The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: Death Wish 2

220px-Death_Wish_II

I’m a movie vigilante.

Details:

Directed by Michael Winner

Featuring Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Vincent Gardenia, J.D. Cannon, Anthony Franciosa, and (!) Laurence Fishburne

Released 2/20/1982

Special Shout Out – music by Jimmy Page

IMDB Synopsis (via rcs0411@yahoo.com) Paul Kersey, the vigilante, now lives in LA with his daughter, who is still recovering from her attack. He also has a new woman in his life. One day while with them, Kersey is mugged by some punks, Kersey fights back, but they get away. The leader, wanting to get back at Kersey, goes to his house, but Kersey and his daughter Carol are not there. The muggers rape his housekeeper, and when Kersey and his daughter arrive, they knock him out and kidnap her. After they assault her, she leaps out of a window to her death. Kersey then grabs his gun and goes after them. When the LA authorities, deduce they have a vigilante, they decide to consult with New York, who had their vigilante problem. Now the New York officials, knowing that Kersey lives in LA, fears that he’s back to his old habit. Fearing that Kersey, when caught will reveal that they let him go instead of prosecuting him send Inspector Ochoa to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Minutes of Interest:

00:40- Good ol’ Jimmy Page is on the case.

00:52- Cannon went all out on these helicopter shots of Los Angeles.

01:12- Laurence Fishburne III!

01:30- Radio exposition! “homicides up 79%, robberies are up 68%, aggravated assault and other violent crimes are up 59%, rapes have increased 61%, and aggressive crimes are up, too.” She’s so specific with the other stats but just drops whatever “aggressive crimes are. Also, aren’t there a bunch of redundancies here? Aren’t homicides also violent crimes, can’t rapes be labeled as “aggressive crimes”?

02:09- War on Crime name drop. Yup, it’s the early 80s in Reagan’s America.

02:59′ “Hey, there she is now.” I love how nonchalant Paul Kersey is any scene in this movie. Bronson knows what sort of movie he’s in.

03:20- Girlfriend: “Oh, and Los Angeles Magazine (is that real?) has gone for my article on criminal rehabilitation!” Kersey: “That’s great.” You said it, Chuck, you said it.

04:03- “You’re her father, Mr Kersey. You can only give her your love. And your prayers, too.” Well, fuck you too Dr. Psychiatrist. What am I keeping my daughter here for? Can’t you do something?

04:36- I’m so sad for Kersey’s daughter Carol. There’s plenty of issues percolating through Death Wish 2 but her character makes me plain miserable. All she wants is ice cream and ends up raped and suicidal because her dad tried to get her a cone. This is where the skeeziness of Michael Winner starts seeping in.

04:56- Thugs! But, like the United Colors of Benetton version.

05:32- Ew, put your tongue away late 70s rocker.

05:39- Old man running.

06:04- Once Kersey’s dodged the switchblade, you think the punk would realize he’s barking up the wrong tree.

06:05- Cardboard box block!

06:28- At least, Kersey’s trying to reform his ways by not killing winter coat/headband thug. This being a Death Wish movie, it won’t last.

06:58- Who is this sea captain that’s so tight with Carol and Kersey? I don’t think we ever *see* him again. See what I did there?

07:33- Great cut to a surprising and ominous shot of Pledge sprayed across the family portrait. Michael Winner might be a pervert and sadist but, sometimes, he knows where to put the camera.

08:00- The thug van reminds me more of the Mystery Machine than some sort of intimidating gangstermobile. Thelma and Scooby are waiting in the backseat.

08:14- Laurence Fishburne and friends want revenge on Paul Kersey so they go to his house to kill him? That’s their motivation since he roughed one of them up? That seems like a lot of work for some low level toughs. That’s more of a mob thing. They seem like the cannon fodder a crime lord would deploy, not necessarily concerned with respect and honor, more interested in muggings and hanging out in the park with their boom box.

08:36- “Supa finnne.” Looks like Morpheus took the blue pill.

08:54- That crowbar stays lit and framed in the back of your moving van? Ok, sure.

09:21- Nice composition.

10:07- The next few minutes are just terrible, filled with rape, more rape, and even more rape. It’s horrifying and excessive and doesn’t just tiptoe but long jumps beyond the usual haunts of an exploitation film. No, Michael Winner, no.

10:30- I sort of want to shut this movie off.

11:00- They’re fighting over who gets to rape this poor maid first? And Laurence Fishburne is cool with this? And they made three additional Death Wish films? Oh, boy…

11:32- This is absolutely terrible.

12:05- Laurence Fishburne is doing post-rape tai-chi. Oh, my…

12:09- I was wrong. THIS is the worst thing. Now it’s officially a snuff film. Goodness…

12:15- “Alright lady, do it quietly, do it nice.” This demonstrates the caliber of actor Fishburne is. He can deliver horrible lines that communicate menace and glee while a raped, nude housemaid is forced to give a blowjob. It’s almost sacrilege he elevates such horrible material.

13:03- Action grandpa! Crotch kick!

13:13- Crowbar clearly didn’t connect with anything.

13:15- Oh, no, Rosaria…

14:08 Bad framing and bad politics. Winner’s cinematography starts breaking down as the film progresses with strange angles and odd compositions. Why film this senator through a bundle of flags? Visually what is gained? If anything, it adds out of focus clutter to the shot. It’s even a flat medium so there’s no engaging juxtaposition or interesting lighting going on.

14:19- Again, the shot is cluttered with out of focus nonsense that does nothing beyond providing a new angle. But varying angles doesn’t guarantee good shots or enhancing cinematic storytelling.

14:34- This shot looks great. Good blocking. The visual elements of this movie are schizophrenic. Also, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

14:46- You said that already white afro thug. Later we find out his name is Nevada. Or Nirvana? It isn’t clear when the line’s delivered.

14:54- “We look all the same to whitey anyway.” I think there’s a nice bit of social commentary lingering under there. However, Michel Winner is more concerned getting the audience to the next rape scene than spotlighting issues of criminal justice and racism.

15:10- No, no, no: THIS is the worst of the worst. It’s bad enough to rape and murder a poor, innocent housemaid trying to cook dinner and watch her stories. Now the same is about to happen to Kersey’s poor, innocent teenage daughter with severe developmental impairments and obvious PTSD from the first Death Wish.

16:06- Jimmy Page’s score makes this movie. Creepy and often inappropriate but always surprising in what will sound off next.

16:38- I’m with you, Carol. After watching that, I don’t want to live anymore either. Maybe she finally found out she was in a Michael Winner movie?

16:55- What the hell is that guy dusting for prints on? A lame hallway piece of art about 8 X 10? What could be on there?

17:29- They still haven’t covered up Rosaria’s dead, naked, raped body? What kind of cops are these…oh, wait…I forgot what sort of movie I’m watching.

17:45- “We ran it down in our computer.” The police only have one? Oh, it was 1982, I guess.

18:16- Girlfriend could not give a flying fuck that Kersey was assaulted, his maid raped and murdered, and his daughter kidnapped, likely raped and murdered as well. She’s acting as if someone egged their house on Halloween.

18:54- “Get some sleep, darling.” Uh, hello! My daughter was just found gang raped and impaled on a wrought iron fence.

19:48- “It is for me,” is the one bit of emotional investment from Kersey. He’s coping by getting back to work. A mild beat. This movie is all horror without any sort of reflection or distance to make sense of the rapes and killings impacting these characters. There’s no Kersey screaming or crying in the bathroom. It’s not unlike him finding out he’s finally being charged for garbage collection.

20:34- Now, here’s the internalization this movie needs. Chop those logs! Split them!

21:17- “What is this, a building for ants?!?”

22:04- How can a radio station have so much money for a custom designed building? And what is this subplot accomplishing? So much time is spent on the economics of architecture that it scans as filler. We even get a breakdown of prices.

23:03- I feel Bronson’s acting is especially strong when he deflects the truth. There’s a shlubbiness, an everyday kind of guy vibe to him (I once heard an apocryphal quote that he once was called “Gary Cooper left out in the sun for too long”) more fitting for this film than a traditional actor playing the confident father, the dotting lover, or the action hero. His ability to shrug and trail off suit a guy wanting to avoid trouble. Which he appears to be, but isn’t. I don’t know if it’s a high compliment to pay an actor that he just doesn’t seem to care so genuinely.

23:08- Odd framing. Perhaps foreshadowing or thematic but just head scratching.

23:47- Again, another bad frame. Kersey is shot through the gap between Garibaldi’s mascot and a bucket of chicken. For what? What’s being communicated here?

24:59- Less vigilante looking than On the Waterfront longshoreman.

25:24- This stretch of seedy LA with the churches seems like it’s reaching for commentary but I can’t see it. Too many churches on one block, overflowing and song filled, while crime swirls around on the outside? Is this a critique? Or some sort of British gaze on faith in poor communities in the US?

26:44- “Spare no expense.”

28:19- Jimmy Page’s musical sting reminds me of The Terminator. Oh, that was two years later. Wait! Did The Terminator rip off this movie?

29:36- Hare Krishna! Was that a big thing in 1982?

31:43- Rats!

32:47- “Do you believe in Jesus?” “Yes I Do.” “Well, you’re gonna meet him.” Bullet!

34:00- What’s happening outside? A party? For what? If this is such a crime ridden area you’d think revelers and their balloons would be more careful.

34:54- Oh. My. God. Look at 80s news. It’s being read from grandma’s rocking chair.

35:43- Ha! Even the abused teenage prostitute won’t proposition Paul Kersey. Burn, bro.

36:38- It’s Bob Ross, the PBS art guy! Shooting a gun…? In an arcade?

37:17- Jeeze, more rape?

38:29- First, an impossible butt shot. Next, a “I don’t give a shit about acting” shot.

39:56- Good framing.

40:12- Did Kersey not hear the engine idling? Or is this truck some sort of super stealth weapon that likes to destroy wooden crates?

40:31- “Goodbye.” Maybe the most satisfying kill. If anything this should have been the climax since this is the thug that kicked off the entire series of events.

41:00- How are the paramedics allowing this to happen?

41:34- “Youse both suaw ‘im and I want da duscription.” This is supposed to be in LA? Not Brooklyn?

42:01- “You know what we ‘av ‘er? A goddamed vigilante.”

42:30- Again, another instance of social commentary creeping in that is utterly left on the cutting room floor. I want more.

42:57- Yay! Characters you know only from the first film with little to no connection to this film.

43:36- Ben Franklin’s watching.

44:29- If Kersey is up to his old tricks again? You mean murder? Old tricks is like tossing dice in the alley or tagging a brick facade, not gunning down unsavory types with bullets to the back.

44:48- Good, good, good. The panning and blocking work exceptionally.

47:16- Ugh, bored. Exposition

48:34- “Marital Aids” scans a bit different in an era that’s pre-Viagra but post-AIDS.

48:45- Someone stole Michael Jackson’s Thriller jacket.

51:15- Frank’s really happy Kersey and Girlfriend are getting down to fucking.

52:22- Jaws score?

53:39- Watch out, Frank! Did you forget your medication this morning? Also, the lady that he commandeers the car from seems very excited a stranger is bossing her around.

54:48- Does “follow that bus,” still work today? Could I do that or would the cabbie tell me to get lost?

55:36- Laurence Fishburne’s hat looks like he inspired Pharrell.

57:55- This is taking forever…

58:26- Sneaking suspicion that Charles Bronson was actually asleep on set.

59:36- “If you hear shooting, don’t worry. It’s just target practice.” Given the apathy of most of the people shown so far, I doubt the cab driver would give a crap if he heard a bazooka go off.

1:00:04- Are all gangsters obligated to have head wear? Our trio of surviving toughs all have hats and so do these vaguely Italian mobsters. One even has Robin Williams-esque rainbow suspenders. AND there’s a fanny pack involved as a cocaine smuggling device!

1:01:52- Kersey’s a crack shot, especially facing down automatic weapons with a measly 9mm.

1:02:02- Ha! That boombox won’t protect you now, Laurence Fishburne!

1:02:18- Wait for it…

1:02:20- Wait for it…

01:02:23- Yes! Getaway car going over a cliff!

01:02:27- And it exploded! This is what I expect from a Cannon movie.

01:03:20- Bye, Frank.

1:04:13- This LA detective is a pretty dirty cop. He’s got a thing for threatening defenseless people on stretchers.

1:05:09- What is with the radio station design subplot? Again, do we really need to see mock-ups of it and long discussion about the price of marble vs. concrete?

1:07:35- “Subject lighting narcotics.” I guess that’s a bit of set-up for how bat shit crazy Nevada/Nirvana gets in the following sequence. Originally went over my head. See, the wonders of multiple viewings!

1:08:48- Is it nighttime through that window into the alley?

1:09:11- Taser means nothing to me! This sequence is balls out unbelievable, even if Navada/Nirvana is ‘roiding on PCP.

1:09:50- Was Kersey watching from the room with the topless girl jacked into her music the thug ran out of?

1:11:56- “…under the influence of PCP, a mind altering drug.” Gee, thanks for the PSA, Your Honor.

1:12:20- Another instance of criminal justice commentary that gets washed straight over. Stop and slow down on these bits if you’re going to include them, Michael Winner. There’s almost a very faint pre-RoboCop style satire lurking in the script.

1:14:20- Wite-Out. The ultimate component in any vigilante’s tool kit. That and Jimmy Page’s continually surprising synth stings.

1:15:36- Bronson looks like a Shar-Pei in this close-up. So. Many. Folds.

1:17:34- More faux, proto The Terminator score.

1:19:37- You’d think this orderly would get a bit suspicious that “Dr. Carter” doesn’t know what an E.C.T. machine is. There’s even a line from the orderly saying that “Dr. Carter” and his ilk are responsible for pulling these machines from use.

1:20:57- Is Kersey staying silent as he’s shived over and over again in the shoulder and chest saying something about the resilience and toughness of the character or does Charles Bronson just not want to act? Lingering questions…

1:21:23- Ha! Nevada/Nirvana is going Buckwheat meets Kramer.

1:21:48- Yeah, hi.

1:23:23- I’m surprised Kersey doesn’t shrug and gun down these people in the crosswalk, too. Why so angry pedestrians?

1:26:49- Kersey seems so indifferent to his girlfriend (briefly fiance) leaving him. Again, is this a character thing or an acting thing?

1:27:00- Not a bad image to close on. Kersey may not get the girl but he always gets his man.

Reflection:

Of all the Cannon films I’ve come across in my Watch-Through, Death Wish 2 is the most movie of them all. That’s pedantic but it feels mainstream in the way prior films felt direct to video or belonging in some seedy side alley theater joint.

It features a known actor (though a decade past his expiration date), in a sequel to a known property, with a known director at the helm. The film looks well budgeted and it’s mostly shot and directed effectively with a score by Jimmy Page that feels well above its pay grade. In hindsight, it even features future talent (Laurence Fishburne) and would go on to spawn three additional Death Wish sequels, as well as a series of knock-offs, some helmed by Charles Bronson himself (Murphy’s Law) .

With that said, Death Wish 2 skips typical Cannon attributes, such as the cheese of The Apple, the cheapness of New Year’s Evil, or the strangeness/translation errors of Hospital Massacre or Enter the Ninja. Given how early Death Wish 2 occurs in Golan and Globus’s tenure at Cannon, this likely was their most mainstream, accessible hit to date. It’s a movie, after all, perhaps the first Golan/Globus Cannon film worthy of the label ‘film’.

So, why is there so little joy watching this movie?

In a way, Death Wish 2 is a strange creature, caught between the grittier, personal film making of the 70s and the burgeoning exploitation, big fireworks umbrella the 80s would make infamous. The grit and realness that Winner deployed in 1974’s Death Wish continues, but it’s countered by the rising silliness of the series (just what the hell is Laurence Fishburne wearing?) that pulls it in increasingly unrealistic directions despite a devotion to realism.

Mixing graphic rape and horrible violence with cartoonish characters devoid of depth or feeling makes for a strange brew. It isn’t a death sentence but it takes a special sort of director to pull it off. Paul Verhoeven was able to navigate this melding in RoboCop through his skill, deftness, and tendency towards satire. It negotiates the round peg entering the square hole. Michael Winner doesn’t seem capable of rectifying these shapes. Either you skew towards the gritty and realistic or you embrace the camp. Trying to have the proverbial cake just doesn’t work in this context.

More importantly, Death Wish 2 brings up an interesting wrinkle in exploitation cinema, maybe any cinema (or art) that engages with loaded topics bracketed by strong emotions. Namely, Death Wish 2 is rapey to a terrifying extent. And it happens so quick in the narrative to where it’s jarring, off putting, and a huge turnoff.

There are three rapes in Death Wish 2. Two are accomplished, one is attempted. There’s also blatant sexual harassment later in the film of the toughs pull up the skirt of the lady at the bus stop. The three rapes feature ample nudity and violence:

  1. Rosaria is beaten, stripped, gang raped, dragged around by the hair, and then murdered when she attempts to phone for help.
  2. Carol is abducted, raped, and then jumps out a window and is impaled on a spiky fence. There’s an element of defiance here considering Carol was also raped in Death Wish but that does little to clean up this scene.
  3. Paul Kersey comes across a couple being accosted in a parking garage and interrupts the attempted rape of a vaguely middle class woman. But, this being Death Wish 2, her breasts are still exposed for the entire sequence, just cuz.

Art provokes and can make us uncomfortable and these scenes are certainly uncomfortable to sit through. But it isn’t the same as a piece of transgressive cinema or biting satire or forceful spoken word. There’s something else going on here. When Death Wish 2 debuted, Michael Winner found himself in hot water with British censors over the violent rape scenes. Censors are rarely correct but film critics also piled on, pointing that the explicitness and the melding of sex and violence crossed a line of taste and aesthetic value. Winner hit back, claiming artistic license and the value of free speech.

So, what’s the value of including such graphic scenes? Maybe better put: does depiction equate to endorsement? Do these graphic scenes of rape constitute some sort of artistic failure, a willingness to cross a line without the provocation art anticipates?

It’s tricky. It’s not dissimilar to the controversy surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. When her film came out in 2012, the thinkpiece mill cranked. At issue was her depiction of torture on detainees. Though largely discredited as producing actionable or accurate information, torture tactics deployed by the CIA were shown to be effective and the inciting plot point for the film.

Many critics latched onto this depiction, claiming Bigelow endorsed a reprehensible practice through her art by making its efficacy part of the narrative. In a way, by showing torture worked in Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow was making a claim that torture would work elsewhere. Much like Winner, she hit back, claiming artistic license and freedom of expression.

Consider: if depiction equaled endorsement, what’s to be said of George R. R. Martin, or Agatha Christie, or any other writer, photographer, or filmmaker that features murder, suicide, or sexual violence in their work? If objectionable content included in a piece of art had a 1-to-1 equivalency with the persuasions of the author, difficult topics could never be seriously covered unless murderers, rapists, racists, and serial killers were the sole font of beauty.

Of course, that’s a world no one would want to live in. It’s a world hard to conceive. But, then again, all art, beyond aesthetics, technique, intent, is really about choices. It’s about the choice of what to include and, more importantly, what to exclude. It’s about what to emphasize and whether this character does that or if this image is used here or that word is emphasized or this meter is followed. Those choices reflect the work’s potential impact but it also reflects on the personage behind the work.

So, if rape and torture are attributes purposefully chosen, what does that say about the artists behind the works? Narratives, even ones based on true events, are still fictional: recreations that are given meaning and emphasis through the work of the storyteller. That’s a double edged sword because it implies that, yeah, it’s just a story. It isn’t real. Don’t read too much into it. But then, it is a story, and I’ve told it, and I’ve chosen to tell it this way, emphasizing certain aspects and downplaying others.

How does Death Wish 2 factor into this?

While Zero Dark Thirty used depictions of torture as a plot point, there was a narrative justification to it. Accusations Bigelow supported torture because of her film is stupid. Perhaps she’s wrongheaded and could have opted for a different approach but she isn’t Leni Riefenstahl. Torture, in Zero Dark Thirty, netted results, but these results were not presented as glorious or heroic. In the filmic world of that movie, it’s ugly. Visually, the movie is muddy and there’s very little triumphant about it.

American Sniper follows a similar trend (and a similar controversy) in its depictions and presentations of violence. Yes, Iraqis were dehumanized, presented as mindless bodies, but the film itself was about the dehumanizing impact of violence and the constant picking off of people was narratively and artistically justified given the overall aims of director Clint Eastwood. Is it the best vehicle to handle that message? Likely, no. There are grander issues of race, violence, religion, and imperialism that could have been explored. But, is the violence warranted in the context (whatever our feelings on the Iraq War are)? Yes.

Death Wish 2 features scenes of rape that are so unsettling, so graphic that they derail the narrative. Consider, during the two most violent rapes (Rosaria and Carol) Charles Bronson’s character is nowhere near. This is not something viewed through his perspective (unlike Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper’s protagonists, who are present during the most controversial moments). The gaze presented to the audience is only for the audience. This makes these scene exploitative, for our “pleasure” only.

Narratively and aesthetically they color our perceptions but we’re outside the work. If Bronson’s character was tied and bound and saw these events, maybe, just maybe, there would be a justification for their inclusion since it would act as both plot and character beat. As they stand, the rapes are only there to shock and rape should not be a tool solely to shock. It’s implications are too deep, too personal to be incidental.

Even though Death Wish 2 looks like a movie, it feels like a snuff film because so much of the graphic content is centered on the audience, rather than invested in a character. Cannon can be sleazy, dumb, and over the top, but it often has a blind naivete surrounding it, not sinister hoodwinking. Michael Winner falls on the wrong side of the depiction vs. endorsement divide because he failed to understand that violence presented in art, in all of its forms, needs to function within a work, rather than as a sick fantasy.

The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: Enter the Ninja

220px-EnterTheNinja

Hai!

Details:

Directed by Menahem Golan

Featuring Franco Nero, Susan George, Sho Kosugi, Christopher George, Alex Courtney, and Zachi Noy

Released 10/2/1981

IMDB Synopsis (via Michael Pilkington) “After just completing his training at a ninja school, an army vet travels to the Philippines and finds himself battling a land grabber who wants his war-buddy’s property. He must also fight his rival.”

Minutes of Interest:

00:28- Beautiful Sho Kosugi stunts. What purpose do they have in the opening credits? What do they establish? Hell if I know but they look fantastic. I think Cannon was lucky to find this guy, knew it, and wanted to show him off as much as possible.

00:41- Another beautiful image: Menahem Golan’s name in classical Japanese typeset.

02:09- Once more: “Yoram Globus” in Japanese typeset: Fantastic.

02:27- First action scene? While the credits are still playing? Clearly the black ninja, who has been entertaining us throughout the entire introduction is a chump. He gets dispatched by the white ninja by a flying right kick that (on film) clearly doesn’t connect. Still, a nice transition from credits to our first scene.

03:20- This opening is ostensibly exciting and adequately directed despite the overly long establishing shots of a bay. Manila? San Francisco? I’m not quite sure if this is Japan (where the narrative says we are) or the Philippines (where, surely, the film was shot for artistic *cough*tax*cough* reasons). What fails moving forward is the editing. Just watch the relationship between the various shots and character actions. The continuity is all cattywampus.

03:37- Perfect example. There’s a black ninja and a white ninja and they’re facing off here. Yet, either these scenes were shot on different days or there wasn’t enough material to fill in the gaps because the black ninja appears to be in a field overlooking a cliff miles away from the white ninja, who strangely backs away as if he walked into the wrong party and farted.

03:39- Now the white ninja is running through a jungle, one filmed clearly on a different day. No color correction or anything. Wow, editor.

03:45- Oh no! Red ninjas! And a smoke machine.

04:11- Back to cloudy bay shot…

04:47- Now it’s sunny again. Also, the direction between actors is vague. It’s almost like the DP is breaking that axis rule.

04:59- Red ninja starts a fire? For some reason?

05:38- The way the white ninja leaves that used tissue on the ground, I don’t know, it’s crumbled in an almost post-coital, clean-up way. Eww…

05:45- At first I thought the spider crawling was stock footage but it’s actually shot next to Sho. Wonderful shot.

06:23- Yeah! nunchucks!

06:40- Catching an arrow in flight, black ninja? I think that’s the definition of bad-ass.

07:25- Ha! That red ninja with the star to the brain died like he was hit by a freeze ray.

07:34- “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents.”

07:52- Where are they now?

08:45- Ahhh!!!

09:06- Me tooo!!!

10:00- So, what are the stakes here? I ask this only as white ninja approaches an elderly sensei. This opening scene has been great (aside from the editing) but what exactly are we following? Is narration cut out? A monologue? A title crawl?

10:22- “The shadows betray you because they serve me!”

10:33- “Surrender or die.” Why didn’t the white ninja ask that of everyone?

10:45- Head’s up!

11:24- Prance.

11:38- How does that mask hide that mustache?

12:49- So, this is ninja school. Did white ninja kill a dozen of his classmates for a test? Or is it all simulated, since a clearly injured red ninja pulls out a cutting board from under his robes, not unlike a martial arts version of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars dropping the cast iron stove door? I imagine it’s all simulated because the sensei brings in his own severed head (which drops with the sound of a brick) but seems made of wax. A test?

13:38-“Please review for me the nine levels of power.” Looks more like ninja gang signs.

14:12- “…mastery of time and space.” Um, is this 2001?

14:31- Oh, white (people) ninja….

14:51- Wait, wait, wait, wait: “master of ninjatude”? Are you fucking with me, movie?

15:27- Kampai!

15:38- “He is no ninja!” You said it, actual real life ninja, Sho.

16:28- This shot is nicely composed. Reeds, Banzai trees. Water. Bridge. It captures the feel of the school, has some nods to Bruce Lee, and works mainly because the editors haven’t gotten their hands on it. However, it’s not a closed set. People are walking in the background.

17:44- Try knocking, asshole.

18:06- I’m not a gun guy but I can understand the wife coming out with a shotgun after a strange man scrabbled over the fence in front of my house. And, he has a mustache. Can’t trust those.

18:33- “Find anything interesting?” Oooo, is this foreshadowing? Or just sexism?

18:42- “You old sonabitch, how the hell are you?” Oh, you mean after your wife pulled a gun on me? I ninjaed her, grappled her boobs, and tossed her to the ground.

18: 46- “Bastard!”

19:05- “Do you have to have a drink? You just got out.” So ninjas and alcoholism? Yay!

19:07- “I don’t have to. I just choose to.”

1943- “I don’t drink alcohol” is this film co-financed by AA?

19:46- “A cold glass of orange?” Um, what?

20:39- Is Frank drunk in the film or in real life?

21:25- Franco Nero, who is being dubbed over by Marc Smith, is still a great actor. He probably had no idea what’s happening but can still act and react to those around him. Man, I’d love this movie more if they kept Nero’s original audio.

21:52- Where are we?

22:01- “Do you want me to start a cock fight for your friend?”

22:33- I feel there’s supposed to be some sort of thematic element with the cock fight and how much Cole disdains them, but I can’t quite sort it out. Some sort of anti-violence angle? Exploitation? Is this foreshadowing the memorable closing line: “a ninja never kills, he eliminates, and only for defensive purposes.”

22:35- Ninja aerobics!

22:43- “Morning!”

22:53- So hairy, so puzzled. The following scene has music that’s vaguely porno-ish.

23:25- Wife drops Cole off like he’s a teenager at the mall.

23:45- Oh, Siegfried “The Hook” Shultz, the best villain of the film (after Sho).

24:06- Is this a societal commentary with the porno dealer who also sells crosses and crucifixes?

24:46- “It looks like the problem has been solved.” Oh, ok.

25:32- Flying kick! This whole action scene is pretty well done. The editing actually works here. Except for the guy who who gets killed by a park bench or something.

26:52- Man, Franco Nero can pull off a cowboy hat.

28:04- Fast forward? Now Cole and Frank are going for a jog?

29:07- “Lemonade? That stuff will kill you, Cole.”

29:31- The Hook is actually a bit menacing with the glass clinking. Then he turns into comic relief.

30:14- “Why don’t you do your drinking somewhere else?” Is that a threat?

30:47- Oh, no, the bad editing is back. The intercutting between Cole and the reactions of Frank and wife are just off. It seems they’re cut in a few frames too early so the actual impact of Cole’s attacks don’t fully land.

31:23- “Hang around, I’ll be back.” One-liner attempt?

31:55- So here’s the major villain, Mr. Venarius. He wears pajamas? And he’s so important he can’t be addressed directly? Only through Mr. Parker? I think this is a miscast. The villain should have been older or more mysterious or regal, not a vaguely Italian gangster.

33:36- He also sounds like a whiny baby, not a menacing majordomo.

34:19- Ha! “We need ten good men.” All the Filipino workers nod enthusiastically like they’re about to get a free pizza.

34:51- Preacher looks like another Italian actor passing as Filipino.

35:07- “Murder him!”

36:01- Mass fight!

36:25- Another editing problem: how much later is this polo scene?

37:17- This flashback seems more of a Vietnam thing than a “what about Africa” thing. Were they mercenaries? Or did they fight in Angola?

38:26- Another cockfight?

39:34- Oh, no! Pee-Wee!

39:41- Where were Cole and Mary-Ann? Just riding horses?

40:40- “You’re breaking my arm!”

40:51- Really! The sad horn? Is this Vaudeville?

41:08- “What do you think of my work of art?” I see women in single pieces awkwardly swimming. Also, how did Siegfried get his hook back? Continuity error?

41:41- “I need to rest.” He’s still wearing his pajamas from the day before. This also seems edited out of order.

44:01- “I’ll give you exactly three seconds to tell me where the meeting is or I break your neck.” This is actually done a bit well because Cole does follow through on his threat, noting it took five seconds.

45:58- Visible cut.

46:34- Doof!

47:45- Mr. Parker seems like a pretty great sub-boss. Great line delivery. Menacing.

48:17- This feels like a comedy, however, with the assistant running off and everyone’s confused about the number of standing henchmen. Tone issues.

48:44- Don’t give them back their automatic weapons, Cole!

49:22- And you put down your gun too when you have the upper hand, Porno Dealer?

50:07- Good stunt.

50:47- “She’s a very sexy lady, she wants it all the time. But the problem is I can’t get it up for a lady.” Are you trying to tell me something, Frank?

51:42- I get a The Room vibe here. Cole is ostensibly Frank’s best friend but he easily cheats with Mary-Ann. Not even a moments hesitation.

52:17- Slow down, Frank. Did you pop some speed?

53:00- Does Frank know? “Didn’t you get enough sack time?”

53:24- “I made some notes.” The movie gets amazingly meta for a bit. Mr. Parker pulls out notes on ninjas. I imagine if this film was made today he’d be on Wikipedia.

54:07- “Well, I want a ninja,” said everyone, always.

54:30- Even more meta. Mr. Parker is essentially meeting with a casting director and settles on Sho, a real ninja, who is also a real actor. Is this Menahem Golan’s attempt at making a behind-the-scenes featurette? Mind blown.

55:18- “I want a ninja. A professional ninja.” Are there amateur ones?

55:56- It’s the opening credits again!

59:39- Nice composition.

01:00:26- “You fellas interested in art?” The Porno Dealer is back! In pre-Internet days it must have been really easy to distract armed guards with pornos when they couldn’t simply stream it on their phones.

01:02:14- “I used to be a safe cracker in the old days.” Which are? When? Where?

01:02:33- Just leave your plans out anywhere with your evil schemes written all across them, Mr. Venarius.

01:02:43- Another meta moment. Who is filming this ninja training sequence? “Looks like some kind of thriller.” Are these from earlier scenes turned into 8mm footage?

01:03:37- “Someone I went to school with in Japan.” So nonchalant. Sounds like how I talked about people from my grad program. Only, they’re not ninjas, sadly.

01:04:32- Ah!!! Ketchup on my face!

01:04:59- Sho killing the guards in the background as this domestic scene unfolds is quite well done. Ominous, spooky, and well choreographed.

01:06:58- I love that Frank can’t find his pistol so strolls out with a baseball bat.

01:07:34- “Hehehe.”

01:08:54- Miss!

01:08:57- Hit!

01:09:23- Horrible direction. Mary-Ann looks only vaguely troubled that Frank’s throat has been slit right in front of her.

01:10:02- The guards are now dressed again? After being stripped to their whitey tighties?

01:10:26- This might be the most amazing scene of the entire film. Sho is on the rampage and burning and murdering a whole town. It. Looks. Great. And it’s hilarious, mainly from the hard cut to him dancing madly with touches as dozens of people flee in terror.

01:12:34- Flashbacks to whatever war need to have some more substance. This also segues into a poor edit. Where are we and when? This looks like the same location from the intro.

01:12:58- Ninja gang signs! The lead up to a huge murder fest

01:14:28- Great death! Dart to the neck.

01:15:44- “Interesting outfit, who’s your tailor?” Mr. Parker gives no fucks about ninjas.

01:16:54- Never leave a ninja unattended in your car! That’s rule one of ninjatude.

01:17:47- “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents.”

01:18:31- Shoot! He has a pair of sais!

01:19:01- My face!

01:19:38- Sound dropped out on that smoke bomb.

01:20:38- “I want my black ninja and I want him now!” said everybody, always, also.

01:21:16- “I think I’ve been hurt, sir.” Oh, Mr. Parker.

01:22:34- Ha! Oh no! Amazing death, Mr. Venarius.

01:23:21- Showdown time! But, what’s with the POV?

01:24:58- Bow, motherfucker! No time for gang signs.

01:26:01- Hop, hop, hop.

01:26:17- Throwing sand seems like a bad ninja thing to do. Is this movie’s narrative backwards? Is Cole the actual evil ninja?

01:27:05- Actually, the definition of bad ass is catching a sword with your bare hands.

01:28:44- I feel the final fight does a fine job portraying the ceremonious aspects of ninjutsu. However, as the movie wraps up with Cole heading to the airport it becomes undermined by a bad tonal shift. The denouement seems effective with Cole signing off with Mary-Ann. Yet, he recites the code that “a ninja doesn’t kill, he eliminates, and only for defensive purposes.” That has never been made clear because Cole has killed dozens of guards just doing their jobs. Mr. Parker even comments to him that he didn’t have to kill all these henchmen before the confrontation with Mr. Venarius. Also, Siegfried is now a baggage handler at the Manila airport. Ha, I guess? When Cole sees him, he decides to make an exception, telegraphing to the audience that he’ll murder Siegfried (who poses no threat and works for no mobster) simply because. And, finally (finally!) Cole looks into the camera, winks, and the title credits pop up.

Reflection:

Did Cannon Films make ninjas a thing? Electric Boogaloo makes that claim and it is quite possible that ninjas would not be as well known without Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus appropriating material from abroad. Either way, Enter the Ninja would be the first entry in Cannon’s unofficial “Ninja Trilogy” along with dabblings such as American Ninja and the the spiritual successors of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s kickboxing films. A big part of this company was built on taking something from abroad and repackaging it for a different audience.

For all of the dazzle and notoriety Cannon reaped with Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, and the high profile flops of Over the Top, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, or Masters of the Universe, the bread and butter feeding the company were films like this. Enter the Ninja is a prime example but the same could be said of Golan remaking his Israeli sex romp Lemon Popsicle as the Porky’s-fied The Last American VirginBreakin’ acts in this capacity.

And that’s the big question constantly circling around Cannon: is this appropriation? And what exactly is that? Is there a value judgement here? And where is the line between representation and outright appropriation? Is appropriation exploitation or are the terms separate but linked?

I’ll touch on those questions and I likely don’t have an answer. It might actually become a running theme throughout this Watch-Through.

Regardless, Enter the Ninja was a delightfully symbolic Cannon film. All of the tropes and hallmarks of a Cannon production were on display. There’s the confused editing (the opening scene in particular), the odd direction (why so many scenes of cockfights?), the clear cash-ins (there’s no reason this film was deliberately set in The Philippines other than tax reasons), the strange linguistic and cultural translation errors (Pee-Wee?), the over-the-top action. It’s all there. It’s true. All of it.

What’s more important (and I think this is something Cannon gets some credit for, but not enough) is the risk of taking an unproven concept and going all out with it. Again, ninjas didn’t possess the cultural cache that they do today. They weren’t sure bets. That daring and boldness, that ability to sense a trend (Breakin’ is a perfect example of getting it right, Lambada not quite) speaks volumes to the eyes of Golan and Globus. They weren’t always right, often failing more than they succeeded. But, when they were on to something, they created a whole genre.

This daring gets summed up in perhaps my favorite scene of the film. It’s a beautifully meta scene. The ever reliable henchman, Mr. Parker, does some initial research on what ninjas are for his boss, Mr. Venarius. It scans almost like a behind the scenes “making-of” feature. Perhaps it is a bit winky and noddy and it’s narratively clumsy since the movie comes to a halt for a bunch of exposition, but it sums up what Cannon did in the 80s and what the company matters. Mr. Parker succinctly explains what ninjas are (though it seems quite clear what they are at that point in the film) and even sits down with a casting director/talent agent to hire his own ninja.

(Real quick, Sho Kosugi is fantastic as the black ninja. I’ll come back to him in a minute.)

That casting director/talent agent scene feels like something that either should have been at the very beginning of the film or was part of some unfinished documentary on ninjas for The History Channel or PBS. Indeed, Enter the Ninja could have been a documentary courtesy of some drastic editing. The title is even appropriate. Of course, the entire sequence with Mr. Parker could have been cut. It probably should have been. Again, it is narratively clumsy and explains to the audience something that’s already been conveyed visually for almost an hour. The film’s editor didn’t earn that paycheck, especially considering how disjointed the opening was.

Yet, something about Mr. Parker introducing Mr. Venarius (and the audience) to ninjas speaks to me. It is clearly a symbol of what Cannon became known for and it’s clumsiness is also indicative of an engaging dialectic (fancy words, I know) that fascinates me. And that’s my big point. Cannon green-lit ideas new to American audience.

But what to make of this? There is the scent of dollars signs over everything Cannon did. When it came to films like Enter the Ninja the stink is pretty egregious. Is this stealing and appropriating concepts and content from other cultures? Or is this broadening the horizons of American cinema, giving audiences entertainment while also widening their encounters with other cultures far away from the white bread 80s?

Very likely it’s a bit of both and that’s what makes Enter the Ninja such an important film in the grand scheme of Cannon.

Maybe the best way to explain what I mean is embodied in Franco Nero. He best encapsulates all the intriguing (and problematic) aspects of Cannon’s way of business. Nero, of course, is a famous Italian actor with a long pedigree. He’s not a marquee maker but he has appeared enough where most audiences would probably squint and say, “who’s that guy? I know that guy. He’s from something.” He’s had turns in good movies like Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) and not so good movies like Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2 (1990) and now he’s plopped in Menahem Golan’s Enter the Ninja.

Let’s look bluntly at the construction of this film and its premise: Enter the Ninja is made by an American based production company headed by two Israelis that features an Italian actor playing a Texan who once fought a war in Africa (I think?) and learned the ways of a legendary Japanese art. He then travels to a plantation in the Philippines, falls in love with the English wife of his best friend, and battles a German henchman with a hook for a hand, who works for an American crime lord that employs a British manservant.

It’s like the United Nations of movie making.

Like many Italian or Turkish actors that get imported to the English speaking world, Nero is dubbed over. Enter the Ninja is shockingly explicit in this and the dubbing has a strange quality to it. It bleeds over not only the diegetic sound but, almost, the extra diegetic as well. Nevertheless, Nero is David Bowie-like in his ability to shape shift. In one movie he plays a gunslinger. In another he’s a South American general. Here he wears a cowboy hat and knows ninjutsu. He’s able to act still even if he sounds like a doofus and that’s a credit to his talents.

Dubbing is done to spare the audience from subtitles or, like in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early career, to compensate for a performer still mastering a language. It’s debatable if Schwarzenegger has mastered English yet but Jorge Luis Borges (if you don’t know who that is read a fucking book), way back in 1945, noted an issue with dubbing that fits in perfectly with the wider quirks of Cannon:

“Those who defend dubbing might argue (perhaps) that objections to it can also be raised against any kind of translation. This argument ignores, or avoids, the principal defect: the arbitrary implant of another voice and another language. The voice of Hepburn or Garbo is not accidental but, for the world, one of their defining features. Similarly, it is worth remembering that gestures are different in English and Spanish.”

In a footnote, Borges goes on to note that if dubbing voices is so acceptable, why not transpose faces as well. After all, if you’re going through the effort to remove an essential feature of a performer, why stop at only the auditory?

Nero’s dubbing is comical. So, why hire him? I think this gets at a key concern: is this film, much like dubbing Nero, appropriation? If Nero’s voice is so caustic or “un-American”, then hire another actor. He does have a thick Italian accent so making him American is likely stretching believably to the breaking point. So, hire an American actor. The title itself is also a dub, clearly aping Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.

This dances around the real question of representation and whether there should even be a ninja film with a white protagonist. Believing Franco Nero wears a cowboy hat, practices martial arts, and sounds like he’s from west Texas is about as convincing as a random white dude mastering the skills of ninjutsu. Not to enter #OscarsSoWhite territory but there is something a bit dodgy in Golan and Globus’s operation that they not only skip over casting an Asian protagonist but then doubly skip over by dubbing the non-American actor’s natural voice.

Is this a problem? I don’t know. Yes. Maybe. Probably.

It is and it also isn’t.

The converse is that without this film audiences couldn’t marvel at, as the movie puts it, “ninjatude.” Though it’s not perfect it is expressing a piece of cultural heritage to an outside group. Is it done for money? Yes. Is there some form of artistry behind it? Yes.

And, let’s not forget Sho Kosugi. If this is some form of gross appropriation, it would minimize non-white faces. However, Sho Kosugi is an actual ninja (arguably the star of the film) that would go on to be the defining feature of this “Ninja Trilogy.” He’s the only linkage between Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Ninja 3: The Domination. If this was straight out appropriation, he would be downplayed or replaced in each film, treated as a piece of the set rather than a performer with his own agency and appeal.

Perhaps instead of appropriation this is more exploitation, not unlike most of Cannon’s output. The difference is key. Instead of outright theft, it’s closer to a kid with tracing paper imprecisely recreating the Mona Lisa. It capitalizes on something memorable and worthwhile. Sho Kosugi, the true star of the film, is bringing his cultural background to the fore and being compensated, financially, culturally, and professionally, for it. Nero’s heritage is minimized and that could be a business decision to keep American audiences on board with a film centered on an ancient Japanese tradition. It’s not perfect.

None of this is a perfect explanation but I think, even if Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were imperfect in bringing this tradition from Asia to America, the attempt itself was worthwhile. Certainly it bankrolled the studio and revitalized a whole genre of cinema.

Did they steamroll over differences to make a product? That’s undeniable, a part of how they did business. These were hustlers, after all. But, as this film and later ones (Breakin’ especially) demonstrate, their attempt to introduce audiences to non-mainstream concepts did come with doses of authenticity. Because of this willingness to dare, to fall, and, occasionally, to take off, Enter the Ninja is a great moment in Cannon’s legacy, if not necessarily a great film on its own.

The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: Hospital Massacre AKA X-Ray

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Taking a stab at…

Details:

Directed by Boaz Davidson

Featuring Barbi Benton, Charles Lucia, Jon Van Ness, John Warner Williams, Den Surles

Released 10/16/1981

IMDB Synopsis (via Matt Patay) Divorcee Susan Jeremy goes to a local Los Angeles county hospital for a routine exam and finds herself stranded there while a maniac, dressed in a doctor’s surgical mask and clothing, goes around killing all the staff are associated with her. Could it possibly be the psycho Harold, who killed a friend of Susan’s on Valentine’s Day 19 years earlier?

Minutes of Interest:

00:30- This film has multiple titles (X-Ray or Hospital Massacre) but this opening title card seems to reconcile the two quite well. Or it is the genesis for this split? Either way, there are heart monitor graphics overlaid with a skull x-ray. Hospital and x-rays. Got it.

00:32- Cut to a crotch x-ray. Perhaps foreshadowing nudity?

01:33- “Susan’s House 1961” What a remarkably descriptive and precise location.

01:41- This is where a clear example of Cannon Films’ infamous “translation errors” embodied by studio regular Boaz Davidson. Susan and boyfriend David are super excited about a model train set, almost to the point of ecstasy. They’re jumping up and down and Susan (very enthusiastically) keeps yelling “faster, faster,” and “come on, come on.” But it seems so incongruous with the tone of this scene. I’m getting a young love vibe from the direction of the actors (who seems three/four years too young for the mildly suggestive tenor) but it’s focused on something a five-year old plays with in the basement. Shouldn’t they be jamming along to a juicy piece of vinyl to be this excited? Not playing with a train set that keeps going in circles? And not an impressive set at that, more like something that goes around a Christmas tree.

02:04- Yeah, hi, Harold. I see you peeking through the window.

03:16- Hi, again, Harold

03:31- I imagine David is Susan’s childhood sweetheart but, in another translation error, he’s acting like a teenage jock by tearing up Harold’s Valentine Day card. He looks eight but is acting as if he’s eighteen in a John Hughes/John Landis film.

03;40- “I’m going to get some cake.” Well said, Susan.

03:50- That’s the biggest cake knife I’ve ever seen! And where are the parents? I’m getting a Halloween vibe here of a little kid toying around with a comically big knife. There’s even a musical sting as Susan brandishes the blade like a the littlest samurai before carving the cake.

04:20- Color temperature change. Orange to green.

04:33- First kill of the film. A little boy kills another little boy. Oh boy. But the killer (Harold) is strong enough to murder David (very quickly by strangulation) and then string him up on a coat rack that doesn’t topple over due to the weight? Without any struggle? Eh….

04:37- Also, wouldn’t the face of the killer (Harold) be branded in Susan’s brain? That’s a face you don’t forget.

04:57- “19 Years Later.” If you have to make a chronological jump that big in a film, just skip it and get to the present. It’s the problematic transition from Phantom Menace to Attack of the Clones sort of issue. Too overly deterministic and summary laden. Yes, Halloween did a similar jump but it was properly sighted solely on Michael Myers and not Laurie Strode.

05:10- “You’re early, Tom.” For what? I imagine these visitations are court ordered.

05:20- “Can’t you get anything right?” Yeah, Susan! You embody early 80s divorce cliches.

05:36- “Take good care of her.” Susan needs to remind her ex-husband, the father of her child, to take care of said child? And, wait, wasn’t she supposed to watch the kid that night but she’s skipping out to get test results, something she could have done over the phone? And isn’t Susan the one dating a shlub in a tiny car? I wouldn’t trust him with my kid.

05:51- This location looks remarkably like the hospital from Death Race 2000.

06:00- “What an asshole.” Oh you mean your ex-husband who is picking up the daughter you’re supposed to watch tonight?

06:18- Three things: the hospital Susan is going to is named, simply, “Hospital”. Also, if her ex-husband Tom is an asshole, her new boyfriend is doubly so because he complains about how long it’ll take for her test results. All he does is sit in a tiny car in a tweed jacket. Girl, swipe him left! Finally, there was apparently “trouble” at this hospital (according to boyfriend) but, what? Really? What does that have to do with anything? And how could he recognize this hospital out of all the others? Finally, and I guess fourth, boyfriend parks in a no parking zone but settles into the car for a nap?

06:49- Oh, no! someone is leering from several stories up. He must have great eyesight.

07:06- That janitor…Move along! Patient privacy, right?

08:10- This entire sequence is strange. Susan walks into the elevator but doesn’t notice a mental patient with ketchup on his face? She also pushed the button for the 9th floor, though she was told to hit the 8th floor, yet stops at the 9th even with the button still illuminated, for some reason?

09:19- The Shining theme?

09:53- Returning to the elevator sequence: who are these guys in the masks? They look like Combine troops from Half-Life 2. And an entire floor of a hospital is being fumigated? And my elevator stops at that floor even though I didn’t push the button for it and, conceivably, the fumigators didn’t either since they’re warning anyone from stopping there. Get. Out. Now.

10:48- Fire doors work best when they’re drawn in chalk. Also, Dr. Jacobs reports to a floor that she doesn’t know is being gassed?

12:08- Did someone leave a vase behind?

13:40- Second kill. Could anything be more passive? Some blood spurts but no suspense, no music stings, not even the jump scare works. Also, this isn’t the most effective way of accomplishing the killer’s goals. More on this later.

14:13- “Doctor Carpenter, please report to the front desk.” Nod?

14:59- This doctor’s office (bland walls, human anatomy posters, a killer lurking) seems more like where you go in middle school for sex education.

15:25- Smoking! In a hospital! Ah, the 80s.

17:01- The sting of the second kill’s reveal takes WAY tooo long. One quick shot, Boaz. Much better than the slow pan from feet to face. *Yawn*

17:13- Run, janitor!

17:33- Yeah, follow that creepily masked man into a darkened room on a floor of the hospital no one is supposed to be on after discovering a dead body. And how did you lose him so quickly, janitor? You were right behind him.

17:51- Nice water dripping effects, though. Ominous sound design.

18:05- Third kill. The janitor sounds like a frightened chicken when getting strangled.

18:33- I like the intensity of the killer’s freak out scene but I’m having a hard time linking it to his persona. He seems to regret killing the janitor but he killed Dr. Jacobs in cold blood. And if he’s really such a psychopath, why have any concern at all for a guy that mops up puke? And, And, how’d you get through medical school as a Patrick Bateman psychopath? You know, Hippocratic Oath and all that.

18:51- Bat-phone! But seriously so many odd translation things here. Why is the ex stabbing an orange so fervently and not answering the phone? And why does he threaten his daughter with a knife? Why is the doctor behind Susan standing like he’s in line at the DMV?

19:38- “Doctor Davidson” Did the director put himself in his own movie?

19:51- What’s the time frame of this film? Is this a Dusk to Dawn sort of thing? It’s clearly night so a few hours have passed since Susan was dropped off. The boyfriend is still taking a nap in a tow zone?

20:20- Yeah, hi…

21:17- I get the atmosphere but it’s really starting to push the boundaries of belief.

21:49- Bait!

22:05- OK, here’s the killer (Harry). He’s the little boy now all grown up. You’d think his face would be seared into Susan’s memory after he murdered her preteen sweetheart. Even if it’s been 19 years you can still recognize someone, especially after something so traumatic, and with the same name.

22:28- “Hang around all day”? It’s already been all day. It’s night.

23:30- The x-rays Susan’s been searching after finally revealed. But what do they show?

24:10- Bait! (again)

25:36- What is that inside her? Worms? Intestines? Sponge paint?

27:34- This exchange between Susan and Eva does clarify the ex’s character (I guess he is an asshole) but it seems like a backwards way to confirm a bit of exposition. Usually you’d get this scene first then you’d get called out on it later.

27:58- What sort of doctor has pictures of horribly disfigured appendages posted around his office like awards or bowling trophies?

29:21- “Now, get undressed.” Talk about bedside manners.

30:02- Dr. Creeper.

31:32- Oh, I was premature. Now he’s Dr. Creeper. Handsy, too. This nude sequence goes on way too long. It’s a bit despicable even though this is clearly core Cannon MO.

32:54- Does a woman really need to be topless to get her blood pressure taken?

33:12- And does this doctor (or director Boaz Davidson) have a foot fetish (feetish)? Man, he’s groping those toes.

33:56- Oh, for fuck’s sake. Who does a nude examination and leaves the window to the hallway open? More bait, I guess (it’s a threepeat). His name is Hal, after all.

36:32- A nicely composed shot but this is taking up too much time.

37:08- That needle draw might be the most terrifying shot of the whole film. Very well done. Nice and tight. Spurt of blood is perfect.

37:33- Another color temperature change.

39:20- Love how the hospital loudspeaker announces to “have a Happy Valentines’s Day.” Way to rub it in the patients’ faces.

39:31- Just a mental patient drinking openly from a bottle of booze. Nothing to see here.

40:37- The medical stenographer seems very agitated to be doing her job instead of getting coffee, likely from a dirty employee lounge. Is Susan’s case really that big of an imposition you can’t wait to get your gas station swill?

41:25- Fourth kill. Where did he get a butcher knife from? It’s a hospital so I’m sure there’s plenty of knives but a kitchen knife? From the break room?

42: 55- “Christ, this is practically a fucking death warrant.” Amazing line.

43:12- Fifth kill. Death by stethoscope!

43:29- Ha! Just shove that dead body perched in a wheelchair anywhere.

44:45- Old ladies ganging up on a confused young woman. Certainly a translation error. More later.

46:31- Quadruple bait!

48:10- Another establishing shot of “Hospital”. Wake up, boyfriend!

49:54- That guy doctor looks like a Luke Wilson prototype.

52:08- “There’s a bench outside of my office.” So, the boyfriend goes to this bench for more information. Fun fact, though: he never got the doctor’s name yet found it. I bet he’s going to take a nap here too. Oh no, somehow the loud speaker knew he was there and told him to answer the phone.

54:41- The old ladies appearing out of the fumigation smog might actually be the most terrifying shot of this film. Spooky. Almost Lynchian. Reminds me of the old couple from Mulholland Drive. Nightmare maker.

56:22- Room 9-11. Talk about visual storytelling.

56:52- Oh. You want me to come over there? Closer? As you whisper to me on a fumigated abandoned hospital floor? I’ll do that.

58:06- Sixth kill. Boyfriend looks so unimpressed when he sees the bone saw, the instrument of his death. Strangely, this kill is very bloodless. Only two quick spurts silhouetted against a dressing curtain.

01:00:24- Looks like the boyfriend is the one giving head this Valentine’s Day! *groan*

01:00:41- Genuinely terrifying with sting of the men in full body casts.

01:04:02- “Go ahead, check it now.” Acting, everybody!

01:06:19- Beautiful hiding place. Might as well be behind a coat rack.

01:06:50- Do hospitals stock tomahawks?

01:10:01- Does this hospital have problems paying its electric bill?

01:11:19- Seventh kill. How did Dr. Saxson not hear that guy? He’s a bit of a mouth breather.

01:12:30- “Going to have to operate”? What!

01:14:08- Oh, no! A tarp is coming at me from half a mile away! Lead up to the eight kill. Was this supposed to be a character from earlier that got her scenes cut?

01:16:11- Bait to the 5th degree!

01:16:22- Ninth kill. Looks like someone ate Chipotle.

01:18:31- Nice lighting.

01:19:32- “It’s not Harry, It’s Harold. Remember?” The big reveal that’s done somewhat well. There was actual mystery around the killer’s identity.

01:20:24- Old ladies to the rescue!

01:23:35- Storing flammable liquid in an open jar on the top shelf in a room full of wooden shelves and unnamed (ostensibly flammable) liquids? Sounds good to me.

01:26:54- There needs to be a catchphrase here.

01:27:13- Oh, no! Harold’s turned into a flaming dummy! And lands with a thud like a garbage bag full of diapers.

01:27:37- “Mommy! Mommy!” What a strange ending with the ex and the daughter showing up. That subplot went nowhere.

Reflection:

I have a deep appreciation for Boaz Davidson. Admittedly, that comes from his warm presence and candor in Electric Boogaloo but he obliquely represents the ideal of the “schlock-auteur”: a director ready at a moment’s call, capable of operating on a shoestring budget, with an imperfect ear to the ground of cinematic trends. Davidson was a last minute replacement for the original Hospital Massacre (AKA X-Ray) director after financing fell through.

With that in mind, I think Hospital Massacre is a fine effort but it gets bogged down in the details. More importantly, Hospital Massacre suffers from the wonky phenomenon of “bad translation” that dogged a number of Cannon productions. It isn’t as strange as a Troll 2 or The Room, films that feel like they were made on a different planet, but this is a film crafted by a mind not fully in sync with the norms and mores of Americana. It sort of makes sense, but it sort of doesn’t.

The highest point of praise for Hospital Massacre stems from my prior critique of New Year’s Evil. In the latter, the audience was aware of the killer minutes into the film. The game was up. We followed him as he stalked victims. We saw his face. There was an aborted attempt to engender suspense but it became deflated because so many of the lingering questions (who’s the killer? what will he do next? where will he pop up?) that suspense thrives on were rendered inconsequential or short circuited by giving away far too much.

With Hospital Massacre, there is an attempt to craft suspense by withholding the identity of the slasher inside the hospital. The costume (scrubs, hairnet, surgery mask) obscures the identity of the killer and it turns into an almost Scream-like whodunit mystery. There’s a whole roulette wheel of candidates and the back and forth between those potentially culpable adds to the terror of the film. In that way,, the film succeeds.

However, going back to the bits of translation wonkiness, much of this is undercut. The most egregious example is the opening scene set at “Susan’s House 1961”. This is a blatant rip-off/retelling of John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween. I’m OK with that. Most of Cannon (really, most films) rip-off larger cultural touchstones, repackaging and re-purposing what worked. Charles Bronson built Cannon with his Death Wish sequels. Tobe Hooper (perhaps the preeminent Cannon director after Menahem Golan) did Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and a number of remakes for the company. Norris, Dudikoff, Stallone, and Van Damme embodied up Hollywood trends.

Yet, this initial scene sums up what’s not quite right with this film. There are three things: two are minor and laughable, one is major and important:

  1. Susan and her “boyfriend” David are playing with a train set but it scans weird. Not to be a Humbert Humbert but the connotations of the scene are sexual on a number of levels. Susan is bouncing up and down, yelling “faster” as the locomotive circles around and around as David fondles the controls, heeding her request. The function of this scene is apparent but the age of the actors are wrong (FAR too young) and the concrete stand-in for their emotional ecstasy is just off. Yes, the actors are too young for the sexual undertones, but they’re too old for fixating on the train. In the end, this reads as something composed in one language, translated into another, and then filmed for an audience in a third.
  2. The film’s first kill happens by strangulation, I guess? Harold strings David up by his neck on a coat rack. Not to question Harold’s fitness (#strengthshaming) but how could a young boy quickly kill a peer and then poise a body his same size and weight (potentially more so) in a matter of seconds? I can barely lift my 35 pound French bulldog comfortably because he’s alive and wiggly and I imagine (not that I’d know…) doing the same to a resistant murder victim only complicates the situation. This also happens during Susan’s Halloween rip-off knife scene, mirroring the conclusion of Carpenter’s groundbreaking Panaglide take of Michael Myers, his knife, and his clown costume.
  3. More importantly, what this sequence does that scans poorly is introducing both killer and future victim. This is where the translation errors come to the fore. We see Harold and Susan. They know each other. And she sees Harold leaving her house (“Susan’s House 1961”) after David’s death. Clearly she knows Harold did it. That face must be seared into memory. One cannot forget trauma such as that. But there’s a jump forward and Susan can’t put two and two together and figure out this guy that looks just like Harold, who goes by Harry, might be a suspicious character.

OK. Big deal?

So what’s the problem with this sequence? The problem is that it looks good on paper but doesn’t work visually. Yes, two kids playing with a train communicates innocence. But that’s not how it plays on the screen. Yes, Harold kills David. As a script or concept it plays but when you see the representation on the screen it just doesn’t fly. There’s too many logistical issues.

Finally, consider the MO of Harold/Harry, a medical intern who has waited 19 years to get revenge on Susan for not returning his affections. He’s so angry his affections weren’t returned so he’s going to get his by devoting his life to murder. Well, that sounds great. Typical fodder. But mapping that out is laughable. It doesn’t translate from script to screen. Too many questions arise. Why wouldn’t Harold/Harry strike a year later? Two years later? Ten? Why go through all the work of college and medical school and hope, just hope, that Susan will one day walk into the “Hospital” you are interning in?

Of course, Michael Myers and Pamela Voorhees waited. But they weren’t working in a field that demands the utmost of talent and dedication. And they weren’t passively waiting for their victims to show up, they actively broke out (Myers) or sought out (Voorhees) victims. They just wanted to kill. And their victims weren’t clearly established in oppositional binaries in an opening scene. In a way, it predestines Susan as “The Last Girl” well before the narrative ever unfolds.

This problem of translation continues on through the background characters. There’s a mob of old ladies (Susan’s roommates) that populate the film almost like a Greek chorus. Tom, Susan’s ex-husband, is set-up as the potential killer but spends the movie, inexplicably, stabbing an orange and glaring at a telephone. The interior of the hospital (“Hospital”) looks like an Edgar Allen Poe set, even though the exterior is a bland LA suburb. An entire floor of the hospital is being fumigated by a group of jackbooted thugs. All of these things might have played out on paper or in discussion, but they don’t work on film.

Now, discussions about translation are not solely focused on culture or language. Boaz Davidson is Israeli. Americana is not his home culture. However, the culture/language barrier is not an excuse for a faulty film. Bergman, Eisenstein, Truffaut, and Kurosawa didn’t craft their films in English but they play perfectly well in any language. I could watch Rashomon without the subtitles and know exactly what transpires.

Davidson’s flaws don’t necessarily come from his own provincialism. You don’t need to speak English to make a good film. Each culture has its own oddities, perhaps most explicitly demonstrated in Argo, when the plucky Iranian cultural handler asks the “Canadian” film crew if their movie will be a traditional foreign bride film, a comedy of manners, sort of. It sounds horribly misogynistic and bizarre but the “Canadians” nod and say, no because just doesn’t translate. I’m sure if the tables were turned the exact same exchange would transpire.

(Yes, of course they said no because it was a ruse but work with me here)

Nevertheless, there’s a larger language here beyond whether speaks English, Hebrew, German, or Farsi: a language of visuals. Directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Werner Herzog, or Alejandro González Iñárritu, who are not native English speakers, have crafted films that speak to greater concerns and translate regardless of the actual language they’re composed in. These are films that have won awards, films that are to be remembered. This is why visual media that’s subtitled works in ways that the translation of novels or songs often do imperfectly.

How does Hospital Massacre factor into this?

Here we get the demonstration of a film without a close attention paid to the details. It is too focused on the big picture: horror, slasher, hospital, boobs. It tacks close to the outline but the connective tissue just isn’t there. It isn’t unlike coming across an Internet comment posted in a language the speaker is unfamiliar with. Perhaps Google Translate deems it correct but something is irredeemably off.

There’s certainly a lot of joy in Hospital Massacre and I think its weirdness is valuable and memorable. But it does highlight how film can speak irrespective of a particular language. Errors of translation are only errors of effort or imagination.

The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: The Apple

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My goal.

Details:

Directed by Menahem Golan

Featuring Catherine Mary Stewart, George Gilmour, Grace Kennedy, Allan Love, and Vladek Sheybal

Released 11/21/1980

IMDB Synopsis (via John-Marc Rocher) Alphie and Bibi, two sweet, naive youths from Moose Jaw, Canada, have come to America to compete in the 1994 Worldvision Song Festival. Although the pair have talent, they are beaten out by the underhanded tactics of the festival favorites, another duo with the backing of BIM: Boogalow International Music, and its leader, Mr. Boogalow. Though crestfallen by their loss, Bibi and Alphie are soon delighted to hear that Mr. Boogalow has taken an interest in their music and wants to sign them to his label. All is looking up for the two until they begin to discover the dark underside of the rock and roll world.

Minutes of Interest:

00:31- This parking structure, combined with the extras running ecstatically has a 70s-era disaster vibe, like something out of 1974’s Earthquake.

00:47- Ah! Heart attack inducing.

01:05- I can tell why people booed this film in theaters. From the music, to the camp costumes, to the “future” instruments, it’s all silly. It’s also amazing. I love this movie already. The horn riff here also has a vague Blues Brother tinge.

01:52- Though there’s a strange disharmony in the costumes of the performers in the background, I also love that a hit musical number (in the film’s world) is a blatant ad for the band and its record label, though it isn’t a far cry from the sampling and name dropping in much contemporary pop music.

02:49- I get an odd vibe from Vladek Sheybal’s villain Mr. Boogalow. Of course, he’s evil but he almost looks and sounds like a younger version of Menahem Golan. Was this a conscious casting choice, perhaps a bit of self-deprecation considering how much Boogalow’s and Cannon Films’ business models match up? Or am I reaching?

03:04- “Excitement 90. Tension 92. Pulse rate 132. And 138 heartbeats!” This scene debuts an early model of the Fitbit.

03:53- Is the performer with the plastic keyboard drunk, high, tired, or recently lobotomized? You decide!

04:50- This chorus isn’t getting old at all.

05-14- The fans throwing the glow sticks at the performers prefaces the film’s debut at the Paramount Theater in Hollywood. Audience members did the same with souvenir soundtracks handed out beforehand. Reportedly, the barrage of cassettes was so powerful and furious that serious damage was done to the screen.

05:23- Mr. Boogalow’s refrain of “gentlemen” has almost the exact timbre of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

05:43 Brilliant line: “Use your imagination. This is 1994.” I love this movie.

06:07- Our protagonists, Bibi and Alphie, are finally introduced. They sort of dress like they’re The Carpenters. They also sound like them.

08:44- “Nostalgia is always dangerous.” Ahem, Mr. Boogalow.

09:19- There’s a ton happening in this scene which, aside from the titular musical number, might be the best thing in the film. Or, at least, what encapsulates Golan’s vision. Good art is trampled by consumerists demands and the wills of producers. The irony is peanut butter-like in its thickness. More on this later.

11:09- Not only is Mr. Boogalow’s company the biggest thing in music, it is also influencing federal policy. A record label controls the government. That’s amazing. That’s dumb. I love it.

11:48- Future cars! From the future! Of 1994!

12:41- An even better Hans Gruber forerunner from Mr. Boogalow. The complete “ladies and gentlemen…”

13:30- “Ladies and gentlemen.”

14:06- “Ladies and gentlemen.”

14:50- That champagne goblet is amazing. It’s more like a fishbowl than anything, something you get to keep from a shitty chain restaurant. And it’s doubly funny when Bibi accepts it, calling it a “glass.”

16:30- Even though he’s a villain with feathered hair, Dandi is quite charming in this scene. Comforting and jovial. I’d be his friend.

16:40- The party down below can see Bibi and Dandi on the roof? Like, through a skylight that’s not shown? Or have they seen The Apple beforehand and know what’s going on up there? Also, why is it so funny for two people to kiss to where the whole party needs to gather around and cackle? It’s Sodom and Gomorrah downstairs, after all.

19:11- That male singer in the silver jacket, left of frame in the foreground, has the perfect expression on his face. He knows what movie he’s in.

19:38- Mr. Boogalow’s record label complex is guarded by black clad storm troopers with riot shields. Yes.

19:57- I’m not surprised this was George Gilmour’s only film. Talk about wooden. “We need a lawyer.” You need an acting coach. He’s also supposed to be from Canada but sounds like Jurgen Prochnow in a dubbed Das Boot.

21:03- Oh, great. Card tricks. That doesn’t look weird performed in a waiting room.

21:34- This might be the worst music number in the film. Good beat but the lyrics are buried by Mr. Boogalow’s mushmouth delivery and a bad set. Not to mention the costuming is terribly lazy and confusing. It also features a set piece on an escalator that looks like it was filmed in a mall. Finally, plot progression is paused, only to continue uninterrupted in the next scene, relegating that number to irrelevance. Nothing would have been affected if this was cut.

26:53- “Mr. Boogalow is already selling your first album.” Bibi’s reply is indicative of Cannon’s workings: “We haven’t made one yet.” Again, more on this later

26:58- “First you sell it,” and “Then you make it,” might be the business model of Cannon spelled out on celluloid.

28:43- Yes, an earthquake is hilarious.

29:52- Start of the  best musical number of the film. So well costumed. So inventive. So toe tappingly catchy. Bat shit crazy, essentially. There are dancing corpses, a vampire, and devil dogs, and a cameo by Napoleon, and people who hung themselves flailing around as wind chimes, and a definite Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Jesus Christ Superstar vibe. Plus, man thongs. The only odd thing is Mr. Boogalow (Satan, essentially) only has one horn. Um, why?

30:47- “Bring the master’s special hors-d’oeuvre . Bring the apple!”

34:36- Oh, it was only in Alphie’s head. A big undercut for the best sequence of the film.

35:41- My mistake, THIS is the worst number of the film. Faux-reggae sung by Germans.

36:52- The only redeeming element in this number is (almost)all the principals singing on exercise bikes while Bibi does sit-ups. The blocking and sight gags is almost something out of a Zucker Bros. film

37:11- Mr. Boogalow makes a Casino Royale reference, the 1967 James Bond spoof with a production history worthy of its own book. Vladek Sheybal had a small role in the film: “The world is nothing but a Casino Royale.”

38:39- “The West Coast” is mentioned as if it is some sort of foreign country.

40:05- Catherine Mary Stewart is fantastic (even if she didn’t do her own signing). Naive, yes. Talented, certainly. Should she be in this picture, definitely. Did Cannon take care of her? No.

41:43- Is this the set for Death Wish 3? Also, Mr. Boogalow’s company now is mandating what people wear. 1984 meets New Wave music?

43:56- Oh, my. Sons don’t usually grab their mothers from behind and honk their breasts. Maybe this is a translation error, something Menahem Golan incorporated into his musical because he believed American audiences would like it.

44:58- Future prams! From the future! Of 1994!

46:39- “You’re a talented young man. Look to see what’s on the market.” More later.

47:32 BIM has conquered America and elements of satire creep in. Beautiful sequence. Great tone. Should have been run with from the start. Ditch the Biblical allusions. The best bit is akin to Paul Verhoeven when firefighters stop fighting a fire to listen to BIM Hour. So do surgeons mid dissection. The patient even dances around before keeling over on the gurney.

48:32- Nuns dancing!

51:36- Yeah, Alphie. Fuck that guy up!

52:25- Bad audio. ADR, please.

54:53- The Death Wish 3 set again.

58:53- “Darling, how nice of you to come.” Foreshadowing the second best musical number. The most on the nose piece of all time?

59:53- The music journalists are now bartenders? Mr. Boogalow is the ultimate media disruptor. You hear that, Silicon Valley?

01:02:09- Subtext becomes text. The second best musical number courtesy of Grace Kennedy’s Pandi.

01:02:14- “I’m coming, coming for you.”

01:02:42- “Feel every inch of your love.”

01:03:10- “Fill me up with your fire.”

01:03:28- “Come to me. I’ll come for you.”

01:03:38- “Make it hotter and hotter and faster and faster, and when you think can’t keep it up, I’ll take you deeper and deeper and tighter and tighter and feel every bump of your love.” I wonder what Pandi’s singing about?

01:07:55- Moses is here as a hippie commune shaman!

01:08:12- “These are refugees from the 60’s, commonly known as hippies.” Oh, Menahem…

01:10:10- Dandi wears an amazing robe. He also fake slaps Pandi. I’m not quite sure why Pandi is having a change of heart. Perhaps she “came” to a differently conclusion about how this world works. See what I did there?

01:13:24- Charles Bronson’s neighborhood.

01:16:08- “These people don’t like television.” OK. but this hasn’t been at all about television.

01:17:29- Fast forward much? Are scenes missing?

01:18:44- I understand the religious connotations but it seems Mr. Boogaloo (Satan) is more concerned with copyright law than with the damnation of man’s soul.

01:21:04- Mr. Topps (God, essentially) drives an old Chevy junker in the sky? The Father, the Son, and the Holy Shit Old Car?

01:21:21- This is glorious!

01:22:34- WHAT!?!?!

01:23:46- Mr. Topps is taking people to a new solar system to escape evil? That’s the ending of this movie? He’s doing the Alpha Centauri/Interstellar/Firefly/Pandorum/Freelancer thing? And he’s doing it via a bad double exposure of hippies sauntering across the sky in front of his janky Cadillac? This is how you end a disco/New Wave musical about record labels, addiction, artistic integrity, commercialism, and Satan?

Reflection:

Full disclosure: I think this film is amazing but mainly for reasons aside from the camp and the half-baked ideas that are quite charming in my estimation. And I don’t particularly care for musicals. But, plenty of much smarter people disagree. The Apple was Menahem Golan’s biggest American production up until that point and a very personal one at that. Of course, Enter The Ninja might take the crown for the Cannon release that defined Golan’s American aesthetics, as it sort of solidified the “house style” that many earlier (and harder to track down) Golan/Globus films danced around. Still, The Apple is perhaps the best encapsulation of what this filmmaker aspired to do with Cannon and, sadly, in a very ironic, King Lear sense, what he actually ended up producing.

The Apple is a punk rock/disco/New Wave musical that is redolent in religious kitsch and allegory, not unlike Jesus Christ Superstar or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on acid. Elements of Grease (the love tussled protagonists), Saturday Night Fever (the goofy music), and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the camp and the sci-fi) percolate throughout as well, tacked on to a vague satire of corporate committee art and pandering to the lowest common denominator in a dystopian 1994.

Question: Does that sound like a confusing mismatch to you?

The film is near universally reviled because it doesn’t know who to appeal to. It’s too campy so its satirical edge is dulled because the satirist is as absurd as the target. The dystopia is too mild to be shocking but not mild enough to be realistic. It’s quasi-religious/moralistic but inflected with late 70s disco hedonism (“I’m Coming!”). This stew of themes and concepts can probably be compared to another campy musical, one that has had far more success than The Apple could ever hope for: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Camp connects the two musicals separated only by five years. Whereas The Rocky Horror Picture Show built from its midnight cinema roots into a large pop phenomena, The Apple didn’t and languishes in obscurity. Both are over-the-top, not particularly well-made, and boasts of the excesses of 1970s Americana bacchanal. Yet, one is loved and screened today and the other is nearly forgotten.

Why?

Primarily, The Rocky Horror Picture Show knew who to appeal to. Though equally a mess of ideas (a haunted mansion, a retelling of Frankenstein, transvestites, fishnet, AND aliens) the entire production (once it transitioned from stage to screen) aspired to be trash from the get-go. It was minted for midnight from inception. The characters and themes were so outrageous (at least, for 1975 tastes) that their inclusion could only be intentional. Director Jim Sharman knew where his film would land and who it would appeal to. Its transgressiveness was targeted.

The Apple, ultimately, wants to have it all and ends up appealing to no one, not unlike the corporate group-think it rails against. While The Rocky Horror Picture Show broke boundaries of taste, giving it a set audience of counter-cultural types, The Apple is socially conservative since it reaffirms monogamy, family, religion, a return to simplicity, and a Manichean worldview of darkness vs. light. Not that there’s anything wrong there but it is also coupled with musical numbers where a woman describes being penetrated, having an orgasm, and each performer drugged up and bristling with sex appeal. Did I mention the man thongs?

Furthermore, the critique of capitalist society in The Apple, perhaps something to rally those with more leftist tastes well before the 80s touchstones of Wall Street and RoboCop were released, end up being little more than extra light cream cheese spread too thin over a heavy handed religious allegory. It seems The Apple is concerned with the welfare of artists in an era of endless monetization and corporate media, but it boils down to little more than Satan running things with his secret police of taste makers, turning a concrete problem (something far more pressing today than in 1980) into an abstract philosophical concept wrapped up by the ultimate deus ex machina.

The Apple wants to appeal to the mainstream, and to those outside of it, and ends up stuck right in the unenviable middle of pushing away both.

More importantly, the musical numbers are undercut by lackluster performances and are often shoehorned, ending up as narrative dead ends. I’ve always had a hard time suspending my disbelief for musicals because the numbers often feel indulgent and narratively unjustified. Yes, they might look and sound great but often they pause story progression or muddy character development. The best musicals can make each set piece not only enjoyable in its own right, but also propels the action of the overall production.

A fine example is “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Not only does the plot progress with Todd swearing vengeance on all of London’s high society, thereby setting up the action dominating the  film’s following acts, but it also advances Todd’s character and complicates the relationship with Mrs. Lovett, something that pays off enormous dividends during the climax. Multiple types of work are being done via sound, performance, and lyrics, and the number feels essential in the grand scheme of the production.

The Apple lacks many similar numbers. Even the best number, “The Apple”, is little more than allegorical, a figment of Alphie’s imagination. Though it colors his reactions and firmly establishes the religious connotations, the plot, along with the motivations of the characters and their actions, remain the same at the end of the number. Alphie doesn’t want to sign Mr. Boogalow’s contract at the start of the number and still doesn’t at the end. Bibi wants in and still wants in afterward. As much as I hate to say it because it is so damn fun and visually stimulating, “The Apple” could be cut and nothing would change narrative-wise.

In fact, the worst number, “How to be a Master”, might be the most effective of the entire film. Bibi is shown progressing and changing through a montage. Narrative time progresses. There’s a forward movement not present in many of the other numbers and it comes through something so corny and ephemeral to bury the impact.

However, it is looking beyond the aesthetic that draws me to The Apple. There’s an apocryphal story of Menahem Golan hitting rock bottom. After seeing the devastating reaction of audiences towards his “masterpiece” he nearly attempted suicide in his hotel room during 1980’s Montreal Film Festival The jeers and the boos drove him to the brink. This shows a level of investment (personal, professional, emotional, even spiritual) that seems counter to Golan’s future output.

If the story is true, I can only imagine it cut deep on the filmmaker’s psyche, forever impacting his worldview. Even if it isn’t, something changed. Of course, I wasn’t there and can only speculate. But it seems Golan and his mess of a musical about artistic integrity ended up as a sad joke in the long term. There are a number of lines sprinkled throughout of Alphie and Bibi’s art being pre-sold, marketed before it was even made. Both performers are aghast at the mantra of “first you sell it,” and “then you make it.”

A common business practice of Cannon’s (which, to be fair, wasn’t of their own invention but something done on a scale previously unseen) was to sell a film before it was made to distributors (often foreign) based solely on a concept or poster. No script was written, no actors were cast, no film was in the can. Once funds were secured, Golan and Globus parlayed the capital into actually making what had been sold. This is often why Cannon movies are so radically divorced in terms of concept and execution. Golan and Globus sold something they lacked the resources to realize. Therefore, in a bit of cargo cult reverse engineering, many Cannon productions were simply movies that worked backwards, stuffing a film into a pitch, rather than a pitch exploding out into a film.

It’s a miracle that Cannon was able to make it work. That miracle was brought about by Yoram Globus’s business acumen but, especially, by Menahem Golan’s love of film.

Menahem Golan has a reputation for being intense, for being personable, but, above all, for being passionate. Why else would you wear this. Or better yet, this. But, after The Apple, it seems this passion became more business-centric, rather than artistic, something cultivated during his earlier career in Israel. There are stories of Menahem Golan cajoling and threatening actors, distributors, and directors to get the job done but they scan far closer to a concerned businessman (like a Mr. Boogalow) trying to churn out a product than a legitimate artist suffering for his work.

If anything, The Apple is an engaging crystal ball vision of Golan’s future after the film crashed and burned. Perhaps the filmmaker, at the helm of Cannon, became what he despised, a wheeler and dealer that exploited artists simply because that was easier than facing the scorn and derision attached to being an artiste. Maybe he was that all along. I can only imagine beyond the dark wrestlings within the producer’s soul on display here. Either way, this failure of a musical, though charming and kitsch, is a fascinatingly ironic counterpoint to what Cannon would become and, possibly, what Golan hoped it wouldn’t be.

For all of its failures, I cannot help but love, and pity, The Apple.

The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: New Year’s Evil

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An explanation of what I’m doing.

Details:

New Year’s Evil

Directed by Emmett Alston

Featuring Roz Kelly, Kip Niven, and Chris Wallace

Released 12/26/1980

IMDB Synopsis (via SgtSP@aol.com) During a New Year’s Eve celebration, a Punk Rock & New Wave show host gets a phone call saying that when New Year’s strikes in each time zone, someone will be murdered–and she will be the last one.

Minutes of Note:

02:34- If only the Do Not Disturb sign was posted outside the door, this whole mess could have been avoided. And don’t hotel doors lock automatically?

03:40- First kill. Yvonne’s dead! But who’s responsible? Very problematic plot point moving forward.

05:36- Long introduction of the punks in the drop top cruising down the street is quite engaging and well-lensed. Certainly a vibe is crated but one that doesn’t come back around. Maybe best sequence in the film. Sadly, Yoram Globus is misspelled as “Yorum”.

06:30- Great script writing & editing: “Tickets. Tickets, lets have your tickets. Tickets, lets have your tickets.”

09:14- I love how the extras are directed to nudge close and tangle their arms together to give the impression a baker’s dozen is actually a crowd of hundreds.

09:48- The TV can talk to you?!? “You bet, Blaze!”

10:52- The movie is sort of ruined here. One, we get a shot of the killer’s face that drains a great deal of suspense, even when the big reveal occurs later. Two, he might have the most on the nose name ever, “call me Evil.” Was Bad Guy already taken?  Three, Blaze calls him “Mr. Evil” perhaps inspiring the gag from Austin Powers. Four, Evil establishes an MO that is both distant (killing someone during each timezone’s New Year’s) and vague (are these people in those time zones? Or just people close to Blaze? Or both? Or neither?) The associations are off and for there to be suspense and fear the specifics need to be clear. Stakes need to be crystal. And what about that first kill of Yvonne? Was that part of Evil’s MO or was that incidental? Or something else…?

14:01- A Friday the 13th aural cue is attempted, you know, the “ha-ha-ha-cha-cha-cha” thing. Only here it sounds like someone kicking back after a sip in a pop commercial.

14:46- Between Evil’s knit-cap (viz Jack Nicholson) and the mental institute’s inmates, I like to think of this as an alternate telling of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

18:44- Audience Shaming.

21:21- Does Blaze’s son have a headache or just hates the shitty New Wave music he’s watching on TV?

23:32- The second kill but perhaps the first done by Evil and the first to correspond to a New Year’s countdown (EST). So, how is this nurse close to Blaze? Who is she? You know what, no time for questions. MOSH PIT!

24:58- Amazing dialogue: “This is Evil. Remember me?” Oh, no I confused you with the other guy named Evil using a voice changer.

26:55- I’ll chalk up the closet and swinging light bulb (and the discovery of a semi-hidden corpse) as a clear Halloween callback. Nice cross cutting between the dead nurse and the sirens though.

27:56- “You think I have a mental disorder.” Oh, really?

28:23- What?

30:42- Kip Niven’s hair, outfit, and fake mustache all scream 70s porn. The best porn, after all.

30:57- The beginning of the usage of ‘creep’ that will, *ahem* creep into many Golan/Globus films, culminating in Death Wish 3.

32:55- You can’t smoke indoors!

33:59- The cops plan isn’t all that bad but it does carry whiffs of the mayor from Jaws. But, how do they imagine Evil will slip up? He’ll accidentally give away his position if he calls Blaze again? Perhaps the police can track his call but so far he’s only called from pay phones (not that the cops know this) but shouldn’t that be a given? Also, shouldn’t it be clear that Evil has already messed up since he killed a random nurse at the sanatorium, which isn’t a person close to Blaze like he’s promised? Unless, Evil’s just being literal and is killing people in close proximity, and not closeness in terms of affection.

34:14- Erik Estrada’s place!?!??!

39:03- Nervous diarrhea?

41:34- The third kill, done with a plastic bag. Classic. But couldn’t Evil have taken the weed out? Again, this kill has zero connection to Blaze. It’s just some lady. And the fourth kills is close behind. Ditto.

43:41- “Shut up, bitch!” Another great example of classic script writing. Wordsmiths.

45:21- Genuinely creepy. Well lit. Well shot.

46:02- I think the biggest stumbling block for suspense is that this movie takes place in LA. All the bodies found are attributed to Evil, yet the cops have no way of knowing if Evil was behind any of these killings. Head Cop even states that Evil’s MO is slashing the victims, even though Evil stated a different MO, which he hasn’t fully kept to. But the tape recorded parts ostensibly documenting the murders (full of deep, heavy breathing and screaming) could have been pornos for all the cops know. Linking killings in Haddonfield, Camp Crystal Lake, or wherever Nancy Thompson lived works because these are small communities. If someone was found in a dumpster, and someone else was found in a freezer, you bet there was a pattern. In LA, who can connect the dots in such a short amount of time?

48:40- The scene at the drive-in needs to be a bigger part of the film. This is a place to get meta about the genre and could have elevated this film to Wes Craven’s Scream a decade and a half before it came out. But, despite some promise, the setup falls flat.

52:29- “We can even get it on if you want to. I won’t make any kind of fuss.” Knife erection.

55:42- No fifth kill, even though it’s midnight Mountain Time.

57:23- WHAT?!?

57:47- Obligatory Son of Sam/ Zodiac reference. Hey, it was the late 70s/early 80s, after all. White people be panicking.

01:01:07- Usually you don’t want to draw attention to yourself if you’re a serial killer. Brandishing a gun usually attracts eyeballs.

01:03:33- Oh, that mask… That faux-Carpenter score…that track suit.

01:04:00- So, here’s the reveal that Evil is Blaze’s husband, Richard. Shocking. But we’ve followed him this entire film. Even though we know things Blaze doesn’t, which should create suspense, so much time has been spent on Richard (Evil) that there isn’t any sort of tension here. For all intents and purposes, he has been our protagonist.

01:06:42- Did Richard bring in that steamer trunk full of elevator equipment? Or was it left for him? Or are there deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray?

01:07:56- Blaze made such a big deal about changing her costume but seems to be wearing the same outfit with a little striped cowl fitted over it. What?

01:08:48- “It’s still going down!” I’m sure whacking buttons on a elevator hundreds of times a second doesn’t make it function any better.

01:10:24- This entire murder spree might have only been due to Richard being quite proud of his boom box and wanting to prove that. “Instant replay. A miracle of modern technology…I’m Evil.”

01:11:17- Ah, yes, misogyny. “Ladies are not very nice people.”

01:11:50- Richard confesses to the first killing. So, he snuck into the hotel, killed Yvonne, then left secretly, created a trail of destruction across southern California with a knife and voice changer, only to spend twenty minutes sneaking back into the same hotel he was originally in?

01:17:58- “There’s some fucking shit going on here.” You said it, not Steve Harvey.

01:18:16- What is Richard’s plan here? He has Blaze hanging on the underside of the elevator but to what end? What’s the goal? I’m willing to accept crazy formulations from a Michael Myers or Pamela Voorhees but this seems like such a vague death (when Blaze is the ultimate goal) to be inconceivable. Richard has shown to be calculating (he loves his audio recorder) and quick to murder. This isn’t Saw.

01:19:39- “Call an ambulance. Be careful.” Great script, just perfect. Without that dialogue the cops chasing Richard would only be moderately careful.

01:19:50- Reminiscent of John McClane on the roof in Die Hard. Did John McTiernan rip off this movie?

01:20:13- What?

01:21:13- Richard’s turned into a dummy!

01: 21: 24- Carpenter score rip-off

01:22:48- Another instance of good lensing in this film with Blaze loaded into the ambulance in long, close takes. But to what end? The shot is well staged but I don’t see for what purposes.

01:23:08- “She’s ready. Let’s go.” OK, great. But does no one see the guy driving this ambulance covered by a Richard Nixon mask? Bye.

Reflection:

So for my first entry in the Great Cannon Film Watch-Through this is a bit of a misnomer. There are a number of Golan/Globus productions before this film hit theaters. Given the time of year, however, it feels appropriate to start here since so many of Cannon Films’ shortcomings are wrapped up in this production.

New Year’s Evil makes a great deal of sense on paper. What doesn’t come through is the execution. Released the day after Christmas, the movie fits in the slasher glut propagated by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a glut that continued until Wes Craven shot the genre with some wake up juice in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). At the time, every date on the calendar received its own horror treatment, a trend lovingly sent up in Eli Roth’s mock trailer for Thanksgiving.

A New Year’s themed horror film has potential. Ostensibly the date is an ending, a closing, a winding down of affairs, a blank slate come next year. For a murder/horror mystery, the date is right up there with Halloween and Christmas for connotations of suspense and anticipation. The year’s ending? So is your life! It also benefits from the juxtaposition that Christmas themed horror films (think Black Christmas, Gremlins, or even the recent Krampus) provide, a time of celebration counterbalanced by an intrusion of horror.

What short changes this film is the focus.

Horror films are scary not only because of the kills. What makes them scary is the lead up to each kill. That’s suspense. In a very Hitchcockian sense, what makes something suspenseful is different than what makes something filled with fear. Fear has a close association with suspense but the two are not identical. Suspense is something crafted through the prolonged delay of answering questions. Fear is an impulse. The former is crafted, the latter is instinctual. This is why a jump scare is so impacting on a first viewing but rarely lands a second time, while suspense is a gift that keeps on giving. Who hasn’t watched Saw and thought: “they’ll get out of that bathroom this time.”

Good horror thrives on suspense. It is the means to scares, not an end in itself. Michael Myers is scary because so little is known about him or his motives. Jack Torrance is scary because we get no interior access to what’s happening in his head. Freddy Krueger is scary because so little is known about what he can do and how he will strike. Even Norman Bates is scary because we’re misdirected from his intentions and backstory. Anthony Perkins embodies the character as a giant question mark, a nice guy with something ineffably off. “We all go a little mad sometimes,” is not only an ominous line but an ellipse, a promise of things to come.

The suspense in Psycho originally comes from what Marion Crane will do with the money she’s stolen. Will she return it? Will she be caught? What sort of punishment will she receive? We don’t know these answers when they’re asked so the audience can speculate. For all the talk of craft, the most powerful driver of suspense is actually the imagination of the audience. The film’s first act is a wonderful bit of narrative misdirection that:

  1. Establishes a clear victim for the first kill
  2. Lays the groundwork that things are not what they appear.

Psycho, as audiences might assume from the first act, is a film about a frustrated woman stealing a bag of cash, but, it’s not. Just the way Norman Bates was assumed to be a normal guy, but isn’t. Just the way Mother was assumed to be alive, but isn’t. The narrative focus in Psycho is purposefully misdirected for an effect. And for all the switch-backing and deception, all the rules are in place and properly focused on to achieve the desired suspense.

What I’m getting at in a long winded way is that New Year’s Evil doesn’t know what to focus on so it doesn’t know what it hopes to achieve. Perhaps the best sequence in the film is right at the beginning during the credits with the punk rockers in the convertible. It’s a timely flourish but I was near certain that these would be our focal characters. We’d come to know these louts and watch them get picked off one by one in a hotel on New Year’s Eve, giving it a vibe akin to Assault on Precinct 13 or Die Hard.

Instead, the kids are little more than stage dressing for an odd family drama between Los Angeles radio DJ Blaze, her Norman Bates-esque husband Richard, and their troubled son Derek, set during a life broadcast of Blaze’s show.

There is a genuine attempt at suspense in New Year’s Evil when Evil (the killer alter ego of Richard) calls in to Blaze’s show and lays out his MO: that he will kill someone “close” to the DJ on each US timezone’s New Year’s culminating in Blaze’s murder on 12:00 am Pacific Standard Time. This lays out the rules. The audience knows what the stakes are and the suspense is derived from whether Evil will accomplish this task and whether Blaze will survive the night.

However, these rules are already undermined in the actual first sequence of the film when Blaze’s assistant Yvonne is murdered. This kill (which Richard confesses to but, in another lapse in focus, might actually have been caused by Derek, though we see him walking away from Yvonne’s room before the kill) doesn’t correspond with the MO which will be the focus and suspense for the film. Furthermore, does this first kill imply Richard was secretly in the hotel, killed Yvonne, then snuck out to commit more murders, only to sneak back into the hotel after its been sealed by police due to his threats?

Talk about inefficient.

Now, perhaps this is a Psycho-like misdirect, demonstrating that Richard-as-Evil doesn’t keep to his word. But, that doesn’t work since Evil is slavishly devoted to killing at each stroke of midnight, perhaps best demonstrated during the Central Standard Time kills. The guy has grabbed two women from a bar on false pretenses and is visibly agitated and annoyed when they’re stuck in traffic, thereby possibly preventing him from killing on time and sending the recorded screams to Blaze on-air. Instead of signaling unpredictability, like Jack Torrance, it signals ineptitude. He can’t even plan ahead for traffic. Also, he kills no one during New Year’s on Mountain Time, further spoiling his MO.

Coupled with that is the nature of who is killed. Evil promises to kill people close to Blaze before killing her. The only people he kills (aside from Yvonne which didn’t adhere to his MO) are a bunch of random LA dwellers.When Laurie Strode’s friends are all offed in Halloween there’s an impact because she has a connection to them. Blaze likely has as much sympathy for the victims of these kills as someone reading about a fatal accident on the expressway.

Returning to my main thrust, the focus does this film in. Way too much time is spent following Richard around as he commits these kills. Based off screen time alone, Richard has a real shot at being the film’s focal character. The elongated chase scene between Richard (dressed as a priest) and a random gang of unruly bikers that attempt to hunt him down for no good reason through a drive-in movie theater is perhaps confirmation of this. This diminishes the menace of Evil and loosely places the audience’s sympathies with him. Though he’s a killer, we see him as vaguely charming, tall, athletic, and concerned for his safety in a Patrick Bateman sort of way: a crazy guy, in a crazy world, forced to do crazy things.

The film’s focus is off and we end up not feeling all that sympathetic towards Blaze and not all that frightened of Richard. It’s muddled and, because of the focus, not scary, a death knell for any horror film, especially a slasher. Though Richard, as he attempts to kill Blaze, conforms to the retrograde gender politics of late 70s/early 80s slasher films (slasher villains are inherently conservative in their sexuality. Why else does the virgin always survive?) it isn’t convincing because he hasn’t kept to his MO and we’ve focused for far too long on him. There’s no suspense. It’s like seeing the shark from Jaws every two minutes.

Again, on paper this film might have worked. A lot of Cannon Films worked on paper and it’s a tribute to Golan and Globus’s salesmanship that they got so many films off the ground and in cinemas based solely on a pitch delivered on the fly. There are a few charms to this film but, in the end, it is a mixture of ideas that never quite land.

The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: Introduction

cannon

Hustlers. Wheelers and dealers. Con men. Schlockmeisters. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus have been called a great many things, some of which are true. But aside from the insults (whether warranted or not) the Israeli pair were first and foremost prolific American film producers. Golan handled the film, Globus the production. The cousin duo, at the head of Cannon Films, became infamous among cinema circles during the 80s for crafting content of questionable quality at a rate unheard of using shaky accounting and business practices. Needless to say, the quality of the films suffered. Yet, that never deterred the pair as they pushed on to the next production, gaining the moniker of “The Go-Go Boys.”

While the story of Golan and Globus has been told better than I could ever attempt in Mark Hartley’s recent documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, my goal is far more hermeneutic in nature. I aim to witness, to study, and, possibly, to understand what it was about this studio and the movies they released that altered how Hollywood did business. More importantly, what appetites did they cater to and how?Despite a soiled reputation, Cannon did change the film industry, both in terms of what films see the silver screen and how they’re produced. I’m looking to see both the sausage and how it comes together.

Over the course of 2016, I intend to sort through the entire Cannon back catalog, specifically during the years Golan and Globus were in charge (1979-1989). This will take me through the depths of seedy exploitation joints, endless Charles Bronson features, Chuck Norris vehicle after Chuck Norris vehicle. I’ll sit before countless ninja films, come to understand the ins-and-outs of competitive arm wrestling, behold the kickboxing stylings of Jean-Claude Van Damme. I’ll become immersed in break dance culture, sort through numerous knock-offs, and marvel at large scale blockbusters where the ideas lapped the budget many times over.

And the nudity.

So. Much. Nudity.

My intent is to do this largely in chronological order. Given the difficulty in obtaining many of Cannon’s less successful films, this may not always be possible. Some skipping and omissions may be unavoidable. A number of productions have fallen into obscurity or ended up available only in foreign markets, or never saw a release beyond a poor TV edit.

Regardless, given Cannon’s output I shouldn’t lack for material.

I’ll watch as many films headed by Golan and Globus as possible, ruminate, and then document my perceptions and reactions right here. Some may be fruitful. Others may not. The ultimate aim is not to judge since so many of these films have been buffeted by critical scorn. What else can I add to these appraisals of taste now? Sure, displeasures and treats will be voiced but that’s ancillary. What I can do is look back from the present to the past and attempt to make sense of what came before and what’s to take away.

Somehow I’ll survive this.

Wish me luck.