Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Age of Aquarius: New York City Sleaze Kings Part 1


Out of all the late, great, sleazy distribution companies that brought slathering trash fans their foul fix during the 1970s and beyond, arguably the most famous would have to be Terry Levene's Aquarius Releasing distribution company based in New York City. Specializing in every avenue of ill-mannered movies, Aquarius Releasing was responsible for some creatively ornate hucksterism for some of the most vile motion pictures the world has ever seen.

Spanning pornography, homegrown horror and sleaze including several of the more notorious Euro trash pictures, Levene's company outlasted many others hanging in there for around two decades before the advent of the video store and big ticket blockbusters aided in killing off exploitation trash peddlers forever.

These guys treated the movie-going experience much like going to a carnival. Not a circus, mind you, but those types of low-rent traveling sideshows populated by a gaggle of seedy and sleazy ringleaders replete with their nomadic assistants of eccentric taste and character. During this time, you'd get a show outside the theater as well as inside of it. Often times the actual movie never quite matched the bloody, bombastic ballyhoo that was used to get you into that darkened, sometimes dangerous theater; but then that was part of the show... and the fun.


Sex sells, and Levene and his company enjoyed many a fruitful year doing some East Coast showboating of everything from lustfully adventurous fluff as Germanic imports THE LONG SWIFT SWORD OF SIEGRFIED (1971) by Adrian Hoven to SWINGING WIVES (1971) by popular sexcapader, Ernst Hofbauer. The former title is notable for an early "Adults Only" role by Austrian actress Sybelle Danninger; better known on these shores as Sybil Danning.

Trash fans will of course recognize the name of that films director, Adrian Hoven from the notorious MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970).

The films star, Raimund Harmstorf will also be familiar to exploitation fans from his tough guy roles such as the gruesome excess of Eurocrimer BLOODY FRIDAY (1972) and the dark and violent latter era spaghetti western CALIFORNIA (1977). He's also among the cast of Castellari's cult favorite INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978).

The name Ernst Hofbauer likewise won't be lost on sexploitation seekers from parlaying his porn wares in a successful string of SCHOOLGIRL REPORT movies. Hofbauer's skills and monetary success were not lost on Sir Run Run Shaw, possibly the world's only multi-millionaire movie mogul who frequently dabbled in the grubbiest trash imaginable. Hofbauer was recruited for a Shaw-German co-production entitled VIRGINS OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1974), co-directed by Shaw's own house sleaze specialist, Kuei Chi Hung.

While Aquarius didn't handle VIRGINS (infamously deceptive producer Edward L. Montoro's Film Ventures carried it under the title of THE BOD SQUAD), they did put their hands around Hofbauer's NEW HOT REPORT: WHAT MEN DON'T THINK IS POSSIBLE; re-christened SWINGING WIVES. Judging by the eye-catching poster design, I'd say it was a safe bet this clenched cash from the hands of many a male patron looking for a quick thrill.


Kung Fu movies became all the face smashing, eye-gouging rage in the early 70s after Warner Brothers made a mint off of Shaw Brothers KING BOXER (1972). Branded with the savage moniker of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, the film became the first such picture to open the doors for Chinese action films on these shores before Bruce Lee hit the scene. Incidentally, KING BOXER was not a huge success in its native Hong Kong.

While big studios like Warner and MGM were handling some of the Shaw library, small outfits like Aquarius were picking up the leftovers; of which there were legion. Levene touted minor league swordplay features like THE INVINCIBLE SUPER CHAN (1971), but changed the title to FORCED TO FIGHT. The advertising was pretty accurate here with little in the way of carnival level barkering to sell this films wares. The 'WARNING' regarding the amount of action is true, but nothing is mentioned of the gory shenanigans, which is surprising. The only clue given is the silly blood spots painted onto the images.

I've never seen the original version of this, but the film shows signs of being shorn of footage despite the plot being virtually non-existent save for the standard revenge potboiler. It's a terrible movie all around, but garnered a reputation over the years among hardcore Fu fans. In a rare occasion, the dubbed English version I saw utilizes some of the voice actors normally associated with Italian trash imports. CLONES OF BRUCE LEE (1977) also had a version that used different dubbers as well.

One of Aquarius's other kung fu flicks was QUEEN BOXER (1972), a popular film among martial arts film circles to this day. It was the first big movie of Judy Lee aka Chia Ling, and was also one of many films to follow in the wake, and spin off from the massive success of Chang Cheh's THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972).

Whoever designed the ad campaign for the US release was obviously aware of the splash Judy Lee had made and incorporated this into the poster ballyhoo, even going so far as to proclaim her 'the female Bruce Lee'.

Sadly, the actress on the front wearing a Japanese style Gi and holding two eyeballs in her hand is not Judy Lee. The splash box 'Warning' is aptly applied, though. It also wasn't unusual for American kung fu movie posters to feature scenes not in the actual film, or for the flick to pass itself around with a myriad of different titles.


When Bruce Lee died in 1973, a flood of bruceploitation pictures flooded the market around the world in what amounted to a crass maneuver to continue marketing a known commodity with seemingly zero sympathy or respect for the man who had recently, and rather mysteriously, died. Even the big HK studios were in on the game, although some might say intentions were originally sound. Shaw Brothers (who almost had Lee's services as an actor at one point) got Bruce's mistress to star and co-produce BRUCE LEE: HIS LAST DAYS, HIS LAST NIGHTS (1976) aka BRUCE LEE & I.

Golden Harvest, the company whom Bruce saved from bankruptcy, made a mockery of him with some laughably bad sequences in the then unfinished GAME OF DEATH (1978) and pushed forward making money off of the man's death with TOWER OF DEATH in 1981.

The worst however, came from other studios marketing actors as Bruce Lee-a-likes such as Bruce Li, Bruce Le and Dragon Lee among a handful of others. A boatload of these cheap knock-offs made it to these shores and the advertisements amplified the exploitation element to an alarmingly hilarious degree. Like numerous other independent companies, Aquarius feverishly dipped their hands into this bowl of (mis)fortune cookies to grab some of these inexpensive Bruce clone movies in the hopes of making a few bucks.

Arguably the most sensationally titled movie of this unholy bunch would have to be BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE (1976), a Hong Kong-Korea no budget wonder starring a guy billed as Bruce K. L. Lea. This was the actors only known credit and he looks far more like Jimmy Wang Yu than Bruce Lee. While the original version of this picture has nothing to do with Lee, the distributors devised one of several infamous instances of movie malarkey by shooting a sequence that would tie in with the ridiculously exploitative title. In this case, the film opens with a shot of a tombstone that reads 'Bruce Lee 1940-1973'. As this kung fu disco music wails on your eardrums, some dude ferociously erupts from a makeshift grave before the films title crosses the screen. It lasts all of about 30 seconds before the actual movie begins.

The poster design is also a marvelous bit of marketing deception. While we do see a character undoubtedly "fight back from the grave", we never see him tussle with a winged demon creature that's depicted on the artwork. The movie is not only blessed with an amazingly trashy ad campaign, but the trailer hammers home the films inherent poverty row gaudiness, bargain basement acting and mediocre fight scenes that was vital for the success of such below average fare.

To add another layer of insanity to this nonsensical crapola, the face of Sho Kosugi appears on a business card taken from a wallet stolen by a villain! Kosugi is no stranger to American movie fans having starred in movies like ENTER THE NINJA (1981), it's even better, gorier semi-sequel REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983), NINJA 3: THE DOMINATION (1984), NINE DEATHS OF THE NINJA (1985), PRAY FOR DEATH (1986), RAGE OF HONOR (1987) and BLACK EAGLE (1988) among others.

Arguably more famous than anything else attached to the stigma of this movie is the long standing rumor that Umberto Lenzi directed this mess under a pseudonym. It's since been proven false, even from the man himself, but there are still those who cling to this bit of filmmaking fantasy presumably because it adds to the mystique of the era and the lengths to which these distributors would go to get your ass in the theater.

Also in 1976, Levene and company imported BODYGUARD KIBA, a 1973 Japanese movie starring "The Incredible Sonny Chiba". The wildly popular Nipponese actor had recently raised a ruckus in theaters via the Sensational THE STREET FIGHTER released on these shores courtesy of New Line Cinema Even scissored up to separate itself from an MPAA branded 'X' rating, Chiba's brutal showcase did big business. Of course, Aquarius tampered with their Chiba acquisition, too, but in an entirely different way.

Retitled THE BODYGUARD, the original Japanese version has yet to surface in America, or even Japan (that I'm aware of) on DVD. The English version, thanks to the fine folks at Aquarius, alters the plot to have Chiba playing himself. Here he's a movie star who goes on national television and announces he's gonna start moonlighting as a crime fighter in an effort to eradicate drugs and every form of street scum known to man.

They also added an hilarious opening sequence that begins with a biblical passage from Ezekiel 25:17 spoken by 'Chiba the Bodyguard'. This same passage was blown out of proportion for its inclusion in PULP FICTION (1994). We then join martial artists Bill Louie and Aaron Banks in the bowels of some grungy NYC martial arts dojo replete with posters of other Aquarius kung fu flicks. Here, they discuss and demonstrate the merits of Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba.

The films trailer is pure brilliance and among the greatest forms of carny style showmanship of the entire exploitation canon. It's also graced by the soulful rasp of the immortal Adolph Caesar. Some of these names would be used to even greater, yet spectacularly embarrassing effect in the next picture.

"Bruce's great-grandfather was one of China's greatest samurai master swordsmen of the 19th century."--narration by Adolph Caesar

Continuing with kung fu, Aquarius struck again in an even bigger way by "making their own damn movie". This time it came down to creating an entire feature film built around leftover Bruce Lee footage from television programs and rare, early movie appearances. New Aquarius employee Ron Harvey (who also has an altercation with Fred Williamson in the film) conspired with Terry Levene along with director Matthew Mallinson to create this nominally awful, yet strangely entertaining patchwork creation; the sort of thing Godfrey Ho would become well known for several years later.

FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH (1980) is an important footnote in the annals of sleaze cinema. The film exemplifies the word exploitation in every frame and Aquarius lovingly wallows in it like a pig in shit. It's easily one of the most controversial and monumentally offensive films ever released by the company, or any company for that matter. Loved for its brazen absurdities, the film is likewise seethingly hated for its gross inaccuracy of Bruce Lee's legacy, not to mention the shoddiest re-dubbed dialog that makes the HK equivalents look professional by comparison. It also pads out its running time with scenes from an earlier Aquarius acquisition, the aforementioned Taiwanese swordplay gorefest, THE INVINCIBLE SUPER CHAN aka FORCED TO FIGHT (1971); these scenes purported to show how great of a Chinese samurai warrior Bruce Lee's great-grandfather was!

Adding an incredible amount of marquee value towards this abomination, Levene and Harvey managed to get Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson, martial artists Ron Van Clief, Bill Louie and Aaron Banks to participate in newly shot footage where they all play themselves. Adolph Caesar, the greatest voice actor in movie trailer history (his pipes have graced numerous trash film trailers) also plays himself here interviewing the various participants and narrating the proceedings in typical mockumentary style.

The action and stock footage are plentiful, facts are thrown to the four winds much like a Ric Meyers publication, or commentary track, and the re-dubbed dialog laid over the existing Bruce Lee footage is laughable in the extreme. The mixing and matching of Chinese and Japanese cultures will no doubt offend many and cause a case of the chuckles to others.

It's glaringly obvious Levene and company were seeking to make a fast buck and very much succeeded considering most folks weren't concerned with accuracy, or logic at the time. They just wanted to be entertained and FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH delivers that in spades as painfully bad as it may be. The rib tickling hilarity reaches its apex an hour into the flick when Bill Louie, decked out in a Kato costume, saves two women from being raped, eventually fighting off the gang with two pairs of nunchucks.

One of the all time Best of the Worst, FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH was Aquarius's malignant masterpiece. They would continue to tinker with other films they acquired, but nothing at all quite like what they accomplished with this bizarre amalgamation that wreaks more havoc on Bruce Lee's legacy than probably all the Bruceploitation movies combined. The Deadly Arts of Kung Fu, as it would turn out, wasn't the only genre style Aquarius were proficient in.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cool Ass Cinema Book Reviews: A double dose of ALIEN edition!


By Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross

softcover; 112 pages; color and B/W; Editions: 1979, 1993, 2012

...it's of historical importance for being the first book on the making of ALIEN as well as being one of the first such publications on a non-kid friendly motion picture in the wake of STAR WARS mania.

For many, the worthiness of a book is in the words and the amount of palpable information contained within its pages. For others, it's the visual presentation that matters most. The Book of Alien, which was first published back when the original film hit theaters in 1979, has little in the way of brain food, but excels in the visual sense. If pre-production sketches, concept art and behind the scenes photos tickle your fancy, you will find them in abundance here. The book itself is 112 pages and there are over 200 color and B/W illustrations to give you an idea of where the books loyalties lie.

Considering how moviemaking is nowhere near the hands on approach of the old days, this valuable relic resurrected from the antiquity of publishing purgatory by Titan Books is an essential purchase for fans of the series. It's also a worthy addition to the shelves of anyone fascinated by the various aspects of how films are made including traditional effects techniques and concept designs for the films themselves. With a price of just a little over $10, how can you not be tempted to lay your hands on this inaugural volume of one of horror cinemas greatest achievements?

Descending further, you'll uncover amongst the wealth of photographs, a good many illustrations from H.R. Giger including numerous behind the scenes photos of the man designing the Alien as well the infamous Space Jockey. Also on hand, you'll spy images not found in the finished film as well as aborted creature designs.

Since this books initial christening, there have been other volumes on this series that surpass it in informational details and actor anecdotes. As an appetizer collection of behind the scenes imagery from the various capacities in the filmmaking process, it's of historical importance for being the first book on the making of ALIEN as well as being one of the first such publications on a non-kid friendly motion picture in the wake of STAR WARS mania.

Titan Books have done a commendable job making this vintage and exemplary edition to the ALIEN universe available to the masses once more. It's easily affordable and the rarity of many of the photographs make it a highly recommended purchase. One for the shelves.

This book is set for release on May 29th, 2012. You can pre-order it at amazon HERE.

There's more on the book here at the official Titan Books website which can be found HERE.

Next up in this double dose of Xenomorph-mania is another reprint of a long unavailable tome...


By Lee Brimmicombe-wood

softcover; 160 pages; color and B/W; editions: 1995, 2012

For those who derive a great amount of pleasure from works that perform exploratory research on the technical and hardware peripheries, a purchase of this technical manual is a no-brainer.

This massively comprehensive tome on the military hardware of the ALIENS film from 1986 is the R rated comparative to the likewise exhaustive sci fi compendiums built around the STAR TREK universe.

A Tech geeks wet dream come true, this manual covers every aspect of the colonial marines and their armaments and weapons as if they really existed. There is so much detail distributed and derived here, that one can't help but buy into it all.

It's not particularly of my taste, as I am more into the 'Making Of' aspects as opposed to digging deeper into the fantasy realm of what made the movies so magical in the first place. For those who derive a great
amount of pleasure from works that perform exploratory research on the technical and hardware peripheries, a purchase of this technical manual is a no-brainer. It really is quite impressive in that respect. There's even a section that covers the Aliens themselves as well as covering case files that led to certain key elements taken from the first two movies.

Those fans of this series who are also enlisted in the service will find a lot to chew on here picking apart the numerous high class weaponry, air and ground crafts, armor and other such personal accouterments.

This is another revival of a long out of print book, resuscitated by Titan Books, and apparently a popular one. Obsessive and excessive fans alike are going to want this one as well. Those looking for information on the actual making of the ALIENS film will not find what they're looking for here.

This book, like THE BOOK OF ALIEN, is set for release May 29th, 2012. You can pre-order it from amazon HERE.

You can also order the book and get more information HERE at the Titan Books website.

Cool Ass Cinema Book Reviews: Stuntman edition!


By Vic Armstrong (with Robert Sellers)

softcover; 368 pages; color and B/W; Editions: 2011; 2012 (updated paperback edition)

This amazingly breezy read is packed with dozens of danger filled anecdotal tales told in Armstrong's own words covering his work on many of cinemas biggest movies. Constantly engaging, it's just as spectacular reading about the elaborate stunts as watching them unfold onscreen.

This revised edition originally surfaced in 2011 and must have made a bundle for an expanded one to be released so quickly; after skimming over any number of pages it's easy to see why. With so many varied productions and stories to relay, Armstrong is incredibly adept at recalling minute details and recounts them marvelously.

Within these 368 information packed pages you'll find dozens of anecdotes and reminisces of the legendary stuntman's work on such epic action pictures as YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), BILLY TWO HATS (1974), A BRIDGE TOO FAR (1977), SUPERMAN (1978), FLASH GORDON (1980), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), KRULL (1983), CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984), TAI PAN (1986), RAMBO 3 (1988), TOTAL RECALL (1990), STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997), WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) and many others too numerous to mention.

There's even stories from Armstrong on films that went unfinished such as THE NEW SPARTANS, an action thriller from director Jack Starrett that would have seen one of the most ambitious casts of big name performers (Oliver Reed, Toshiro Mifune, Fred Williamson, Susan George, Jimmy Wang Yu, Patrick Wayne among them) from around the world up on the screen.

He also discusses his own directorial feature film debut with the John Wooesque bullet ballet of ARMY OF ONE (1993) aka JOSHUA TREE, one of many post ROCKY 4 (1985) roles for 80s action star Dolph Lundgren.

Armstrong goes into an enormous amount of detail on not just every aspect of his stunt experience, but he also pulls no punches in regards to his working relationships with the various filmmakers and performers from the films themselves.

Speaking of pulling no punches, some other great bits regarding Grace Jones beating the holy hell out of the stunt guys from CONAN THE DESTROYER, which was widely reported back in the day, are contained herein. In addition, Armstrong gives out some hilariously quirky tales including a bonkers one about his introduction to Stanley Kubrick and also the stunt masters travails working with, and around the madness of George P. Cosmatos on ESCAPE FROM ATHENA (1979).

His exhaustive work on the SUPERMAN and INDIANA JONES series' are given a generous amount of space, particularly the latter. Especially enlightening is how Armstrong ultimately had to double for Harrison Ford for a time during the shooting of INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) after the actor suffered a back injury putting him out of commission for three weeks. Armstrong's striking resemblance to Ford is notable, and definitely worked out to the productions advantage.

It's not all fireworks and testosterone exploding across the silver screen, though, as the author also goes into details about his family life and his personal associations about those he's worked with. Armstrong is quite candid and revealing in his sometimes shocking and hilarious accounts.

His book is likewise peppered with a good amount of appreciation from the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Sir Christopher Lee and a spirited Introduction by Steven Spielberg. Also included are many rare B/W and color behind the scenes photos from dozens of films Armstrong has worked on from his own personal collection.

This amazingly breezy read is packed with dozens of danger filled anecdotal tales told in Armstrong's own words covering his work on many of cinemas biggest movies. Constantly engaging, it's just as spectacular reading about the elaborate stunts as watching them unfold onscreen.

Simply one of the best books of its type and difficult to put down once you've started, this compact, novel sized book will fit in a jacket pocket, or book bag for reading on the go. It also makes a great addition for your nightstand, or even bathroom perusal, although you will likely find yourself in there longer than need be. Highly recommended reading for action movie fanatics and anyone interested in other aspects of production outside of acting and directing.

To be released on May 29th, 2012, the book can be pre-ordered HERE at amazon.

You can also see more about the book, including its hardcover edition, HERE at the Titan Books website.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: My Friends Need Killing (1976) review


Greg Mullavey (Gene Kline), Meredith MacRae (Laura Kline), Clayton Wilcox (Gil Perkins), Roger Cruz (Les Drago), Bill Michael (Walter Miller)

Directed by Paul Leder

"...After what we did in 'Nam...I mean, we all gotta pay...we gotta pay for that."

The Short Version: This bleak little 73 minute psuedo horror picture is about a mentally dysfunctional freakshow who, after spending time under psychiatric care, decides that his ex-war buddy Friends Need Killing. Despite an obvious skid row production, the guy who brought you the touching exploitation classick, I DISMEMBER MAMA (1974) and the US-Korean Krap fest A*P*E (1976) manages to capture an occasional atmosphere of dread in one of the least discussed post Vietnam trash pics. Leder goes for the throat much of the time, but at least one sequence opts out of nauseating the audience for a more upbeat, if still ultimately gloomy coda. Worth it for Mullavey's amazing, brain-fried meltdown performance alone.

Deeply disturbed after his experiences in the Vietnam War, former POW, Gene Kline, sits up in bed one night and comes to the realization that he and his old war buddies deserve to die for the crimes they perpetrated while overseas. Kline sends out letters to his friends letting them know he's coming for a visit to reminisce about old times. Little do they know that he's coming to kill them.

The 1970s is my favorite era of cinema. There are so many movies that dared to cross lines, push envelopes and turn stomachs with alarming rapidity. The sheer volume of films is staggering as is the amount of low budget wonders that remain unaccounted for on the digital format. The beauty of this era was that it wasn't unusual for a meagerly budgeted movie of questionable taste to get booked in a theater or Drive In considering the video boom wouldn't take hold till the 80s broke. MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING (1976) is one of those movies that has slipped through the cracks of exploitation cinemas extensive canon.

"You keep makin' those funny remarks...I don't even think about the war no more."

Director and MAMA DISMEMBERer, Leder, returns to the sleazy territory first trampled in his 1974 staple about a psycho mother-woman hater; a film bearing one of the most well known titles of that era. Here, though, the script substitutes I DISMEMBER MAMA's mentally unbalanced mother fixated malcontent with a mentally unbalanced ex 'Nam vet fixated on war atrocities he was involved in.

It's apparent in nearly every scene that Leder had an extremely low amount of money to work with here. All the interiors are shot within single rooms, or what is likely somebody's house helping out with the production
with nary a scene transition in sight. There's a lot of post dubbed dialog laid over the onscreen action at times, which helps in hurrying things along. It also doesn't help matters that this difficult to obtain film is only currently available in a battered videotape copy floating around within collectors circles. A widescreen presentation would at least open things up a bit.

"How many did we kill? How many? Let's see...there was a chief...his wife...two old ladies...four old men...and four kids...and four kids...and four...a dozen...twelve...that's how many, twelve..."

The main selling point here is the lead performance by Mullavey. He's absolutely terrifying to say the least. He spends the film either staring blankly off into space, talking as if he is somebody else, or erupting in fits of violence that tend to leave people dead throughout his corpse strewn trek between California and Texas. From the opening scene we realize there are serious issues going on inside his brainpan.

To add to Kline's mania and the abhorrent ambiance, the filmmakers occasionally, and generously dot his scenes with actual Vietnam atrocity footage. This adds an even more queasy element that surpasses Leder's more well remembered movie. While I DISMEMBER MAMA had a tasteless aura all its own, there's no mama dismembering, but in MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING, the title pretty much tells it all.

Meredith MacRae plays Gene's wife, Laura Kline. She's very good, too, as the concerned, and eventually grieving wife upon learning what her husband is up to. She starts out as merely worried as to her husbands whereabouts, but quickly crumbles when he calls fearing he may commit suicide. Little does she know he has been on a killing spree the entire time.

These two performers make up for the slack of some of the others. Both she and Mullavey had the lengthiest careers and were both married in real life. MacRae even sings the main theme song, 'Mirror of Time'. Some of Leder's family contributed to this picture as well.

"...Just before he was captured, he was flippin' out a couple of times."

It would be beneficial to learn what the participants think of this movie today. It would be interesting to know if anything was cut from the finished product. There's actually a bonafide good piece of storytelling buried just beneath the surface. By the time it claws its way to the surface, the film is over.

There's fleeting moments here that foreshadow the grim visceral punch of ROLLING THUNDER from the following year, arguably the most famous example of the 'Disturbed 'Nam Vet' sub-genre. That film benefited from a substantially larger (if still low) budget, notable technicians behind the camera, and thespians who went on to bigger things.

"They didn't count, they were just gooks!"

An uncomfortable dinner conversation that begins with laughter, but ends with lots of screaming.

The violence itself is rather tasteless and made all the more unnerving in that Kline moralizes with each friend before snuffing them out in assorted gruesome ways that befit the violence they perpetrated in 'Nam. The editing scheme here is also worth mentioning, lending itself to the unsettling groove established right from the start; the aforementioned 'Nam death footage inserts being extremely effective.

Easily the grimmest sequence is the second killing. Kline ends up at his friend Gil's house in Southern California. Spending the night, it becomes known that Gil had no desire to even entertain Kline. He reveals to his wife of Gene's crumbling state before and after he ended up as a prisoner of war. We also see that Gil is into rough sex and pretty much rapes his wife when she doesn't feel like entertaining him.

Kline then gets out of bed a short time later, grabs the revolver from his suitcase and enters their room. Suddenly changing his personality, Kline is now back in 'Nam and thinks he's Gil and that he's stumbled upon a couple of Vietcong. When information about captured men and supplies isn't forthcoming, Kline shoots Gil in the hand and leg. He forces his wife to tie him up then rapes her in front of him.

Not only did this woman suffer a rough ride from her husband, but later in the night, she's raped yet again, this time by a psycho who thinks he's still slumming it in the sweltering Vietnamese jungle.

"I should'a left you in that loony bin when you cracked up over there."

The third murder is possibly the most revealing conver-sational piece when Gene Kline next visits his old friend Les; living alone and a member of a theater group. Les is obviously disturbed, too, but not to the murderous degree of our main character. Gene uses Les's feelings of regret and detachment to help him in his last big "performance" that culminates in a twisted level of Kevorkian death dealing.

It's one of a few times this movie belies its exploitation roots in an effort to strive for something more than mindless brutality.

"Walt made Les kill the kids, he made him kill the kids! I think one of those kids belonged to the chief's wife...Walt thought it was funny when the chief's wife threw herself on that kid...he then told me to kill the chief! My hands were shaking so hard I could hardly hold the gun!! Walt saved the chief's wife for himself...she was pregnant...just like you. Her belly was out to there...he did it with a knife...it comes to an end now, anyway. No more memory...no more pain..."

The last fifteen minutes of the picture wherein Kline confronts his former Sergeant is the most suspenseful section of the movie.

All of the scenes with Kline in the presence of those unknowing that he intends to cancel them out are very well done on this shoe-string budget. You're left wondering just when Kline is going to snap and what he has in store for his victims. That Walter, his former commander, has a pregnant wife, makes the finale all the more distressing.

However, the fate of one character pretty much goes how you expect save for one bit that, despite taking the "high" road, is rather surprising after everything that's come before it. For a movie rife with so much revulsion, this moment during the finale may disappoint hardened trash peddlers. I was nonetheless surprised and thought this bit of exploitational deceptiveness was commendable and went a long way in allowing me to forgive the director for A*P*E (1976).

Fans of rare, obscure 70s movies will want this in their collections as will those with a predilection for lower rung Hollywood fare built around controversial topics that were raging in the news of the day. Without doubt a product of its time period, and in spite of its under-budgeted short-comings, MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING is in dangerous need of a wider audience.

*A big thank you to Chris P. for allowing me the opportunity to finally see this 70s rarity*

Monday, May 21, 2012

Johnny Firecloud (1975) review


Victor Mohica (Johnny Firecloud), Ralph Meeker (Colby), David Canary (Jesse), Christina Hart (June), Frank DeKova (White Eagle), Sacheen Littlefeather (Nenya), Richard Kennedy (Ned), George 'Buck' Flower (Wade), John Goff (Newt)

Directed by William Allen Castleman

"How long is it since we hung an injun?"

The Short Version: There's no time to pass the peace pipe around in this high caliber racist revenge picture that follows in the footsteps of other similar flicks like BORN LOSERS (1967) and WALKING TALL (1973). This country fried DEATH WISH sees a Native American Vietnam vet doing a savage war dance on the town big wheel bigot, Colby and his five cronies who terrorize, rape and murder his people. Political statements typical of the era creep in on a few occasions, but racial slurs, degradation, floggings, and gruesome violence drown them out every time. The strangely compelling verbal stand-off of the final scene may end up confusing some considering everything that's transpired before it.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

Johnny Firecloud returns home from his tour in Vietnam only to be harassed by the police and humiliated and hated by the local town cretins led by the brutal, racist rancher, Colby; a man who holds the entire town and the law in his money pocket. The bigoted Colby hates Johnny for having a relationship with his daughter, and upon his return home, racial tensions boil over into a miasma of rape, sadistic violence, death and revenge.

Seeing David F. Friedman's name among the credits immediately lets you know what you are about to see is going to be anything but subtle.

The same man who produced numerous nudies, several Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, the awful SHE FREAK (1967) and the controversial ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS (1974) got behind this savage tale of Red Man Revenge. JOHNNY FIRECLOUD is in the tradition of WALKING TALL (1973) with a dash of BORN LOSERS (1967), two major league box office champions of the Drive In days.

Noticeably glossier than the usual Friedman film, the $220,000 budget gets some extra mileage out of its scope photography, a script peppered with good and gritty 70s style dialog, and some good gore effects. Among the gruesome highlights is a man being NAVAJO JOE'd, a scalping, death by bag of rattlesnakes, another has dynamite strapped between his legs, and one poor sap buried up to his head for the vultures to pluck out his eyes. Beneath the surface, and almost lost amidst all the hate-speech and depravity, is a slight message regarding American Indians that was a heady topic during the early 1970s.

At least since the late 1960s, tensions with Native Americans had swelled right along with all the other chaos going on during that defining decade. Not even taking into consideration the bloody turmoil and countless corpses that resulted from the centuries long American Indian Wars, racial tension reached dangerous levels in the early part of the 1970s. Racism was a major topic of contention during this time and throughout the 70s including a few news-making cases of racially fueled hate crimes.

The American Indian was also the subject of a number of movies and TV commercials. One of the most (in)famous examples of this was the 1971 'Keep America Beautiful' commercial with Iron Eyes Cody; which featured the image of tears running down his face amidst Americans polluting the environment with trash, bustling cars and also thick, black smoke emanating from an ominously chocking display of factories.

JOHNNY FIRECLOUD does little to temper animosity with its scenes of extreme prejudices and sadism. It also shows which side of the fence it's on (message movie vs. exploitation picture) by not featuring any actual Indians among its principal cast.

However, there are a moment or two where a flicker of a political statement arises, but then descends the waves of bigotry and moral perversion. In its slight defense, the ending is surprising in its philosophical civility, when it's expected to go balls out topping its bloody banana split with a viscera flavored cherry. Also surprising, the script takes a serious look at homosexuality during a time when it was fashionable to poke fun of it.

Sasheen Littlefeather about to get "railroaded".

In keeping with its controversial subject matter, the filmmakers even brought activist Sacheen Littlefeather on board in a supporting role. She gained a good deal of notoriety for accepting Brando's THE GODFATHER (1972) Oscar on his behalf along with a 15 page speech written by him. This speech protested the treatment of the American Indian in movies and television, including the 70 some odd day standoff at Wounded Knee that began in late February, 1973. Incidentally, the site of this stand-off was the locale of a previous massacre that took place in 1890.

Whether this film came along at the "right" time is debatable. 20th Century Fox was on board as distributor, but according to Friedman, only in overseas markets (the opening card is the famous Fox logo). Possibly with everything going on at the time, they were a bit nervous to make waves. Aside from the ending, the entire picture is awash in feelings of hatred. Even the advertisements were steeped in as much negativity as possible to get people into theaters. So screamed the poster artwork, "Redskins no longer bite the dust... they just eat dirt!"

Revenge movies have always been popular, and the 70s saw more than their fair share of them. As stated above, this one occasionally strives for something more than just blatant exploitation thrills although the frequent nudity (such as the gratuitous scene shown at right), ethnic degradation and gory shenanigans (courtesy of Joe Blasco) aim to keep the picture squarely within the Drive In and sleaze pit realm. That's not a bad thing, mind you. There's also a great group of exploitation thespians and even a couple big names not normally associated with this sort of picture.

The cast is good much of the time, but mostly when the performances call for heated, and or insensitive conflict; of which there's quite a lot of yelling, screaming and gritting of teeth.

Victor Mohica, a big, strapping man of Puerto Rican descent, gets some great tough guy lines here and hammers home the post Vietnam anxiety with his slasher style rampage during the finale when he goes suitably apeshit after the wave of injustices he suffers through.

Some viewers may recognize his face from numerous TV shows and possibly from VICTORY AT ENTEBBE, one of two 'Entebbe' movies from 1976.

One of Mohica's best moments here is when he gets his hands on Colby and strings him up in his barn. Dangling barely off the ground, Firecloud dick punches him and lashes him with a whip resulting in Colby flinching in pain while trying to keep from hanging himself! It's actually a satisfyingly hilarious scene, and if not interrupted by a shotgun toting hillbilly, we'd of likely seen more dick punching and back lashing followed up with more of Meeker's head turning red from the ever tightening rope around his neck.

Speaking of Ralph Meeker, he will likely always be best known for KISS ME DEADLY (1955), but trash fans will know him best from the likes of FOOD OF THE GODS (1976) and a brief bit in WITHOUT WARNING (1980). Like many once big name actors, he found a home in a trash barrel towards the end of his career.

He plays quite the bigoted sadist here as Colby, a rich rancher who holds the town in the palm of his hand. Meeker (like the film itself) plays the character much like those seen in countless westerns, and does a damn good job, too. Colby works outside the law and uses his money to keep the civic authorities comfortably in his shirt pocket.

Speaking of westerns, anybody who's ever watched BONANZA has probably seen David Canary on the show in the role of Candy, a ranch foreman. His character was something of a replacement after Pernell Roberts departed the show in 1965. Canary appeared in a handful of seasons, left the show, then came back again till the end after Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright) passed away in 1972. His role of the sheriff in JOHNNY FIRECLOUD is possibly the best out of the bunch given how strong the character is scripted for a movie of this sort.

David Canary has a heated exchange with Richard Kennedy after stopping a brutal barroom brawl.

According to Friedman (in an incredibly energetic and fun commentary track), Meeker wanted to play the sheriff, but Canary pulls off the character extremely well. Struggling with maintaining his homosexuality as a closely kept secret, Sheriff Jesse begrudgingly asks "How high?" when Colby tells him to jump. The sheriff shares an uneasy bond with Firecloud since both men were in the army, although Jesse was dishonorably discharged for his sexual orientation. It's this portion of the script that rises above the bountiful exploitation trappings that dominate the bulk of the movie.

With the participation of Sasheen Little-feather, viewers may think the filmmakers were going for some sort of political statement. If that was the intention, it gets lost amidst all the hate-mongering and speeches of standing against the abuse of power.

Littlefeather's performance is incredibly bland during her few minutes of dialog. The rest of her role involves her being raped and brutalized by five men in a disturbing sequence where her painfully obvious breast enlargement puts in a more memorable performance. Above you'll see exploitation perennial, George 'Buck' gettin ready to fuck in a grim gang rape scene.

This scene could have been a powerful scene in more capable hands for a movie that was gunning for a serious look at the Native American plight during this time period. Instead we get delirious camerawork that zips and zooms over a child scribbled assemblage of the alphabet, a poster that says "See the scenic wonders of your United States"(!) and closes out on a close up of Abraham Lincoln. It's still a disturbing sequence, embracing the trashiness of the whole affair captured by a cameraman who may or not have put back a few beers prior to shooting it.

Richard Kennedy (the guy laughing in the ten gallon hat at far right)

One of the villains is Richard Kennedy, whom 70s exploitation fans will instantly recognize from the first two ILSA movies. He was the General who liked being pissed on in the first and the comic relief doctor from the second who ended up unknowingly eating a human eyeball (as opposed to a sheep's eye) and having a male slave boy sent to "entertain" him. Kennedy had a (un)healthy career in trashy movies during the 70s, much like this next fellow.

Exploitation regular, John Goff (left) and an almost unrecognizable, beardless George 'Buck' Flower (right)

Another ILSA alumni is George 'Buck' Flower. He was a Nazi doctor in the first, and a Syphilis infested peasant in the second.

Flower has been in dozens of Drive In flicks including numerous horror pictures and 'Danger In Dixie' style movies. This is made all the more surprising that he also had supporting roles in family fare such as ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE (1976). One of his best remembered roles was as the recurring character of Boomer in the family classic series, THE WILDERNESS FAMILY (1975)!

Even more shocking is that in JOHNNY FIRECLOUD, Flower actually had a bag full of snakes placed on his head (not the rattlers seen in close up); you see one of the slithery reptiles escaping the bag as Firecloud affixes it around his body.

The score is nothing to write home about, which is basically the only major blotch on the movie. Nothing spectacular, just typical 70s beats and WaWa sounds. Outside of a couple pieces, it never quite fits the onscreen action. A suitable score would have added an extra dimension to the film.

I first saw JOHNNY FIRECLOUD via the old Prism big box tape. It's been available on other VHS labels, too, including one that sold the film as REVENGE OF JOHNNY FIRECLOUD with artwork not in the movie.

At times, this brutal tale of Injun Justice shows signs of violent exuberance, occasionally engaging, but mostly a typical entry in the revenge flick sweepstakes. Recommended, but some might be left wondering what happened during the contemplative final scene. Possibly there was hope for JOHNNY FIRECLOUD 2?

This review is representative of the Something Weird DVD paired with BUMMER (1973)

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