Friday, December 31, 2010

Shaw Brothers Cinema: Behind the Studio & Shih Szu, Shaw's Swordswoman Supreme

Shaw Brothers Studio circa 1972

This edition of Shaw Brothers Cinema spotlights the studio itself and the various jobs and functions of the fabled Shaw Movietown. From set construction, to sword training, to horse riding, to the canteen and to the man himself, Sir Run Run Shaw, a number of these photos give insight into the inner workings of what was once Shaw Brothers Studio of Hong Kong. In addition, there's a nice sampling of images of one of Shaw's most popular queens of action cinema, Shih Szu. This entry is for Fang from the Trivia Wing of Shaolin who is a big Shih Szu fan.


In the above two photos, you'll see a small orchestra in a soundtrack session. The photo directly above shows some of the actors dubbing their lines. It's popularly thought that all the films were dubbed by different voice performers, but this wasn't always the case. Ivy Ling Po, for example, dubbed her own lines.

Above, fight choreographer, Liang Shao Sung trains some female trainees, fresh out of the Shaw acting school, in the art of the sword.

The construction of one of many Shaw Brothers sets.

Touring the studio.

The early 1970s were incredibly prosperous for the then largest privately owned studio on the planet. Kung Fu movies took the world by storm with the release of KING BOXER aka FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1972). The above article attests to the wild success of Kung Fu films abroad.

Shaw Brothers expanded their empire by opening theaters all over Asia and even in North America. The above photo displays an image of their Canadian theater.

The Shaw's have had the popular stigma of being Iron Fisted tyrants when it comes to the treatment afforded their talent pool especially in regards to monetary compensation. The Brothers Shaw were definitely not scrooges as they frequently gave to a number of charities including gifts of money, food and clothing to the elderly every Chinese New Year as seen above.

Above is a Chinese New Year's celebration from March, 1971. Note Shaw with his then wife in one of the images. Below is another Chinese New Years party from March, 1973. It features a number of stars as well as Shaw's grandchildren.

And now it's a collection of images from various movies and portraits of Shih Szu, a Taiwanese beauty who took over the mantle vacated by Cheng Pei Pei as Swordswoman Supreme.

Above is a behind the scenes photo from LADY OF THE LAW (1975) from March of 1971. Director Shen Chiang discusses the script with Shih Szu. In addition to LADY OF THE LAW, the (at the time) new to Shaw actress was also working on THE IRON BOW (a segment of the swordplay anthology TRILOGY OF SWORDSMANSHIP), THE YOUNG AVENGER, an unknown film entitled THE LITTLE POISONOUS DRAGON and THE SWIFT KNIGHT. The busy actress would soon have even more movies on her already full slate.

More shots from the filming of LADY OF THE LAW


This is an unfinished production entitled THE NOCTURNAL KILLER. It's possibly an aka for the above mentioned THE LITTLE POISONOUS DRAGON. It's just one of many unfinished films that were started at Shaw's and abandoned for whatever reason. With between 40 and 50 movies being scheduled throughout 1971 and 1972, some productions were scrapped, or morphed into an entirely different picture. Curiously, the plot and Shi Szu's attire appears similar to HEROES OF SUNG (1973; it was filmed under different titles as well), a film that did starred the actress and Lo Lieh, but not the Taiwanese actor, An Ping.

Below is a spread on THE BLOODY ESCAPE (1975), then titled as simply THE ESCAPE. You'll notice the film is touted as "Chang Cheh's next production". Another page mentions it as a joint effort between Cheh and Sun Chung. The following two photos are from the February 1973 issue of Southern Screen. Apparently this film was handed over to Sun Chung entirely considering Chang Cheh was busy setting up camp in Taiwan during this time. THE BLOODY ESCAPE was shot over the course of the next couple of years before hitting HK screens in late 1975 where it died a quick death at the box office.

Above you'll see Shih Szu demonstrating her musical talents during a meeting discussing the production of THE BLOODY ESCAPE. Chen Kuan Tai and Sun Chung are also present.

Above and below are two photos from one of the Shaw Brothers' numerous co-productions; this one being the ridiculous and childish fantasy actioner SUPERMEN AGAINST THE ORIENT (1974). Heavily promoted in Shaw's publications, the movie failed to capture much of an audience, but likely fared better in European markets where the 'Three Supermen' series was bewilderingly popular.


This is an unusual production; unusual in that it features Shih Szu in a modern setting as a female detective. Titled THE WARRANT, it would be interesting to see what the queen of swordswomen can do with a gun. The following photos are from the March 1973 issue of Southern Screen magazine. Oddly enough, this movie seems to be a true Shaw Brothers rarity....

None of the Hong Kong movie sites such as HKMDB, or HKcinemagic list this film among the credits of either Shih Szu, or Ou Wei. A friend of mine has informed me that this film does in fact exist and even posted screen caps from the picture taken from an old Chinese VHS tape. It no doubt will be interesting to find out what became of this film and why it's seemingly been swept under the rug as there's virtually nothing about it outside of old magazine articles.

Coming up next time are more unfinished movies, some independent features, Chang Cheh's Iron Triangle, Chen Kuan Tai and more behind the scenes images from Shaw Brothers Cinema!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: I Escaped From Devil's Island (1973) review


Jim Brown (Lebras), Christopher George (Devert), Richard Ely (Jo Jo), Paul Richards (Major Marteau), Richard Rust (Sgt. Zamorra), Robert Phillips (Blassier)

Directed by William Witney

"Nobody's ever gonna escape from Devil's Island. The sharks, the sea, the jungle... they see you dead first."

The Short Version: Roger Corman and his brother Gene collaborated with Mexico's Churubusco Studios on this sleazy little number that packs a healthy serving of tasteless Drive In delight into this minor piece of exploitation cinema. Fans of prison actioners, Corman, Jim Brown and Christopher George will find this average obscurity of the most interest.

Tortured and humiliated on the hellish atoll that is Devil's Island, home to any number of political prisoners and criminal scum, Lebras and a few others plot to break free of the inescapable penal colony in French Guiana, 1918.

Roger and Gene Corman produced this Mexico lensed exploitation trash mini epic highlighting the grim ordeals prisoners encountered on the infamous Devil's Island. It's all here, torture, humiliation, threats of man-on-man rape, fights to the death, shark attacks, political statements, sex, violence, a leper colony and even a tribe of Amazonian savages. Although it never fully realizes its nasty potential, this co-production with Mexico's Churubusco Studios musters enough exploitation elements to make a reasonably satisfying Drive In quickie. Director William Witney was also guilty of helming the thoroughly outrageous, offensive and ridiculous blaxploitation-musical-comedy, DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975). He was also a prolific director of action and western television programs. This shows in I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND which often resembles a 70s TV series, albeit a gritty and bloodily violent one with nudity to spare.

In addition to the more sadistic and salacious side of the film, the script squeezes in a helping of political intrigue involving the various prison cliques. There's the side that wants off the island, then there's the sides that vie for various special treatments in the hopes of not having to work as hard, or to simply escape severe torture at the hands of the maniacal prison guards. Of course there's the requisite backstabbing and corruption amongst not only the captives but those in command as well. It should also be noted there's a shocking scene showcasing real animal cruelty. Lebras slaughters a pig (it's his job to slaughter and carve meat for the inmates and guards of Devil's Island) while smiling at Devert, who looks on in what amounts to a brutal analogy after Devert betrayed Lebras during the opening moments. It's safe to assume Brown isn't the one doing the killing as you never see Brown and the pig in the same shot, but given the reputation European films receive for their mistreatment of animals, this US-Mexico co-pro is guilty of the same charge.

Located in French Guiana, this criminal wasteland was host to a slew of political prisoners and various murderers and cutthroats. At least one person incarcerated there managed to escape confinement via the shark infested waters surrounding the island penitentiary at the turn of the century. The best-selling novel, 'Papillon' (which was also made into a movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and released a few weeks after Corman's film) was based on an alleged escape by the books author, Henri Charriere, but his claims were later refuted by journalists or those employed on the island.

The 'Escape From Devil's Island', interestingly enough, takes place 40 minutes into the movie. The crude raft Brown and his three escapees get away on quickly falls apart and the four men now must contend with the scorching sun beating down on them. With one of the nearby islands within reach, several sharks show up and make a meal out of one of the prisoners. They then encounter a leper colony that helps them evade the stalking militants tracking them after their escape.

From there, they have a run in with a tribe of savages. Lebras kills the leader, but not before taking a blow dart to the back. Lebras later awakens to discover him and his two remaining friends tied down to stakes. A woman approaches and frees Lebras. It's quickly surmised that it was her husband he killed in the jungle and she has decided to take him as a mate. Of course, Lebras isn't one to pass a up a tryst inside a wood hut with a hot native. Devert and Jo Jo free themselves and Lebras decides he's going to stay! But when he sees his friends nearly killed trying to get away, he fights the savages and takes off with them further down the river.

From here to the end, it's a chase with the police and Major Marteau culminating in a big shootout right in the middle of the Festival of Santa Lucia. Lebras, having split up from Devert to meet at a boat leaving for the mainland, sets off a massive fireworks display to cover his escape. What's funny is that the fireworks display sounds like a bunch of big explosions going off! Les Baxter, who regularly contributed to Corman and AIP pictures, delivers a really good score that's a throbbing collection of pulsing jungle beats and rhythms. It fits perfectly with the exotic settings seen throughout the film.

Jim Brown is fun to watch as Lebras. It's never revealed just how, or why he ends up on Devil's Island, but he attracts lots of attention to himself for not taking a "fancy boy" (what a homosexual partner is called in the movie) and also his build which comes in handy when one of the guards wants to show off to another by having Lebras fight to the death with some other hulking inmate. He also loves women and every time he and his friends end up in a mini adventure, he ends up bedding down some pretty lady and also ends up deciding to stick around instead of running.

Brown was one of the most prominent African American film stars following Sydney Poitier's success in Hollywood. Starring, or co-starring in a slew of big Hollywood productions, Brown went on to a lucrative career in blaxploitation actioners. Brown is reunited with Robert Phillips here, who played one of the main heavies in Brown's most recognized black action picture, SLAUGHTER (1972).

Christopher George plays a pacifist who ultimately turns to violence by the end. Greatly respected by many of the other inmates, he incites a minor revolt that gets Sgt. Zamorra a permanent stay in "The Hole". He and Brown work well together and form an unlikely partnership. Both help each other when the cards are down. George was a regular on television programs such as his lead vehicle in the two season run of THE RAT PATROL, an action packed series set in Africa during WW2. Like Jim Brown, Christopher George appeared in Playgirl magazine in the 1970s before embarking on a successful film career predominantly in Drive In fare and European horror movies.

It's not a great piece of trash, but it's definitely entertaining trash and moves at a fair clip. Fans of prison style action films and jungle adventures will find themselves mildly amused for approximately 90 minutes. Fans of Roger Corman's fast and furious style of movie-making will notice it's a slightly lesser affair when compared with his New World Pictures of the same time period. Unavailable on legitimate DVD at this time, the film occasionally pops up on various cable channels in restored format.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: Blood Beach (1980) review


David Huffman (Harry Caulder), Marianna Hill (Catherine Hutton), Burt Young (Sergeant Royko), John Saxon (Captain Pearson), Stefan Gierasch (Dr. Dimitrios)

Directed by Jeffrey Bloom

"What will happen after we've pushed the plunger and blown this poor creature into smithereens? What might become of each...smithereen?"

The Short Version: This low budget horror effort is a unique take on JAWS, but fails because of a terribly weak creature that is revealed during the final moments. A bit of gore, an intriguing premise, a couple quirky performances and even a brief, bluesy duet rendition of Guy Clark's 'Fools For Each Other' make this a mild time waster for undiscriminating horror fans.

A string of bizarre deaths and disappearances strike fear among vacationers and sunbathers on the Southern California beaches. Something monstrous lives below sea level hidden away from man pulling its victims to their doom below the sand. A harbor patrol worker, a batty doctor and the police scurry to find out just what lives below the surface of the sand

The Shaw Brothers own Sir Run Run Shaw co-financed this low budget US production that heavily homages Spielberg's JAWS as its source of inspiration. Backed by an intriguing storyline with all the potential for 'B' movie greatness, BLOOD BEACH loses what little momentum it had once its thoroughly bizarre monster makes its belated appearance for about a minute of screen time at the finish.

Maintaining a decent amount of suspense, a bit of gore (including a castration, a dog with its head bitten off and a gaggle of rotted body parts) and some memorably quirky characters, BLOOD BEACH manages a few notable moments that will make it worthy for undiscriminating trash fans. If only the monster were more successful; after such a long build up, this movie would likely have accrued a much better reputation among horror fans had the creature been more imposing and frightening.

Looking like a gigantic flytrap creature, the beasts roar is scarier than the monsters design. The thing does looks plausible considering the way it eats its victims. Although its origin is never explained, the beast travels below the sandy beaches and latches onto passersby sucking them below the Earth. Not even pets are safe--a small dog loses its head early in the movie. Other casualties include a would be rapist who's relieved of his member, a young girl has her legs disfigured after her friends bury her in the sand and various secondary and throwaway characters get sucked down to their doom.

The script successfully apes JAWS in a few ways. One of the most noticeable is in its striking ad campaign and tagline. The poster featured a woman being pulled below the sand while the major selling point screamed, "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the can't get to it!" The line is also spoken in the movie by John Saxon playing yet another policeman role. A news reporter interviewing bathers and hyping up "death on the beach", also alludes to Spielberg's movie. While the monster may be a disappointment, some of the characters make things more bearable, the supporting ones at least. Curiously, the movie makes a habit of killing off a few of its main characters. Sadly, these deaths possess little in the way of shock value as they're all terribly underdeveloped, especially the two main protagonists. They offer little to propel the film from one kill scene to the next. They don't even feature into the finale in any way at all. Both simply disappear prior to the big finish.

Burt Young is essentially playing his 'Paulie' character from the ROCKY movies as Sgt. Royko. He's rude, loud and lacks even the basest of social graces. He also has some funny lines and is featured in the movie more than you'd think. He also is responsible for the calamity that is about to take place during the shock ending (For a hint, read the line of dialog at the top of the page). Saxon is good, too, as the abrasive police Captain. Stefan Gierasch is also memorable as the quirky and eccentric Dr. Dimitrios who seems to have a greater handle on what's going on than anyone else. Gierasch delivers all his lines in this eerily peculiar, almost Shatner-esque manner.

BLOOD BEACH will no doubt be of interest for fans of Marianna Hill. She was the lead in the superb and surreal Lovecraftian terror tale MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973) and also the Jim Brown/Lee Van Cleef western EL CONDOR (1970) and the Eastwood oater HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973). She also took the lead in the mediocre SCHIZOID (1980) co-starring Klaus Kinski.

It's a shame BLOOD BEACH isn't a better movie. It's an ingeniously creative spin on JAWS that has some minor league memorable moments during its 90 minute running time and a decent score to boot that occasionally helps things along. As it stands, it would likely be a more respected genre offering if its monster looked more like an actual creature instead of a gigantic plunger with veins in it. The only viewers who will enjoy their day at the BEACH are those with a love for low budget Drive In fare and a tolerance for lesser known horror with a limited audience appeal. There's lots of potential here, it's just not fully realized.
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