Fates Worse Than Death: Raiders of Ghost City

At the end of the Civil War, Secret Service agent Steve Clark is assigned to investigate a series of Confederate raids on gold shipments from the town of Oro Grande, California. Clark is the Service’s most experienced agent, and a target of assassination attempts. Aboard a westbound train under the name “Chuck Mason,” Clark is singled out by Alex Morel, proprietor of the Oro Grande saloon the Golden Eagle, and the singer he is bringing west with him, Trina Dessard (in reality both covert leaders of the gold-raiding operation): Steve Clark must not be allowed to reach Oro Grande! Clark is lured into the rear carriage of the train by one of Morel’s thugs posing as a railroad detective, with the intention of killing him, but the pair are followed by a stranger on the train, a good-natured fighter who takes it upon himself to protect Clark. During the fight that ensues, Morel uncouples the car from the train, sending it careening back down the mountainside to derail and crash! Have Clark and his new ally had it? Is the adventure over before it has even begun? Of course not, but audiences had to return the following week to find out how they escaped in Chapter Two of Raiders of Ghost City!

I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about serials anymore: not that I’ve seen them all, far from it, but over fifty or sixty articles I’ve probably said everything I have to say about them without devoting my life to researching them full-time. And to be honest, I haven’t found the serial community that welcoming. Without naming names, there is a level of gatekeeping within this hobby just as there is in so many, and an orthodoxy that, when combined with the conservatism that often comes with an interest in older film genres, has meant that other fans don’t seem to be looking for the same things in these movies that I am. That’s okay: different strokes, and all that. But it didn’t really encourage me to keep going.

But I still enjoy serials, and Raiders of Ghost City is a good one, fast-moving with likeable characters and a variety of locations and action set-pieces. The wartime espionage theme, combined with the Western setting, has some juice, and although it is a product of its time, it’s nuanced enough to be satisfying to a modern viewer, or at least this modern viewer. (But if I don’t go into as much detail with this one, forgive me; it’s been a busy year.)

Steve Clark, played by Dennis Moore, is a typical stoic, can-do leading man, but the characters around him complement his approach and bring some color to the proceedings: most important is Idaho Jones (Joe Sawyer), the stranger who came to Clark’s rescue on the train. Jones is a detective investigating the murder of Oro Grande’s Wells Fargo agent; he wears a big grin and an even bigger cowboy hat, and he’s the kind of Mark Twain creation that can’t resist a good brawl and leads the bad guys on a chase around the countryside for “a little fun.” He’s basically the co-lead, and while there is never friction between Clark and Jones once they reveal their identities, it does suggest a mismatched buddy cop comedy at times, and following the pattern set by the first chapter, most of the cliffhangers involve one of the pair in deadly peril, only to be saved at the last minute by the other.

There’s also Cathy Haines (Wanda McKay), daughter of the murdered agent and now acting Wells Fargo agent of Oro Grande herself; in her first appearance, she seems to be sweet on Jeff Logan, a cavalryman connected to nearby Fort Loma and its commanding officer, Colonel Sewell. When Logan is caught riding with the gold raiders, Sewell suspects him of being a Confederate spy, but he turns out to be Steve Clark’s brother Jim, working undercover, and upon Steve’s arrival in Oro Grande he’s able to vouch for him. The brothers’ reunion is short-lived, however: Jim promises an explosive revelation, saying “it’s bigger than North and South,” but he is shot to keep him from talking, and is dead by the beginning of Chapter Four.

Many serials have only One Female Character; Cathy is ripe for pairing up with the hero (once the hero’s brother is out of the way, of course), but strictly in a platonic way as Confederate-fighting partners and then as friends, because ew, cooties, but if you’re an older member of the audience and you want to read between the lines, go ahead. As it happens, Raiders of Ghost City isn’t so formulaic that it only has one female character: it has two female characters, so take that, smart guy. The previously-mentioned Trina Dessard (Virginia Christine) is the Bad Girl to Cathy’s Good Girl. In her deep, haughty voice and show-biz worldliness, Trina is implied to be a femme fatale, but in the sexless serial world, implication is as far as it goes.

Trina pairs nicely with Morel, played by sneeringly British Lionel Atwill, and their evil machinations are known to the audience from the beginning, long before Clark and company are able to pin anything on them, as opposed to the common serial formula of unmasking an unknown mastermind at the end, so if you enjoy duplicitous villains, this is a good serial. What is their big secret, and what is the meaning of the various coins dated 1752 that they and others of their ring carry? Despite being played by the Most British Person Alive in 1944, Morel and his gang are actually Prussian! Morel is in reality Erich von Rugen, and Trina is Countess Elsa von Merck (haughtiness factor +10). (The ignominious end of Atwill’s once-stellar career is discussed in my review of Lost City of the Jungle.)

Other operatives are similarly disguised and passing for American, including an unknown traitor in the Wells Fargo office who is shown passing notes to the Prussian spies through a hidden drop in the wall of the Golden Eagle (at least until he is later caught). The coins are a secret means for agents to identify one another, the 1752 stamped on them referring to the year Frederick the Great (supposedly) wrote a detailed set of instructions for political domination for his sons. The Prussian scheme is to raid Union gold shipments, which will be blamed on Confederate forces, but are actually diverted to Prussia, and which will be used to buy Alaska from the Russian Empire before the United States finds out the Czar is entertaining offers. First Alaska, then the world!

In addition to Steve Clark’s investigations, the Prussian scheme is complicated by the end of the Civil War in Chapter Five: Braddock (frequent heavy Jack Ingram), the leader of the outlaws conducting the raids, headquartered at the abandoned Ghost City close to Oro Grande, thinks he’s working for ordinary Confederates, so he and his gang start wondering why they shouldn’t just keep the gold for themselves now that the war is over, or at least get a bigger cut for their trouble. Similarly, Confederate agent Clay Randolph (a former West Point classmate and rival of Steve Clark’s) is ready to surrender to the United States as soon as he hears of the peace, but not until he can confront Morel about the treachery he suspects, a display of loyalty that doesn’t end well for him.

Virginia Christine as Trian Dessard, slinging tunes and serving looks

Randolph, played by Regis Toomey, is an interesting character: in addition to being a Southern spy, he’s also blamed for the death of Cathy’s father and a Union agent in Washington. Toomey plays him as a charismatic and even honest figure, however, at odds with the double-dealing he’s accused of. By the time we learn he didn’t kill the victims he’s accused of murdering (Cathy’s father was killed by the traitor in the Oro Grande Wells Fargo office) and he’s telling off Morel and attempting to reveal the truth to Clark with his dying words, it’s clear that we are meant to see him as one of those honorable but misguided individuals who are an essential part of the Lost Cause myth, whose true loyalty is to the spirit of America even if they felt the need to turn against her government. Such portrayals in the name of national healing and unity were, and are, common, and while they were probably seen as a necessary step following the divisions of that war, it’s not hard to see the persistent lionization of Confederates and erasure of the war’s root causes as one of the sources of problems we’re still dealing with. (The lack of any black characters almost goes without saying, as their presence is more exception than rule in the serials, and in any case it was rare to have their viewpoints centered in pre-Civil Rights-era productions.)

Needless to say, however, the serial’s choice of villains is even more telling: Bismarck-idolizing German expansionists would have been a pleasure to root against during the height of World War II. In its way, Raiders of Ghost City engages with the contemporary war as much as Secret Service in Darkest Africa’s Nazi-fighting hero Rex Bennett. The alt-history territorial premise is similar to The Vigilantes Are Coming, although Raiders is far superior as a film. In writing about The Vigilantes, I noted similarities to 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, to which the Prussian scheme in this movie also bears some resemblance. It’s also worth pointing out that between its title, Idaho Jones’ name, and the haughty German Elsa, Raiders of Ghost City was surely one of the serials that had a direct influence on George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in creating their own updated serial hero Indiana Jones. Coincidence? Perhaps, but if the hat fits . . .

What I Watched: Raiders of Ghost City (Universal, 1944)

Where I Watched It: This was on Amazon Prime, but only up until the end of August, sorry! As of this writing, it is on YouTube, however (and the screen caps are from YouTube).

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Calling All Buckboards” (Chapter Twelve)

The title refers to a sequence (presumably borrowed from a land rush sequence from some bigger-budget Western feature) in which the gold miners head for Ghost City to take on the outlaw raiders while the cavalry is occupied with an Indian uprising. It leads to a pitched battle between the miners, raiders, cavalry and Indians that ultimately burns down Ghost City.

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven, “Trail to Torture,” Idaho has been captured by the restless Modoc Indians. The Modocs have been agitated by renegade Joe Berk, working for the Prussians, and after a telegraph conference between the chief and “Great White Father” Abraham Lincoln falls through due to Lincoln’s assassination, the tribe is convinced that the white man has screwed them over again. (They even turn against the raiders and kill Berk in the next chapter.) In a scene that emphasizes Hollywood’s take on Indian “savagery,” Idaho’s legs are tied to a pair of saplings bent to the ground; when the ropes holding the trees down are cut, Idaho will be ripped apart! It’s one of the more gruesome perils in a serial that includes train derailings, shootouts, stabbing, and drowning as cliffhangers. Fortunately, in the next chapter, Clark arrives at the last moment and shoots through both ropes just at the moment the Indians are about to cut them, an incredible feat of marksmanship that is par for the course for serial heroes.

Sample Dialogue:

Randolph: Yes, I understand German, but I speak good old Tennessee English too. I suspected Richmond wasn’t getting all the gold from our raids, but what you’ve stolen for Prussia, Washington is going to get.

Morel: You would help the enemies of your country?

Randolph: No, Morel. You’re my country’s enemy. As of today there is no North and South, only United States!

Chapter Five, “The Fatal Lariat”

What’s Next: I don’t know, nothing? Your guess is as good as mine, but thanks for reading!

Movies of 2021 and New Discoveries

As 2021 draws to a close, I think it’s fair to say that the reopening of public life following the introduction of vaccines against Covid-19 hasn’t been all it was cracked up to be. With variants continually evolving and hospitalizations rising and falling like the peaks and valleys of a roller coaster, I just haven’t made it a priority to visit indoor movie theaters outside of a few times during the summer. So, while the film schedule cranked back up this year, I didn’t see very many new releases. On the other hand, the normalization of day-and-date streaming and shorter windows for streaming and home video releases meant that I did see more current films than I did in 2020: I just mostly watched them at home. (You can check out my diary on Letterboxd for a full list of films I viewed although I typically don’t rate or review anything.)

As far as the big releases go, I still need to see Dune (I almost went to see it during its IMAX rerelease, but the times didn’t line up for me to see it in the large-screen format, so I thought, why bother?) and Spider-Man: Far From Home. I wasn’t too impressed with Black Widow (too little too late for one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most ill-served characters, plus ick), but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a lot of fun. Godzilla vs. Kong was another enjoyable popcornball that I saw at the drive-in.

Smaller releases I enjoyed include The Mitchells vs. The Machines (a little too formulaic to live up to the massive hype, but it had a lot of heart), Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (ditto on the heart, but much less predictable), and Old (I joked about the most recent M. Night Shyamalan feature during my October wrap-up, but when I saw it, it was . . . good).

Still, continuing to explore films at home was as rewarding as ever, and here’s a small sample of the best or most interesting older films I watched for the first time this year:

Traveling Saleslady (Ray Enright, 1935)

This is one of several frothy pre-Code comedies starring Joan Blondell that I’ve watched in the last couple of years. Blondell plays the headstrong daughter of a stuck-in-his-ways toothpaste magnate, full of ideas for the business but always shut down by her father’s sexist conservatism. So, with the help of scientist Hugh Herbert, she takes her ideas (and the scientist’s new invention that makes toothpaste taste like the alcoholic beverage of your choice) to her father’s competitor under an assumed name. Does she cross paths with her father’s chauvinistic head salesman, and do they drive each other crazy until they can’t deny their mutual feelings for one another, and is there an explosive finale in which her true identity comes out? Well, some formulas don’t change.

Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)

Speaking of Joan Blondell, her world-weary performance as carnival mind reader Zeena is a high point of this adaptation of the same William Lindsay Gresham novel that Guillermo Del Toro remade this year (I haven’t seen the new version yet but I plan to). Tyrone Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, an ambitious, unscrupulous carny who buys the act from Zeena and her washed-up husband, getting into the mentalism racket and taking it as far as it will go, with disastrous results. This may be my favorite new discovery of the year: Power is magnetic, as are the three women (Blondell, Coleen Gray as Stan’s naïve wife, and Helen Walker as a psychiatrist who is every bet the operator Stan is) who mark the stations of his rise and fall. Even the studio-mandated “happy ending” is only mildly hopeful, at best. Nightmare Alley explores the desperate underbelly of the American dream in a manner reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life (and was similarly rejected by audiences), but it’s as if the whole movie takes place in the world where George Bailey was never born.

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Nathan Juran, 1958)

This is one of those movies everyone thinks they’ve seen, but the famous rampage is only the last ten minutes or so. Before that is a good hour of melodrama about obsession, jealousy, manipulation, and, to a degree, “contactee psychology,” as millionaire heiress Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) tries to convince anyone who will listen that she really did see a “satellite” and a thirty-foot-tall giant in the desert while her no-good husband Harry (William Hudson) plots to have her institutionalized. A short but sweet classic of ‘50s sci-fi.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zeman, 1962)

I’ve been a fan of the Baron’s preposterous adventures since seeing Terry Gilliam’s 1988 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen—one of these days I’m going to carry out my threat of writing a series on cinematic Munchausen adaptations—so I was glad to catch up with the Czech version that seems to have been the most direct influence on Gilliam. The flat, cartoon-like compositions and animated interludes already have a lot in common with Gilliam’s early Monty Python animations, for one thing, and Milos Kopecký’s take on the Baron as charismatic and heroic but hilariously vain is also familiar through John Neville’s version of the character. The plot in Zeman’s version involves an astronaut arriving on the moon and finding the Baron dining with several other historical and literary figures there. In a reversal of the expected dynamic, the Baron treats the astronaut’s description of his rocket ship and modern life on earth as utterly ridiculous, and offers to help him find his way home . . . in the Baron’s own unique style, of course, and not without a few digressions along the way. It’s charming throughout, and while it has some of the same element of Munchausen being treated as a man out of step with modernity, Zeman uses a feather duster where Gilliam uses a sledge hammer.

Yokai Monsters trilogy (Kimiyoshi Yasuda and Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1968-69)

As sometimes happens, I watched the three Yokai Monsters films (subtitled 100 Monsters, Spook Warfare, and Along with Ghosts) on YouTube about a month before Arrow announced a box set collecting them (along with Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War, which I haven’t seen). Each film is a standalone story, connected only by the recycling of puppets and props, but they are all fun ghost stories drawing on Japanese folklore (the yokai are something like ghosts or spirits attached to certain places, but by convention there are many discrete types, such as the long-necked lady or the one-eyed umbrella yokai who both make multiple appearances in the series). In a process familiar to fans of monster movies, the yokai who first appear as spooky threats to humans gradually become the heroes, guarding “their” humans from other, more serious supernatural menaces.

The Legend of Frenchie King (Christian-Jaque, 1971)

Comic Westerns are a favorite subgenre of mine, and one without much critical cachet—for every Cat Ballou or Blazing Saddles there are dozens of duds or forgotten obscurities—but every once in a while a surprise turns up. Going by Les Pétroleuses (dubbed in English as The Legend of Frenchie King), the French equivalent of the Italian “spaghetti Western” should be the “Beaujolais Western,” as it centers on a French-settled town in Texas where the saloon taps flow with red wine instead of beer or whiskey. Were it not clear enough that we’re in movieland, this gives us Brigitte Bardot as the leader of an all-girl gang of train robbers and Claudia Cardinale as a rancher battling over a plot of land with oil deposits hidden beneath it. With Bardot’s gang and Cardinale looking after her shiftless, rowdy brothers, there’s a comic-opera symmetry that fits the cartoonish plot (and even a literal cartoon explosion), and the frank but playful sexiness strikes me as very French indeed. Ditch the misogynistic McLintock! and give this one a try instead.

The Astrologer (Craig Denney, 1976)

A self-financed, self-aggrandizing pseudo-biopic about an astrologer who starts out telling fortunes at a carnival and uses his knowledge of the Zodiac to build a financial empire, The Astrologer is a bit like Nightmare Alley if it took for granted that the ambitious mentalist’s powers were genuine. I had wanted to see this for years since I first heard about it, but director-star Denney’s use of unauthorized music from the Moody Blues and others kept it in limbo, viewable only at infrequent public screenings of rare prints. Well, this year some Robin Hood of the internet put a fresh scan of the film on YouTube, and you’d better believe watching it became my top priority. The movie lived up to the hype: lavish and self-indulgent in the way that self-financed art often is, but equally stylish and eccentric, full of location shooting in Africa and Tahiti, slow motion, prismatic colored light effects, and let-it-all-hang-out storytelling. There are comparisons to The Room to be made, but this is a much more accomplished film, making the wtf moments (and there are many) stand out all the more.

Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull, 1983)

Christopher Walken plays a researcher whose invention lets people share experiences directly, or even record them for later playback; the first half is mostly about the wonderful promise (and a few complications) of the device, but when it becomes clear the military has its own applications in mind it becomes more of a techno-thriller. Brainstorm is an interesting and beautifully-designed film (as one would expect from special effects artist-turned-director Trumbull) that doesn’t quite hang together. It invites comparisons to other movies, like Tron but less purely entertaining or WarGames but more ridiculous, and it seems to have been a major influence on Inception as well. Some of the shagginess is probably due to Natalie Wood’s death during the production but it is also divided between crowd-pleasing special effects showcase in the Spielberg vein and a more cerebral experience following Kubrick’s influence. (The criticism that Walken seems checked out most of the time is also fair.) The best performance and most intense scenes are from Louise Fletcher as the device’s co-inventor, but the plot dictates that she can’t be the center of the film.

The Journey to Melonia (Per Åhlin, 1989)

In this Swedish animated film, loosely based on The Tempest, a kindly wizard protects the last fertile island from an incursion by the residents of Plutonia, a grimy, industrialized island run by rapacious capitalists. The resultant film is not exactly subtle in its environmental and economic themes, but it’s gorgeously animated, reminiscent of Don Bluth and Hayao Miyazaki, and it has many clever touches: there’s a Hensonesque quality to Caliban, Prospero’s grouchy servant and gardener, being literally made of vegetables. This seems like it would have been an easy film to export, so I was surprised I had never heard of it until this year.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki, 1997)

The sprawling Evangelion series was a major pop culture blind spot I caught up with this year: the original TV series from 1995-96, the film that originally capped it off, and the twenty-first century “Rebuild” series of four films that ended this year with Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (how’s that for anime titling conventions, but the suggestion of a software update combined with an ancient myth or fairy tale fits surprisingly well). Years after the “Second Impact” and an attack by “angels” wiped out half of humanity, young Shinji is one of a few teenagers conditioned to pilot the gigantic bio-mechanical “Evas” prepared for the angels’ inevitable return (I had heard that Pacific Rim owed a lot to Evangelion, and boy, that was an understatement). The 1997 feature film reveals both the traumas that shaped the individual characters and how they tie into the ultimate goal of Commander Ikari, leader of the Eva program (and Shinji’s estranged father).

I had already seen series creator Hideaki Anno’s live-action updates of Gamera and Godzilla (not to mention the fan work that led to the formation of Studio Gainax), but this mixture of sci-fi action, mysticism, and psychodrama, exploring depression and the psychological toll of war, is where he made his mark. By turns exhilarating, devastating, baffling, and infuriating, I can’t say I always understood everything that was happening, but I’ve seen enough Anno by now to believe that’s the point: you can’t change the past, you’ll never know everything, and everyone around you is going through experiences you can only imagine, but you can make choices in the here and now. I’m planning a deeper dive into this with a friend of the blog for next year, so keep an eye out for that.

Werewolf in a Buggy, Oh No: Spooktober 2021

The human body is so fragile: aside from the typical slashings and beheadings that befall horror movie victims, all it takes is an upsetting of our delicate chemical balance to send us spiraling. An overdose of alcohol injected by invading saucer-men or exposure to the radioactive body of an astounding she-monster, and it’s curtains. Even the beach that makes you grow old is but an acceleration of the natural process by which we eventually wither and die (alert readers will notice that I didn’t actually get around to seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s Old this month, but I assume it does what it says on the label—it’s not like Shyamalan is famous for big twists or anything).

Autumn is a natural time to contemplate the fragility of life, of course, surely part of the reason we have such spooky associations with the season to begin with. But this particular October has been a busy one, spent waiting for tow trucks and in doctors’ waiting rooms, so finishing the month with a movie like writer-director Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, so aware of the connections between people and events and the chain reactions that cascade into disaster, seems appropriate. (Everything’s under control here, so don’t be alarmed: I’m developing a theme. I was also at a bunch of high school football games, but that’s less dramatic.)

While I was busy, and for a time thought that this year’s Spooktober crop of films would be the most meager since I began keeping track of them for this blog, I was able to fit in a respectable number of horror and fantasy films representing every decade from the 1930s to the present, all but a few of them first-time viewings. Most of them were on the shorter side, some very short indeed. Did I count a repeat viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown just so I could get to the magic number 31? Mmmaybe, but what’re you gonna do, call the Halloween Police?

At least I resisted the urge to log the Korean Netflix hit Squid Game on my Letterboxd account, but watching that nine-hour series is probably the other reason my movie-watching got off to a slow start (for the record, it’s a horror-adjacent thriller, so if it had been a feature film I would have counted it). Squid Game was my son’s first “adult” media aside from Marvel movies or whatever, and we watched it together; it was fun to see him engage with the series’ twists and turns, so reminiscent (to me) of shows like Lost, as he encountered them for the first time (and to be fair, some of the big twists took me by surprise as well). Other uncounted TV watching included multiple episodes of Treehouse of Horror, the Halloween anthology episodes of The Simpsons that I can put on and rewatch with pleasure any time.

Speaking of television, a recent theme in my viewing has been exploring made-for-TV movies, particularly from the 1970s. I “pregamed” a bit in September with some of these movies, so in addition to the TV movies listed below, I enjoyed Are You in the House Alone? (Walter Grauman, 1978), a film about sexual assault with a more serious tone than its title would suggest; The Night They Took Miss Beautiful (Robert Michael Lewis, 1977), a hostage thriller with an all-star cast; and The Darker Side of Terror (Gus Trikonis, 1979), a thoroughly trashy look at the dangers of leaving your clone alone with your sexually unsatisfied wife. Killdozer (Jerry London, 1974), a famous example of the form based on a story by Theodore Sturgeon, turned out to be kind of dull.

Now for the main event! To curtail the risk of running any longer, here’s the complete list:

1. The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932)

2. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)**

3. Alone in the Dark (Jack Sholder, 1982)**

4. Invasion of the Saucer-Men (Edward L. Cahn, 1957)

5. Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

6. Dave Made a Maze (Bill “Not the Calvin and Hobbes guy” Watterson, 2017)

7. Muppets Haunted Mansion (Kirk R. Thatcher, 2021) t

8. Monster Brawl (Jesse Thomas Cook, 2011)

9. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Joseph Green, 1962)*

10. The Astounding She-Monster (Ronald V. Ashcroft, 1957)

11. Psycho Goreman (Steven Kostanski, 2020)

12. Incubus (Leslie Stevens, 1966)

13. Frankenstein Island (Jerry Warren, 1981)

14. The Wild World of Batwoman (Jerry Warren, 1966)*

15. Trilogy of Terror (Dan Curtis, 1975) t

16. Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout (Kenneth J. Hall, 1990)

17. Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

18. Shadow in the Cloud (Roseanne Liang, 2020)

19. The Werewolf of Woodstock (John Moffitt, 1975) t

20. Something Evil (Steven Spielberg, 1972) t

21. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

22. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992)*, **

23. The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)**

24. The Horror at 37,000 Feet (David Lowell Rich, 1973) t

25. The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015)

26. The Black Cat (Luigi Cozzi, 1989)

27. Instruments of Evil (Huw Evans and Curtis Anderson, 2016)

28. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)*

29. The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)

30. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Bill Melendez, 1966)* t

31. Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2007)

* rewatch

** seen at the drive-in

t made for television

Best Movie: At the risk of being basic, the movie that impressed me the most this month is also one of the most revered, Bernard Rose’s Clive Barker adaptation Candyman (from 1992, not to be confused with this year’s reboot/sequel). Virginia Madsen plays an anthropology grad student determined to explain the persistent urban legend of a hook-handed killer haunting the Cabrini-Green housing projects; Tony Todd is the iconic title character. Barker in the early ‘90s was a sophisticated new voice in horror, and Candyman often feels like an arty prestige picture to match his reputation (with a score by Philip Glass that still feels novel, even after Glass has scored many more mainstream films), but the operatic tone just makes the blood and guts more shocking and the commentary on racial violence and gentrification is still relevant.

Worst Movie: I’ve seen enough B-movies from the 1950s to adjust my expectations, but at just over an hour, The Astounding She-Monster is especially flimsy. Gun-toting crooks and the debutante they’ve kidnapped crash the house of a geologist in a remote area; meanwhile, a glowing alien (curvy Shirley Kilpatrick in a skin-tight bodysuit), who is either the survivor of a long-vanished civilization or the emissary of an enlightened council of planets (maybe both—I was a little fuzzy on this point), wanders the woods, killing any human she comes into contact with. It’s not the worst thing ever, and I’m fortunate that I didn’t see anything truly terrible this month, but it’s pretty half-baked and it feels as if there’s a decent crime picture that doesn’t need the sci-fi gloss buried inside it. (It does have a hell of a poster, though.)

Scariest Movie: Now this is a horror movie! In The Funhouse, four teenagers spend the night inside the funhouse at a sleazy traveling carnival, running afoul of the sideshow freak who lives inside it, Phantom of the Opera-style. (That’s the kind of terrible decision you can count on old-school horror movie characters to make, and amusingly it’s just one kid who makes every dumb, short-sighted move in this film, ruining it for everyone. Dammit, Steve!) Tobe Hooper recaptures some of the grotty energy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with another grotesque family living on the edges of society and the sly suggestion that “normal” families can be pretty messed up, too.

Weirdest Movie: Dave Made a Maze combines two of my favorite themes: a hand-crafted aesthetic and a superficially silly premise played straight. Dave (Nick Thune), a struggling wannabe artist, has put together a cardboard labyrinth in his living room . . . and gotten lost in it. When his fiancée and friends enter the maze to find him, they discover a sprawling, ever-expanding nightmare factory made of old boxes and other refuse, bigger on the inside than it appears from the outside, and from which there is no apparent escape. The metaphor for feeling trapped by a creative project couldn’t be clearer, and Dave Made a Maze works as a clever exploration of Dave’s relationships and unfocused psyche as well as a continually surprising series of handmade action/horror setpieces. Cheer up: at least your unfinished novel didn’t kill anyone (I hope).

Goriest Movie: A runner-up for Weirdest Movie, The Black Cat (from 1989, one of several movies with this title) is nominally an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, but is actually a crypto-sequel to Dominic Argento’s classics Suspiria and Inferno, made at a time when it wasn’t clear if Argento would finish his trilogy about the “Three Mothers.” He eventually did with Mother of Tears, a film that is not well-regarded and which represents a very different era of horror filmmaking; I don’t hate Mother of Tears, but I’m also happy to have Cozzi’s take on the material, in which an actress (Florence Guérin) studying to play the witch Levana, the Mater Lachrymarum, loses her grip on reality and comes to believe that Levana is possessing her and driving her to kill. The witch has a face made of worms and drools green slime on her, Fulci-style, and some of the more outré supernatural kills include making an occult expert’s heart explode in her chest. In one scene, the film-within-a-film’s screenwriter, after being attacked, crashes his car through the front wall of the actress’s house; after crawling out of the car, he reveals the knife plunged into his back. Was that there the whole time he was driving? An utterly deranged movie in the best Italian style.

Funniest Movie: Many of the films I watched this month are at least a bit funny. Psycho Goreman features one of my favorite sources of comedy, characters who exist at the center of their own universe, with scant (if any) regard for the feelings or situations of people around them. One such character is Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna), a domineering young girl who comes into possession of absolute power over the title character, an ancient world-destroying evil monster imprisoned by the victors in a galactic war (think Power Rangers or Masters of the Universe). Mimi immediately uses the power of Psycho Goreman (a name bestowed by her and her brother) to impress her friends, make boys like her, and get out of doing chores, but of course you can’t keep such a thing secret forever. Psycho Goreman doesn’t quite stick the landing, unable to decide if Mimi should learn a lesson or stay true to her own self-regard, but I found it very amusing overall, and the whole cast is committed to a premise that is part ‘80s throwback (I was reminded a lot of Turbo Kid) and ‘00s indie comedy.

Not That Bad: I’ve written before about director Jerry Warren and my bull-headed attempts to plow through his (mostly crappy) filmography, so I was prepared for the worst with Frankenstein Island. Four hot-air balloonists, attempting a record-breaking flight around the world, are forced down on a remote island inhabited by animal-skin-clad Amazons, shipwrecked sailors, and the widow (big question mark) of the original Dr. Frankenstein. While a genial hostess, Sheila (!) Frankenstein is continuing her late husband’s work, and in fact communicating with him through the magic of science (John Carradine appears as Dr. Frankenstein in these interludes, almost certainly repurposing footage in the vein of Bela Lugosi’s appearance in Plan 9 from Outer Space). The whole thing is ridiculous, but in contrast to most of Warren’s movies it is at least fun to watch and features mostly original footage. It impressed me enough to revisit the only other Warren film I’ve even half-liked, The Wild World of Batwoman, to see if I had imagined enjoying it. That’s two films to receive my highest rating for a Jerry Warren picture, “Not Completely Terrible.”

Dumbest Movie I Will Probably Watch Again: I don’t know if I’ll watch Frankenstein Island again, but other contenders for this honor include Monster Brawl (a face-off between classic monsters—or their non-union equivalents—in the form of a pro wrestling pay-per-view event), Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout (a tribute to an iconic scream queen’s career in the form of a tacky artifact of the video store era), and The Werewolf of Woodstock (which looks cheap even for a TV production but has a surprisingly credible rock soundtrack). After the Woodstock festival is over, a hippie-hating townie gets electrocuted and turns into a werewolf (?!—perhaps his hatred of hippies kept him alive). Cue rampage against cops and hippies alike. Did I mention that the werewolf hates hippies? Plus he gets away in a dune buggy!

Kino en Esperanto: As mentioned at the end of last year, I started studying the constructed language Esperanto during the pandemic. While I have slowed down since earning my atesto (certificate), I knew I wanted to wait to watch Incubus, starring William Shatner and filmed entirely in Esperanto, until I could understand it without relying on subtitles. Ultimately, it probably didn’t matter because as far as I can tell none of the cast are Esperanto speakers: writer-director Leslie Stevens apparently made the decision to film in Esperanto to give it global appeal during an upswing in the language’s popularity, or perhaps as a novelty. Most of the pronunciation isn’t great, although Shatner (pre-Star Trek) comes off the best, actually acting and delivering the unfamiliar words with a cadence that sounds like speech instead of obviously reading syllables off cue cards. (Actually, the title annoys me more than the dialogue: to conform to Esperanto orthography it should be Inkubo.) Apart from the language issues, the film is interesting and atmospheric, however, a sort of allegorical fairy tale reminiscent of The Seventh Seal or Carnival of Souls and filmed in the natural beauty of Big Sur. Shatner plays a wounded soldier, the target of a beautiful succubus (Allyson Ames) who claims the souls of the men she seduces; has she met her match in Shatner?

That brings Spooktober 2021 to a close; thanks for reading and I hope you had a happy Halloween!

Brenda Starr (1976)

In my review of the 1945 serial Brenda Starr, Reporter, I noted that there was a TV movie based on the same character (directed by Mel Stuart, it aired May 8, 1976 on ABC); I was able to track down a copy, so consider this an addendum to my survey of Brenda on film. As mentioned in my previous article, Brenda Starr, Reporter was a popular newspaper comic strip created by Dale Messick in 1940 (born Dalia Messick, she chose the androgynous byline “Dale” to get past editors who wouldn’t look at work by a woman cartoonist). During the 1970s there were numerous television adaptations of comic strip and comic book properties, as well as a general renewal of interest in the pulps and comics of the 1930s and ’40s. Unlike many of the pulp revival works of the ’80s and ’90s, however, most of the adaptations of the ’70s are thoroughly contemporary, placing their superheroes, gumshoes, and explorers in the modern world. The Brenda Starr newspaper strip was still going strong and keeping up with the times, so this version of the character is a jet-setter and spends time fending off the advances of a rival television newsman as well as tracking down leads the old-fashioned way.

The film isn’t on YouTube in its entirety, but the opening credits are, so you can hear the blend of action and romance in Lalo Schifrin’s stylish theme song (the soaring tune is heard in various guises throughout the film, transformed into a sultry “love theme,” and even presented as a bossa nova when Brenda travels to Rio):

Like the 1989 feature film starring Brooke Shields, the 1976 Brenda Starr begins with the reporter (played by Jill St. John) defusing a hostage situation, in this case a desperate first-timer whose plan of robbing a bank has led to him being cornered by police sharp-shooters. Only Brenda Starr can help him, first as a potential hostage, and then as an advocate who promises to do what she can for him. This little scene establishes Brenda as brave and clear-headed, but also compassionate. Back at the office of her newspaper (unnamed in this version), she gets a tip from a contact at the airport: billionaire Lance O’Toole has just arrived on a private plane and was whisked away by a waiting ambulance. (O’Toole is played by Victor Buono, the longtime character actor who often served as a TV-budget Orson Welles, playing characters who were alternately pompous, jovial, or threatening; he played delusional villain King Tut on the Batman TV series.)

Just as Brenda is convincing her editor, A. J. Livwright (Sorrell Booke, who would play Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard), to run a story based on this tip, Brenda’s rival, TV reporter Roger Randall, goes live with his own scoop. (This is one of those movies where people turn on the TV at the exact moment necessary to get the report necessary to the plot, but in this case Randall himself called Livwright to alert him.) Brenda sneaks into O’Toole’s hospital room disguised as a nun and, overhearing O’Toole discuss his case with a German specialist, Dr. Weimar, she learns that O’Toole believes himself to be the victim of a voodoo curse–or, more accurately, macumba, the similar animist religion from Brazil (although in this film the two terms are used almost interchangeably).

Then the bodies start piling up. Medical science cannot save O’Toole (whose death is again scooped by Roger Randall). Brenda discovers supermodel Kentucky Smith dead in her own home after investigating her connection to the sculptor Dax Leander, whom O’Toole blamed for the statue that made him vulnerable. Indeed, it turns out that the case is deeply intertwined with the Brazilian macumba: not just O’Toole, but several other tycoons, including the owner of Brenda’s paper, are being blackmailed after being approached by Leander to make statues of them–statues that happened to include real hair and fingernail clippings from their subjects! Eager to unravel the truth–and to avenge her friend Kentucky, who was romantically involved with Leander and appears to have been killed for revealing what she knew–Brenda offers to take the money to Brazil on behalf of the blackmailed macumba victims.

Aside from the story, Brenda has another reason to visit Brazil: the mysterious eyepatch-wearing Basil St. John hails from Brazil, and while it has been months since Brenda saw him, she can’t get him out of her mind. Although St. John never makes an appearance on screen, reminders of his presence are everywhere: Brenda’s hotel room is graced by a bouquet of black orchids, St. John’s signature flower (although the film doesn’t go into detail, in the comics, St. John’s family is subject to a madness that can only be kept in check with an extract of the black orchid; St. John is such a romantic character, no wonder only Timothy Dalton could play him in the 1989 movie); Brenda is led into a roundabout trap by a man with an eyepatch, whom she at first mistakes for St. John; and ultimately the villain of the piece threatens St. John with a voodoo statue in his likeness to keep Brenda in line.

The second half of the movie leans into both the exoticism of the South American jungle and the scary otherness of mind control and ecstatic macumba rituals. Like many pulp adventures made after it became increasingly uncool to demonize other cultures and their religions, but not so uncool that they wouldn’t be used as exotic window dressing, this movie has it both ways: Carlos Vargas (Joel Fabiani), one of Brenda’s contacts in Rio, explains that macumba is an understandable reaction to the enslavement and exploitation that produced it, and that its magic isn’t meant to be used for evil (spoiler alert: the magic totally ends up being used for evil). Alas, it turns out that he, too, is under the spell of the macumba, thanks to the magic of the macumba priestess, Luisa (Barbara Luna). But Luisa isn’t the villain either; she is ultimately a sympathetic character, and she helps Brenda turn the tables and uses her magic for good after a sisterly heart-to-heart talk.

Who is the villain? Well, I normally avoid spelling out the whole plot, but since this movie isn’t that easy to find, I’ll place a spoiler section below. Although made for television and definitely a product of its time, Brenda Starr isn’t a bad movie: shallow, perhaps, but diverting. The mixture of magic and very-special-guest TV actors is strongly reminiscent of Fantasy Island and other shows I watched regularly as a kid, and you don’t have to know anything about the source material to follow the plot. This was the era of Charlie’s Angels (although this movie filmed in 1975, Charlie’s Angels beat it to air by premiering in March of ’76), and while Brenda isn’t violent herself, she has a knack for getting into situations where people around her die and get hurt.

Sex symbol Jill St. John plays Brenda as a thoroughly self-sufficient career woman who pursues romance on her own terms. Her heart may belong to Basil St. John, but in the mean time she has her choice of men for companionship, and like comic-strip Brenda, she has an extensive wardrobe (and a couple of scenes where she models a bikini or lingerie, for reasons critical to the plot, you can be sure). She even tries to use her feminine wiles on the handsome and egomaniacal Roger Randall (Jed Allan, best-known for a long stint on Days of Our Lives), but in the end these scenes of seduction, titillation, and (in the third act) sexual menace are neutralized by the very fact that it’s a made-for-television production, safe enough for the whole family to watch together.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

In case you’re curious to solve the mystery but aren’t interested in tracking this one down for yourself, suffice it to say that Lance O’Toole not only faked his death, he set up the entire macumba scheme himself as part of a bigger master plan. Once out of the public eye, he planned to start his own private kingdom deep in the Brazilian jungle, with his absolute rule enforced by macumba mind control. First the jungle, then the world! Carlos, Luisa, and sculptor Dax Leander are under his control, and he had Kentucky Smith killed because she knew too much. Not only that, but he intends to make Brenda Starr his bride, the queen of his new reign. As for the mysterious Dr. Weimar, that was Roger Randall in disguise: that’s how he was able to scoop Brenda, and it also gets him involved with the drama in the jungle.

Ultimately, O’Toole’s magic is used against him when Brenda convinces Luisa to release Leander from the trance he is in and he makes a statue in O’Toole’s likeness. Just another episode in the career of Brenda Starr, reporter!

Challenge of the Lady Ninja

In Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, after acknowledging that Ninja III: The Domination is “a very strange film,” director Sam Firstenberg attributes the movie’s box office failure to audiences who just weren’t ready for the idea of a female ninja. Perhaps American audiences weren’t, but I think there’s more to it than that. It’s true that many action and fantasy films of the 1980s, including some that are now classics, make some pretty wild leaps of logic to smush together their various genre elements into original shapes, but few filmmakers outside of the Golan-Globus orbit would have thought at the time to rip off both Flashdance and The Exorcist by way of a martial arts movie. In The Domination, Lucinda Dickey plays a telephone line worker who moonlights as an aerobics instructor; when she is possessed by the spirit of a dying ninja, she starts to display the evil ninja’s powers and personality until it can be vanquished by the arrival of a good ninja (played by ever-reliable Sho Kosugi). I suspect the absurdity of the plot turned off more viewers than a straightforward martial arts movie starring a woman would have. (Incidentally, the only reason I haven’t covered The Domination separately is that while I’ve seen it, I don’t have a copy at hand to review so I hesitate to go into more detail from memory.)

More to the point, the kunoichi, or “lady ninja,” was already well-established in a subgenre of Japanese ninja movies (and at least one female ninja had made a big splash with American readers in the pages of Daredevil in 1981 and ’82: I hope to discuss Elektra and other ninjas in the comics before the month is over). Many, if not most, of these movies were every bit as exploitative as The Domination, not just gender-swapping the protagonist but playing up the sexiness of the heroine and putting her in provocative settings, such as infiltrating a brothel, facing the possibility of rape, catfighting with other women, or displaying distinctly feminine versions of typical ninja abilities, to name a few examples. Even the best examples of the genre are at least a little bit sleazy.

Historically, kunoichi were women trained in the arts of ninjutsu with an emphasis on disguise, infiltration, and seduction: servants, artists, musicians, and prostitutes had access to the inner circles of power that were off limits to other outsiders. Furthermore, closeness to their targets put them in a position to quietly gather information, influence decisions, or even kill. Ironically, women’s subservience and unimportance in the male-dominated samurai society made them effectively invisible. In discussing sex as one of the “five needs” (which could be turned against the ninja’s intended victim), Stephen K. Hayes in The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art writes “In another reliable ploy, the desires of an individual can be catered to by supplying sexual excitement. . . . In the midst of lusty physical gratification, an enemy’s guard is lowered and he becomes much more vulnerable to physical attack or verbal probing.” It’s not hard to see how the kunoichi could add sex appeal to an already-popular genre whether treated in a historical or fantastical manner. (This is not to say that stories of male ninjas were necessarily free of sex or exploitative elements–merely that it seems to be more of a driving element in the “lady ninja” films.)

I’ve watched a few “lady ninja” movies, but I don’t think I’ve watched enough to try to offer an overview of the genre in more than these broad strokes. For one thing, the plethora of overlapping titles is a thicket deeper than I care to venture into at the moment: they generally all have “kunoichi” or “lady ninja” in their titles, but beyond a few examples most are not part of related series; even some that are part of a series, such as Memoirs of a Lady Ninja, are actually free-standing entries beyond the thematic connection, much like Cannon’s Ninja trilogy. Finally, some of the more popular lady ninja films have been remade, just like popular Western stories. In order to avoid muddying the waters any more than I already have, I’ll describe one I’ve watched recently and let it stand as an example.

The Challenge of the Lady Ninja (aka Chinese Super Ninjas 2; the Internet Movie Database also lists it as Never Kiss a Ninja, which seems like good advice) is on the more ridiculous side of the genre. It’s a low-budget effort with the ninjas demonstrating magical powers that the special effects can’t quite pull off. The fight scenes, using wuxia-style wirework and trampoline-aided leaps, make up in imaginative staging what they lack in believability, and they do go in some weird directions. Most bizarre of all, Challenge is a period piece, taking place during the WWII-era Japanese occupation of Shanghai, that makes no effort to disguise contemporary fashions, settings, and automobiles. It’s as if it takes place in an alternate reality, which it might as well.

Like many ninja stories, Challenge begins with a test: Wu Shiau (Hui-Sang Yang) faces off against her school, and ultimately her classmate Kuroda (Kang Peng), to obtain the ninja medallion that will prove her abilities. After some challenges and demonstrations of her skills (including a seductive illusion that reduces four of her opponents to slobbering wolves making cartoon “hubba hubba” noises), she gets past Kuroda by using “moving shadow,” a technique that makes her appear to split into two or three duplicates, disappearing and reappearing at will like images in a hall of mirrors. Even once he is defeated, Kuroda challenges the master of the ninjas, upset that a Chinese (!) woman (!!) should advance to the rank of ninja while Japan is at war with China (!!!). The real root of Kuroda’s disgruntlement, however, is that the master would teach Wu Shiau moving shadow and not him: his lust for power is too great to be trusted. The student/sibling rivalry that is at the root of so many ninja conflicts is well-represented here.

After passing the test, Wu Shiau learns that her father has died back in China. Upon arriving in Shanghai to pay her respects, she learns that the man responsible was Li Tung, the man she was betrothed to as a young girl, but who has turned traitor, helping the Japanese occupiers by working against the Chinese revolutionaries and steering gold and other resources to Japan. (Li Tung is so evil that when he first appears on screen he is accompanied by John Williams’ “Imperial March.”) Wu Shiau vows to avenge her father, infiltrating his compound that night; she finds him well-guarded, and is forced to retreat when she comes face to face with Li Tung’s four bodyguards (each is a specific type and has a particular fighting style). She is aided in her escape by a mysterious skull-masked figure who later returns to provide useful information to her.

Narrowly escaping with her life, Wu Shiau decides that what she needs is a team, so with the help of her fellow revolutionaries she goes about recruiting three more women: an expert swordswoman who was forced to close her school by the Japanese; another woman willing to give her life to fight the occupiers; and a prostitute who overhears one of the men looking for enemies of Li Tung who figures it’s a good opportunity to fight back. Through a series of training montages (it’s the ’80s, after all), Wu Shiau gets her squad in shape, teaching them the ways of ninjutsu, bolstered by the particular skills they already had (they are remarkably quick studies). It’s this part of the movie that is the most “male gazey,” with numerous shots of the girls working out in skimpy attire and even practicing their seduction skills on a hapless dupe. (Corny comic relief also comes with the territory in martial arts movies, and most of it is in this section.)

Their first attack on Li Tung and his bodyguards (with the girls hidden inside plaster lions in front of a temple!) is another flop, and the lady ninjas barely escape (again!) with their lives. They’ll have to think strategically: they study each of Li Tung’s bodyguards to strike at their weaknesses and take them down individually. Noteworthy fights include Wu Shiau taking on a female tae kwan do expert in an oil-filled ring (again, the ’80s) and another against a tribesman who fights with a razor-edged boomerang and spiderweb-like net. (And yes, one of the bodyguards is killed in a brothel as one of the ninjas takes the regular girl’s place.) It’s all pretty bonkers, and not everything is as it seems, but they save Li Tung’s most dangerous henchman, a Japanese swordsman named Yamamoto with ritual tattoos on his forehead and eyebrows, for last.

Afterword: When discussing Ninja Assassin last week, I mentioned the frequency with which CGI-enhanced fight scenes were compared to video games. There’s no mistaking anything in this circa 1983 production for a computer more sophisticated than a video effects processor, but in its own way it does remind me of the games of the time. There’s the procession from one boss to the next, leading up to the final confrontation, of course; and as mentioned, the effects that send fighters leaping through the air are sometimes primitive, but the result is quaintly analog. Beyond that, the number and frequency of odd weapons flying around that Wu Shiau has to avoid while fighting (like the aforementioned boomerang; there’s also an odd moment when she later faces off against her old classmate Koroda and he sends chains hovering through the air at her) are visually reminiscent of the busy, moving obstacle-filled screens in games like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania. In some cases the sheer abstraction of the visuals takes me back to the Atari 2600 or NES: is that black square a platform or a hole? Is that moving bar of color a searchlight or a deadly laser beam? I picked up this ninja medallion at the beginning of the game–if I attach it to someone, will they explode? Is that how I win? Only one way to find out!

Scott Adkins’ Ninja Duology

So far in Ninjanuary, I’ve focused on the ninja’s 1980s heyday, but as I mentioned in my introduction, the ninja as a conventional figure has never really gone away once its popularity was established. The more recent Ninja (2009) and its sequel, Shadow of a Tear (2013), both directed by Isaac Florentine and starring Scott Adkins, were recommended to me as worthy modern additions to the ninja canon, and they make for interesting examples.

Ninja begins with an introduction to the concept of the ninja for any newcomers, at the same time economically foreshadowing a major plot point. In a flashback to medieval Japan, a ninja is shown taunting a dying samurai with the only antidote to the ninja’s poison, the knowledge of which gave the ninja ultimate power over life and death. But, the narration continues, the ninja’s sword could bring life as well as death. What is the meaning of this enigma? Stay tuned!

The story proper begins at Koga dojo in modern times, where two top students prepare to spar: Casey (Adkins), an American orphan who has spent his entire adult life at the dojo, and Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a hot-headed Japanese student who needles Casey for being a gaijin with no family. When the ostensibly friendly fight with bokken (wooden practice swords) goes against Masazuka, his rage boils over and he grabs a real blade, attacking Casey with obvious intent to kill. Casey only manages to save himself by keeping a cool head, and in fighting back he inflicts a small cut beneath Masazuka’s eye. Horrified by this breach of honor and Masazuka’s inability to control his anger, Takeda (Togo Igawa), the Sensei of the dojo, expels Masazuka from the school. “You must find your own path,” he tells him.

“Some time later,” Takeda is about to pass leadership of the dojo to Casey, his best disciple, symbolized by the passing of the Yoroi Bitsu, a wooden chest containing the Koga ninja’s secrets as well as weapons and gear. The ceremony is interrupted by the appearance of Masazuka, now a professional assassin, who resembles a swaggering rock star and is recognizable by the scar beneath his eye. “I have found my own path,” he announces, and demands to take possession of the Yoroi Bitsu. Of course, Takeda refuses, and Masazuka vows to return. Takeda sends the Yoroi Bitsu to America for safekeeping, accompanied by Casey, Takeda’s daughter Namiko (Mika Hijii), and a couple of other students without much established personality. It goes without saying that Masazuka isn’t far behind.

Yes, she took a guy’s crutches.

Ninja and its sequel share many of the stylistic tics of other twenty-first century action movies, most notably CGI blood spatter and the “speed ramping” made popular by Zack Snyder’s 300. Masazuka’s ninja style is also distinctly contemporary, even paramilitary, combining age-old ninjutsu strategies with modern body armor, high-tech grenades, and night vision goggles. With his appearance (and his fondness for sleek, chrome furnishings), he would be at home in a contemporary superhero movie, where Kevlar has replaced spandex as the uniform of choice. In other ways, however, Ninja is in many ways a throwback to the action movies of the ’80s, with inventive, well-shot fights and a premise that is instantly familiar, and it manages to do so in under 90 minutes. (The presence of Boaz Davidson, an action filmmaker involved with many of the Golan-Globus productions of the ’80s, as writer-producer may have something to do with this.)

Then there’s “the Ring,” the cult-like order hiding behind the corporate façade of Temple Industries, which also feels very much like something from an ’80s movie (Masazuka had been shown earlier in the movie assassinating a Russian oligarch whose business stood in Temple’s way). Of course Masazuka manages to track Casey and Namiko down in New York with the help of his corporate contacts. Soon the pair find themselves on the run from gun-toting mercenaries and brawling thugs. Highlights include an intense fight on a subway train (in which Namiko shows herself just as capable as Casey), but eventually the pair are caught by the police, blamed for the killing of their American hosts. Handling the case is Detective Traxler (Todd Jensen), another figure familiar from ’80s cinema, the hardened cop who dismisses Casey’s story as a “fairy tale” until Masazuka single-handedly invades the police station where Casey and Namiko are being held. After a few complications, Casey recovers the Yoroi Bitsu (which had been safely hidden) and dons the mantle of Koga ninja himself for (say it with me) the final confrontation.

Ninja‘s 2013 sequel, Shadow of a Tear, boasts a new writer, David White, and a shift in tone that reminds me of long-running comic book heroes becoming “darker” and “grittier” in response to changing audience expectations. It begins with Casey, now head of the Koga dojo and married to Namiko; they are expecting their first child. Everything is going great; Casey presents Namiko with a necklace bearing the kanji symbol for “happiness” (do you see where this is going?).

Casey has enemies, at first a pair of seemingly random street thugs who attempt to mug him, but it doesn’t stop there. Yes, Namiko ends up getting “fridged” by an unknown assailant (Boooooo!), the kind of hoary, heavy-handed narrative device that I had hoped we were beyond by this decade. Namiko (still played by Mika Hijii) is seen frequently in flashback, a reminder of what Casey has lost, but it feels manipulative, as if we’ve forgotten the hero’s motives, and it made me more annoyed with the filmmakers than with the killers, which I don’t think is what they had in mind. Casey, whose whole thing in the first movie was that he didn’t get angry (fudoshin, the “immovable mind”), is transformed into a creature of rage, unable to control himself as he seeks out the muggers whom he assumes are the killers. (There is a minor plot point that turns up frequently in martial arts movies, and which has some basis in reality: Casey tracks down the muggers by recognizing an unusual move one of them made in their fight, a “triple kick,” and finding out which dojo specializes in that move.)

An old friend, Kakabura (Kane Kosugi, whom we last saw as a child in Revenge of the Ninja, and now a grown-up martial artist and actor in his own right), invites Casey to his dojo in Thailand to work through his grief and get himself under control. While there, Casey gets into a few more dustups, beating up local toughs, but it isn’t until one of Kakabura’s students is killed, his body showing the same marks Namiko’s killers left, that he suspects he is being targeted. Kakabura reluctantly reveals the true story behind the Koga ninjas, involving a squad of Japanese “ghost soldiers” sent to invade Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II, and the three survivors: Casey’s old sensei Takeda was one of them; Kakabura’s father, who stayed in Thailand, another; and the third, who continued into the Burmese jungle and became a drug lord: Goro. It is Goro who is trying to eliminate his rivals, and with the help of an old map, Casey sets out to destroy him. (Before Casey gets to him, we see the ruthlessness with which Goro (Shun Sugata) treats his own men, interrogating an underling about a two-year-old shipment that was light: “That was a long time ago!” the man pleads, to which Goro responds, “I have a long memory,” before strangling him.)

The Burmese setting is colorful, both in the city and in the jungle, and there is more excellent action, some of it in the Jason Bourne vein, with quick editing and with Casey outnumbered and fighting his way out of police stations and back alleys, leaving a trail of bodies behind him. This is Casey to the extreme, pulling no punches, the ninja as Rambo. The squalid third-world atmosphere, drug business, improvised weapons, and numerous double-crosses are a world away from the first movie, which is almost cartoony in comparison (both are rated R for violence, but the second is much more visceral). I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, because it is compulsively watchable, but viewing the two films back to back makes for a jarring comparison. Purely as an action movie, Shadow of a Tear is pretty great, actually, but I might have enjoyed it more as a standalone, like the unconnected Cannon Ninja films, rather than as a sequel.

Ninja Busters

Ninja Busters is the story of two buddies, Bernie (kata champion Eric Lee) and Chic (martial arts instructor Sid Campbell, who wrote the screenplay), who start out as a pair of chumps in the Dumb and Dumber vein. A running gag early in the film has Bernie pretending to be Bruce Lee’s student and Chic pretending to be Bruce Lee’s teacher, but despite their bravado they get their asses handed to them several times. Eventually, they decide to enroll in a martial arts class–not to toughen up, but to meet girls. (This goes about as well as could be expected until they get serious about their training.) One of their fellow classmates, Sonny (Frank Navarro), had previously beaten them up, but the school’s sensei (Gerald Okamura) insists that the rivals earn their black belts before having a rematch.

So far, no ninjas. Other than a short scene at the beginning, the first forty-five minutes or so are down to earth, a gentle slapstick spoof of the martial artist’s journey. The ninjas enter the picture as the hired army of a local crimelord, Santos (Juan Morales); Bernie and Chic had worked at one of Santos’ warehouses and learned about the boss’ reputation as a smuggler (the goods are in special crates marked with a dragon). It’s not until Bernie and Chic spot their old boss making a drug deal and decide to follow him that they wind up targeted by Santos’ ninjas, who invade the martial arts school and follow our heroes to a nightclub and finally Santos’ warehouse for the final confrontation.

Ninja Busters is a comedy, and much of the humor is corny or silly, but it moves briskly and is continually entertaining; moreover, the spine of the story is one of rivals becoming friends and losers finding that they can become winners through hard work. It’s a formula for feel-good cinema. The cast, stacked with real martial artists, also makes up in realistic action what it sometimes lacks in polished line delivery. The ninjas are actually a little underwhelming: their stealth is exaggerated for dramatic effect (when Santos asks if he can see the ninjas, their dragon lady boss replies, “Why not? They’re looking at you”), but in action they’re easily handled by our heroes from the dojo. These are ninjas as faceless, mostly interchangeable enemies.

One reason Ninja Busters is so much fun to watch is its vibrantly multicultural setting: filmed in San Francisco and Oakland, it features a cast more ethnically diverse than many films made today (some of those characters are stereotypes, but, eh, it’s a comedy). In some ways it’s a comic take on the racial division that separates people (like the Black Panther-like “Liberation Army”), but at least within the dojo differences in color are set aside in favor of the immortal truths of karate. The big climax, which brings together the ninjas, the karate school, Santos’ gang, and even Sonny’s old biker gang crew, is a fun riff on gang war standards like The Warriors. Ninja Busters’ reliance on local settings and music give it a jolt of urban energy, from break dancers in the street to the band in a Latin night club. The original score by Frank Navarro, who played Sonny, is full of pulsing electro-funk bangers and John Carpenter-like synth riffs; the tracks accompanying the various montages are so good I wouldn’t mind owning the soundtrack just to listen to by itself.

It’s probably unavoidable that Ninja Busters will be compared to Miami Connection, another heartfelt action-comedy about friends united to kick ninja butt, and there are similarities, but Ninja Busters is mostly PG in spirit, without the spurting blood squibs and “stupid cocaine” of Miami Connection (there are references to Santos smuggling “dope,” but that’s about it, and while a few people die, it isn’t too graphic). It’s also clearly the work of professionals, even if made short on time and money. Director Paul Kyriazi, who also made Death Machines (to which it has some resemblance), notes in his commentary on the Garagehouse Blu-ray that most of Ninja Busters was filmed in one take; many of the cast are not polished actors, so some slips make it into the movie, but from a technical standpoint it’s the equivalent of a professional executing a tricky maneuver without a net. Viewers will be surprised that such a finished film (with a few flaws, sure, but hardly more than many low-budget films display) was allowed to simply disappear without a trace, but I suppose it happens more often than we would like to think.

Filmed over three years between 1981 and ’84 but never released (after completion, the film’s distributor went belly up and disappeared with all known prints–shades of Shirkers), Ninja Busters became available when Harry Guerro of Garagehouse Pictures rediscovered a complete print and had it restored a few years ago. It’s another case of what might have been: with its mixture of humor and action and its likeably goofy characters, I can imagine a movie like this having a big cult following today if it had been released back in the ’80s.

Ninja Destroyer

It sometimes seem like half of my movie reviews for this site include complaints about muffled dialogue, characters I can’t tell apart, or other reasons that I can’t understand just what the heck is going on. Regular readers would be forgiven for thinking that either I’m a complete idiot or I should spend my time watching better movies (of course, both possibilities can be true at once). But so help me, the plot of Ninja Destroyer, a 1986 effort by prolific Hong Kong director Godfrey Ho, is hard to follow.

This was the first film by Ho I’ve watched–at least, I think it was. One of the themes of this particular series is keeping an eye out for movies I might have actually watched back in the ’80s that I could have forgotten about due to the passage of time and the fact that I was a more passive viewer as a kid. So far, nothing has rung a bell; I thought I might have seen Enter or Revenge of the Ninja, due to the titles being familiar, but they didn’t bring any memories back. In any case, based on what I know of Ho, whose reputation for recycling and combining footage rivals Jerry Warren’s, I’m quite willing to place the blame for my confusion squarely at his feet. It’s not me, it’s him.

Ninja Destroyer is actually two movies: the first, which takes up most of the running time, concerns a dispute over an emerald mine near the border between Thailand and Vietnam. A group of rebels mounts periodic attacks on the work camp, hoping to take over so they can use the emeralds to fund their activities. The owners hire a man named Harold to defend the camp, but he gets greedy and decides to make his own play to take over. A third force, the Black Knights, a group of black-clad horsemen, led by a mysterious masked woman, periodically rides in to battle the rebels. A young man named Chester gets caught in the middle and plays the various forces off of each other. I could go into more detail if I felt like watching Ninja Destroyer again and keeping track of all these people, but I really don’t. Suffice it to say that with its struggles over resources and borders, double-crosses, and horseback chases, the oft-repeated cliché applies here: it really is a Western if you think about it.

The second strand of the plot, clearly filmed separately and connected to the rest by dialogue, is where Ninja Destroyer gets its title: the CIA has trained an elite squad of ninjas, led by a man named Michael (Stuart Smith), and they’ve gone rogue, working with the Vietnamese against the Thais and training the rebels in the tactics they use to terrorize the emerald miners. The US government cannot let this potentially embarrassing evidence of covert activity survive, and the only man who can eliminate the ninjas is Byron (Bruce Baron), once Michael’s closest friend and a ninja himself.

Only a true ninja can wear this headband.

Interestingly, the memory of the Vietnam War is fresh in everyone’s mind: the emerald miners are afraid of Thailand becoming the next Vietnam, and the Americans are concerned about rogue assets pulling the region back into conflict. (Note that, since this is a Hong Kong production, all of the American characters–and many of the dubbed Asian characters–have British or Australian accents.) Byron is supposed to liaison with Chester, and Michael occasionally has conversations with the rebel leaders, but those are the only connections, and it’s clear from the way their conversations are filmed that the actors never got anywhere near each other.

While the plot is confusing, the action is the real draw, and there is some fun to be had. The back of the DVD promises “incredible kung-fu heel-to-skull techniques,” which is a fancy way of saying that a lot of people get kicked in the head. There is a lot of kicking and tumbling, but there’s also quite of bit of gunplay (the raids on the mining camp are more like something out of a war movie or, like I said, a Western) and knife action. The transfer on the DVD is clearly from a VHS source, with occasional tracking lines, and I was struck by an increase in static around one shot of a fighter with a big knife having his blade turned on him by Chester and sticking himself in the gut, as if that were somebody’s frequently rewound favorite shot. Say what you will about 4K transfers, you don’t get that kind of insight into your fellow viewers’ minds with digital formats.

And of course there is the ninja action, with Byron taking out Michael’s squad one by one before the final confrontation. The ninjas in this are of the superhuman variety, performing incredible feats (with the aid of the camera, of course): leaping onto rooftops, hiding in unlikely places (my favorite example of this is Byron hiding behind a Chinese hat and rolling along the ground to shield himself from Michael’s arrows), and even disappearing and reappearing in different places with a sci-fi pinging noise. The film makes you wait until the last ten minutes for this, but it’s worth the wait, as it’s paired with dialogue that sounds like it was written by Garth Marenghi:

Byron: You’re coming back for the court-martial.

Michael: Damn your court-martial. Don’t be such an asshole!

B: I won’t stop until I’ve stopped you.

M: Let’s make a deal. I’ll offer you a million dollars.

B: A million dollars won’t bring back a million people’s lives.

There’s more where that came from, but you get the idea. I award Ninja Destroyer one out of five throwing stars, a rating I just made up.

Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja

“Before Menahem, I didn’t, and I bet you that millions of people, never knew the word ‘ninja.'” So says filmmaker Boaz Davidson in the 2014 documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. “Menahem” is Israeli producer-director and Cannon chairman Menahem Golan, who with his cousin Yoran Globus dominated independent genre filmmaking in the 1980s, flooding theaters, video stores, and cable channels with quickly-made action and exploitation pictures (as well as artier fare when they were able to lure big-name auteurs with the promise of complete artistic freedom). The ninja trilogy that began with Enter the Ninja in 1981 is a good example of both the Golan-Globus process and its product, and Electric Boogaloo gives some hint of the rapidity with which the films were made and the degree to which Golan would keep tabs on ongoing productions and frequently step in to make changes based on his storytelling instincts. In the case of Enter the Ninja, Golan took over directorial duties and recast his lead actor when early dailies were unsatisfactory (however, in the true low-budget spirit, those dailies still appear as a film within the film). What all three films have in common is the presence of Sho Kosugi, who both rose to martial arts stardom and sparked an American craze for all things ninja on the strength of his performances.

If Enter the Ninja was truly the watershed moment for the ninja in American film that some make it out to be, it’s probably due to its first fifteen minutes, a near-wordless sequence in which a ninja in a white gi makes his way through a beautiful mountainous countryside, pursued by a ninja in black and a band of subordinate ninjas in red. If you had never heard of a ninja before, this sequence gives a good idea of what one is, as the white ninja relies on stealth and surprise (and a number of exotic weapons and fighting techniques) to overcome his more numerous foes; when in his enemies’ sights, he seems to have a sixth sense warning him of danger, allowing him to duck and counterattack at just the right moment. The black ninja seems to sniff out his quarry and grabs arrows out of the air in mid-flight. A stunning sequence of both ninjas leaping, in slow motion, from the top of a waterfall, is truly beautiful, inside or outside of the ghetto of genre filmmaking. Finally, the white ninja gets the better of the black ninja (“Surrender or die!”); the white ninja approaches the waiting master of the compound and beheads him, pulling his sword from its scabbard and striking in one swift motion.

After the dramatic conclusion to the cold open, the white ninja enters the temple and kneels; he removes his mask, revealing a Westerner (Franco Nero, in all his dubbed glory, replacing Mike Stone at the last minute, although Stone still performed all the stuntwork). The other ninjas, whom he supposedly slew, enter and sit in rows beside him, pulling out the protective boards and blood squibs that allowed them to simulate deadly combat; the white ninja’s target, actually his sensei, enters, carrying the false head that the ninja appeared to have removed from his body. The infiltration and assassination was a test, and this white man has passed: he is now a ninja. Of course, there must be intrigue, and the black ninja, who has also appeared, protests the acceptance of this gaijin into the ninja order. The black ninja, Hasegawa (Sho Kosugi), is embittered by his loss to a foreigner, but also by the lack of place for a great warrior in modern society. “Always be strong enough to avoid bitterness,” the sensei, Komori, tells the white ninja, Cole, afterwards.

After completing his training, Cole travels to the Philippines to visit an old comrade-in-arms, Frank Landers (Alex Courtney), owner of a coconut plantation. It is clear right away that something is wrong, as the local village is under the thumb of a protection racket, and the pressure to sell his land to a powerful tycoon has driven Frank to drink. The long second act is the most conventional part of the film, reminiscent of episodes of Kung Fu, The Incredible Hulk, or The A-Team. What would any man do when he sees bullying and injustice, especially directed at his friend and his beautiful wife, and especially if he is uniquely positioned as a master of the arts of ninjutsu? Of course he steps in, both invigorating his friend with new confidence and tempting said wife with his virility and righteousness. And what happens when word comes back to the boss, a fey character named Venarius (Christopher George), that the man making trouble for the operation is a ninja, and he decides he wants to hire his own ninja to level the playing field? Guess who is available for hire!

Plot-wise, much of Enter the Ninja isn’t too different from the many martial arts or action movies filmed in the Philippines during the 1970s and ’80s: Bruce Lee could have played the part of Cole, the old friend who arrives to find his buddy’s plantation under siege by goons, battling through them until he fights his way up to the big boss. Aside from the ninja theatrics, which are mostly confined to the first and last act, Enter the Ninja is noteworthy for its brisk pacing, with scenes of characterization and recrimination balanced by snappy dialogue and inventive action set pieces, but even moreso by its cast of colorful characters.

Typical of Golan-Globus films, even minor walk-ons are sharply drawn and provided with novel details. Of course they’re mostly caricatures (and some of Golan’s eccentricity and unique comic sensibility may come from his Israeli background), but they pop from the screen: the German with the Colonel Klink accent and hook hand who appears as the first “spearhead”; the prissy, demanding villain, coaching his synchronized swimming team in his in-office pool while he conducts business, along with his ever-loyal British right-hand man; even “Preacher,” a would-be henchman who only appears in one scene, has a nickname and a gimmick like an experienced wrestling heel. It’s all comic book stuff, of course, but as in the best comic books, iconic images combine with a few well-chosen words to imply much more than what we are actually shown. (Note the contrasting white and black uniforms of Cole and Hasegawa, or their final battle in an arena under a sign reading THE JUDGE’S DECISION IS FINAL: none of this is subtle, but in contrast to the comic relief in other parts of the film, the ninja material is played utterly straight, giving it the weight of myth.)

Cole is the type of figure who populated movies and men’s adventure magazines in the post-Vietnam era: a man adrift, hardened by war (in flashbacks, we see him and his buddy Frank fighting together as mercenaries in Africa), but who has found peace, or the promise of it, in Eastern philosophy and physical discipline. Of course he is irresistible to Mary Ann (Susan George), tired of her washed-up husband’s passivity and alcoholism: here’s a real man, advertised by his square jaw and piercing gaze, but most of all by his vintage porn ‘stache. The physicality of their first meeting–when she greets him, a stranger, with a shotgun, he disarms her and literally kicks her in the butt–is “rough courtship” straight out of the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara playbook. When Cole and Mary Ann inevitably come together, it’s surprisingly tasteful for a Golan-Globus production, signaled by her appearance at his bedside and a Hays Code-like turning off of the lights.

Revenge of the Ninja followed in 1983, directed by Sam Firstenberg in seven weeks, including a thorough overhaul of the story by Golan. Now, this is what I expect from a Golan-Globus production: gratuitous T&A, broad ethnic stereotypes, corny comic relief, and a plot that makes Enter the Ninja look grounded. However, the action sequences are more intense and inventive than in Enter, largely free of the need to make us believe that Franco Nero is a better martial artist than Sho Kosugi. Since (spoiler alert!) Hasegawa died at the end of Enter the Ninja, Kosugi appears as an entirely different character in Revenge (this time the hero), making it more a thematic follow-up than a true sequel (the third film in the series, The Domination, likewise features Kosugi in yet a different role, but that one is so bonkers it deserves to be treated separately).

Revenge of the Ninja opens with the slaughter of Cho Osaki’s (Kosugi) family in Japan by a band of ninjas; besides himself, only his mother and infant son survive (we again see Kosugi catching arrows in mid-air, one of his specialties). Cho’s American friend Braden (Arthur Roberts) insists that Japan is no longer safe, that Cho will never escape the ninja clan warfare that has soaked their land in blood for generations; Braden has the idea of opening an art gallery in America, and it could be just the opportunity Cho needs to start a new life and raise his son in safety.

Six years later, Cho runs a martial arts studio in America (with Salt Lake City standing in for Los Angeles), but he has personally forsaken the ways of ninjutsu: his sword is sealed, never to be drawn from its scabbard. His son Kane (played by Kosugi’s real-life son, also named Kane) studies karate with him (as demonstrated in a cheesy scene where he beats up some bullies–actually, most of Kane’s scenes are cheesy). One of his other students, Cathy (Ashley Ferrare), helps him out setting up the art gallery. She’s a good friend, but clearly she would like to be more, as in her first scene she attempts to seduce Cho with a bottomless karate workout (“If you want to work out, you forgot your pants,” he tells her coolly).

Now we’re getting into spoiler territory, although it will surprise no one that Braden is not exactly who he seems: not only is the art gallery a front for a drug smuggling operation (the imported Japanese dolls are full of heroin), Braden is also a ninja himself, having lived in Japan for twenty years and absorbed their teachings. Using the mind-clouding powers of the ninja (as well as conventional blackmail, presumably), Braden has Cathy secretly working for his smuggling operation in the gallery.

Things fall apart when Braden’s buyer, a cartoonish mob boss named Caifano (Mario Gallo), tries to stiff him and work out a deal with the Japanese behind Braden’s back. Braden dons his own ninja gear (including a demonic silver face mask) and goes to war with the mob. Braden is the flip side of Cole in Enter the Ninja: an American who learns the ways of the ninja to access their power, but without any concern for honor. Once Braden’s villainy is revealed to the audience, he revels in psychopathy, killing indiscriminately: the first time we see him in his ninja disguise, he kills a stranger in a public bathroom for no apparent reason at all. Soon, Braden’s killings of Caifano’s family members draw the attention of the police, including the police martial arts instructor, Dave (Keith Vitali), who recognizes the advanced bone-breaking techniques used on the victims and brings Cho into the investigation for advice (at this point, Cho has no idea that the killer is his own friend, Braden). Some of Revenge‘s most purely entertaining sequences involve Cho and Dave working together to find out information, mopping up a series of Village People-like gang members with their kung fu moves. Is it good police work? Not really, but it’s a lot of fun.

Once Cho learns the truth (and after Braden has killed his mother and abducted his son, as well as the now-repentant Cathy), he inevitably unseals his sword (it’s called Revenge, after all) and sets out for the final confrontation. This is at the same time that Braden is making his final move against Caifano, and it all comes down to an exciting infiltration and battle sequence set in Caifano’s high-rise office tower. The two ninjas face off on the roof in an exciting (and sometimes baffling) duel to the death. Some of the more memorable moments include Braden tricking Cho with a life-size dummy of himself (face mask and all) and using a robotic hand to grab Cho’s ankle from beneath the surface of a rooftop hot tub. Ninjutsu includes techniques of deception and disorientation, of course, but this flight of fancy shows the ninja treated as a kind of mastermind, with every contingency prepared for and a near-infinite capacity for escape (shades of the Fu Manchu master criminal archetype I’ve discussed before). As mentioned, however, realism is obviously not the goal, and this and other sequences are exciting and suspenseful (as great as Cho/Kosugi is, Braden frequently has the drop on him; it’s not an easy fight).

Director Stan Firstenberg had never made an action movie before this, and he has stated that Kosugi (as both star and stunt coordinator) advised him on making the action look good: the camera is much more fluid and the editing more rhythmic than in the relatively staid Enter the Ninja. It delivers the kind of thrills and surprises one hopes for, even as it strains suspension of disbelief. Revenge of the Ninja was the first film Cannon released through a distribution deal with MGM, so its exposure was even bigger than that of Enter the Ninja, and with another hit (and a full-fledged fad) on its hands, a sequel was inevitable. Firstenberg would be kept on to direct Ninja III: The Domination, but I’ll save that for another time.

I Am Curious (Ninja)

“To be a Ninja, indeed even to contemplate the Silent Way, one must be a hunter. This means that he knows the ways of his prey. He studies their habits, patterns of movements, and routines. In this way, he can strike when they are most vulnerable, or trap them in their own habits.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Welcome to Ninjanuary! This month I’ll be exploring and revisiting movies and other media centered on that mysterious figure of stealth and danger, the ninja! I plan to update on Mondays and Thursdays, with a mixture of capsule reviews and longer articles.

Variously translated as the “art of secrecy” or “art of invisibility,” ninjutsu originated in Japan in the tenth or eleventh centuries (or perhaps earlier–fittingly for such a shadowy tradition, there is no single point of origin, but a coalescing of practices originating in China and elsewhere, coming together in the mountains of Japan). As opposed to the rigid, honor-bound code of the samurai, ninjutsu was entirely practical, focused on results, and with an emphasis on acting and escaping with as little trace as possible. Espionage, sabotage, and assassination were the specialties of the ninja, whether working as spies infiltrating an enemy base or as commandos in open warfare. Using sleight of hand and psychology, it was said that ninjas could cloud men’s minds, appear and disappear at will, or even become completely invisible. (The more sober accounts of ninjutsu downplay such fanciful notions, but Ashida rightly points out that if a ninja truly possessed such a power, he would hardly demonstrate it on command for the curious.) Given some of the feats attributed to master ninjas, it is no wonder that the ninja was often perceived as having supernatural abilities, a mystification that only served to hide the truth further.

“To be a Ninja, an invisible assassin, one must be a warrior. This means that he accepts responsibility for his actions. Strategy is the craft of the warrior.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Ninja techniques and skills were closely-guarded secrets, held by the ninja clans who passed their wisdom down from father to son, only rarely taking on outsiders (note that there were also female ninjas, kunoichi, who plied their trade disguised as geishas, musicians, or courtesans). While the earliest ninjas saw themselves as defenders of the common people, living amongst them secretly as farmers or tradesmen, later ninjas were mercenaries and key players in the struggles between competing warlords. With the opening to the West, ninjas declined in power and influence in Japan, but by then the ninja had entered folklore and popular culture. A few families and ryu (schools) kept the traditions alive, but the glory days were in the past.

“To be a Ninja, one must be a wizard. This means that he can “stop the world” and see with the ‘eyes of God.’ This is the essence of Mugei-Mumei No-Jitsu, which is translated to mean, ‘no name, no art.'” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja

Ninjas had long been a staple of Japanese entertainment: in addition to appearing in stories and comics, there was a popular cycle of ninja films in the 1960s; in the West, one of the most prominent appearances of the ninja was in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice in 1967. But it was in the early 1980s, following on the heels of the martial arts craze of the 1970s, that ninjas became a full-fledged fad, assuming a seemingly permanent place in Western pop culture. When I was a kid in the 1980s, ninjas were everywhere: I was hardly aware of the long history of ninjutsu or the subtle combination of philosophy and pragmatism that guided the ninja in his own culture, but there sure were a lot of kung fu fighters wearing black pajamas and carrying short swords and blowguns in the low-budget movies I saw on basic cable and on the shelves at the video store.

“‘Lew,’ Nicholas said, ‘slide over. I want to talk to you before the crowd comes.’

Croaker turned to look at him as he slid over to the passenger’s side. Far off, they could hear the wailing rise and fall of a siren. It could have been an ambulance.

‘I know who the ninja is.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja

The ninja was a perfect addition to the roster of character types found in action movies: the story could focus on a single ninja at the center of the action, or use ninjas as faceless goons, henchmen to be mowed down by the hero. The ninja’s pragmatic embrace of fighting techniques and spycraft from multiple sources made him usefully versatile, and filmmakers had fun one-upping each other with increasingly weird skills and powers for their ninja characters. TV shows and comics that weren’t focused on martial arts could make room for a one-off character (and even established characters suddenly “remembered” a trip to Japan in their background, where they learned the secrets of the shadow warriors). It wasn’t just on TV, either: as Bart Simpson discovered, you had to take an awful lot of karate lessons before you learned how to pull a man’s heart from his chest, and “ninja stars” were quickly banned from schools everywhere as untrained kids got their hands on cheap knock-offs of the ninja’s iconic weapons.

“Hatsumei Sensei looked at me curiously. ‘This knowledge is not for the public. In any case, no one would believe in these abilities unless he had seen them in action.’ He handed me a copy of one of his children’s books. It was illustrated with pictures of skulking figures in black outfits that resembled jumpsuits. They were engaged in various types of combat with an incredible assortment of weapons. ‘This is what the public think ninjutsu is, so we humor it. The real secrets that have been handed down through the generations are not for publication. They are for the knowledge of a chosen few.'” –Stephen K. Hayes, The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art

It should be clear from the above that I am not a particular connoisseur of martial arts cinema, and certainly not an expert on the real thing, but I hope to fill in some gaps by writing about them. As with some of my other series on Medleyana, part of my goal with this theme month is to explore the roots of this fad and reexamine a part of the pop culture landscape I took for granted when I was younger. When you’re a kid, everything is new, so it’s not always clear when something is genuinely new, or newly popular. In hindsight, the ascendancy of the ninja was a moment, one with a beginning, high point, and end. Eventually, like all fads, the ninja craze faded, becoming first a cliché and then a joke, but ninjas have never really gone away. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally a spoof of the decade’s (and particularly comic writer Frank Miller’s) obsession, are themselves now a venerable institution, such that kids today don’t even realize they were meant as a joke. Scott Adkins has starred in a pair of well-received ninja movies in the last decade. And presumably the real practitioners of ninjutsu are still out there, and if they are anything like the mythic figures shown in movies and comics, I doubt they’ve revealed everything they know. The ninja has proven a durable figure, and like the real warriors on which the fictional version is based, hard to pin down.

“Nicholas gave him a wan smile as he shook his head. Time to go, he thought. ‘I am prepared for it. I’ve been prepared for a long time now.’ He climbed out of the car. Every muscle seemed to ache and his head throbbed as if it were in a vise. He leaned in so Croaker could hear him as the blue-and-white drew up, followed by the ambulance. The street lit up red and white, red and white like the entrance to an amusement park.

‘You see, Lew,’ he said with infinite slowness, ‘I am a ninja, too.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja