Revenge of the Ninja

Revenge of the Ninja

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The next feature up is the second installment in the Cannon ninja trilogy: “Revenge of the Ninja.”

“Revenge of the Ninja” was written by James R. Silke, who, along with director Sam Firstenberg, would return for the final installment in the Cannon ninja trilogy: the bizarre supernatural “Ninja III: The Domination.”

Initially, Menahem Golan intended to direct “Revenge of the Ninja” just as he did with “Enter the Ninja,” but instead gave the project to Firstenberg, who would go on direct the first two “American Ninja” movies and the infamous “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” for Cannon.

The effects on “Revenge of the Ninja,” which are a step up in quality from the previous film “Enter the Ninja,” were provided by Joe Quinlivan, who would go on to work on larger budget movies like “Face/Off,” “Tombstone,” and “Robocop 2.” He also interestingly provided effects for a movie I have previously covered, the bizarre incest drama “House of Yes.” He also returned for “Ninja III: The Domination” to close out the Cannon ninja trilogy.

revengeninja1The cinematography was provided once again by David Gurfinkel, one of the few returning elements in “Revenge of the Ninja” carried over from “Enter the Ninja.” Gurfinkel managed to rack up nearly 90 film credits over his career, spanning from the 1960s into the 2010s, primarily on low-budget B-movies.

The music was once again provided by the “Enter the Ninja” duo of W. Michael Lewis and Laurin Rinder, with the notable addition of one Robert J. Walsh. Walsh went on to provide music for countless cartoon shows in the late 80s (“Jem,” “GI Joe,” “My Little Pony,” “Muppet Babies”), as well as some off-the-wall documentaries (“UFO: The Greatest Story Ever Denied”) and b-movies (“Leprechaun,” “Nightbeast,” “Zombie Nation”).

“Enter the Ninja” was one of the first films to come out of Cannon after its acquisition by the Israeli cousins Menahem Goram and Yoram Globus, who led the company into a sort of renaissance of b-pictures and knock-offs from 1980 to 1994. The names “Goram and Globus” are now instantly synonymous with their low-budget 1980s movies, many of which have become treasured cult classics (including the ninja trilogy, which began with “Enter the Ninja”).

“Revenge of the Ninja,” the second in the Cannon ninja trilogy, came two years following the success of “Enter the Ninja.” Despite having no story or character overlap, “Revenge of the Ninja” is widely regarded as a sequel in a spiritual sense, capturing the same ambiance and style of “Enter the Ninja,” and featuring a handful of returning elements in the cast and crew.

The cast of “Revenge of the Ninja” features one key returning member of the “Enter the Ninja” cast: Sho Kosugi. Whereas he played the rival ninja in “Enter,” “Revenge” places him in the sympathetic lead role, which he really thrives in. He’s also a slightly more believable ninja that Franco Nero, which is quite the understatement. Kane Kosugi and Shane Kosugi, Sho’s actual children, play his character’s young boys in the movie. Not to get too far into spoiler territory, but Kane gets a significantly greater amount of screen-time than his brother.

revengeninja4The story of “Revenge of the Ninja,” predictably enough, centers around a ninja who is out for revenge. The opening of the film shows Sho Kosugi’s family being murdered by a group of presumably rival ninjas, which leads him to flee to the United States with his mother and sole surviving child for the sake of their safety. A friend gives him an art gallery stateside for him to make a living, and Sho practices pacifism for years as his child begins to grow up. It is ultimately revealed that the gallery is not what it appears to be, and that the friend is not to be trusted. After some violent shenanigans, the titular ninja-related revenge kicks into high gear for an amazing shuriken-packed conclusion.

The initial theatrical and home video release of “Revenge of the Ninja” featured a number of cuts to tone down the explicit violence. However, the versions that are available now are uncut, with some of the more gore-y, blood-splattering sequences restored.

revengeninja3“Revenge of the Ninja” was filmed almost entirely in Salt Lake City, a very significant departure from the tropical, Philippines setting of the previous film. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t done for any artistic decision on the part of Golan and Globus: rather, they chose Salt Lake City specifically because the Utah Film Commission reportedly promised no permits, location fees or union deals for the production.

Perhaps the most memorable sequence of the film is the brutal prologue, in which Sho Kosugi’s family is slaughtered in their home. Amazingly, this sequence was apparently not initially in the script: instead, it was added in after Menahem Globus found the story to be lacking in depth after shooting began.

The fans of “Revenge of the Ninja” vary from 1980s nostalgics to die hard martial arts movie fans to those who enjoy “good-bad” flicks. It is probably the best reviewed of the Cannon ninja trilogy, which really isn’t saying much: it hold a 6.0 on IMDb and a 58% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That said, it is still undoubtedly a cult classic with plenty of die hard fans.

“Revenge of the Ninja” has pretty much everything you would expect from a ninja movie: awful acting across the board, ridiculous physics (catching an arrow with your teeth?), and some excellent ninja fighting action. The finale once again features a one-on-one battle to the death, but this time it occurs on city rooftops. It isn’t quite as memorable as the cockfighting ring in “Enter the Ninja,” but there is a good deal of it that occurs on a tennis court, which is pretty awesome.

One of the criticisms of “Enter the Ninja” that I have seen a lot is about the impracticality of Nero’s all-white ninja suit. In “Revenge of the Ninja,” both the good and bad ninjas wear black, which is honestly a bit confusing. It might make more sense, but it is a little too easy to lose track of who is who. I’m not going to say that a white suit is the way to go, but there are certainly ways to distinguish ninja uniforms from each other.

One of the most infamous events in “Revenge of the Ninja” occurs in the prologue, in which Sho Kosugi catches three arrows out of mid-air (the last with his teeth). This sequence almost certainly influenced a “MythBusters” episode in which the gang tested whether it was realistically possible to catch an arrow mid-flight.

One issue I had with this film is that the passage of time between the prologue and the main story seems off. It is shown that Sho’s gallery has not yet opened as the story begins to unfold, while his child is shown to be in elementary school. However, in the prologue, the surviving child is still a baby. It seemed heavily implied that Sho and his surviving family moved immediately after the events of the prologue, which leaves a good amount of time (enough for a baby to become a young child) missing. I might have just missed a detail on my initial watch, but it certainly stuck out to me. Given the prologue was added in later, it seems entirely possible to me that this was just a continuity oversight.

One thing that “Revenge of the Ninja” lacks are colorful antagonists. The rival in “Revenge” isn’t particularly memorable, and doesn’t have understandable goals, outside of wanting to be wealthy and powerful. He is also a very straight villain, and doesn’t do a whole lot of hamming it up, which is what I always want from this sort of movie.

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable ninja movie, and is very much deserving of the cult status it has accrued. Sho Kosugi is awesome to watch, and the film is worth checking out on his merits alone for ninja movie fans. Bad movie lovers will love the awful acting, the silly plot, and the special effects, not to mention the genuinely entertaining fight scenes. As for general audiences, this is probably as good as any ninja movie for breaking someone into the genre, and it manages to keep up a steady pace better than most of its peer flicks.

Enter The Ninja

Enter The Ninja

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Today’s feature is a true cult classic, and the first installment in the infamous Cannon Group ninja trilogy: “Enter The Ninja.”

The story of “Enter the Ninja” was originated by Mike Stone, who was initially intended to play the lead in the movie. Ultimately, he acted as the film’s stunt coordinator and Franco Nero’s double after it was discovered that he wasn’t particularly good at acting. The screenplay credit is given to a man named Dick Desmond, who notably has no other writing credits.

“Enter the Ninja” was directed by one of the heads of Cannon Films, Menahem Golan. Initially, he was only slated to produce the flick, but ended up firing the original director, Emmett Alston, after only a handful of days of shooting.

entertheninja6The music on “Enter the Ninja” was provided by the team of W. Michael Lewis and Laurin Rinder, who previously worked together on the holiday-themed horror movie “New Year’s Evil.” Both returned to work together again on “Revenge of the Ninja,” the second in the Cannon ninja trilogy.

The special effects for “Enter the Ninja” were provided by Ben Otico, who worked as an art director and special effects technician on a number of exploitation films throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including “Women in Cages,” “Black Mamba,” and “She Devils in Chains.”

David Gurfinkel served as director of photography for the film, a fellow who would go on to work on such treasures as Sylvester Stallone’s “Over The Top,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III,” “America 3000,” and “American Samurai.” His previous credit to “Enter the Ninja” was another notorious Cannon film also helmed by Menahem Golan, the bizarre musical “The Apple.” He also returned for the second film in the ninja trilogy, 1983’s “Revenge of the Ninja.”

“Enter the Ninja” was one of the first films to come out of Cannon after its acquisition by the Israeli cousins Menahem Goram and Yoram Globus, who led the company into a sort of renaissance of b-pictures and knock-offs from 1980 to 1994. The names “Goram and Globus” are now instantly synonymous with their low-budget 1980s movies, many of which have become treasured cult classics (including the ninja trilogy, which began with “Enter the Ninja”).

Franco Nero, who is best remembered as the original Django, was brought in at the last minute to star as the film’s lead. Because of his character’s American background, all of his dialogue was ultimately dubbed over. Sho Kosugi stars as Nero’s rival (the black ninja) in his first major film role, and is one of the only elements to remain throughout the Cannon ninja trilogy. Sho was also notably a real martial artist, and not only performed his own stunts, but also filled in as an extra ninja during the movie’s opening sequence. The main bad guy of the film is played by Christopher George (“Fantasy Island”), who unfortunately died just a couple of years later in his early 50s. Susan George (“Straw Dogs”) plays Nero’s love interest and inevitable kidnapping victim in the movie. The accessory cast includes Zachi Noy, Constantine Gregory, and Michael Dudikoff in a minor background role, who would later star in a film greatly influence by “Enter The Ninja”: “American Ninja.”

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The story of “Enter the Ninja” follows an American war veteran who travels to Japan to master ninjitsu. After completing his training, he decides to visit a companion from his military days in the Philippines, which winds up entangling him in a bloody local conflict with a criminal land developer.

“Enter the Ninja” was filmed almost entirely on location in the Philippines, which pitted the cast and crew against oppressive natural elements: namely the weather and a variety of exotic animals. Further, the combination of nationalities in the cast and crew meant that at least three languages were regularly used on set, creating a peculiar communication situation.

“Enter the Ninja” received its title, predictably, because of the massive popularity of the 1973 Bruce Lee move “Enter the Dragon,” which was a significant financial success.

The memorable final ninja battle of “Enter the Ninja” was filmed in an actual cock-fighting arena located in the Philippines, which provides a spectacular and symbolic backdrop for an epic one-on-one battle to the death.

The nine levels of power featured in “Enter the Ninja” are a form of kuji, which are mantras used as a sort of meditation practice. The specific ones featured in the film were written about by the American ninjutsu master Stephen K. Hayes in his book “Warrior Ways of Enlightenment.”

“Enter the Ninja” is undoubtedly a cult classic among martial arts movies, and beloved by many. That said, it is also very much a low quality movie that didn’t exactly pop up on critics’ radars. It currently holds a somewhat harsh 4.9 rating on IMDb, which doesn’t accurately represent how treasured the film. Still, it is hard to argue that the film is “good” in any conventional sense of the term.

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I wasn’t able to dig up any financial details on “Enter the Ninja,” but presumably it made a significant amount of money on a rather low budget, given its popularity and the eventual sequels.

“Enter the Ninja” is certainly deserving of a lot of criticism. Why does Nero wear an entirely white ninja outfit, when the entire point of the art is stealth? It was certainly a decision made for the case of style over common  sense, but it is no less preposterous for it. The film is also rife with continuity errors, awful acting, and the (of course) distracting dubbing over Franco Nero’s lines. Even the casting of Franco Nero to begin with was a baffling decision made more for convenience than sensibility: he was brought in only because he was in the area, and Golan needed an actor to fill in the lead role after Stone proved to be a truly awful actor. Speaking of which, how bad must Stone have been that having an entirely dubbed-over Franco Nero was a better option?

Personally, there were a lot of things that I liked about this movie. I particularly love the primary villain death via ninja star, which ends in a sort of confused shrug that has become infamous. The final Sho/Nero fight scene in the cockfighting ring is also pretty fantastic and entertaining to watch. Even the secondary villains are fun and unique: the hook-handed enforcer is immensely entertaining, as is the excessively polite and proper Mr. Parker. For all of the issues with the film, there are a whole lot of memorable moments and characters that have stuck with me.

entertheninja4Overall, I think this movie is a whole lot of fun, though it may very well be the least entertaining of the Cannon ninja trilogy. I think that statement is more of a credit to the sequels than it is a discredit to “Enter the Ninja,” but I suppose that is very much up to interpretation. In any case, this is definitely worth watching for martial arts movie fans or bad movie aficionados. If multi-colored ninja battles and awful acting are up your alley, this is a flick worth checking out.

The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

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Next up is one of the most loathed horror sequels in history: 1994’s “The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which was later retitled “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” for home video release.

“The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was written and directed by Kim Henkel, who co-wrote the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with Tobe Hooper, who is notably absent from involvement with this film.

The cinematography on “The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was provided by Levie Isaacks, who has worked on films such as “Leprechaun”and  “The Dentist.”

The special effects on the film were provided by a handful of folks, including J.M. Logan (“The Dentist,” “I Know Who Killed Me”) and Andy Cockrum (“Sin City: A Dame To Kill For,” “Spy Kids 2”).

The cast of “The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” features a number of familiar faces, not the least of which are Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger, who both appear before they saw significant success. Robert Jacks takes over in the famous role of Leatherface, and was the fourth person to play the character in as many movies. He had very little experience as an actor, appearing only briefly in Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” a handful of years earlier. Unfortunately, this was his last acting credit, as he died in 2001 at the age of 41. Interestingly, he also composed the music for the film.

texaschainsawnext4The story of “The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” centers around a handful of high school students who become stranded in rural Texas. As you would expect, they wind up on the wrong side of an eccentric family of sinister killers, who begin hunting them down one by one.

“The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” received two limited theatrical releases in 1995 and 1997, barely grossing $180,000 combined. The budget was low (estimated around $600,000), but the very low gross and limited release was undoubtedly a disappointment. Reception to the film was incredibly negative: it currently holds an 18% audience score and a 17% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, along with a 3.0 rating on IMDb.

texaschainsawnext3Criticisms of the movie often mention the performances as one of the key issues, particularly on the part of McConaughey. Personally, I thought that his performance teetered precariously between being genuinely intense and astoundingly hammy, but I thought that it kind of worked for the character. Renee Zellweger, on the other hand, is just kind of awful. Then again, all of the actors had to deal with the writing on this movie, which was at best incomprehensible.

I think that a lot of criticisms of this movie make a bit too much fuss over Leatherface, or at least for the wrong reasons. He certainly isn’t intimidating in this movie, which was a serious misstep, but I didn’t think that it had anything to do with the fact that he was in drag. He could easily still have been intimidating regardless of the wardrobe: the problem was with the character’s writing, which had his spending most of his screen-time cowering and wailing.

texaschainsawnext2I saw an interesting argument online that “The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is an early example of ‘meta-horror,’ in the same vein of “Cabin In The Woods” or “Scream.” There are a handful of lines early on that seem excessively prescient, but I didn’t think that it went much beyond that. Even the Illuminati twist doesn’t quite go far enough for ‘meta-horror’ case to hold much water for me. Interestingly, “Return” did release in the same year as Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare,” which could be considered the first ‘meta-horror’ film.

There are notably a lot of attempts to repeat shots from the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in “Return,” which clearly rubbed many faithful fans in the wrong way. The story also ties into the original film loosely with the final shot, despite seemingly discounting the rest of the franchise’s history and continuity. Worse yet, the film lacks the artistic and tense cinematography of the original, coming off as a very cheap (if not bankrupt) knock-off of what is a treasured classic in the minds of many.

For reasons I am not entirely clear on, “Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” drifts by design into the realm of comedy on more than one occasion. There are plenty of horror movies out there that have pulled this off effectively, but the “Texas Chainsaw” franchise has never been among them, which makes the movie all the more perplexing.

The ending of this movie is very strange, to say the least, and is probably the most complained about element of the film. Every major horror franchise seems to have at least one chapter that the world agrees to forget, for one reason or another. Remember Jason being a demon? Or Michael Myers being the result of an occult curse? Well, I’ll admit the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Slaughter family being involved with the Illuminati is weirder than those two examples, but still, I think that the point stands: “The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is the black sheep of this franchise, and they all have at least one.

Overall, “Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was ill-conceived and poorly executed, resulting in a thoroughly baffling film experience. However, I think that it is also totally worth watching, particularly for bad movie fans. For no other reason, it is worth seeing McConaughey’s thoroughly over-the-top performance to appreciate just how far the guy has come since the dawn of his career.

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Hudson Hawk

Hudson Hawk

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Today’s feature is the infamous Bruce Willis cat burglar passion project, “Hudson Hawk.”

“Hudson Hawk” was directed by Michael Lehmann, who was best known at the time for 1988’s “Heathers.” However, “Hudson Hawk” was only his third directorial feature. and his first with a significant budget.

The story of “Hudson Hawk” is credited to Bruce Willis and Robert Kraft, and went through a number of screenplay iterations before getting made. The writing credits ultimately went to Steven de Souza (“Die Hard,” “Judge Dredd,” “The Running Man,” “Street Fighter”) and Daniel Waters (“Heathers,” “Batman Returns,” “Demolition Man”).

hudsonhawk2The cinematography on “Hudson Hawk” was provided by Dante Spinotti (“Red Dragon,” “The Quick and The Dead,” “Slipstream”), who took over the project after Jost Vacano (“Robocop,” “Starship Troopers,” “Showgirls,” “Total Recall”) had to leave for other commitments due to production delays.

The cast of “Hudson Hawk” features, beyond Bruce Willis, a number of recognizable faces. Andie MacDowell (“Groundhog Day,” “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”) and Danny Aiello (“Once Upon A Time In America,” “The Godfather: Part II”) providing the secondary roles, with the accessory cast being filled out by actors such as James Coburn (“The Great Escape”), Richard E. Grant (“Withnail & I”), Sandra Bernhard (“King of Comedy”), David Caruso (“King of New York,” “CSI: Miami”), and Frank Stallone (“Lethal Games,” “The Roller Blade Seven”).

hudsonhawk6The story of “Hudson Hawk” centers around a master thief who has been recently released from prison, and tries to turn his life around. Over the course of the film, he is not only brought back into crime, but wrapped up in a convoluted plot for world domination involving covert agencies, alchemy, and a lost invention of Leonardo Da Vinci.

“Hudson Hawk” was undoubtedly a passion project for Bruce Willis, who served as an executive producer and co-writer on the movie as well as the star. To this day, he adamantly defends the film against the harsh criticisms against it.

The bizarre and genre-defying tone to “Hudson Hawk,” combined with Bruce Willis’s existing image as an action star, created some serious difficulties in marketing the feature. Just looking at the various posters and home video release covers, you see a lot of differences in how the movie is portrayed .

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“Hudson Hawk” suffered from a variety of production problems, particularly tied to the inflation of the budget, which was estimated to have reached upwards of 65 million dollars. The massive financial failure and skyrocketed budget of the film (which only grossed a total of $17 million) wound up leading to TriStar being bought out by Sony, joining Columbia into what became Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Mike Medavoy, who took over as head of TriStar during early production on “Hudson Hawk,” claimed in his book You’re Only As Good As Your Next One that he attempted to back out of the film, but that by the time he was in authority, over $12 million was sunk into the flick. In addition, both Bruce Willis and producer Joel Silver had “pay or play” deals, meaning that they were going to be paid for the film regardless of whether the project was finished. Thus, the studio was essentially stuck with a film seemingly destined to go poorly. Medavoy has stated that the movie had “three classic problems: 1) the star is the co-writer, 2) the producer is more powerful than the director, and 3) the director had never done a big film…there was no way to stop the train wreck.”

hudsonhawk4The introduction narration on “Hudson Hawk” is provided by William Conrad, who was brought on specifically because he also provided the narration for the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon, which was also cited as an influence on the story.

The gurney chase on the Brooklyn Bridge was inspired by “The Disorderly Orderly,” a 1964 Jerry Lewis comedy. Filming was done on location, and required shutting down the bridge for consecutive nights for filming, which reportedly enraged locals.

The reception by critics and audiences was overwhelmingly poor: it holds a 24% critic rating and a 57% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing. However, it does have an interesting cult following that has developed over the years, due to its oddball sensibilities and cracked style of humor.

For whatever it is worth, I have kept thinking about “Hudson Hawk” since I first saw it recently. It may be many negative things, but it is undoubtedly memorable.

hudsonhawk3Personally, I don’t hate the music included throughout the film, which is a big sore spot with many critics. I actually thought that the “Swinging on a Star” segment, which has gained some infamy, was one of the better moments in the movie. The music clearly had an influence on the film, as the character was initially conceived by Willis through the writing of song lyrics. From the outset, “Hudson Hawk” was going to have musical elements.

The humor in “Hudson Hawk” is a bit perplexing, and feels like it is misplaced in time. Physical comedy was already far out of fashion, and live action cartoon humor has rarely proved successful in the modern era. Further, it is all very uneven, varies widely in tone. Despite the clear influence from “The Three Stooges” and classic cartoons, the movie is also inter-cut with realistic violence and profanity, which are elements that mix like oil and water. What was the possible target audience for this movie with these sorts of mixed comedic elements? Director Michael Lehmann has described the film as having a “cartoonish sensibility in some of the action and violence,” which seems to indicate that the final product is, indeed, in accordance with the intended vision for the film.

Overall, “Hudson Hawk” is undoubtedly a trainwreck, and is a shadow that has been cast over many careers in the movie industry. However, it is certainly entertaining on some level: some will enjoy the intended comedic elements, while most should enjoy the inherent wrongness and ill-advised nature of the many odd creative decisions. Either way, I think that most people can enjoy this movie’s existence in one way or another.

Lethal Ninja (1991)

Lethal Ninja (1991)

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Today’s feature is the second movie I am covering with the redundant title of “Lethal Ninja,” this one being a convoluted 1991 ninja flick packed full of more nonsense than action.

“Lethal Ninja” was directed  and written for the screen by Stefan Rudnicki, who notably served as the second unit director on the IMDb Bottom 100 feature “Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders.” The story is credited to someone named “Wes Martin,” who is not associated with the film on IMDb, and who I have not been able to find.

As far as the rest of the crew goes, the movie was produced by a man named Steve Rockmael, who worked as a producer on the first season of “Ancient Aliens,” and had costume design from Miye Matsumoto, who also worked on the “3 Ninjas” sequels (including “High Noon At Mega Mountain”). So far, the team has a pretty stellar collection of credits, right?

The original music on “Lethal Ninja” is credited to Jeff Lass, who is best known for his contributions to the soundtrack for 1990’s “Dick Tracy,” which was helmed by and starred Warren Beatty.

The story of “Lethal Ninja” centers around  a city with a crime-riddled Chinatown, where a mysterious mercenary ninja named J.D. offers to solve the extreme gang problems off the books, and for a price.

The original title of the movie was “For Hire,” which makes a lot more sense with the plot. I’m not sure what the logic of the name change was, but “Lethal Ninja” has to be one of the most ridiculous titles they could have come up with. Personally, I would have gone with the best of both worlds: “Ninja For Hire.”

lethalninja913“Lethal Ninja” has an IMDb rating of 4.8, from less than 30 members of the IMDb voting base. That definitely makes this an obscure flick, though it has gotten a bit more exposure as of recently since it was featured on RedLetterMedia’s “Best of the Worst.”

The opening of “Lethal Ninja” starts with an inexplicable dance party inside of an empty apartment, which quickly leads to dance fighting over early 90s rap. The rap number, of course, features extensive choreography. It is one of the few moments in the film that absolutely must be seen, and immediately throws you into the chaos of the movie.

“Lethal Ninja” notably centers on one of the least believable ninjas in cinema history: a be-mulleted white dude with a flair for the dramatic played by David Heavener, who has spent his entire career in similar b-movie productions.

lethalninja914As is tradition with many low-budget productions, there are a number of notable shots where boom microphones hilariously enter the frame that failed to be re-shot. It makes for a fun little game to keep your eyes peeled on the top boundary of the screen for their unintentional cameos.

Perhaps the most notorious segment of “Lethal Ninja” occurs during a funeral, which features a thoroughly uninspiring eulogy, an attempted assassination by a gangster in drag, and a wheelchair flip.

Unfortunately, most of the fight choreography in “Lethal Ninja” is pretty uninteresting, and never much captures a sense of excitement. It makes what should be compelling scenes pretty slow, and drags down the overall pacing of the flick.

For reasons that are unclear to me, there are a number of awkward attempts at humor peppered into the script for “Lethal Ninja.” One of the most awful instances I can recall is a stilted one-liner, which the ninja uses after sneaking up on a handful of gang members:

“Excuse me boys and girls, there sure is a great view up here, but isn’t it past your bedtime?”

First off, that is a way too long and verbose for a one-liner, which should be short and snappy. Secondly, why on earth would a ninja ruin the element of surprise? Isn’t being stealthy part of the whole “ninja” concept?

“Lethal Ninja” features one child actor prominently on screen, who plays a young boy being trained and mentored by the ninja. The character winds up following him around for a good portion of the movie, theoretically providing comic relief. Surprisingly, he isn’t particularly awful, which took me aback. For a movie like this, the fact that they wound up with a not-abysmal child actor is astoundingly unlikely.

lethalninja912The acting in “Lethal Ninja” is really a mixed bag: most of the villains play their roles very straight, never getting particularly hammy (which is really a shame). I’m still undecided on Heavener, who has some thoroughly awkward line deliveries, but mostly sells the character. The majority of the cast is pretty awful, but rarely in a way that is entertaining.

There is one incredibly terrible sex scene in the movie featuring one of the main bad guys, which features the large hairy man repeating “obey me” with a thoroughly unsettling look on his face. I wouldn’t call it a highlight, but it is impossible not to comment on.

lethalninja917Arguably the central villain for most of the movie is a former friend of J.D.’s named Miles, who almost rivals him in terms of ridiculous hairstyles and fashion sense. He’s probably the most entertaining villain in regards of his scenes and dialogue, but he also has what was easily the worst fight scene in the movie. At one point, Miles and J.D. battle in a park, awkwardly climbing trees and parrying each other until they decide to bow and go their separate ways. The whole sequence feels totally unnecessary, and is very dull to watch unfold.

Overall, “Lethal Ninja” is a very slow movie with only a few highlight moments (gang meditation and a car bomb plot, for instance), and isn’t particularly easy to follow. The poor sound quality makes dialogue difficult to understand, and the plot is convoluted and packed with characters to start with. That said, the highlight moments are definitely big highlights, and arguably are worth sitting through the rest of the movie for. There are some more entertainingly awful ninja movies out there, but this one will certainly work if that is what you are craving.

HorrorHound Weekend Film Fest Wrap

This past weekend, I sat through a whole bunch of movies and short films as part of the HorrorHound Weekend in Cincinnati. Here are my thoughts on the ones that I managed to catch.
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Dark Star

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“Dark Star” is an acclaimed documentary about H.R. Giger that just made it over to North America (I believe this was the US premiere). It is supremely well shot and scored, and provides a great showcase of his body of work. Unfortunately, Giger isn’t quite as cogent as he could be for the interview segments, as it was completed just before his death. I thought that this was one of the best overall features at the festival, and is worth giving a watch if you are interested in his dark bio-tech aesthetic, or if you are just a fan of the “Alien” franchise and want to know more about the visual designs.

Fritz The Nite Owl: Re-Animator

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I have already written about “Re-Animator,” and there isn’t really anything new to add. Fritz adds a nice flair of actor/director trivia in his host segments, and the team clearly had a blast splicing in his head over David Gale’s.

Tickle

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This was the first short I managed to catch at the festival. Basically, it is about a Babysitter trying to scare a child with a bedtime story, after which the story comes to life. The concept of a “tickle monster” troll was interesting enough, but the child acting was just distractingly atrocious. That is one of those things that I just particularly can’t stomach in films though, so I might be a bit negatively biased there. I liked the monster design, but I thought it got a bit too much exposure.

Headless

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Apparently, this is a spinoff from the movie “Found,” which I haven’t seen. Still, it is meant to stand on its own as an homage to classic exploitation movies, going so far as to include a concocted fake trailer at the beginning (“Wolf Baby”, which I honestly would rather have seen). In the story of “Found,” “Headless” is mentioned as the most horrifying and brutal movie of all time, and was ultimately banned across the board. This attempt to create that fictitious movie was not quite on point if you ask me. It is supposed to be filmed and set in 1978, but at no point does that seem genuinely believable. The film doesn’t look like an old exploitation movie in the shots or the film quality, outside of a handful of welcome homages to films like “Maniac” and the classic-style opening trailer. There just wasn’t enough attention to detail or effort put into the style for me to buy it for what it was supposed to be. It looks like a movie filmed in someone’s back yard in 2014 rather than a movie filmed in someone’s back yard in 1978, and that is a very big difference. That said, the effects are very well done, and there is plenty of gore to go around. Overall, though, I thought it was dull and highly repetitive, which arguably makes it a little too faithful to the exploitation genre. Even the excellent lead performance wasn’t enough to keep me invested into the climax.

Killing Poe

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“Killing Poe” is another film that I really liked out of the lineup, in what was a sneak peek showing. Essentially, it is an Edgar Allan Poe plot applied to a stoner comedy, if you can imagine such a thing. A group of students wind up enrolled in a class on Poe taught by an abrasive and eccentric professor, who they ultimately plot to frighten into changing his dastardly ways. The plan goes awry, leading to the professor’s death and some heavy drama for the students. My only big issue with the story is that it gets a little bogged-down in the guilt-driven drama before a really fantastic conclusion. The performances (particularly Rick Plastina as the professor) are spectacular, and the comedic writing throughout is well above par for your typical stoner comedy. I recommend giving this one a watch when it becomes available.

Howl of a Good Time

“Howl of a Good Time” has an interesting concept behind it (a child sneaking into an R-movie, and discovering a horrible secret), but I still feel a bit mixed about the execution. It is hard to get into without delving into spoilers, and the film definitely relies on the twist, but there is cooler idea behind the film than what ultimately shows up on screen. I did like the child actor in this one, which is a rarity, and I also appreciated that the reveals are made gradually. I wish I could watch it again, because I would like to get a second glance at the monster effects: my first impression was that they looked a bit off, but again, I’d love to get another pass on them. If you come across it, this is a short worth watching.

A Way Out

“A Way Out” isn’t really a horror short, unless you are a little creative with the boundaries of the genre. It is a suspenseful crime drama that features a really good performance from character actor Robert Costanzo, who plays an aging hitman looking for a way out of the world of crime. The entire story takes place inside a car (a damn nice looking one at that), providing an ideal bottle setting for a short. I was a little surprised that it didn’t win the prize for Best Short, because its quality really stood head and shoulders over the rest of the field of shorts (even “Painkiller” in my opinion, which won). This a spectacular little short from top to bottom, and is worth devoting some time to.

The Other Side

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“The Other Side” is a zombie movie with high aspirations and an interesting concept. Unfortunately, it has some absolutely fatal flaws. The ensemble of characters includes far too many plot threads, enough so that the story is drug down by them (and one gets dropped for easily half of the feature’s run time). There is also a whole lot of wandering around in the woods without a specific aim or destination, which is really dull and monotonous to watch after a while. There is at least one gratingly awful performance, and a lead character who is pretty much impossible to empathize with. There is a lot of emphasis on the human drama side of the story, which is just not written or acted well enough to carry the movie. That is all really a shame, because there is a perspective on the zombie feature in here that is really interesting and commendable. That said, it all falls apart if you actually put much thought into it, but some credit has to be given to trying new things with a tired genre.

Isabelle

This was the worst short I saw at the festival by a long shot. The best way I can describe it is as an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” but without any elements of humor (“Weekend at Bernie’s 2?”). Nearly the entire story is told through awful voiceover in the mind of an unreliable narrator, who is desperately trying to revive his deceased girlfriend. Despite the heavy-handed melodramatic tone, there are a few odd moments of attempted humor (a guy offers to buy the corpse for $50, unprompted). The short just didn’t seem focused well enough, though there was certainly some potential hidden in it.

Bloodsucking Bastards

“Bloodsucking Bastards” was the highlight of the festival, and the movie I was most looking forward to going into it. Most have described it as “Office Space” meets “Shaun of the Dead,” but I don’t think that even quite nails it. The corporate satire is brutal, and the comedic dialogue is all expertly written and performed. Both “Office Space” and “Shaun of the Dead” are relatively dry in their humor, and “dry” is the last thing you can describe “Bloodsucking Bastards” as. It is a sneer and a sigh, with a ‘biting’ tone clearly pulled from begrudging experience in the corporate world. The gore is almost an afterthought, but it certainly isn’t half-assed: the excessive blood explosions are consistently comedic in their own right, giving the genre a justified elbow to the ribs. “Bloodsucking Bastards” is a little more rebellious and contentious in spirit than most horror comedies, which are typically born out of affection for the horror genre. This is a creature born of hate for and disenfranchisement with corporatism: and that gives it teeth. It is thoroughly enjoyable, to say the least.

Old 37

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“Old 37” has a very cool concept behind it: two brothers operate a fake ambulance, which they use to intercept 9-1-1 calls and abduct injured people for their nefarious purposes. Kane Hodder, best known as most of the later incarnations of Jason in the “Friday the 13th” franchise, plays one of the brothers, and brings his trademark menace to the role. There are some really solid shots throughout the movie, and the production design is thoroughly impressive. That said, there are some pretty serious issues with the movie. The story primarily focuses on some of the least likeable teenagers that a screenplay could possibly cook up: to the point that they don’t seem realistically human (particularly the women). Even characters that the audience members are supposed to be sympathetic to are beyond the scope of reality: the high school protagonist insists that she get a boob job half-way through the movie, to which there is no significant objection or monetary discussion. That seems particularly unbelievable for a rural, single-parent household. The love interest is even revealed to be a hit-and-run murderer, which quickly axes his likability. A vast majority of the film is spent with these teenager characters, which makes these character/writing issues stand out significantly. Worse, there isn’t a whole lot of time spent with the brothers who operate the “Old 37” ambulance. There are a number of flashbacks that set up a little bit of background for them, but not much outside of that. Honestly, their dynamic was far more interesting than what the teenagers were doing, and I wanted to see more of their emergency responding in action, if for no other reason than to at least get some time away from the high school drama.

The thing that stood out most to me about “Old 37” was the Alan Smithee directing credit, which is almost always a bad sign for a feature. I asked about it in the post-film Q+A (to some visible dismay). Apparently, as I kind of suspected, there was an irreconcilable difference in vision between the director and the rest of the team. The director was described as being about “art, art, art”, and the rest of the team favored “horror, horror, horror” and “blood, blood, blood.” The original director left before post-production, leaving that work in other hands.

For an Alan Smithee’d movie, “Old 37” isn’t too bad. There are some good performances, and there is a lot to like about the cinematography, production design, and the story concept. It is better than a lot of stuff you will see out there these days in the world of horror, but I still found it a bit lacking overall.

Painkiller

painkiller

“Painkiller” presents yet another very cool concept for a short. The story follows a couple of young, arguably obsessed scientists determined to create a more effective type of painkiller: a lab-created symbiotic organism. The organism is designed to feed off of pain (?), and then release endorphins into the body as a byproduct. When they finally test it, this proves to create a side-effect of intense masochism, because the positive byproduct is too strong. It is all pretty interesting until you put a little thought into it, at which point nothing makes sense. The scientists are supposedly experts, but go ahead with an experimental trial that could not be reversed, used in an official research capacity, or was even relevant for the purpose of the research (they tested it on a person not in chronic pain)? The mistakes they make are just impossible to fathom, and take a lot of suspension to believe. The ending is also disappointing, and could have gone in a much more intriguing direction. Still, it was a good short and an interesting watch.

Holocaust Cannibal

This was one of the more fascinating experiences of the festival. Not because of the movie itself, which was impossibly boring, offensive, vapid, and repetitive, but because the writer/director Bill Zebub was in attendance. I had seen one of his other films, “Antfarm Dickhole,” and knew what I was in for with this flick. However, most of the rest of the audience did not, and watching them exasperatedly trickle out of the theater was a real delight. A lot of people left before the 15 minute rambling Q+A was finished (which was held before the movie, because Bill Zebub rightfully predicted that most people would leave). Bill Zebub basically sets the standard for film-making incompetence, but seems to think he makes up for it with shock value. Outside of awful attempts at humor, some of the least convincing gore effects you will ever see, and acting that is beyond wooden, there is just nothing happening here. No joke, I think upwards of 70% of this movie was in slow motion. It was nearly impossible to watch: not because of the shock value, but because the film is “slow” in the sense of both the effects and the pacing.

What made the experience fascinating to me was the way Bill Zebub seemed to relish in it all. Somehow, having people walk out on him just inflated his ego all the more, and added gasoline to his fire. I’m not sure if this is all some kind of joke for him, or if he is genuinely just deluded on the level of Tommy Wiseau. Either way, it doesn’t change how unwatchable his films are. From what I have seen, nothing he has done is worth the time to sit through, and this one isn’t an exception.

Bargain Bin(ge): Cincinnati

This past weekend, I found myself in Cincinnati, OH for HorrorHound Weekend. I had a little bit of free time to kill on Sunday, so I went on a good ol’ fashioned DVD hunt around the city.

Buybacks

Buybacks is a chain of buy/sell/trades that sits on the lower end of the quality scale, and often has comparatively significantly higher prices than competitors in my experience. Regardless, I figured I would give it a shot.

buybacks4
buybacks5

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I’m sure the 6.99 one is far better than the 4.99 one.

 

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For those who can’t read the tags, these children’s instructional DVDs about heavy machinery run you about $10 each.
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A “Santo” movie. Don’t see those every day.

As far as the stuff I actually did walk away with, I came out with a handful of films that I’m interested to give a second look.

Inspector Clouseau

Alan Arkin takes over Peter Sellers’s famous role as Clouseau in this much-maligned and often-unacknowledged entry into the “Pink Panther” franchise. I’m interested to see how Arkin is in the role, and whether the negative reception was more knee-jerk to the casting or legitimately founded.

Reindeer Games

The early 2000s were a dark time for Ben Affleck. “Reindeer Games” came ahead of “Gigli,” “Jersey Girl,” and “Daredevil,” but it has still received a fair amount of flak from folks like How Did This Get Made?

I have never much minded Affleck’s acting, and this film has always struck me as having an interesting concept behind it. I’m interested to see how it is.

Last Man Standing

This is an updated, prohibition-set adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” with a 1996 Bruce Willis in the lead. I’ve never seen it, but it sounds intriguing to me, particularly given an accessory cast featuring Christopher Walken and Bruce Dern.

The Quick and The Dead

“The Quick and The Dead” is Sam Raimi’s take on the western, and features one hell of a cast. I liked this movie when I first saw it, but it has been a very long time since then. Leonardo DiCaprio, Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe, Gene Hackman, and Lance Henriksen are all hanging out in this flick, and there a ton of memorable gun fights throughout the run time as I recall.

 

CD/Game Exchange

CD/Game Exchange seems to be a local Cincinnati shop, but it looks like it might have more than 1 location (or the internet has lots of old information). The one I went to sat a couple of blocks off from the University of Cincinnati campus, in a bit of a run-down strip.

As far as selection, prices, and ambiance go, it was hard to beat.

cdgame5 cdgame3 cdgame2 cdgame1 cdgame4

There were a few things I found that I decided to leave on the shelf, most notably a copy of “Deadly Friend,” a Wes Craven killer robot movie. However, I did come away with quite a haul:

God Told Me To

Larry Cohen is one of my favorite B-movie directors, and this is one of his that I have not seen. By all accounts, it is also one of the strangest (and best) movies he has ever made. I am very much on board, and was excited to even find a DVD copy of this thing.

Blacula

It’s “Blacula.” What do I need to explain? I haven’t seen it in years, but it is a classic.

Joint Security Area

I love this movie, and did not own a copy of it. The director has done a bunch of other acclaimed movies like “Oldboy” and “I’m a Cyborg, And That’s Ok,” but this is my favorite of his, and I hate that it gets overlooked. It manages to capture the tension of the 38th parallel and the social anxieties of a divided Korea incredibly well through its portrayal of a tragic group of border guards.

John Carpenter’s Vampires

John Carpenter was well into a down slide by the time “Vampires” came around, wedged between “Escape From LA” and “Ghosts of Mars” in his filmography. I haven’t seen it though, and I typically like James Woods in stuff. There’s also a Baldwin brother floating around in there, so I suppose we’ll see how that is.

Stroker Ace

We Hate Movies did an episode on this a while back that peaked my interest. Sounds like a pretty awful attempt to bottle the charm of “Smokey & The Bandit.”

Curse of the Komodo

One of the countless movies directed by Jim Wynorski of “Chopping Mall” fame. I’m sure that it is absolutely awful.

Chains of Gold

This was John Travolta just before his career was revived by Quentin Tarantino, which is a weird black hole in his filmography. Apparently he is the highlight here, so I’ll be interested to see how he is.

Exorcist II

This has to be one of the most hated movies of all time, and I have never gotten around to watching it. So, that’s going to be happening sooner rather than later.