Tuesday, November 30, 2010

That Rambunctious Robert Tai & His Magnanimously Moribund Movies, Or, How I Wrecked My Career At the Fraction of the Cost of One Truly Good Movie

Robert Tai in the opening sequence to the opulent TRINITY GOES EAST (1998/2002)

"I'll give you what you need, I always give the audience something new, but in a very low budget way."

Robert Tai is an enigma. He's a curious, vocally flamboyant personality who had a prolific career in the wild and woolly world of HK cinema from the early 1970's up to the late 1980's as a performer, choreographer and director. Terribly outspoken, he has spun incredible behind the scenes tales that mirror the action in any number of kooky kung fu classic. To hear him tell it, he's responsible for the use of wire work in HK movies, the Shaw Brothers production of FIVE VENOMS (1978), kept Li Yi Min from being killed by a Triad boss and avoided certain death from respected filmmaker Liu Chia Liang, Wilson Tong and Wong Yu threatening him with knives!

"....Jet Li would like it if I choreograph him..."


Hearing his stories are vastly more entertaining than his own movies, which are, by all intents and purposes, some of the most laughably bad scraps of celluloid ever filmed. Granted, his choreography is nice to look at, but the movies themselves leave a lot to be desired. With exaggerated claims of starting trends that existed well before he entered the industry, he's most (in)famous for his stupendously stupid ninja movies that took their cue from the much more coherent Chang Cheh picture FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982). Having either directed, choreographed, or acted in at least five under-budgeted ninja non-epics, Robert Tai is the Andy Sidaris of the woefully abused ninja sub genre.

"Since all the cast were my childhood friends...I was able to control the look of the whole production."--Tai referring to "his work" on FIVE VENOMS (1978).

Robert Tai (far right)

Tai was born in 1953 in Taiwan and was one of many students of the renowned Fu Hsing Opera School, the members of which later went on to careers in movies of varying prosperity. To his credit, Tai has worked with some of the biggest names in the business both before and during their popularity such as Jackie Chan and the venerable director Chang Cheh. Tai was one of a handful of talented acrobatic performers that accompanied Chang Cheh back to Shaw Brothers in 1977 after his stint in Taiwan had ended. Tai was a choreographer on a handful of Chang's movies including a few of the entries featuring the popular 'Five Venom' actors.

"....at the end of the day, I didn't put my name on the film. Though it was my idea and my work, I did not put my name in the credits."--Robert tai referring to "his work" on LIFE GAMBLE although his description sounds more like HEAVEN & HELL


Wong Gan Man proudly displays his wrestling belt and his gold painted aluminum foil get up in SHAOLIN CHASTITY KUNG FU

1977 was the worst year of the directors career becoming the turning point in his already exhaustive resume; switching from predominantly sprawling tales of heroism to much smaller films that accentuated intricately designed, comic book fight scenes that pushed Cheh's brotherhood jingoism to the backseat. Robert Tai was one of a few choreographers on at least a dozen Shaw Brothers films between 1977 and 1979, his two year stint with the company, the bulk of these being the venom pictures.

"It was Wilson Tong with Wong Yu and Liu Chia Liang. They had come to tell me to get out of town and they were brandishing knives."


Alexander Lou fights a group of wimpy ninjas armed with a bamboo tree which is apparently ninja Kryptonite.

It's during this period that one of the most outrageous Tai tales comes from. According to him, Liu Chia Liang was receiving flack from the Shaw's and was disgruntled that Tai and company were churning out three films to his one. Well, it's known that Shaw liked quantity to satiate the rabid HK audiences thirst for movies. But in some cases at this time, it was taking nearly two Chang Cheh movies to equal the box office of just one of Liu's movies. If you tally up both Cheh's 1978 output with Liu's from that year, Cheh had four movies versus Liu's three pictures. Liu Chia Liang's total comes to a combined 7,053,391HK$. Chang Cheh's combined total box office is 6,127,554HK$. The following year was much the same thing. Chang Cheh had four films released that year with a combined take of 4,999,082HK$, the biggest hit of those being SHAOLIN RESCUERS. Liu Chia Liang also had four films released with a combined total of 6,433,533HK$. One of these wasn't even a Shaw Brothers production (FISTS & GUTS), but even if you remove that films gross, Liu still comes out ahead so Tai's story is perplexing. In the early part of 1977, Liu had one film released, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN which grossed nearly 3 million HK dollars. Chang Cheh had four again--two were bombs and two made over 3 million combined. It's curious just why Liu would become incensed at such a thing and even more bizarre that Liu, with help no less, would threaten Robert Tai with knives.

"The wire work in the movies from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea originated from me....I've created so many different wire techniques."


Alice Tseng fights totally nude in NINJA THE FINAL DUEL, the sole saving grace of this movie

SHAOLIN TEMPLE AGAINST LAMA;Insert: Alexander Lou gets a little carried away in the meticulously crafted MAFIA VS. NINJA

Personally, I think the choreography in the venom movies, for the most part, got better once Tai parted company with them. In bare handed exchanges, the choreography was lacking, but with weapons combat, the venom crew were amazing. Robert Tai takes a lot of liberties with his work on Chang Cheh's pictures inferring that he had a larger hand in the films than merely one of several choreographers despite differences in the recollections of Leung Ting (the founder of the International Wing Chun Association and choreographer on a number of the films Tai worked on as well as replacing Liu Chia Liang on MARCO POLO in 1975) and Kuo Chui. Still, that Robert Tai "had control" over Cheh's movies is a riot in itself and a bold statement amongst a slew of other bold statements.

"....He'll sit next to me and won't know what the fuck's going on."--Tai referencing noted director Lee Tso Nam


Robert Tai as the bad guy in THE INCREDIBLE KUNG FU MISSION (1982)

Like so many other directors in Hong Kong, you had to work your way up the ladder before getting the greenlight to stardom so many dreamt of. Wu Ma, Pao Hsueh Li and John Woo are three examples that worked as as assistant director before embarking on their own directorial careers. Chang Cheh was the rare exception. Robert Tai as well wanted more. Possessing the desire to direct, He eventually left for greener pastures in Taiwan attracted by proposed better offers outside Shaw Brothers, one of which was as the lead villain in INCREDIBLE KUNG FU MISSION (1979). It's here where Robert Tai's career began to "take off", and later, his amazing use of verbage.

"You see I understand kung fu, you people don't. You want to shoot what you saw yesterday at the cinema."


The Nine Devils Gang ponder a gig as a traveling carnival

Tai's first directing credit was the atrocious 'cut-and-paste' job, DEVIL KILLER (1980) which also began a collaboration with up and coming actor/soon to be choreographer Alexander Lou. SHAOLIN CHASTITY KUNG FU (1980) alluded to the ludicrousness to come. A totally plotless affair, it's basically about a gang of outrageous looking villains terrorizing a village and a group of Shaolin monks who train them all to fight back; sort of an inverse version of THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) directed with zero flair with only the wacky characters and near non-stop fighting to sustain interest. One of the villains is Wong Gan Man, who was also a wrestler and he proudly wears his belt in the movie in a glaring bit of anachronistic license. Another villain appears to be wearing what amounts to thermal underwear.

"The problem with him is that all his films are alike and he's run out of ideas."--Tai referring to Yuen Woo Ping.


Liu Hau Yi (right) battles a guy decked out in thermal underwear in Tai's SHAOLIN CHASTITY KUNG FU (1980)

Just one example of the exemplar choreography of Robert Tai during this complex maneuver which emulates two little boys kicking at each other on a playground.

Chang Cheh's aforementioned FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) wasn't a huge success, but must have been popular in other Asian markets as a large number of similar movies began cropping up almost immediately. Even venom Kuo Chui tried his hand at directing his one and only time in a Taiwanese version of both 5EN and FIVE VENOMS (1978) called NINJA IN THE DEADLY TRAP (1984). Robert Tai would take ninjas to embarrassing new heights with SHAOLIN VS. NINJA (1983), another movie with absolutely zero plot aside from Chinese versus Japanese. The films title is what it's about and it's an execrable mess.

Check out the shadow of the camera crew during this poignant scene as Lou mourns the loss of his ninja lover. Simply a brilliant performance by Alexander Lou

NINJA VS. SHAOLIN GUARDS

NINJA VS. SHAOLIN GUARDS (1984) fares better in the plot department, but is also pretty much an unwatchable mess. Tai didn't direct this one, but you'd swear he did. The whole film reeks of his insane style. Speaking of "style", Robert Tai is seldom kind in his thoughts of his colleagues who have went on to well deserved and financially profitable careers. His obvious bitterness and propensity to take credit for other people's successes shows Tai to be a man angered that his career floundered (later than it should have), while others passed him by.

"Who is gonna give me five billion to make a film? Two, three billion would not even be enough."

Lee Yi Min fights Silvio Azolini, a Hara Krishna who somehow ended up in China;Insert: The dreaded Ninja Water Spiders from NINJA THE FINAL DUEL!!!!

Just watching the movies he was involved in whether directing or choreographing, it isn't hard to see why he didn't go further. His movies are excruciating to the extreme. They're a joke on the kung fu genre. Why anyone would put up money for such nonsense is mind boggling. But then, with so little being spent on these pitiful excuses for action movies, a small enough profit isn't beyond reasoning. His "Magnum Opus", NINJA THE FINAL DUEL (1986) was an 11 hour(!!!) mega misfire that was shot for a well beyond meager $200,000. Prior to this, there was an incredibly similar, yet far worse shit-tastic series that emerged as VENOM OF THE NINJA aka NINJA KIDS (1982). Credited to Joseph Kuo (THE 18 BRONZEMEN, BORN INVINCIBLE), this exuberant piece of excrement looks to be more the work of the nefarious Robert Tai than Kuo's handling, especially in the choreography although it's credited to Lee Hai Shing, a colleague of Tai's.

"That's why Ching Siu Tung fizzled out because he's always copying others."

William Yen (bald guy to the left) attempts to squash some water spiders from NINJA THE FINAL INSULT (1986).

Alan Hsu (left) gets the short end of the stick from Alexander Lou (right) in SHAOLIN TEMPLE AGAINST LAMA

Still, Tai has choreographed some movies that were exciting, if brain-dead fun. Some were actually pretty dramatic movies, but again, Tai was only directing the action, or taking a role in some examples. These are INCREDIBLE KUNG FU MISSION (1979), THUNDERING MANTIS (1979), THE HEROES (1980), NORTHERN KICKS, SOUTHERN FISTS (1981) and SHAOLIN TEMPLE AGAINST LAMA (1981). One of Tai's most frequent associates is the muscular Alexander Lou aka Lou Rei. With a career that was more prosperous than Tai's, in all of Lou's movies, the camera always manages to linger over his near constant poses and vein popping muscle flexing.

"I like to stretch my mind. I want to shoot things that no one has filmed before."

Alexander Lou as 'Right Said Fred' in MAFIA VS. NINJA

Lou starred in at least eight inefficient, but unintentionally hilarious Chinese ninja adventures. Virtually none of them are worth mentioning although rabid fight fans seem to eat these movies up. One of the more (barely) tolerable is the Tai directed MAFIA VS. NINJA (1985). It's an amalgamation of elements from far better movies, but the action is good when it doesn't strain the outer reaches of credibility. It's a given to have fantastic displays of over the top abilities in these movies, but this one becomes more ridiculous as the picture wears on. Lou is especially amusing frequently snapping his suspender straps and doing what barely passes as a Bruce Lee impersonation. The ending features ninjas hiding under small patches of straw as they scurry across a yard and Lou uprooting a bamboo tree that's apparently made of steel as the ninjas swords fail to cut it in half.

Alexander Lou shows amazing skill with his lazy and deadly 'No Shit Sherlock' Kick demonstrated on a hapless ninja wearing boxers and a bath robe

Next came the cinematic cerebral edema that is Tai's poverty row GONE WITH THE WIND of ninja epics, the exasperating eleven hour drivel that is NINJA THE FINAL DUEL (1986). Only those with an inordinate amount of patience need attempt to wade through the nerve shattering 90 minute cut that is available on DVD. At least three to five volumes of this mess have been made available on VHS in other countries. It's hard enough to sit through just an hour and a half of this much less eleven painful hours of it.

John Liu, now looking like a piece of Aged Wisconsin, shows he might still have it

Yes, that's a ninja battling a pig in a Mitsubishi 10XP T-1000 Baby Cart armed to the teeth from TRINITY GOES EAST (1998/2002);Insert: John Liu poses for a 'Before' photo for the 'International Hair Club For Men'.

Robert Tai's output from here on out was minimal and the martial world was mercifully spared any more inane ninja madness. I take that back. Tai delivered two more atrociously bad movies upon the world that had ninjas in them. SHAOLIN DOLEMITE (1999) and TRINITY GOES EAST (1998;the credits list a 2002 date). The former is a refurbished version of yet another cut of NINJA THE FINAL DUEL with a handful of new scenes featuring the now late comedian, Rudy Ray Moore, who also starred in the awful blaxploitation cult film, DOLEMITE (1974). The latter is a seriously unfunny take off on the classic spaghetti western THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970) with Tai style fights. The fights are good, but are quickly done in by the most ridiculous bits of "showboating" from the performers. If anything, Tai's last movie to date managed to cram an aged John Liu, a Bruce Lee impersonator, a Bud Spencer imitator, ninjas and a pig traversing around in a weapons laden baby cart in an absolutely painful experience. Hopefully Spielberg (whom Tai says he'd LOVE to work with) will contact Tai so he will have someone else to blame for ruining his movies. I can see it now--INDIANA JONES & THE LEGEND OF THE GOLDEN NINJA WARRIORS.

"There's been no advancement in wire work these past years, why? Because it's been a long time since I last made a movie."


Robert Tai (right) battles a Bruce Lee impersonator (left) during the opening moments of the sprawling and epic scope that is TRINITY GOES EAST (1998/2002); Insert: Tai in NINJA VS. SHAOLIN GUARD

Reportedly, Tai ended up running some kind of import business with his wife. Whatever he does today, he has remained in the public eye of kung fu fan circles with his outlandishly bitter recollections of his days appearing in and making Hong Kong kung fu movies all the while putting down others more successful than himself who actually managed to make movies WORTH watching. Robert Tai should channel all that frustration in a much more "positive" way by either writing his autobiography, or starting his own tabloid journal. If you think Tai ever actually contributed anything he claims made the genre so great, I've got a wall in China I'd like to sell you.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Walking Tall (1973) review


WALKING TALL 1973

Joe Don Baker (Buford Pusser), Elizabeth Hartman (Pauline), Bruce Glover (Grady Coker), Felton Perry (Obra Eaker), Kenneth Tobey (Augie McCullah), Logan Ramsey (John Witter), Gene Evans (Sheriff Thurman)

Directed by Phil Karlson

The Short Version: Oppressively brutal revenge movie based on real life sheriff Buford Pusser from Tennessee and his one man war against the State Line Mob and the Dixie Mafia. One of the best and most fondly remembered movies of its kind, Phil Karlson's violent thriller is a timeless tale of blood and justice in the corrupt south.


Buford Pusser returns home to McNairy County to find the town in which he grew up has been infiltrated by prostitution rackets, gambling houses and moonshine operations with ties that extend beyond the state. After a deadly run in with some hoodlums from 'The Lucky Spot', Buford decides to run for sheriff and wins by a landslide. Immediately after being sworn in, the determined lawman makes it his mission to wipe out the syndicates which have terrorized and poisoned the county. Proving to be a force to be reckoned with, the hayseed mobsters relentlessly go after Buford and his family.


WALKING TALL is arguably the king of Hixploitation cinema as well as being one of the quintessential 70's action pictures bar none. It contains all the necessary ingredients for a spicy piece of Southern Fried Cinema. It has car chases, shoot outs, explosions, crashes, moonshiners and one helluva mean streak. While it's a revenge movie at its heart, Phil (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, KID GALAHAD) Karlson's picture is about the triumph and tragedy of the will of one man who dared to take a stand against violence and corruption in a small Tennessee town.


Joe Don Baker is the epitome of the screen tough guy. The West Coast had "Dirty" Harry Callahan, New York had Paul Kersey and the South had Buford Pusser. Baker takes the script, balls it up, eats it and totally makes the role his own. He's so intimidating and mesmerizing here it's nearly impossible to imagine him in any other kind of role, much less anybody else stepping into this role. Since Baker's phenomenal portrayal, no less than three actors have carried the big stick in subsequent movies, television shows, remakes and sequels to remakes.


Prior to this hugely influential Drive In sensation, Baker was a joke cracking, "one armed" gunslinger in the entertaining GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969), Steve McQueen's brother in Sam Peckinpah's JUNIOR BONNER (1972) and also a disgruntled Vietnam War veteran who destroys a small town in WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS (1972) directed by Richard (MACON COUNTY LINE) Compton. Baker also made an impression when he co-starred with Walter Matthau as a brutish Southern hitman in Don Siegel's CHARLEY VARRICK (1973).

Callie: You got a warrant?

Buford: Yeah, I keep it in my shoe!


Before starring in movies, Baker had shone his skills on broadway in a number of plays, one of them being directed by actor Burgess Meredith. He's often underrated and two of his movies have featured on the bewilderingly popular 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' television program. He's undoubtedly a skilled thespian and is a bright spot in even the most dire pictures. For WALKING TALL, Baker carved an indelible image of a man who conquered adversity and paid a terrible price in the process. Movies about such indiviuals have been done many times before and since, but Baker's portrayal as the real life Tennessee lawman, Buford Pusser is one of the most iconic representations of the stubbornly resolute American hero.


WALKING TALL (1973) is a revisionist version of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, or other larger than life western paragon bolstered by a shocking degree of brutality that still maintains its power today. Frequently graphic in its bloodletting, the violence is often sudden and vicious. It should be stated, though, that the first scuffle has some major weak spots (one man throws a punch that looks like a rehearsal and Buford's big stick briefly bends in the same scene), but after that, the tone becomes increasingly grim and the action scenes take on a stark realism.


The real Buford Pusser was technical consultant on the picture. A big man, he stood 6 foot 6 inches tall and aside from a brief stint in the military and as a pro wrestler, he was the sheriff of McNairy County Tennessee from 1964 to 1970 (WALKING TALL was shot in Henderson and Jackson County,TN). Over the course of his ferocious and harrowing battles with the State Line Mob (a sadistic crime syndicate that operated on the Mississippi-Tennessee border), sheriff Pusser had been stabbed seven times, shot eight times, and nearly run over by a car. His jaw had been shot away the morning his wife was killed accompanying him on a domestic disturbance call after the two were ambushed by four hitmen in a black cadillac. Pusser's jaw was meticulously reconstructed during a long series of operations (reportedly sixteen facial operations).


His other skirmishes with the mafia were like a movie that was being played out in real life as more shoot outs and chases led to even more violent retribution and eventual death. On August 21st, 1974, sheriff Pusser had left a local fair in his corvette with his daughter not far behind him. His car crashed into an embankment and some reports state he was thrown from the vehicle while others state his daughter pulled him from the burning car. Evidence was inconclusive as to whether the crash was accidental, or intentional. The sad irony of this is that earlier in the day, Pusser had signed a contract to play himself in the sequel to the soon to be iconic action film based on his life.


Sheriff Pusser's shocking death extended to some of the cast members as well. Elizabeth Hartman, who played Pauline Pusser in the film, suffered from mental illness throughout her life. In 1987, she reportedly jumped from the fifth floor window of her Pittsburgh, PA apartment. Another female cast member, Brenda Benet (she played the hooker informant Luan Paxton), took her own life in April of 1982. Unable to cope with the death of her son who died in an accident while on a ski vacation the previous year, Benet took her own life with a self inflicted gunshot to the head.


The racism in the film was also prevalent during the shooting and made for an uncomfortable schedule. Segregation wasn't the only problem, either, as the threat of violence loomed large over the production whenever Pusser was around considering the Mob had a hit out on him. The result was nothing short of a provocatively hostile, if crude view of a lawless southern town that used brute force to quell an ever growing criminal element. The real Buford Pusser may have died in an unexpected fashion, but his near invincible persona lived on in three big screen thrillers, a Television movie and a short lived TV series. The first WALKING TALL does just that and remains a shining, if bloodily crucial piece of celluloid Americana.

This review is representative of the Paramount DVD


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sins of Celluloid 6: The Most Controversial, Disturbing & Essential Grindhouse/Exploitation Movies Part 1

DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (1974); Insert: THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE (1976)

For some people, there's nothing quite like taking to the road on a vacation, or visiting friends and relatives halfway across the country. For others, just to feel the wind in your hair and see America is reason enough to take to the road. In exploitation movies, these kinds of things generally bring about calamity, tragedy, or madcap mis-adventures with local law enforcement, or homicidal hicks that don't take kindly to strangers. While there were numerous earlier examples, movies like BONNIE & CLYDE (1969), EASY RIDER (1969), TWO LANE BLACKTOP (1971), VANISHING POINT (1971) and ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (1972) helped pave the highway for the modernist road movies, and the later road race pictures, both of the more serious and comedic variety.


All poster images--google images; EAT MY SMOKE and WHEELER posters--Temple of Schlock

Related to the road movies are selected films in the sub genre of Hixploitation cinema--movies of stereotypical hillbillies and rednecks of rural America. Many of these dealt with bootleggers and moonshiners who'd been in trouble with the law since the day they were born. THUNDER ROAD (1958) starring Robert Mitchum is an early big studio example that may, or may not have been an inspiration for the plethora of good ole' boys and their brand of mountain dew. WHITE LIGHTNING (1973) and its sequel, GATOR (1976), both starring Burt Reynolds, aided and abetted the many movies which dealt with law breaking hidden hooch hustlers. Reynolds also starred in DELIVERANCE (1972), a movie that concerns a group of city slickers venturing into the dense and dangerous American backwoods territory. This plot device lent itself to numerous other movies that displayed Southerners as anything but hospitable.


A good indicator that you're on the Hixploitation Highway is the sheer expanse of country locales--isolated, desolate, lots of trees and dirt roads populated by an aged, archaic and suitably backwoods Southern Gothic style. The types of locals that inhabit these out of the way hamlets are also essential to maintaining the proper aura to these seemingly quaint, but seldom boring out of the way places oblivious to civilization. Another key ingredient to makin' a hot batch of cinematic hootch is a lot of country music and plenty o' chicken pickin', preferably during a chase sequence. Sometimes these films would even get musical contributions from big names like Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed and Willie Nelson. Other vital components to any Hick Flick even remotely worth its brew are rednecks, hillbillies, pretty gals, guns and car chases and an explosion, or two.


Burt Reynolds, as much as he probably still regrets, is the king of the 'Southern Fried Good Ol' Boy' Flicks. He did so many of them. Two of his biggest box office sensations had their origins firmly entrenched within activities indigenous to the deepest, darkest recesses of the South--racing, souped up roadsters, hot, sexy women and plenty of car smash ups; SMOKEY & THE BANDIT (1977) and THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981) being those two movies. Neither film was the first of its kind, but were two of the most successful and came from major studios. Both also spawned sequels.


The BANDIT also helped spawn a series of trucker movies, both funny and serious. You could say the violent WHITE LINE FEVER (1975) had a bit of influence on this subgenre, but the bulk of them came in the wake of the moneymaking Reynolds vehicle. Others include THE GREAT SMOKEY ROADBLOCK (1977), BREAKER, BREAKER (1977) and Sam Peckinpah's CONVOY (1978) among others. The television show, B.J. & THE BEAR (1979-1981) which was about a young truck driver and his pet chimpanzee who are harassed and chased by sheriff Lobo played by Claude Akins was another such endeavor. The trucker movies have been sporadic ever since including the ridiculous ROLLING VENGEANCE (1987), the hilarious OVER THE TOP (1987; a title that more than adequately describes the movie) starring Sylvester Stallone and BLACK DOG (1998) starring Patrick Swayze.


Whereas a lot of these celluloid clutch poppers were frequently light-hearted affairs, there were a fair number that took the hixploitation themes to more serious and violent heights. These more brooding and adult thrillers most often had vengeance at the heart of their story akin to the huge drive in hixploitation hit, WALKING TALL (1973). These particular entries took the 'man pushed too far' concept and applied it to various scenarios. Charles Bronson did one in 1974 with MR. MAJESTYK and Roger Corman did his own with FIGHTING MAD (1976) starring Peter Fonda. Then there was a whole other series of films that were similar to these larger than life action pictures wherein one man fights back against injustice and the corrupt establishment; only these pictures were far more realistic in approach made all the more frightening in that they could actually happen.


Often these films would have a disclaimer that stated the film was based on a true story, or on incidents involving a character in the picture. These movies crossed over the MACON COUNTY LINE (1974)--a film that was a huge drive in hit and critical success about three fun loving young people who get into serious trouble in deepest, darkest Georgia. These types of thrillers are almost always terribly downbeat, but when done right, are highly engaging, taking their time building the suspense towards a brutal crescendo at the end. One can see shades of DELIVERANCE (1972) in these films as well; outsiders in unfamiliar and dangerous territory where the only crime truly committed is not being from there. Just like the redneck car chasers, music was an important part of the 'Danger In Dixie' subgenre. These country tunes were always somber affairs that matched what transpires onscreen and these songs generally told the storyline in its lyrics.


The MACON COUNTY style movies featured a wrongfully accused "stranger in a strange land", blamed for a crime they did not commit, or city slickers terrorized by homicidal hillbillies. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stallone's huge success with FIRST BLOOD (1982) follows this formula and his story owes a great deal to this little 1981 movie entitled RUCKUS (featured in this article). These 'Deep Trouble In the Deep South' flicks have had scant few entries in recent memory aside from the likes of NEXT OF KIN (1989), TRAPPER COUNTY WAR (1989) and BREAKDOWN (1996) starring Kurt Russell. Hollywood's propensity for remakes has re-kindled interest in this style of thriller with, for instance, a proposed and planned remake of the classic MACON COUNTY LINE (1974).


SEE! Wonder Woman Lynda Carter naked!--it was one of the major selling points of this movie

You'll also notice among a fair number of these productions a lot of the same actors from one film to the next. Actors like Albert Salmi, Morgan Woodward, Dick Miller, Claudia Jennings, Jesse Vint, Susan George and David Carradine crop up in more than one selection here. There's also a small few big studio offerings listed here. Those movies never quite made a name for themselves save for the cult of fans that remember them. The rest make up independent outfits such as New World Pictures and American International Pictures to name the two biggest little guys. Everything described above, you'll find in the films below, but not all of these entries are Hixploitation movies, some are just race car flicks that share a few plot devices with their country cousins.


There's also a series of Hick movies that have horror overtones featured within their narrative structure. WHEELER (1975), or as it's more widely known, PSYCHO FROM TEXAS, is one of the most bizarre 'Killer Redneck' movies. The plot concerns the kidnapping of a wealthy oil baron by the title creep. The movie features what has to be one of the most hilarious "chases" ever criminally committed to celluloid--it's that damn funny. It takes up what seems like one third of the movie and it's worth tracking down this obscure oddity strictly for this chase sequence alone. Additional footage for the film was shot in the latter part of the 1970s including a sequence inside a seedy bar and a very naked Linnea Quigley. Movies like POOR PRETTY EDDIE (1977;aka REDNECK COUNTY; BLACK VENGEANCE) and HUNTERS BLOOD (1987) deal with City Slickers way down south where they're not wanted and end up in serious, life threatening situations. This sordid slant spills over into the chase pictures, too. Charles Band directed an obscure car crash horror movie in 1977 entitled simply enough CRASH! about a man accidentally crippled for life by his wife. He tries to kill her, but she survives and ends up in the hospital. A magic idol housing an evil spirit takes over her mind and somehow manages to possess a car which rages up and down the highway killing anyone that gets in the way. It's just as bad and nonsensical as it sounds.


Sporting nearly twenty hot rod, fuel injected examples of cinematic revved up road rage, this a good sampling of some of the best, most well known and more obscure road/racing pictures and "Danger In Dixie" movies. Fasten your seat belts, put your pedal to the metal, watch for the "Bear in the Air" and avoid the "Checkpoint Charlie" as we burn rubber doing 25 over on the road to oblivion. This is...


CELLULOID SINS 6: MOONSHINE MANIA, ON THE ROAD AGAIN & SOUTHERN INHOSPITALITY PART 1



MACON COUNTY LINE 1974


Directed by Richard Compton

It was the fall of '54. A time when laughing was easy. And laugh they did, until they crossed the line...MACON COUNTY LINE


This is the one that started it all, the progenitor of the slew of 'Dangerous Dixie' movies that populated drive in's across the nation during the sensational 70s. Richard Compton, who previously helmed the suspenseful and violent 1972 Vietnam drama/shoot'em up WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS (a sub genre in itself), here tackles the forbidden backwoods isolation of a small Southern town and the consequences thrust upon three innocent people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their only crime is that they were strangers who didn't belong.


Max Baer Jr., most famously known as Jethro Bodine on the popular BEVERLY HILLBILLIES television show wrote the film and took the role of the vicious deputy Reed Morgan. A trio of young drifters happen into a small Southern town and instantly attract the attention of the local law enforcement who doesn't take kindly to strangers wandering through his town. Late one evening, the sheriff's wife is brutally raped and murdered. The three out-of-towners are nearby and they soon find themselves blamed for a crime they didn't commit. The vengeance fueled lawman goes after them hellbent on killing the three young joyriders.


Filmed for around $225,000, MACON COUNTY LINE made 35 million dollars domestically and it wasn't long before similar movies began cropping up including some of those featured in this article. Compton 'Returned to Macon County' a couple years later in a lesser sequel that took place near the close of the 50s and starred a young Nick Nolte and Don Johnson. Real life brothers, Alan Vint (BREAKOUT, CHECKERED FLAG OR CRASH, THE LADY IN RED) and Jesse Vint (SILENT RUNNING, BUG, DEATHSPORT) play the two brothers seen in the first film. Geoffrey Lewis (SILVER SADDLE, EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, SALEM'S LOT) plays Hamp, a mentally challenged mechanic. You'll also spot Leif Garrett (WALKING TALL) as the sheriff's son.


Filmed in a gritty, realistic style, the script also touches on racism of the time. Showcasing the flip-side to 'Southern Hospitality', MACON COUNTY did for stop-overs in out of the way places what JAWS did for going into the water. It's a landmark exploitation picture and a frighteningly eerie piece of rural Americana that gave birth to numerous other backwoods thrillers. You might just be passin' through, but your jaunt across the MACON COUNTY LINE will stay with you long after you've left.


DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY 1974


Directed by John Hough

No one's faster than Crazy Larry, except Dirty Mary!


Mary and Larry, two recklessly free-spirited, rambunctious and adventurous ne'er-do-wells, along with their partner, Deke, decide to rebel against society, raising some serious hell in the process. Larry and Deke have an outlandish plan to rob a grocery store and head South with dreams of owning Nascar. These three reprobates are a lot smarter than the average tire squelin' cretins and frequently stay one step ahead of the cops tailing them. This leads to many wild car chases and smash ups while Captain Franklin, a determined, hard nosed cop played by Vic Morrow (1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP) relentlessly pursues them in an effort to bring in these high speed hellions dead or alive.


John Hough, a British man (he directed TWINS OF EVIL, THE INCUBUS, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) whose list of credits make him a curious choice to handle such a typically American film as one dealing with three criminal roughhousers traveling cross country leaving burnt and twisted metal in their wake. Still, he wasn't unfamiliar with handling action. He makes it work perfectly, though delivering one of the best films of its kind and a low budget effort that outperformed a number of bigger movies that year. Peter Fonda (THE WILD ANGELS, EASY RIDER, RACE WITH THE DEVIL) is the lunatic Larry while Susan George (A SMALL TOWN IN TEXAS, MANDINGO, ENTER THE NINJA) is the maniacal Mary. Adam Roarke (THE LOSERS, FROGS) is the more sane of the trio, Deke Sommers.


Seeing Vic Morrow commandeering a helicopter and ordering the pilot to "crash right into them", carries with it a certain degree of macabre irony considering he was killed in a freak helicopter accident nearly a decade later while filming TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983). Kenneth Tobey (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) has a role as the chief of police and Roddy McDowall (PLANET OF THE APES) is the grocery store manager. Prolific stunt coordinator, Dick Warlock later played Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN 2 (1981). Even though you don't really like this trio of obnoxious miscreants, the script carefully builds them unlike the one dimensional portrayals of other similar hot rod movies. Just about every car chase staple is found here and in abundance as well as a shocker ending that's foreshadowed mere moments beforehand. Don't miss this souped up, super-charged chase movie that explodes across America's heartland.


WHITE LINE FEVER 1975


Directed by Jonathan Kaplan

Carol Jo Hummer--A working man who's had enough!


Jonathan Kaplan, the director of the ultra violent blaxploitation spectacle, TRUCK TURNER (1974), follows that film up with an equally sadistic movie about a truck driver pushed too far. Jan Michael Vincent stars as Carrol Jo Hummer, a man who borrows money to realize his dream of buying his own truck. Christening it 'The Blue Mule', Hummer soon learns that part of this "deal" is that he has to smuggle illegal goods from state to state. Refusing, the corrupt company he works for go after him and his wife eventually framing him for murder with the help of cops on their payroll. With both the police and vicious thugs on his trail, Hummer fights back the only way he knows how.


Kaplan keeps the action coming fast and furious in this Southern revenge opus modeled on one of the biggest box office bonanazas of Hixploitation, the 'Stand Up & Cheer' phenomenon that was the original WALKING TALL (1973). The violence isn't quite as brutal as that Joe Don Baker classic, but the 'PG' rating is pushed to the max. There's more fist fights, bloody gun battles and a character that gets forcibly splattered all over the interstate than would normally pass for suggested parental guidance. It's an incredible action movie that remains unavailable on DVD. Slim Pickens (BLAZING SADDLES, POOR PRETTY EDDIE, THE HOWLING) is one of the scuzzy underlings and an old friend of Hummers. L.Q. Jones (LONE WOLF MCQUADE) is the smarmy and cunning lead heavy.


The lovely Kay Lenz (MOVING VIOLATION, STRIPPED TO KILL) plays Hummer's wife who gets inadvertantly thrust into the thick of things and accompanies her husband on the run from the crooks and cops. Look for Martin Kove (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE KARATE KID) as one of the sadistic thugs employed by Buck (Jones). The always reliable R.G. Armstrong plays a corrupt prosecutor. The movie also foreshadows ROLLING THUNDER from 1977 as Hummer returns from Vietnam trying to make a new life for himself and ends up in the thick of criminal activity. It also looks to the numerous trucker movies during the late 70s such as Sam Peckinpah's CONVOY (1978). Kaplan keeps the action coming at a steady pace right up to the explosive finale. One of the best examples of its kind, WHITE LINE FEVER is 18 wheels of bombastic big rig action and surprisingly adept and violent set pieces that push its 'PG' rating well over the speed limit.


MOONRUNNERS 1975


Directed by Gy Waldron

You take a load of 200 proof corn liquor through a Georgia roadblock at 100 miles an hour and if you ain't a dead man, you're a moonrunner.


Grady and Bobby Lee Hagg are two smooth moonshine runners for their uncle Jesse. The Hagg's have been in competition with Jake Rainy, a rival, "upper class" bootlegger who has dealings with crime syndicates from up North. Jesse prides himself in his old fashioned methods of makin' Mountain Dew and refuses to sell his business to Jake whose being pressured by his Yankee partners to make good on his payments. When Jesse sticks to his guns, Jake pushes too far resulting in Jesse dying after a big chase with Jake's thugs. Grady and Bobby Lee decide it's time to shut the fat man down.


This happy-go-lucky, action-comedy car crash-a-rama was the inspiration for the hugely popular DUKES OF HAZZARD television show. Director, Gy Waldron was a writer for the DUKE's entire run. Their's Uncle Jesse (played by Arthur Hunnicutt who excelled at playing hillbillies), a sheriff Roscoe Coltrane (without the P.), the two Hagg boys use explosive bows and arrows, Jake, the fat man (haha) isn't too far removed from Boss Hogg. He owns a bar called the Boar's Nest and runs a prostitution ring in the back. There's also a character named Cooter, only he ain't a mechanic. One of the biggest similarities is the addition of Waylon Jennings as the Balladeer. He narrates the movie in the exact same fashion as he did on the TV show. James Mitchum plays Grady Hagg. He also featured with his dad, Robert Mitchum in THUNDER ROAD (1958), an earlier movie about lightning liquor.


Fun from start to finish, it doesn't REALLY kick in till 20 minutes in. The movie is a tad overlong at just over 100 minutes, but it's one hell of a hoot'nanny filled with witty dialog, chicken pickin, hot cars, hotter women and some 'PG' sex. There's also lots of car chases and redneck recklessness indigenous to hixploitation. One of the finest examples of the form, it's a shame it isn't more well known, or available legitimately on DVD considering its lineage. Probably the most authentically down and dirty illegal liquor flick, other movies dealing with hot hooch are THE MOONSHINE WAR (1970), BOOTLEGGERS (1974), BAD GEORGIA ROAD (1977) and the lively Corman produced Fox film THUNDER & LIGHTNING (1977;on this list). Jerry Reed contributes a song and the backwoods Georgia locales add a lot to the Southern Fried atmosphere.


WW & THE DIXIE DANCE KINGS 1975


Directed by John G. Avildsen

Back in 1957, sweet talking W.W. lived in a '55 Olds, loved bubblegum, Errol Flynn, country music, fried chicken, robbing filling stations and a girl named Dixie...not necessarily in that order


Burt Reynolds is W.W. Bright, a free wheelin' con artist and smooth talker who falls in with a down on their luck country group with dreams of grandeur. W.W. promises them a gig in Nashville and ultimately the Grand Ol' Opry. In the meantime, W.W. robs gas stations bearing the S.O.S. (Southland Oil Systems) emblem. Distraught over the rash of robberies, the head of the gas company sends an ex-lawman named Deacon John Wesley Gore, now a somewhat unhinged religious nut, after W.W. and Company. Proving difficult to capture, the Deacon firmly believes he's chasing the devil in human guise and tracks the group all the way to the famed country music hall where the Dixie Dancekings are about to cut their first big hit.


This sarcastically humorous comedy fable features the first onscreen duo of Reynolds and Reed two years before their iconic stint in the SMOKEY & THE BANDIT series. That films director, Hal Needham, choreographed the stunts and also has a small role as a policeman here. Comparing the two films, it's obvious Needham borrowed quite a bit from this rambunctious and rollicking Reynolds vehicle. While it's a big studio effort, this John G. Avildsen 'Deep South Chase Picture' took a wrong turn somewhere totally losing an audience in the process.


It's a shame as the movie is quite good and contains more than its share of self aware, yet funny moments. Burt Reynolds pretty much cements the type of performance he'd master by the time SMOKEY rolled around. So what if he "ruined his career" playing all these 'Good Ol' Boy' personas, few if any could do it better than a sly, smirking and smiling Burt Reynolds. It's yet to land any sort of release in the US that I am aware of, but definitely is ripe for rediscovery considering what this film led to for some of its cast and crew. It's a whole heap 'o fun filled with funny business, fried chicken, a fast car and country tunes.


THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE 1976


Directed by Michael Pressman

They'll steal your heart...and rob your bank!


Hollywood has made a common practice of pilfering obscure and seemingly forgotten exploitation movies, refurbishing them with bigger budgets and bigger stars and (in some cases) turning tidy profits all the while making out like they've created an original idea. Sometimes the source of the later, snazzier Hollywood makeover made little noise during its original run which aids in hiding the later films true origins. This New World distributed film is one such case. The movie fluctuates between DILLINGEResque bank robberies and BIG BAD MAMA style comedic chase scenes (one bit sees the girls fail to blow open a safe with three sticks of dynamite duds). The playful tone turns bloodily violent during the shoot'em up finale.


Drive In babe fave, Claudia Jennings (TRUCKSTOP WOMEN, THE UNHOLY ROLLERS, GATOR BAIT, FAST COMPANY) and Jocelyn Jones (TOURIST TRAP, THE ENFORCER) play two high-spirited women who become bank robbers--Candy, an escaped prisoner and Ellie Jo, a fed up and fired bank teller. Dubbed 'The Dynamite Women', they make their way to Mexico enjoying sex and sin along the way. Michael Pressman's tale of feisty, liberated females would have to have been seen by the makers of THELMA & LOUISE (1991) as this later film shares more than a few passing similarities. Jennings as Candy, the Lady Dillinger, is as hot as the dynamite she uses to rob banks with. She's a tough female and smart, too.


Claudia Jennings, a Penthouse pin up model, lets it out all hang out here in this star vehicle that showcases her many talents both clothed and unclothed. Quite the personality, she quickly became an exploitation favorite. Like others before and after, she tired of these kinds of movies and wanted something more respectable out of her career. She never got the chance to achieve this as she was killed in a car accident in December of 1979, almost two months shy of her 30th birthday. Her co-star, Jones, got only a handful more credits in movies before teaching acting in Los Angeles. Director, Pressman went onto bigger things after his stint in low budget moviemaking. DYNAMITE CHASE is frequently fun, sexy, lude, crude and socially unacceptable which translates to a well portioned plate of exploitation goodness.


JACKSON COUNTY JAIL 1976


Directed by Michael Miller

What they do to her in JACKSON COUNTY JAIL is a crime!


Roger Corman produced this picture, what is arguably the best MACON COUNTY LINE clone of them all. The template set down by Compton is virtually identical here and it's masterfully and gloomily executed by director Michael Miller. I'd go so far as to say this film is just too good to be a New World Production. It's far more thoughtful and deliberately paced than the typical Corman fare. That's not a condemnation, but apparently Corman felt the same way as he marketed the movie by accentuating the more lurid and salacious aspects of the picture making this out to be more of an exploitation thriller than it really was. The action and violence is sporadic at best, yet maintains the respectability of the material giving Compton's movie a run for its money and one of the most critically lauded New World films of Corman's career.


Yvette Mimieux (THE TIME MACHINE; 1960) was reluctant to do this picture as per Corman's typical style of film, but she pours a lot of pathos into this tormented and wrongfully accused woman who suffers one indignity after the other, each one becoming more brutal than the last. She's had enough of her job and her fidelity challenged husband. Offered her old job back in New York, she travels cross country from California and encounters no end of trouble on her trip. Stopping off in Alabama, a waitress in a diner tries to rip her off and she's nearly killed by two young, drug addled hitchhikers (one played by Robert Carradine) feigning innocence who ultimately make off with her car. Then she's nearly raped by a drunken bar owner when she tries to make a call to the police. When they arrive, the sleazy barkeep claims she was trying to bust up his place and after raising her voice, the redneck cop throws her in jail.


Another hillbilly lawman decides to have his way with her in a disturbing rape scene. When he tries to apologize, the frazzled female freaks out and kills the cop. Tommy Lee Jones is Coley Blake who sits in the adjoining cell. Both break out and accidentally kill the sheriff during the escape. Now branded murderous fugitives, both go on the run from the law with no option left to clear their names. The end comes during a parade when the two get cornered and must make a last stand. JACKSON COUNTY JAIL was a big success for Corman, both critically and financially; a rarity for New World product. An uncredited Severn Darden (SATURDAY THE 14TH, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES) plays the sheriff, Howard Hessman (WKRP IN CINCINNATI) is Mimieux's philanderous husband and this was Tommy Lee Jones's (ROLLING THUNDER, MEN IN BLACK) first big role. Mary Woronov also has a small role as a gun running revolutionary who's a friend of Coley's.


The movie also made a bundle on television and Corman was approached to do a Made For TV version called OUTSIDE CHANCE (1978) based on the same concept and character and also starring Mimieux and again directed by Miller. In the late 90's, Corman produced a remake entitled MACON COUNTY JAIL. Movies like JACKSON COUNTY JAIL and its inspiration, the huge hit MACON COUNTY LINE, paint a vicious and callous view of the deep south. The fear of the unknown, locations far from civilization and characters bordering on the neolithic are staples of these kinds of movies and cast a dark cloud on what is generally perceived as a quiet sort of life. These films showcase such corrupt and destitute aberrations of society, that the chances of survival in the more dangerous concrete jungles offer better odds. Down south, there's nowhere, or no one to run to if nobody believes you, especially if you're an outsider. A provocative picture, the tone is grim from start to finish and never lets up. Only serious travelers need stop in JACKSON COUNTY. It's an engagingly well made production, but definitely not a nice place to visit.

CONTINUED IN PART 2...


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