Sunday, April 10, 2016

Movies: Making Them Like They Used To

On Super Long Play (SLP) a VHS video cassette could hold up to 6 hours of content. Most often, this content would be standard issue television programs, which would then be recorded over again and again. Every now and then, though, in my high school years, I would catch something that was a keeper, usually by accident, and especially late at night.

This is how I ended up with a copy of the 1974 kung fu movie  5 Masters of Death, (also known as Five Shaolin Masters). Recorded late one mid-80s Saturday night on ITV, I recognized the producer`s name, Run Run Shaw, as the producer of one of my favourite films, Blade Runner, but was intrigued by the over the top emoting, earnest storytelling and tremendous physicality displayed onscreen.

It also contained an enormous amount of exotic and esoteric martial arts weaponry I`d seen in comic books, gaming manuals, or my copy of the martial arts encyclopedia, but had never witnessed in motion, like the 7 link steel whip, and rope axe. Best of all, there were numerous displays of the Shaolin Five Animals style kung fu, usually helpfully described out loud by its practitioner: "Crane style!" "Tiger!" "Watch out for his Mantis technique!"

I was brought back to this film after a discussion with the manger from my former department at work, who was describing a similar movie from his repertoire called The Kid With The Golden Arm, which had some similar themes in terms of righteousness and loyalty, and a cast of fairly evenly matched heroes and villains. After years of looking for the film, he was thrilled to come across it on, of all places, Netflix, and gave it his highest recommendation.

Friday night, I found myself at loose ends upstairs, since Glory had a friend over and had claimed eminent domain over the big tv downstairs, and thought an old school chop-socky flick on an old school tube tv sounded like just the ticket to round off the night.

This turned out to be time well spent. Director Chang Cheh (who also did 5 Masters) lensed a lot of kung fu and action films for the Shaw brothers back in the day, and eventually went on to become a mentor for action legend John Woo. Made 5 years after 5 Masters, KWTGA follows a group of heroes battling against a vicious gang, led by the eponymous Kid. The best fighters in his gang have similarly metallic nicknames, ranked by their relative proficiency. so Silver Spear is superior to Bronze Robe, who trumps Brass Head, and so on.

The heroes include a crafty sheriff, an arrogant swordsman, a female warrior, two best friends called Long Axe and Short Axe, and a former lawman who is now a drunken master.

The film is well paced, wasting little time between actions sequences, most of which look like they were filmed on the same Desilu sound stages as Star Trek, but the fights are well staged and imaginative. Characters are expressive to the point of incredulity, and nuance is left behind in favour of rapid zooms in or out to establish shock and surprise.

It turns out KWTGA is a bit of a cult classic, and is regarded as heavily influential, and I can see why. After a man punches through a solid wall to strike a blow against the swordsman, he is swiftly killed, despite his obvious power and skill, but as the hero turns to dispatch this foe, we can see the outline of a palm burned into his back. At the end of the fight, he opens his garments to reveal the same imprint has travelled through his body and onto his chest! The dreaded Sand Palm has found its mark.

This evoked tremendous feelings of nostalgia for me, hearkening back to the legendary 'Quivering Palm' attack allowed to the highest levels of monk in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as well as to Marvel Comics' Iron Fist character, who owed his existence to such movies.

This fight takes place inside an inn that is at least superficially similar to the one in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which makes me wonder if Ang Lee is perhaps a fan of Chang Cheh.

Despite the silliness of some of the attacks and powers, the movie has tremendous charm that carries it through to the thrilling climax. Characters, good and bad, die in imaginative and occasionally unexpected ways, and nothing in the story gets advanced by people acting stupidly. Arrogantly, perhaps, but intelligence, insight and loyalty permeate the story. The Kid With The Golden Arm is highly recommended, and I hope to catch a couple more of Chang Cheh's films on Netflix, including Five Deadly Venoms, which has much of the same cast.

Then last night, I got to enjoy another retro cinematic experience. My friend had loaned me a DVD called The Giant Spider, a movie by a man named Christopher Mihm.

Christopher Mihm grew up regaled by his father's tales of monster movies watched at drive-in theatres in the 1950s, and wanted to replicate that experience after his father's passing. Ten years ago, he made his first film, The Monster of Phantom Lake, with a near-zero budget and utilizing most of his family and friends. It was well received by both nostalgists and horror fans alike, and he has strived to make a new one each year, growing his audience and fanbase along the way.

Best of all, there is a modern conceit in having the movies exist in the same shared 'Mihmiverse', so the scientists helping to concoct a plan to stop a ravenous tarantula the size of a barn or three are headquartered at the Phantom Lake County University.

Shot in black and white and with the same austerity as his earlier features, The Giant Spider does exactly what it says on the tin, and has an oversized freak of nature wreaking havoc across rural Minnesota.

Central casting is here in full effect: the dedicated reporter and his beautiful fiancée, the overbearing general, the beleaguered scientists, and of course, dozens of hapless townsfolk.

Tongue is placed firmly in cheek for the entirety of the film, but the characters portray every ridiculous situation with the same charming earnestness. In an age where digital manipulation can remove power lines and eyeblinks, or insert monsters of infinite variety and size, there is something incredibly refreshing about an optically composited live tarantula chasing its victims into a building, and then having a fuzzy and floppy physical prop thrashing inside a doorway and threatening our heroes.

He is unlikely to turn up at the Oscars anytime soon, but The Giant Spider won the Forrest J. Ackerman Film Award at the Famous Monsters of Filmland Film Festival and the Best Action/Horror Feature award at the Highway 61 Film Festival. The lads, Audrey and I had a great time watching The Giant Spider, especially our resident pop cultural attache Earl, who is undoubtedly ordering the rest of the Mihmiverse films from

Both of these seemingly disparate films are a product of their times; you don't hear people talking about the great kung fu movies of the 1960s, or the monster movies of the 70s. But in a time that predates people being able to choose what to watch and when to watch it, and in the comfort of their own homes, these genre films exhorted people to come out in public, and share a new cinematic experience.

They made their impressions, grew their fandoms, created their own heroes and legends and influences, and then...drifted away.

Today, action has largely supplanted adventure, martial arts has become a niche within a niche, and there are enough monsters in the real world that there doesn't seem to be room for them at the matinees, which is a pity.

At least passionate people like Christopher Mihm have the tools at their disposal to make these cheap and cheery drive-in fare accessible once again, even if the last vehicular cinema in Alberta closed in 2005. Thanks for introducing us to him, Jim!

I wonder if the same thing could be done with kung fu films?

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