largely comprised of school faculty and students and shooting on and around the University grounds, with principal photography being completed in three chunks spanning between late 2004 and Spring of ’06. Among Uhlmann’s colleagues who were involved were fellow professor Kannappan Palaniappan as co-producer and instructor Chip Gubera as director – though there was also an aborted pass at having DTV sequel maven Jeff Burr (Stepfather II, Puppet Master IV, Pumpkinhead II) direct the film, which ended with Burr leaving the project after two weeks of shooting (he was subsequently credited pseudonymously as “Andrew Quint”). Of course, before all of that there came the casting of the film’s 69 year old star. Uhlmann had originally imagined El Hijo Del Santo (that’s Santo’s son, for those of you who are Spanish challenged) as his lead, but when that wrestler’s schedule proved unaccommodating, he approached Mil Mascaras, who he had met a number of years earlier. Mil agreed, and the rest is… well, the rest is the subject of this review.
Now, all of the foregoing makes for a fascinating back-story, but as far as appreciating Mil Mascaras: Resurrection goes, it’s almost wholly irrelevant, because, on a technical level, the film comes across as nothing if not a professional effort, showing few signs at all of being an amateur or student production. Overall, the film has the kind of glossy non-style of the typical straight-to-cable movie, which, given the somewhat utilitarian aspects of its genre, is not all a bad thing. As such, it acts as a seamless delivery device for lucha movie thrills, free of any visual flourishes that might distract us from the business at hand. I’ll say right off that I really enjoyed the movie, and I suspect that, being that I’m perhaps as big of a lucha movie geek as Jeffrey Uhlmann, many of the problems I had with it are ones that few other viewers will share. Still, since no one seems to be campaigning for us to have consensus-seeking robots write our reviews here at Teleport City, I’m going to discuss those problems anyway.
One of the reservations I have about finding fault with how MM:R approaches its subject is that I’m not entirely sure what I have a right to reasonably expect from a Mil Mascaras movie made in 2007. The makers of such a film are faced with a difficult choice. They can choose to emulate the tone of the classic lucha films, which is basically one of complete absurdity cloaked in unwavering earnestness, but with no hope, in this post-ironic age, of convincingly achieving it. The only option in that regard, then, is to pay a sort of tribute to the things that contribute to that tone and use them as “quotes’ within the film, while at the same time trying to avoid the kind of smirky knowingness that could come off as being condescending toward the subject matter — a particularly tough trick when you consider the degree to which lucha libre fandom involves a delicate dance between an adult sense of irony and a child-like suspension of disbelief.
On the other hand, the filmmakers can go in the opposite direction, have a total nerd-gasm, and go all “reboot” on the subject, making their hero more dark and conflicted, filling in his back-story in a manner designed to give him a more mythic dimension, and spicing it all up with bits of edgy-sounding techno-babble about bio-morphing masks and such. (This would be what we might call the “Lucha movies: They’re not just for kids anymore” approach.) What those behind Mil Mascaras: Resurrection ultimately decided to do is a little bit of each of the above, and, as a result, the film, to some extent, feels like it’s suspended between homage, parody and a desire to be the thing itself – a desire that’s further foiled by it being a luchadore film that’s forced to have Columbia, Missouri fill-in for Mexico City.
This coming-from-all-angles approach, for better or worse, offers one distinct advantage to Mil Mascaras: Resurrection, in that it allows its accomplishments to stand on their own merits while providing an ironic shield for those things that it maybe wasn’t quite so successful at. This is especially true for the acting in the film, which, to put it kindly, is wildly hit or miss. Even the professionals among the cast — who include Willard Pugh, Richard Lynch and Gary Ambrosia — don’t seem to have benefitted from much direction, with the emphasis most likely being on simply moving things along at a brisk pace (something that, to give credit where it’s due, the film achieves quite admirably). Yet, because most English speakers are only familiar with Mexican wrestling films via those few Santo movies that K. Gordon Murray imported to the U.S., all of which were dubbed into English by some of the most affect-challenged voice-artists you could ever hope to hear, such stilted line readings can be defended as being in the spirit of the original. Unfortunately, one of Uhlmann and his colleagues’ key shortcomings is an apparent difficulty resisting the temptation to go overboard, and they scuttle some of the goodwill that such a defense would depend on with the gag of having Mil Mascaras’ dialog very obviously overdubbed with the exaggeratedly off-synch voice of another actor speaking English in a sonorous Latin accent. It’s an oversell that results in a lackluster aspect of the film that might have otherwise gotten by on a sort of ramshackle charm being undermined by an overenthusiastic elbow jab to the ribs.
This occasional tendency to oversell also dims the glow of one of my favorite moments in the movie, a speech given by the film’s resident benevolent scientific authority, a gentleman referred to only as the Professor (Kurt Rennin Mirtsching). It’s a signature moment in the early Santo movies to have some supporting character — usually an authority figure like a police chief or a respected scientist — speaking in awed tones about how amazing Santo is, and the inclusion of such a moment here is one giveaway of the script’s origins as one written around the character of El Hijo del Santo. It’s really note perfect, with the Prof. intoning that Mil has “the mind of a scientist, the soul of an artist, the body of a great athlete, and yet there’s something more about him. Something that separates him from other men.” Of all the film’s ticking off of the genre’s stock elements, this one struck me as the most affectionate, gently parodying the idea, but at the same time speaking to the kid in us who thinks it really would be cool if Santo built time machines in his spare time, no matter how ridiculous we know the idea is in reality. Unfortunately, rather than just leaving it there, the expression of such sentiments ends up becoming a conspicuously insistent motif in the movie — such as when the Professor praises Mil’s theories on observer-centric physics and beseeches him to join his University’s faculty, or when reference is made to another masked wrestler’s theories appearing in all the “peer-reviewed journals” — to the point that I started to get the uneasy feeling that what I was seeing was perhaps less gentle parody than it was simply jeering with hand over mouth.
So, in short, there’s something that I find a little bit slippery about Mil Mascaras: Resurrection‘s tone that keeps me from absolutely loving it. But, again, as much as I’m tempted to look at it sideways, I don’t think many others will be troubled by similar concerns. This is a lucha movie, after all, and isn’t the only test it really needs to pass that of whether an eight year old boy could watch it in an untroubled state of rapt credulity? He could. And given that, the rest of us, in the spirit of the endeavor, should probably just check it and enjoy the ride, and not give all of the film’s instances of winking and giggling at itself too much thought. After all, there is indeed much to enjoy.
I made brief reference before to the fact that Mil Mascaras: Resurrection moves along at a brisk clip, and it’s an attribute that bears more than a passing mention. Despite the unevenness of tone, its pacing is nearly flawless, something for which I think we owe thanks to both Uhlmann’s tight script and the expert intuition of editor Thom Calderon. Directors Gubera and Burr’s economical staging of the scenes, while failing the actors themselves, also contributes greatly to the cause. More happens in the first half hour of the film than happens in the entirety of many classic lucha movies, yet all of the actions and plot elements — the usual casualties in any attempt to race through a narrative — are fairly crisply defined. In addition, Calderon’s editing does an impressive bit of sleight-of-hand as far as covering up for the movie’s budgetary shortcomings, frequently giving us the impression that we’ve seen things — car crashes, extravagant stunts — that we haven’t, and never letting any one shot linger long enough on a given location to betray the fact that, rather than, say, the headquarters of the Mexico City Police Dept., we’re just looking at another part of Mizzou’s student commons.
Such misdirection is also helpful in portraying the physical heroics of a septuagenarian action star like Mil Mascaras. While he still looks intimidatingly buff and impressively light-on-his-feet, Mil definitely needs a little movie magic when it comes to displaying the same acrobatic skills he exhibited in his movies from the sixties, and the technical crew here doesn’t let him down. In fact, there was only one brief instance where I could spot an obvious double in Mil’s place, though I imagine that there were more instances where one was used.
Mil Mascaras: Resurrection alerts us right away to the “reboot” aspect of its agenda, making an isolated attempt, within its opening moments, to present us with that aforementioned dark and conflicted version of Mil Mascaras. Mil gets dumped by his fiancé/a terrible actress, after which he has a pensive moment, sitting on a river bank and staring searchingly at his reflection in the water. Seriously, I was only joking when, in my review of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, I imagined a more emo, Marvel Comics-inspired lucha cinema, but that’s pretty much what we’re getting here. Of course, Mil Mascaras can only be so emo, given that his every attempt to display emotion results in him simply widening his eyes in surprise. Still, that’s a lot more acting than Santo or Blue Demon ever did, and he should be commended.
Anyway, it is in this meditative riverbank moment that we learn that this movie’s version of Mil Mascaras is one who’s mask is part of a legacy of heroism handed down through his family over generations, which is actually another of the film’s elements that’s taken from the Santo movies. In the movies that Mil Mascaras did for Luis Enrique Vergara during the sixties, Mil was presented as having been raised by a bunch of crazy scientists who found him in the rubble of a bombed-out building at the end of WWII and rigorously trained him to be a consummate superman. Of course, this new version of his origin provides a lot of opportunity for talk about “fate” and “destiny”, and thus goes some way toward imbuing his character with those also-aforementioned mythic dimensions. Part of that destiny, it turns out, is for him to have a run-in with a recently resurrected Aztec Mummy who has been a foe of the Mascaras clan for generations, and who now plans to rule the world with a gem that has the power to control men’s minds. Jeffrey Uhlmann himself takes on the role of the Mummy, and it’s a performance that depends, as very well it should, on making lots of grandiose and highly-stylized hand gestures like Dr. Gori in Spectreman (always my go-to guy for stylized supervilliain hand gestures). Uhlmann does his maniacal lucha villain turn proud, although his Mummy mask has a muppet-like quality to it that makes the character oddly endearing despite that.
Over the course of the film, Uhlmann-as-scenarist reveals himself to be an attentive and appreciative student of Mexican wrestling movies — and vintage Mexican horror movies in general — as evidenced by the many affectionate references to the genre’s touchstone moments that can be found throughout. My favorite of these is the clunky, man-in-suit robot (also played by Uhlmann) that harkens back to the original Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, but also brings to mind the robot from the loopy sci-fi musical hacienda-Western La Nave de Los Monstruos. There is also a replay of that iconic moment — originally seen in Santo vs. the Vampire Women, but imitated in several successive lucha films — in which our hero’s ring opponent, when unmasked, is revealed to be an inhuman monster, with the added bonus that the beast in this case is a ringer for the monster in the notorious sleaze-fest Night of the Bloody Apes. In another instance, the mummy revives and sends forth a legion of undead Aztec warriors in a scene that recalls The Mummies of Guanajuato and its numerous sequels, with the generous addition of a midget mummy to please the Agrasanchez fans in the audience. There are even a couple of vampire girls on hand to provide homage to Mil’s cinematic high water mark, Las Vampiras.
In addition to these specific quotations, the film also dutifully honors most of the genre’s basic conventions. The Professor, of course, has a beautiful young daughter (Maria, played — badly — by Melissa Osborn) who is in love with Mil, and, given that he thinks Mil is so awesome, the Prof. enthusiastically encourages the attraction. Thankfully, the filmmakers, probably sensing the considerable potential creep factor arising from the yawning age gap between the two, choose to pay tribute to this particular trope while maintaining a chaste distance between the lovers. Elsewhere, an impressive stamp of authenticity is gained via the appearance of a host of other real luchadores, including El Hijo del Santo, who participates in a tag team match with Mil in front of a strangely Caucasian-heavy Mexico City crowd, and Blue Demon Jr., who appears along with a bunch of other real-life masked grapplers as part of a modern day version of the Champions of Justice.
But where Mil Mascaras: Resurrection really gets it right, more than anywhere else, is in Mil’s costumes, which, according to the credits, were designed by the man himself. Mil, as I’ve said elsewhere, was the true rock star of lucha libre, and the only man, in a sport known for its garish flamboyance, capable of making his competitors’ colorful togs look like something they’d wear on a sick day home in comparison to his own. And, man, I don’t think he has ever looked better than he does here. These outfits, if you can train your eyes on them long enough to appreciate them without going blind, are masterpieces, from the glittering, every-color-of-the-rainbow number that he rocks early on, to the leopard print ensemble he wears when he accompanies the President of the United States (who also speaks about Mil in hushed, admiring tones, by the way) to address the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The real closer, though, the one that would bring the house down were Mil to take his looks to fashion week in New York, is the Aztec warrior get-up with the towering headdress that he wears to his climactic ring match. As outrageous eye candy goes, the whole assortment is pure heaven, and exactly the type of thing to make me forget, at least momentarily, my aforementioned misgivings about the picture overall.
And those misgivings, after all, are most troubling because there is enough that is good about Mil Mascaras: Resurrection to make me want to really, really like it. I love lucha movies — Mil Mascaras’ in particular — and I get the clear sense from this movie that Jeffrey Uhlmann does, too. And, given that, I respect and appreciate his and his collaborators’ efforts to bring Mil back to the screen in all his glory. Still, as is, I merely just like Mil Mascaras: Resurrection, and with reservations, at that. I am optimistic, however, about the news that this same bunch has completed a second Mil Mascaras film. After all, it’s not that I feel that theirs are the wrong hands to put to the task, it’s just that I think they’d benefit from a little more focus, perhaps of the type that would come from working under a schedule less fitful than the one necessitated by MM:R‘s stop-and-start production history. As I said, I’m not really sure how much I can expect from a Mil Mascaras movie made in the 21st century, but I’m hoping that, with their follow-up effort, Jeffrey Uhlmann and the gang will show me.
Release Year: 2007 | Country: United States | Starring: Mil Mascaras, Jeffrey Uhlmann, Kurt Rennin Mirtsching, Willard Pugh, Melissa Osborn, Richard Lynch, Marco Lanzagorta, Gary Ambrosia, Stephanie Matthews, Jonathan Verdejo-Rocha, Abbie Adkins, El Hijo del Santo | Writer: Jeffrey Uhlmann | Directors: Jeff Burr, Chip Gubera | Cinematographer: Thomas Callaway | Music: Vaughn Johnson | Producers: Kannappan Palaniappan, Jeffrey Uhlmann
In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
We find ourselves in “the future,” something like a thousand years from now, after the wars have turned the world into a vast tract of scrubland and desert. The remnants of the human race live in fortress style city-states and are called statesmen, leaving the majority of the blighted world to be the domain of mutant cannibals and a race of mystic wanderers known as range guides. Machines are rare, used only by the “statesmen” — people who live in the cities. So, wait. Didn’t you just tell us that pretty much everyone lives in the city and is a statesman? Now I haven’t been good at math or logic since sixth grade, but I’m pretty sure that if almost everyone is a statesmen, and only statesmen use machines, then almost everyone uses machines. So I don’t see what’s so special about it.
The mad leader of Helix City, Lord Zirpola (David McClean), wants to attack a neighboring city for no real reason we can understand other than he is mad and evil. To accomplish this act of war, he has invented the future’s ultimate weapon: a motorcycle with some aluminum attached to the front end, and two lasers on the side that are of the same power as lasers people carry and fire by hand, only the lasers on the so-called “death machines” are more awesome because they are a hell of a lot harder to aim. Zirpola wants to prove to his people that the death machines are super bad-ass, so he decides to capture some range guides and showcase their obliteration by death machine in the city’s gladiatorial “deathsport.” This will convince the population that an unjustified war with the other city will be fun and easy, so long as everyone is riding a death machine.
The future as projected by the cheap sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s is jam packed with incredibly lame ultimate weapons. The death machines are pretty high up on the list, though they will pale in comparison to some of the other ultimate weapons we’ll be seeing later in this series of reviews. The death machines may be stupid and unwieldy as weapons, but at least they are still motorcycles. At the very least, you can ride them around and have fun up until Barry Bostwick shows up on his own futuristic motorcycle with crap attached to the front end and brags about how his can also fly. But still, when we first see the death machines in action, a couple female range guides, one of whom is the late Gator Bait herself, Claudia Jennings, take them out with no real problem. Range guide Kaz Oshay (Carradine) will also take a few out all by himself — and range guides are armed with nothing but clear plastic swords that whistle when you swing them around. I’m pretty sure I had a toy that did the same thing. That’s all it takes to make a death machine explode? At no point, though, does the army of Helix City think that the death machines are a stupid idea, let alone an especially stupid idea in a world with lots of tall, steep rock formations people have no problem scurrying up to escape the death machines. Oh if only Lord Zirpola has listened to Barry Bostwick and put rocket wings on the motorcycles!
Eventually Carradine’s Kaz and Jenning’s Deneer are captured, though that has less to do with the death machines than it does sheer force of numbers. They come face to face with the leader of Helix City’s army, the black-clad Richard Lynch. Yes, his character has a name (Ankar Moor), but anyone who knows Richard Lynch knows that he plays the same evil guy character in every movie, so we might as well just call him Richard Lynch. I guess the same could be said of David Carradine as well. Lynch has the sinister air of a young Rutger Hauer crossbred with the condescending sneer of William Atherton and the hair of Gladiator Malibu from the 80s version of American Gladiators. Can even David Carradine stand up to such a foe?
It turns out that not only is Richard Lynch evil, but he’s also a former range guide who betrayed The Code and killed the most powerful of all range guides, who just happens to be Kaz Oshay’s mom. Deneer and Kaz don’t take too kindly to being caged like animals. While Kaz kicks the wall a lot and yells “I am my only master,” Deneer is made to wander around nude in a room full of neon tubes that shake around, howl, and electrocute people. Don’t ask me, man. I didn’t write it. Eventually, the two guides are forced to compete against the death machines in deathsport, an event that takes up about ten minutes of the film’s running time and has almost no real bearing on the plot, but is never the less the source of the title. Earlier in the film, Zirpola was angry that Ankor Moor lost a couple death machines whilst pursuing Claudia Jennings, yet here he seems unphased by the fact that the two captive rangers take out like a dozen of the infernal contraptions. Maybe if he’d put trained soldiers on the machines instead of chumps he just picked out of jail, his little dog and pony show would have gone better. The two rangers escape along with a couple hangers on, thus ending the deathsport portion of Deathsport. All that’s left now is for the bad guys to chase the good guys across the barren wasteland until we get a final showdown between Kaz Oshay and Ankor Moor. All in all, Zirpola’s death machine coming out party went over about as well as one of those corporate seminars where the presenter has all his stuff stored online and then can’t get an internet connection (possibly because the internet has become sentient and is too preoccupied with cataloging its vast store of Naruto slashfic).
To enumerate the various points at which the plot doesn’t make any sense would be to wandering into a Minotaur’s labyrinth from which there is no real hope of emerging alive. The death machines having already been covered as being idiotic, we could turn to how much is made of Carradine’s ability to sense the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to him predicting the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to a scene of people going “The dangerous weather is coming,” which then leads immediately to a scene of people coming out of a cave and going, “Whew, I sure am glad that dangerous weather is over.” Cannibal mutants kidnap a little girl, and one assumes that the reason cannibal mutants would kidnap a little girl is to eat her. But weeks later, when Kaz and Deneer finally show up to rescue her, she’s still there. I guess they wanted to soften up the meat. The cannibal mutants had her in a little cage, after all, so I reckon that the world may have collapsed but our love of veal has not. There are also multiple scenes were someone who is supposed to get killed stands right in front of a death machine, but instead of shooting the person with the lasers, the guy on the death machine just does a little wheelie or jumps over a convenient dirt pile next to the person. And then usually the death machine explodes. You may not have realized that hitting a motorcycle with a clear plastic sword would make it explode, but that’s why you’re not a range guide.
And then there’s the matter of Lord Zirpola’s neon tube torture forest. Seriously, just what the hell? I mean, I can understand having a chamber where people dance naked for you. And I can understand that in the future, poledancer poles will need to be more futuristic, and thus making them transparent tubes filled with flashing neon lights is inevitable. But what kind of torture is it to then make them shake all around and howl? That’s not torture; that’s just ugly windchimes, and you can get those all over the place down South. Still, at least the movie does right by us and has not one but two gratuitous scenes of nude dancing in the neon tube forest, one of which goes on for a while and features a woman (Valerie Rae Clark, star of…ummm…Breast Orgy and Breast Orgy 2) we’ve never seen before and will never see again but, for some reason, apart from dancing nude, also gets to kill Lord Zirpola by…umm…offering her hand to him while he’s busy making the tubes shock her or whatever it is they do. Zirpola also has a torture tunnel where he straps you down and flashes lights at you, causing you to scream. This requires Claudia Jennings to be nude for the torture to work. Luckily, it does not require the same of David Carradine.
So let me address this right here. David Carradine in his youth — not really a bad looking guy. In pretty good shape. But the loincloth simply does not become him. It becomes very few men, especially when they are shot from such awkward angles, like leaping spread legged through the air or rolling around on their back with their legs stuck up. It’s just not a good angle. That’s why you don’t see male strippers constantly jumping all spread eagle off the backs of chairs and stuff. They know that it looks goofy. They’ll straddle a chair, but they’ll never jump awkwardly off it. And when it comes to rolling around on their backs in a crouching position, they’re going to skip that and fill the time with a little trick I like to call “around the world.” So while we get to see plenty of David Carradine flesh, most of it is unwelcome because it just ends up looking so goofy. Still, I suppose we should be happy he wasn’t forced to do full frontal nude dancing in the forest of shaking, howling neon tubes.
Probably my favorite part of the movie is when Kaz Oshay leads Ankor and his minions on a motorcycle race through a fuel depot which has no reason to exist out in the middle of the desert. The depot is full of gasoline barrels stacked apparently at random throughout the facility, sometimes in front of ramps so that people can jump their motorcycles through flames once the barrels have inevitably exploded. In classic Corman fashion, scenes of jumping motorcycles are recycled a few times to increase the number of times we get to watch a guy jump a motorcycle over some candy cane colored barrels. This fuel depot was apparently built by the same people who were doing the construction on the building where Jackie Chan has his final fight scene in Mr. Nice Guy. If you don’t recall or never saw the film, that building features a framed-up but not entirely drywalled floor that was apparently comprised of nothing but hundreds of 5×5 rooms with doors in every wall. It was fun for a fight scene, but really, what the hell were they building?
Watching Deathsport is mind-bending enough on its own right, but where the film really shines is in the backstage drama. The movie was written by Nicholas Niciphor. Though he had no experience as a director, Niciphor was also hired to direct — presumably because the vision for Deathsport was so grand and amazing that only the film’s writer could hope to fully realize it, or something. Now, who you believe about what has a lot to do with sorting out what happened, but I’m going mostly with David Carradine’s version. According to Carradine, Niciphor was not only inexperienced, he was also unstable. He was so clueless about directing that he didn’t even now what it meant to set up a camera. He was prone to freak out, especially at Claudia Jennings or whenever anyone had trouble maneuvering the awkward death machines. According to Niciphor, this was often because the cast was drunk, stoned, and unruly, especially Jennings. I don’t really doubt it. Carradine himself admits that there was a bit of partying going on. Former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings was well known as a wild child anyway. But then, you’re making Deathsport. What the hell is there to be so serious about? Niciphor, however, was deadly serious about his film, and if the cast was clowning around, it only served to push him further over the edge. If things didn’t go right on the first take, he would throw a fit and throw out the entire scene and brood about it.
Things came to a head when he tore into Jennings over her inability to effectively handle the clunky death machines. Everyone was having problems with the front-heavy contraptions, but Jennings in particular irked him. It got so heated that Niciphor allegedly struck Jennings, though David Carradine says he can’t verify this since he was down at the other end of a gully waiting to do a take. Jennings was ready to quit the movie, and it was only after speaking with the producer who then spoke to Roger Corman that she was convinced to stay on. Niciphor was eventually phased out, spending most of his time skulking in the background, and Alan Arkush was brought in to complete the film — but not before Niciphor got his nose broken by David Carradine when he walked too close to a fight scene rehearsal in progress. Niciphor claims it might not have been an accident. But that’s nothing, since apparently the temperamental (or perhaps just mental) writer-director also berated Jennings and Carradine to the point where David actually just hauled off and kicked the guy’s ass.
Niciphor refutes many of the claims without actually refuting them. According to his side of things, the altercation between he and Claudia Jennings happened because Jennings was coked out while trying to operate the death machine, and that’s why she was having a hard time. I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility. Jenning’s cocaine addiction was well known. Niciphor further claims that Carradine was smoking hashish the whole time. Again, I don’t think this is outside the realm of believability — especially when you witness how stoned Carradine looks for most of the movie. But none of this really counters any of what Carradine said, either. The entire thing sounds like a snobs versus slobs teen sex comedy, with Carradine and Jennings cast and the lovable freewheelin’ slobs and Niciphor as the stuffy dean who hates fun. Assuming that the truth is to be found in some mix of all sides of the story, the final verdict is that the the making of Deathsport would probably be a much better film than Deathsport itself.
Things like that are why I like movies like this so much — apart from the fact that this movie is just plain weird. It’s handled with such seriousness, with such earnestness. You can feel that poor Nicholas Niciphor really believed in every line, really wanted this film to have meaning and depth. Does a film this lousy really deserve that much behind the scenes drama? I would love for the DVD to have had some commentary attached to it, either by Carradine or Niciphor — or hell, put ‘em both in the room and let them duke it out. This was the first and last time poor Nick directed a film, though he did go on to work as a writer for a few more films, including Alejandro Jodorowski’s Tusk. Beyond that, he’s been relegated to the realm of writing irate letters to Psychotronic magazine, complaining about David Carradine’s doobie habits in 1978.
Carradine, of course, needs no real introduction here. A dancer who sprung into the American consciousness courtesy of the show Kung-Fu, Carradine went on to become one of the mainstays of exploitation cinema, especially when it was produced by Roger Corman. Carradine could be quite good in a role, and when he was bad, he mostly seemed harmlessly sleepy and stoned. That’s how he plays it here, meandering through Niciphor’s ponderous faux-mystic dialogue with the laid back style of a dude who was eating a lot of pot brownies. His fight scenes are awkward, but that’s more the fault of the movie itself. What can you do when you’re forced to swing around a huge plastic sword? His nemesis in Richard Lynch is…well, Lynch is actually understated compared to some of his other performances, but it’s still the exact same performance you expect and always want from Lynch. I can’t say much more than that.
Claudia Jennings is another well known, albeit far more tragic, figure in B-Movie history. Jennings became one of the most recognizable faces in exploitation cinema when she appeared in the film Gator Bait, which is well known not so much because the movie is worth being well known, but more because every single video store in the universe seemed to have a sun bleached copy of the VHS tape sitting on the shelf. Jennings isn’t a great actress, and she has a sort of sleepy eyed beauty that makes her seem like she was stoned the entire time — which she apparently was. Between her and Carradine, the munchies-related catering bill must have eaten up half the film’s budget. She had her moments of glory in film, though. Unholy Rollers, for example, and Moonshine County Express. Deathsport really isn’t one of those moments, though she does get to wander naked through that neon tube room. This film comes at the end of her career, when she was heavy into drug and alcohol abuse and had a tumultuous relationship with some real estate guy (though rumors have her connected to Deathsport co-star Jesse Vint, and someone — Niciphor I think — also claimed she was attached to David Carradine, a claim that Carradine laughs off as preposterous). She cleaned up her act shortly thereafter, but amid a breakup with the realtor, fell asleep at the wheel of her car and was killed in the ensuing wreck.
But even if Jennings and Carradine were whooping it up, smoking pot, drinking whiskey, and arranging huge Deathsport orgies, nothing in their performance can come close to being as awkward or awful as that of young Will Walker, who plays one of the guys who breaks out of the deathsport competition with the range guides. This is one of those performances that is so weird and horrible that it deserves far more attention than it receives. He looks kind of like Miles O’Keefe in Sword of the Valiant, with the blond page boy haircut and the same dazed thousand yard stare. But Miles is a much better actor than Walker, believe it or not. Walker’s character of Marcus spends most of his time yelling “Kaz! Help me!” in a bland monotone. If the film has an humor at all, it’s to be found in Kaz’s flashes of annoyance at having to carry this load around on his awesome adventure with Claudia Jennings. She was totally willing to go all the way, but then Marcus kept showing up and ruining the mood.
Post apocalyptic cinema from the 1970s was often slow and ponderous, not to mention incredibly self-important and pretentious. Sometimes the results are pretty great, sometimes they were ridiculous, and often they were just dull. Deathsport is sort of a missing link between the post apocalyptic films of the 70s and those that would come in the wake of Mad Max and, more importantly, its sequel, The Road Warrior. Those films featured much less cornball philosophizing and much more high octane action. Or at least attempts at high octane action. Deathsport has plenty of the corny mysticism and dime store attempts at Zen koans that one expects from 1970s sci-fi, but it also has lots of exploding motorcycles and…well…it has lots of exploding motorcycles. And it is one of the first post-apocalypse films to save itself some cash by predicting that, in the future, the world would mostly look like scrubland dotted with matte paintings of distant cities. It’s pretty fair to draw the line from this movie directly to Mad Max, Road Warrior, and from there you quickly find yourself in the domain of Warriors of the Lost World and Warlords of the 21st Century — movies that, many years after Deathsport, manage to be just as cheap and goofy as it was, but not nearly as much fun. I mean, those later movies have practically no David Carradine crotch at all!
Deathsport presents us with a loopy sort of myticism not unlike The Force as presented in Star Wars and before George Lucas turned it into some sort of genetic disease, but more accurately, it reflects the same sort of New Age filtered half understanding of Buddhism and spirituality that you find in a movie like Circle of Iron (also featuring David Carradine in a loin cloth) or in pretty much any pow wow held by some white dude claiming to be enlightened. Our range guides speak in monotone a lot about consciousness and spiritual union, and we know they are wise because they do not use contractions, but it all sounds pretty much like what a high schooler might come up with. Circle of Iron covers much of the same ground but in a more effective way and with a greater grounding in actual Zen philosophy rather than Zen as filtered through some hippie who read a couple pamphlets and then set himself up with an American ashram. But we’ll come to that movie in good time, and if nothing else, it’s probably safe to say that as many hashish brownies went into its making as went into the making of Deathsport. Star Wars must also have had some effect on this film, though, because the foley artist thought enough of it to take the TIE fighter sound effect and use them whenever David Carradine drives his motorcycle through a tunnel.
Deathsport is a pretty clumsy film, full of bad writing, plot points that make no sense, ominous talk about things that end up never happening, and a titular event that ends up being, at best, a footnote in the film’s action. The acting is lazy, the writing is ridiculous, and the props are laughable. And it’s all worth seeing, just for the sheer spectacle of it. Ill advised motorcycles as ultimate weapons movies wouldn’t have it this good again until Megaforce rolled off the assembly line. The fact that a movie this bad generated so much behind the scenes drama fills me with a sick sense of giddiness, as does the thought that Carradine and Jennings were toking up while an uptight German guy yelled at them to take his film more seriously. I don’t even know if Nick was German. I just like imagining him that way, possibly dressed in the monocle and jodhpurs get up all good directors wear. It may not be a shining example of 70s scifi, or even a shining example of a middling Roger Corman production, but it is pretty entertaining. Plus, neon disco windchime nude dancing, and so many David Carradine buffalo shots per minute that to merely gaze upon them is enough to drive sane men mad.
Perhaps that’s what happened to poor old Lord Zirpola.
Release Year: 1978 | Country: United States | Starring: David Carradine, Claudia Jennings, Richard Lynch, William Smithers, Will Walker, David McLean, Jesse Vint | Writer: Nicholas Niciphor, Donald Stewart | Director: Nicholas Niciphor | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Andy Stein | Producer: Roger Corman