Thursday, September 7, 2023

Reel Bad Cinema: Crocodile (1979/1981) review


Nat Puvanai (Dr. Anthony Akom), Tanny Tien Ni (Angela), Min Oo (Dr. John Strom), Angela Huang An Qi (Linda)
Directed by Won Se Lee (credited to Sompote Sands)
The Short Version: This multi-Asian co-production with one of the most convoluted 'making of' histories, has a few absurdly entertaining moments even if the sum of its parts equals a giant CROC of shit. JAWS made waves in Southeast Asia (as it did everywhere else in the world)--leading to a spate of Asian-style disaster movies. CROCODILE, on the other hand, is a disaster of a different kind--in its chaotically edited, Tsunamically awful English-speaking export version brought to you by exploitation connoisseurs Herman Cohen and Dick Randall. 

Nature strikes back after atomic testing sends a giant crocodile to snack on vacationers and wipe out small villages in Thailand. Three men--two doctors and a crocodile hunter--who apparently were the only three on Earth to never see JAWS head out to sea to kill the supernatural reptile and discover too late they needed a much bigger boat.

A favorite video store rental back in the 1980s due largely to its eye-catching artwork, if you were one of the many that rented CROCODILE, you were likely disappointed or possibly even thankful if you were having trouble sleeping in those days. A pan-and-scan nightmare on VHS, things are modestly improved in the widescreen format in this blu-ray presentation from Synapse. 

JAWS (1975) redefined movies back in 1975 (till STAR WARS came in 1977 and changed every aspect of cinema forever). With Spielberg's shark movie making major moolah all around the world, companies like Shaw Brothers--who distributed the Great White horror in SE Asia in 1976--were determined to break the US market with a blockbuster of their own. Shaw's, as well as other SE Asian film companies, and other industry personalities, wanted to show audiences there was more to Hong Kong cinema than Kung Fu fighting. 

What Shaw's really wanted to do in 1976 was to make TAIPAN with a major American studio and a Hollywood budget to match. They'd even built new air-conditioned facilities to accommodate foreign crews filming there. While that project simmered, the thinking was to catch international attention with a JAWS-like thriller. Shaw's had collaborated with Warner Brothers on CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD in 1975, a large-scale and fairly large budget action movie blending the Black Action and Kung Fu genres. 
A more ambitious sequel to 1973s CLEOPATRA JONES, the movie did poorly in both America and Hong Kong. Blaxploitation had peaked in 1974 and KF flicks were flooding the market exclusively through small outfits by 1975. JAWS took a big bite out of the industry and everything changed. The first Hollywood blockbuster, the $100 million grosser made unprecedented numbers in foreign markets as well.
A shark movie wasn't practical for Hong Kong, so a movie about a giant ape was more feasible; and with a KING KONG remake going into production at Paramount, so came the cult favorite THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977). While times were hard for independents and other Asian markets, Shaw Brothers had the capital to go it alone. 
Sadly, STAR WARS came out in 1977 and made a monkey out of KING KONG while changing the entirety of the American movie industry virtually overnight. 

By 1976 in Southeast Asia, markets like Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, etc, put stricter regulations in place on how many Hong Kong movies they'd import. Sex was becoming more permissive as was an increase in violent content; both of which were heavily censored in markets like Malaysia and Indonesia. This, along with other market-crushing factors, impacted the HK film industry in that other territories weren't going to take just any movie anymore.
These other markets decided to focus more attention on building up their own local film industries. To compensate, Chinese companies partnered with other Asian producers to share in the cost of shooting co-productions. 
Shaw's did the same, helping other territories like Malaysia build their industries by sending some of their directors and talent pool to other countries to participate in these co-pro deals. 

Unfortunately for Hong Kong, Anglo-audiences weren't interested in anything but Kung Fu, and even that was losing favor with theater patrons. Major companies were no longer interested, but smaller ones were. So you had the US-Korea co-production, A*P*E* in 1976 (a movie featuring a ridiculous sequence where the giant gorilla battles a shark); and that same year, Taiwan filmmakers signing with American porn director Michael Findlay to make two Kung Fu epics using his then new 3D process; and then there was the Thai-Korea-Hong Kong three-way, CROCODILE.
Crocodiles are enormously popular in Thai folklore and a huge part of their culture. Thailand is the epicenter of crocodile farms with hundreds of thousands of them bred for purposes of food, clothing and medicine. Then there's the famous Krai Thong legend of Chalawan the Crocodile King.
CROCODILE was one of, if not the first movie of its kind, although it almost wasn't. ALLIGATOR was in pre-production in America in 1976, but wasn't made till four years later. About the only similarity that carried over to Lewis Teague's movie from its early inception was the gator ended up in the sewer system.
Run Run Shaw did finally get on the JAWS bandwagon, late though it were, co-producing BLOOD BEACH (1980) with American producer Steven Navelansky. Then in 1981, American exploitation producer, Dick Randall, who was good friends with Huang Chien Lung, aka Bruce Le (who often made Kung Fu movies in exotic Asian countries), bought the rights to the Thai giant reptile movie and re-titled it CROCODILE.
The movie has a murky history that is made slightly more clear by the film's apparently real director, South Korean filmmaker Won Se Lee. According to him, the movie was shot in 1977 and released in 1978. What's most striking about his interview on this blu-ray release is he is totally unaware that he is not the credited director on the film. 
For decades, the film has been viewed as the work of Sompote Sands, the founder and CEO of Chaiyo Productions (who passed away in August of 2021). He is also the man who tried to put Tsuburaya Productions out of business in a fraudulent effort to steal their ULTRAMAN properties; as well as illegally producing films ripping off Toei's KAMEN RIDER series. That Sands may have taken credit for someone else's work seems feasible considering the above-mentioned two-decades+ long court battle against the Tsuburaya company.

It could also be argued that Sands altered Won's work enough to get away with keeping his name off CROCODILE's release version (in Thailand and seemingly everywhere else in the world), as it has sequences culled from other sources. Some of the croc footage is reportedly from a different movie, too.
What sometimes happened in those days with multi-cultural co-productions is there were times where you would have two directors--one for the HK market and, in this example, one for the Korean market. 
If this was the case with CROCODILE, Won Se Lee would have been assigned as director of the version for release in the Korean market. This would basically be the same movie just with sequences exclusive to Korean theaters. Meanwhile, the film is released elsewhere in the world without a clue as to who actually directed the movie.

The film doesn't appear to have been a hit anywhere it played outside of Thailand--since there were more locally made croc movies that surfaced in its wake.

Judging the English cut only, it's both a dull and fairly terrible movie with a few sequences so spectacularly shoddy you simply can't look away. However, the original Thai version appears to be far more cohesive than the slipshod, drunkenly edited edition Dick Randall concocted for American release. There's even one brief scene that's repeated but with different dialog dubbed over it.

The "best"  parts are an extended assault on a Thai village that plays far better in the Thai version. Randall splits the sequence in two, so later in the movie you'll wonder why you're seeing the same people being swallowed up a second time. What's frustrating is there are decent shots in the Thai original that didn't make it into the US version.  One of these is a lengthy attack by the big croc and a valiant father who fights it off; and a striking shot of a large number of body parts descending to the bottom of the river (seen in the extras on the blu-ray).

Elsewhere, laughter is derived from the title reptile's glow in the dark eyes (that looks like the filmmakers strapped two flashlights to a piece of wood); and in probably the film's funniest moment, the image of the enormous critter pole-vaulting over a toy boat in a bathtub.
There's some nice miniature destruction although it's not known who did what. Sompote Sands (or Sompote Saengduenchai) is always credited with doing the SPX, yet Kazuo Sagawa worked on the film. It wasn't his first time on a Thai picture, either. 
Sagawa studied under Eiji Tsuburaya in the 1960s, became a camera assistant, and worked his way up to Special Effects Director on THE RETURN OF ULTRAMAN series that ran from 1971-1972. In 1974 he worked on some co-productions with Sompote's Chaiyo company that Tsuburaya Productions probably wished they'd never partaken in considering the thievery and lawsuits that followed.
As mentioned earlier about Southeast Asian markets working together for mutual cooperation to bolster their respective entertainment industries, this included Japan, too. Chaiyo's CEO Sompote Sands wanted to import Japan's ULTRA shows as well as co-produce with them as superhero programming was popular outside its native Japan. Two movies were made in conjunction with Chaiyo, those being JUMBORG ACE AND GIANT and THE SIX ULTRA BROTHERS AND THE MONSTER ARMY. Kazuo Sagawa worked on both of these, although only the latter title would see release in Japan.
In 1995, Sands mounted a relentless offensive against Tsuburaya Productions to claim worldwide ownership of their ULTRA properties; asserting that Noboru Tsuburaya--who had just died in 1995--had signed over rights to a number of their shows in the 1970s due to money Noboru allegedly borrowed from Mr. Sands that he was unable to pay back. 
The new CEO of Tsuburaya, Kazuo Tsuburaya, was naturally skeptical of this out-of-the-blue deal since Noboru never mentioned its existence in the 20 years it was said to have been written; not to mention that Mr. Sands waited till Noboru was dead before going public with it. 
This led to a series of unnecessary court battles wherein Sompote Sands quite literally attempted to steal a property that never belonged to him. He had already illegally appropriated Toei's KAMEN RIDER character when they refused to co-produce features with him.

As for Kazuo Sagawa, he would also work on the first two of three co-productions with the Rankin-Bass Corporation; those films being THE LAST DINOSAUR (1977) and the massive cult favorite THE BERMUDA DEPTHS (1978). At some point before, during, or after these two American projects Sagawa worked on CROCODILE, alias GIANT CROCODILE.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Sagawa would lend his talents to Hong Kong productions as well. Shaw Brothers Production Manager Cai Lan, who was fluent in multiple languages including English and Japanese, had a great working relationship with Japan and was a good friend of Sagawa's.
As for Sompote Sands, his 20+ year crusade to crush Tsuburaya Productions and lay claim to creations that didn't belong to him finally came to an end in 2018 with the Japanese giant retaining properties that belonged to them in the first place.
One the acting front...
The Shaw Brothers had nothing to do with CROCODILE, but a Taiwanese actress who worked on many of their movies had a supporting role in it to help with the marquee value. Tanny Tien Ni's contract with Shaw's allowed her to be a freelance actress. She'd been in the industry since 1969 and was something of a controversial individual in those early days; she was a bit of a wild card. 

She'd made headlines in 1971 for having an open affair with filmmaker Mou Tun Fei, who was married at the time. He did eventually separate from his wife and promised marriage to Tien Ni. Mou Tun Fei, of course, was the director most famous for the 1988 endurance test that is MEN BEHIND THE SUN. Prior to that infamous horror film, he'd already made a name for himself with nihilistic movies like A DEADLY SECRET and LOST SOULS (both 1980). 
Mistresses weren't encouraged, but it was part of the Asian culture at the time. What made this occasion different was it was being done right out in the open as opposed to keeping it as private as possible. 
When Tanny realized Mou wasn't going to marry her, the next high profile affair she was involved in was with British actor Robin Stewart; whom she met while he was in Hong Kong starring in THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974). Stewart was so taken with her, he wrote an article in Shaw's Hong Kong Movie News about their love that was possibly leading to marriage... it didn't.

She would then enter into a healthy and stable relationship with popular Swordplay actor Yueh Hua. The two married in December of 1975 and remained together till Hua's death in 2018.
There's nothing special about any of the performances in this movie, but there's an attempt to create sympathy for Dr. Akrom who has lost his wife (rather poorly) to the crocodile. It's impossible since there are so many instances where scenes begin and end so randomly. Either the original production didn't have time to fill in the gaps or this was due to Randall's scissor fingers.

If you can handle the awful experience you're in for, you may notice there's some things in CROCODILE that show the director was trying to make a professional movie--particularly where camera placement is concerned. Unfortunately, the English cut is so appallingly edited, these moments may likely pass you by.
What makes CROCODILE somewhat, and unintentionally, worthwhile is the wildly disparate croc shots. The film uses what looks like a 25ft, virtually immobile model; a real croc on miniature sets; a croc head for close ups; and a tail for some splashing scenes. None of these ever match up. The critter looks normal sized in one scene and as big as Godzilla in the next. This is one of the film's charming qualities--there just isn't enough of them to make the movie endearingly bad; it's just outright bad.
There is, however, some nice natural disaster footage at the beginning that is from a different movie called LAND OF GRIEF. And 92 minutes of grief is what most will be getting.
Amazingly, CROCODILE, the last picture distributed by Herman Cohen, does have a fanbase; so if you're a lover of bad movies, Asian horror and giant monster flicks, you might just do a death-roll over this Far Eastern saltwater Croc schlock.

This review is representative of the Synapse blu-ray. Specs and extras: 1080p anamorphic widescreen from the original 35mm camera negative; Interview with original director Won Se Lee; deleted and alternate scenes; original trailer; English subtitles; audio commentary with Lee Gambin; nude slipcover limited to 1,500 units; running time: 01:31:48.
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