BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It struck me during the first five minutes of the recent Tarentino/Rodriguez collaboration that the Weinsteins spent 50 million dollars to conjure the magic that Exhumed Films brings to Philly every month. The insane trailers, worn film prints, seventies-era lava lamp-like Coming Attractions announcements and of course the perverse genre films that Grindhouse professed to celebrate, have all been the stock-in-trade of the Exhumed Films collective which has exhibiting genre film favorites and oddities for nearly ten years now. Tarentino and Rodriguez can labor mightily to capture the off-handed weirdness of independently-shot films from the past but it’s like trying to invent an animal crazier-looking than a platypus: how are you going to top the glorious funkiness of the real thing?
Saturday May 5th
The International House
Exhumed Films Presents: Kung-Fu Triple Feature!
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) SEVEN BROTHERS MEETS DRACULA (1974) KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1979)
$12 - Showtime 7:30pm Doors / 8:00pm Show
For those who like to consume their movies in bulk, Saturday night’s triple bill is another wildly improbable show sure to leave you dazed as you tumble out of the International House past midnight. It’s three martial arts spectaculars, two of which are one-of-kind hybrids that attempt to tap into the energy of what were once goofily labeled “chop-socky films.” By the early seventies Bruce Lee’s vehicles had opened the market for Asian-produced kung-fu films and the West fumbled for decades trying to figure out how to get audiences to accept high-flying, spinning back-kick action in big-budget mainstream films.For fifteen years Britain’s horror film specialists Hammer Studios had been cranking out Dracula sequels with the towering Count Christopher Lee and the lanky and skeletal Peter Cushing as the vampire hunter Van Helsing. By 1974 the whole franchise was exhausted, they had taken Dracula out of his Gothic setting and instead had him running around mod London and jet-setting like James Bond. In their last desperate attempt to save the franchise the packed up their crew and went to Hong Kong, where they used the Shaw Brothers studio, the birthplace of dozens of kung-fu extravaganzas. The film they made was The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, an unlikely tale where Cushing’s Van Helsing is lecturing in China and is recruited to lead a staking party into a nest of karate-chopping vampires whose leader Dracula has possessed.
“Black Belt Meets Black Magic!” Christopher Lee heard the premise and split, leaving his signature role to the arch John Forbes-Robinson, an actor cursed to a life of George Lazenby status. The final product is off-kilter mixture, Hammer regular Roy Ward Baker directs the dialogue scenes in that stiff and stodgy style that Hammer was known for while the film regularly shifts gears with large scale Hong Kong style martial arts brawls, directed without credit by Shaw Brothers regular Cheh Chang.
But from there it gets stranger. The print Exhumed will be showing is the U.S. cut called Seven Brothers Meet Dracula and, to use musical terms, the American version might be better described as a remix. It is fifteen minutes shorter and gone is most of the shooting style you might recognize from Baker and Chang. Instead the film has been recut and reordered so that the narrative is suggested more than explained, with scenes intercut with each other without reason, sequences slowed-down, freeze frames inserted and the same shots of topless shrieking and chained virgins loop and repeat for maximum effect. Of course the consensus of the film’s fans is that the more complete and coherent Legend of the Golden Vampires is superior but they might all just be old farts. The disrespectful U.S. cut replaces that Hammer turgidness with a trippy zip more fitting for a story about heart-punching gold masked, bat-amulet wearing blood-suckers who are immune to the cross but cringe at the Buddha. A rare win for Yankee artistic callousness.
Twelve years later and the English-speaking film world still hadn’t been able to score a martial arts hit that captured the energy of the Hong Kong films. Kung-Fu films were seen on TV regularly now, the prints faded and cropped, the dialogue badly-dubbed, yet if you had a chance to see a clean, letterboxed print of some of the Shaw Brothers productions, they could be surprisingly elegant and well-shot, even with their speed-zooms and sharp edits. Horror director John Carpenter was a fan and while his career was at its hottest he mounted Big Trouble in Little China, a Fourth of July potential blockbuster made in the Reagan-era summer of 1986. The ever amiable Kurt Russell shows why Quentin fetishizes his performance as Jack Burton, a pig trucker who finds himself in the middle of a supernatural war in the San Francisco’s Chinatown.
It’s like a spoofier Indiana Jones film that I’ve always found a bit shrill but it seems to be adored by those who first saw Big Trouble when they were a kid. I mean geez, take a gander at this fansite, if you dare. Man Man even named their last CD after a fleeting reference in the film. Although the film is bombastic as a Goonies-era summer hit might be, I’m not blind to its charms. The script was re-written by Buckaroo Banzai‘s W.D. Richter and he’s credited for inserting a sly and surreal wit into the story as well as rewriting the Chinese characters with a more sensitive hand. Big Trouble in Little China definitely plays on cliche myths about “mysterious orientals” yet the Asian characters are the only capable characters in the film, Russell’s Burton is John Wayne as a semi-moronic klutz, forever referring to himself in third-person while he mindlessly bumbles his way to glory. The fights are more sustained and fun than whatever Chuck Norris was doing at the time and you get to ogle post-Porky‘s and pre-Sex And The City star Kim Cattrall. Plus it’s a great place to see sustained performances from James Hong (one of the most recognizable Asian American actors working) and the late Victor Wong, a fascinating fringe figure of the Beat Generation who Kerouac mentions in the novel Big Sur.
The martial arts scenes are ambitiously mounted by Jim Lau and while they capture some of that Hong Kong flair and fury, Big Trouble in Little China (like Seven Brothers Meets Dracula) was a bomb when first released. It was only in the mid-nineties, with the eventual world domination of Jackie Chan, Jet Li and The Matrix that we finally saw the stylized beauty of Asian stage combat elbow its way into mainstream Hollywood hits. Nonetheless here’s two early attempts, proven box-office failures, that Exhumed Film has banked on to fill the house this Saturday night. It’s the sort of foolish and heroic programming they’ve succeeded with for years now and for a guy who like his night out at the movies to be “Super-Sized” I say god bless ’em.
(Also closing the bill is Kid With the Golden Arm, a Shaw Brother’s production from 1979, also directed by Cheh Chang of Five Deadly Venoms and Crippled Avengers fame. I haven’t seen it but knowing Exhumed co-founder Harry Guerro’s passion for the martial arts genre it could be the highlight of the night).
INTERNATIONAL HOUSE 3701 Chestnut St., Philadelphia (215.895.6555)