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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On October 2, Westworld premiered on HBO, quickly becoming a cultural phenomenon. On September 30, Marvel Studios’ much-anticipated Luke Cage debuted on Netflix. And that same day, another well-publicized series—Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes—appeared on Amazon Prime. As October draws to a close, I think it’s safe to say which show has impacted the zeitgeist least. Never mind that we’re apparently in an era of Peak TV™, when everybody spends four hours a night watching TV shows just to keep afloat in daily conversation—a modest little six-episode series written and directed by an iconic/controversial filmmaker and starring a massively famous pop star can’t seem to garner even a few hate-watches.
Herschell Gordon Lewis, “the godfather of (direct marketing and) gore,” died today at age 87. As the director of Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), The Gruesome Twosome (1967), The Wizard of Gore (1970), The Gore Gore Girls (1972), and countless others, his place in film history is secure. In 2012, I had the opportunity to interview HGL for an article I wrote for NPR. The occasion was the rediscovery of three long-lost sexploitation films he directed pseudonymously: The Ecstasies of Women (1969), Linda and Abilene (1969), and Black Love (1971), which were restored and re-released by Vinegar Syndrome. These were decidedly minor works, and HGL was less-than-pleased by their resurrection, but he graciously agreed to be interviewed (“I’m just happy NPR knows who I am!” he said, which floored me).
Here is a transcript of that interview:
A precocious teenage movie buff is eager to show the maturity of his taste, but since he’s too young and inexperienced to have developed any real taste of his own, he often defines himself by what he dislikes. One of my proudest moments as a 16-year-old cinephile was writing a scabrous review of Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist for my high-school newspaper. As I sat in the Varsity Cinema, my attention drifting from Polanski’s innocuous literary adaptation, I began plotting various ways to call out the Emperor with no clothes. With zeal worthy of Rex Reed, I proclaimed it “dry” and “redundant,” calling it too dark for kids and too dull for adults. To twist the knife, I took aim at its world-renowned director personally, saying it represented a sad “return to form” (implying that his entire post-exile period, aside from The Pianist, was undistinguished).