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.


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.

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…

In an interview for “Canadian Exploits: Underground Cinema of the Northern Territories” Richard Bezet claimed that his cautionary movie about the perils of mixing computer games with the machineries of war beat the better known American film War Games to the box office. Technically he is correct, although Tank Command only screened in half a dozen theaters in Manitoba it was released a year prior to the Matthew Broderick movie.

Having now seen four of Bezet’s efforts (including 1975’s Stellar Police Action, and 1980’s Android Hunter), I am impressed with the writer/director/producer’s ability to create films that seem inspired by well-known films to come. His simultaneous fear of and reverence for technology reflects the tensions within Western culture itself. He imbues devices with fantastical power that far surpass rational expectations and invariably cause horrors beyond imagining – which on Bezet’s typical budget usually meant a handful of “teenagers” getting doused in caro syrup.

The hero of Tank Command is Freddy Prescott, played with enthusiasm by Jonathon Tillman (one of the Bezet irregulars). Freddy is a senior in high school and spends a lot a of time playing Tank Command on his Watari system (actually Combat on Atari 2600). This, with typically Bezet illogic, transforms the youth into a tactical genius with the ability to control vehicles with his mind. I confess that I played more Caterpillar than Combat, but I never noticed any comparable effects. Perhaps my console was flawed.

Every adult in Freddy’s life (including a memorable scene with a roller-skating transvestite) gives him an obligatory lecture on how he’s wasting his life playing video games and losing touch with reality. His father gives him an ultimatum: do one useful thing with skills learned from playing Watari games or give up the game system and join the baseball team. We are then shown the shelf of trophies earned by Mr. Prescott in high school. I had a frame copied and enlarged to inspect them, which provided about an hour of entertainment for us in the intern workroom. My favorite was the team trophy for 2nd place in the conference in Girls’s Volleyball. Tim suggested that Bezet just loaded up a box at a pawn shop.

Luckily, Freddy finds a flyer for the Watari Game King Competition at the arcade. Seems that the event will take place in his town, and in only two days! There are top prizes for best score on a number of Watari games, including Tank Command! How lucky! That’ll show pops! What follows is a sequence of shots that details his practice regimen. Close shots on his hands while he works the joystick (stop snickering!), crazy angles of the tanks battling on his 12″ TV, putting a bandage over the blister on his thumb, eating potato chips… It looked pretty much like Saturday to me.

It’s interesting that Freddy’s parents disappear during this time. It demonstrates how spartan Bezet’s productions are that there are never people in scene that don’t speak or serve the plot visually. Even Freddy’s room, while appropriately lived in, is clearly another boy’s room that they took over for a few days of filming. A rather young boy to judge by the small bed and the posters of Sesame Street puppets.

The day of the competition arrives, and Freddy dresses for victory in tight blue shorts and a hockey jersey with the arms ripped off. Need I mention the headband? A rivalry is established with the late introduction into the film of a baseball jock. His name is Buck, although he’s listed as Jock in the credits, and that’s pretty much all there is to him. Buck (Jock) has a throng of female admirers, represented by one suggestively attired woman whose big line comes as Buck (Jock) grabs the joystick. “I wish he’d grab me like that,” she confides to nobody.

Despite the promise of several contests, the entirety of the competition consists of Freddy playing Tank Command against Buck (Jock). The game is played on an enormous 20″ screen, and a crowd of literally three hangs on every move. While Freddy and Buck (Jock) duel with 8-bit tanks, Sado Watari (inventor of the Watari console and owner of the company) observes. He wears thick glasses, uses the word ‘honorable’ a lot (“honorable contestants”, “honorable audience”), and has a French-Canadian accent. Watari waits until the game is tied at 10-10 and springs into action. He taps at his giant calculator watch, a completely different TV than they’d been playing on explodes (with the camera at a safe distance, showing that nobody is within 200 yards of the set), and we are transported to a miniature battle ground where toy tanks maneuver in passable stop-motion.

I’ll be honest. I’m a sucker for stop-motion animation. It doesn’t need to convince me of anything; it just needs to move.

This is Richard Bezet’s strength as a film-maker. Whenever his movies finally get around to the action, he inserts a crazy animated sequence. He revealed in a segment on the local program Manitoba Magazine that he and his friends played a lot of war games with elaborate miniatures. He’d call on their expertise to design and build the elaborate sets for his movies. In this case, they re-created the entire city at 1/100 scale. It’s a beautiful piece of modeling, and it all gets destroyed in the tank battle that follows.

One tank starts blowing up the town. Miniatures tumble and burn. A cut scene shows a close shot of Freddy in darkness with multi-colored lights shining on  him. He drops the exposition that the game has become real and that Buck (Jock) is destroying everything. He decides to leap into action, but he doesn’t know how to operate a “real” tank. As he wishes aloud that he could just make it move forward, the tank lurches forward. Instantly, he’s a pro at manipulating the tank with his desires.

Now for the battle! Freddy misses the enemy tank and destroys the school. He quips “So much for that math test” but decides that he should switch ammunition. His next shot also misses, but it bounces harmlessly off of a few buildings before disappearing. Freddy is pleased with the effect, but then he realizes that his opponent has disappeared. A shell flies right past Freddy’s tank, and he catches a glimpse of the enemy tank before it vanishes again. “He’s in invisible mode!” Freddy cries.

What follows is the sort of idea that probably sounded good in the design stage, raised concerns in filming, set off alarms in editing and got in anyway. A stop-action miniature fight between invisible tanks! For long moments, nothing happens. Then a tank will blip in and out of sight and a shell will destroy a building or bounce around harmlessly for a while. Astoundingly, the flickering shadows in the empty sequences indicate that even though nothing was moving it was still being animated one frame at a time. What were they doing between frames? Did they actually have invisible models?

All good things must come to an end, and so too must stupefying action sequences. Freddy announces that he’s got to make this one count, his tank blips into view, and a shell bounces off several walls before hitting nothing. A flashpot explosion is spliced in, and all is well. Freddy dashes over to see if Buck (Jock) is alright. Instead, he finds Mr. Watari sitting on a charred piece of ground. Watari runs away, and Freddy is about to give chase when Buck (Jock) grabs his shoulder. “Let him run,” he advises. “He can’t hide.” A siren is heard faintly. As the royalty-free music swells, Freddy asks if there’s any room on the baseball team. “I think I’ve had enough of video games,” he confesses.

And so, having saved an unnamed Canadian town from a French-Canadian led Japanese technological incursion with the skills he learned by opposing societal pressure, our hero buckles and does what everyone wanted all along. It’s a Hollywood ending that feels all the the more awkward in a movie made so completely outside the system, but it reflects Bezet’s recurring assertion that we are not ready to wield such power. Far from opposing technology, he ultimately decides that we simply don’t deserve it.

Hot Cars (USA, 1983)

July 23, 2009

This is the first fully intact film I’ve found in Crate 5, though God knows why anyone would have wanted to keep this preserved over a rare genre masterpiece like Creature from the White Lagoon; it’s beyond me.

Hot Cars was directed by Ira “Don” Cascowitz, a Detroit-based director of industrial shorts and z-grade films who did the majority of his work (Non-Mechanical Press, Swinging Shop Class—which Tarantino is apparently a big fan of—etc.) in the 1970s. A few visual cues lead me to believe that Hot Cars may have been made in the ’70s as well, but since Cascowitz’s own autobiography (Have It Rain on the Broad, Simon & Schuster, 1998, and a pretty good source for a lot of the weirdness in the Detroit film scene of the era, though Cascowitz comes off as a complete jerk) states they began prinicipal filming in 1982, I’ll go with the generally accepted release date for now.

The plot, such as there is, is extremely simple. This is a terrible, terrible teen sex comedy revolving around Patrick (Wally Thoma), a seventeen-year-old boy who desperately wants to lose his virginity to his attractive—I use the term loosely— high school classmate Dana (Janet Eller). There’s a hitch, however: Patrick’s widowed dad (Forrest Bluth) is a VP at one of the Big Three Automakers (never stated which one, but since Patrick spends a lot of the movie tooling around in a 1974 four-cylinder Mustang II—the most maligned Mustang of all time, by the way—it’s not to hard to read between the lines), and Dana’s divorced mom (Ingrid Wallenbacher, who actually would have looked pretty in this if they’d gone easier on the eye makeup) works on the production line, and so they exist in different worlds.

Adding complications to the plot is that a sinister union boss (Cascowitz himself)—who’s actually working with a foreign car company to try and blackmail Patrick’s dad into undertaking a little industrial espionage for them—has decided he wants both Dana AND her mom, preferably at the same time. He also thinks that the best way to get to Patrick’s dad is by getting Patrick in a compromising situation with a kimono-wearing foreign femme fatale (Ruth Kim) and going from there.

It might almost sound, from the above summary, that this could be kind of a busy movie. It is not. Literally a full 30 minutes of the overlong 93 minute running time is taken up by shots of Patrick driving from place to place. True to form, Cascowitz tries to spice things up by having, for example, a bus full of old-looking co-eds flash Patrick as they drive by, but this and virtually everything else in the movie feels forced.

Now, my theory on the making of this film, which is ultimately more interesting, I think , than the movie itself: Cascowitz produced a number of training films for Ford in the 1970s, even as his exploitation films were achieiving some level of success, albeit mainly in the Detroit metro area. The production values of Hot Cars are incredible, and not just by comparison to what Cascowitz had done previously (this may be the only film of his I’ve seen that was shot with multiple cameras). There are crowd scenes, some assembly line footage that clearly isn’t stock, and a whole lot of Ford automobiles, including what is, if I’m not mistaken, the original 1972 Ford Carousel Minivan concept car standing in as the “revolutionary new American auto” that the bad guys want to steal.

Now, I have nothing beyond circumstantial evidence and a 300-word interview in a 1974 issue of Detroiter Magazine where Cascowitz mentions he’s “partnering up with a household name to do something big”, but my theory is this: what if, from 1975-1976, which Cascowitz has always claimed was spent getting funding for Sex Drivers Ed, he was actually working on a teen sex comedy originally paid for and sponsored by Ford Motor Company? Presumably saner heads intervened (perhaps this was one of the reasons Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca?) and the project was shelved. By 1978, Cascowitz was already having trouble finding distributers, and Hot Cars was actually sold, essentially door-to-door, to drive-ins by Cascowitz himself.

Something to consider…

[There was only one reel of this movie in Crate 5. Although it happens to be the final reel, there are no closing credits so the movie and its stars are unnamed. The tin bore only a 6 digit number, the significance of which remains unknown. We are continuing to look for records that may help with identification. Until then, we are referring the contents of 682269 as Zombie Death Camp Film.]

Zombie Death Camp Film appears to be set in a German internment camp, circa 1944. It’s not definite, as the swastikas are turned the wrong way and some of the guards wore chaps. I want to say it’s Spanish or Italian, but the voices sound more French. From the hair and makeup (and stray anachronisms) I’d date the production to the early 1980s.

The reel begins with a line of female zombie prisoners filing back into their dormitory. They are naked for some reason, and the majority of them shuffle rigidly. One appears more to be doing the robot, which just made me crave a musical death camp exploitation movie with zombies. Instead, orderlies come in and pull gowns over every single prisoner. Arms up, gown down, arms down. Next zombie. I’m just saying that it could have used a snappy dance number.

I should mention the ‘special’ effects here. The zombie makeup consists of a gray cream applied unevenly to the face. That’s all. It’s especially interesting that the ‘effect’ was never even applied to so much as the neck.

Next is a research project that involves a mixed crowd of zombies. They are, thankfully, clothed. A scientist reports to the commandant that the subjects are perfectly compliant and will obey every command. The commandant demands proof. He gives a small gesture, and somehow guards know to start pouring in from the hallway with arms full of guns. They also know to force the guns into the hands of the zombies and leave. The commandant orders the zombies to shoot themselves. The camera focuses on the commandant as shots ring out. Then we see the zombies lying on the ground with red dots on their foreheads. The camera swings dramatically to an angry zombie who is still standing. He shoots the commandant and the scientist.

What follows is a succession of shots where zombies in different parts of the camp are suddenly armed and killing the guards. A crop duster flies overhead. The camera hangs on the empty scene for moment. The word ‘END’ appears, and almost immediately the film runs out.

It’s hard to evaluate a film based on some 10 minutes of footage, but I feel safe in saying that I don’t particularly miss however many minutes are missing. The death camp exploitation genre is noted for being crass, but this one seemed to want to gain respectability by the connection. With minimal production values and a story that was plainly an afterthought, the remaining footage is a dreary affair that seems much longer than it is. Perhaps one day we’ll find the rest of the reels. I hope not.