Dollar Store Cinephilia

As a frail, asthmatic boy who spent much of his childhood convalescing, Martin Scorsese famously discovered his love of cinema by watching  “Million Dollar Movie” on New York television. In interviews, he has spoken of being introduced to Citizen Kane with the opening newsreel cut, or Powell-Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman in fuzzy black-and-white, or classics of the Italian neorealist movement chopped to fit 90-minute time slots, but being moved all the same.

I sometimes think about Scorsese’s childhood when I’ve caught myself bellyaching that 1.33:1 movie has been squished into a 1.85:1 frame on someone’s TV. Now that I’m an old fogey who requires perfect Blu-Ray clarity every time I sit down to watch a Bela Lugosi cheapie or a John Holmes porno, I sometimes think about the pre-video days, when the best options for owning your favourite movies included buying abbreviated 8mm versions or perusing any volume from Richard Anobile’s “Film Classics Library” (which reproduced hundreds of stills from famous films like The GeneralPsycho, and Frankenstein in book form).

Actually, I don’t have to think that far back. When I was 10 years old, I spent a long, painful summer saving my allowance so that I could afford (or at least pay halfsies with my dad on) my first DVD player. My life was permanently changed when I visited a friend’s house and discovered that his DVD copy of Armageddon contained not only the movie, but also such exciting bonus features as a theatrical trailer and the Aerosmith “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” music video, and I realized that VHS was for suckers. Once I finally had the player, I discovered that in those early days of the DVD format, there was a relative dearth of software that I could afford (Austin Powers retailed for $30 in those days — but lord knows I saved up for it) or even particularly desired (my very first DVD purchase: Arthur, starring Dudley Moore).

However, there was an area where my burgeoning cinephilia and my modest income intersected: the cheap DVD releases of public-domain classics released by companies like Front Row Entertainment, Madacy Video, Delta LaserLight, and Alpha Video. Before everything was available on the internet, stores bought these DVDs in bulk to fill their shelves. For a few years, they were important resources for those of us whose moviegoing horizons were limited to the local Blockbuster.

What follows is a rundown of some of the auteurs whose work I learned to love through garbage public-domain DVD releases:

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Late-Period Seagal

One of the few joys of the last election cycle was the emergence of Steven Seagal as a minor player in geopolitics. Long-time fans already know Seagal as an outspoken activist (for environmentalism, Buddhism, Aboriginal land, animal rights, and, uh, the Second Amendment) who has specialized in fuzzily-politically-charged action movies, and has even dipped his toe into domestic politics (musing on a run for Arizona governor in 2014, palling around with Sheriff Joe Arpaio), but it was in 2016 that his blossoming friendship with Vladimir Putin climaxed with the Russian president personally awarding Russian citizenship to the Aikido Ace. Though ostensibly an “absolutely depoliticised act,” Putin expressed hope that the gesture might serve as “a sign of gradual normalisation of the relations between our countries.” The event came shortly after the election of Donald Trump, a candidate who Seagal enthusiastically supported.

Between his political activity and frequent ringside appearances at MMA fights, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Seagal is still pumping out movies. In fact, he’s more prolific than ever: in 2016, Seagal was top-billed (I hesitate to say “starred”) in no fewer than seven movies, the most that he has ever unleashed in a single year. Killing SalazarSniper: Special OpsCode of HonorThe Asian ConnectionThe Perfect WeaponEnd of a GunContract to Kill… titles that promise so much, with a star who so rarely delivers much at all. As a confirmed Seagal fan with a substantial-but-still-spotty grasp of his post-theatrical work, I decided to dip into the newest Seagal offerings on Netflix: The Perfect Weapon and Contract to Kill.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Bruceploitation

(The following article was written for my colleague and Important Cinema Club co-host Justin Decloux’s zine, The Laserblast Film Society, #5)

A Beginner’s Guide to Bruceploitation

By Will Sloan, Bruceploitation scholar

When Bruce Lee died in 1973 after starring in only four completed films, he left a box office void that unscrupulous producers were eager to fill. Before long, a plethora of stuntmen and bit-part actors from the Hong Kong film industry were being outfitted with bowl-cuts and yellow tracksuits and branded “the next Bruce Lee.” Names like “Bruce Li” (Ho Chung Tao), “Bruce Le” (Wong Kin Lung), “Dragon Lee” (Moon Kyoung-seok), and others began gracing marquees across the world in dozens of disreputable films. The Bruceploitation canon is large and daunting, full of wrong turns and dead-ends. Here is a beginner’s guide to exploring this strange and wonderful genre. Continue reading “A Beginner’s Guide to Bruceploitation”

Mystery Science Theater 3000: A Memoir

The impending revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix has put me in a nostalgic and bittersweet mood. With the backing of the biggest streaming service in the world and the most successful film/TV Kickstarter campaign in history, the ratings-challenged, twice-cancelled, cultishly beloved TV show is now officially in the mainstream (or has at least become a powerful force in a more fractured media landscape). During my teenage years, MST3K was my Star Trek. In Canada, where the show never aired on broadcast television, it felt like a secret that only I (and a few friends) were privy to.

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Notes on The Great Dictator

I’ve probably seen Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) at least a dozen times, but folks, watching it last weekend for the wildly popular Michael and Us podcast—my first viewing during the Trump era—I gotta admit, there were three moments that moved me alarmingly close to tears.

The first: in the fictional European nation of Tomania during the interwar period, a Jewish barber (Chaplin, more or less reprising the Tramp), returns to the Ghetto after years in hospital. He suffers amnesia, does not realize how much time has passed, and is unaware of the rise of the fascist, anti-Semitic dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin). As he’s wiping “JEW” off his front window, he is harassed by a stormtrooper, who demands he paint it back on. Comic shenanigans ensue, with paint being thrown, heads being conked with frying pans, etc. The scene is not much different than the Little Tramp’s encounters with the police in any of Chaplin’s silent films, but here, the police are Nazi stormtroopers, and the sight of Charlie running past a street of shops marked “JEW” means that horrifying reality has infiltrated Chaplin’s innocent universe. That reality becomes overwhelming in the scene’s climax, when a crowd of stormtroopers string the barber up a streetlamp—and are stopped in the nick of time by the unlikely appearance of the barber’s old war comrade, now a high-ranking member of the Hynkel administration.

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Ed Wood’s 8mm Loops

A report from the front lines of Woodology

By Will Sloan, Woodologist

In his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” Andrew Sarris defined the films of an auteur as having three characteristics: technique, personal style, and interior meaning. Like the French critics who helped popularize the idea of the film director as artist, Sarris put special emphasis on Hollywood studio filmmakers like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh: craftsmen who improbably imposed a personal style on assembly-line product.

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An Interview with Matthew Mallinson, director of FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH

(The following article was first published in Weng’s Chop #9, August 2016)

In the years following Bruce Lee’s untimely death in 1973, legions of imitators (including Bruce Li, Bruce Le, and Dragon Lee) and dozens of rip-off movies (including THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE, ENTER THE GAME OF DEATH, and BRUCE LEE: THE MAN, THE MYTH) attempted to cash in on the Little Dragon’s enduring popularity. But of all the Bruceploitation movies, none exploitat Bruce more shamelessly – or hilariously – than FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH. For anyone who stumbled on one of its innumerable public domain DVD or VHS releases expecting a real Bruce Lee movie, it has become the stuff of legend.foftod-poster_larger-file

FIST OF FEAR is set at a real-life Madison Square Garden event held in 1978 by New York martial arts promoter Aaron Banks, which would allegedly “determine Bruce Lee’ successor.” Adolph Caesar (perennial grindhouse trailer narrator and future Academy Award nominee) hosts, playing himself as a TV news reporter covering the event. We see him “interview” the late Bruce Lee (fraudulently, with new dialogue dubbed over stock footage) and actually interview Fred Williamson, who boasts, “Bruce Lee was good at what he did – I’m fantastic at what I do.” There are barely-related scenes featuring kung-fu stars Ron Van Clief and Bill Louie (dressed as Kato!) saving women from rape, which play like demo-reels for the actors. There is an interview in which Aaron Banks claims Bruce Lee was killed by a mysterious “touch of death.”

The film’s lengthy midsection is devoted to a supposed biopic of Lee, comprised of footage from THE THUNDERSTORM (1957), a black-and-white Cantonese melodrama starring a teenage Lee. Dubbed WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY?-style, this completely fictionalized version of Lee’s life also has flashback scenes featuring Lee’s grandfather, “one of China’s greatest samurai warriors,” taken from INVINCIBLE SUPER CHAN (1971). That samurais are Japanese, not Chinese, should indicate that not one single detail of this “Bruce Lee story” is true.

FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH is widely reviled by serious Bruce Lee fans for its total bastardization of Lee’s life and philosophy, but it is unique among Bruceploitation movies for its tongue-in-cheek tone, making the very idea of “Bruceploitation” its central subject. With its strange, dare-I-say dreamlike blend of documentary, staged scenes, repurposed footage, humor, and sheer carnival-barker chutzpah, there’s no other movie quite like it. I have seen it approximately (conservative estimate) five thousand times.

We can thank Aquarius Releasing, the 42nd Street distributor headed by the legendary Terry Levene. The company specialized in kung-fu, porn, and Italian horror imports, and their releases are a roll call of exploitation classics: DEEP THROAT, FACES OF DEATH, A BOY AND HIS DOG, RITUALS, BRUTES AND SAVAGES, BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE, THE BODYGUARD (originally KARATE KIBA), DR. BUTCHER M.D. (ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST), MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY (CANNIBAL FEROX), BEYOND THE DARKNESS (BUIO OMEGA), SEVEN DOORS OF DEATH (THE BEYOND), and many others. Though Aquarius regularly shot cheap new scenes to Americanize their foreign acquisitions, FIST OF FEAR was their first original production.matthew-mallinson

FIST OF FEAR is also the sole feature-length directorial credit of Matthew Mallinson, an erstwhile editor and post-production supervisor at August Films (a regular collaborator with Aquarius). As he is the only man to direct Fred Williamson, Ron Van Clief, Aaron Banks, Bill Louie, Adolph Caesar, and a posthumous Bruce Lee, I was naturally filled with questions. All were answered when we spoke by phone.

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