Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Like You Were There: The Grindhouse Film Festival

by Patrick Bromley
Celebrating #Junesploitation on 35mm all weekend long!

I started this weekend with a bad case of Junesploitation blue balls. Another two days and four more amazing movies took care of it.

The timing couldn't be better. We're in the midst of celebrating our fourth annual Junesploitation here at F This Movie! -- which, I should add, is shaping up to be the best one ever thanks to all the incredible support and contributions from you all -- and Chicago's Music Box Theatre programs the Grindhouse Film Festival, three days of exploitation movies all shown on 35mm prints from the private collection of Dan Halstead, curator of the festival and head programmer at the Hollywood Theater in Portland. He's a guy who lives and breathes these movies and who has dedicated himself to rescuing and preserving thousands of exploitation prints. His passion came through not just in the introductions he gave for each title, but in his choices themselves. It was Junesploitation heaven.
First, the blue balls.

"Dr. Butcher Loves New York..."

Friday night kicked off with a 70-minute exploitation trailer compilation, which was a lot of fun but had me jonesing to watch a number of the titles for which I only got to see a two-minute highlight reel. Exploitation trailers are a tricky business; in many cases, they are considerably better than the movies they are advertising. As Halstead pointed out during his introduction, these movies had no marketing available to them. All they had was a two minute trailer to convince audiences to see their movies, meaning they had to pack them with as much action, violence, nudity and outrageousness as they could. They had to sell the shit out of the sizzle. In most cases, the trailers would include all of the best stuff -- not just the highlights of the best sequences, but literally every single shot of special effects or action of sex or whatever. That can make the experience of watching the movies disappointing, as nothing can possibly live up to that kind of trailer...especially when there's nothing left to show us. This was something that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were often explaining during their relentless press/education tour for 2007's Grindhouse (and I say education because in promoting their movie, they first always had to explain what the movie was and to what its title was referring; it's no wonder the movie was a box office disappointment). They promised that unlike a lot of other exploitation titles, their movies would actually live up to the trailers. It's a tall order.

The good news for me was that I had already seen more than half of the films I saw trailers for Friday night (along with JB, his wife Jan, Adam Riske and friend of the site Michael Piccoli), including some fairly well-known titles like TNT Jackson, Torso, Sister Street FighterRolling Thunder, Emmanuelle and the Last CannibalsTruck Turner, Shogun Assassin and a number of others. But there were others that grabbed me in a big way and that I know I need to seek out: Claudia Jennings in Gator Bait, Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave, The Devil's Wedding Night, Wonder Women and, most of all, Dr. Butcher, M.D. (Medical Deviate), the trailer that received the biggest reaction from the Music Box crowd. The movie is getting a Blu-ray release from Synapse later this summer if you're looking for gift ideas for me is all I'm saying.

If Friday night left me hungry for more, Saturday night's old-school kung fu double feature more than delivered the goods. As I've said in some of the comment threads on the site, kung fu has always been something of a cinematic blind spot for me (luckily we have Mark Ahn to pick up the slack); I've seen a handful of the big ones but can't speak the language with the kind of familiarity with which I can talk about horror. This is the year that changes that. Between watching The Kid With the Golden Arm on Netflix earlier in the day (thanks to the enthusiastic recommendation of Travis Larsen) and Saturday Night's 35 mm double feature of Joseph Kuo's 1979 effort Mystery of Chess Boxing (aka Ninja Checkmate) and Shaolin vs Wu Tang, the 1983 directorial debut of martial arts legend Gordon Liu, I'm officially a kung fu convert. This was among the most fun theatrical experiences I can remember having, as the movies were endlessly entertaining and the crowd really enthusiastic, clapping and cheering at all the right moments, never enjoying themselves ironically and never making it about themselves. It was three hours of joy.

Before the program began, Halsey took the stage and talked a little about how he began collecting exploitation film prints in an attempt to rescue them from studios and distributors who otherwise literally throw them in the garbage. After buying some 35mm trailers off eBay, he tracked down an old Shaw Brothers movie theater in Vancouver and asked to be let inside to look around in the hopes that some old cans of film had been left behind. Discovering nothing, Halsey lifted up a few boards on the stage in front of the theater and discovered, under the stage, thousands of reels of film from old forgotten titles. He had to use a semi truck to load them out of the theater and added them to his growing collection. People like him are the reason some of these movies survive at all.

"Kung fu Doesn't Belong to Anybody...It Evolves!"

Mystery of Chess Boxing started a little rough. A villain who goes by the name of Ghost Face Killer (Mark Long) shows up and starts beating someone up, all the while spouting nonsense platitudes about the elements. The sounds effects are out of control. After having such a good experience with Kid With the Golden Arm earlier in the day -- a movie with a story that's basic but worth caring about and well-defined, memorable characters -- I started to get nervous that Chess Boxing was what I feared a lot of kung fu movies to be. My fears were both premature and unwarranted. Before long, we are introduced to Yi-Min Li as Ah Pao, a well-meaning but accident prone young man who wants nothing more than to be trained in kung fu. He is accepted into a school where he undergoes hazing and bullying by the more experienced students and is eventually tossed out when a misunderstanding suggests he is in league with Ghost Face Killer. Ah Pao finds a new master in Chi Su (Jack Long), who teaches him chess strategy as a way of conveying the tenets of kung fu. The movie culminates in an epic fight scene between the three characters that blew the roof off the Music Box.
Beyond the amazing fight that ends the film, there are so many high points in Mystery of Chess Boxing, whether it's Ah Pao being challenged by the school's cook to try and eat just one piece of rice or a truly wonderful scene in which Ah Pao dishes out rice by juggling dozens of bowls. It feels like something right out of a Jackie Chan movie, and Yi-Min Li has the same youthful demeanor and expression alternating between nervous and apologetic. He makes for such a charming protagonist, and his transformation to bumbling nice guy to kung fu badass is completely believable. The print we saw had crazy subtitles that were not only riddled with mistakes but also had to have translated much of the original dialogue incorrectly, making several characters (chief among them Ghost Face Killer) speak in what can only be described as word salad. Rather than take away from the experience, though, it just added to the outrageousness of the screening. Those of us that love these exploitation movies don't love them not in spite of their eccentricities but because of them. There are few things more eccentric than Ghost Face Killer's translated dialogue.

The prints we saw of both movies are the only ones known left to exist, and Mystery of Chess Boxing was in pretty rough shape. I know a DVD is out there but I'm hesitant to purchase it because I know the quality control on some of these old kung fu movies can be...inconsistent. I would be so happy if someone were able to put out a nice, cleaned up 2K scan of the movie; I suspect it would be rediscovered as an underappreciated classic.

Next up was 1983's Shaolin vs. Wu Tang, the first film directed by the great Gordon Liu. Not only was the print for this one in beautiful condition (the film is gorgeously colorful, too), but it feels bigger and more majestic than Chess Boxing in every way -- it is Chess Boxing's rich, Ivy league-educated older cousin. This is the movie that inspired the name of the Wu Tang Clan, and according to Halstead is heavily sampled on their first album (obviously Ghost Face Killa took his name from Mystery of Chess Boxing, making this a Wu Tang-themed night). It tells the story of two clans, the Shaolin (known for their hand-to-hand fighting style) and the Wu Tung (known for the sword fighting ability). At the center are two best friends, played by Gordon Liu and Adam Cheng, who are pitted against one another by the evil Qing Lord (Weng Lung Wei), who wants to learn the secrets of both styles himself so he can be the ultimate kung fu champion.
Shaolin vs. Wu Tang has a different vibe from Mystery of Chess Boxing; it's much less comic and silly and has more of a historical sweep. It's still incredibly entertaining and likable, mostly because of the friendship between Liu and Cheng and a handful of outstanding fight sequences. I like that there are a couple of female characters who get the chance to get in on the action. I love Liu's intensity contrasted with Cheng's more carefree approach to his character -- he's the more hedonistic friend, the guy who takes things less seriously until events conspire to force him to get down to business. I haven't seen much Adam Cheng before, but he's so charismatic that I want to seek more of him out. This was the third kung fu movie in a single day that I loved watching, leading me to believe this is a genre I need to explore much, much further.

The Gates of Hell Open

Going into the weekend, I was sure that Sunday's double feature of a Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead (aka Gates of Hell) and a secret screening of what Halstead teased as the "greatest movie ever made" would be the big day. The kung fu double feature sent me out of the theater on such a dizzy high, however, that I wasn't sure it could possibly be topped. I saw City of the Living Dead screened on 35mm years ago at 3 a.m. during a Music Box Massacre, but I was tired and, at that point in my life, unable to appreciate Italian horror the way I am now. I have since wished I could have the chance again. BAM along comes the Grindhouse Film Festival and I'm spending Sunday afternoon watching the gates of Hell open after a priest hangs himself. Drills are going into heads. So many skulls get their tops torn off. I still don't understand the last shot.
No, really, I still don't get this
The crowd for City of the Living Dead was the largest one all weekend -- it was huge -- and I couldn't figure out if Fulci was really that big a draw or if many of those in attendance were there to see what the secret screening would be. I also couldn't tell, once the movie started, how many of them were fans who had seen the movie before, because there was a lot of ironic laughter every time Fulci would cut to someone's eyes in closeup or push in on a reaction shot...which is essentially every 20 seconds in the first two reels of the movie. But that couldn't distract from my enjoyment of the movie, which is now completely different from the first time I saw it; my reaction then was something like "WHAT IS THIS?" and now is closer to "Look at how Fulci constructs this nightmare..." Again, seeing it on the big screen where I could be completely enveloped in the ways in which he uses sound and editing to create dread made me appreciate the movie even more than ever before. I understand why not everyone likes Fulci -- I've been there myself -- but I don't think he's stumbling into his movies by accident the way he can sometimes be accused of doing. His films are made with intent and with a specific vision in mind. I still consider The Beyond to be his best movie, but this one is a close second.

Fuck Citizen Kane; Here's Shogun Assassin

After Fulci, the secret screening was finally announced and it was Shogun Assassin, the American re-edit of the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films and Halstead's favorite movie of all time. I still have not seen any of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies but have seen Shogun Assassin and its first sequel, Lightning Swords of Death, a couple of times (when my daughter was first born and staying up all night, I would sit up with her and watch Shogun Assassin, which will someday make her the coolest kid ever or a vengeful murderer; I'm fine with either) and love them. It was a real thrill to watch the movie in a packed theater with an audience that seemed mostly new the movie, as every big moment really played. Seeing the movie on a big screen helped me appreciate the use of silence as well as Mark Lindsay's newly-recorded synth score. I'm sure if you're a fan of Lone Wolf and Cub your head is exploding at my praising of what might be viewed as the bastardization of a classic, but the re-edit works as a thrilling, violent greatest hits reel. I may agree with Halstead that it's the greatest movie ever made, but I can certainly see where he's coming from.
This was a great way to celebrate Junesploitation and an perfect weekend at the movies -- one I hope the Music Box will consider turning into a yearly tradition. Thanks to Dan Halstead for an incredible weekend of programming. Thanks to the Music Box Theatre for bringing him out from Portland and for being the only theater left in Chicago that cares about screening stuff on 35mm. Thanks to my wife for putting the kids to bed three nights in a row so I could go sit through a bunch of crazy exploitation movies. She may not always understand why I love the things I love, but she always understands me. And thanks to all of you, not just for making Junesploitation what it is but for helping create a space where I can talk about these kinds of movies with an audience who cares about and enjoys them. The Golden Age of exploitation may have long since passed, but thanks to film lovers like Dan Halstead, theaters like the Music Box and sites like ours, the Grindhouse will never truly close.

Dan Halstead photo by John Rosman/OPB


  1. Shogun Assasin is so freaking cool. I've always wanted to go back and go through the Lone Wolf and Cub movies but I was always afraid the best parts were already ruined for me. I'll totally do it one day though. I'm jealous you get to see all these great movies on the big screen. By the way Dr Butcher Medical Deviate is the best thing I've seen all day. I want that bluray.

  2. It really does feel like I was there!

  3. Michael GiammarinoJune 7, 2016 at 10:35 PM

    This isn't much of an answer, Patrick, but here's Fulci explaining (or making excuses for) the final shot of City of the Living Dead, from Troy Howarth's book Splintered Visions: The Films of Lucio Fulci --

    "It was the editor's idea. The child started running and laughing and then, at a particular moment, who knows what he saw... and the editor got the idea of splitting up the frame, which works very well. All credit to the editor."

    1. Michael GiammarinoJune 7, 2016 at 10:37 PM

      Correction: Splintered Visions -- Lucio Fulci and His Films.

  4. There's a lot I'd do to see Shogun Assassin on the big screen.

    I've seen the first three Lone Wolf & Cub movies but somehow I've only watched Shogun Assassin one time.
    It would be pretty damn awesome to see it theatrically, so I'm hoping that happens someday.

  5. Brilliant, I glad you enjoyed it, those are some crazy choices, I would of loved to see Fulci with a crowd