Ninja Demon's Massacre (1988)

PLOT: This is a Godfrey Ho ninja movie from 1988. That is the plot.

Director: Godfrey Ho (as Tommy Cheung)
Writers: Sally Nichols (dialogue), Harold Owen
Cast: Edmund Morris, Ken Ashley, Ted Brooke, James Lear, Stuart Smith

Now for something slightly different. We’re getting into the holiday spirit by reviewing a film sent by Kevin from Wtf-Film.com as part of the inaugural Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit Secret Santa. His gift to us was the 1988 Filmark International release, Ninja Demon’s Massacre, allegedly directed by Godfrey Ho under the pseudonym, Tommy Cheung. As it turns out, I love ninjas and bad movies, but especially gifts, so this is right in my wheelhouse. Thanks Kevin!

During adolescence, a friend and I started making movies using an 8mm camcorder. In the editing process, we’d intercut our nonsensical, improvised footage with carefully selected scenes from our favorite films of the day. The crown jewel was a mash-up of us acting “drunk” in my kitchen and then diving for cover as Dolph Lundgren’s character from Red Scorpion proceeded to shoot up a bar. Crude, yes, but entertaining (to my little brother). Unknowingly, we’d stumbled upon the “cut-and-paste” technique, where filmmakers will splice together unrelated material from various sources in an attempt to create a re-contextualized whole. In the world of action films, this method might be best epitomized by the output of Filmark and IFD, production companies that hung their respective hats on low-budget ninja films.

The biggest of these hats were worn by producer Tomas Tang and Godfrey Ho, a director who apprenticed under accomplished action luminaries like Chang Cheh and John Woo, yet found his bread-and-butter in making grainy mix-and-match 1980s ninja films which failed to live up to their awesome titles. Unlike Ho’s more narratively cohesive efforts -- specifically, Undefeatable and Honor and Glory -- his ninja-themed movies from the 1980s are the cinematic equivalent of one of Ralph Wiggum’s DIY costumes: household items haphazardly fastened together for a few cheap laughs.

Ninja Demon’s Massacre is not unlike the majority of these films: whiteboy secret agent adventuring abroad while ninja footage occasionally interrupts some obscure 1970s Southeast Asian action-adventure. Conspicuous by their absence are Ho regulars like Mike Abbott and Richard Harrison, but Stuart Smith fills in admirably as the somewhat central gwailo Interpol agent, Robinson Collins. According to a painfully dubbed and poorly lit scene in the early-going, Collins has been pursuing an Asian gang leader named Willy, who gets his rocks off selling confidential U.S. military information to the Soviets. After handing over his file to the local Thai authorities, Collins and his covert brethren agree that an agent named Max should be on the case going forward. As a Thai, Max (Sorapong Chatri, according to Critical Condition), is better equipped to blend in and infiltrate the gang. Along for the ride are Jack and Julie, two agents going undercover as tutors for Willy’s children in his ex-wife’s home.

It’s at this point in the movie where the poorly dubbed world of covert agents and ninja attacks takes a backseat to the poorly dubbed world of bar brawls and pistol duels in the Thailand countryside. One rainy night, Max marches into a local watering hole overrun by Willy’s thugs and instills fighting spirit in a wimpy clientele more concerned with cheap whiskey than pride. As Jack and Julie gather information on the inside, Max works the periphery and reveals himself to be something of a total dickhead in the process. During a duel, he plays possum, only to shoot his adversary in each appendage, then convinces the crippled thug that he’s lucky to even be alive. Earlier, Max overcharges a thug who breaks a bunch of liquor glasses to the tune of $350. Even when adjusted for inflation and the exchange rate, this is unreasonable. Did I mention he always wears a flannel shirt with a denim jacket? Max is but a moustache away from Williamsburg hipster douche.

Ninja Demon’s Massacre encounters the same issue that any movie in the cut-and-paste mold does: the disparate story threads can never coalesce onscreen in any meaningful way. I can get past the fact that this movie is pretty much free of both demons and massacres, but the other huge misstep is that the ninja-free Thai gang war footage gets the lion’s share of screen time in a film with ninja in the title. While 2009 Karl Brezdin wants to retort “epic fail” to that, near-2012 Brezdin proclaims that kind of reaction is played out (before updating his MySpace profile).

Perhaps that uneven distribution is for the best, though. The ninja action in this movie, save for some smoke bombs, tree-climbing, and self-detonating ninja corpses, is subpar by most standards. The fights include the requisite sword clash effects and the much-loved “zips” of swords slicing through flesh, but the skirmishes are largely bloodless. In a move that probably did more harm than good, we also get a clunky voice-over describing the relationship between Robinson Collins and the golden ninja who keeps saving him from black ninja onslaughts, but there’s no other explanation given for the presence of ninjas in the story, for whom they work, or even why they’re impervious to gunshots. It’s pretty much ninja-as-visual-accessory, and while I recognize I’m a total crank for complaining about ninjas in a fucking Godfrey Ho movie, a little context would have been appreciated.

The visual aspects of the film reinforce the narrative’s mishmash approach. The director of photography, presumably Christopher Doyle, should be commended for sourcing the visual elements of Japanese chanbara films in a barrage of poorly framed shots that leaves the heads of performers cut in half or otherwise decapitated. The outlier is a properly zany fight scene that recalls Maria Ford’s “one against many” brawl from Angel of Destruction where she fought in nothing more than a high waist thong. Standing in for her ample figure is the gangly frame of Stuart Smith, adorned in nothing more than dark aviators and an electric blue speedo during a fight with a group of ninjas on a public beach. Fortunately, there are no flop-outs visited upon the viewer’s eyes during the scene. I invite you to undertake slow-motion analysis to confirm for sure though.

I’ve not seen too many films of this ilk, so it’s difficult for me to gauge where Ninja Demon’s Massacre fits in the Filmark/IFD landscape. For all my complaints, there were elements I enjoyed. The dialogue is quite hilarious at times -- “your boss will kill you if you bring me back raped,” was the most notable laugher -- but the move away from the “ninja vs. covert agents” narrative thread that kicked off the proceedings left me a bit cold. That said, this is a suitable friends-and-beer type of movie: a breezy 90 minutes of ninja fights, bar brawls, and bad dubbing. In essence, a solid movie for some holiday season viewing.

2.5 / 7


Knights (1993)

PLOT: Humanity’s last hope for survival against a horde of blood-sucking cyborgs is an orphaned kickboxer with long, kinky hair and ample quadriceps. Surprisingly, that kickboxer is NOT Gary Daniels!

Director: Albert Pyun
Writer: Albert Pyun
Cast: Kathy Long, Kris Kristofferson, Lance Henriksen, Gary Daniels, Scott Paulsin, Vincent Klyn

So, your funding just came through and you get to make your movie. Not only that, but you get to film your movie in the highly cinematic Utah regions of Monument Valley and Moab. However, it’s not enough to do a movie in Utah, you need some stars. Your quality screen presence comes in the form of veterans Lance Henriksen and Kris Kristofferson. The acting chops are nice, but you’re filming an action movie, so you need some quality fighters. Answering the bell are kickboxers Gary Daniels and Kathy Long. All this action and drama are nice, but you need some wacky costumes. You get the wacky costumes, plus some horses. Wait, why are people riding horses? Oh, it’s after the apocalypse. Why did the apocalypse happen? Nevermind that, because the cyborgs are running this shit now, and oh, by the way, the cyborgs need to extract human blood to stay alive, so they’re vampire cyborgs. These are the elements that kept Albert Pyun awake at night during the filming of Knights, released in 1993.

Real-life Aikidio/Wing Chun/kickboxing/Kung Fu San Soo dynamo Kathy Long plays Nea, a woman orphaned during her youth after a group of cyborgs led by the treacherous Job (Henriksen) slaughtered her village and her family, save for a younger brother. As the tribe of cyborgs move across the region’s remaining human settlements, their objective is to obtain as much of the red stuff as possible to achieve immortality.

During one such raid years later, the now-adult Nea is shot with an arrow by human mercenaries and left to the cyborg, Simon (Paulsin), a lackey of Job. However, a hooded rider (Kristofferson) appears on the horizon and immediately takes out a group of bandits before settings his sights on Simon. After disposing of the wise-cracking cyborg and then getting Nea to safety, we learn that this savior, Gabriel, is also a cyborg, albeit programmed with an entirely different objective: destroy the other cyborgs within his one year life-cycle. Following training that will show her the cyborgs’ strengths and vulnerabilities, Nea is going to help him do just that.

Tough and rugged ladies of action are few and far between. Those who immediately come to mind include Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise and Linda Hamilton in T2. Knowing her experience and capabilities, I want to put Michelle Yeoh in that group too, but her actual look doesn’t necessarily scream “tough chick.” In Knights, though, Kathy Long looks the part of a nomadic kickboxing warrior who’s less dolled-up than dirtied-up. In fact, I don’t know that you could put anyone else in her spot while preserving the same level of plausibility. Karen Sheperd and Kelly Gallant are possibilities but neither has the same essence. Cynthia Rothrock might be a popular choice, but in addition to being more petite, she lacks that visually tough look. So while Rothrock certainly can fuck you up, Long can and will fuck you up.

When the action sequences in Knights get rolling, the sparks literally fly. Pyun adds plenty of smoke and sparks to the various sword-fights and cyborg kills and it’s a welcome touch without it being overstylized to the point of being illogical. While no one fight scene sticks out due to the repetitious but passable choreography, there are plenty of impressive stunt falls and jumps strewn throughout to visually exaggerate the impact of blows received by the combatants. Gary Daniels, as cyborg henchman David, breaks up some of the monotony with excellent kicking displays during his limited but effective screen time.

Beyond the unique action sequences, the two other major visual boons are the shooting location and the costumes. Pyun maximizes just about every frame in using the Utah landscape as a stand-in for the wasteland of his cyborg-dominated universe. Lots of wide shots help to establish the size and scope of this barren existence and the deep oranges and reds are a nice change from the yellows and browns of most other post-apocalyptic action films (I’m looking at you, Cirio). While his location scout should have received a generous bonus for his or her efforts, the costume designer also deserves a nod. Most of the humans are decked out in the requisite rags and fabric scraps, but the cyborg army is decked out in flowy blue and red ensembles that seem almost Moorish in origin.

Even though his best film work came during the 1970s with titles like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Convoy, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Kristofferson is fairly solid as Gabriel, the cyborg with a heart of gold. He acts as the guide through this unique Pyun universe for both Nea and the audience as he back-fills a lot of exposition when not training his prodigy on the finer points of killing cyborgs. The tone of his performance is rather interesting. He’s either: a) purposely mechanical because he’s a cyborg; b) stoic, in order to provide a grizzled and world-weary quality that evokes his experience in Westerns; or c) dry and squinty because he was really annoyed to be filming an Albert Pyun movie in the middle of the fucking desert. Even if it’s option C and Kristofferson wasn’t pleased with the production, it couldn’t be any worse than working on the set of A Star is Born with Barbara Streisand.

Henriksen appears to be having a grand old time playing the villainous Job. While my favorite performance remains his excellent and over-the-top turn as Emil Fouchon in John Woo’s Hard Target, this is as quirky and memorable a role as he’s ever had. What few scenes aren’t accented by him drooling as if he’s been overmedicated before an invasive dental procedure, instead find him doing equally odd things like wearing new-wave sunglasses while kissing a parrot. Making a concerted effort to steal every scene in which he’s involved, Henriksen cut loose and went to a lot of fun and weird places with his character. I can’t say I envy Lance though, because the comically oversized cybernetic hook-arm he drags around for the entire film no doubt gave him terrible hip and lower-back pain. Shit looked uncomfortable.

Despite the occasional pacing and narrative flaws, I rather enjoyed the 90 minutes I spent in this world of drooling, blood-sucking cyborgs parading around the state parks of Utah. Knights is Pyun operating at an 11 on the Pyun scale of campiness: we get a silly plot, zany action sequences, twisted humor, clunky Biblical undertones, and majestic wide-angle shots. It’s a film that knows exactly what it is and just about everyone got the memo on what it wasn’t, so no one overreaches. I’m not the most well-versed of Albert Pyun scholars out there, so I won’t be so presumptive as to say it’s one of his best, but I’d have to think that good or bad, this ranks as one of his most entertaining. Take that as you will.

VHS only.

4 / 7
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