Director: Samuel Oldham
Writer: Samuel Oldham
Cast: Eric Lee, Gerald Okamura, Sid Campbell, Steve Nave, Ava Cadell, Kay Baxter Young, Tony Halme, Art Camacho
PLOT THICKENERAmong vampires, zombies, and men who are also wolves, demons can get lost in the horror movie mix. Cinematic representations of demons have ranged from frothing (Lamberto Bava’s Demons), to possessive and Assyrian (Pazuzu in The Exorcist), and even slapstick (The Evil Dead series). In his 1991 film, The Master Demon, director Samuel Oldham sought to expose a few of the traits conspicuously absent from the demon’s cinematic lexicon, freakishly high cheekbones and the ability to levitate gardening tools among them.
Centuries ago, there existed the White Warrior (Lee), a swordsman with an incredible mane of hair worthy of lead guitar duty in Motley Crue or Warrant. His primary adversary was the Master Demon (Okamura), a hideous underworld martial artist with a mastery of black magic. During a bloody mano-a-mano confrontation as part of the “Dragon Wars,” the White Warrior severed the Master Demon’s hand, disappearing him back to the world from which he came. The White Warrior, near-death from his wounds, brought the hand to a nearby monk, who performed some incantations and placed it under lock and key in a wooden box. To ensure the Master Demon never regained his powers, he couldn’t be allowed to become whole again.
Many years later, the White Warrior has been reborn as Tong Lee, a great martial artist but otherwise regular guy who likes mesh half-shirts and Mexican food. Similarly, the Demon Master walks among the living as shipping magnate (and art collector), Kwan Cheng. After a thief makes off with a certain ancient wooden box on exhibit in an art gallery, the two are drawn back into conflict. While reading from a sacred book, Cheng inadvertently conjures up the powerful Medusa (Baxter), another force from the underworld, who admonishes him for allowing the remains to be stolen before fatally breaking his neck. She tracks the wooden box back to a private investigator named Cameron Massey (Nave) who randomly received it from a crooked art dealer with a knife lodged in his head. (Who put it there? Medusa, of course!) The resulting scrum at Cameron’s apartment draws the attention of not only Tong Lee, but also the cops! Investigating detective Wayne Besecker (Campbell), Cameron, and Lee, are suddenly thrown together as humanity’s last hope against a resurgent Master Demon, Medusa, and an army of fighters.
Umm… where do I start? How Oldham pulled together this cast is a great mystery; it’s one of the more off-the-wall supporting casts I’ve ever seen, even for a low-budget martial arts film. Before he was a pro wrestler, politican, and recording musical artist, Tony Halme was just a 300-pound Finnish dude looking for film work, and he’s perfectly cast as a henchman who can’t be trusted with any dialogue. Ava Cadell -- most famous for her work as a sex and love therapist -- appeared in many bit parts in film and television in the 1970s and 80s, but has a fairly prominent role as Jan, Cameron’s secretary. (Her first scene involves quitting her job as Cameron’s secretary). The romantic pairing of Jan with Besecker felt like an odd choice -- their goofy, drawn-out love scene is a record needle-scratch moment -- but her quirky line delivery adds occasional humor to the story. Among all of these personalities, the most consistently imposing figure is cut not by the martial artist leads, but by female bodybuilding pioneer, Kay Baxter Young, who tragically died in a car accident in 1988. How her character of Medusa fits into the film’s mythos is never really explained, but when she can demolish an entire building with a single punch (this is a thing that happened), that level of detail is inconsequential.
The fight scenes are not so great, but they’re also not really why you’re watching this sort of film. Eric Lee and Gerald Okamura are both talented martial artists and they’ve done better action sequences in other films. The film features fighting book-ends involving them both, a scene where Lee flying through a window from the *outside* to jump-kick a guy in Cameron’s living room (awesome!) and a fat section in the middle of the film where the Master Demon’s army rumbles with our heroes in a parking lot. From a logistical perspective, this sort of dynamic (15+ fighters) can be a mess to manage. Oldham tries to break it down into digestible chunks by following each hero separately through different fights of roughly equal length, but the scene overall felt long as a result. It was also difficult to take Cameron seriously as a fighter due to his “Butte Police” shirt.
The director made some interesting choices in this film, some probably influenced by budget, and others probably influenced by a lack of time. YouTube has become a sanctuary for direct-to-video productions, and it’s the easiest way to watch this particular one, but I’d like to see how the original home video release compares to what I watched. In the version Oldham has made available on his YouTube channel, the title credit graphics and even some of the special effects reflect production technologies that appear a lot newer than the film’s 1991 release date. Was Oldham trying to improve on whatever was there originally? More specifically, there are some odd effects that occur when the Master Demon incurs a battle wound; instead of spurting blood or cutting to a gory close-up, laser-like tendons emerge from the injuries and they look like they came from some consumer-grade video editing program from the early 2000s. Curious choice, but perhaps the director felt a need to tinker after the fact.
Oldham’s other uses of horror elements are more effective. Some are traditional -- think smoke machines and strobe lights -- while others are garish, such as drill-torture and a quick cutaway to a bloody, faceless, skull. A scene in which Lee encourages his comrades to drink his blood to gain some of his powers features a convincing bloodletting effect not fit for the squeamish viewer. These visuals fit the film’s WTF aesthetics perfectly, and serve the director’s larger objective of a true genre mash-up. Also true to the horror film formula are the make-up effects used on Gerald Okamura’s demon; they range from dark, grotesque blobs to facial protrusions that would look right at home in your favorite Troma film or an art-rock album cover from Annie Clark and David Byrne.
VERDICTIf you were on board for 1985’s Furious and enjoyed the weird mix of martial arts and kitchen-sink aesthetics, this film might be the closest thing to its cinematic spiritual successor. That said, this film has a brand of try-hard charm that won’t vibe with some viewers, and it can be hit-and-miss. Personally, I really dig when young or first-time directors throw a lifetime of influences at the wall to blend it into a single film -- especially when they include horror, action, and Highlander-esque story elements -- and Oldham’s attempt is admirable.
3.5 / 7