Sunday, 20 December 2015

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! A Review of the Year!

My academic research into the ninja has uncovered a wealth of information this year. From this we can learn all manner of vital information about this mysterious order of assassins. One of the key things I have learnt is that any ninja movie worth their salt had an official ninja advisor on set at all times. I have been lucky enough to sit down and talk to a number of these advisors and due to the success of these meetings I can announce I am now working as the official ninja press officer (believe me, they are great at many thinks but no fuck-all about social networking). As such, this annual review does not merely provide an irrefutable academic conclusion but also a fully endorsed and 100% official representation of the ninja way.

Top Rated Ninja Movies of 2015

Each movie is given an overall score based on much in conforms to my own entirely subjective opinion as to what a ninja movie should be. Since consulting with the relevant clans this score is also attributed to the films that best represent what it means to be a ninja. This list shows all the ninja movies watched this year ranked by their ninja score.

1. The Super Ninja - 10
2. The Hunted - 9
3. Ninja Assassin - 9
4. Ultimax Force - 6.5
5. The Octagon - 6
6. Beast and the Magic Sword - 1
7. Ninja Cheerleaders - 0.23

Both The Hunted and Ninja Assassin came close to perfectly fulfilling my own very specific expectations by The Super Ninja without a doubt destroyed all competitors. Not only did it perfectly mix the extreme violence and almost supernatural abilities I enjoy so much but was described by a master, known only as 'Phantom Jaguar Blade', as "like watching a reality TV show about my friends. It was fucking mint." Hard to argue that kind of testimonial.

Top Ninja Movies Based on Actual Quality of 2015

Of course not all movies are valued based on their ninja content (I know I know, but believe it or not that is true) and so these are the same films ranked by how much I enjoyed watching them.

1. Beast and the Magic Sword
2. The Hunted
3. The Super Ninja
4. The Octagon
5. Ninja Assassin
6. Ultimax Force
7. Ninja Cheerleaders

The Beast and the Magic Sword leaps to the top by virtue of featuring a werewolf fighting a tiger, supernatural samurai and Paul Naschy. It took some time deciding the order of The Octagon, Ninja Assassin and Ultimax Force as they were all very close in terms of the experience they gave me. What we can learn from this is that Ninja Cheerleaders is horseshit no matter which way you look at it.

Top Ninja Kills of 2015

In 2015 I have seen all manner of horrible acts committed in the natural course of ninjaring. Some had it coming, some deserved better but all went down the way they would have wanted. Along with 'God Shadow Hawk' I have extrapolated these basic ninja manoeuvres and identified the movie that demonstrates them in the most instructive ways. To qualify to be an official ninja you must be able to:

Slice a head in half from ear to ear (Ninja Assasin)

Decapitate two people at once (The Super Ninja)

Somersault yourself into the way of a barrage of bullets, sacrificing yourself so that your teammates may live. Odd one to have at basic training level, but then I'm only a press officer. (Ultimax Force)

Smash a heads into a urinal (Ninja Assasin)

Explode a man with a fireball (The Super Ninja)

Cut your own face off (The Hunted)

Top Ninja Mythology of 2015

Below are the fundamental lessons about ninja mythology I learned this year. Should you engage in any ninja training you will be gifted with a scroll on which will be written the ninja code of conduct. I have it on good authority that the 2015 revision of this scroll features the following basic rules to live by:

1. Ninja masters have a somewhat autocratic management style.

2. Ninja teams carry straws of different lengths to randomly determine who leaps absurdly into the path of bullets. They call them 'sacrifice pipes'.

3. Ninjas don't care about carpets, walls or upholstery. 

4. Ninjas are impatient and not easily embarrassed. It doesn't matter if you're in the bath, on the toilet or knocking one out they ain't gonna wait.

5. Ninjas consider themselves exempt from copyright laws.

6. Ninjas run after-school clubs in questionable locations.

7. Some ninjas are just fuckwits in balaclavas.

My journey into establishing the official ninja canon has only just begun. In 2016 I will continue to study the ways of the ninja both from the masters themselves and from the movies they help make.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Hausu AKA House (Nobuhiko Obayashi,1977)

When I first watched House about a decade ago all I knew about it was that it was a Japanese horror film about a house that kills its inhabitants. Applying what I knew about J-horror at the time I went in with a number of expectations almost all of which were immediately smashed. This is a horror movie unlike any you have seen before.

The plot is fairly conventional: a group of school girls break for Summer and decide to stay with one of their Aunts in an old country house. When they arrive they find the Aunt to be a somewhat sinister character and soon the house turns on them, dispatching them one by one in a series of grizzly and imaginative deaths. Beyond the plot nothing is conventional. It's as if Sid and Marty Krofft made their versions of Evil Dead 2 and if that sounds appealing to you, this might be your new favourite movie.

The film deviates from traditional horror almost immediately. Rather than building to a break in reality the school girl's every day lives are treated like a fantasy. Overt editing techniques such as deliberate jump cuts and iris frames are coupled with stylised design work and intentionally fake back grounds. When our lead, Angel, is introduced to her new Step-Mother it is done so on a soundstage constructed balcony against a fiery painted cloudscape backdrop. When she runs out upset, dropping a handkerchief as she does, the dropped item is pasted, picture-in-picture, into one of the window frames of a door. It is family drama shot like montage.

These unusual choices never let up and before we've even got to the house we've had an animated sequence and Svankmajer-esque live-action stop-motion. The movie also veers into comedy a number of times. There is a sequence where a buffoonish character falls down the stairs ending up with a tin bucket stuck to his arse and every time martial arts expert Kung-Fu (all of the school girl characters have nicknames) performs a karate kick she is accompanied by weirdly cheery action music. There is a clearly fake skeleton that comes to life and wanders in and out of frame from time to time, sometimes even stopping for the occasional dance.

All this absurdity leads to some truly startling imagery. The broken mirror bleeding, the girl in the clock, the flying severed head biting a woman's backside, the disembodied fingers playing piano - all images now branded on my psyche. At times the film almost ceases to be live action and becomes some kind of animated collage.

These techniques would clearly distance any casual movie goer looking for something to be "scary". Scares are normally measured by how far people jump out of their seat, or by how many times they are forced to hide their eyes. For me, horror can and should do so much more than scare or unsettle. House is a movie that rarely builds to a jump scare or features an image anything other than ridiculous because what it is actually trying to do is dissolve reality and place the viewer on a nightmare plain.

Nightmares on film generally take the form of a perfect flashback or the kind of strangeness only a logical mind can think of. But if you look back at some of your most unsettling nightmares you may find quite a few that don't actually appear that scary. In fact trying to explain a nightmare you had the
previous night can often end up with you realising how silly it all sounds. As a child I was tortured in my sleep by Kenny Everett, dressed as Dracula, fighting off stripey-shirted taxi drivers in my garden, or  the unyielding pressure of deciding which of the two painted images of soldiers I would send on a mission (a nightmare that lead to me vomiting for realsies).

Kenny Everett - Childhood Nightmare

House doesn't necessarily work in nightmare logic but the images it creates are quite possibly the most truly nightmarish I have ever seen. It wears facade as a badge of honour, juxtaposing all manner of images and textures to create dissonance and an unsettling feeling of the uncanny.

The production's history is as interesting as the aesthetic on display. With Japanese cinema in decline, partly due to the interest in imported hits, Studio execs were beginning to take risks. TV Ad Director Obayashi was approached and asked to make some thing like Jaws. So, technically, House is the Japanese Jaws. Clearly Obayahsi was less interested in taking cues from Spielberg and instead merged the techniques he'd developed making adverts with his Daughter's whimsical ideas about how scary it would be if their family home began to attack them.

His daughter's various ideas (her reflection bursting out and eating her, getting caught in the gears of a clock, her piano nibbling at her hands) all make it into the film but also go someway into explaining why this film feels like a childhood nightmare. And if you've ever seen Japanese TV ads you will start to recognise some of the techniques used here. It's not all surface though as Obayashi displays a satirical edge while also being aware of audience reaction (a floating head watches it's body being eaten by a piano and observes "this is obscene").

Despite the bizarre visuals and tonal shifts House is without a doubt a horror movie and one that perfectly captures the kind of nightmares it is almost impossible to explain. It's a macabre pantomime that is arresting, joyous and creepy as hell all at the same time.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Intellectual vs The Emotional - How Do You Enjoy Movies?

I write these articles very cautiously, concerned about appearing wishy-washy and non-committal but also very aware that the Internet is fogged by people telling you what you should like and how you should think. Ultimately, when I write I try to capture my thoughts mid-process, a snapshot of my current journey towards a realisation rather than a fully formed absolute. My current train of thought has drifted into how I enjoy my movies and why, approaching 40 years of age, my taste has been calibrated in the way that is has. For some time I thought about how films worked in two ways: emotion and intellect.

Emotional enjoyment is generally how we enjoy things as kids. You like movies because your body reacts in a way that signals you are enjoying it, nothing more. You might recognise familiar elements or re-occurring motifs that spark these emotional reactions, it could determine what genre you gravitate towards, or whether you like a certain performer, but rarely do you consider how this is making you react in a certain way. Although you develop these responses as children they can stay with you well into adulthood and can explain why you might like a movie everyone else tells you is a horrible waste of time. More importantly, no matter how much they explain how horrible the movie is to you it will not change your opinion because the mechanisms that trigger any pleasurable reactions largely bypass the formal cognitive process that is digesting the argument made. You will also take these criticisms personally, because emotional reactions are largely personal and difficult to explain to others.

Intellectual enjoyment generally comes from having studied filmmaking or theory in some form (this can simply be from having watched a shit-ton of movies). This means you can watch a movie and appreciate the technical and creative choices made by all involved. You recognise the film is good and can clearly explain why it is, but that does not mean it will prompt any emotional response. It is entirely possible to recognise a film you don't like as being good.

I remember watching The Reader (which I fully recognised as an excellently made movie with strong performances) and Godzilla vs Megalon (a film where grown men dress in rubber suits and roll around on top of model buildings for forty-five minutes) in a single evening. Despite the clearly identifiable evidence of strong filmmaking in The Reader, I'd largely forgotten about it once it had finished. Godzilla, on the other hand, had me bouncing off the walls all week. The goal, of course, is to find movies that stimulate both the emotions and the brain.

It can be applied/seen in all areas of life. Some people are not a music lovers. That doesn't mean they don't like music, of course they do, but they've never read the NME. They've never really been to live performances and they don't like festivals. They don't know, or care, what bands are cool versus what bands are hacks. They don't hear the overall narratives or thematics at play in an album, but rather a CD with two or three songs on it they like. They enjoy music emotionally. They hear a piece of music or a song and their body tells them whether they like it or not. They don't generally think about how it fits into the wider context, or how it was made. They like it or they don't. Those same people might be great at their jobs. They may have a comprehensive understanding of their role and can appreciate a good management strategy or IT system. But they may not give a shit. They'll just go home, switch off their work brain and throw on some music that emotionally satisfies them.

It is possible, however, to emotionally respond to intellectual processes. The more involved you get with a medium, the more you start to see through the surface details and understand what it is you do and don't like. You then start to appreciate the mechanics and begin to respond to things that others don't see. You start to intellectualise the process, but at the same time gain enjoyment through it.

When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was tuned to respond emotionally. My tastes had broadened by that stage but I was expecting something similar to Star Trek: The Motion Picture or Saturn 3. I assumed a group of Astronauts would discover an alien object and some weird shit would go down. What I saw was long, aimless and largely devoid of incident. I didn't know what I was watching and my body rejected it like a foreign organ. Over the years I ended up sitting through it another two or three times and with each viewing my opinion changed. I started to see what Kubrick was intending, started to notice the nuanced strokes and grand gestures, started to consider and discuss it. I wanted to know why I didn't like it.

I went from hating it, to feeling challenged by it, to becoming fascinated by it and as I write this I think of it as one of the greatest movies ever made - a master class in filmmaking. But I don't enjoy it, I study it. At least at the moment, as I fully expect that the next time I watch it the intellectual and emotional will become one and Kubrick's technique will stir emotions in me the way Captain America leaping off an exploding bus does. Being able to see the way I get pleasure from a piece of cinema change over time, to see intellectual and emotional processes get muddled, inseparable, has been exhilarating.

It also fills me with dread. As I have grown older I found my emotional responses fading. I can intellectually process and appreciate more movies but find myself moved by them less and less. This is not just a by-product of intellectualising nor am I movie snob (I DESPISE elitism), it's because my taste is refining. I have so clearly identified the triggers for my emotional responses that I go looking for them rather than waiting for them to be revealed. I know the experience I want and if the film doesn't deliver I don't enjoy it.

As a result of this I have watched so many films that I know I would have loved years ago, but that have left me cold. Films that because of some editing choices, or sound effects that don't quite trigger my desired emotions leave me feeling disappointed. Spectre left me indifferent, and I can explain at length why I think that was, but I look at the people who loved the shit out of it and wish I could turn back the clock and enjoy it for what it is, not what I wanted it to be.

When I do find something that thrills me, like the Marvel movies, I cling onto them, yet so tight do I hold that when it tries something new I resent the change. I loved Captain America: The First Avenger, but my first viewing of Winter Soldier left me feeling less than satisfied. Why? Because it didn't have Alan Silvestri's Captain America March (a theme I adored) playing over the final act. It's fucking ridiculous, but my precise awareness of my preferred emotional triggers has turned into resentment for them not being there. It has began to poison the things I love. This is melodramatic obviously, and on second viewing I got over it quickly, but I worry this might get worse as I get older.

This is the one point in my life where I actually look back at my teens with envy. I remember at that age still having a sense of discovery, still wanting to consume every film I could find. My taste was changing, I still loved Indy and Star Wars but was I was being exposed to Tarantino and Scorcese, discovering Hard Boiled and Akira too. I was transitioning into the intellectual and had, at that time, the best of both worlds. It was my apex of enjoyment.

I don't have a conclusion to this. I don't know whether I'll be able to pump the breaks a little and start going with the flow, or whether I'll accelerate towards the developing of such narrow tastes that only certain films will trigger my responses (the films they made in "my day", no doubt). Ultimately I feel that at this point in my life it's okay to just enjoy things. That if someone loves a movie just because it has explosions, well, that's okay, they just may not have reached a point where they can intellectualise that enjoyment. As much as The Transformers movies make me want to puke my lungs up I don't resent people for liking them. If anything, I slightly envy them.

I don't want to love every movie, that's absurd. But I want to get back to that point in my life where I looked forward to being told a story and the unique way it was told, rather than being disappointed that the storyteller didn't tell it the way I like. I'm not sure I can do that right now, but stepping back and looking at this process from afar might give me a fighting chance of reconnecting with that wide-eyed explorer I used to be.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Edited For TV

Seeing films as a kid was not quite as convenient as it is now. If your local video shop didn't have it in its limited stock (and if someone hadn't booked it out already) you'd have to wait for it to eventually turn up one of U.K. TV's four channels. BBC 2 and Channel 4 were, at the time, a little edgier but pitched at an ever so slightly more niche audience. As a result they would have the cool, obscure indie/arty/cult movies while the bigger movies would end up on BBC1 and ITV. Because these channels were watched by a much wider audience they acted more cautiously with content. They'd have no problem screening Bond strangling topless women at 3pm on Boxing Day but when it came to blood, boobs and rude words the scissors came out. Ultimately, if you wanted to see a big, adult orientated movie on channels 1 or 3 you could expect it to be in ribbons.

Violence was easy to edit out, as was sex, but swearing was tricky especially when vital exposition, character moments or gags were marbled with swears. The solution, it appears, was to dub the actors voices with less sweary versions of the lines. As you might expect these were not well judged or subtle changes, but foghorns of awfulness parping their ineptitude over finely tuned performances. I'm not sure of the origin of these edits (they may have been airplane versions, cut for American TV or perhaps even studio sanctioned re-edits) but ITV in particular had a penchant for screening hilariously neutered versions. Here are three that have stuck in mind all these years.

1. Aliens

Bill Paxton's Hudson is a delight and a character only he could realise. His voice, all volume and no power, created a noise that communicated a level desperation and panic not there on the page. When Ripley and Hicks decide to nuke the planet Hudson tacks on a whopping great "Fucking A!".  On paper that's just a jarhead exclamation point, a "let's stick it to the bastards" bit of fist pumping. But delivered in Paxton's perfectly cracked whine it becomes a call of desperation, a guy so scared he leaps on any suggestion of positive action as if it is his only hope without actually thinking whether it's a good idea or not. Paxton turns it from a high-five to an open window to this character through which we can see his shattered will. So of course some random voice actor in a sound booth can nail it just as well right?

The "Frigging A!" that is smeared over Paxton's aural perfection not only botches the line but undoes the impact of the whole scene. Firstly, a guy that desperate is not going to be careful about his words. Choosing to swap the word out for something safe tells us that Hudson might be on the brink of collapse, but not enough that he might let out an expletive. It's made worse by the misfire delivery as the precision wailing has now turned into something that sounds like a bad Australian accent. Y'know when someone tries to do an Oz accent by hilariously saying they are going to place a prawn on a barbecue? Sounds just like that. Say "Friggin' A!" in your head in that voice now... done? That's what it sounded like.

Ultimately if you want rid of that word then cut the whole line. Don't worry about staying as true to the script as you can, but stay true to the tone of the scene. Leaving on "it's the only way to be sure" gives the scene weight, while topping it with what sounds like a boozed uncle doing an impression of Harold from Neighbours undercuts it somewhat.

2.  Die Hard

For all the explosive ordinance in Die Hard's armoury it's most well-stocked weapon is a barrage of F-Bombs. So while the scissor wielders can snip shots of knees exploding as happily as they like the swear count causes all kinds of issues. My favourite moment is Bill Clay finally revealing himself as a pistol wielding Hans Gruber only to be double-bluffed by McClane's foresight in handing him an unloaded gun.

"You think I'm fucking stupid Hans?"

It's a nice throwaway line delivered with superbly judged indifference, functioning as an brief explanation of McClane's awareness as to Gruber's real identity and an indirect jab at Gruber's ego. The dubbed version, however, doesn't work quite as well.

When faced with the replacement of a fuck the censor has a number of options to choose from. 'Freak' and 'Frig' tend to be the conventional choices (though let's not forget Lethal Weapon's out of left field 'funsters') but even those could be construed as too aggressive. And why would a TV channel want a movie about a guy covered in his own blood blasting his way through terrorists to come across as aggressive? Thus, the new line is:

"Do you think I'm really stupid Hans?"

Delivered by someone attempting a Bruce Willis impression but actually sounding like Carl Spackler it robs the line of intent and function completely. It also sounds stupid. Of course if you want to re-create the experience of watching a horribly edited swear-less version of a Die Hard movie just watch the original cut of Die Hard 4.0 (Oooh, Zing!).

3. Robocop

Depending on your perspective the TV edit of Robocop is either an offence against art or a masterpiece of unintentional laughs. There are so many choices of lines, almost too many.

"Fuck me!" becomes "Why me?"

"Pussy" becomes "Pansy"

...but my favourite has to be "Once I even called him... 'airhead'!"

Some kind soul has put this particular movie's best edits up on YouTube so have a look while it's still there.

At the time I was horrified that TV networks would butcher my most beloved movies this way but now, where TV is a landscape full of swearing, nudity and extreme violence, this all seems like a quaint practice not unlike a kind-hearted relative placing their warm hands over your ears to protect your innocence. As such I can't help but think back on these hack jobs with some degree of freaking fondness.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! Ultimax Force (Willy Milan, 1986)

I approached my first ever viewing of Ultimax Force with great trepidation as its exciting cover was a childhood fascination of mine and I knew that it could not possibly live up to the epic gore-soaked ninja war that I'd imagined all those years ago. A far cry from the masterpiece I'd concocted it is by no means a chore to sit through and, above all else, the action that fills the bulk of its running time is efficient and, at times, exciting.
Ultimax Force, no doubt labelled so because they are ultimate to the max, are comprised of four army vets who have also studied the ways of the ninja. Like a lot of 80's war movies they have been re-activated to go back to the jungles of Asia to liberate abandoned POWs. An early ninja training session gives way to half hour of mucking about trying to get into the country but once all that stuff is out of the way it is non-stop action. To the max... the ulti-max.
Most of the action is military based and involves uzis and grenades being flung left right and centre. Swords and chains are used occasionally but it's mostly bullets that fill the screen. Thankfully the shoot-outs are nicely handled. The crowning moment is when one of the team leaps off of a hut and somersaults into a crowd of soldiers flinging grenades from both hands. It is perhaps the most ill-advised manoeuvre ever conceived and, unsurprisingly, results in the team member getting gunned down in slow motion, to the max.
The force get their own back, however, by leaping from their hastily made pits beneath the ground and uzi-ing the living shit out of their teammate's murderers. This is the closest we get to any real ninja abilities, although the silencers they attach to their weapons make them sound like laser guns. I'm not sure that odd foley is strictly a ninja power though. Speaking of sound effects it would be remiss of me not to mention the hilarious mortar launching sound effect that sounds less like artillery and more like someone firing a conker from their arsehole.
What earns this movie significant points (beyond the compromising nostalgia linked with the poster) is the costumes. Part military body armour, part traditional ninja outfit they look fantastic to the max in every frame (even if the leader looks a bit like Benny from Abba) and is a literal translation of the mental image I had of myself during every game of childhood war I ever played.
Ultimate costumes, maximum action, ultimate maximum force. Ultimax Force.

Ninja Abilities – Somersaults, leaping from under the ground.

Ninja Kit – Katana, sai, staff, uzi, grenade, chain, tonfa blades, shuriken.

Ninja Colours – Black/camo.

Notable Ninja Kills – Underwater uzi surprise, grenade in a hole, somersault sacrifice.

Ninja Activity? – Medium to high.

Ninja Mythology - Ninja teams carry straws of different lengths to randomly determine who leaps absurdly into the path of bullets. They call them 'sacrifice pipes'.

Overall rating: 6.5

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Monday, 30 November 2015

The Many Appearances of The Phantom

Heavy with humidity and strangled by mist the depths of the rainforest are a foreboding place for any foreign to its treachery. And yet for those there to loot the riches of ancient tribes or exploit their customs for nefarious purposes the deep green threat of the jungle is the last thing to worry about. Should you defile the laws of the jungle your concern should be focussed only on one; an immortal spectre, a vengeful phantom, a dude in a bright purple leotard. Wait... what?

The Phantom has always been something of an unintentionally comic figure. A jungle-dwelling adventurer dressed not in camouflage or rugged climbing gear, but a brightly coloured spandex onesie. Galloping around the jungle on a massive white horse and followed by his pet wolf The Phantom is the definitive sore thumb. His less than covert approach to jungle justice in most widely known from the '96 Bill Zane vehicle that came on the heels of two early nineties period superhero flicks The Rocketeer and The Shadow. It appears that The Phantom, though, is not merely immortal in his stories but as a pop culture character as well.

Conceived by Lee Falk in 1936 The Phantom appeared in newspaper comic strips on and off until Falk's death in 1999. The Phantom also appeared in a series of books and in more recent years an array of comic series produced by multiple publishers including DC, Moonstone and Dynamite. Of course all manner of comic book heroes have stood the test of time but the purple pirate puncher has also had as many screen adventures as some of the A-list superhero superstars.

The “Ghost Who Walks” first walked in front of a camera for the Columbia cliffhanger serial of 1943 which featured a pretty accurate costume and some fantastic nail-biters including falling in quicksand while being menaced by a tiger and being shut in a primitive octagon to go hand-to-hand with a killer gorilla! This 15 episode romp is an absolute joy (despite some patience-testing faffing in the first few episodes) and a bloody faithful adaptation to boot.

Less known is a 1961 pilot for a new series that featured guest turns by Richard Kiel and Lon Chaney Jr. Our hero looks like he stepped right of the cover of his novels though the episode isn't exactly thrilling. An early fight with a crocodile is exciting but ultimately it is absent our hero for too long. I picked up a version at a convention (though it is now viewable on YouTube) but since this was effectively a “lost” pilot the footage is black and white, washed and grainy. In fact it is poorer quality than the adventure serial from twenty years earlier.

The Phantom next appeared in the mainstream in the awesome/awful cartoon series Defenders of the Earth where he and a group of other awesome/awful heroes fought Ming the Merciless and his army of ice bots. Someone really should/shouldn't follow the trend of making 80's cartoons into movies as this would be a great/terrible idea and would make an awesome/awful blockbuster/flop.

The Phantom got his second shot at an animated adventure series in The Phantom 2040 which I have yet to see and a Sega Megadrive/Genesis game of the same name that I haven't played. Billy Zane then donned the purple pants for his movie and believe me I saw the shit out of that. I seem to be in a minority but I think the costume looks great and the action, especially the cliffhanger elements, are brilliantly staged.

The Phantom's last on screen appearance came in 2009 and served as a kind of precursor to Arrow. Modernising both the mythology and the outfit this series turned the jungle dwelling hauntist into a free-running teenager. At least that's what the trailer indicates. I never watched the thing, y'know... because of all the things in the trailer.

Although this seems like a fairly standard cinematic trajectory for a superhero the amount of times he has appeared on screen is odd considering most movie-going audiences won't have ever heard of him. This is not the case elsewhere in the world, especially Australia. Not only can a motorcycle gang member be seen reading an issue in Stone so recognisable to a mainstream audience was the Phantom that Oz rib tickler and large knife expert Paul Hogan decided it was a safe bet to run this sketch in his series:

There is also a Phantom Land in a a Swedish theme park where you can visit the famed skull cave and meet the man himself!

So why is such a bizarrely conceived crime fighter so unwilling to roll over and die? I can only speak for myself, though even I'm not one hundred percent sure. What I do know is that this character is deeply rooted in some of my childhood fascinations, such as:

  1. Being in awe of imagination and design. I can find a wash of colour or the way a line curves as stimulating as high drama. Superhero stories are full of creative choices and thrilling images that weren't always tethered by the needs for narrative logic or common sense. This may sound like an underhand criticism, but it is not.
  2. Thrilling adventures. Spawning from my utter love of the Indiana Jones movies as a kid I became obsessed with rope bridges, mountain passes, fights on trains and other exciting set pieces. Even when reading sensible material like school geography books I'd skip straight to the cross-sections of caves and imagine myself leaping from ledge to ledge or travelling down the underground rivers.
  3. An underdog. As much as I loved Spider-man and Batman my attention would always be drawn to the characters I knew less about. I'd flip past the Superman story at the front of Action Comics to find out more about Wild Dog or The Secret Six. I walked past an issue of my beloved Transformers to grab a copy of the edgy and dark Warrior. The weirder the better, any supernatural slant drawing my attention. Oh it so easily could have been Deadman...

When I saw The Phantom grace the cover of a DC comic a connection was formed that has never broken. Here was a stroke of vibrant purple against a landscape of greens, a hero draped in a traditional superhero outfit, not pasted against the New York skyline but fighting pirates and tomb raiders over chasms and collapsing bridges. An unknown spectral avenger; colourful, thrilling and new.

As an adult I love the sheer boldness of the choices. Comicbook superheroes are allowed to defy sense. Their gaudy costumes and absurd antics are joyful flights of fantasy that, over the years, have been neutered to fit them into the darker, more sensible world view of an audience unwilling to just roll with it. That's not an underhand criticism of modern superheroes, far from it. Yet there is a part of me that longs for colour and adventure, for the sheer joy of imagination and excitement. And sometimes, as a po-faced jungle chokes me, its seriousness forcing me into unconsciousness, I spy a streak of purple and I know “The Ghost Who Walks” is there. I also know he's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Total Cults Podcast #107: Practical VS CGI

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Nonsploitation: Six Ozploitation Movies That Don't Exploit A Damn Thing.

Those of you who have seen the documentary Not Quite Hollywood or have skimmed the rim of world genre cinema will be more than aware that Australia is renown for being a throbbing artery of B-movie mayhem. So much so that the films produced throughout the 70s and 80s have become affectionally known as Ozploitation. And so with that one label Oz joins black, sex, car, (probably dog) under the umbrella of exploitation. My issue is having now watched a bunch of these movies I'm not sure that label is entirely accurate.

As a term Exploitation is loaded with negative connotations and is used as much to dismiss movies as it is to celebrate them. You can go ahead and assume, based on the subject of this blog, that I'm of the latter yet I'm well aware then generally exploitation is regarded as several rungs below “proper” movies on the cinematic ladder of worthiness. It's bullshit, yes, but not just because of elitism. So many movies have found themselves labelled as video nasties, or exploitation when they really aren't.
Common signifiers of exploitation movies are brazen approaches to sex, violence, morality and yet all of those things can be found in abundance in the Dirty Harry movies and we all know those as classic crime movies. Killer animals goring nude swimmers sounds like Grindhouse gold but that's how Jaws opens. Of course both those movies had named actors while exploitation is associated with small budgets and a lack of star power but the truth is the parameters for defining an exploitation film are flimsy at best. Knowing this going into a season of so called Ozploitation films meant I should have been expecting a couple of movies to transcend that barrier, yet what surprised me most is how few of the movies I saw even registered as exploitation to me.

Let's tackle the subject of cheapness head on and begin with the movies that encapsulate Australian genre cinema the most. Mad Max is the closest of the four films to a bonafide exploitation movie. Its brutal and edgy but doesn't necessarily drip with production value. The sequel's frame bulges with production value, however, despite taking place in much the same environment. And this is an important point to note: as much as shooting in the outback might be more cost effective (and I admit I'm making an assumption here) shooting on that kind of background can produce the same scope as the great romantic Westerns. The run down shacks and rusted factory remains would cost a production team considerable time and money to replicate whereas it's not too great an assumption to make (again, admittedly) that these great bits of set might just be found lying around. So although a lot of these movies may appear cheap they actually have significant scope and detail.

Of the movies I watched two featured killer animals and could therefore feasibly end up on some 'Grindhouse Creature Feature Classics' double-disc set, yet neither even come close to being traditional exploitation. Razorback, next to Mad Max arguably Australia's most notable export, comes close but oozes with the incredible location work afforded by an expansive landscape littered with evocative debris. It also features ominous caves, armoured hunting vehicles, a menacing processing plant and a massive rubber pig that, not unlike Jaws' Bruce, features limited articulation and is therefore kept from any full reveals. Yet what Director Russell Mulchay lacks in subtlety and storytelling he makes up for in atmosphere meaning that his killer animal movie is nowhere near as engaging as Spielberg's yet actually looks more expensive. It's gaudy colours, smokey dream frames and disorientating editing makes it a gorgeous movie that is difficult to forget.

Killer crocodile movie Dark Age, on the other hand, looks expensive without the overt stylings of Mulchay's porker and not because of a desert setting either. Crowds scenes, fancy restaurants and immaculate apartments all feature as backdrops and at no point does the movie ever appear like it is faking a location or making do with whatever is available. It has a fairly progressive environmental conscience, a pretty bloody convincing giant croc, some beautifully stylised Burtt-esque punch sound effects and a car chase involving a truck with a giant reptile on its back. This is a solid, crafted, expensive looking movie that goes cheap with neither the production or its thrills.

Of course car chases are prevalent in exploitation films. Everyone likes to see a motor bite it on the tarmac. Every glowing review of Schindler's List mentioned how the lack of a cartwheeling Vovlo stopped it from being “truly great”. EVERY SINGLE ONE. Luckily it didn't cost all that much to tumble a banger on a dis-used stretch of road, especially in the 70s, so it was a crowd pleaser that movies at any production level could afford, even Troma by fuck. 

And if Mainstream movies were John Cleese, B-movies Ronnie Barker and Exploitation Ronnie Corbett, then Troma is surely the tragic monstrosity with a wooden eye, a hair-face, teeth on its tongue and a snake of black vomit slithering down its hessian bib snorting and dry humping Corbett's workman's boot. True, Troma only had one car crash and they used it in every fucking movie made after they shot it, but my point still stands.

Most trailers of Australian movies feature vehicular carnage of some sort. Nuclear Run AKA The Chain Reaction, for instance, puts its muscle car showdown front and centre yet this scene features only in the film's final moments. The movie is actually a thriller that deals with both corporate greed and environmentalism as a couple having a raunchy weekend in a log cabin discover the area has been contaminated by a power plant leak and must fight against the corporation who quarantine them while trying to cover the whole thing up. From the trailer Dead-End Drive In appears to be a demolition derby set inside and an open air cinema but actually its big car moment is just a moment. Most of the movies feature car chases or crashes at some point and often feature modified motors. No doubt these moments were featured in the trailer to capitalise on Max's success around the world but the use of cars really comes from a culture born of necessity. How else are you going to get around the outback?

Nudity featured in a lot of the movies I watched, but unlike the usual sordid female flesh served up for male gazes the nudity was often de-sexualised and evenly balanced between male and female. Nuclear Run's nude swimming scene gifts its viewers with a penis alongside the expected breasts while the decontamination sequence, featuring the same couple parted by a plastic water speckled booth, is shot in such a way as to make their nakedness appear innocent and somewhat beautiful. Undercover cop posing as a biker movie Stone replaces cars with bikes and the outback with the suburbs and features a skinny-dipping scene with both men and women that is actually quite moving (emotionally not trouserly, you disgusting filth peddlers).

Then there is Fair Game, a movie that could be easily promoted as an out and out exploitation film featuring an armoured car, a hunted woman, nudity and violence but actually has the engine of any straight mainstream US thriller rumbling under its slightly dented and dust spattered bonnet.

A woman who owns a nature reserve comes into confrontation with local hunters and their one-upmanship spirals until she becomes their prey. It is ultimately an adult Home Alone style siege piece that looks exquisite and features the increase of beautifully crafted tension until it reaches its unbearable peak. Of all the movies this seems to have the most problematic nudity as it is entirely female and voyeuristic. Its most problematic sequence, where the female lead is strapped topless to the front of the hunter's truck and driven round in circles, immediately made me uncomfortable. Yet that might have been muscle memory trained from so many US exploitation movies. Ultimately it felt different to all the images of naked women in peril in Roger Corman's girls in prison flicks. This scene genuinely felt like there was no expectation I'd find some perverse pleasure in the images I was presented with but rather it was using nudity in the way that a lot of exploitation film makers claim to use it; to suggest vulnerability.

That's not to say that Australia doesn't produce exploitation movies. Blood Camp Thatcher is as crazy as its trailer would suggest while Midnight Spares feels like a Corman American Graffiti cash-in (of sorts) but generally the movies I saw looked well produced, crafted and weren't saturated with the lurid taboo nudging that American exploitation movies were so fond of.

Exploitation is not a badge of judgement, rather an indication of what you should be looking to enjoy from the movies that wear it. So I am by no means suggesting the term Ozploitation is unfair, I'm just saying that for the films mentioned above it's mostly incorrect and as such my expectations have changed ready for the next season of Australian genre movies I plan.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! The Super Ninja AKA Killers Invincible (Kuo-Ren Wu, 1984)

Holy shit this might be the best ninja movie ever made. Ex-ninja John is now a cop and swans around with his giant of a partner dressed like they've just wandered out of a side-scrolling beat 'em up. After a grilling from their cliched Captain (who also happens to be a massive racist) John is framed for the possession of drugs and imprisoned. John uses all of his ninja training to escape, clear his name and find out what connection his predicament has to an elite and deadly clan of ninjas.

By traditional film making standards Super Ninja is a shoddy piece of crap. The story barely makes sense, the script is appalling, the performances from both the physical actors and those dubbing them are wince-inducing and the only female character exists almost entirely to be leered, fondled and shoved around. If you have been following these pieces, however, you will know that I assess ninja movies with my own specific set of criteria and quality isn't one of them.

Super Ninja ticks so many of my ninja movie boxes it's insane but what really earns this movie points is our central ninja clan the Five Elements Ninjas. Adorned in colourful outfits these warriors possess powers in line with their elemental namesakes: Water - can breath while submerged, Fire - can shoot fireballs, Wood - can climb trees really well, Earth - can travel underground like Bugs Bunny and Metal - can dress from head to foot in Christmas wrapping paper. The action sequences in the movie are genuinely thrilling with some considerable martial arts skill on show, some inventive choreography, just enough gore to make the stakes feel high and cinematography that elevates the action.

It also contains a number of frankly bizarre moments, including some cartoonish post explosion soot-covered gurns, the biggest cheeked skeleton you'll ever see and Earth leaping out of his costume and into the ground, only to pop out somewhere else dressed in only a nappy and a Hitler moustache. And then there is the sex scene! Sex scenes in movies like these tends to be two shirtless people moving their open mouths near each other's necks for a while. In Super Ninja, though, they really go for each other's nipples. I mean almost too much attention. It's as if the participants had been told the key to ecstasy is to use your tongue to play Track & Field with your lover's areole. This nippular abuse plays out with soft saxophone music and, I guess, a degree of tenderness. Until the music changes to a cue that belongs in a Sonic The Hedgehog bonus level and we are treated to sped-up close-ups of arse fondling and screams of ecstasy that sound like trapped animals.

Oh the music, I almost forgot. This movie has one of the most iconic scores ever heard, primarily because it's been nicked from a load of other movies. This quilt of a soundtrack features cues from Dawn of the Dead, Deathwish 3, Psycho, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And these aren't subtle lifts but uses of tracks like The Murder (Psycho), The Battle of Yavin (Star Wars) and Desert Chase (Raiders).

Super Ninja has pretty much everything I want from a ninja movie, some memorably weird moments and I dig the whole Bad Dudes Vs. Dragonninja vibe. It's as gold as Metal's pyjamas.

Ninja Abilities – Tree climbing, Arrow catching, super leaping, flight, teleportation, burrowing, water skiing, fireball generation.

Ninja Kit – Katana, bow, sickle on chain, sai, smoke bombs, staff, grappling hook, claws, spring board, axes, nunchaku, grenade launchers.

Ninja Colours –White, black, red, gold. blue, camo.

Notable Ninja Kills – Neck slice, double decapitation, bannister slide, crushing elbow to chest, three swords in one gut, person exploded by fireball.

Ninja Activity? – High

Ninja Mythology - Ninjas consider themselves exempt from copyright laws.

Overall rating: - 10

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Blastfighter (Lamberto Bava, 1984)

Blasterfighter might look like a shoot-em-up extravaganza serving up course after course of violent obliteration but the film is, in fact, a fairly measured thriller. Upon being released from prison, where he was incarcerated as a result of murdering his wife's killer, an ex-cop purchases a super-shotgun with the aim of assassinating the lawyer that put him away. He chickens out at the last minute, however, and returns to an isolated log-cabin from his childhood with his estranged daughter. It is not long before he falls foul of a local gang of game hunters and what starts as a series of mean-spirited pranks escalates until our hero is forced to go on the run pursued by an ever increasing army of huntsmen.

The film's biggest surprise is its measured approach to thrills. Rather than going full out in its attempts to shock and delight it takes its time turning the screws. Even the obligatory attempted sexual assault is handled without the voyeuristic relish normally associated with movies cut from the same cloth as this. Of course for many this restraint will be something of a disappointment. Being introduced to a super-weapon that we are told takes armour piercing, explosive, stun-dart and all manner of other rounds only to have it hidden away under floorboards the moment the log cabin is reached is something of a tease. This is symbolic of our lead characters refusal to engage in violence, though, as each time we see him intimidated we feel the movie push against its genre expectations/restrictions always to regain its composure.

The performances are generally strong and the locations are photographed so that they at times appear beautiful and at times terrifyingly inhospitable. Character motivations and internal logic also seem unusually considered for a movie with a title like Blastfighter.

Of course, our hero can only be pushed so far and once he snaps he goes a little knife-happy on a few of his pursuers. Then when it becomes clear he is circling back to his log cabin, and buried super weapon, anticipation for a violent finale builds. The film's restraint is not only its biggest surprise but its key weapon. It builds tension carefully, then releases it in one almighty explosion.

And boy does it explode. Despite the variety of rounds promised our hero opts to only use explosives, but this is the merest of disappointments and is soon remedied by jeeps bursting into flames, stuntmen being tossed through the air, full body burns, a couple of arms being blown off and the show-stopping moment when two huntsmen are exploded. And I don't mean they vanish in a fireball, nope, their bodies burst like gore-filled water balloons.

It would have been satisfying to have at least one exploding head and the lack of a variety of ammunition promised feels like a missed opportunity for some creative kills, but Blastfighter left me satisfied right up to the final badass shot of our hero driving his pick-up into town, the back filled to the brim with well-cooked fools. It's a smart, well thought-out movie that manages to be a happy marriage of both superior film-making and balls-out cathartic absurdity. I bloody loved it.

Monday, 19 October 2015

The Aftermath AKA Zombie Aftermath (Steve Barkett, 1982)

A review of Zombie Aftermath by Doctor Gogol aged 15

My friend got this classic video about zombies. We watched it and it was well rubbish. It starts off with these astronauts in a spaceship that looks like it was made out of cardboard or something. It crashes on Earth and there are all these dead bodies on the beach but they look like they were made of paper mache. It was so funny how rubbish they looked.

Then some zombies attacked them for one scene and then there are no zombies in it for the rest of the film, just some people with ridiculous flares and afros and rubbish moustaches. Why call a film Zombie Aftermath if there are no zombies in it? Probably couldn't afford any as the budget was obviously so low. Classic 'so rubbish its funny'.

A review of The Aftermath by Doctor Gogol aged 37

I first saw The Aftermath when a friend bought it on VHS after vigorously thumbing the pages of Tom Savini's make-up book and being seduced by the video cover's promise of latex and corn syrup mayhem. We hadn't anticipated much but after the opening ten minutes we knew we weren't going to be getting the horror masterpiece we'd hoped for. Desperate to salvage something from the experience I clung onto the few moments that I was able to mock and mentally filed it as a classic 'so-bad-it's-good' movie. That is because when I was fifteen I was massive tosser.

My eyes view b-movies the way a spice-lover's taste-buds experience curry. And so watching The Aftermath after four years of writing about b-movies meant I was actually surprised by how good it looked. Set in a post apocalyptic world littered with morality-starved gangs and the occasionally deformed savage, The Aftermath (the word 'Zombie' no doubt being added by a distribution company eager to piggy-back other horror successes) is by no means a horror movie but rather a survival tale peppered with action that slowly builds to a revenge fuelled finale.

Although budgetary restraints rob us of an impressive space craft interior the evocative use of red lighting and perfectly serviceable model works starts us off ambitiously. The discovery of the bodies is also quite effective. Rather than playing the discovery of the bodies as shocking, the scene wriggles in its own eerie atmosphere. Yes, up close the corpses still look like pre-school Father's Day presents gone horribly wrong yet from a distance they seem genuinely unsettling.

Exploring the doomed planet we are treated to some not entirely convincing but satisfyingly apocalyptic matte paintings of destroyed cityscapes. The film isn't stingey with these vistas either and when paired with some exciting atomic storms creates some almost Bava-esque imagery. I'd also expected to hear a minimal electronic soundtrack but was surprised to hear a full orchestra playing a fairly bold score. For the most part it feels like a 70's TV score but there are genuine flashes of John Williams at times.

There is some nice casting with an extended cameo by Forrest J. Ackerman and a villainous turn by Sid Haig, here playing the same character he pretty much plays in most exploitation movies. He doesn't treat women very well but as unpleasantly predictable as the threat levelled against female characters is the scenes are generally pretty tame (though this may again be due to the curry-lover in me).

The narrative sags pretty heavily in the middle but ultimately pays off in a nicely staged shotgun showdown that moves from a deserted town to the tops of abandoned skyscrapers. And when the action does pick up it's bloody as hell. Bullets result in streams of thick blood while a shotgun takes off some poor bastard's head early on.

The most surprising element was that I actually fostered some kind of emotional connection to the story. I wouldn't go as far as to say I cared about characters but I certainly wasn't coldly witnessing familiar beats play out while waiting for the next splatter sequence. Not moved as such, but nudged.

The Aftermath isn't an all-timer by any stretch, but juxtaposed with my twenty-two year old dismissal I was blindsided by how satisfying I found it. The Aftermath has some effective imagery and knows how to stage action and although my dickhead teenage self did not care about the fates of the characters the filmmakers clearly did.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

F*ck Your Bad Review

What's that, you say?

You just saw a movie you didn't like?

Ok, let me dry those tears, you poor, poor soul. Yes, of course you can go and post on an IMDB comments section about how much you wish everyone involved with the film would die in a fire. That's fine. I'll wait here until you get back.

Wow, that took quite a while. I imagine you had a lot of hurt to share. Are you feeling better?

Ok, here. Have a cookie and snuggle up. I've got something to tell you.

See, the thing is, little man, it's your fault.

Not actually the movie's fault at all. You picked the wrong thing to watch. You made a bad choice. The movie can't help that. You just need to get better at picking your own entertainment.

Oh, oops, that's REALLY set you off. Jesus, you really are LOUD once you get going, aren't you? Do you want to go on the IMDB message boards again? Maybe go and yell at people on Call of Duty? No, it's alright. I'm sure nobody sees a reflection of your own inadequacies and fears when you scream those things at strangers. I'm sure everyone thinks you're a big, clever boy.

Have you calmed down again? Are we okay to talk about how you have a certain level of responsibility in terms of choosing your own entertainment? Here, have a packet of Oreos, sit down and shut the fuck up.

You see, you're ruining things for everyone. Not just with the actual whining, which we manage to tune out after a while. But there are people out there with big bags of money who make big decisions about big movies, and your constant complaining is making them risk-averse. Them being risk-averse is making our movies all look the same.

Just because you bleated and bitched about The Hunger Games having a different aesthetic to every other blockbuster, (that shaky camera style that owed a debt to indie cinema) that little trace of visual originality was snuffed from the sequels. Because God forbid a movie should look fractionally different from the others released that month. Just because you moaned about JJ Abrams actually having a favoured visual technique of his own, you got the poor sod to apologise. For being a director whose films looked slightly different to those by every other director.

Thank God the internet wasn't available to the public in Kubrick's heyday. The studios would have called him into a little glass office.

"Stan, people have been complaining on Talkbacks. Stop making everything so goddamn SYMMETRICAL, Stan. Those wide-angle lenses just have to go. Those loooong tracking shots in every movie. Look, you've seen Mork & Mindy, right? People love that. Can't you make your movies look more like that?"

There are no bad movies, only the wrong customers watching them.

So, do you promise? Do you promise to be a good boy and use that internet you love so much to do a little bit of research before you watch something? To work out whether there's a decent chance that you'll like it? To realise that just because YOU don't like something, that doesn't mean it's a failure to be eradicated?

Pretty please?

Thank you.

What's that you say? The Nightmare on Elm Street remake?

Well, yes, there is an exception to every rule, I suppose. Christ, what a godforsaken piece of shit.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Knock-Off 90s

The influence of hard-edged sci-fi in the late 80s prompted an explosion of straight-to-video action movies that took narrative, visual and tonal cues from the likes of The Terminator, Robocop and Aliens. The sheer mass of these knock-offs caused a black hole effect with the conventions of other genre movies unable to escape its pull. As such, the shelves of 90's video rental shops were packed full of big-box sci-fi actioners with interchangeable locations, characters and stories all connected by a skeleton of re-occurring conventions.

Big Guns

These movies displayed a fetish for chunky firepower, often in the form of custom built future weapons or regular guns with ludicrous silver attachments. The Cyborg Cop and Nemesis series favoured these as did individual movies like Digital Man and Prototype. It was as if each film was trying to out-do the pulse rifles from Aliens or Robocop's machine-cannon. These large guns were part of larger preoccupation with excess these movies had. Everything needed to be bigger, bulkier and more stylised from actors physiques and costumes to the saturated cinematography and exaggerated violence. These weren't just big guns, but they made big holes in people.

Even the effects of regular handguns were exaggerated to absurd levels. The exploder gun from Dark Angel could turn anything it hit into a column of flame and despite being constructed by intellect and materials of alien origin it looked remarkably like the Calico 950 machine pistol used in a lot of action movies of the 80s and 90s (Tango and Cash to name but one). The guns were bulbous and clunky devices used to puncture the bloated stomach of these movies, spraying the screen with geysers of excess.


The T-800, face gashed to reveal a metallic skeleton, imprinted itself into the minds of a number of filmmakers. Like staring into a lightbulb and then seeing it every time you close your eyes this image constantly repeated, the luminescence fading each time. Pretty much every movie I watched as research for this article featured cyborgs and many involved those cyborgs wrestling with their own consciousness a la Robocop. Some would have a metallic body under human flesh while some would have a human mind inside a metal suit, but all essentially performed the same narrative function. And of course if you have an odd non-human you have to team them up with a sardonic, motorbike riding all american muscle-slob hero cop for some forced buddy-cop antics.

Cyborgs, or occasionally aliens, functioned as The Other; a form with elements of humanity but with enough to separate them from the rest of 'us'. I don't believe this was a conscious, ham-fisted attempt to critique any group of people, although I found the amount of robotic prostitutes in these movies a little disturbing.

Abandoned Steel Works

Your 90s knock off isn't going to work unless you find yourself some kind of industrial location to stage a shoot-out but you're only really in the club if you stage it in the ocre-frosted remnants of a steel mill. Orange grit, rusted metal scaffolding, colossal concrete obelisks and half collapsed pipes were the common panorama of these movies and could be expected to appear as often as cyborgs. Look at these stills, each one of these was from a different movie!

Thematically they are appropriate but ultimately this a production choice. The locations were clearly evocative, practical to stage explosions and stunts and probably cheaper than shooting in active areas. I wouldn't be surprised to learn they all the same place.

Martial Arts

Unlike the movies they were based on these knock-offs featured a considerable amount of martial arts. Often starring film fighters who were orbiting B-list cult status (Billy Blanks, Matthias Hues, Olivier Gruner, Don 'The Dragon' Wilson, etc) the movies exploited their athletic prowess to the fullest. TC-2000, Nemesis, Cyborg Cop, Cyber Tracker and Digital Man all featured actors performing spinning punches and reverse round-house kicks and wouldn't shy away from oiling up their shirtless heroes as they did.


Obviously fashion sense is going to differ and any hack can laugh at the bizarre wardrobe choices made during any era not their own (clearly there had been some sort of sleeve drought during the 90s). However a lot of these films not only went with bold hair choices that stood out even amongst the other cast members, but were also immaculately cared for. Like the wigs of Georgian times these were the mark of a powerful presence, an externalisation of internal fortitude.

Evil corporation

Where there's smoke there's fire, and where there is a cyborg questioning its humanity while gunning down endless rows of human fodder there is the evil corporation that created it. From their glass towers, draped in enormous shoulder pads and flanked by pony-tailed bodyguards these evil corporate shits play with life like they are assets on a spreadsheet. And if it's not a company, it's an increasingly privatised military.
The Project Shadowchaser series, Digital Man, and Cyber Tracker series all feature nefarious groups pulling the strings on these metal and flesh puppets. They will monologue about omelettes and eggs, and the greater good but ultimately right will win out. Well, in Cyber Tracker the heroes defeat the evil Corporation then discuss the merits of Ayn Rand... let's just say 'movie right' will win out. It is an interesting contradiction seeing an organisation who creates shallow copies of humans for profit placed as the villains in movies made by organisations who create shallow copies of movies for profit.


Since we are dealing with cyborgs and super-guns then it can be assumed that most of these movies are in the future. But don't rule out the occurrence of time travel. A.P.E.X.Time Guardian and Future War all involve temporal shenanigans of some sort.

Armoured Marines

Everyone loved the armour-plated marines in Cameron's Alien sequel right? So let's fill ours with the same! Digital Man, Prototype and A.P.E.X. all put clunky and plastic armour on their military forces.

Alongside these more obvious conventions there are a few other similarities that crop up. Female nudity is a common one, and not just in the predictable end-of-second-act love scene twixt protagonist and reluctant female helper or worryingly frequent heroic strip-club visit. In a world of cyborg love slaves and digital technology sex is often available in the form of naked robots or virtual reality porn.

If the action is set in more urban areas there will be some kind of slow motion car stunt which, in most cases, will be awesome and make you wish more modern action films treated car stunts in this way. It's also not uncommon for a movie to throw in a Die Hard style building siege, especially if your title has the word Shadowchaser in its title.

Let us also not forget the following shot of a helicopter exploding which I have seen occur in no less than three movies I saw over the two months it took me to research this article.

So what do these conventions add up to? Most of these films are designed to cash in on more successful projects and as such often feature a muddled ideology that places technology as a danger yet equally revels in it. As pieces of entertainment they don't always succeed either. TC-1000, despite showing Bruno Mattei levels of rip-offery in its opening, is ultimately flat and un-compelling at an even basic level. Prototype and Digital Man both have a cool looking robot suit and exciting action editing but ultimately play sluggish. Prototype, in particular, is po-faced to the point of being no fun at all.

Shadowchaser has an awesome trailer and is just about ridiculous enough to engage but leaves you wishing it were more entertaining. Both Cyber Tracker and Cyborg Cop maintained the right balance of competence and incompetence but probably won't get a re-watch. In fact of the movies I watched only Nemesis really felt like a good movie. It's big, bold, well-produced and shot and featured enough craziness to warrant a repeat viewing. It constantly bests its previous scene and culminates in a hokey but fun fight with a stop-motion endoskeleton.

There is one movie I have yet to talk about. It is a movie that, with the exception of time travel, features all of the conventions discussed in this article. That movie is T-Force.

T-Force begins with a group of terrorists taking over a building, a problem that is resolved by sending in a group of cybernetic and armoured troopers to kill the bad guys and rescue the hostages. Their approach to collateral damage, however, results in human hostages and the corrupt company that produced them comes under fire. When the cyborgs refuse to shut down they go rogue and it's up to a divorced, technology hating cop and the one cyborg that retained its humanity to track down the rogue droids and destroy them. This film features cyborgs, car Stunts, martial arts, a siege, a shootout in a steel mill, immaculate hair, an evil corporation, nudity, buddy-cop antics, is set in the near the future and has armoured marines. It is without a doubt the ultimate 90s sci-fi action movie and by default almost impossible to not enjoy.