Thursday, February 2, 2017

Director Essentials: Jackie Kong

by Patrick Bromley
Kong is king.*

February is Women in Horror Month, and I'd like to devote some space on this site to honoring both some of the trailblazers and the next wave over the coming weeks. I thought we could start with Jackie Kong, a cult filmmaker who, as many of you know, recently sat down for a rare in-depth interview on Shock Waves. Covering Kong in this column does kind of violate my rule that a director needs to have a large enough body of work that I can leave some movies off (because what makes the list is as telling as what doesn't), but she's an important filmmaker to talk about as a prominent and influential voice in the genre even if she primarily worked in the '80s. This was at a point when there weren't a lot of women making horror movies, and even fewer Asian American women. She was a trailblazer who is only now beginning to get credit for being one. She deserves to be recognized, even by our little site.

The Being (1983)
Kong's debut feature as writer-director is probably her most straightforward film, which is an odd thing to say about a movie this nuts. An Idaho town is attacked my a radioactive mutant monster while Martin Landau -- who lends legitimacy to the proceedings by virtue of his participation in much the same way he did B.A.P.S. -- helps a detective (Bill Osco, best known as a producer of erotic films) investigate. Much like The Deadly Spawn, The Being combines goopy practical monster effects, lots of gore, a slightly scuzzy low-fi charm and a healthy dose of humor to make something weird and fun. Though not as willfully absurd as her later films, The Being is self-aware and funny -- in a play on Jaws, for example, the town mayor (José Ferrer) doesn't want to tell the residents what's happening for fear it will damage their potato business. The humor of the movie sets the tone for Jackie Kong's career going forward, which pushes the tone of whatever genre she's working in just to its breaking point...and in some cases way past.

Night Patrol (1984)
Better known as the "Unknown Comic" movie, Night Patrol was Jackie Kong's biggest commercial success and the first of two movies seemingly made for USA Up All Night. It stars Murray Langston (the Unknown Comic made famous on The Gong Show, and also a writer on Night Patrol) as a beat cop who dreams of being a stand-up comic but who has to do jokes with a bag on his head so as not to violate the department's policy on moonlighting. Simultaneously, there's a bank robber taking down scores all over L.A. with a bag on his head. The movie has supporting roles for Linda Blair (who won a bullshit Razzie for "Worst Actress"), Billy Barty, Jaye P. Morgan and a young Andrew Dice Clay. Released about six months after Police Academy, it's easy to accuse Night Patrol of being a cheap cash-in. It's not. Aside from being set amongst wacky cops, the two films are totally different; Kong is much more concerned with absolutely assaulting us with jokes, using the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker approach of "see what sticks" but somehow going even sillier, even stupider and sometimes raunchier. Enough of them are funny to make Night Patrol an entertaining watch.

The Under Achievers (1987)
Using her Night Patrol formula to lesser effect, Kong's third feature The Under Achievers so clearly wants to be called Night School but the title was already taken by an early '80s slasher. This is USA Up All Night: The Movie. A baseball player (Edward Albert) is forced to work as a narc to take down a gangster; to do so he has to enroll in night school and keep an eye on the gangster's wife. The same night school has recently been flooded with convicts and misfits being given a second chance, all of whom have to pass their finals or the night school program will be canceled. There is four times more plot than this movie needs and only about half as many jokes, but once again Kong embraces a kind of anarchy that's exciting (even if it does result in a climax that's about 10 minutes straight of characters unintelligibly shouting), particularly because it's a style of comedy we haven't gotten to see from a lot of female filmmakers. Then there is the movie's final scene, which joins Pieces and City of the Living Dead for having the most insane closing moments you've ever seen. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it and can't possibly explain it, but I will go on record as saying it's the most Jackie Kong moment of the entire movie.

Blood Diner (1987)
Kong's fourth -- and, for now, final -- feature film is the one she'll be remembered for and the apex of her insane and absurdist approach to storytelling. The story of two brothers who kill a bunch of people to assemble a body out of corpses and bring back the ancient Lumerian goddess Sheetar AND also turn the leftover body parts into food to serve at their vegetarian health food diner is just as fucking bananas as it sounds. Nothing in the movie adds up in a way that feels logical: i's gory and gross and the humor is super cartoonish. The performances are broad and often dubbed, creating a disconnect that's super weird. It's colorful and energetic and impossible to classify. I defy anyone to predict where this movie is going at any given point. You could try, but you would be wrong. In some ways, Blood Diner actually feels a little less polished than some of Kong's comedies, but more than any of her work it's a movie well ahead of its time -- there's no way people knew what to make of this in 1987. I barely know what to make of it now. No wonder the movie took years to find its cult audience. This is the film that really defines Jackie Kong's voice, so it's a shame we never really got to see her carry that voice into more movies. Who knows? There's still time, and Kong herself has said she's ready to get back to work.
*All due credit to Elric Kane for coining the phrase "Kong is King."

1 comment:

  1. I watched Blood Diner for my first Junesploitation several years ago, and I was not ready for it at all. I think I got to the alien with the weird chest vagina before I decided that 1. I had no clue what was going on, and 2. I want to see more of these movies.

    I'm excited to return to it maybe this year and give it a proper shot this time.