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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

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


STEP RIGHT UP FOR THE TRASHIEST SHOW ON EARTH!

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.

EURO PORN SIN-SATIONS

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.

FIGHTING FISTS & KUNG FU KICKS!

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.

BRUCE IS LOOSE!

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.

CONTINUED IN PART 2...

7 comments:

dfordoom said...

I've seen Trader Hornee! It's kind of fun, in a surprisingly good-natured way. From the late great David F. Friedman.

venoms5 said...

Many of those Friedman movies are a good deal of fun. What sort of world would we live in without BLOOD FEAST or ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS?

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Informative, entertaining, and as interesting as ever...excellent work Brian.

venoms5 said...

Thanks for the comments and taking the time to read it, Shaun!

Maynard Morrissey said...

Ah, the infamous Aquarius studios! What a great idea for a double post. Hope you will do the same for Crown International sometime in the future :-)

Raimund Harmstorf was one of the most popular actors in the 70s in Germany / Austria / Switzerland, especially because of the immensely successfull TV-Series "The Sea Wolf" and "Michael Strogoff". My mom was and still is in love with him :-)

Hey, Ernst Hofbauer, the 'master' of German sexploitation. I saw some of his Schoolgirl and Housewife Reports back in the 90s when one German TV station showed them regularly in the after-midnight program :-)

Omg, all those Bruce Li's and Bruce Lea's...
I remember when I got my first A-Z Movie Lexicon and there were loads of Bruce-Lee-titled movies in it, and I thought "Wow, this guy has made shitloads of movies!".
Many years later I realized that the real Bruce Lee only made a handful movies - nevertheless, the video market was and still is flooded with dumb Lee rip-offs. Sucks.

venoms5 said...

If I can find enough information to do something other than critique the films of Crown, I would love to do that. I was pondering on the next one being on Film Ventures and the notorious Edward L. Montoro.

That's great and equally informative, Harry! There's an idea for you, right there. You can do an article on Germany's colorful history in exploitation cinema! You seem to have some cool memories and interesting things to say on the subject. Do it. DO IT! :D

Maynard Morrissey said...

Looking forward to that Film Ventures article - they released lots of awesome movies!

I don't know much about Crown, but lots of their movies are in the glorious Mill Creek packs and I noticed that their marketing techniques were pretty similar to Aquarius.

Haha, I admit I have lots of nice memories about all the sleazy German sexploitation :) I don't promise anything, but I'll definitely mull over it :)

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