Thus far we’ve found blaxploitation films, Soviet space epics, slasher flicks, and similar fare, films originally made for or re-cut and marketed to the now defunct secondary markets of drive-ins and independent theaters, largely in the 70s and early to mid 1980s.  This era was a great one for films of this type-but it is hardly the only time that low-budget films were cranked out to meet a market need.   During the 1930s and 1940s Poverty Row movie producers like Monogram cranked out horror, crime, and comedies on the cheap, to fill out a double bill as the “B” picture.  Short running times were married to marketable properties that were either seen as disreputable (the horror, crime, low-brow comedy and sci-fi genres, for example) or were considered beneath the major studios.  This later category encompassed adaptations of radio shows, comic books, comic strips and pulp novels.  Series like The Whistler, The Lone Ranger, The Great Gildersleeve, The Shadow, and Inner Sanctum were turned into B-movies and serials by the like of Darmour Inc., Republic Pictures, RKO, and even major studios like Columbia, and Universal.

One of the least well-known film series of this type is Cyclone Bill, Carny Detective, known in some markets simply as The Carnival Detective or Cyclone Bill.  Although the Universal Pictures entries in the series exist, they are currently tied up in a rights fight while the rest of the series, produced by independent Dixie Pictures were believed to be lost, which makes the presence of The Midway Mangler in Crate 23 all the more exciting.

Cyclone Bill was the brain child of Elliott Polk, a self-styled New York intellectual and playwright who turned to writing for pulps and comic books to survive.  His biggest hit was Cyclone Bill, The Carnival Detective.  Whereas most detective characters worked out of an office in the big cities, Cyclone Bill ran a stall in a traveling show, where he used his Holmesian powers of deduction to guess his customers height, weight, and profession.  Inevitably Cyclone Bill would find himself drawn into a mystery, in which his deductive powers, sideshow gimmicks, and his skill as a bare knuckle boxer would allow him to prevail over his opponents, usually stuffed shirts, intellectuals, aristocrats, big time gangsters or crooked cops.

Some critics see Cyclone Bill as a parody of detectives, with the unlikely figure of an unkempt carney proving himself as intellectually gifted as a Holmes or Poirot, or as adept as Marlowe or Sam Spade at navigating the hard-boiled world of crime.  Cyclone Bill is also said to prefigure the “Underground Comics” of the 1960s with its bizarre plots and villains and its hero which embraced not only carnival and gypsy elements, but also the 1930s hobo underground, with Bill speaking in an amalgamation of the argot of carneys, Romany, and hobos.

Everything changed when Polk sold the rights of his character to Cary Willis, one of the major producers of 1930s radio.  Willis, looking for a new angle on the Detective format, easily convinced Polk (who saw the character as a way to make money for the theater productions he hoped to mount) to sell him the rights to Cyclone Bill.  Willis’ radio version began well enough, adapting Polk’s pulp Cyclone Bill stories more or less intact (though the racier elements and the Hobo/carny argot were downplayed) and with Polk’s Quicksilver Theater Company providing the actors.  Eventually Willis (and more importantly, parent network MBS and sponsors) grew tired of the Quicksilver Theater Company’s radical politics and on air tricks (one episode featured extensive use of Esperanto; another featured Cyclone Bill investigating sponsor Napoli Wines).  A completely new cast of radio regulars was brought in and the tone of Polk’s pulps was dropped in favor of a more conventional melding of the comedy and crime genres.  Cyclone Bill became less of a genius trickster outsider and more of a wise cracking tough guy who followed his hunches, with a regular FBI contact who helped him out of jams.

With the cast (and tone) change, Cyclone Bill became a major hit, and the pulps were also changed to match the radio show.  Polk and his associates eventually lost all control of the character, and Willis worked with Universal Pictures to put out a series of Cyclone Bill films, starting with 1940’s Cyclone Bill:  Carny Detective.  By 1946 the Cyclone Bill character was no longer popular on radio and his films were no longer making a profit (after Cyclone Bill at the Fair, Cyclone Bill and the Stall Strangler, Cyclone Bill Goes to College, Cyclone Bill Goes to War, Cyclone Bill in Jungle Hell, Cyclone Bill Meets Lon Chaney Jr. and Cyclone Bill Vs. The Bowery Boys) Universal sold the property to Dixie Pictures.  Dixie was an extremely low rent distribution company that specialized in getting films to the Southern market, the one place where Cyclone Bill was still making a profit.  Dixie didn’t manage to get a Cyclone Bill picture together until 1947, when it released Cyclone Bill Heads South.  The film was so successful that Dixie continued to pump out Cyclone Bill films until 1954,  when the company finally went bankrupt.

The Midway Mangler was one of Dixie’s few attempts to revamp the formula, attempting to include some Film Noir elements while keeping enough of the later entries in the series humor and music.  The story is set entirely on a Midway that Cyclone Bill (Danny James) is working with his sidekick Tornado Tommy (Tony Goodman).  Tornado Tommy was one of the elements introduced by the radio show after Polk’s departure, a wise cracking kid that Cyclone Bill found left in his stall one day.  Also on the Midway are Madame Ling (Una Roy), a “Chinese” belly dancer, a former mistress of a Chinese Communist general, who is pursued by Communist agents for stealing secrets that she plans on selling to the highest bidder.  The Reds are on the Midway, too, both Russian (complete with a dancing bear) and Chinese (posing as acrobats).

Ling gets Bill mixed up in the whole affair, appealing to him to protect her when victims of the Mangler start turning up dead.  She believes it’s the Russians using their bear to frighten her into giving up the vital secrets she posses.  Bill falls for the dames tricks, only to find out that it’s not the Communists’ bear doing the killing, but Ling’s mute manservant (actor unknown, but credited as Changoff), in an attempt to get the Communists to wipe each other out, leaving her free to sell the secrets to an interested American party.  Bill figures out the switch just in time to save Tommy from death at the hands of Changoff, and leaves Ling in the hands of the FBI.

The Midway Mangler is an extraordinarily cheap movie, using one section of midway set over and over and going so far as to use rear projection for crowd scenes.  The story features gags so tired from overuse that I knew more than half from the surviving radio shows (only 50 episodes of the 15 year series remain)!  It does give us some idea what the later Dixie Pictures entries in the series were like, with lots of cheap hilly billy jokes and offensive stereotypes in evidence.  James seems very tired in the film, and the utter despair that lead to his drinking death on the set of Cyclone Bill and the Thunder Road Murders is barely concealed in his performance.

Fans of the early Cyclone Bill pulps would do best to stay away, but scholars of both radio and B-movies will rejoice that another piece in the Carny Detective puzzle has been found.

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Schizofrantic Kung Fu was released by a small Hong Kong distribution company named Genuine Kung Films. From the brochure taped to one of the canisters, it appears that they had the rights to no fewer than 11 films starring Burce Lee. The odd spelling is so consistent that I have to assume that it is “correct”. The description of Schizofrantic Kung Fu therein is “Burce Lee is master of schizofrenic marital art. Watch him tear enemys in two with power of split brain!” While enthusiastic, that’s not entirely accurate.

The film is dubbed into English, but none of the voice actors are credited. There are titles and credits, but none of us read Chinese. Well, there was Sen, but his internship ended before this movie was cataloged… Additionally, the movie begins and ends abruptly, leading to speculation around the coffee machine that the legitimate ownership of the film has been removed.

The story begins with Lee (whom I can only assume is Burce Lee) performing minor street cons, stealing fruit from vendors and getting strangers to quarrel so he can pick their pockets. Then he goes to a posh inn and changes into expensive garments. He goes to the governor’s palace for a formal dinner, where he is introduced as “the government agent”. Apparently there has been some difficulty from rebels in the area.

I should mention here that the time period for this plot is anybody’s guess. It’s some time before the British came to the area, but the emperor is never named and the rebels are never identified. Perhaps there’s a hint in the set dressings, but the production values were similar to those of a high school play so I’m guessing they just used whatever they had access to.

At any rate, Lee is tasked with either destroying the rebels or simply looking into the situation. The governor simply states “These rebels. They are real trouble.” Then Lee nods and remarks “I will see about that.” Then there’s a martial arts demonstration, and while two men are dueling with javelins they lunge toward the governor. Lee leaps into action, taking the javelins from the assassins and thrashing them. The governor demands that they be killed, but Lee overrules him and has them locked up for questioning.

Later that night Lee breaks into the cell of the assassins and sets them free. He’s wearing garb similar to theirs, and they accept him without question. The three of them race across the rooftops. Guards pursue, there’s a brief fight that’s hard to make out, and Lee escapes with the assassins. This is the last we see of the assassins and the entire rebellion plot is never mentioned again.

Lee next wanders through a forest. He now wears a monk’s robe and a vest that appears to be made of quilted foil. He meets a hunter that’s leading another man by the leash. The man has patches of fur stuck to his hat, and his nose is painted black. Lee asks the hunter what’s going on, and he is informed that this is the hunter’s dog. That the man is an actual canine is never questioned. Instead, Lee engages in a ridiculous set of challenges to prove himself superior to the “dog”. After proving himself better at pointing, fetching and serving tea (!), Lee concludes that he is now the owner of the dog-man and chases the hunter away.

There follows a long stretch in which the movie seems to settle on a plot of sorts. Lee and dog-man wander through the forest, meeting a variety of people along the way. Each one is asked about his business and explains how what he does is a benefit to society. As each one talks, Lee and dog-man are shown performing the labor described. There’s a lot of clowning around during this section of the movie, but it’s pretty dreary stuff.

At long last, Lee (inexplicably on his own) arrives at a hidden city. He again seems to be a beggar, and he gawks at street performances and steals produce. It isn’t long (in movie time) before he’s brought before the governor. The governor tells Lee (even while other actors are apparently delivering lines) that he has committed serious crimes against the Lost City of Zin and must face death at the hands of the Executor. That’s with the stress on the second syllable, as in “executor of the estate”. The Executor is a large man with a black hood and two fake arms anchored on his back. The fake arms are also attached with a line to his wrists, so that they sort of move while he throws punches and blocks.

Here, at long last, the special kung-fu promised by the marketing material makes an appearance — kind of. Lee the beggar freezes and a broad cartoon outline appears around him. There’s a tinkling sound mixed with what might be a distorted hair dryer, and then the scene changes. The Lee outline is super-imposed onto a sandy “outdoor” set. Lee pops into frame, not quite in the same pose and wearing only a pair of white pants.

The fight between Lee and the Executor is intercut with clips of shirtless Lee fighting the same mob over and again. Eventually, the Executor falls, but the film ends suddenly on more footage of Lee fighting the endless stream of four or five martial artists.

Kung Fu films containing clips from other movies are common enough. What’s baffling about this one is that the only attempt to join the material is the bit with the outline of Burce Lee. It’s possible that some small part of this movie had been shot as a new Burce Lee vehicle, and that it wasn’t finished for whatever reason. I suppose we’ll never know unless the remaining Burce Lee films are discovered somewhere in the archive.

Can you arrive both too late too early to the party? It’s a question to ponder as we handle a pristine Japanese Laserdisc of this forgotten, and only, feature directorial effort from popular author/showrunner Julia March. The Japanese release amusingly splits the difference between the two titles that tried, and failed, to sell this picture, going with Peach Road Dreamland.

The film’s peculiarity lies in that as much as it trades in the gratuitous nudity and car chases, it owes as much if not more to the New American Cinema of Altman and Ashby. And yet it’s no nostalgia piece. After the chaotic first act where a pair of comely would be car thieves, Ruby (Dana Michaels) and Evelynne (Tanya Kendricks) incur the wrath of Sheriff Salter (Peter Fonda), it plays like the seventies drive off to meet the eighties. The pair pick up New Waver Dice (Emily Bridges), in place of a guitar picker looking to make it in Nashville, Dice totes a cherry red keytar. The two agree to take her to Phoenix to play in a show with her sometime boyfriend and hopefully impress a musical impresario (also played by Fonda) who’ll be in the crowd.

The introduction of Dice and her story almost feels like a first draft of the gentle teen flicks of John Hughes. And the two stories don’t always mesh comfortably. Some care is taken with the characterization of the former two, Ruby’s boyfriend was a Nam vet who finally finished drinking him to death. Evelynne lost her younger brother in an attack based on the notorious Atlanta Child Murders of two years earlier. There is real pain in the two, and sense in their reckless behavior they’re rushing towards oblivion with open arms.

The latter half of the film divided the few critics who payed attention at the time. Some thought the director was making a canny critique of Reaganism good feelings over substance, as the older girls forget their troubles to help Dice make it as a music star. Others thought it a cop out. A few stuck up for the picture, saying the key lies in the songs Dice sings in fragments throughout the picture. Mostly old, melancholy spirituals taught to her by her grandmother. They argued it was a Pepsi Generation variation on Night of the Hunter with three lost children escaping a demonic older man. It’s a hard film to pin down and that is part of its charm or frustration depending on the viewer’s mood.

The soundtrack has become a collector’s item, with just bootlegs fetching premium prices on collector’s sites. Banjo twangs, synth, spirituals, and punk guitar riffs are as good as any summation of the film’s shifting moods and tones. Composed by Alice Tanner, she would write some of the biggest hits, including “Laser Heart”, for popular late eighties group Sound Dreams. She returned to film scoring in the late nineties with considerable success, picking up an Academy Award nomination for her work on Todd Creshlin’s Another Time Another Place.

The director/screenwriter Julia March shifted her focus to writing and steady work as a TV director. She wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Too Many Stones, and created the early aughts cult TV favorite, Blood and Wine. This reunited her with Kendricks, now playing the family’s delightfully sour matriarch.

Kendricks needs no introduction here as she earned the adoration of eighties audiences as Petal Montgomery in the iconic prime time soap Forbidden Law, and earned geek hearts in the nineties as Capt. Athena “Nea” King in Star Force. Michaels worked little after this and eventually returned to New York to teach drama and run a successful casting agency. Bridges was a breakout star of the decade, drug troubles nearly ended her career in the mid-nineties but she returned with a hit TV series, Dr. Magic, and went on to produce several more.

As you might guess from the copy source, the film was something of a hit in Japan. Inspiring a pop group and a long running manga both called Neon Peaches. The manga actually bearing very little resemblance to the finished film. Telling the story of three girls who are each given a magic peach pit from The Goddess of Nature and sent out on a quest to defeat the evil Poison King-Priest who rules over a post apocalyptic America. It’s a shame the film couldn’t find an audience here but perhaps it’s fitting if we remember the lyrics to one of Dice’s songs. “Our homes are the most empty places of all, only the road’s ever moving arms can hold us…”

We found another extraordinary gem in crate 7; a print of the fabled ‘export’ version of this horror classic. So much has already been written about Taste the Bloody Fear of the Hands of Horror and its producers, the infamous Zeppelin Brothers. But at the risk of covering old ground, here are a few details for the uninitiated. American-born Herbert and Chester A. Zeppelin’s first verifiable act was to open a movie theatre on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Their second was to burn it down for the insurance money. Little is known of them before that; Chester claimed to have been a concert pianist, Herbert often said that his background was “still classified.”

What is well documented is their move to England aboard the troop ship RMS Bastard during World War II. They were immediately imprisoned for the crimes of Being a Stowaway with Intent to Stow Away, and Wilful Misappropriation of Ship’s Biscuits. By the time of their release in 1947, Herbert and Chester had amassed an impressive fortune by importing and selling black-market goods into Dartmoor Gaol. Sadly they didn’t have long to enjoy it, being immediately re-arrested and convicted of Importing and Selling Black-Market Goods Into Dartmoor Gaol. On their second release in 1952, the brothers once again turned their attention to the movies.

Their first studio just off Soho Square was mainly used in the production of stag reels, though by filming the filming of such material they scored their first hit, Raw Sinful London Nights of Sin. This salacious and largely staged ‘documentary’ was popular at the less reputable Soho cinema clubs, running at the infamous Compton St. Boudoir for two years. The Zeppelins invested the profits in a number of areas: several public houses, a small hotel and a failed attempt to revive the sport of bear baiting. Their biggest outlay however was the construction of Thames-on-Thames Studios in Shoreditch. Soon their new company Zeppelin Brothers Films Telephotoplay Films Productions (ZBFTFP) was churning out programme-filler dramas, comedies and thrillers at an impressive rate.

Many of the top British stage and screen talents of the day appeared in Zeppelin productions, with their familiar tagline ‘If it Bombs, it’s A Zeppelin!’ The actors too had a saying; “if you’re resting for a day or two, get shitfaced. If you’re really desperate make a picture for the Zeppelins.” They remained a mainstay of the UK’s B-picture industry until Herbert’s mysterious death in 1964. Though no body was ever found, the amount of his blood that had apparently been drained into Chester’s septic tank was calculated to be fatal. Chester’s trial and groundbreaking ‘I never touched him’ defence made legal and tabloid press history.

Taste the Bloody Fear of the Hands of Horror was a curious project for the Zeppelins, it being their only production to be shot in colour. Like many independents the Zeppelins stuck largely to monochrome, though unlike their contemporaries this was not for financial reasons. Herbert’s deep religious convictions precluded the use of colour film, which he felt was more likely to inflame the lusts and sinful thoughts of audiences, unlike the more morally pure black & white. However materialism won out over spirituality once the Zeppelins saw the success of Hammer’s lavish Eastmancolor gore epics, a success they clearly wanted to emulate.

Richard Carlsberg stars as Professor Marcus Lichtenstein, a typical mad scientist intent on pushing back the frontiers of knowledge whatever the cost. To this end he attempts to combine the body parts of the vampire Count Arkoff, a gill-man and a werewolf into a new übermonster. The reasoning behind this is never terribly well explained, but one must concede that it’s the sort of thing a mad scientist would do. The monster, played by Welsh wrestler Taffy Boyo, is not one of cinema’s most memorable creatures, but these days the film is best remembered for its fabulous, oddly sympathetic performance by Carlsberg. The latter was already a stage and TV legend by the time he first worked for the Zeppelins, in 1958’s comedy Whoops! Armed Forces!

The film is directed with some flair by Francis Kevinson, also making his colour debut. Kevinson started out making public information shorts like The Screeching Tyres of Death before moving to Zeppelin in 1956. He became one of their most prolific directors, working on all but two of the popular Inspector Fogg mysteries. Some of these have become regarded as minor classics in their own right, particularly A Sticky Wicket for Inspector Fogg, Inspector Fogg meets the Young Filly and Inspector Fogg and the Dirty Hun.

What’s special about the print from crate 7 is that it is, as stated at the beginning, the semi-mythical ‘export’ version. It features additional scenes of fake gore deemed too explicit for UK audiences, not to mention the infamous nude bathing scene by sexy starlet Sandy Sars. Sars’ pin-up status was already assured by this time, after her turn as the secretary in Dale Wisbom’s 1959 farce Has Anyone Seen My Trousers?

The UK cut of the film, with all of these scenes excised by the British Board of Film Censors, eventually gained a US release in 1965. Distributor Mormon Independent Pictures further cut several key scenes of exposition that were felt to be ‘too English,’ replacing them with newly shot footage. This concerned a subplot about fading noir actor Robert Locker (The Blonde Wore Murder) as a detective on the trail of Professor Lichtenstein. The film was then released to the drive-in circuit as Nudie Brides of Werevampenstein. It’s this inferior cut, cropped to 4:3 by MIP’s television arm, which appears on many budget DVD labels in your local dollar store. Hopefully now we can allow this curious, remarkable film to be seen as it was meant to be.

Pink Justice (USA, 1977)

October 19, 2009

There can be few cinema sub-genres as small as the one-director, four-film series collectively known as ‘gaysploitation.’ Inspired by the upsurge in California’s gay movement in the mid-1970s, formerly closeted film student-turned-flamboyant activist Vijay Kostenloser saw an opportunity to show his community on film. He was able to convince American International Pictures boss Samuel Z. Arkoff to fund a slate of four action pictures to be shot in San Francisco. In spite of Arkoff’s rabid and much publicized homophobia, Kostenloser persuaded him that there were enough pink dollars floating around to guarantee great box office returns. Production began immediately on Pink Justice and Pink Justice 2: Flaming Vengeance, which were shot back to back, with the lesbian spy caper D.Y.K.E. following shortly after. Sadly the dismal failure of the Pink Justice films meant that the fourth production, the sci-fi actioner Queer 2099, was abandoned at the script stage. Arkoff furiously ordered all copies of the three existing films destroyed, so we were surprised and delighted to find a battered but watchable work print of Pink Justice in crate 7.

A cursory viewing of the film shows that Kostenloser and his screenwriter Gary Gaylord (genuinely his real name, and he was in fact straight) stuck closely to the blaxploitation model of a few years earlier. Rainbow Jones (Alan J. Jay, b. José Iglesias Martínez-Suárez Pérez Olivera Pérez Puente Soriano) is a gay ex-marine living happily in San Francisco’s Castro district with his lover, prominent city council member Harry Silk (Liberace). Rainbow’s pleasant existence is shattered when his best friend Pinky (Fard Fielding, Martian Biker Punks) is beaten to death by a gang of homophobic hoodlums known as Straights For Hate. Using his military training and survival skills honed in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Rainbow engages in a bloody street war with the Straights. As the film progresses, Rainbow unveils a connection between the Straights and bigoted Catholic minister Father O’Maloney (Dick Tramm, Cry Rabies!), a truly creepy character with an unhealthy predilection for underage girls. In the gripping final reel, Rainbow discovers the ugly truth: that O’Maloney is in league with Harry Silk, who has secretly agreed to allow the building of a ‘forced re-education center’ in the heart of the Castro district.

After many disappointments, it was a true pleasure to find such an enjoyable lost work in crate 7. Pink Justice crackles with energy and excitement, fine performances, and sharply quotable dialogue. It’s easy to imagine that had the film been more successful, many of the lines would have found their way into our shared cultural lexicon. In particular, Rainbow Jones referring to his gold plated .475 Wildey Magnum ‘Big Steve’ with kittens painted on the handgrips; “this is the closest these fingers get to pussy, honey!” before blowing away a bad guy. From the moment Rainbow beds a straight guy simply by kissing him, to his distinctive limp-wristed hand to hand combat style, he seems to be a ready-made hero for the gay community, a pink Shaft if you will. He even has his own theme ‘Rainbow Jones Is Here’ by gay soul collective Fag Street Junction, with the catchy refrain “Rainbow Jones: the Queer you Fear.” Our print also included the film’s theatrical trailer, a two-minute explosion of action and colour with the superb voice-over “He’s the fag who’ll put you in body bag… Call him a homo and he’ll put you in a coma! This summer, God Save You from The Queen!”

Kostenloser’s agenda is clear from the outset. All of the heterosexual characters are loathsome, particularly the paedophile priest (who, one notes, only interferes with girls). The gay characters on the other hand are almost all sympathetic, with the exception of ‘Harry Silk.’ It’s odd that a role so clearly based on celebrated gay politician Harvey Milk is shown in such a negative light. Apparently this was due to an acrimonious one night stand between Milk and Kostenloser a few years earlier. The director even subverts Milk’s famous catchphrase by having Silk say in the final scene, “My name is Harry Silk and I’m here to shoot you!” However, this is a small black mark against an otherwise terrific film.

Sadly the failure of Pink Justice meant that many of the cast and crew drifted into obscurity. Not so Alan J. Jay, who infamously underwent treatment at a religious compound and became a Pentecostal minister, getting married and funding several viciously anti-gay films including The Swishy Scourge and the notorious Death Camp 3. His autobiography ‘Alan J. Jay – the J stands for Jesus’ was a bestseller in Alabama and Louisiana. Later still he renounced his conversion, and following his wife’s mysterious and unsolved death he fled back to Mexico, undergoing gender reassignment surgery. He still works today on television under the name Rosa Iglesias Martínez-Suárez Pérez Olivera Pérez Puente Soriano, and won a 1997 TV Novela Award as the dying matriarch in popular telenovela ¡Sexo prohibido!

It is our hope that with some extensive restoration of the print we may be able to secure a DVD release for Pink Justice. As both a cultural artefact and a gripping action-adventure film, it deserves to be seen at last.

Chess Club (USA, 1984)

October 8, 2009

We made a genuine find in box 7, a pristine work print of the almost mythical slasher film Chess Club. Indeed, many of our researchers were shocked to discover that a print of this movie existed at all, such was the controversy surrounding its non-release. There was an unusual air of reverence as the reels were threaded onto our projector. I suspect we all wondered if the movie could live up to its evocative publicity campaign, bearing that memorable tag line “Knight to Queen Die!”

The plot of the film is standard slasher material. At Kennedy High School in Rubinstein, Minnesota, the class whipping boy is chess club captain Ralph Prowse (former child star Grimpen Myer). After being disfigured and sexually humiliated during a prank by the cheerleading squad, Prowse is sent away to an asylum. One year later and the cheerleaders are getting ready for their senior prom, when a mysterious stranger in a black & white checkered mask begins to kill them off one by one.

Naturally it’s Prowse exacting his revenge, but what makes the film unusual is the inventive chess theme to the kills. Cheerleader captain April (Swedish starlet Terri Larssson) is pecked to death by a flock of rooks. Her sycophantic friend Chickie (future soap regular Whilimena Waters) is impaled on a bishop’s crook. The promiscuous girl Fácile (Rae Volconvo in her first and last film role) is throttled by the magnetic tape from a porn VHS cassette, which is phonetically dubious at best. Fácile’s jock bully boyfriend Chad (Rolf Barney) is decapitated with a Gladys Knight album. The culmination of the murders is to be the death of final girl Leigh at the chess-themed prom night, where she is crowned queen. Leigh is played with a deft touch by noted scream queen Betsy Mauser, then riding high on the success of Railroad Spike, Stab School and Railroad Spike 2.

In the harsh light of day, Chess Club is no better or worse than any number of independent 1980s slashers. Director/writer/producer Bill McNair here shows little of the visual flair he brought to his later work. What gave the film its notoriety was the legal case brought by the United States Chess Federation, who accused McNair of bringing the game into disrepute. The lawsuit was successful, and the Los Angeles Superior Court orderrd all copies of the film destroyed. The distraught McNair fled to Paris, where he eventually directed the psychological thriller Non-sens Injustifié. The commercial failure of that fascinating film effectively put an end to McNair’s career, and after tawdry exploitation shocker Mon Dieu, Mes Yeux! he never worked again. He was last seen driving a Lyon taxi in 1991.

Ultimately Chess Club does not really justify its notoriety, but neither did it deserve to go unseen for 25 years. McNair had some interesting ideas and perhaps would have developed into a successful director. Sadly his career was, if you’ll pardon the pun, ‘checked’ before it began. Ahem.

Crate Two contains a mammoth collection of apartheid-era South African action films, some of which (Boer Commando II and Die Lord Roberts, Die!) are quite rare. A few (the sprawling Xhosa Wars Saga, Maritz: the Last Boer) are comparatively well-known. All of them are casually and blatantly racist in a manner that can cause the average American viewer (and this cataloger) to blanch repeatedly. The Pretoria Option is no exception, and by the twenty minute mark, I gave up trying to list all of the objectionable views on display. Suffice it to say that there are enough to constitute a non-stop assault on the senses.

During apartheid, even well before the 1985 sanctions,  a lot of things were simply unobtainable in South Africa. American (and to a lesser extent European) action films, for instance, frequently depicted blacks as equals, which for obvious reasons wasn’t going to fly. A number of local z-grade producers leaped to fill the void, including Pieter Copperhorn. The son of British immigrants to South Africa, Copperhorn, like many converts to many ideologies over the years, became a fanatical Boer nationalist (he would commit suicide in 1992), but one with a certain talent for gaining financial backing for his films. Government connections also meant that he was often able to obtain the services of South African Army and Navy units for crowd or action scenes, which went a long way, given the meager budgets he operated with (Bigotry, Violence and Implied Sex: The Triple Features of Apartheid Exploitation Cinema claims Copperhorn never had a budget higher than R500,000).  He also tended to write, direct, and star in his own films. In 1977, this wasn’t a serious imposition, as the thirty-six-year-old Copperhorn was still ruggedly handsome, but age and success took a toll on him. By 1988’s Haul Down the Union Jack, he was overweight, balding, and perspired heavily in all of his scenes.

The film opens with a title card informing us that we are looking at a secret American military base, “THE HOME OF US STRATEGIC NUCLEAR COMMAND”. It appears to be a collection of World War II-era Quonset Huts. An admittedly impressive explosion then obliterates the huts.

A new title card informs us we are looking at the “US WHITE HOUSE WAR ROOM”. It looks pretty much like any other conference room you’ve ever seen, but there’s a big map of the world like you might see in an elementary school on the wall, and what appears to be a transparency of the org chart for an armored division hanging next to it.  The President of the United States (Gerald Pienaar, in a surprisingly funny turn) , a thinly veiled caricature of Gerald Ford, is receiving a report that all of the NATO countries (and France) have had their nuclear arsenals destroyed, and that Russia is now announcing a plan for German reunification. It is implied that this will be a Communist Germany.

Obviously, the USA can’t let this stand, and the President demands to know where a stopgap nuclear deterrent can be found. Where indeed?

We cut to Pretoria, as another title card helpfully informs us. Actually, we cut to the war memorial Fort Klapperkop, a disused Boer War-era fortress, where Jan Baaker (Copperhorn), an agent of BOSS (the South African’s Orwellian-sounding Bureau Of State Security, subsequently disbanded in 1980 and replaced with the National Intelligence Service) is receiving a briefing from his superior, “G” (Piers Uys) on the protection of South Africa’s atomic defenses. Now that the Russians (presumably) have destroyed NATO and France’s atom bombs, South Africa is the world’s last bulwark against Communism and anarchy. As if to emphasize the danger, a sniper narrowly misses Baaker and G, who in turn kill him with a fusillade of stunningly well-aimed pistol shots.

Meanwhile, at the “USSR ATOMIC WARHEAD STORAGE”, a team of Americans (including one black man played by a white in blackface) have carried out a countersabotage of the USSR’s missiles. However, the black American is revealed as a GRU mole, and they are ambushed by the Russians, who kill them all. Before he dies, however, the commander of the Americans manages to trigger their demolition charges. Now both sides are on an equal footing.

“BACK IN PRETORIA” (Copperhorn must have gotten a bulk discount on these captions), Baaker is riding shotgun to a convoy with one of South Africa’s nuclear weapons (played by what appears to be an old British Bloodhound SAM) when a group of Communist-affiliated (read: black) guerrillas attack in overwhelming numbers. The convoy, incidentally, is played by two land rovers plus the missile truck. The overwhelming numbers are probably ten or fifteen distinct attackers shot from different angles. They are beaten off, but in the confusion, an American spy (Carson Roberts) steals the missile truck.

What follows is a low speed chase; Copperhorn doesn’t even bother to speed up the film. That’s just as well, because it would have looked ridiculous, with the missile swinging about on its trailer and a hilariously unconcerned herd of cattle looking on at one point.

Baaker eventually manages to catch up to the missile, where he finds the American getting ready to hotwire the missile and launch it at Moscow.  A tense stand-off follows, but then the South African shoots his nemesis dead in what is apparently supposed to be a demonstration of Dirty Harry-esque elan.  (Copperhorn was a huge fan of the Dirty Harry films, and reportedly tried to obtain rights to remake them in South Africa. The refusal led to his later film, Filthy Pieter [1982].)

Following this is the denouement, in which South Africa, now the world’s sole nuclear power, announces that it will be acting as a world police force, “to stop conflicts before they start”. Apparently the two-power system threw the world out of balance, and now everyone will be safer in a one-power world.

American producers have been putting their own spin on Hong Kong action cinema for decades, re-cutting and dubbing cheaply-purchased films to better suit an English speaking audience. Few though can be more bizarre than the curio we discovered in crate 7, Deadly Fist of the Hedgehog.

It was perhaps not surprising to see the name of enterprising smut producer Roy Avenue (b. Stanley David Hergesheimer) in the credits. Avenue was particularly adept at combining existing footage with newly shot sex scenes, most infamously when he used two episodes of the popular British sitcom That’s Your Funeral! as the basis for his 1975 hardcore farce Cuties in Coffins. By the time the series’ producers ITV got wind of Avenue’s actions the film had already vanished from Times Square’s porno theaters, but not before Avenue had banked a tidy sum.

What we found in crate 7 was evidence that Avenue either purchased the rights to or simply stole the footage of an unfinished movie from Taiwanese independent filmmaker Lee Tso-nam (Mission: Kiss and Kill, The Invincible Kung Fu Legs). Some time around 1978 – the exact date is sadly as lost as the original film – Tso-nam invested much of his own money into a pet project provisionally titled Scorpion Kick vs. Sea Urchin Kung Fu. Starring Cliff Lok (Kung Fu Genius) and legendary superkicker Hwang Jang Lee, the film was never completed, perhaps because co-star and action director Wilson Tong’s (Snake Deadly Act) fanciful sea urchin combat style was bizarre even for a 1970s kung fu film.

At first it seems that Deadly Fist of the Hedgehog is simply going to be a vaguely chopsockey-themed porn movie, as a young man named Chew (Tom Byron, b. Thomas Bryan Taliaferro) seeks out Master Hedgehog (Ron Jeremy, b. Ronald Jeremy Hyatt) and asks to learn kung fu. Master Hedgehog’s unique training regime involves nothing more than having sex with a variety of women, which somehow (the film is not specific) confers great fighting skills on the male participant. Hedgehog demonstrates with his wife (Kay Parker, b. Kay Rebecca Taylor), before breaking an obviously polystyrene ‘brick’ with his erection.

Hedgehog magnanimously allows Chew to ‘practice’ on his daughter (Kristara Barrington, notably the only Asian in the American half of the production), before the film cuts to a fight scene from the Lee Tso-nam footage. Here we begin to appreciate Avenue’s thought process: Cliff Lok is dressed in a spiny costume to represent his sea urchin style, and wears a face mask (Tso-nam’s original script apparently had the Sea Urchin as a mysterious Robin Hood-style vigilante). With Byron’s voice dubbed over the footage, Avenue clearly hoped the audience would believe this was Chew in disguise. And of course I hardly need mention that hedgehogs are spiny, like sea urchins.

As to the fight itself (featuring choreographer Wilson Tong as the antagonist), it’s a well-done affair. For kung fu fans this will be the main area of interest in Deadly Fist of the Hedgehog, particularly as all footage from this production was thought to be lost. Indeed, the only way we were able to identify this footage at all was thanks to the rare still photographs of the urchin costume from David Bordwell’s excellent book, Taiwanese National Identity and Shaolin Invincible Sticks: The Films of Lee Tso-nam.

The film then proceeds in this fashion, fight scenes alternating with sex scenes featuring a couple of familiar faces from the early-80s adult scene, Dorothy LeMay and Crystal Dawn. The final confrontation between Cliff Lok and the main villain, played by Legendary Superkicker Hwang Jang Lee, is intercut with another sex scene so the smut fans don’t get too restless. This final encounter is between Parker and Barrington, who seem unconcerned that they are playing mother and daughter. One may infer that this is a reference to Parker’s ongoing role in the popular incest-themed Taboo series of films.

Avenue’s attempt to cash in on both the kung fu craze and Ron Jeremy’s ‘hedgehog’ persona seems to have made little impact on either smut or chopsockey fans. Perhaps the cuts between the cheap indoor porn footage and the more professional, sweeping outdoor kung fu scenes is simply too jarring. Perhaps it’s because the hastily-applied ‘occidental’ makeup worn by Jeremy and Byron keeps falling off during the sex scenes (the female performers aren’t so adorned). Deadly Fist of the Hedgehog is far from a classic, but as a testament to the ingenuity of Roy Avenue, it has little equal.

NB. despite the title, the film does not contain any scenes of fisting.

As with many of the films in crate two, the credits for Red Banner Solar Fleet are untranslated, the title and year coming from an enclosure in the first reel’s container. Mercifully the film itself is excellently subtitled, and the print is remarkably clear and crisp, even for a Crate 2 film.

The film opens with a fairly stirring shot of what is obviously a model of a spacestation against a still backdrop, but the modelwork itself is still impressive, resembling to a great extent the (in)famous Department of Automobile Roads of Georgia building, albeit festooned with antennae. A caption appears in teletype-style cyrillic; presumably, based on the dialogue, it’s letting us know that this is Solar HQ for the Red Banner Solar Fleet sometime in the early 21st century (subsequent dialogue leads me to believe about 2030).

The camera cuts to the inside of the station, which is perhaps unsurprisingly spacious and immaculate. Dr. Mary Jones, an American scientist, is coming aboard to conduct research, her own government not having any facilities adequate to the task. This is incidentally only the first of many subtle or not-so-subtle indications that the USA is now isolated and by far the poorer cousin to the Soviet-aligned nations of the world—later on in the film, we see a British spacecraft called the Harry Politt—but for all that, the movie’s tone is pretty gentle considering it was made during the height of the Cold War. Jones is greeted bySoviet officer Captain Alekseyev, who informs her that she is very fortunate: an extrasolar object has been detected passing by Pluto, and it is emitting radio signals that seem to be of intelligent origin. She will be on hand to witness humanity’s first contact with alien life. If she likes, Alekseyev will get her a spot on the “large solar rocket cruiser” (presumably an awkward translation of Russian term for a guided missile cruiser) Admiral Yumashev when it heads out to meet the object.

Dr. Jones is of course very interested in getting a seat on the Yumashev, but in exchange she insists that she be permitted to take Alekseyev out for dinner (“this is how it is in my country: you can’t do something for someone unless you get something in return”). What is obviously supposed to be a sort of charming interlude follows, as the two eat an ostensibly romantic meal consisting of various Russian dishes (Jones remarks that several of the food items, including, ironically enough, whole-wheat bread, are virtually unobtainable in the USA). Unfortunately both actors are a little wooden (though this may just my inability to grasp the subtleties of tone in the original Russian, vice the subtitled translations), and the scene goes overly long. That, however, is intentional, as Dr. Jones misses her chance to get aboard the Yumashev before she departs. Alekseyev consoles her by offering her a ride on his own ship, the small and fast “guard ship” (destroyer?) Vdumchivyy, which is acting as a sort of chase plane for the Yumashev.

The next scene is kind of a tour de force for the film; all the dialogue is in voiceover as we see the mammoth cruiser (which dwarfs the station) pull away, followed by the much smaller and sleeker destroyer. It’s clear that a lot of work went into the ships, and their hulls are covered with details like radomes, missile pods, thrusters, and (in a wonderful touch) escape pods swung out on davits, all of which we see as the camera loving pans across the ships’ hulls. It never for a moment looks like they aren’t models, but the craftsmanship is so impressive it’s hard to care.

This is a Soviet film, and in case you’d forgotten that, a large part of the voiceover is just Alekseyev talking about the training process for spaceship crews and how the ships operate. Mercifully this exposition is cut short(ish, it still takes a good ten or fifteen minutes) when the extrasolar object heaves into view. Through the miracle of forced perspective, it’s shown to be enormous in comparison to the Yumashev, and the Soviet hails to the object are greeted by a barrage of projectiles shaped like inverted eggs. They leave little spiralling plumes of smoke behind them as they rocket towards the cruiser, but mercifully, no wires are visible.

Back onboard the Vdumchivyy, Jones and Alekseyev watch in horror as the missiles (which a helpful technician informs us are kinetic weapons) punch holes in the Yumashev‘s hull, an effect achieved by a sort of white aerosol spray coming out of the sides of the model as she slowly rolls onto her side. (Exclaims Alekseyev: “She’s venting atmosphere!”)

Too small to stop the enemy on her own, the Vdumchivyy sends off a contact report (“to the Red Banner Solar Fleet”). Alekseyev, however, is a New Soviet Man, and he runs from no-one. (“We can’t stay, it’s too dangerous,” pleads Dr. Jones as she clings to his arm, but Alekseyev has no time for love.) If his tin can can’t outfight the attacker, he’s going to try and out think them. Evading wildly (accomplished by the simple expedient of shaking the camera and having the actors lurch around), he again tries to contact the extrasolar object. This time, the aliens respond.

The costume design for the aliens was actually pretty clever. They appeared to be encased in a sort of large dome-shaped fibreglass spacesuit with curious bulging protrusions and a ring of arms sticking out around the middle. The effect is a little cheesy, but props to the Russians for at least attempting a nonhuman alien. Anyway, the aliens inform the humans (in another almost interminable stretch of expository dialogue) that “billions of your years ago”, one of their freighters crashed into the earth, seeding it with life. Humankind apparently evolved from a sort of domestic pet, and now the aliens have come back to reclaim their property. They’re not really brooking any arguments, either; the Vdumchivyy has to dodge another fusillade of missiles when Alekseyev objects to being considered property-by-descent.

Dr. Jones is by now terrified. She demands to know what Alekseyev is stalling for; it’s clear to her that he’s just delaying the inevitable. By way of reply, a radar operator suddenly announces that the Red Banner Solar Fleet is now in range and closing fast. Alekseyev triumphantly indicates a viewscreen, and we see an actually quite impressive collection of model starships now bearing down on the extrasolar object and blazing away.

It’s pretty clear that the aliens have gotten more than they bargained for here, but as they try and flee, the Vdumchivyy intercepts them and delivers a blistering salvo at point blank range, causing the extrasolar object to turn into a rather anticlimactic series of pyrotechnics.

The aliens defeated, Jones and Alekseyev share a largely passionless embrace, and then Alekseyev invites Jones out for dinner, jokingly adding that “in my country, there’s no obligation attached, so…only if you want to!” Groan. Roll credits.

It seems, from what I’ve been able to ascertain from the documentation in the file cabinet accompanying Crate 2, that the Russians intended this to be their Star Trek series, a science-fiction franchise which could be marketed overseas and which would display the excellence of Soviet cinema. Obviously, things didn’t really work out.

Apparently, the film proved to be immensely expensive, and less of a hit with Russian audiences than anticipated. It didn’t help that American films like Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back were doing big business overseas, and quite frankly, Red Banner Solar Fleet’s effects can in no way compete with theirs. A good way to describe it would be if you had given very talented men a virtually unlimited budget with which to create the most epic 1970s-era Doctor Who special effects extravaganza they could imagine. Additionally, while Star Wars and Star Trek may not always have the most compelling actors, they can usually be relied upon to toss in a few scenery chewers to keep things at least interesting. Red Banner Solar Fleet’s performances are as sterile as the future it’s striving to evoke.

That being said, I’m sorry there were never sequels. I think once the series got on its feet, it could have produced some eminently watchable films. Word has it that the props are still extant, mouldering in a Volgograd warehouse. Maybe someday some Russian auteur will dig them out and fulfill that promise. A boy can dream…

With the rising popularity of Japanese kaiju films among American audiences, it was inevitable that an American studio would throw a lot of money into the ring and make a truly appalling movie that overlooked the joy of watching guys in rubber suits pound on each other in a miniature city. But that would have to wait until Godzilla (1998). Long before that, two high school dropouts in Illinois made Big Monster Ruckus with more gusto than cash and made an enjoyable mess of a movie.

John Henry Fielding was the son of Isaac Fielding, whose Fields of Screens company produced training films for Chicago’s meat packing industry. After interning at his father’s company over summer vacation, John dropped out of school to work full time. He fell in with the firm’s young lighting technician, Paul Whitestone, and they began using the Fields of Screens equipment and film remnants on weekends to make Big Monster Ruckus. According to the testimony in Whitestone v. Fielding, the movie cost about $4,000 to make — the majority of which went to pizza and train sets.

There is no credit listed for the screenwriter (although both men claimed in court to have written the majority of the script), and there is in fact little credit to give. What dialog exists is purely clumsy exposition, most often in the form of narration. In fact the soundscape is barren. Aside from voices, there is only the stock music played through the opening credits. Even when the promised ruckus begins there is no sound whatsoever. That’s not entirely true, I have to confess. There’s also the occasional pop of the degraded soundtrack.

The film is in remarkably good condition. It shows very little wear, which may mean that it was the copy given to Isaac Fielding in return for the use of equipment. Testimony indicated that only three prints of the film were made, and two were periodically taken to amenable drive-ins for screenings. According to Whitestone, one town made it part of a yearly festival and held costumed wrestling contests.

The story is as follows: some scientists are exploring the island of Nipponia (…yeah…) which seems to be the shoreline of Lake Michigan. We’re told that they are there to follow up on “readings”. As they wander around, we are treated to some forced perspective shots of a guy in an ape suit. When the scientists leave, the “ape” stumbles after them. So much for plot. After that, it’s all ruckus as first the ape rampages over model houses for train sets then is joined inexplicably by a man in robes and a fright mask. After some individual tromping on plastic buildings, they start to wrestle. Shots of stomping in trainyards are interspersed with close shots of an extended slappy-fest. Eventually the guy in the robes runs away, and the ape does a victory lap that ends with punting a moving train.

It’s kind of awesome in its childish directness, although the lack of noises makes it feel as though it’s longer than the 56 minute running time.

In case you’re curious, Whitestone lost his suit against Fielding. The judge ruled that as the only agreement about profits was a verbal arrangement that each man had a copy to do with as he pleased there was no basis for assuming that Fielding should split the take from any given showing. I can only assume that this leaves a sequel in serious doubt.