Sunday, May 29, 2011

MY MAN GODFREY

With the sun gone down, the concrete beneath my feet began to release an unholy deposit of heat as I trudged toward the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse. I’ll never understand the people down here who writhe in ecstasy as the hell months return to town. These people illicit the same sort of disgust I also feel toward coprophiliacs. Texas doesn’t have summer. It has Mercury. At this point in the year, I spend most of my time darting from one cold cave to another. Like an Arctic roach, I skittered into the theater lobby and into the sweet relief of pumping air conditioning. After soaking up several cold moments, I stepped up to the man at the counter and ordered tickets for the ten o’ clock screening of “Ninja Annihilation War.” I rarely have reason to movie theaters these days, but tonight’s box office proceeds went to benefit the production of a film titled “Rewind This,” which filmmaker Josh Johnson hopes will become a comprehensive documentary on the topic of the VHS format. This, to me, was without question an event worth supporting.

I saw Josh in the back of the lobby by a merchandise table they’d set up. There, they were selling various VHS-related prints, and with purchase you got a free tape. I decided to dehumidify in the Mondo Tees shop before saying hello, and much to my delight, I found a copy of the recent reissue of Ted Prior’s shot-on-video 1983 slasher “Sledgehammer.” The fine folks at Mondo Tees have announced that they will be re-releasing endeared titles, and this is the first in the series. I’d missed the recent “Sledgehammer” screening due to a work crisis, and all hope of finding a copy had gone out the window since I’d been told the remaining copies had rapidly sold out online. Low and behold, though, they had one copy left.

After that, I made way to the Rewind This table, where I said my hello’s to Josh and briefly scoped the tapes he’d brought. I pretty much lost my shit over a copy of Umberto Lenzi’s “Welcome to Spring Break,” which I hadn’t seen since the USA’S UP ALL NIGHT days. I wound up purchasing one of the prints, and this was the tape I chose. Not many people are very plus’d on this particular Lenzi flick, which kind of baffles me. Originally titled “Nightmare Beach” the story focuses on a spring breaker tangled in a web of murder. The killings are seemingly being carried out by Diablo, a biker gang leader who was executed a few days prior to Spring Break for the murder of a young woman. Of all the arcane bullshit I saw as a kid, Diablo’s motorcycle with the electric chair on the back is an image that remains vivid in my brain. Here’s a trailer. You don’t need to speak Italian to know what the hell is going on, either. Lenzi transcends the language barrier.

On top of that, Josh had also found two flicks on my VHS wish list at a sale, including the 1980 rock n’ roll horror whodunit “Terror On Tour,” as well as 1984’s “Special Effects,” which is one of the few Larry Cohen films I have not seen.

After being seated, Lars and Zack came out and provided some back story on that night’s offering, “Ninja Annihilation War.” Apparently while trolling through the flea markets of post apocalyptic Oxnard, California they happened upon a batch of irregular tapes, which included this title. The duo of drek rescued the “Ninja Annihilation War,” had it transferred, and found the results worthy of a Weird Wednesday. A 2008 screening subsequently stirred a wind which howled of this movie’s greatness, and since then the film has gained a small following. The brain child of mysterious directors, The Fung Brothers, “Ninja Annihilation War” is more like an all-ninja edition of “TV Carnage” than it is an actual film. It is completely incoherent, with one scene feeding into another and none of them tying together to form any sort of story. Still, it’s probably one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in a long time. How the film came to be is a mystery, but fans are slowly piecing its history together.

As far as I could tell, this thing mainly consisted of other films I vaguely recognized, with actor Richard Harrison as the main player. During the intro, Lars and Zack actually mentioned that Harrison had said that he wound up only shooting several hours of footage for some ninja movie, which was then edited into a dozen other films without his permission. One of the most hilarious and intriguing insights suggested that he wound up doing some of these movies due to a gambling debt owed to triads. At any rate, some say the slew of Ninja films subdued his career. However, I tend to think it was low times which brought him to this genre instead.

I was dazed after the screening and wearing a terminal grin. Before I left, I grabbed one more tape from the Rewind This table. On a Ninja high, I let the spirit of the event guide my decision by selecting “Ninja Connection,” which turned out to be a fateful choice.

A few days later, I got a call from a good friend of mine, John Schooley, who’d also attended the screening of “Ninja Annihilation War.” One of very few people permitted into my social circle, Schooley has indulged and encouraged my interest in gonzo action and martial arts cinema over the years. Most people who know Schooley would find this odd since those who know him hold the consensus that he pretty much hates everything modern cinema and music has to offer. His intellect acts like a fat blocker would, buffering out the majority of insincere commercial garbage that the vast majority roaringly approves. Schooley’s not a snob, though. He will sit in the same room I do and watch something like “Hollywood Cop” and appreciate it as simple entertainment. He will suck up every flawed nuance with a chuckle and cheer every explosion. The more nonsensical the physics behind the detonation, the happier he actually is. The average film audience is less likely to identify a truly bad film. Most people patronize bad direction glowingly because they’re no longer able to recognize it. It’s taken the film industry many decades to create a film goer that is incapable of discerning whether something is fundamentally bad or not. Most people determine what is good or bad based on very obvious visual errors in a film. They will lap up the average blockbuster with relish no matter how bland it is, because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. Put them in front of something with lesser production value, and they’ll rip it to shreds, no matter the depth of imagination or how fresh the approach. This is a clear demonstration of the inherent classist attitude mass audiences have developed over the years, thanks largely to the industry’s dominance of theaters. As a result, people have been trained to think that if it’s cheap it cannot possibly be good. Schooley is far removed from this breed of film fan. He is skeptical, but not cynical, toward the film with the megabudget, and is always willing to give the underdog a chance. He can extract the fun from b-to-z grade action flicks, and I relate to that.

I hadn’t seen Schooley arrive at the “Ninja Annihilation War” screening, but I KNEW he was in the theater and enjoying himself due to his distinct laugh. The next day, he spent some time reading about the film, which led to the discovery of his new favorite director, Godfrey Ho. According to what he’d read, many Ho-related films make up the body of “Ninja Annihilation War.”

Ho’s roots go way back to the Shaw Brothers studio of the early seventies, and he has since had his hand in well over a hundred films – most of which feature Caucasians playing ninjas in remarkably gaudy outfits that seem vomit in the face of stealth. Once the 90s hit, the Ninja trend was on the wane, and Godfrey hopped on the Muay Thai zeitgeist following the phenomenal success the 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme film “Kickboxer,” producing such cult classics as “Robo-Kickboxer: Power of Justice,” and “Kickboxer from Hell.”

Godfrey had a unique, if not entirely economical way of making films, too, which involved heavily recycling and re-cutting footage from his own films as well as others he’d acquired. An excerpt from Ho’s Wikipedia page:

“Through the 1980s and early 1990s Ho has created a series of martial arts films made with a "cut-and-paste" technique, which means they were created with the help of splicing various unrelated material (including the recurring motif of absurd ninja-fighting scenes, often with little or no connection with the already disjointed plot) and dubbed more-or-less together. He would film footage for one micro-budget picture, and then edit and splice the shots together in a different order, adding in footage from the various obscure or unreleased HK, Thai, Filipino and other Asian movies (martial arts films, crime films, comedies, etc.) to fill the gaps, and then dubbing over the result to create a final product. This allowed him to create several Z movies with the budget of one, though it is often difficult to discern how much of the finished product he has actually filmed himself.”

While talking to Schooley, I brought up Ho’s IMDd page. Bells rang as I realized I owned a handful of the director’s films on VHS already, most of which were directed under various pseudonyms. One particular title I’d had for a while was “Ninja Terminator,” which led me to Nico Giroldi’s fantastic Golden Ninja Warrior Chronicles blog. It was there that I found an article on the Golden Ninja Warrior series, produced by IFD Films & Arts, a subsidiary of ASSO Asia Film – a company Ho had started with partner Joseph Lai and Betty Chan.

Combing through the list, Schooley and I were both excited to learn that Ho was also responsible for “Ninja Connection,” the tape I’d just scored at the “Ninja Annihilation War” screening. There was something drug like about what we’d been subjected to at the Alamo just a few nights ago, and we were jonesing to bend our mind around more Ho-ish Ninja mash. And so, several hours later, Schooley was knocking at my door with a six pack of beer, ready to once again enter the frenetic world of Ho.

TO BE CONTINUED…

3 comments:

  1. Godfrey Ho's pastiche is quite an acquired taste that I really enjoy. It's almost the equivalent of a drunken short-attention span state of mind on film. A bit coherent, with bits and pieces that can be remembered (the action sequences, mostly) the next day. Mission Thunderbolt is his most accessible/enjoyable/madcap. It has an awesome thug attack from a dude wearing a mutoid monster mask whilst wielding a meat cleaver.

    Shame that "Ninja Annihilation War" is MIA. It'd be a real treat to see. Tomas Tang, another cohort whom worked with Godfrey Ho passed away, thus making the films they worked on (such as Robo Vampire) missing and probably rotting away somewhere never to be found or seen again. For more Godfrey fun, the I Luv on Airport has Ninja Terminator, and that one is a real hoot as well. The employee comment on there was the deciding factor in renting it.

    Also, if you do want to check out Robo Vampire, get the version that's on bootleg operation Video Asia's "Kick Ass Heroes" 4-film set. That one is at the Vulcan by S. Congress. It's the nicest version I've found on film.

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  2. I actually own "Ninja Terminator," which haunted me for weeks after I saw it. The dialog and dubbing are infectious. I REALLY want to see "Robo Vampire." I had seen a lot of these movies before and always found them funny, but I never strung them together until just this past week, due mainly do the pseudonym thing. Ho's name rarely appears on any box I have.

    I am not an authority on the topic of the Fung Brothers, but part of me suspects that it's just an alias used by a prankster who was way ahead of his time.

    The best thing about the ones done during the eighties is the brutal New Wave thievery. One fight scene I saw had "Heart and Soul" by Joy Division slapped over it without any permission or credit.

    Schooley's working on a guest review of "Ninja Connection" as we speak.

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  3. Fucked up some film titles in that one. Sorry guys! I meant "Nightmare Beach," not "Nightmare City." Also, I obviously meant "Terror ON Tour."

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