Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch Starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane and Wilhem Dafoe
In this touching drama, a recently widowed man (Reeves) receives a final gift from his beloved wife; a puppy to nurture and to help bring him through his dark night of the soul. Then a Russian mob punk named Iosef (Allen) decides to steal the man’s car and kills the dog during the robbery. He goes to a mob chop shop, but the owner won’t deal with the car, explaining to Iosef’s father, kingpin Viggo Tarasov (Nyqvist) that the car belongs to John Wick.
Our Christopher Lee retrospective continues here on BMM, as we celebrate the great man’s career with a guide to all the many different times he glared intently at Peter Cushing and boomed some hard-sounding shit that, on sober reflection, didn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense. Or perhaps I’m just referring to this film, 1965’s The Skull:
“When the skull strikes, you’ll scream!”
Directed by Freddie Francis Starring Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett and Christopher Lee
Review by gonzohistory, with comments from happyfett.
Back in 18-umpty-ump, a phrenologist digs up a grave, steals the corpse’s head and defleshes the skull. But he promptly dies in a tragic but totally-foreseeable skull-defleshing accident.
Flash forward to swinging London, where Christopher Maitland and Matthew Phillips (Cushing and Lee) are collectors of occult artefacts. Shady antiquities dealer Marco (Wymark) turns up with the skull for sale; he offers it to Maitland, claiming that it’s the skull of the infamous Marquis de Sade. Maitland turns him down, but gradually he becomes fascinated, especially when it appears that the skull was actually stolen from Phillips, who is convinced that it actually contains an evil spirit.
It does. And also there’s a cult of weirdos who dress up like judges and make people play Russian roulette. Or maybe it’s just a dream. And Marco gets murdered, leaving Maitland with the skull. Eventually the skull keeps trying to get Cushing to kill his wife (Bennett) but he doesn’t, and instead he kills himself– or does he?!
“We don’t always get the kind of work we want, but we always have a choice of whether to do it with good grace or not.”
– Christopher Lee
You don’t have to be a bad actor to be a Bad Movie Superstar. Many a great actor has appeared in a bad movie, or more than one, and the advantage of that is that a bad movie with a great actor in it is usually, on some level, a good bad movie. Street Fighter has little going for it, but it does have Raul Julia’s bombastic swansong as M Bison. Biggles: Adventures in Time is a pile of crap, but Peter Cushing is awesome in it, as in just about everything. It was said once of Cushing and his close friend Vincent Price: “[They] made some wonderful serious movies but are only known for horror.”
The man who said this, in an interview in 2011, was a friend to both men, and himself a towering (literally) figure in the movie world who appeared in more than his fair share of pap over the 93 years of his life. It seems fitting then that we mark the death of this man, Christopher Lee, with his induction into the ranks of Bad Movie Superstardom.
Although eschewing the path of personal tragedy, Lee had nothing if not an interesting life prior to his acting career. At 17 he spent a fortnight in Finland to defend the country from Russian aggression, and when WWII went global, he joined the RAF, spending most of the war as an intelligence officer after an optic nerve problem washed him out of flight school. He worked with the Special Operations Executive and Long Range Desert Patrol, saying of his work: “I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like.” It is said that his work put him in a unique position to advise Peter Jackson on the sound of a man’s neck snapping, but I’m not sure that’s confirmed.
Post-war, a cousin suggested acting, although he was initially declared to be too tall. He broke into the business through the time honoured method of taking whatever jobs would pay the rent until something big came along. The something big was the role of the Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein, the film that introduced him to Hammer studios, who would make him world famous as Count Dracula, in which role he gives Bela Lugosi a run for his money as archetypal depiction.
Lee would go on to play Dracula a tonne more times, although he was famously reluctant, not wishing to become typecast in the role. He also claimed to have refused to speak his lines in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (although writer Jimmy Sangster insists he never had any,) and that he only took part because Jimmy Carerras, President of Hammer, would sell the picture on his participation and then plead with him not to put everyone out of a job.
In the same period he achieved lasting notoriety playing the fiendish and inscrutable Dr Fu Manchu (and a few other oriental villains,) donning super-creepy yellowface. It can’t be said to be his finest hour, and although politically no worse than generations of blackfaced Othellos, there’s a reason they don’t get shown so much anymore. As with Dracula, Lee’s primary role in these films was to loom and be terrifying, which he was very good at.
He did eventually break the mould, playing a few straight men in lesser Hammer films (including one segment of classic portmanteau Dr Terror’s House of Horrors,) an heroic witch hunter in The Devil Rides Out, and Sir Henry Baskerville, Mycroft Holmes and Sherlock Holmes in various productions of Conan Doyle’s books. He buckled swashes in The Devil-Ship Pirates, and went on to play Count Rochefort in Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers, Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun and Lord Summerisle in the cult horror classic The Wicker Man. He was still mostly seen as a horror actor, like Cushing and Price despite a few more serious roles over the years, most often as military men or sombre physicians.
A move to America helped Lee to shed the shackles of horror, playing more Holmes, and a supervillain in The Return of Captain Invincible (which so needs a review here.) In 1998 he played the founder of Pakistan, because that was an obvious jump. He played the villain in Return from Witch Mountain and had a cameo in Gremlins II, and just a whole load of minor roles, including loads of TV work in the 70s Captain America and the Tomorow People remake.
His career had been slowing down for a while by the year 2000, but the roles of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings – for which he was notably the only member of cast or crew to have met Tolkien in person, albeit only briefly – and Count Dooku in The Attack of the Clones and The Revenge of the Sith brought him back to prominence. The early 21st century were good to Lee, and like any once-great character actor, formerly known for horror and now relaunched as a professional evil wizard, he naturally kicked out some heavy metal power ballads with Manowar.
No, seriously. He recorded several albums of his own in the last decade and was awarded a Spirit of Metal Award and described himself as ‘a young man right at the beginning of his career’ in his acceptance speech.
What made him great as a metaller was the same thing that made him great as an actor. He wasn’t necessarily the most nuanced performer, but he has an intensity that was second to none and a thundering bass that demanded the listener shut up and pay attention. He could be commanding, demanding or reassuring, but he was never less than compelling.
He also, as is the case with many bad movie stars, never took the material lightly, be it ever so shit. He might not have wanted to speak the words in Dracula Prince of Darkness, might not even have wanted to be there, but he hissed and snarled like a trouper. Even in Star Wars, he did a lot of his own fight work, with doubles only for the fancier footwork. The man gave his all to every project as if it was a timeless classic, and lifted his own performance and the film as a whole because of it.
So, yes; he was in some shit. He was in The Silent Flute and Season of the Witch, and two Star Wars prequels. In his younger days, he played a lot of yellowface villains, but that was the sixties; so it goes. He spent the better part of the sixties living on hisses while he tried to establish himself in anything else. But he never half-arsed, never phoned it in, even when this happened:
Lee was part of the generation of professional actors who never fussed about the merit of their latest gig. Yes, it was great to play Hamlet (Lee was a spear carrier in Olivier’s Hamlet,) but other things could be great too, like eating and paying rent on time, and being in work. He was a jobbing thesp, and a damned good one.
Christopher Lee died on the 11th June 2015, aged 93. We shall not look upon his like again.
Directed by Jonathan English Starring Tom Hardy, Rutger Hauer, Ingrid Pitt, Tony Todd
It’s the Iron Age, or maybe the Bronze Age, and the powerful but decadent Minoan civilisation is collecting youths to sacrifice to the Minotaur, a big monster that lives in an underground labyrinth. Humble shepherd Theo (Tom Hardy) is upset because his love interest was sent to be eaten, but his dad (Rutger Hauer) is more worried about protecting him. When the Minoans show up, however, Theo sneaks into the tribute line and is dumped into the labyrinth together with a well-meaning sidekick, a sneering rival who does a predictable face turn, the sneering rival’s love interest, a mouthy girl, a girl who doesn’t talk at all, a crazy girl and a comedy fat guy. And maybe someone else, who knows.
Minoan queen Raphaella takes a fancy to Theo and tries to help him fight the Minotaur. Spoilers: the good guys win.
Opinions on director Albert Pyun are varied. The Independent Film Channel says that “(he has) carved out a unique niche as a director of low-budget, high-concept genre films starring actors past their prime”, while others call him the new Ed Wood and his frankly gushing IMDB bio (by ‘anonymous’) likens him to Jean-Luc Goddard and Sergio Leone while mourning the butchering of his unique vision by studios and producers.
For me, none of these descriptions quite fits the bill – well, apart from the bit about actors past their prime – and the best comparison to be drawn is actually with B-movie legend Roger Corman. Like Corman before him, Pyun does not have the power to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but does know how to bash out a sow’s ear purse for even less than the little he can sell it for, while simultaneously making a second purse from the same ear on the other side of the lot.
Beginning his career in his native Hawai’i, Pyun interned with Akira Kurosawa’s cinematographer in Japan before making his directorial debut with The Sword and the Sorcerer, arguably his best movie (although still not very good). His IMDB filmography shows the recurring themes of martial arts and cyborgs (as in 1989’s Cyborg, with Jean Claude Van Damme), but he has also worked in fantasy, contemporary action (Blast, Hong Kong 97) and even the superhero genre (with 1990s Captain America). Brainsmasher… A Love Story is a rare digression into comedy, with Andrew Dice Clay’s bouncer battling some dubious Shaolin monks over a rare flower.
And how bad is he?
Well, here’s the thing. I am convinced that Albert Pyun knows how to make a good film, he just can’t seem to actually do it. Maybe the IMDB reviewer is right and he really is an avant garde genius whose work is routinely butchered by producers, but having seen Nemesisand Mean Guns, I don’t buy it; not completely, anyway. Every so often, he puts a shot together really nicely, but he always seems to manage to screw it up; if not by the end of the shot then in the next one.
Pyun has something of a stable of regular actors, including fellow son of Hawai’i Mark Dacascos, Rutger Hauer and Tim ‘Trancers’ Thomerson, who also has a long and fruitful collaboration with of another doyen of the Corman school, Charles Band, under his belt. His film-making trademarks include the money-saving ‘shoot offscreen’ technique (requiring neither expensive GSW effects nor any retakes for fluffed timings) and heavy use of coloured filters.
“Maybe not such a good actor, but he looks good and will do and dare anything.” – Hauer’s reference for his breakthrough role in Floris
He was an android supersoldier built to win, not to last; he hunted Satanic rat-monsters through the flooded streets of London and held a plane hostage for Satan. He’s a Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee (well, he was in a nominated best foreign film), and tried to hit on my ex on the set of the Sam Neill-starring Arthurian event miniseries Merlin.
He is, of course, Rutger Hauer.
Now, that picture is from back in the day, because while with some bad movie superstars there’s just no telling why they have a career, with Hauer we can say it in two words: Blade Runner. Whatever you may think about Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, its status as a cult classic is unassailable, and Hauer’s depiction of a military ‘replicant’ driven to psychosis by the impending end of his purposely truncated lifespan – including the famous, largely improvised, tears in rain speech – is a big part of it. The wild eyes, the platinum-pale hair, the soft voice and barely-human body language all combine to demand to know why in the hell the only other thing he did for twenty years was a line of Guiness adverts?
The answer is that it wasn’t. Despite the fall-off of higher profile material, he’s rarely been out of work for long: just take a look at his Filmography on Wikipedia.
Of particular note are some of his European films:
Escape from Sobibor (1987 TV) for which he won a Golden Globe for best actor
Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), which won multiple awards and nominations. Hauer won Seattle’s Golden Space Needle Award for best actor, the film won the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion (it was never released in the US unfortunately)
Pre-Blade Runner he also had two critically acclaimed collaborations with a young Dutch director named Paul Verhoeven.
Soldaat van Oranje (1977) (Soldier of Orange) which won the LA Film Critics Award for best foreign film, with Hauer nominated for another Golden Globe
Turks Fruit (1973) (Turkish Delight), which was voted best Dutch film of the the 20th century, while Hauer was voted best actor; nominated for Oscar for best foreign film
My original bad movie superstar entry for Hauer received a scathing condemnation for ignoring these works.
Also worth attention are Split Second, where Hauer battles giant rat-beasts and angry British character actors, and Ladyhawke, ill-advised electro soundtrack aside.
His big break was playing the lead in Floris, a mediaeval adventure serial directed by Verhoeven in 1969. Check this shit out:
So why, I hear you ask, is this titan of the European cinema a bad movie superstar and not the Dutch Gerard Depardieu? Well, again in two words, Albert Pyun. More expansively, a great deal of Hauer’s bad movie cache comes from his frequent collaborations with Pyun and other low-budget directors as he passed his prime, filled out from the lissom figure he cut in Blade Runner and started taking work to pay the bills (such as the Guiness ads, in which his white-blonde hair saw him costumed in black to represent a pint of Guiness).
He mostly plays grizzled veterans these days, and growls his way through roles that a lesser man might balk at. There is, it seems, no dialogue so trite that he won’t have a go at it, and he’s usually a game performer – although occasionally even he seems to be plodding through a particular stinker – whatever else may be wrong with the films he is in.
He’s also a bit of a sleaze who hit on my ex on the set of Merlin, but you can’t have everything.
We’ve got a review of Santo vs las lobas coming up, but before I begin that, let me say a few words about Santo. I am not the world’s hugest Mexican wrestling fan, but I’m at least moderately huge. And you can’t be even a moderately huge Mexican wrestling fan — or student of pop culture at all — without hearing about Santo (real name Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta). Known as el enmascarado de plata, “the man in the silver mask,” Santo was a superstar in the world of lucha libre or professional wrestling.
Mexican luchadors often wear colourful masks as part of their ring gear, making them look like superheroes, and the Mexican wrestling movie genre takes that one step further, portraying them as literal superheroes. In the films, they play themselves as wrestlers who fight crime and monsters on the side, as if Macho Man Randy Savage were also James Bond and/or Fred from Scooby-Doo.
Sitting in my living room is this battered lobby card from 1962’s Santo vs las mujeres vampiro, a souvenir of my brother’s visit to Mexico City.
As you can see, it’s essentially a low-budget horror flick (although this was a particularly high-budget effort by Mexican wrestling movie standards) in which the protagonist is a masked wrestler instead of a slumming cowboy star with a wooden haircut.
If you think that sounds amazing, you’re not wrong.
There were lots of wrestling movie stars, many of whom teamed up with Santo himself in various films, but none of them are quite as iconic as el enmascarado de plata. As a pop culture icon, Santo is like Mexico’s Batman — instantly recognisable, reliably bankable. And prolific! Between 1958 and 1982, Santo appeared in 52 films, 46 of those between 1958 and 1977. During the peak years, that’s an average of a new feature every five months.
“Low-budget wrestling horror movies made at breakneck speed and played to crowds of hyperactive kids,” you’re probably thinking. “I bet these are cinematic masterpieces.” And they are. Oh yes, they are. They are precisely what you want from a bad movie — so bad they’re great. Ridiculously implausible plots, overacting, dirt-cheap special effects, contrived action sequences, broad comedy and lots of fighting. My only caution is that you probably shouldn’t watch more than one too close together, as they’re, y’know, pretty repetitive. But judge for yourself! Here are a few Santo films that have made it online.