The Greatest Movie Ever! podcast invited me on as part of the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit’s “Big Muscle Tussle” theme month to discuss Lou Ferrigno’s pecs, the death of Cannon Films, greasy man-on-man action, and tales of high adventure in Sinbad of the Seven Seas.
Back when we had to really scrounge for every scrap of information about Hong Kong action films, one of the places one had to turn was Ric Meyers’ monthly article in Inside Kungfu magazine. This was back before Meyer lost his mind, or whatever the heck happened to him and the quality of his work. Anyway, a subscription to Inside Kungfu meant you were going to learn a lot of other stuff too, like who Grandmaster Philip Holder was. It was somewhere in the pages of that magazine that I first stumbled across Kathy Long, a beautiful woman, with biceps to die for and a long string of martial arts accomplishments, tournament championships, and martial arts magazine cover appearances to her name. She wasn’t as active in movies as she was in the ring, but she quickly entered my pantheon of worship worthy American fighting femmes, right alongside Michele “The Mouse” Krasnoo, Karen Shepard, and of course, Cynthia Rothrock.
Shep and Cynthia had the benefit of having worked in Hong Kong in the 1980s, and even got to face off against each other in the action classic Righting Wrongs, before they came to America and appeared in an assortment of direct to video martial arts movies that, while not always terrible, paled in comparison to what the women had shown off in Hong Kong. Krasnoo and Long would have been right at home in Hong Kong but sadly never got the opportunity. Instead, The Mouse was saddled with supporting roles in films like Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor (God, I love her in that movie), though she did apparently have a blink and you’ll miss it appearance in the Ringo Lam/Chow Yun-fat gangland actioner Full Contact. I don’t remember seeing her in it, but I don’t mind taking another look). Kathy Long — the Princess of Pain — popped up in movies like Albert Pyun’s Knights and this, director Fritz Kiersch’s retelling of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, only with bikers and more skintight black leather. She also did some high profile stunt doubling — you should see her in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman outfit.
Many of the leading female fighters in Hong Kong’s “girls with guns” heyday were dancers or gymnasts by training, while the Americans who made the long flight over almost always come from a legitimate martial arts background — not that that matters, really, for film since we’ve seen time and time again that a great fighter in a poor director’s hands will crash and burn, while a non-fighter in the hands of a good action director can be made to look like, well, Michelle Yeoh or Moon Lee. They could bring the grace, and the action directors knew how to showcase the power of the American fighters without making them look like slow-footed lugs. It would have been great to see Long go toe-to-toe with the greats of that era, as she had the look and the background to make a formidable…well, she would have been a villain, undoubtedly. Only Cynthia Rothrock was allowed to be a hero.
But man, Long vs. Yukari Oshima or Michiko Nishiwaki, or Long vs. Rothrock for that matter, in the hands of a director like Sammo Hung or Yuen Kwai… anyway, it’s a case of the should-have-beens that never were, and I guess it’s too late now. Not because Long couldn’t still cut it — she could only stay retired from beating the shit out of people for so long, and in 2009 started fighting in MMA tournaments — but because the opponents and girls with guns movies just aren’t there anymore. That said, a fella who harbors a tendency to crush on bad-ass women can still hope to one day see Kathy Long throw down against Jiang Luxia.
Well, my boyish crush on Kathy Long notwithstanding — which might be charming instead of creepy, if I was still a boy — since she never made films in Hong Kong, all we have are her few American films. The Stranger paints a skintight black outfit onto Kathy Long as The Stranger and sends her to a tiny town in the middle of the American southwest. Like every tiny town in the middle of the American southwest that ever appeared in a B-movie, this one is lorded over by a group of bikers who ride in, Mongol Horde like, every now and again to demand tribute and drink a lot of beer. The Stranger apparently has some sort of problem with the bikers, which she expresses early in the film by breaking out some poorly choreographed martial arts fury and breaking their necks.
The town, including drunken but obviously redeemable sheriff Cole (Eric Pierpoint), doesn’t seem to have much of a reaction to the killings, and they are content to just let The Stranger sort of coast along, snapping necks if people piss her off. They don’t even pull a First Blood and ask her to leave. Some of the townspeople admire the fact that she cracked the necks of a couple of the local murderous scumbags, while others think that having a hot karate woman in black leather prowling around, killing bikers, is going to bring down the wrath of gang leader Angel (seasoned B movie and TV actor Andrew Divoff, looking like a creepy combination of Josh Brolin and Kevin Bacon). The Stranger puts that to the test, offing the occasional biker to lukewarm civic reaction. Thrown into the mix are a jealous harpy (Ginger Lynn), your standard issue feral child, and a plot that soon reveals that, though no one knows The Stranger, she has a mysterious past that involves the town and Angel’s bikers. Oh, and also, she looks a lot like Cole’s late wife, murdered by Angel’s gang some years before.
Fritz Kiersch once had the unenviable task of trying to convince audiences that James Spader could be a bad-ass (in Tuff Turf). Here, there’s no issue with trying to convince audiences that Kathy Long is a bad ass. The woman is all toned musclecrowned by a big ol’ head of frizzy blonde hair. Here, Kiersch’s task is convincing audiences that his leading lady bad ass is also an actress. In this task, he is, well, he was about as successful as he was at convincing me that James Spader was a bad-ass. Kathy cuts an impressive figure, but she’s not that great an actress (which is why she would have worked so well in Hong Kong). She’s doing her best Clint Eastwood, which means she’s at least limited for the most part to squinty-eyed stares and icy looks. But Clint was able to do that and still have it be good acting, thanks in no small part to an abundance of charisma that Long simply cannot match. She’s awkward and stilted, but to be fair, she’s no more awkward and stilted than the usual fighters-turned-thespians that populate American martial arts movies from the 1990s. She can deliver most of her lines pretty well, but when she has to summon up more anger or emotion, she doesn’t really pull it off.
She could salvage things with a good action performance, but Kiersch has no idea how to shoot a fight scene. Nor does Long have any choice opponents. I don’t understand why so many American martial arts movies did this. The same thing happened to Cynthia Rothrock in her first starring role in an American film, China O’Brien. They take an awesome fighter (or in the case of that movie, two, since Keith Cooke was pretty awesome too), plop her in small town America, then have her face off against a bunch of lumbering rednecks with no fighting skills at all. I guess I understand the hick town setting. It’s cheap to film in the desert. And I guess it wouldn’t be “realistic” to have a small southern town populated by a bunch of accomplished martial artists. Actually, no. You know what? Every town, no matter how shitty and small, always seems to have a strip mall with a karate school in it. Can’t there be an evil sensei in league with the local rednecks, so at least the Kathy Longs and Cynthia Rothrocks of the world have something to do other than kick fat rednecks in the face?
Not that I have much faith that, even if the town was being menaced by a Richard Norton (with who she would eventually pair up, in Under the Gun) or whoever, we would have gotten good fight scenes. Kathy Long has the right stuff, no doubt, but there’s a reason “action director” is something you work really hard to be good at. Long gets to throw a few good punches and delivers a handful of impressive roundhouse kicks, but for the most part, the people behind the camera don’t really seem to know what to do when it’s time for an action scene. The end result are a handful of showdowns that are as awkward and stilted as Long’s acting. Kathy Long could look a lot better in action than she does here.
For me, it’s impossible not to compare Long and Rothrock, and not just because they both did time beating up bikers and hicks. To be fair, I’ve seen a ton of Cynthia’s movies, but only Knights and The Stranger for Kathy. Rothrock and Long would appear together only once, in Honor and Glory, but the pairing was little more than a wasted opportunity (in fact, Long spends her brief fight scene clumsily locking up with Richard Norton). While there are similarities between the two women — they both ruled tournament fighting, they’re both blonde, they both beat up rednecks — Kathy is by far the more menacing looking fo the two. She’s more muscular, and she fights meaner fights (as much as I love Rothrock, I can’t see her throwing down in MMA fights. Cynthia, by contrast, is more adept at coy smiles and a playful attitude. She’s no less deadly, we all know, but she hides it a lot better than Long, who usually looks like she’s one second away from pounding your face in.
So, I guess much of this review sounds like a pile of negative. Thing is, I didn’t really dislike the movie. It’s no gem, but it’s serviceable direct-to-video action. That’s in part because Kathy Long just looks so damn awesome in it. But it’s also the sort of cheap, half-assed direct-to-video action film that littered the 1990s and provided so many hours of mild entertainment. B-movie comfort food, if you will. You might groan over this film being a remake of High Plains Drifter, but the screenplay by Gregory Poirier, while certainly not sparkling, gets the job done. The Stranger is the sort of movie that I can throw on and watch without really having to pay too much attention to and without being terribly disappointed in the end.
Sure, I really wish Kathy Long’s film career had amounted to more, and I wish that the few films she did star in had paired her with better opponents (why couldn’t she have gone to the small redneck town where Cynthia Rothrock and Keith Cooke lived?) and directors who were better at choreographing and shooting martial arts action (or any sort of action, for that matter). But this is what she got, a western-turned-biker movie dripping with lots of fake Ennio Morricone sound music and lots of shots of her in skintight black leather walking down dusty streets.
And that was enough for me. Kiersch may not handle the action well, but the rest of the film is professionally directed, decently paced, and competently acted. Long may not have Clint’s charisma, but she does have charisma, thanks in large part to her physical presence. I know you get tired of me complaining about movies that cast whisper-thin waifs as unstoppable killing machines, but seriously. Long is the perfect blend of sexy and strong and proves that you don’t have to chose one or the other. I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone who isn’t a hardened veteran of such films, but if you are such a person, then you’ll probably be able to roll with this movie as easily as I did and come out saying, “Eh, it was OK.”
Release Year: 1995 | Country: United States | Starring: Kathy Long, Andrew Divoff, Eric Pierpoint, Robin Lynn Heath, Ash Adams, Ginger Lynn Allen, David Anthony Marshall, Nils Allen Stewart, Danny Trejo, Faith Minton, Jeff Cadiente, Randy Vasquez, Billy Maddox, Robert Winley, Chris Pedersen | Screenplay: Gregory Poirier | Director: Fritz Kiersch | Cinematography: Christopher Walling | Music: Kevin Kiner | Producer: Donald P. Borchers
There was nothing about the old VHS box for Shaolin Invincibles that made us think we were renting anything other than a standard “kungfu orphans get revenge on villains who murdered their parents” story. We plucked it from the shelves because, well, why not? We were up for renting anything that wasn’t Unique Lama. By the time Ocean Shores video splashed that bright red “The End” graphic onto the television screen, we’d seen tongue-waggling ghosts, bug-eyed zombies, and that most treasured of kungfu film appearances — the kungfu gorilla. I won’t say that the impact of Shaolin Invincibles on our mental faculties was as pronounced as it was after watching Young Taoism Fighter for the first time, but that’s a pretty high bar to set.
At the time, though my friends and I were voracious consumers of any and every kungfu movie on which we could get our hands, we were also operating more or less in a vacuum. Pre-internet days, you know. So while I wanted to know more about the movies I was watching, there simply didn’t exist the resources that would help me complete the task. I learned to recognize various stars and directors, I didn’t have much historical context beyond that I could paste together based solely on movies I’d seen. There was no way for me to tell a Hong Kong film from a Taiwanese film, and no way for me to understand that I should know the difference — I didn’t suspect that the most bizarre kungfu films we were renting were the product of a Taiwanese film industry that seemed to think acid-fueled fever dreams were the best source material for kungfu movie scripts.
We live in a more enlightened time now, and thanks to the tireless efforts of of sites like Die Danger Die Die Kill!, I have a clearer picture of the Taiwanese kungfu film market. With the ability to put everything into context, I’m no longer surprised that director Hau Chang cranked out a movie as bizarre as Shaolin Invincibles. It was really just standard operating procedure for a man who gave us films like Ape Girl and the truly inspired martial arts fantasy Legend of Mother Goddess. In fact, Shaolin Invincibles is one of his more normal films.
Things start out familiar enough. A murderous Ch’ing ruler (Chen Hung-lieh, Temple of the Red Lotus and Come Drink with Me) has a family murdered, but the little daughters are spirited away by a convenient group of Shaolin monks. Years later, the girls ave grown into Lu Szu Liang (Chia Ling, The Legend of Mother Goddess) and Lu Yu Liang (Doris Lung Chun-Erh, Master of the Flying Guillotine and Young Hero of Shaolin), masters of several secret Shaolin techniques. Now that they’re grown, the abbot allows them to leave the temple to seek revenge on the men who slaughtered their family. Along the way, they’ll be helped by Kan Feng Chih (Carter Wong, 18 Bronzemen and Big Trouble in Little China).
Captain of the guard Lei (Yee Yuen), who happens to own the most splendid robe in all of China (and dolls himself up with matching cosmetics), soon figures out that the guys dropping by the dozens are being offed by the Lu sisters, and even though he’s never seen them, somehow he’s able to mobilize every thug in the province to try and take them out. This results, as you can imagine, in a lot of dead thugs. Also, one of the women disguises herself as a man for no reason other than there was a law in Taiwan that every kungfu movie had to feature a woman who is obviously a woman but passes for a man simply because she dons traditional men’s attire. Afraid that the king will find out that he lied about slaughtering the whole Lu clan, Lei then turns to the sorriest bunch of elite killers I’ve ever seen. It’s your usual assortment — monk with bushy eyebrows, fey dude with fan, dirty old beggar — but this lot seems especially easy to dispatch, even without Carter Wong dropping by at random times to lend a fist.
Lei probably could have spent a little more time shopping around for exotic hired killers, as the king seems preoccupied with the latest additions to his court: a couple of capering gorillas that are, as was usually the case, played by a couple stuntmen in ratty costume store gorilla outfits, complete with loosely flapping pant legs and occasionally crooked masks. As if it that wasn’t enough, the gorillas’ wranglers are a couple of ghosts. I’m not entirely as up on my Chinese folklore as I should be, but I think these guys are supposed to either be Diao Si Gui — the spirit of someone who has died by hanging (thus the long, engorged tongue) — or Hei Bai Wu Chang — the black and white guardians of hell, recognizable for their tall hats, black and white robes, and the accouterments they usually carry (you can see Billy Chong beat a couple up in Kungfu from Beyond the Grave).
I think these dudes are a couple of Diao Si Gui who were spookin’ around one day and found a box of hell guard hats and robes and were like, “We can get free food if we wear these around town!” Otherwise, they’re a desultory couple of hell guards who obviously lucked into the job, and so incompetent were they that the king of hell made up the most ridiculous job he could and convinced them that it was super-important that they take these, uhh… I’m gonna say gorillas, and deliver ‘em to this guy in the fancy robe. Yeah, that should keep ‘em out of my hair for a couple weeks. Sort of like how Lucky the Leprechaun is such a shitty leprechaun that while all the other leprechauns get to guard pots of gold, he has to guard a bowl of cereal. Anyway, the gorillas are almost completely invulnerable except for the top of the head. If you such much as slightly brush against the top of their heads, it sends them into howling fits of agony and, if sustained, they will become totally loyal to you for some reason. I guess this sounded like a decent enough weakness, at least until they ended up in a movie where the heroes’ signature move is to leap up into the air and jam a sword into the top of your head.
While the king is farting around with the gorillas, the Lu sisters get jobs as maids so that they can infiltrate the palace and get their final revenge. Even though Lei was able to describe the women to every two-bit killer in the kingdom, and even though he and his men drew up a whole bunch of wanted posters with really detailed sketches of the sisters, no one — including Lei — seems to recognize them when they start skulking around the palace. Killing Lei and the king proves a tricky task, however, as the palace is kitted out with the usual assortment of secret passages, traps, and for some reason, a dude who has been in prison so long that he has turned into a monster. Luckily for Carter Wong and the girls, famed leg fighter Dorian Tan Tao-Liang will pop up out of nowhere, announce “It’s me, that one guy who you’ve all been waiting for even though I haven’t been in the movie until now,” and then he’ll kick a lot of people in the name of helping the Lu’s.
Shaolin Invincibles isn’t as crazy as I remembered, but it’s still a lot of fun. There’s a ton of action, pretty good fights, and there’s the gorillas and the ghost and the zombie guy just for the hell of it. A little, something for everybody, really. The best part has to be when the Lu’s are sneaking through the woods and spy the two gorillas from a distance. The gorillas are doing that usual capering and hopping about that bad actors do when they are trying to play gorillas, even though I don’t think a real gorilla has ever moved like that. Upon seeing the two galoots lumbering awkward down a hill, Lu Yu Liang instantly surmises “those beasts seem to know kungfu.” This is pretty sloppily made, and I could have used more Dorian Tan Tao-Liang, but as was often the case with Taiwanese martial art cinema from the 70s, the energy, frequent action, and flat out strangeness is more than enough to result in a fun film.
Release Year: 1977 | Country: Taiwan | Starring: Carter Wong, Chia Ling, Doris Lung Chun-Erh, Dorian Tan Tao-Liang, Chen Hung-Lieh, Yee Yuen, Jack Lung Sai-Ga, Blacky Ko Sau-Leung, Lee Keung, Lam Chung | Screenplay: Yeung Gat-Aau | Director: Hau Chang | Music: Eddie H. Wang Chi-Ren | Producer: Geung Chung-Ping | Original Title: Yong zheng ming zhang Shao Lin men
By the time the 1990s rolled around, I think everyone had given up on Rutger Hauer becoming some awesome super cool megastar, and “everyone” included Rutger Hauer himself. On the one hand, that’s too bad, because there for a while, he was a genuinely cool dude, good looking and charming but with something cruel and disturbing about him. There was no wonder a lot of the spooky ladies (and a fair number of lads) with whom I hung out with back in the day were loopy for Rutger. I’m pretty sure we had plans, at some point, to make a movie featuring Roy Batty in his little leather booty shorts from Blade Runner teaming up with Sting’s Feyd Rautha in his little metal thong thingie to… I don’t know glisten as they traveled from town to town, solving people’s problems.
I’m not saying we really thought the whole thing through. And anyway, Sting eventually bought himself a lute and became really boring, so I’m sort of glad we never made the movie anyway. But if we had, we totally would have made Sting recreate his Ace Face dance scene from Quadrophenia, only wearing his Dune thong. Well, whatever the case, those jerks in Hollywood would never give me the funding, and as a result, Rutger Hauer never became the mainstream icon he should have. On the other hand though, Hauer never bought a lute, and he did go on to do a lot of entertaining work, especially in the field of “low budget straight to video science fiction,” which happens to be one of my favorite fields of study, so I can’t totally bemoan the turn his career took. And now that he seems to be enjoying one of those late-stage career revivals, mostly by getting cast as a guy who is irritated by superheroes, I’d say things turned out OK.
But back in 1992, Rutger Hauer might have been bitter about mainstream success slipping through his grasp, though when I think about it, probably not. His biggest movies up until that point weren’t exactly mainstream. Ladyhawke was a quirky sleeper hit of a fantasy film, but I don’t think it really gained much of a following until it hit the newly forming home video market. Blade Runner was a movie everyone hated until it was heralded as a visionary classic years later, forcing people to pretend like they’d loved it since the day it was released and flopped at the box office because Harrison Ford wasn’t enough like Han Solo in it. Most of Hauer’s roles other than Ladyhawke were designed to creep you out — from Nighthawks to Flesh+Blood to The Hitcher. And heck, he was even kind of frightening in Ladyhawke, now that I think about it. If you weren’t terrified by Rutger Hauer by 1986, then something was wrong.
While he was honing his skills as a guy you’d fall for even though you knew at the end of the day he’d probably cut out your heart and eat it while saying something spooky and profound, he was also working diligently on a second persona: that of a cranky, world weary hero who seems to mutter or sigh all his lines. His first big stab at this was in the do-nothing 1980s actioner Wanted: Dead or Alive, best known — if it is known at all — for being the movie where Rutger Hauer blows up a guy from KISS. In 1989, he took his world weary sighing hero act into the near future for Blood of Heroes, a movie where he got to make out with Joan Chen and slam skulls onto spikes. By 1992′s dystopian futuristic serial killer alien (!) movie Split Second, he had either become so good at acting bored that he seemed totally bored with the movie, or he was totally bored with the movie.
Hauer stars as Harley Stone, a cop with a chip on his shoulder in the near future London of 2008. As we suspected would happen, 2008 is a mess. Global warming has wreaked havoc with the planet’s weather systems. London is in a state of perpetual flooding to which the people of the city, ever stolid and with stuff upper lips, have adapted by simply buying heavier galoshes. Harley spends his days plodding through the dirty, waterlogged streets during what seems to be perpetual night, hunting down a brutal serial killer who likes to cut out the hearts of his victims, which he politely mails to police because this movie is all about a big misunderstanding over the true meaning of Valentine’s Day. Harley is determined to catch the murderer since, as is usually the case with such plots, the maniac killed Harley’s partner, sending the high-strung cop into a spiral of self-destruction and obsession that manifests itself mainly in the form of Rutger Hauer wearing a big black trench coat and showing up too late to stop another murder. This is at least the third time Hauer has worn a big, bulky, black trench coat in a movie, by the way. This is the internet, so I’m sure someone has a website about it.
Harley’s superiors aren’t happy with his methods — you know how superiors are — so they take him off the case even though no obsessed lone wolf cop who plays by his own rules has ever, in the history of movies, been taken off a case and not gone right on working that case, especially if the reason he’s taken off is because “you’re too close to this case!” To this film’s credit, at least the cranky police captain realizes this and eventually reinstates Harley, albeit with a bookish new partner named Dick Durkin (man, if Dick Durkin and Harley Stone weren’t Tom of Finland characters…) even though, being a lone wolf cop, Harley naturally wants to work alone. Durkin (Alastair “Neil” Duncan) is, of course, an Oxford-y egghead who spouts off a lot of intellectual and psychological profiling nonsense, since in the 1990s serial killer profiling had suddenly become en vogue. Durkin assumes they can out-think the killer, use the powers of reason and deduction to detect a pattern and cut the killer off by understanding his psychology. Harley thinks they should just splash around seedy London strip clubs at random until something shows up that he can shoot.
It turns out, we learn, that Hauer also has horrible nightmares about the killer, and that in fact, they’re not nightmares so much as they are psychic glimpses through the killer’s eyes at the moment the murderer is about to strike. So I guess he wasn’t just wandering around at random after all. The movie then sees fit to sprinkle even more convoluted nonsense into the mix, as the killer seems to have a Satan fixation, may or may not think himself the Devil, may lead a cult, and other stuff meant to make things more complicated. That, in the end, the killer actually turns out to be a toothy eight foot tall space alien and/or genetically modified demon almost seems, after so much profiling and psychoanalytical babble, the most mundane and reasonable of explanations.
If he’s not busy walking around or having psychic flashes, Harley likes to retire to his squalid apartment, where he lets pigeons nest in his hair and does his awkward, tasteless best to sort of romance his dead partner’s wife, Michelle (Kim Cattrall, still sporting her beautiful jet black bob haircut from Star Trek VI). I know Kim has done, currently does, and probably always will do movies that I loathe, but none of that kills my adoration of the woman, which is based entirely on the only three movies of hers I’ve actually bothered to see — this, Star Trek VI, and Big Trouble in Little China. There’s no arguing with that pedigree, even if she’s more famous for something else. And hell — have you seen her lately? She’s still fabulous, and I appreciate anyone who is in their 50s and can still strut their stuff. I’m only forty, and the world has decided is is better off when my clothes remain donned.
No one really knew what to make of Split Second upon its release, including the movie’s own marketing department. Was it a cyberpunk tale set in a dystopian Blade Runner future, only with less money? Was it a mismatched buddy-cop movie? Was it an Alien rip-off? A Predator rip-off? A gory horror film? The answer to all those questions is “yes,” but that’s a hard movie to sell to people. As such, Split Second did nothing at the box office. In fact, so dismal was its showing that most people assume it was just a direct to video release. However, not all of the film’s misfortunes can be laid at the feet of its multi-genre approach to storytelling. No, at least some of those woes can be blamed on the fact that this movie also happens to be a joyless, somewhat listless mess.
For the most part, I remember the marketing being very sci-fi heavy, pitching the movie as sort of a rainier version of Predator 2. While there is some cross-over between horror fans and science fiction fans — especially after Alien — there’s also a lot of sci-fi fans who don’t care for gore and grue. But gore and grue is exactly what Split Second serves up, in fairly generous amounts, and I can only imagine how off-putting that must have been to people who expected something a little more light-hearted. The gore is made even more intense by the oppressively grim tone of the film and by the general air of sleaze that permeates this and pretty much any other movie that involves heart-ripping mass murderers and strip clubs. This movie, along with 1985′s Lifeforce and 1997′s Event Horizon serve in my mind as a sort of unconnected trilogy of “horror films that everyone thought were science fiction films when they walked into the theater,” though to be honest, I don’t think many people walked into the theater for any of those three movies.
Despite the fact that Rutger Hauer drifts through the movie with an endless supply of quips and one-liners, as was the style in the day (after all, the least you can do is give them a little something to smile about before you pummel them), there’s very little in the way of levity in this film. It takes the violence of an ’80s action film and strips it of the comic book sense of silliness, almost resulting in a satire of the tendency to crack wise while committing acts of unspeakable violence. Hauer mouths the jokes, but they’re infused with such an undercurrent of bitterness and cynicism that they’re more awkward and scary than they are funny — but that’s Rutger Hauer for you.
There were a lot of movies of this ilk released in the 1990s, as the shiny neon veneer of the 1980s wore off and gave way to grungier, more hopeless visions of the future informed by the popularity of cyberpunk literature, which by the 90s had become cyberpunk culture and was ripe for being appropriated, misunderstood, then misappropriated by film makers. The days of rollicking space adventures gave way to smaller-scale, much more pessimistic films like Split Second and Hardware. It’s odd, at first, to think that the ’80s were so full of gloss and glam despite being a decade in which we all thought we were going to get fried in a nuclear war, fried by the disintegration of the ozone layer, or just crushed by relentless economic bleakness. Then the 90s roll around, we get Bill Clinton in office, and suddenly the country is in pretty good shape. We got jobs, the Cold War was over, our president was into fat freaky chicks, and things were rolling along. But the entertainment of that era was relentlessly downbeat, from grunge rock to Alice in Chains style new metal to cranky science fiction movies, you’d think that the entire country had fallen apart.
But that’s the way the world works. Even though the ’90s were a safer, more peaceful, more stable time for us Americans, we still had to deal with the emotional backlash of what we were desperately trying to ignore during the 1980s. It wasn’t until we emerged from those days that we realized how screwed up everything had been, and with that revelation, a sort of general malaise settled in on society. We started griping and grousing even though things had gotten a lot better. The tone of Split Second is a direct result of the lingering deep blue funk that infected a lot of people. It’s mean and grumpy and largely misanthropic, but it overplayed its hand a little bit and was a little too much for a lot of people. There were also a lot of people who didn’t dislike the movie because of its misanthropic tone, but instead hated the movie because they thought it was terrible. And while I, perhaps predictably, liked the movie (I also liked Event Horizon and Lifeforce, as it happens), it’s not as if there’s much denying that it gives people plenty of critical ammunition.
For starters, there’s Rutger Hauer. His performance is, in a way, the embodiment of this movie’s overall tone — not misanthropic, in my view, so much as it is simply exhausted. I can’t tell if Hauer is doing a really good job or is simply sleepwalking through a movie in which he has no interest. Whatever the case may be, the end result is that he turns in a bored looking performance that creates a sort of bored atmosphere. A movie about a Satan-worshiping killer alien preying on strippers and with a psychic link to Rutger Hauer shouldn’t be this lacking in energy, but Hauer handles the whole thing with an overplayed world weariness that borders on lethargy. I understand he’s a man whose seen it all, but if we’re to believe him as obsessed and on the edge, we need to see a little more oomph put into his obsession. As played, he seems as dedicated to catching this killer as I am to trimming an inch or two of fat off my waist. Yeah, sure, I want to do it I guess, but you know, whatever. I also want to eat apple cider doughnuts.
Then there’s the case of the script, which starts out with a rote but dependable “cop tracks serial killer” plot, becomes a still somewhat rote but dependable “cop tracks monster” plot, and then all of a sudden is cramming in all sorts of ridiculous shit, most of which is half-baked and never really seems to have much to do with anything. Generally, I like when a screenwriter or group of screenwriters start to lose control of their own creation. As viewers we get to watch the thing grow more and ridiculous and nonsensical, until it seems like whoever was writing it was either simply holding on for dear life or was sitting in a room with a bunch of other people, smoking pot, and coming up with things like, “No, dude, check it out. What if it’s a DNA thief, and it’s got some of Rutger Hauer’s DNA? And that’s why they have a psychic connection, because like, you know, your psychic powers are stored in your DNA.” And then everyone exhales and bongs have written another goofy science fiction horror movie plot twist.
Thing is, as much as I appreciate the fact that the script for Split Second seems to go off the rails and meander farther and farther away from a point where it might have been thought out, it unfortunately goes about its descent into madness with all the energy of…well, Rutger Hauer’s performance. As nutty as it gets by film’s end, there’s too much between the opening and ending that seems like the movie is just spinning its wheels and trying to think of something to do next. It gets to the point at times where watching the movie is like being stuck in that same room of stoned writers while they spend ten minutes doing the “What do you want to eat/I don’t know. What do you want to eat?” round and round.
Much of the stuttering pacing is probably attributable to the inexperience of screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson, who would learn to pace his scripts more expertly by the time he was raking in the dough for the Fast and the Furious movies he wound up writing. 1992 sees him pretty early into his career as a screenwriter, and the lack of seasoning is likely why the movie ends up being so unfocused and susceptible to needing to pause and figure out where it’s going.
On the other hand, Thompson’s screenplay offers enough meat so that a talented director should have been able to stage a more exciting movie than the one we got. Tony Maylam wasn’t the man for the job, though. Despite his first directing job coming in the early 1970s, Maylam worked infrequently and then primarily on small-scale television projects and documentary films. He brings a decidedly plodding style and small-scale feel to Split Second, a movie whose ridiculous plot demands a much more robust job at directing. I don’t know what Maylam’s deal was, if this was the best he could do or if he just didn’t care. It hurts the film whatever the case, and Maylam himself wouldn’t work again until 2001′s Phoenix Blue, and after that he seems to have occupied himself mostly with making documentaries about automobile design.
Other aspects of the film aren’t as dull as Maylam’s direction, though. For the most part, the cast gives it their professional best effort — most of them are British, after all, and Brits rarely seem to half-ass it, no matter how silly the material. The supporting players and extras chew scenery, bellow, grimace, shout, grumble, and get choked by Rutger Hauer with admirable gusto. Kim Cattrall also turns in a good performance and radiates charm, even though she ultimately gets relegated to the unenviable “damsel in distress” role. And you know, even when Rutger Hauer seems to be only half present, he still brings a dangerous charisma and undefinable something to the role that makes him worth watching.
The performance of the movie has to go to Alastair Duncan though, whose sidekick character is given some truly unwieldy technobabble and psychobabble to spout. Somehow, he manages to mouth it all and make it sound convincing. His transformation from skeptical academic egghead cop to wild-eyed soulmate for Hauer’s Harley Stone may not be the height of originality, but Duncan makes it work wonderfully and provides the movie with one of its only moments of genuine humor that doesn’t involve pigeons sitting on Rutger Hauer’s head. These days, Duncan’s doing a lot of video game and cartoon voice acting, including doing the voice of Alfred on The Batman. What are the odds that both Harley Stone and Dick Durkin would go on to play roles in the sundry Batman franchises?
And the alien, or genetic mutant, or psychic freak, or whatever the hell the monster is, is also a great design. Obviously, though its behavior is all Predator 2, its look is a straight up rip off of the creature from Alien. Thing is, though, it’s a very good rip off, with lots of the drooling and sliminess that you expect from such creatures. We’re still solidly in the era of man-in-suit monsters, and at least by my standards, that makes for a much more interesting and menacing monster than could have been realized by CG — and I don’t just mean 1992 CG. Although I have made my peace with CG for the most part, I still have lingering disapproval for CG blood effects (juicy squibs are so much cooler looking) and for human-size, human shaped monsters rendered by computers rather than being played by a man in a rubber suit. Split Second‘s killer creature is no Pumpkinhead, but it’s a respectable beastie never the less.
It’s certainly weak enough in parts to disappoint more discerning viewers, and the gore and sleaze is copious enough to turn away anyone who got suckered into thinking they were going to get a straight sci-fi film or “Blade Runner but with a monster.” But I’m a pretty undemanding viewer, and the gore didn’t phase me, so I was able to chalk up enough enjoyment out of the film to like it, even though I wanted it to be better than it was. What couldn’t possibly be better, however, is the ending. There’s really no way to top Rutger Hauer pulling a monster’s heart out of its chest, then topping that off by shooting the heart with a giant shotgun, just because the monster pissed him off that much. Split Second isn’t necessarily a film I feel like I need to champion. It’s not a lost classic or a work of maligned and misunderstood genius. I wasn’t overjoyed with it, but I was pretty happy. If, like me, you have a certain tolerance for the unruly, low budget, cynical sci-fi films that came out in the early 1990s, you can probably wring at least as much entertainment out of this hateful little piece of sci-fi horror as I did.
Release Year: 1992 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Rutger Hauer, Kim Cattrall, Neil Duncan, Michael J. Pollard, Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Ian Dury, Roberta Eaton, Tony Steedman, Steven Hartley, Sara Stockbridge, Colin Skeaping, Ken Bones, Dave Duffy, Stewart Harvey-Wilson | Screenplay: Gary Scott Thompson | Director: Tony Maylam | Music: Francis Haines, Stephen W. Parsons | Cinematography: Clive Tickner
We here at Teleport City are no strangers to sword and sorcery films, and chances are, if you are here reading this, neither are you. In the 1980s, when I was going through my formative years and had a friend with satellite TV (back when that meant you had a huge NASA sized satellite in your back yard), I don’t think there was any genre we loved more. That’s because the sword and sorcery movies of the 1980s are perhaps the purest distillation of a ten-year-old boy’s mind that a ten-year-old boy could ever hope for. Yes, yes, I know. Ten year old boys were too young to watch such filth. We were also too young to read Heavy Metal magazine, know who Sylvia Kristel was, and have opinions about the best Playmates. Get with the times, ya squares. Sword and sorcery movies were great because not only could you stay up late and watch the R-rated ones, but even the PG ones were full of everything we wanted: monsters, gore, and big-boobed chicks wearing tiny fur bikinis, if they were wearing anything at all. And if that represents the purest distillation of a ten-year-old boy’s mind, then the movie Sorceress represents a sort of cask strength version of that particular spirit. Because Sorceress asks the question, “Sure, what if you had all that, but also the heroes are hot, naked twins?”
Granted, Barbarians asked that same question, but it answered with twin bodybuilders Peter and David Paul. They aren’t really my type. My taste in lads runs to leaner and more athletic rather than big ‘n’ beefy. But Sorceress… now Sorceress answered the question in the curvaceous forms of Leigh and Lynette Harris, twin sisters from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who appeared together in Playboy magazine and then continued to appear together in the imaginations of lascivious young lads for years to come. You should all regret that I was only ten or eleven when I first discovered their existence, because had I had my way, I would have made a pretty good movie starring them with Mary and Madeleine Collinson, the equally large-breasted, equally nude twin sisters from Hammer Films’ Twins of Evil. I think the title would have been something like Getting Naked…Lots! Also We Fight Robots. I reckon I can go ahead and throw Peter and David Paul in there as well. I’m nothing if not fair minded, after all, and Peter and David had breasts at least as big as the Collinsons and Harrises.
Honestly, I don’t think I ever saw Sorceress during its initial run on cable. I’m not sure what happened, really. It must have been on HBO at some point, sandwiched between Beastmaster, which was followed by Conan the Barbarian, then followed by Beastmaster. My friend Robby and I rarely let something this important slip through the cracks, but I guess no one is perfect. We did, however, know who Lynette and Leigh Harris were, thanks to the stack of Playboy magazine his dad kept hidden… IN THE TOY ROOM! God bless that man. Sure, he kept the harder stuff, your Oui, your Hustler, hidden in his bedroom closet, but he was understanding enough to store the Playboys right there on the metal utility shelves next to Robby’s piles of Battlestar Galactica guys and tauntauns. Good issues, running from the late 60s, through the 70s, and into the early 80s. March, 1981. They appeared in other issues, but March 1981 was the one we had. And that one I remember vividly. The “twins” issue, though for some strange reason, the centerfold was just one woman. But it was in that magazine that we discovered the buxom Harris twins. And dare I say we discovered a little something… about ourselves. I guess not knowing that the twins had also made a sword and sorcery movie was for the better. Had I seen something that awesome at that age, I might have exploded or coughed up my own skeleton.
Of course, there’s a long, sordid, and often laughable history of Playboy Playmates trying their hand at acting, which is why Playboy was happier to shell out lots of money to get established movie stars to pose nude instead. But it seems like every nude model, like every musician, really wants to be an actor (the same way every actor seems to want to record an album). And it says a lot about the acting chops of most Playboy Playmates that the most successful of them was Julie Strain. Oh wait. She was Penthouse, wasn’t she? Well, I bet she showed up in Playboy at some point. So I guess the most successful Playmate turned actress is… I don’t know. Jenny McCarthy, maybe? I suppose Anna Nicole Smith was a success in a certain way, for a little while anyway. Was Pam Anderson in Playboy? I guess so. Wow. There’s just too many of them littering the landscape to keep count. Look, to be honest, pretty much after we worked our way through the stack of from the 60s and 70s, I lost track. Playboy always had a thing for blondes, and I’ve always had a thing for brunettes and red heads. And frankly, once the era of silicone breast implants took hold, I just couldn’t relate. Pretty much all of the other Playmate-actresses crashed and burned, though Andy Sidaris did what he could to support them for a time.
But even aside from Lynette and Leigh, for the moment, Sorceress is a weirdly “important” cult movie. It was the first film for Jim Wynorski (working here as a writer), who would basically become a one-man exploitation film factory shortly thereafter. It was the last film for Jack Hill, who’s storied career as a director and writer of exploitation films included Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Spider Baby. And Roger Corman was the producer, but it was like his eight millionth movie, and there would be like another fifteen million yet to come, so that’s not as much of a milestone. I think it might have been his first producer credit for a sword and sorcery (80s style) movie, which I guess is something. But it’s not like it was for Wynorski on his way in and Hill on his way out. I wouldn’t exactly call it a passing of the torch, though.
Traigon (Mexican television actor Roberto Ballesteros) is your standard-issue sword and sorcery bad guy. He has it on good prophecy that, in order to maintain his black magic powers and control of the realm, he must sacrifice his first-born child. Unfortunately for Traigon, his wife isn’t as keen on the deal as he is, and so she flees. But even once he catches up with the wily wench, Traigon’s woes aren’t over, because his wife has given birth to twins. Traigon needs to know which one was born first, lest he knife the wrong baby, but his wife remains steadfastly stubborn in her unwillingness to make the task of infanticide easy. And since a murderous wizard warlordly type guy can’t catch a break, not only does he not know which baby was born first, but then the guy from the cover of Aqualung appears to slaughter Traigon’s minions, then slaughter Traigon himself! So, movie over, I guess? Oh no, wait. Traigon has three lives and will reincarnate again in twenty years, at which time he will presumably pick up where he left off. In order to protect the twins, the victorious old hero, Krona (Martin LaSalle, who appeared in a number of superb horror films by Mexican director Juan Lopez Moctezuma), takes them from their dying mother, so that he may see that they are raised properly and schooled in the ways of war and wisdom. “But…” the mother says, “they are girl children!”
GIRLS??!!? But… girls can’t be doctors!
Naming them Mira and Mara, Krona leaves the twins with a local couple, instructing them to not only see that the kids learn how to fight, but also that they are raised as boys. If anyone finds out their true identities, the reborn Traigon will surely come to hunt them down. Twenty years pass, and in that time chaos reigns. Actually, no it doesn’t. Even though the forces of Traigon are still in control, well frankly, it looks like they’re running a decent enough kingdom. The cities are thriving, there is law and order, the strip clubs employ exceptionally attractive women. All seems well. Mira and Mara have grown in to buxom young lasses who think they are boys, and while they are whiling away the hours doing what all twenty year old boys do together (skinny dipping), they notice that they are being watched from the bushes by the single most horrific creature ever committed to screen: Pando the Goat Boy.
Pando (David Millbern, who despite this disturbing turn, has a perfectly healthy career, provided you accept that Ice Spiders and Chupacabra Terror are healthy) is an unholy union of Eddie Munster’s hair, Lee Van Cleef’s head, Robin Williams’ chest, and the legs of a guy I once saw at a nude beach. His legs were so hairy that they looked like a couple gorilla legs had been grafted to his body, and he let them remain natural and hirsute — but had shaved his ass completely smooth, so that it looked like he was strutting around in a pair of hair chaps. Mira and Mara don’t know what to make of this curious beast, nor of the mysterious third “horn” dangling between his legs, so they do what anyone would do when they catch a horny man-goat watching them swim naked: they kick his ass and send him scurrying back to the bushes.
Soon after, we find out that Traigon is back, and it’s time to look for those twins once more. This way, we can get to the sword and sorcery movie’s requisite scene of a village full of grass huts getting pillaged and put to the torch. Traigon has done pretty good at tracking down Mira and Mara quickly, which doesn’t say much for Krona’s skills as a hider of prophesied children. Luckily, a Viking (!) named Valdar (Bruno Rey, Santo vs. the She-Wolves) strolls by and rescues Mira and Mara from the marauders. Krona soon reappears as well, now charging Valdar with guarding the twins. You know, Krona, maybe you should watch the stinkin’ twins instead of always pawning them off on the first person you meet. What is Krona doing most of the time anyway? Entering Gandalf lookalike contests? Valdar has nothing better to do, so Mira and Mara tag along with him, clad in their “we’re just a couple of strapping young lads with big boobs, curvy hips, feminine faces, and sexy legs” disguises. It also turns out that Valdar is friends with Pando, so everyone makes up and marches off to a town crowded with the very soldiers they’re supposed to be avoiding. While there, we will get several more standard issue sword and sorcery moments — including the nude dancer scene, the bar room brawl scene, and the “wandering around the bazaar” scene — before Mira and Mara are captured. Valdar also picks up yet another new member for the gang, a young prince masquerading as a gambling barbarian.
So begins the game of escape and recapture, until finally the group is ambushed by a gang of monkey monsters throwing fruit grenades.
So let’s stop right there. You have sexy naked twins. You have a viking. You have Pando the bleating goat boy with an erection (you’d think someone would make him put on some pants). And now you have monkey monsters lobbing fruit grenades. Jack Hill… you, sir, know how to deliver.
Mara is captured, along with the prince guy, Erlick (Bob Nelson), and taken to Traigon and Traigon’s scheming mistress. When they discover Erlick is actually a prince — interrupting Traigon’s plan to cram a metal spike up the wayward barbarian’s butt — they devise some crazy scheme to get Mara and Erlick together, produce an heir, then have Traigon kill the kid. Or something. When Traigon explains to Mara that he is her father, she drops the desire to kill him for murdering her mother and the inhabitants of the village in which she and her sister grew up. Anyway, it doesn’t take much to get Mara and Erlick together. Ever since the girls discovered that they were girls, Mara has been struggling with the mysterious tingling she feels every time she looks at Erlick. Valdar is momentarily distressed when Mira starts writhing around in ecstasy while Mara is getting it one, but he soon figures out that it’s just that psychic sex bond all twins have. Pando, one assumes, was off in the bushes furiously polishing his third horn.
Mira uses the psychic link to lead them to Traigon’s castle, where Traigon unleashes his amazing green animation finger rays on them. Mara and Erlick, under Traigon’s dastardly hypnotic spell, seem undisturbed by the apparently death of their friends and sibling, and one of the monkey monsters is pissed that Traigon killed the other girl, upon who the monkey monster had designs. Hey, with Pando the goat boy lurching about, a hot and bothered monkey monster is the least of the weird things in this movie. Anyway, it turns out that Valdar and Mira aren’t dead; they just sunk down into the catacombs below Traigon’s castle. Does this mean, on top of everything he’s already done for us, Jack Hill is going to give us zombie sword fights, too? Indeed it does. Unfortunately, zombie sword fights always sound cooler than they actually end up being. What with one side being zombies and all.
Of course, everything culminates in the ritual Traigon is throwing to sacrifice Mara and get some sort of undoubtedly disappointing ultimate power. This battle is realized by a super-imposed…what is that thing? I might know if I had my Monster Manual with me. A lion-dragon-horse thing, that battles a superimposed lady’s head. f you ever saw the finale to Wizards of the Lost Kingdom — and Pando the Goat Boy help you if you have — then you’ll recognize the finale of this movie as well. Man, when a movie is so cut-rate that it steals special effects finales from Sorceress, you know you’ve strayed too far from the good and righteous path. The two gods or whatever they are supposed to be float on opposite ends of the screen and shoot beams at each other while a sword fight rages below and Traigon shrieks and capers about like all proper effeminate evil wizard-emperors should.
Hey, you know what? Sorceress is pretty awesome. Cheap and ridiculous, yes, but also packed with badly choreographed action, gratuitous nudity, goat men, monkey monsters, zombies, animated magic death beams, and cackling wizards. Jack Hill is a steady hand behind the camera, which means that this movie, unlike many others that would come from Roger Corman’s 1980s sword and sorcery factory, is actually well paced and pretty exciting. There’s always a lot happening, and most of it is pretty enjoyable. And despite the nudity and the violence, there’s something almost…wholesome about it. Sword and sorcery movies usually work in gratuitous nudity by throwing in rape scenes, lending them an unsavory and mean-spirited edge that takes the fun out of what should be a stupid and hilarious genre, and this movie has at least one such scene. But while Sorceress probably has more gratuitous nudity than many sword and sorcery films, most of it comes in relatively harmless scenes of clothes changing, skinny dipping, and sex between consenting adults.
The acting is also surprisingly better than you might think. Much of the cast is Mexican. I assume it was shot down south of the border somewhere, as many of Corman’s barbarian movies were. But the Mexicans are all old hands, and they perform with an admirable level of professionalism you can detect even through the dubbing (which, for the most part, is actually decent as well). Roberto Ballesteros, in particular, seems to be having a grand old time with all the hissing, eye bulging, and mincing about that defines evil wizard warlords.
As for the twins, they do radiate a certain charm. I know, I know. What set of naked twins wouldn’t radiate “a certain charm”? Leigh and Lynette are two in a long line of Playmates who would show up in a sword and sorcery film. Barbi Benton was in Deathstalker. Monique Gabrielle was in Deathstalker II. Rebecca Ferratti was in Gor and Outlaw of Gor. None of them come across as likable as the twins, though. I think that has a lot more to do with the director than it does with Leigh and Lynette, though. Jack Hill was an exceptional exploitation film maker, one who always made sure that he delivered everything fans of a certain genre expected, but was also capable of making a movie that was a little smarter than the others from the same genre. Only Jack Hill could have made a sexy cheerleader movie and somehow also make it a credibly feminist (well, for a 70s exploitation film) movie, with characters who not only got naked, but also had actual depth to them. Under Hill’s guidance, Lynnette and Leigh come across as likable, if not entirely skilled, performers.
The movie also handles the action well enough, certainly better than you get in a lot of other cut-rate barbarian movies. Everyone throws themselves into the fist fights and sword swinging with gusto. Even Leigh and Lynette take on the physical stuff OK, and by that I mean the fight scenes. Not exactly believable or graceful, but better than one usually sees in such productions. In general, Jack Hill helps the Harris twins be, in every way they need to for this movie, better than they need to be (since all they really need to do is take off their shirts). And the Harris twins, for their part, seem to really be trying to do their best.
After this movie, the twins disappeared almost entirely from movies, though not from public life. They appeared once more on screen, together and naked again, in an adaptation of Micky Spillane’s I, The Jury. That was it for Lynette. Leigh made one or two other small appearances before disappearing. Lynette went on to carry on the tradition of former Playboy Playmates marrying rich old men and inheriting their money. She got into some legal trouble when she failed to claim the money in her income tax, something she argued she didn’t realize one had to do.
This is one of those movies you might go into expecting to laugh at, and sure, Pando is easy to laugh at if he doesn’t make you run into another room and weep in the corner. But it’s also a really easy movie, at least for me, to enjoy the heck out of. It’s not polished. It sure isn’t Conan the Barbarian, but it’s also got some effort into put into despite being “just another dumb barbarian movie.” Even disregarding the naked twins — which few viewers will want to disregard — Jack Hill keeps the movie moving briskly, crams it with action, and really delivers one of the more entertaining entries in the genre.
Jack Hill grew up in the film business. Born in Los Angeles, with a father who worked as a designer for both Disney and Warner Brothers, Hill was more or less destined to go to the University of California film school that served as the incubator for the cinematic revolution that occurred in the 1970s. He was part of the group of young up and coming film students that included, among others, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola, in particular, was close to Hill. The two worked on student films together then later both became apprentices to Roger Corman. In 1963, Roger Corman wrapped shooting of his supernatural comedy The Raven a couple days early. Realizing that he still had horror icon Boris Karloff under contract for like another day or so, Corman figured he might as well throw together another movie and get the most out of having Karloff around. The movie was The Terror, starring Jack Nicholson (who was hanging around because he was a nobody who had also just finished working on The Raven). Making a feature film in under a couple days, from concept to the end of shooting, is a mighty task even for one as famously efficient as Roger Corman, so he tapped his two apprentices, Hill and Coppola, to help direct.
Roughly ten years later, Coppola was collecting an Oscar for The Godfather. Hill, on the other hand, stuck around in the B-movie market. His 1968 film Spider Baby is considered by many to be a classic of off-kilter… not exactly horror. Just unsettling weirdness. While Coppola was busy making The Godfather, Jack Hill was in the Philippines shooting two movies that would spark a whole exploitation genre and make a star out of struggling young actress Pam Grier. 1971′s The Big Doll House and 1972′s follow-up The Big Bird Cage helped define the “women in prison” movies that would flood grindhouse theaters during the rest of the 1970s, while the two movies also served s examples of the genre at its most darkly humorous sand satirical. It was, as I said, largely because Jack Hill was making exploitation movies, but he didn’t seem to be holding exploitation film making in contempt or regarding the source material as a reason to crank out a lazy, sloppy production. No matter how silly the movie was, Jack handled it with professional seriousness.
After doing their tour of duty in the Philippines for Roger Corman, Hill and Grier returned to the states and once again made a duo of genre-defining hits. Coffy and Foxy Brown are a little rough around the edges, a little more independent feeling than low-budget but big studio productions like Shaft and Superfly, but they’re also fantastic fun and set the template for the “chick on a rampage” style of revenge flick that gave so many struggling black actresses a chance to kick some cinematic ass. Shortly after that, Hill was back with Corman, who was producing his batch of cheap cheerleader sexploitation films like The Cheerleaders and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. Jack Hill contributed The Swinging Cheerleaders, and once again, there was a lot more to his movie than the genre demanded, though he didn’t forsake fulfilling genre expectations in favor of thinking what was doing was “important.” No, he just figured that if he was going to take the time to make a movie, even a silly cheerleader sex film, he might as well put some effort into it.
After The Swinging Cheerleaders, Hill made Switchblade Sisters, then seemed to retire. His wife wanted to immerse herself entirely in the study of meditation, and Jack wanted to write. Neither passion was well suited by a side career making quick grindhouse movies with Roger Corman. From 1975 until 1982, Hill wrote a couple screenplays but basically played it cool. Then, in 1982, for whatever reason, he came back to work one last time with Roger Corman, showing Jim Wynorski the ropes as Hill directed and co-wrote Sorceress. His years in the wilderness did little to diminish his desire to handle all his movies with professionalism, which is probably why Sorceress is a whole lot better than most other sword and sorcery films, and why its script, if a bit daft, is otherwise logically put together. Well, logically by the standards of the sword and sorcery genre. And as long as you don’t think about things like, “what the hell was Traigon’s cult doing while he was dead” or “so now that they killed Traigon, who was running a peaceful kingdom other than hunting down the twins, who’s in charge?”
It’s probably not the swan song a director would dream of, but as far as exploitation film swan songs go, Hill could have done a lot worse. Much of what’s wrong with the movie happened once it was turned over to Roger Corman. Although famously able to turn a profit on any old crap for much of his career, Corman was taking a beating in the early 1980s. Production of Sorceress had been a string of calamities that saw location shooting scheduled for Portugal, Italy, and The Philippines (with Cirio Santiago) before they ended up in Mexico. It took forever for the deal to get finalized, and once it was, the shooting schedule was cut short when Dino De Laurentiis showed up with his crew for Dune and seized the backlot. When Sorceress went into post-production, Corman was simply too tired and too broke to deliver on any of the special effects that the movie needed, and in fact, didn’t even bother to finish some of the most basic work. In several spots, dialogue and sound effects were never looped in. Animation was left out where people were supposed to be shooting beams and whatnot. Shots that were composed for matte paintings never got their mattes, meaning you could see equipment and the tops of sets. Jacki Hill was so exasperated by the experience that he took his name off as director and screenwriter, and he hasn’t directed since.
All that said, I still think the movie is fun despite the shoddy construction. Even when defeated by every setback imaginable, Hill never once throws int he towel or treats the film like the sinking ship that had everyone else lounging around and not giving a crap. Released in 1982, Sorceress was a pretty early entry into the sword and sorcery boom. Most of the movies that came after Conan the Barbarian didn’t attempt to mimic that movie’s profound sense of seriousness. They were more than happy to follow the lead of The Sword and the Sorcerer, which saw no need to handle the material with any sense of gravity.
Sorceress is somewhere in the middle. It has its comedic bits (the way the final battle between the heroes and Traigon’s zombie army pans out is pure goofball Wynorski), but it also plays things straight. Light-hearted, I guess you would say. That it isn’t filled with anachronistic one-liners and jokes is something of a small miracle. Writer Jim Wynorski would go on to become a prolific director of goofball genre movies, and almost everything he does is infused with a juvenile sense of humor. When he got to direct his own sword and sorcery film, Deathstalker II, he turned the entire thing into a comedy. That may have been for the best, mind you, but he’s maintained that tendency to yuk it up in most of his movies, which is why it’s no surprise that he eventually fell in with Fred Olen Ray, the two of them together accounting for 99% of the world’s movies about half-naked girls fighting space aliens and dinosaurs. Wynorski rarely seems to have much respect for his own material; Hill always seems to have respect for his material, no matter how dumb. The two of them together actually strike a pretty solid balance.
Wynorski found himself working for Roger Corman in 1980, after moving to LA from New York with dreams of getting into the movie business. Corman put the anxious young man to work making trailers. Considering that Corman’s mode of operation was, as it had been when he himself was a hungry young film maker at American International Pictures, to come up with a movie title and artwork before the movie had even been written, and sell the movie on the merits of its outrageous title and ad art alone, putting together coming attractions previews for Corman productions was a pretty important task. Eventually, Corman let Wynorski start writing screenplays, and it’s likely that he paired the man with Jack Hill because there was no finer director at Corman’s disposal for teaching a kid the ropes of making a solid exploitation film.
After working in that capacity for a couple years, Corman approached Wynorski with another offer. Kids loved hanging out in shopping malls, so a distributor wanted a movie about a killer in a shopping mall. Corman told Wynorski to write it, and if the script was OK, Wynorski would also get to direct. Taking the concept of “a killer in a shopping mall” in a somewhat unexpected direction, Wynorski turned in the script for, and soon got to direct, Chopping Mall, in which high tech security robots at a shopping mall go berserk and start butchering teenagers. Wynorski would stay in the director’s chair for something like 150 movies more — and counting.
Although Wynorski learned how to make a professional looking product during his apprenticeship with Hill and Corman, he doesn’t have the same sense of… seriousness isn’t exactly what I’m thinking. He likes to goof off and cram his movies with silly jokes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. His unwillingness to handle Deathstalker II with even an ounce of seriousness is what probably saved the movie from being as dreary and boring as the original Deathstalker – and if you can find it on DVD, Wynorski’s commentary is hilarious. These days, Wynorski seems to while away the hours making breast-themed spoofs of major motion pictures, including such direct to DVD hits as The Bare Wench Project, The Breastford Wives, and House on Hooter Hill. He’s also a dependable hand for silly Sci-Fi Channel movies like Komodo vs. Cobra and Bone Eater, among many others I’ve wasted a perfectly good Saturday afternoon watching for like the third time. All things considered, Sorceress is one of the best films in his filmography.
But wait, you might say to yourself — where the hell was the sorceress? Shouldn’t a movie called Sorceress contain at least one sorceress? Well, umm… hey look! Naked twins! Zombie sword fight! Pando the goat boy! Wait, Pando, what are you… no! Bad Pando! Bad!
Release Year: 1982 | Country: United States, Mexico | Starring: Leigh Harris, Lynette Harris, Bob Nelson, David Millbern, Bruno Rey, Ana De Sade, Roberto Ballesteros, Douglas Sanders, Tony Stevens, Martin LaSalle, Silvia Masters, William Arnold, Teresa Conway | Screenlay: Jim Wynorski, Jack Hill | Director: Jack Hill | Cinematography: Alex Phillips Jr. | Producer: Roger Corman, Jack Hill | Alternate Titles: Devil’s Advocate
Like many of my stories, this one starts out with a girl. Nice girl. Well, not that nice. Something of a catch. We were lying around in my apartment in some state of undress or other — not because we were in the throes of passion, but rather because it was Florida in August, and my air conditioner was broken. Such extreme heat and humidity can make one shed one’s modesty as quickly as one sheds pants or shirt. We were watching something dreadful and delightful, as we tended to do. In this case, it happened to be a low-budget exploitation film called Death Curse of Tartu. At the time, I was still young and not so wise in the ways of obscure movies as I am today, so I didn’t know anything about the movie, the director, or the robust little Florida film industry of the 1960s that produced it. But once the movie started playing on my epic 10-inch TV, something strange happened during the credits.
“That’s my step-mom!” my friend exclaimed.
Including The Shuttered Room in a Lovecraft-themed month of reviews is admittedly a bit of a stretch. To the extent that its source story is considered by anyone to be part of the Lovecraft canon, it is thought of as being only very peripherally so, with many of the author’s followers disdaining to give it even that distinction. The story originally appeared in the 1959 collection The Shuttered Room & Other Pieces, which was compiled by author August Derleth and published under his own Arkham House imprint. Derleth, a longtime friend and supporter of Lovecraft’s during his lifetime, is a bit of a controversial figure among Lovecraft devotees. While his championing of Lovecraft’s work is inarguably responsible in part for the author being as well known as he is today, some of the liberties that Derleth subsequently took with that work is seen by many as being of a considerably less laudable nature.
In recent days I’ve been pouring over Jasper Sharp’s just published history of Japanese sex cinema, Behind the Pink Curtain — certainly for the purpose of broadening my world cinema knowledge, but mainly because I really, really want to understand the way that sex is presented in the Japanese movies I watch. And right now, to be honest, I really, really don’t. I sometimes suspect that we — in this case meaning “we Americans” — are more to blame for this than the Japanese, that the overwhelming impression of Japanese films as dealing with eros only in its darkest and most perverse manifestations is the result of us yanks, in our eagerness to point a mocking finger at “those crazy Japanese”, focusing only on those films that enable us to do so.
Perhaps the reality is that Japanese cinema is teeming with examples of people having loving, mutually pleasurable, consensual sex, and we’re just not seeing it because we’re choosing not to look. Admittedly, I’ve yet to see evidence of that being the case. In fact, I’ve seen more than my fair share of evidence to the contrary. Still, I suppose that if you wanted to stretch things, you could consider In the Realm of the Senses to feature loving, mutually pleasurable, consensual sex — lots and lots of it, in fact — until, of course, you get to the part where the man dies during an act of erotic asphyxiation and the woman cuts off his penis. So, well, there you go.
Not that a few shafts of light haven’t penetrated my benighted state regarding this matter. For instance, I now know that the Japanese sex film, or Pinku Eiga, came of age alongside of Japan’s politically radical underground cinema of the 1960s, and that the two, thanks to many of their creatives maintaining a foothold in both worlds, are so intertwined as to be in many cases indistinguishable. (For instance, the films of Koji Wakamatsu, which always struck me as being more about politics than sex, but are still considered part of the Pinku Eiga genre.) As such, they share a confrontational aesthetic that can still be seen even in the pink films of today.
America’s military presence in Japan was a hot button issue at the time of pink cinema’s emergence, sparking student protests that, in many cases, lead to violent confrontations with police. Because of this, pink filmmakers often positioned the abused and violated female bodies at the center of their movies as being symbols of the motherland, which had, in their eyes, been itself violated by the presence of an invading army on its soil. Such pervading sentiments at the dawn of Pinku Eiga’s existence may serve to explain what came to be a seemingly ingrained habit of taking anti-Western potshots, often without any apparent underlying political context. A good example of this would be the frequency with which Christian iconography is put to aggressively blasphemous uses, a practice that would be baffling if directed at Japan’s pathetically under-represented Christian minority, but makes a lot more sense as a swipe at Western sensibilities. Such is the case with our review subject here, 1986′s S&M Hunter, a film with no agenda other than to be as freaky as possible, but which nonetheless equips its bondage-happy protagonist with a priest’s collar and a sex slave wearing a nun’s habit (and usually not much else).
Of course, another factor that has influenced the content of Japan’s sex films is the country’s notorious censorship laws, which ban the depiction of genitalia or penetration, but really not that much else. Because of this, Japanese filmmakers have often had to travel far outside of the usual territory in order to fulfill pornography’s promise of showing taboos broken, usually veering in the direction of fetish, perversion, and, all too frequently, the idealized depiction of rape and sexual assault. I also imagine that, in a culture that puts as high a premium on shame as Japan’s does, the spectacle of characters simply taking what they want sexually without fear, consequence, or remorse serves as a pretty potent fantasy of liberation — though, given those characters are virtually without exception male, one that comes at the expense of excluding half of the potential audience.
The titular hero of S&M Hunter is just such a character, a bondage-crazed, manga-style superhero, complete with his own hilarious, Spaghetti Western style theme tune, who not only takes what he wants from the women he encounters, but also puts in their place – or, in his parlance, “tames” – those women with the audacity to attempt to do the same themselves. S&M Hunter may just be the film that signals my arrival at the point where I have finally seen too much, which I knew was going to come sooner or later. Despite its much-touted ability to shock and offend, it managed, for most of its sixty minute running time, only to leave me vaguely amused, and in its most outre moments prompted little more of a reaction from me than a sedate but heartfelt “Huh. Now there’s something you don’t see every day.” This may not simply be due to my having collapsed irretrievably into a state of decadence and moral decay, however. For one thing, the notion that a woman’s unfettered expression of her sexuality would require her to be tamed in such a manner, if you take it at all seriously, speaks to such a profound sense of impotence on the part of the film’s intended male audience that the only appropriate reaction to it would be an embarrassed kind of pity.
More than that, though, I think that my becoming acquainted, over the years, with people who were into S & M play has made me aware of the extent to which the practice is just that: play. With its over-the-top, bluntly archetypal characters and wildly outlandish bondage scenarios, this is, to me, clearly the area that S&M Hunter inhabits, a world of fantasy and elaborate play — a fact driven home by the depiction of the women on the receiving end of S&M Hunter’s signature brand of justice as taking very obvious pleasure in the experience. Given that, I don’t think that S&M Hunter plays to an audience of potential B&D vigilantes any more than Harry Potter movies play to an audience who will immediately run out and carve lightning bolts into their foreheads and then expose their genitals to men in stylized horse costumes.
S&M Hunter is the second in a trilogy of S&M Hunter films directed by Shuji Kataoka, a regular Pinku Eiga director of the era who, in later years, would go on to become a popular director of DTV action films. Here Kataoka casts two stars who were both frequent presences in his films and prominent fixtures in the world of Japanese sex cinema as a whole. Shiro Shimomoto, who plays the title role, was one of the most prolific actors in pink films during the seventies and eighties, and, judging from the titles of more recent films like Tokyo Booty Nights, still keeps a foot in the game even today. Hiromi Saotome was also a fairly ubiquitous presence in such films during the eighties, specializing in bondage and S&M roles. She would go on to become such an enthusiastic proponent of her art that, in 1987, she would famously have herself strung-up and dangled from a footbridge in front of one of Tokyo’s most heavily trafficked commuter train stations.
As far as I can tell, having only seen the trailer, the first S&M Hunter film’s recounting of its title character’s origin depicts him starting out as an ordinary businessman who gets on the wrong side of the Yakuza. This leads to him being attacked and blinded in one eye by a vicious gang of delinquent schoolgirls -– all in full uniform, of course — lead by the hard-eyed Meg (Saotome). In the aftermath of this attack, he is discovered and taken in by the master of an S&M parlor called the Pleasure Dungeon. A true S&M Hunter, we see, is not born but made, as the master (Yutaka Ikejima) then puts our hero through a rigorous training course that ultimately results in him becoming a rope master of near-supernatural ability, a fearless avenger of the pussy-whipped, clad in a distinctive uniform comprised of tweed suit and riding boots, the aforementioned priest’s collar, a skull-and-crossbones emblazoned eye patch, and bowler hat. From here, S&M Hunter sets out to put Meg and her gang in their place.
However, the Hunter’s roping skills are not employed to merely punish and restrain, but rather to gain his prey’s unquestioning obedience via the administration of near-unendurable levels of sexual pleasure. Each of his elaborate, cat’s cradle-like constructions is designed for this purpose, with every knot and wind somehow honing in on a different pleasure zone, with the coups de grace being a long strand of rope that he musically thrums like a giant bass string, sending vibrations straight to his victim’s sweet spot. As he states at the outset of the second film, his method is to “defeat” women, not with violence, but with love, their emotions being their true weak point. And as a result of his ministrations, they are rendered his willing slaves. For those of you who are skeptical of S&M Hunter’s prowess in this regard, and can only be convinced by way of the employment of a dated eighties pop culture reference, heed the words of the Dungeon Master himself: “Even if Hulk Hogan was a girl, she’d be his slave.”
The second entry in the series begins with a gay man named Joe (Bunmei Tobayama) coming to the Pleasure Dungeon with a tale of woe about how his lover, Jack (Akira Fukuda), has been kidnapped and made a sex slave by an all girl gang called the Bombers. S&M Hunter quickly agrees to take on the task of freeing Jack and taming these wanton women, after which we are taken to the hideout of the Bombers, where the gang, lead by Machi (Ayu Kiyokawa), are keeping Jack naked and strapped to a bed for their pleasure. To S&M Hunter‘s credit, I fully expected Jack to be eventually “converted” by these ladies’ sexual attentions, but that never happens. In fact, once Jack is freed and reunited with his lover, the two men are allowed a tender moment that seems, by all appearances, to be a prelude to a full-on sex scene, albeit one which never arrives. I had to wonder if this was the result of something being left on the cutting room floor, or if it was simply a fake-out perpetrated with some kind of humorous intention. To be sure, S&M Hunter is filled with things that I recognize as having the formal appearance of jokes, but whose comic intent, for reasons that I assume are culturally based, ended up zinging right past me.
Finally the man-hating Meg, still in full schoolgirl uniform, shows up at the Bomber’s door, hoping to join the gang and enlist their aid in seeking revenge against the S&M Hunter for the humiliation she suffered at his hands. Meanwhile, the hunter is bearing down on the gang’s hideout, accompanied by the Master, his nun’s-habit wearing sex slave, Maria (Naomi Sugishita), and Joe, who by appearances is himself falling prey to the rope master’s irresistible sexual charisma. With his target in sight, S&M Hunter then declares that he prefers to go on alone, causing the Master, in an actually funny instance of the script drawing attention to its own haphazardness, to wonder aloud why the hell he had asked them all along in the first place. From there, our hero proceeds to work his ropey magic on the gang of uppity women.
The straight sex scenes in S&M Hunter feel fairly obligatory, and are interesting mainly for the lengths they go to make sure that you don’t actually see anything. (Think lots of conveniently placed visual obstructions of the type that could serve as gags in an Austin Powers movie.) Where the real creativity is invested is in the film’s breathtakingly surreal bondage scenarios. And it is with those scenes in particular that we see a softening of the movie’s potentially offensive edge, based in the fact that they’re aestheticized and rendered fantastic to the point of bearing little relation to any type of real world brutality. (According to Sharp’s book, a film like this would typically have on hand a real life rope master, or kinbaku, to supervise the intricate binding that was necessary to completing these bizarre tableaus.) Also, while I know that many would be offended by the notion of a woman actually enjoying being the subject of such humiliations, I have to say, for my own part, that after being subjected to the endless parade of cretinous male predators in Toei’s Pinky Violence films, it was nice to see a member of my gender being depicted as masterful, desirable and actually capable of giving a woman sexual pleasure, no matter how unorthodox his methods of doing so might have been.
The first real gasp-inducing example of the Hunter’s particular brand of artistry comes when he trusses up one of Machi’s gang in a giant spider web that is designed to increase its victim’s pleasure with every rope that’s cut. After Machi shoots through a couple of the knots, the Hunter warns her that any further attempts to free her friend will send her to “the ecstasy of hell”. Machi curses the Hunter, but he responds that she is only jealous that it’s her friend and not her who’s being subjected to this treatment. And, sure enough, soon after he has taken leave of Machi, she turns up at S&M Hunter’s ranch (yes, you heard me), saying that she now wants “to give control” to him. Since it is one of the film’s few portrayals of a consensual sexual act, what follows is played as a love scene, though one in which one partner is elaborately bound up in the rafters of a barn while the other stands far below thrumming vibrations at her nethers through a taut length of rope.
The scene has the ridiculously gauzy quality of a romantic dream sequence in an old Hollywood movie, and throughout it and the one that follows, actress Ayu Kiyokawa is given the full, halo of soft light treatment, rendering her unrecognizable from the hard-looking Machi we saw in the stark, harshly-lit earlier sequences at the gang’s hideout. Clearly the ministrations of S&M Hunter’s long, ropey fingers have caused a transformation in her, and once the act is complete, she pledges her love to him. “You only love the ropes”, he replies. Still, once she has departed, S&M Hunter graces us with a tender moment in which the Hunter, having second thoughts, runs after Machi and, upon catching up to her, hands her the rope he used to bind her. “This now belongs to you”, he says solemnly, obviously fighting to contain his emotions. It is in this moment that we’re afforded a glimpse of the S&M Hunter as a tragic figure, one who’s calling to discipline all of the world’s wayward women forces him to turn his back on love. (“All of the masochists need me,” he tells Machi. “I’m a charitable sadist. I can’t love only you.”) It’s as if director Kataoka, in an uncanny moment of long-range prescience, is preemptively providing his hero with the emotional complexity that a later Christopher Nolan reboot would otherwise affect. Later, moved by what she has seen and experienced, Machi says to her fellow gang members of the Hunter, “You don’t know him. His strength knows gentleness.”
S&M Hunter is irresistibly quotable. Its main character spouts all kinds of pretentious nonsense, and even, true to his ecclesiastical garb, quotes the New Testament (while other utterances — “I see your heart. Your heart wants my ropes” — seem more secular in origin). What I enjoyed most about the film was how it hijacks the terse moral shorthand and glib certitude of evangelism for its own anarchic ends. During the movie’s talky prologue, the Hunter essentially preaches to the audience, explicitly laying out the story’s conflict and moral, after which we see both briskly played out, with the gum-snapping, leather-clad Bombers playing the transgressors whose wayward actions meet with exactly those consequences that the moral predetermines. In the end it all plays out like some Bizarro World version of a Chick tract, with those who have given in to evil, rather than being cast into the lake of fire, instead being bound up and helplessly racked with consecutive multiple orgasms.
S&M Hunter concludes with the final showdown between the title character and the revenge-minded schoolgirl Meg, who has dressed for the occasion in full Nazi regalia. True to the movie’s aesthetic of escalation, it’s a real head-spinner, capping off with S&M Hunter managing, despite having his remaining good eye gouged out, to bind Meg and hoist her into the heavens with an industrial crane. All in all, it’s one of those endings that casts all that preceded it in a far better light, since, throughout S&M Hunter, you can’t help but wonder how it could possibly tie things up with a suitably crowning WTF moment. Well bravo, S&M Hunter. Well played. Well played, indeed.
In the end, I’d be a fool to deny that S&M Hunter traffics in misogyny, though I think there’s room for debate over how deeply held it is. That said, it did elicit a wince from me during its opening scene, at the moment when the Master says, on the subject of hitting women: “Even if you hit them hard, they recover. They go back to normal.” In response to this, I have to wonder: is writer/director Kataoka referring there to women’s emotional resilience, or is he actually saying that they’re literally indestructible? In any case, it is for this reason, according to the Master, that, rather than trying vainly to beat them into submission, “You need to train women to obey.” Again, it seems like we’re seeing a suggestion that, rather than being objects of contempt, women represent some kind of overwhelming, otherworldly force that needs to be contained – a viewpoint that would in turn suggest coming from such a standpoint of infantile helplessness that, again, it’s difficult to avoid feeling an aghast sense of pity in response.
It also just may be that there’s an element of obstinacy in my inability to be really offended by S&M Hunter. The whole thing has a bratty quality to it that suggests that getting riled by it would simply be letting S&M Hunter win. What’s worse is that I actually kind of liked the movie, which may very well make me a horrible person. Still, if that be the verdict, it won’t prevent me from maintaining my regular program of affectionately patting all human beings under four feet tall on the head, slinging old ladies over my back two at a time to carry them across the street, and cooking elaborate meals for homeless people. You see, that’s the kind of guy I am. But I’m also the kind of guy that has to take his hat off to a movie that manages to top itself as enthusiastically as S&M Hunter does, even though I know in my heart that tying up a lady in a giant spider web and sending her “to the ecstasy of hell” is fundamentally wrong. I hope you can all find it in your hearts to forgive me.
Oh, and also? Those fucking Japanese are crazy.
Release Year: 1986 | Country: Japan | Starring: Shiro Shimomoto, Hiromi Saotome, Ayu Kiyokawa, Yutaka Ikejima, Utako Sarashina, Naomi Sugishita, Bunmei Tobayama, Akira Fukuda | Writer: Shuji Kataoka | Director: Shuji Kataoka | Cinematographer: Toshio Shimura | Music: Takashi Akutagawa | Producer: Daisuke Asakura
The imperative to put butts into theater seats is apparently one that has been shared by film industries throughout the world, regardless of what political system they operated under. And whether those butts were capitalist or communist seems to have made little difference. Thus it was, in 1966, that East Germany’s state run DEFA studio decided to try their hand at what had been widely considered an exclusively American genre, the Western, in an attempt to entice those audiences who had been staying away from their usual, more dryly ideological fare in droves with more thrilling, action-oriented entertainments.
Of course, DEFA had no intention of aping Hollywood’s approach to that genre, and would ultimately put their own, distinctive spin on it. Going a long way toward achieving that was their decision to tell their film’s story from the point of view of its Native American characters, with whites settlers serving as the villains, a conceit that would also provide a convenient platform for critiques of American imperialism and greed. But lest you think that choice was just a cynical appropriation of a suffering people’s history for crass political ends, let me point out that there was an abiding German fascination with Native Americans and their culture that had existed since long before the communist divide, the responsibility for which can pretty much be placed at the doorstep of one man.
It’s difficult to touch upon a figure like Karl May in passing, because the temptation is so great to simply reel off the strange and colorful details of his life at the expense of the subject at hand. But for the sake of brevity, let’s just say that, prior to becoming one of Germany’s most popular authors ever, Karl May had seen his share of hard times, and was no stranger to the inside of a prison cell. His tendency to be light-fingered had scuttled his teaching career early on, leaving him to fall back upon a well established habit of thievery and fraud that some today believe was the byproduct of a clinical personality disorder.
The years 1869 through 1870 saw May embark on a particularly impressive crime spree, during which he repeatedly employed a ruse in which he posed as a police lieutenant to confiscate “counterfeit” deutschmarks from various shopkeepers. After a run from the law that involved the employment of disguises and a number of narrow escapes, May was finally captured and sentenced to four years in the Waldheim penitentiary. It was during this stay that May, inspired by the works of James Fenimore Cooper and travel accounts of the American West, discovered and refined his gift as a teller of adventure stories. Soon after he was released, he began writing the first of a phenomenally popular series of novels, the most enduring of which would featuring a noble Apache chief named Winnetou and his white, German-born blood brother Old Shatterhand.
Of course, given that May had never once set foot on American soil at the time of writing them, the Winnetou stories were far from documentary in terms of their representations of frontier life, and of the lives of indigenous Americans in particular. They were in fact tainted by sentimentality and rife with “noble savage” clichés, to the point that he even had Winnetou renounce his Indian spirituality and convert to Christianity at one point. Still, they were unusual in their time for their sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans and their acknowledgement of the depredations perpetrated upon them by the white man. They were also imaginative enough in their telling to inspire many of the Germans who read them to take an interest in Native American culture beyond what was described in their pages. Some of those readers even went on to form “Indianerclubs” — a number of which still exist today — whose mostly white members would not only immerse themselves in that culture but also dedicate their holidays to trying to emulate it as best they could.
It was inevitable that the characters from May’s Western adventures would eventually make their way to the big screen, and, in 1962, West Germany’s Rialto Film Preben-Philipsen made it so, initiating a series of films that were to become wildly popular throughout Europe. The majority of these starred French actor Pierre Brice in the role of Winnetou and American actor — and former Tarzan — Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, and used locations in Yugoslavia to sub for the American West. Eventually coming to comprise eleven entries in all, they came to be known as the Winnetou Films, and are generally considered to be the seed from which the Italian Spaghetti Western sprang, a connection driven home by the presence within them of such genre stalwarts as Klaus Kinski and Terence Hill.
DEFA saw their own first venture into the Western genre — or Indianerfilm — as a response to, rather than an emulation of, the Winnetou films, and were determined to outshine their West German counterparts in terms of the historical accuracy and authenticity of their product. To this end, they chose as their source material The Sons of Great Bear, a young person’s novel written by East German author and historian Liselotte Welskopf Henrich that was at the time considered to be scrupulous in its depiction of Native American life and customs. Veteran Czech director Josef Mach was invited to take the reins of the picture and, to star as its hero, the fearless and incorruptible Sioux warrior Tokei-Ihto, a chance was taken on an unknown young Yugoslavian actor named Gojko Mitic.
Yugoslavia was a popular — i.e. cheap and accessible — shooting location for foreign producers at the time, and when representatives of the British production Lancelot and Guinevere came to the Belgrade sports academy where he was training, looking for a stunt double for star Cornel Wilde, Mijic, an accomplished student athlete with the necessary riding skills, suddenly found himself in the film business. From there he went on to do stunt work and bit roles in a variety of films, including a number of Italian Peplums, before making his way into the Winnetou films. Mitic started out in small, uncredited parts in the Karl May Westerns, but worked his way up to the point where he had a substantial supporting role in 1964′s Frontier Hellcats (aka Unter Geiern), which is presumably where the producers of The Sons of Great Bear first caught sight of him.
The Sons of Great Bear‘s action takes place against the backdrop of the U.S. government’s forced relocation of the Dakota Sioux in the aftermath of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. a territory that was considered hallowed ground by the Sioux, and which had formerly been protected by a treaty entered into in the days before it was thought to have any value by white settlers. Tokei-Ihto’s Bear Band is one of a number of groups of Sioux who are determined to resist the relocation by any means necessary, and as a result they become a target of, not only the U.S. Military, but also the scruffy and shifty-eyed bunch of frontiersmen charged with doing their dirty work. The most scruffy and shifty eyed of all of these is Clarke, aka The Red Fox, a rogue who seeks to weaken the tribe by tempting its members into alcoholism and vice, and who, in the film’s prologue, is shown to have murdered Tokei-Ihto’s father. Clarke is played by Czech actor Jiri Vrstala with a level of menace convincing enough that I was given considerable pause to learn that he had for years played a popular children’s character called Clown Ferdinand both on East German TV and in the movies. Based on his performance here, it’s easy to imagine that being made to watch Clown Ferdinand was, for East German children, just a more modern equivalent of being taken behind the woodshed.
After Tokei-Ihto leads a successful raid against a scouting party lead by the scheming Lieutenant Roach (Gerhard Rachold), he is betrayed by the Bear Band’s elders and delivered to Roach and his men under the pretext of negotiating a treaty. Roach has him imprisoned, then has his people driven by force from their land and moved to the barren, rock-strewn reservation that the government has assigned to them. Tokei-Ihto is eventually freed, thanks in part to the sympathetic efforts of conscientious frontiersman Adams (Horst Jonischkan), and becomes determined to lead his band across the Missouri River to make a better home. Such exodus, of course, does not conform to the plans of the white authorities, and so Clarke and his men set out to thwart it, leading to a final, violent confrontation between Tokei-Ihto and his father’s killer.
For a fledgling genre attempt by a company accustomed to producing output of a very different kind, The Sons of Great Bear is remarkably sure-footed, the only evidence of its status as a novice effort being a narrative rhythm that is at times a bit odd and halting. I think that’s in part a result of the filmmakers trying to deliver the required amount of kinetic thrills while at the same time providing the necessary historical background. It must be said, though, that there appears to have been an assumption on their part that the film’s audience would come to it with at least some knowledge of that background, because what information there is, is far from spoon-fed to us. The movie jumps right into its action without preface, and what historical context there is has to be gleaned from odd exchanges of dialogue that pop up between those scenes that move the story along. Of course, this does not prevent the producers from earning their government paychecks via some heavy handed political messages — including a couple of lines that could easily be interpreted as making analogies to Vietnam. But it’s fairly clear that those producers were at the same time fully cognizant of the fact that they would lose their audience if those messages were delivered at the expense of the expected amount of gun fights, Indian raids, and fancy riding by the movie’s athletic star.
While it may be that the creative team behind the film didn’t quite have a grasp on the classic Western’s vigorous pacing, it is clear that they had an understanding of it’s grandiose scale and mythic dimensions. Cinematographer Juroslav Tuzar’s lyrical widescreen compositions take the film’s Montenegro locations and imbue them with a sense of limitless expanse appropriate to the metaphorical American landscape they stand in for. The images are at times so captivating that the filmmakers themselves seem to have become entranced, resulting in a number of overly lingering shots that further contribute to the film’s odd ebb and flow. Soundtrack composer Wilhelm Neef matches this effort with a score that shows he can step up to the plate when majestic sweep is required, though he also manages to serves up some of the type of rinky-tink cheese that we’ve come to expect from the Germans during this era, including a weird little, ska-tinged tune that accompanies Tokei-Ihto’s raid on Lieutenant Roach’s scouting party.
But, handsome trappings aside, it is the performance of star Gojko Mitic upon which The Sons of Great Bear stands or falls. And Mitic, somewhat miraculously, comes through. Saddled with the burden of portraying a character who is more monument than man — essentially the spirit personified of his noble and long suffering people — Mitic shoulders an onus that would have toppled many more experienced actors and perseveres. Given that the stoic Tokei-Ihto is a classic man of few words, this involves on Mitic’s part the projection of an unnervingly steadfast soulful intensity — or, if you’re feeling less charitable, the employment of a fixed, blank stare that is given intensity by weight of Mitic’s undeniable natural charisma.
In any case, less of Tokei-Ihto’s communication is done through looks than action, and the latter proves to be a language to which Mitic is ideally suited. Despite being required to do what had to be a truly grueling amount of stunt work, Mitic accomplishes a dizzying assortment of perilous moves with all the grace and agility suited to the fearless, nearly superhuman warrior he’s charged with portraying, whether he be leaping down upon his prey from a perch high in the trees, or jumping from the saddle of one charging horse to another. It also doesn’t hurt that Mitic, sculpted from head to toe and half naked for much of the film, is an exquisite physical specimen, an ocular treat for anyone with an appreciation for the male form regardless of their gender or preference. Red blooded guys who fear that a film like this might leave them tainted by exposure to socialist propaganda can rest assured; Watching The Sons of Great Bear won’t make you a commie. However, it just might turn you gay.
While it’s true that Tokei-Ihto is more of an idealized archetype than a flawed human being, and his primary nemesis, Clarke, is a purely evil, melodramatic villain of the highest order, it cannot be said that, beyond that, The Sons of Great Bear presents its conflict in strictly black and white — or white and red — terms. Aside from sympathetic white characters like the aforementioned Adams and the American major’s daughter Cate Smith, both of whom give aid to Tokei-Ihto at various points, we are also shown traitorous Indians who work alongside the whites, as well as dissension and infighting within the tribe, such as that which leads to the elders betraying Tokei-Ihto. Neither can it be said that the conflict between the whites and the Indians is framed as simply one between the powerful and the weak, as the lot of Clarke and his fellow frontiersmen, facing encroaching irrelevance in the form of the coming railroad and the establishment of European-style “civilization”, is shown to be in some ways more miserable than that of the persecuted Indians, who at least have their rich culture and deep bonds of community to fall back upon. Of course, one doesn’t need to dig too far beneath this to find the underlying message that capital and its brute machinations are the real villains, but the filmmakers should be given credit for not sacrificing complexity in favor of creating characters that simply stand in for ideological talking points.
Of course, the major stumbling block to appreciating The Sons of Great Bear‘s many positives is the fact that all of its Native Americans are so obviously pasty white Europeans in redface and black wigs. But anyone who has been able to overlook that type of minstrelsy in American Westerns — which was usually in the service of a far less sensitive portrayal — shouldn’t have too much of a problem with it, even though I admit that it was hard getting used to hearing guttural German phonemes issuing from these Indians’ mouths. Aside from this probably unavoidable casting quirk, though, the film does a fairly good job of avoiding becoming little more than a camp artifact. True, a couple of Wilhelm Neef’s musical cues, as already mentioned, are a bit on the cheesy side, and there is a regrettable man-in-a-suit bear mauling scene, but overall the movie comes across as a well made and exciting adventure, with an interesting perspective, that has much more to offer than simple kitsch value.
By the time filming on The Sons of Great Bear was nearing its end, Gojko Mitic, who considered the film a one-off effort on his part, had had it. The actor would later admit to some churlish onset behavior brought on by homesickness and impatience. Given that, it was probably a “good news/bad news” situation for him when the film went on to meet with a success that was far beyond the expectations of anyone involved in it. Overnight, Mitic had become the most popular film star in East Germany, and the East German Indianerfilm DEFA’s most in-demand genre. Eleven more such films would follow, all starring Mitic in roles very similar to the one he portrayed in Great Bear, ending with 1983′s Der Scout. Despite the fact that he would eventually front a wide variety of films for DEFA — including Gottfried Kolditz‘s science fiction epic Signals: A Space Adventure — he would come to be commonly referred to as “The most famous Native American in Eastern Europe”, and would appear on German television as recently as 2006 in the role of Karl May’s Winnetou. Because of this, Mitic can count as part of his legacy the fact that, for a certain generation of Germans, he changed the rules of playing “Cowboys and Indians” forever.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: East Germany | Starring: Gojko Mitic, Jiri Vrstala, Rolf Romer, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Gerhard Rachold, Horst Jonischkan, Josef Majercik, Josef Adamovic, Milan Jablonsky, Hannjo Hasse, Helmut Schreiber, Jozo Lepetic, Rolf Ripperger, Brigitte Krause, Karin Beewen | Writer: Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich | Director: Josef Mach | Cinematographer: Jaroslav Tuzar | Music: Wilhelm Neef
I’d like to start off by telling you that what you’re reading is in every way identical to a normal movie review… except for one thing. It’s bullet-proof. It also contains a tiny transmitter by which we here at Teleport City can track all of your movements. So that would be two things, then. Oh, and it can also act as shark repellent. Of course, if you were to find yourself in the kind of circumstances in which you could put all of those hidden functions to the test, I’d be very impressed. Unfortunately, you’d also be dead. The fact is that I’ve just always wanted to give one of those “except for one thing” spiels like you hear in 1960s spy movies. Exactly, in fact, like the one that the masked hero Superargo receives toward the beginning of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, during which he is presented with all kinds of items — from a dhingy to a cocktail olive — that are in every way identical to what they appear to be on the surface, except for one thing. That doesn’t really apply to the cocktail olive, though, because it is actually a Geiger counter and, as such, completely inedible. So it’s really completely un-identical to a cocktail olive except for one thing — i.e., looking like a cocktail olive.