I’m just gonna come right out and say it: Top Ten Lists are fucking boring.
No disrespect to any of my colleagues (who have painstakingly put together perfect lists of their own), but debating whether or not La La Land should place behind The Handmaiden simply seems like an exercise in extreme tedium. Everyone else is evaluating the same darn pool of great movies and, outside of a random outlier or two, these articles mostly read like cinematic playlists placed on shuffle. Besides, 2016 was a fantastic year – one of the best in recent memory. Pitting these stellar motion pictures against one another is an act of subjective grandstanding. Just watch everything these exemplary scribes have enumerated and disregard which work of art beats out the other. Enjoy the splendor of cinema in all its forms; because once Trump completes his term in office, we’re all gonna be acting out shadow plays in bomb shelters while waiting for the wasteland mutants to claim us.
After you’ve decided on which newer titles you should add to your Netflix queue before nuclear winter comes, I invite you to peruse the past in order to uncover which movies left me without a visage in 2016. What’s a “face melter” you ask? It’s an elemental filmic experience – the kind of work that leaves you dead on the floor and wanting more. I don’t really have set criteria for how I rate this stuff, as my selections are mostly based off of pure, visceral gut reaction. Which movies made me cry out in shock or revulsion the most? Which movies used the camera in a way I’d never witnessed before? Which movies compensated for their lack of budget by placing every stuntman on set in death’s careening path? Which movie featured a ninja contemplating how he could get girls to like him? As aforementioned, the numbers really don’t mean a whole lot, as all of these endeavors are truly bizarre and beautiful in ways that cannot be compared to one another. Just seek them out and let their warm, skeevy glow engulf you. The Orange One’s got his fat finger on the big red button, kiddos. Time for discovery is wasting.
10. KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS [‘89] (d. J. Lee Thompson, w. Harold Nebenzal)
The fact that Charles Bronson became an in-house star player for Cannon Films is something of a miracle, as the actor was already well past his prime when Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus decided to resurrect the Death Wish franchise and remold the former matinee idol into an avatar for fascist, white male rage. By 1989, Bronson’s sell by date was ancient history, but that didn’t stop him from unleashing a tidal wave of hate upon a legion of perverted Japanese business caricatures (who all attend an etiquette seminar led by an American chauvinist) and the pedophile pimps preying on young women in Los Angeles. The final film of J. Lee Thompson’s career (whose legacy was also mangled by Cannon, as he was teamed with Bronson on similarly seedy endeavors like 10 to Midnight), Kinjite never even aspires to rise above being anything beyond grime-encrusted pulp. Bronson makes one pimp swallow a gold watch after raping an unnamed john with a dildo, just so he “knows how it feels” when he pays to pump on these poor callow prostitutes. Heroes don’t come more heartless, and Kinjite stands as one of the last great pieces of pure exploitation nastiness the reviled studio released before Menahem Golan departed and the Cannon Group spiraled into bankruptcy during the '90s.
Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects is available on Blu-ray thanks to Olive Films.
9. THE INSTRUCTOR [‘81] (d. & w. Don Bendell)
Credit where credit’s due – if I had an Exploitation Sherpa, it would be Scarecrow Video’s Matt Lynch. Whenever I’m bored and out of viewing options, I usually troll Lynch’s LB account (which reveals viewing habits that put us all to shame) in order to find the weirdest, most outlandish “face melter” he’s watched this year. In 2015, he led me (along with many others) to the endless well of trash action wonder that is Parole Violators. This year, Lynch’s knack for sniffing out the best of the best backyard brawl bonanzas unearthed The Instructor, or as the Seattle scum cinema lifer has dubbed it: “the best movie to ever emerge from Akron, Ohio”. Operating like a weirdly chaste shame stew brought to boil, this no budget fisticuff frenzy stars AAU Karate Instructor Bob Chaney (who looks like a poorly tanned Burt Reynolds impersonator) as the titular martial arts master. This afro’d Ronin battles wasteland gangs (Akron is rugged, y’all), a rival coach, his thugs, and the world’s fattest white ninja (whose breathy inner monologue convinces him to swipe first place trophies). It all culminates in a wild fifteen minute plus foot-to-car-to-bike-to-foot chase climax that comes off like a regional cinema Point Break precursor. If that’s not enough, a character suddenly screams “I’ll mangle you, you turd!”, bringing the movie’s weird aversion to profanity to an all-time high (though The Instructor does include an uncomfortable rape subplot, so buyer beware). Thanks again, Mr. Lynch, for bringing another slice of insanity to light.
8. HANDGUN [‘84] (d. & w. Tony Garnett)
A “problematic” rape/revenge movie that doubles as a brutal dissection of Texan gun culture, the near industrial film execution of Handgun allows any sort of formal flourishes to get out of the way so that the movie’s POV can pistol whip you in the face. To be frank: pacifists are pussies. The gun is God. Women submit. But where other entries into the subgenre pay lip service to feminism, writer/director Tony Garnett (who sadly only directed one other feature) actually embraces his protagonist’s mission to transform her trauma into the domination of the culture itself, not just the chastisement of her aggressors. So while rape/revenge pictures may be an antiquated exploitation art form, completely rejected by the modern “woke” audience, that doesn’t mean their problematic elements cannot be overlooked in order to see the empowering message a movie like Handgun ultimately strives to deliver. (Read the full Savage Stack entry here.)
Handgun is available on OOP DVD thanks to Anchor Bay.
7. THE CANDY TANGERINE MAN [‘75] (d. Matt Cimber, w. Mike Angel)
Some exploitation pictures earn notorious reputations that, to be honest, aren’t exactly deserved (here’s looking at you, numerous Italian Cannibal entries). The Candy Tangerine Man is not one of those films. A super scuzzy riff on the now tired TV trope “what if the head of a suburban family was also a (meth dealer/terrorist/Soviet spy/TV ad man)”, the super smooth Black Baron (John Daniels) is a ruthless pimp, dealing with all the things ruthless pimps deal with. The Mafia, crooked cops (including a baby-faced “Buck” Flower, here billed as "C.D. La Flueur"), bank managers secretly into getting pissed on, and backstabbing low rent women are just a few of the pitfalls the Baron faces, all while sporting a smile for his brood in the ‘burbs. The tone pinballs between goofball and pitch black, never finding just the right balance to be perfect, but we never really want or need that from grindhouse fare anyway. What sets The Candy Tangerine Man apart from its second billed brothers is the genuine empathy it shows for its characters (best displayed during a strangely human golden shower sequence). This is top tier Blaxploitation unpleasantness, never really interested in accessibility like the movies of its ilk that made it big (Shaft, Superfly). Instead, Matt Cimber’s masterwork is probably a little too mean spirited for its own good, but that’s what renders the final Peckinpah-aping slow motion gun battle that much more hard hitting.
The Candy Tangerine Man is available on DVD/Blu-ray combo thanks to Vinegar Syndrome.
6. SCREAM FOR HELP [‘84] (d. Michael Winner, w. Tom Holland)
Michael Winner (Death Wish) is one of cinema’s all time anti-humanists. Now, imagine Winner helming the seediest Nancy Drew adaptation ever written and you’re halfway to realizing just how entertainingly immoral Scream for Help really is. The screenplay by Tom Holland (Fright Night, Child’s Play) mashes together a strange “girl who cried wolf” whodunit, her unpleasant adult awakening story, and a scummy sex thriller, all while Winner continues to disregard human life in his usual tyrannical fashion. It’s a movie that doles out horror movie moral punishment, but with the flair of its creator’s cruel vigilante pictures. For example: our sleuthing protagonist’s best friend reveals she’s pregnant and considering an abortion, only to (in quick succession) get run over by a car (the brutal impact documented via various camera angles) and have her body discarded in a pile of leaves. Meanwhile, the score by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones injects an exasperated melodrama into each scene, the strings rising to deafening levels as the violence onscreen spirals out of control. This could’ve easily been a Movie of the Week, but Winner milks every implausible plot twist for all its worth, practically cackling behind the camera as characters are gored or shot and helplessly bleed out. Scream for Help is a YA Novel sans a conscience; looking to do nothing more than damage everyone who makes the poor decision to pull it off the shelf.
Scream for Help is available to stream on Vudu.
5. HARD TICKET TO HAWAII [‘87] (d. & w. Andy Sidaris)
The twelve L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies pictures Andy Sidaris either wrote, directed or produced (each sporting a rotating cast of Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets) aren’t some sort of feminist answer to the muscle bound, explosion-stuffed popcorn cinema of the '80s. After all, this is the man who pioneered the “honey shot” during football games (where the camera would zoom in on cheerleaders or pretty girls in the crowd). However, that doesn’t mean Sidaris’ movies aren’t meticulously crafted pieces of B-Movie fluff, establishing a universe and set of societal rules all their own. In a weird way, Sidaris works in the same fashion as a Jacques Demy or Wes Anderson, constructing miniature oasis escapes (almost all of his movies are filmed on a Pacific Island), in which we are meant to inhale the noxious, inseparable fumes of suntan lotion and gunpowder. These are microcosms of sweat and sand; helicopter chases and razor-lined Frisbees. But none reach the deliriously insane heights of Hard Ticket to Hawaii, the writer/director’s ultimate trash action face melter. Like all great works of bizarre outsider art, it’s the utter sincerity of Sidaris’ vision that keeps you engaged, even as bazookas are shot at literal flying fuck dolls. It’d be a stretch to try and sell you on any sort of intellectual underpinnings buried beneath all the big hair and short shorts, but sometimes it just feels good to be in the presence of a ringmaster possessed by madness.
Hard Ticket to Hawaii is available on DVD as part of the Guns, Girls & G-Strings Collection.
4. CRIMES OF PASSION [‘84] (d. Ken Russell, w. Barry Sandler)
Crimes of Passion may be the ultimate litmus test when it comes to Ken Russell’s filmography. A cum-stained piece of Mega Theater where motel rooms become stages and Barry Sandler’s script is seemingly written in pornographic iambic pentameter, nothing is off limits as neon lights strobe and pulse during various carnal acts. Nevertheless, Russell is attempting to evoke sympathy as much as he’s trying to shock, placing an emotionally glacial fuck princess (Kathleen Turner) front and center and then having her melt into a puddle of vulnerability before our eyes. It’s an incredible bit of acting on Turner’s part, as she performs multiple roles within one prostitute, cautiously offering her clientele an impersonal aloofness while indulging their desires. At the same time, she keeps an eye on the door, as various wolves are clawing to get in, their advances scored by stabbing synths provided by prog wacko Rick Wakeman. It’s sticky, disorienting and incredibly distasteful, but Crimes of Passion might also be an utter masterpiece. (Read the full Savage Stack entry here.)
Crimes of Passion is available on DVD/Blu-ray combo thanks to Arrow Home Video.
3. A TOUCH OF ZEN [‘71] (d. King Hu, w. King Hu & Songling Pu)
Recommending a three hour wuxia picture is a real “know your audience” proposition, but the honest to God truth is that King Hu’s monolithic epic is just as accessible (and wholly entertaining) as any of the best known Shaw Bros. titles. While there’s an art house method with which Hu captures nature (some have even likened him to a martial arts minded Yasujirō Ozu), the narrative moves with the chugging forward motion of a populist hero’s journey, punctuated by jump cut aided fight choreography that teaches us about the buoyant disregard for gravity the laws of this heightened universe abide by. Perhaps most impressive is the manner in which A Touch of Zen acts as a gentle prayer, bestowing power upon its female knight and the clumsy male warriors who are lucky enough to fall under her spell. These elements amalgamate in service of themes revolving around revolution and overthrowing a totalitarian regime, the spiritual force strong within those who respect their environment and fellow human beings. The delicacy of combat mirrors the fragility of nature, while ghosts emerge to protect their land, not willing to allow history to repeat itself over and over. A truly magical, sumptuous action film.
A Touch of Zen is available now on Blu-ray thanks to Criterion.
2. SONNY BOY [‘89] (d. Robert Martin Carroll, w. Graeme Whifler & Peter Desberg)
Had Sam Peckinpah made Texas Chain Saw into a familial melodrama, Sonny Boy would be the result. A strange, ugly morality play about a transwoman (David Carradine) and her abusive beau (Paul L. Smith) who want nothing more than to raise their desert family in peace. Problem is, their son (Michael Griffin) was kidnapped as an infant and raised as a feral beast with his tongue cut out. When anyone tries to fuck with their way of life or their extended family and friends (played by a wild Brad Dourif and stock Sydney Lassick), Sonny Boy is sic’d on them like a pit bull ready to tear the throat from its opponent’s neck. On paper this all sounds like a rather rote TCM knock-off, but director Robert Martin Carroll transforms the redneck shenanigans into a baroque allegory about parenting and unconditional devotion. Lensed with an eye for alien landscapes by Italian exploitation aesthete Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli (Starcrash, The Raiders of Atlantis) and scored by fellow countryman Carlo Maria Cordio, the whole of Sonny Boy takes on the look of an unreal fairy tale about the world’s ugliest members, asking us to empathize and place ourselves in their positions. Once the dust clears, we mop up the blood and collect the spent bullet casings, all that remains is the desire to exist with the same freedoms granted by God to all living creatures. It’s a European transmuting of the most American values, held firm through violent opposition to any who want to strip them away.
Sonny Boy is available on Blu-ray thanks to Scream Factory.
1. BLONDE DEATH [‘84] (d. & w. James Robert Baker)
James Robert Baker (a/k/a “James Dillinger”) was once described by a critic as the “world’s angriest gay man”, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Before Blonde Death – his $2000 SOV attack on the mundane existence of California suburbanites – the only other directorial credit he owned was for a short titled Mouse Klub Konfidential, a homosexual bondage film in which members of the titular Disney sing song collective are gang banged by a group of Nazis. But Baker wasn’t a mere shock tactician, teaming with legendary underground art collective EZTV to produce this searing, acidic delve into lustful teenage rebellion. The laziest comparison to draw would be to the earliest work of John Waters, as Baker displays the same playful disdain for bullshit bougie society as the Baltimore trash auteur. However, there’s something much more sinister swimming under the surface of Blonde Death; a runaway work of semen stained gutter poetry that harnesses the libidos of its obviously untrained leads and rides them into the sunset. This isn’t so much a motion picture as it is a work of videocassette vandalism, so owning the distinct POV of its creator that the film almost seems to be daring you to disagree with it, just so Baker can reach through the screen and choke you out on your couch. Sadly, Blonde Death is the last the world ever heard from “James Dillinger” as, at the age of 51, he chose to end his life via carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage (exactly how two of his lead characters perish in the picture). It’d be cool to have Baker around today, just so we could pick his brain and let him know that his work is finally receiving an appreciative audience. But really, he would probably just tell us all to fuck off.
Blonde Death is available on DVD thanks to Bleeding Skull/Mondo.