Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sexploitation reviews

SEXPLOITATION reviews

[Written for Something Weird Video catalogue, never published]

The Notorious Cleopatra (dir. “AP Sootsberry”/Peter Perry, 1970)

History is warped yet again by Box Office International, in this lavish, lewd and ludicrous epic by producer (Mantis In Lace) and occasional director (Secret Sex Lives Of Romeo & Juliet) Peter Perry. According to Perry’s version, Julius Caesar is a corpulent grump, lamenting the drab quality of orgy talent while a concubine drapes herself across his royal presence. At the mention of Cleopatra as an exotic addition to his carnal menu, he orders his cohort Mark Anthony (“Rome’s greatest lover”) to Egypt to check out the talent - with a strict hands-off policy. Cut to Mark Anthony, whose hands are anywhere but off the Nubian nuptials. After a ringside seat at a virgin sacrifice and multi-racial orgy, Anthony and co return to Rome understandably knackered; Cleo and her handmaiden (!!) follow them incognito. She has a thing for Mark Anthony herself, but ambition gets the better of her, and finds the way to a Caesar’s heart is through his stomach. Mark Anthony meanwhile becomes the patsy for Caesar’s murder, and discovers her treachery while on the run. Exit Cleo, exit Mark Anthony, and historical accuracy is flushed down the aqueduct once more for good luck.

Absolute stunner Sonora proves “Black is Beautiful”, in a rare example of an Afro-American lead in a sexploitation flick, while Mark Anthony aka Johnny Rocco (Exotic Dreams Of Casanova) manages both the cheapo one-liners and gut-wrenching melodrama without moving his teeth. But it’s Caesar (Jay Edwards, also from Casanova) who gets the best lines - “Cleopatra or not, you sure are a stacked bitch!” - while he’s not cramming grapes into his portly gob. Definitely more than a mouthful, this tantalizing titbit.

We All Go Down (dir. Gerard Damiano, 1969)

“You’re all a bunch of bastards!” the desperate young bisexual Nancy moans to men all over when she finds her boyfriend has sold her for a bag of junk, in an early sleazie from Gerard (Deep Throat) Damiano. Filmed in sordid black and white, it follows a group of fallen souls on a downward trail to nowheresville. Nancy needs Pete, but first he’s “gotta do sumpthin”. He scores in a bar and shoots up in the bathroom, while Nancy takes refuge with Peggy, who thinks Pete is an asshole. Pete and Rick later escape from Rick’s hysterical girlfriend, and their other buddy Burt invites them to a pot orgy, but Pete’s too far gone, and his other girlfriend, the innocent Carol, wrings her hands over him. Pete invites everyone to their beach house for the weekend, where their collective sanity unravels in a drug-fueled concoction of lust, geed, jealousy and betrayal. Pete escapes to his dealers apartment for some “A”, only to find “tonight is acid night”. He starts to go psychotic, and imagines himself handcuffed to the ceiling while Nancy plunges an enormous hypodermic into his stomach. Points are deducted solely for the uncharacteristic upbeat ending (nowheresville, my ass), but the rest of We All Go Down is suitably grimy, tightly filmed and as close to the bone as the 60s allowed. Damiano delivers the whole enchilada, and doesn’t skimp on the hot sauce. Yowee!

The Touchables (dir. Jay Sheridan & Monte Mann, 1961)

Early nudie-cutie set on a fat farm instead of a nature camp, crammed with sped up sight gags and cornball vaudeville routines, and one of the earliest in Box Office International’s garden of earthy pleasures. First up we’re treated to a swimming costume parade around a swank poolside as a singer croons, “You’re so...Touchable”. Our narrator, self-proclaimed schnook Fred Bart, takes us back thirty years, when affable lowrent gangsters Monk and Louie (alias Smith and Jones) threaten schnook accountant Fred to cook their books. This inflames his moral sensibilities, sending the uncooked books (and their $65,000 tax bill!) to the IRS. Now on the run from Monk and Louie, the schnook is sneaked unknowingly into the ‘Fat Chance’ Rejuvenation Center, and does all manner of bug-eyed double takes from the bushes and behind exercise machines, as he ogles a pornucopia of showgirls and society dames in various states of undress. ‘Fat Chance’ worker Jessie (Claire Brennen, later in She Freak) takes pity on the schnook cowering in a panty hamper and helps him escape from Monk and Louie, now disguised as the two ugliest broads at the clinic, and an army of showgirls who have discovered what’s under Fred’s towel. The film rests squarely on TV comic (???) Billy Holms’ spindly frame, which serves as the main target of the cheapshots - a masseuse, thinking he’s a she, looks down at his chickenbone ribcage and says “You poor thing! No wonder you didn’t want to take off your towel.”

The Exotic Dreams Of Casanova (dir. Dwayne Avery, 1970)

Between the defrocked costume romps like Notorious Cleopatra and the drugged excesses of The Toy Box lies this curious entry in the Harry Novak Hall of Infamy, a flipped-out frat party free-for-all with Perry Mason overtones. The curtains open on a picture-book “jousting” with famed lover Casanova (played by swarthy Vegas type Johnny Rocco) and a more-than-willing participant. Credits roll, and it turns out to be a stag performance by modern descendant and current spaghetti western star Joe Casanova, part of the Valentine orgy for “Swingers International”. Joe quickly tires of the self-promoting president, and offers a thousand clams to any swinger who can keep up at his private party till dawn. His house instantly becomes a squalid playground: go-go dancing, spanking, whipped cream, all accompanied by a whacked-out duo on guitar and bongo. Things turn nasty when his overzealous guests push Casanova off his flying trapeze. He’s knocked unconscious, and imagines himself in the Gomorra County courtroom loaded with party perverts, a camp judge, and a Keystone Cop, where the name ‘Casanova’ itself is on trial. To illustrate his case for free love, he peppers the proceedings with fantasy sex scenes between courtroom members (including Uschi Digard, credited as “Brigitte”), but discovers amidst the rampant horndoggery the one-woman man within. Maybe this isn’t what us would-be cocktail shakers want to hear, but then there’s always the rewind button. So in the immortal words of Joe Casanova, “Let’s everybody swing!”

SEXPLOITATION reviews

[Originally appeared in Trash Video's Trash Confidential zine, 1999-2000]

HAWAII FIVE-O WITH HOOTERS: The Danish Connection (dir. Walt Davis, 1970)

Porno filmmaker Bob Chinn is the basis for Burt Reynolds’ Boogie Nights character, and is responsible for popularising the long-running Johnny Wadd series starring “Big” John Holmes. In one of the earliest Johnny Wadd superdick adventures, Chinn is reduced to an oriental cutout supporting role for director Walt Davis, but The Danish Connection delivers everything Dirk Diggler promised - shithouse dialogue from crinkle-cut John Holmes delivered with all the charisma of Chuck Norris, and the fighting prowess of a cheese sandwich. An impotent businessman with a yen for his secretary hires Johnny’s partner Eric Jensen (Rick Cassidy) to find an elusive hardon formula from Denmark. But Johnny Wadd, missing and presumed dead in Hawaii, is also on the case! He gets captured by the Chinese, who torture him endlessly with sex for the location of the formula, but Johnny won’t budge. I suspect the film was made earlier than 1974 as 1) The film may date from the earlier pairings of Holmes, director Davis and producer Manuel Conde (1970’s Sex Psycho, 1972’s Evil Come Evil Go), and 2) The French Connection was released in 1971, and porn producers making parodies don’t usually have a good long-term memory. Besides, later Wadds (China Cat, Jade Pussycat) are more porno than action and are nowhere near as hopelessly inspired as this. According to the Ballad of Big Bad John, “he’s got a head that he uses, and his meat is Grade A”. Right on, John.

Behind Locked Doors (aka Anybody Anyway; dir. Charles Romine, released 1976)

Weird-assed softcore sickie from Harry Novak and his Boxoffice International, who also brought you the equally bizarre The Orgy Box (1971). Two swingers looking for gas are trapped in an ex-mortician’s country home, along with his sister and warpo servant, and end up as ‘research’ for his vile experiments. Perverse American gothic with a hallucinatory ending reminiscent of Maniac, and some surf-a-go-go muzak gone horribly wrong. God bless the seedy Seventies.

Dandelions (dir. Adrian Hoven, 1974)

Hoven, German director (Mark Of The Devil II) and sometime actor (Jess Franco’s Sadisterotica and Succubus), must have been instructed by the money men to duplicate the success of Paul Verhoeven’s 1973 Continental sex hit Turkish Delight/The Sensualist. So he hires Sensualist star-on-the-rise Rutger Hauer as a drunken rake and a complete asshole to women, trying desperately to forget his tragic marriage to a girl turned drug addict and prostitute. Rutger’s a power- house in both these early Euro features, long before his Hollywood rise and fall to B-grade tough guy. But whereas Verhoeven’s film is a brilliant black comedy with frank sexuality, Dandelions is, well, just another sex film.

Emanuelle’s Daughter (aka Sexy Moon, Emanuelle Queen Of Sados, Emanuelle Queen Bitch; dir. Ilias Milonako, 1979)

“That girl” Laura Gemser was permanently plastered across adult cinema screens in the 70s. Hardly a great actress but an absolute stunner, the Javanese-born former model came to international attention in the 1975 smash Black Emanuelle (that’s one M to avoid prosecution). She also guested with Sylvia Krystal the same year in Emmanelle 2 as a masseuse, then made five more “official” Black Emanuelle sequels for the notorious “Joe D’Amato”/Aristide Massaccesi, including the Cannibal sleaze of Emanuelle’s Amazon Adventure, reviewed last issue. Countless other titles in Gemser’s 50-plus filmography have been retitled to cash in on her fame. Emanuelle’s Daughter started out as “Sexy Moon”, certainly not one of Gemser’s best - our pick is Divine Emanuelle (aka Love Camp, 1980), a ludicrous Jonestown-style musical (!).

An often turgid softcore soap opera and travelogue, it was filmed in Cyprus at the height of the Euro-disco craze (you can see the Village People perform “YMCA” on a TV set!). A rich industrialist dies under mysterious circumstances, and his widow ‘Emanuelle’ returns to his estate in control of his fortune and his young rebellious daughter. It appears Emanuelle was subject to her husband’s perverted whims, amd now seeks revenge on his partners-in-crime with the help of the vicious womanizing disco king Mario (Gemser’s long-time husband Gabriele Tinti). The film explores the daughter’s budding sexuality; Cyprus must have a lower age of consent, as she looks about 14 with her gear off. Familiar face Gordon Mitchell, former muscleman and star of countless westerns and Hercules films, plays one of the husband’s cronies, and is dubbed by the voice of Bud Spencer - I keep expecting him to down 14 hotdogs and clock Gemser on the nut! Passable disco tail-waver.

Mustang (dir. Robert Guralnick, 1975)

Lurid must-see peepshow behind the closed doors of the infamous (and at the time only recently legal) desert cathouse. The owner, an Italian nouveau-riche cheesepuff named Joe Conforte, takes us on a guided tour through his garish Vegas-style decor and crucifix collection, and endlessly justifies to the camera how a good Catholic boy could become the self-proclaimed King of Nevada pimpdom. Closeups of puffy acne-scarred features at cattle call as the girls tell their pathetic tales of sexual burnout, while greasy johns make feeble conversation pulling their pants up. Remember Rule 11: “No eating in the parlor”. Ugly, ugly.

Naughty! (dir. Stanley Long, 1971)

When smut-peddlers make a film about smut-peddling, you don’t look for a hidden agenda. It’s all there in the immortal words of Al Goldstein, editor of Screw Magazine and guest of the world’s first porno festival in Amsterdam, where he waxes lyrical about the “inalienable right to jerk off”. It’s freedom, baby, according to British pornographer Stanley Long (keep it clean, people) as his team takes us on a part-doco, part-reenacted romp through the history of erotic literature, via Victorian hypocrisy to the new-found Euro-swinger’s paradises. Like the greasy little man who makes spank films with his wife in the suburbs says, it’s all about kicks, and I’m sure the little girl at the zoo watching a primate spank his monkey will agree. A time capsule of sexual mores, and part of a rash of British imitations on the racier Sex Report films from the Continent. See also: Groupie Girl, Permissive, On The Game, The Wife Swappers, Suburban Wives, Commuter Husbands.

Secrets Of Sweet Sixteen (aka What Schoolgirls Don’t Tell; dir. Ernst Hofbauer, 1974)

Healthy dollops of Bavarian cheesecake from sleazemeister Hofbauer, who practically invented the Schulmadchen (“Sex Report”) film in the late 60s. Sex Reports were a staple of grindhouse fare for those requiring their cheesy entertainment disguised as a documentary, framing the softcore shenanigans with a stern moral lesson from a social worker, psychiatrist or other authority figure (we’re still trying to track down Hofbauer’s hilariously misguided Girls At The Gynecologist). Secrets... is a product of a more liberal era than the early Sex Reports and tones down the moralizing, though keeps in a running debate between a doctor and a priest. The vignettes range from comic to the bizarre (virgin sacrifice) to the outright unpleasant (an early episode involving a child molester). Schizo and very strange.

Cry Uncle (aka Superdick; dir. John G Avildsen, 1971)

Fans of Rocky and The Karate Kid probably don't know this, but the Oscar-winning director responsible for both mainstream cocklewarmers vvas making some very weird shit in the early 70s. Before coming down with a terminal case of Good Taste, Avildsen had cranked out the superior sex comedy Guess What We Learned In School Today? (1969) and the classic Summer of Hate film Joe (1970), starring Peter Boyle as a blue collar hippie-killer, and Cry Uncle, a totally whacked-out and very black private-eye spoof marketed as a sex film since you couldn't do much else with its then porno-only X rating. Tubby Jewish comedian Allen Garfield (you'll recognize the face, guaranteed) plays the "Super Dick” hired by a millionaire suspect in a murder case. The investigation soon becomes a trail of dead bodies, including one Garfield has sex with, thinking she's a comatose junkie! Troma president Lloyd Kaufman was production assistant, as with all early Avildsen films from Joe onwards, and plays the bearded hippie on LSD in a motel room. A bad taste masterpiece, Troma later distributed the film, displaying a rare flash of good taste on their part! (TC #3)

The Erotic Three (aka Scratch Harry; dir. Alex Matter, 1969)

Described in a pre-credit disclaimer as an amphetamine 'fantasy", Cannon released this arty, confusing, absurdist pseudo-underground feature made in the wake of Warhol's film factory explosion, and turned by proxy ad campaign hatchetry into a skin flick. Which it ain't. The main character Harry, a penniless rake with expensive tastes, believes he is abandoned in his empty mansion by his rich wife Erica. Together with the omnipresent narrator, a weird beatnik in sunglasses (imagine Peter Fonda playing Lou Reed) known only as 'Shadow’, Harry picks up a freewheeler called Christine in the city and takes her back to the mansion. Erica returns home and the two vvomen turn on him, further fuelling his paranoia. Wordplay, parlour games, mindfucking and blackmail prove to be a lethal cocktail in a very strange ending. Is it all a dream? An hallucination? Do wide angle lenses, sped-up footage and bogus surrealism pass as true psychedelia? Does anybody still care? (TC #3)

The Devil's Garden (dir. Bob Chinn, 1970)

Pioneer pornographer Bob Chinn, best knovtn for his John Holmes/"Johnny Wadd” X-rated superdick series, went to Jamaica to make this weird sex-horror opus. And I mean weird. The film starts with a girl escaping in a car from an unknown assailant and recounting her strange tale to the local police: her filmmaker husband had disappeared while scouting locations, and she had followed him to Jamaica as the guest of the rich and mysterious St Jermaine and his partner Chang (played by the longhaired oriental Chinn himself). She is drugged and forced to act as sex slave for the lascivious desires of the mansion's strange inhabitants, then is convinced afterwards she had dreamt the entire sordid affair. The police think she's screwy or on heat, so she heads to a voodoo ceremony in the hills to uncover her husband's horrifying fate - or does she? Inept on every level, the film is compulsively watchable thanks to ex-film school graduate Chinn, an enthusiastic hamfisted auteur who actually tries to make a movie instead of a flimsily constructed series of sex scenes. The music’s weird, the sex is weird (St Jermaine wears a Balinese mask and screams like a monkey with its ass on fire) and the film is filled with flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. For us connesseurs of the smutty, the inane and the truly insane, it's a pathologically watchable treat. (TC #3)

Not My Daughter (aka Like It Is; dir. Jerry Schafer, 1970)

Beads, bongs, bongos, love-ins and the Generation Gap are dished as hokey titillation for jaded non-swngers. Not My Daughter is a weird hybrid of the traditional 'Youth Gone Wild' exposes (from Reefer Madness to 1968's Mary Jane) with misguided hand-wringing liberal sentiment. Our young heroine is blonde, seventeen, and is unhealthily close to her father. She catches him and her stepmother doing the horizontal rhumbah, then has a psychedelic sex dream about her teddy bear. Like most girls her age she wants to "live" - when her wayward friend introduces her to pot, she takes her first drag and squeals, “Ooh! Far out!” Her new-found hipness gravitates her towards the student "in" crowd, and soon she's smoking pot every day and having sex with a hair freak called Monk, while her father keeps checking her eyes to see if she's “high, or whatever they call it". Sick of her square Daddy-O spoiling her action, she runs away from home, gets into pills and free love, then finds herself in trouble when Monk is busted for possession. Daddy won't cough up his bail, so she answers a casting call for a lesbian “art" film (“Show Miss Beverley your boobies"). Meanwhile her father and his middle-aged football cronies settle down in Squaresville to watch a stag film ... The end credits say “Like It Is!" A heartwrenching lesson in moral decay, and a genuine plea for understanding. Thus endeth the lesson. (TC #3)

The Bang Bang Gang (dir. Van Guyider, 1970)

In the wake of Bonnie And Clyde (or Bonnie Does Clyde?) comes a classy period nudie gangster flick from exploitation greats Manson International. Two would-be-robber no-hopers stumble on two brash broads during a holdup, and after some cheap yuk-yuks and several Russ Meyeresque nudie runs through the woods, they team up on a double date crime spree. Things turn nasty half way through and go from robbin' and rompin' to rape and retribution, after the two guys shoot a local Mexican called Chico while saving a chicita from a brutal gangbang. Chico naturally wants revenge and turns up the sex and violence quota for the inevitable bloodbath. Surprisingly well-shot comedy/melodrama, and a real find. (TC #3)

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY GLORIA? So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious (dir. Silvio Amadio, 1975) & To Be Twenty (dir. Fernando Di Leo, 1977)

Ignore the Anglicized cast listing on the video cover - So Young... is an Italian sex drama loaded with manipualtion and mind games, in which bored spiteful heiress Angela (Gloria Guida) engineers the downfall of her new stepmother Irene (Dagmar Lassander). She initially uses her hippie gigolo boyfriend Sandro (Fred Robsham), who resembles a young Klaus Kinski, to attempt to seduce Irene. Angela then discovers a lesbian shadow in Irene's past and exploits in to the full by showering in front of her, showing her nudie pictures of her with other girls, and finally pouncing on her at the shorefront while Sandro takes polaroids. Angela has an attack of conscience later but Sandro doesn't, revealing the gory details to Irene before the devastating finale. Gloria Guida was Miss Teenager in Italy in 1971 before she went on to specialize in frothy sex comedies or sleazy dramas like this, and preens, pouts and plots her way through the role like a Continental Linda Hayden. In 1975 alone she was in over 7 films, including two more for prolific director Silvio Amadio, best remembered for the ultra-violent giallo Amuck (1973) with Barbara Bouchet and Farley Granger. But Euro-sleaze fans tend to agree her best role was in To Be Twenty (1977), a seedy piece of nihilism from director Fernando Di Leo.

In the original Italian version Guida and a fellow hitchhiked leave the liberated confines of a hippie commune and end up raped and murdered in the woods; in our English language version the film begins with the girls running through the woods pursued by would-be rapists, then stops abruptly with a freeze frame and the sounds of police sirens to the rescue. Next shot is the girls back on the highway, meeting the hippie commune leader (a nutty German who calls himself 'Shining Ray') they later bunk down with while cruising Rome looking for action. Guida generates an amount of sympathy for her character and proves herself to be more than just eye candy; I'm sure this makes her demise in the original Euro version all the more shocking. As for Guida herself, not much was seen of her after the late 70s, and in To Be Twenty it appears high living was taking a toll on her Miss Teenager features. Fortuately for her and her friend they both survive their Rome vacation and are last seen hitting the open road, in what must be one of the weirdest re-edits in the history of exploitation. (TC #3)

PLUGG review

[Originally appeared in More Tales From The Idiot Box zine, Townsville October 1998]

I’ve started to notice how the now defunct Aussie airline TAA sounds suspiciously like T&A, and you will too. Lewd puns and double entendres litter the script of Plugg, a bizarre no-budget and almost surreal mix of British sex films, Leslie Phillips bedroom farce and Pink Panther parody (!) filmed in Perth, Western Australia and strung together with endless references to bums, tits and “Capital Pussies” that will scar you for life.

Following the animated credits a la Clouseau and co, Noel (Turkey Shoot, narrator on Pacific Banana) Ferrier’s voice-over gives us the fruity lowdown on Plugg, a seedy private investigator on the case of the controversial Pussycat Escorts. Plated by Peter Thompson, a bald badger who walks into rooms whenever breasts present themselves, Plugg represents the bumbling raincoat-clad voyeur in all of us. He is closely followed by Inspector Closer (veteran Sullivans TV series personality Norm Yemm), forever peering down a pair of binoculars and desperately wanting a piece of the Pussycat action. The film ends in a nude aerobic free-for-all in a swanky swimming pool, two Pussycats slung over Closer’s shoulders, and Plugg in magistrate’s court charged with excessive ogling in a built-up area.

The cumulative effect is culturally jarring to say the least, in the absence of cockney accents or the odd “phwoar!” from Harry H. Corbett, but famed 70s centerfold Cheryl Rixon as prime Pussycat Kelli Kelly is a knockout. Keen-eared voyeurs will pick up the voice of a much younger Bill Collins (Golden Age of Hollywood presenter) on Plugg’s TV, perhaps his only entry in sexploitation’s Hall of Shame. I wonder if he now hears “boing-g-g-g” whenever a set of hooters pop out of a halter top?

Like I said, scarred for life...

Interview with ONG BAK director Prachya Pinkaew 2005

Interview with ONG-BAK director PRACHYA PINKAEW

[Originally published in Rave magazine, Brisbane 08/03/05]

Two kinds of punters are going to emerge from watching Ong-Bak in a state of shellshock: the white-faced World Movie crowd, for whom no amount of subtitles will erase the mountain of broken bodies, and the House Of Flying Daggers crew who prefer their martial arts films “wistful” and “arty”.

Make no mistake, punters. Ong-Bak is bone-snapping, skull-splitting, popcorn-spitting UBER-CARNAGE. Listening to the pounding synth score and watching the relentless violence open up on screen like flowers of flesh and blood, I was reminded of the films I grew up on. Glorious R-rated Chuck Norris bloodbaths like Force Of One and Silent Rage, or the Filipino chop-sockey gorefest Naked Fist from Cirio H. Santiago. Long before the House of Flying Wires, these films were about grown men beating the living shaizer from each other in gratuitous close-up. I almost wept tears for my lost misspent youth.

You get the impression Ong-Bak would have remained in a Phuket fleapit if it weren’t for Luc Besson. A man of infinite taste and refinement (see his own films Subway and the heavily Hong Kong influenced Leon: The Professional), Besson caught Ong-Bak at Cannes and forked out the francs then and there for the international rights. He trimmed the film by three minutes and added the very Eighties and VERY Euro electro-score, and before you could say Sacre Bleu, a minor cult masterpiece was launched to the world.

On the phone from Bangkok, I spoke to Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew and with the help of a translator (who had luckily seen the film) I congratulated him on the international success of his film. Five minutes later his reply came back. At least give me full marks for persevering.

I asked Prachya which films inspired him as a child to become a filmmaker. “Normally I like Spielberg’s films, but in particular with Ong-Bak I was inspired by Hong Kong films like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan movies.” I noticed in one scene you scrawled a hello to Spielberg on the wall - has he called you yet? (Prachya laughs) “I haven’t been contacted by him yet, so he might not have seen the film.”

A guiding light for Prachya was even closer to home. Phanna Rithikrai, regarded as the Thai Bruce Lee from his local kung fu hit Born To Fight, jumped on board as Ong-Bak’s producer. “We used the same team as Born To Fight for Ong-Bak. Mr Rithikrai is a good friend of mine and he has done so many films, and I know his talent in this area. With Ong-Bak, it is a very low budget film, and not many people have been impressed with it in Thailand.” Which is hard to understand - maybe Thai audiences would rather go to a kick-boxing fight than watch it on the big screen.

The film is essentially four or five long and incredibly complex action setpieces, linked with a hokey premise of a young Muy Thai initiate (Tony Jaa) heading to Bangkok from the countryside to recover his village’s stone Buddha head from the city’s most violent gangster. Ong-Bak took three years to prepare, so Prachya used the time wisely and would videotape each action scene, adjusting the multiple camera setups and fine tuning the storyboards so that the actual filming could maximize its shots. An early scene is a breathtaking ten minute chase through a busy market alleyway, and has Tony (in a brazed attempt to out-Chan Jackie Chan) using every possible piece of cookware as a weapon, before skidding underneath a moving car and jumping six feet in the air to walk over the regulation thugs.

Even more jaw-droppable is the spectacular chase scene down a busy highway involving a dozen or so motorized three-wheel scooters (or “tuk-tuks”). “It took a longer time than usual,” Prachya says. “That particular scene took more than ten days.” It reminds me of the hyper-action scenes from the Luc Besson-produced hit Taxi (2000). Would that have possibly influenced Besson to champion Ong-Bak? “I have seen that film,” says Prachya diplomatically. “Luc is a very good producer of action films, and he has a very good understanding of martial arts.”

The film gradually loses its chuckle factor and becomes more intense as it hurtles towards the grim and suitably blood-soaked finale. Was that deliberate? “Yes, that thought has been intentionally set up. Because we have good humour in our culture, and you can see the sidekick who plays with Tony (Petchtai Wongkamlao), he’s a first class comedian in Thailand. But I wanted to show the techniques of Thai boxing. So that’s why the movie becomes intense later on.”

Just to prove there’s no wires, the same shot is repeated from two other angles in ultra-slow-mo. “We used the old technique from Hong Kong movies,” Prachya confesses. “Secondly we liked to show how genuine the actions of Tony Jaa were who played that role.” It’s true that Tony Jaa might not have the on-screen charisma of Jackie Chan or current Asian superstar Stephen Chow - at this stage in his career he’s still a mass of tics and his dialogue scenes have an awkward school musical feel. But when the shirt’s off, there’s no mistaking his command of the human body as a killing machine. It’s the same with Prachya’s direction. The plot and character development are clumsy, but when you get to the bare meat of the action, and thankfully that’s MOST of the film’s screen time, Prachya’s quite considerable talents as a genre filmmaker emerge and the film goes into hyperdrive.

As a counterpoint to the action there are some beautiful cinematic moments, such as an underwater scene where Tony finds scores of stone Buddha heads in lobster nets. “For the Thai audience it was quite unexpected. They have been well aware of the illegal selling of Buddha heads but they didn’t have the idea that it was that extreme. However that scene was from the imagination of the producer.” The film’s opening sequence shows a mastery of montage, in which the young men of the village scramble up a tree like spider monkeys, throwing each other off branches onto the hard ground (no effects here!) to claim the prize: a single ribbon. “It was the old Thai game from the rural area of Thailand,” notes Prachya. “Usually they used a tree next to the river bank, so anyone who fell would fall in the water!”

Prachya spent last November in Sydney with Tony shooting a more comic follow-up to Ong-Bak. Tony Jaa may yet become an international star; already Luc Besson is in deep discussion, as is Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino? “There hasn’t been a clear idea about that, but there is the idea that they might be working together in the future.” If Quentin manages to single-handedly revive the Shaw Brothers empire, be sure that Tony Jaa will be there to drop-kick someone’s ass into oblivion.

PRACHYA PINKAEW interview uncut

Congratulations on the international success of your film.

Thank you very much.

I was very impressed with the scene where Tony sees a whole series of Buddha heads in lobster nets underwater. Did that strike a chord with Thai audiences?

For the Thai audience it was quite unexpected. They have been well aware of the illegal selling of Buddha heads but they didn’t have the idea that it was that extreme. However that scene was from the imagination of the producer.

How long did the complicated fight scenes take to film - eg the tuk tuk chase?

It took a longer time than usual. That particular scene took more than ten days.

I liked the technique of shooting a scene from three different angles and slowing down the footage - it’s very much like classic 70s kung fu movies.

First of all we used the old technique from Hong Kong movies - secondly we liked to show how genuine the actions of Tony Jaa who played that role.

I thought the first scene in the tree was quite beautiful, what inspired that scene?

It was the old Thai game from the rural area of Thailand - usually they used a tree next to the river bank, so anyone who fell would fall in the water.

What kind of films inspired you as a child to become a filmmaker?

Normally I like Spielberg’s films, but in particular with Ong-Bak I was inspired by Hong Kong films like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan movies.

I noticed in one scene who say hello to Spielberg - has he called you yet?

(laughs) I haven’t been contacted by him yet, so he might not have seen the film.

I believe you were particularly influenced by Phanna Rithikrai (the Thai Bruce Lee) and his film Born To Fight.

This film Born To Fight, we used the same team for Ong-Bak. Mr Rithikrai is a good friend of mine and he has done so many films, and I know his talent in this area. With Ong-Bak, it is a very low budget film, and not many people have been impressed with it in Thailand. Also the scene wasn’t filmed in or around Bangkok - it was shot in the provincial areas.

How did Luc Besson find out about the film?

Luc saw the film at Cannes and he liked it very much. He bought the movie and promoted it in Europe and America.

Did Luc change the film at all?

Yes, he did cut some scenes, about three minutes, and also changed the soundtrack.

Have you seen the Luc Besson-produced film Taxi? Did that have any influence on the tuk-tuk scene?

I have seen that film. Luc is a very good producer of action films, and he has a very good understanding of martial arts.

I understand many of the action scenes are videotaped to work out camera angles etc - how long would you videotape a scene like the Circle of Death sequence?

It took a long time, and in the preparation for the film we had several problems, and it took us three years to start to shoot the scene. So we used those three years to adjust and review...

In one scene you see blood spraying from the top of someone’s head when Tony’s elbow connects with the top of someone’s skull. Was that real?

(laughs) It wasn’t real, it was a CG technique.

I noticed you’re making a film with Tony in Australia?

Yes, it took about one month in November. We shot in Sydney.

Has there been any interest for Tony to work in an overseas production?

There are many producers and directors that have contacted us to work with Tony. For example Quentin Tarantino, and a number of agencies. Including Luc.

Did Quentin say what he had in mind for Tony?

There hasn’t been a clear idea about that, but there is the idea that they might be working together in the future.

The market scene - the camera setups are quite complicated, did you carefully storyboard the sequence or shoot with a number of cameras so you could cut between shots?

We used both techniques.

The film was quite humerous at first, and then the humour disappears and the film becomes much more intense. Was that deliberate?

Yes, that thought has been intentionally set up. Because in the Thai character we have good humour in our culture, and you can see the sidekick who plays with Tony, he’s a first class comedian in Thailand. But I wanted to show the techniques of Thai boxing. So that’s why the movie becomes intense later on.

The guy who plays the Big Bear sounds very Australian - is he one of our home-grown talent?

I wasn’t sure whether he was Australian or not. He happened to be traveling through Asia at the time. But in my next film I know which ones are Australian and which ones aren’t.

I hope you realize all Aussies are like the Big Bear.

I’m well aware of that. When I went to work in Sydney everyone was nice and lovely. (???)

Do you plan on shooting in Australia again?

Yes, if possible. I have made a number of new friends, particularly those in the production team.

Thank you for the interview, and I really enjoyed your film.

Thank you very much.

Brian Trenchard-Smith on Megiddo: Omega Code 2

In the Belly of the Beast: BRIAN TRENCHARD- SMITH on Megiddo: Omega Code 2

[Excerpt from the chapter "THAT's Godsploitation! A Blinkered View of Christian Apocalypse & Rapture Cinema" in Jack Sargeant's forthcoming anthology SUTURE 2]

With the outrageous success of The Omega Code, Trinity Broadcasting ordered a second romp through the Book of Revelation. The previous film’s Antichrist figure, Michael York, is recast and reworked as Stone Alexander, supported by a surprising cast of exploitation cinema veterans - the ever reliable Franco Nero, the cold fish eyes of Udo Kier, who also did a Satanic turn in End Of Days and Blade, and R.Lee Ermey, the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket who is promoted in Megiddo to US President.

At the helm was one of Australia’s greatest exports, the UK-born Brian Trenchard-Smith (or BTS), whose career spans over 30 years, from Antipodean actioners - The Man From Hong Kong (1975), Deathcheaters (1976), Turkey Shoot (1982) - to later lower-budget exploitation features such as Night Of The Demons 2 and the direct-to-video franchise. LeprechaunMegiddo is Trenchard-Smith’s aggressive rejigging of The Omen trilogy into a $20 million war movie - a low budget by Hollywood standards, but BTS’s largest budget to date, who clearly grabbed the cash and ran amok with a CGI paintbox, using the entire Jezreel Valley as his blank canvas.

Condensing The Omen through to The Final Conflict in first 30 minutes, Megiddo opens with the first stormy stand-off between future Antichrist Stone Alexander and his Christ-like younger brother David. The child Stone drops a match into his baby brother’s crib and stands back smiling while his Nanny beats out the flames. Stone is sent off to military school run by a concerned-looking General Francini (Franco Nero), who recognizes Stone’s innate genius but notes his complete lack of humanity. The kids taunt the impassive Stone with “Baby killer! Baby killer!” and is watched over by a Satanic Knight (Udo Kier) with his restless hounds of Hell.

As a young man, Stone (now played by Noah Huntley) catches the eye of Francini’s daughter Gabriella (Diane Verona) and proposes. Franchini finally uncovers Stone’s secret and tries to expose him, but Stone sets one of the CGI hell hounds on him and he dies of a heart attack.

25 years later, Stone (a campily pompous Michael York), now married to Gabriella, has wormed his way to the head of the European Union. He hurls his suspicious father off a third-storey balcony. By now, Satan has truly taken hold of Stone; he sends in tanks to an unnamed Middle East country to flatten a few peasant villages, then proclaims victory over terrorism by the United World Union. His grave-faced brother David (Michael Biehn), Vice President of the United States under President Benson (R. Lee Ermey), sits back and watches as the US is left out of the world block (clearly playing on America’s paranoia over “Fortress Europe”) along with renegade Red China. Benson goes with David to Stone’s European mansion to make him see sense - he shakes Stone’s hand, and a serpentine electric bolt shoots through the President’s bloodstream into the President’s heart and flattens him. David Alexander finds himself in the unenviable position of President of the United States.

Now convinced his brother is the spawn of Satan, David faces a no-confidence vote from his government, dodges an arrest warrent and is on the run. Meanwhile a vengeful Stone taunts God with “Pour out your bowls of wrath upon the Earth!” and within moments floods, riots, the Colloseum is knocked down like skittles by a buge meteor, and an earthquake tears the Sphynx in two. Stone strikes back in front of an enormous crowd in Africa and cuts them down with flames, screaming “Worship MEEEEE!!!!” and, in a particularly jaw-dropping moment, vomits a horde of bees that pour over the Great Wall of China.

China declares war on the United World Union and, along with the United States and South America, sends tanks into the Valley of Megiddo. At this moment of great worldwide despair the fugitive David Alexander emerges as the “chosen one”, a Christ-like figure of salvation, and sets out to halt Stone’s plan for eternal damnation. At Megiddo, Stone presides over a part-real, mostly CGI battle of Armageddon, then splits open to reveal the twenty-feet winged reptilian form of Satan himself. The sun turns blood red, then black, and out of the darkness, like a 50s Red Scare wet dream, the Second Coming erupts as a gigantic mushroom cloud that cuts a swathe through the unrighteousness.

Megiddo is evidently less concerned about scripture and more about action - there’s no Rapture, no Mark of the Beast, no Antichrist’s resurrection. Instead, BTS’s film is more about taking wild swings at Revelation for a wider audience - with deeper pockets.

BTS: Is ‘Megiddo’ still renting in Australia?

Andrew: Megiddo is, yeah. And it still trickles down to the same expression when they bring it back - "What the hell was that?" I think the whole church angle, the Book of Revelation angle, is so strong in it that it knocks people for a bit of a loop. I don't think they're used to seeing Church-funded apocalypse films.

During the Reagan years here in America, I think it was James Watts, the Evangelical Christian cabinet minister, was asked about the government’s rollback policies that were now damaging the environment. And he basically said, the environment doesn't matter - the Rapture is coming!

Yeah!

And, God will make it all over again if He wants to, so who cares, it's not important. What is important is for us right-wing Republicans to make as much money out of the environment as we can in the meantime….OK, he didn't say that. He didn't say THAT bit. Not out loud. Pardon me. I jest. And I'm a mind reader.

Yeah. Reading between the lines it's really quite a frightening concept.

Indeed, how did that longing for Rapture affect foreign policy? Nuclear Holocaust? No problem! Authoritarian Ideology of any kind is frightening, whether it is Calvinist, Islamic, or anti-intellectual Maoism of the Pol Pot variety.

Given the eccentric and irreverent nature of many of your films, Megiddo seems an odd choice. What do you say to critics who have accused you of using your skills to make propaganda for the religious right?

In a free society, everybody is entitled to get their message out there to anyone who will listen. That includes Evangelical Christians. There are 26 million members of registered Christian organisations in the US. One group of Pentecostal Christians, Trinity Broadcasting - wanted to make a movie about the battle of Armageddon, and were offering me the largest budget of my career. (So, careerism did enter into my decision.) But I had no qualms about telling their story, despite the fact that their message did not align with my spiritual beliefs. The Jewish line producer felt the same way. Of course I would not make a film for the Satanists. That’s a mental illness, not a religion. Or if the Taliban wanted an instructional film on “The Joy of Stoning”, I would also decline. In this instance, the Pentcostals wanted a product made – something they described openly as a “conversion tool”. Personally I find their philosophy a little judgemental, punitive and patriarchal for my taste, but they’re entitled to their views.

But what are your views?

Personally I believe that all religions are simply different cultural expressions of the same human yearning for answers to the meaning of life. Religions should be in harmony not conflict. How could “A Just God" create competing belief systems that encourage different races to make war upon one another in His Name? That would be cruel, and inconsistent with the concept of a benign super-intelligence capable of creating the cosmos. Empathy should make the world go round, not money. And this philosophy is common to all the great religious teachers that have influenced mankind. Treat thy neighbour as thyself. God is not the problem, we are. Society needs a moral code based on spiritual values - but throughout history, the ruling elite in different parts of the world always re-tooled religion into a control system. Some day in the future the world will unite under one religion, but it will be a religion that mandates racial and gender equality, embraces all major religions of the past as valid steps on the path to enlightenment, and applies spiritual values to solving economic and environmental problems. Not that anyone is going to take seriously religious instruction from the director of Leprechaun In Space, but those are my views, and the people who financed Megiddo are entitled to theirs also. It is important to have their views on display, so people can judge for themselves. So I said I would film their script, but invest it with a little of my sense of cinema humour at the same time. In this way, people not normally attracted to religious material might find it entertaining. Even revealing.

Let me digress on the subject of propaganda. It has its uses. Why? Because propaganda is a two-edged sword. It always reveals more about the people behind it than they realise at the time. Triumph Of The Will played very well to the German audience of its day. But to the rest of the world it was a clear warning to those still unconvinced as to where Hitler’s dreams of empire were headed. That film galvanised political opposition in England and America. There was much debate as to whether the director Leni Reifenstahl was a committed Nazi, an objective documentarian, or just a self serving careerist. Opinion will always remain divided. But her film provides mankind with a vital portrait of the arrogance and military triumphalism that imbued Hitler’s ideology, and a warning against allowing national pride to reach those toxic levels again. So propaganda of any kind – take cigarette advertising up to 1960 for instance – provides a useful addition to the public record. Let me hasten to add that I do not equate religious fundamentalists with Nazis, though the Taliban were getting close. The Pentecostals that I met through the movie all sincerely believed that their brand of Christianity was the way the world would be saved from despair. I saw their charities in operation. I met crack and heroin addicts they had rescued from skid row who were now living happy productive lives. There was a lot I saw that impressed me. But I just cannot buy this War-on-Satan thing as a driving force. Because I do not believe in Satan, this aggressive power of evil walking the earth, looking for ways to help people make themselves miserable. Satan is a metaphor for negative thinking. He is a fun movie character, but, like Jason and Freddie, he does not exist.

So how did you approach the movie?

As you know, I'm interested in genre gene-splicing. I thought, what this particular church wants to show its followers is a Cecil B. de Mille Ten Commandments type religious epic dealing with grand themes in allegorical terms on a world stage, culminating in the battle of Armageddon and The Second Coming. The script they gave me was florid melodrama, full of grandiloquent speeches substituting for relationships. It was The Greatest Script Ever Written, and changes were out of the question. That is, until Michael York and Michael Biehn both expressed their serious concerns about their characters, then I was allowed a pass at the script within strict guidelines. While giving the stars more meat to feed on, I tweaked the structure into something like: The Omen meets Airforce One in the End Of Days. They fight The Battle Of The Bulge ( Gulf War style) and are rewarded by The Second Coming. The melodrama of the piece could not be disguised so I embraced it whole heartedly. I pitched the tone of the film earnest and solemn for its religious market, and a little high camp for the secular audience, both of which were present on opening night. Stirring religious moments got applause, and a lot of Michael York’s dry asides got the laughs I was aiming for.

I'm sure that sociologists can deconstruct the film with glee, and they should. But hopefully there's my own small cult audience that might like it as high camp. That's why Michael York and I put in so many Biblical and Shakespearean quotes. He's a great Shakespearean actor so if you've got it, flaunt it. I felt if he had to make a lot of speeches, then they should be florid, literate speeches. Let him get his tongue around that, he's got one of the better tongues on the soundtrack these days. He used his Shakespearean skills to make the part constantly interesting. And you can't take your eyes off him when he's on the screen - he gobbles it up, with great skill.

You can tell he's not really taking it all very seriously.

No, he's having tremendous fun. So did I. I always have tremendous fun. Because I can always see the irony in things.

Where is Armageddon supposed to take place?

Prophecy suggests the battle will be fought round a hill overlooking the Jezreel Valley in Israel, the hill of Megiddo. This is the reputed site of the stables of King Solomon. It is also the site of numerous battles over the last six thousand years, a crossing point into the Jordan Valley. General Allenby defeated the Turks in 1918 on the Plain of Megiddo. Armageddon means “ at Megiddo “. So it's a place where strategic battles were always fought, so I guess that's why they nominated it for the 'final battle'. So I went there to check it out, and it looked just like agricultural land in Bakersfield, California. It didn't look like a dramatic landscape appropriate for staging the end of the world. I needed a place that evoked Masada, the mountain retreat where Israelite freedom fighters held off a Roman Army for three years, before committing mass suicide. Also, the 2000 Intifada was heating up. Israel was not going to be a healthy place to be shooting battle scenes from a Christian movie in a few months time. So we choose a part of California that looked like the traditional image of Israel, where the greatest danger would be driving the freeway to get there. In the Santa Clarita Valley, there is a place called Mystery Mesa, a large plateau which rises about 300 feet in the air and gave us a commanding 360 degree view of surrounding valleys and mountain ranges. Our Jewish line producer Larry Bettman was smart enough to spot it from the air in a light plane. It looked just like Masada and yet it was 30 miles from LA.

How much re-writing of the script were you allowed to do?

The original script spent nearly 40 pages on back story before Michael York is on the screen. Fascinating though the Anti-Christ’s childhood and military school experiences may be, the story treads water, the star is absent, and the audience is undoubtedly impatient. But the back story was ruled a sacred cow, so to speak. I streamlined and condensed as much as I was allowed to. The opening sequence was originally intended to be placed in the middle. I took it and placed it at the beginning, so at least we'd get Michael York up on the screen in the first few seconds, announcing his agenda, and the audience could immediately understand, oh, this is a sort of a Biblical allegory with grandiloquent speeches. And then it goes into strictly generic Omen-esque territory, so that people feel grounded in a familiar genre. Then, after some teenage romance to set up future conflict, and some slight grinding of gears, it changes genres into global political drama with supernatural trimmings. A bit of a dog’s breakfast – all over the place – but personally I like genre cocktails if they move fast enough and exult in their excesses. 4 movies in one has got to be worth watching.

Why is there a paintball battle in an era before the game was invented? Did you feel the need for another action scene and anything would do?

The only reason there is a totally anachronistic paintball battle sequence at the Italian military school ( Remember, this is 1975, guys!) is that principal producer Matthew Crouch, whose father financed the film, led his paintball team to victory in the State Championships, and he wanted the scene in the film. So that was that. Peripherally the scene demonstrates the Anti-Christ’s ruthlessness (if we were still uncertain) and his grasp of military strategy (take the enemy by surprise from behind). I introduced colored smoke into the battle and that gives the sequence an interesting look. On balance the paintball battle does give the film a burst of visual energy before a bunch of wordy sequences preceding the murder of the father. Then the structure motors along quite nicely (or absurdly, depending on your point of view).

Embellishing character within this structure had its challenges and restrictions. If you feel that there is a rather passive protagonist in the film, the Michael Biehn character, it's not for want of trying. I think he did a wonderful job, I hasten to add, but he didn't want to take the part until I could make the character as active as it is currently in the film. But the hero was not allowed to do anything on his own initiative that was not already pre-determined by God. The real hero of the movie is God, the protagonist is merely his tool. So this means that the heroic actions of the protagonist, which generally in cinema drama cause the tables to be overturned and the matters to be resolved in favour of the forces of good, in any allegorical tale, that formula was not permissible because the message of the picture is "Only God will decide, God will rule." And so you have to obey God's will at all times. Those are His chosen terms. So I originally wanted Michael Biehn to go up the hill for his final confrontation with his brother the Anti-Christ, with a tracking device in his boot, so that he could be the homing signal for Tomahawk missiles to blow up the Beast. But that was not God’s plan, it was explained to me. God required the protagonist to go on a suicide mission with no plan, just sacrifice himself. Then God would intervene, because everything is His show. He says when, where and how. Personally I have difficulty in reconciling this dictum with the massive amounts of Undeserved Misfortune in the world today. I have a problem with any belief system that models the spiritual world on tribal, hierachical command and control structures that have existed in human society throughout history, primarily to benefit the elites. Surely the Supreme Being is smarter and kinder than that? But what would I know? I am just an ethical hedonist who enjoys making movies.

Another of the script problems was that everyone was making speeches at each other, rather than having relationships. So what I worked on was to give Michael York a relationship with his wife, played by Diane Venora. Her part was so appalling no actress would take it! So I had to really clean it up and give her more to do, so that women were not just...

Hand-wringing kind of martyr types.

That's right. Or just clueless.

"I just realised he was the Beast!" Gasp!

Well, yes, that was a question Diane asked me often. "How come I have not really known all this time?" And I said, well, the only way you can justify this is that you haven't wanted to know. You know that there's a bucket under the bed, but you just don't want to lift the lid. You know something's there, but if you keep it hidden under the bed you don't confront your complicity.

But there is a little bit of a clue, too, that she's seduced by the charitable work with the poor that he's been doing, and so she actually does believe that he's doing good.

Indeed, his overt position is –“ I may be ruthless at business, but I’m just doing it so that I can pour a whole lot of money back into helping humanity”. So she turns a blind eye. The message there is that the Devil can seduce you with false values other than the obvious mercenary ones. Some of us can be seduced by our own sense of pride in our moral rectitude or level of compassion. The Devil will find your weakest point, whatever pride you're susceptible to, and exploit that. And you know, that's reasonably plausible. My view is that the Devil is a metaphor for selfishness, from which all human failings stem. But in this kind of movie it is fun to visually create The Beast. However, his final depiction in Megiddo by a sorry digital effect, scarcely worthy of Playstation 2, was my greatest disappointment with the film. That’s a problem with CGI. The experts assure you it will look great in the final render. When it doesn’t, it is too late and too expensive to start over. Overall, our VFX supervisors did a great job with limited resources, but The Beast let us down. He should have been really scary.

I'm really keen on the early scenes, the Omen inspired ones. The attempting to burn the baby. Which is always a nice moment! (laughs)

Well yes, I had fun with that. There was an attempted baby burning scene in the original script, and it had to take place, and there had to be this line from the evil kid: "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away." And that was an edict from on high. So I made the most of it. I mean, I've watched it with mothers present, and they shift very uncomfortably in their seats. But we were at great pains not to endanger the baby, or even the doll!

And of course, one of my other favourite moments is the first appearance of Udo Kier, because it was so totally unexpected! (laughs) I fell off my chair when I saw Udo.

Udo, yeah, he's great. He's quite a character.

So I've got a feeling that you're more than compensating the Brian Trenchard-Smith cult audience -

Well, I would HOPE so!

- by populating the film with people like Udo Kier and Franco Nero particularly.

Well, I'd like to take credit for that, but in truth we had to get some names that had some theatrical value in Europe. So that, we knew the film would get a theatrical release in the United States, because they were basically going to four- wall it, through whatever theatres they could get. Three hundred ultimately. But to make sure that it would get a theatrical release in Europe it had to have some European stars, in addition to Michael York, who certainly is a British name. Udo and Franco were friends with Larry Mortorff, one of the 'secular' producers. He's got thirty producer credits on movies. He's a lawyer, and a significant powerbroker in his own way in Hollywood. And he knows everybody, so he can call in relationships. He knew Franco and he knew Udo, from past films, and said hey, think about being in this. I talked to those guys over the phone and we worked something out. I mean, in the script Udo’s character had absolutely no part at all, and I just used every opportunity to have him as an observer in scenes. So we built him up as much as possible, but as far as Udo is concerned, it's still not nearly enough part! But it was all I could manage, particularly in something that had to be shot in 38 days. And in Italy, they work ten hour, not 12 hour days. But it was a wonderful castle, Bracchiano Castle, about a hour outside of Rome, which has been used in Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, and a number of other pictures.

So the question, I still haven't asked the question, how DID you become involved, in a church-funded apocalypse film? I mean, how were you first approached?

I was approached by a friend of mine who'd just had lunch with Mrs. Michael York. She said, "We're having real trouble finding a director that WE like for this follow-up to The Omega Code."

Because Michael York was listed as one of the producers.

Yes, well I'm sure that was an inducement for him to come on board the second one. And indeed, he's written a book about it - 'Dispatches from Armageddon' by Michael York. He kept a daily diary, which, I think, is an interesting rose-coloured view of things! But he's very kind to me, and to what I did, and yeah, I'm sure you could get that book on-line if you wanted. Because that could help you with your book, or your chapters, because there would be some quotes from him, relating to the film.

Anyway, Mrs York told this friend of mine, David Baxter, gee, I wish we could find a good director. And he says, "I know one!" I should give him credit for that. David Baxter is a young producer about to score with a lot of projects. And he's been a friend of mine since we met at the UCLA fencing club.

That sounds like a good place to network!

Anyway, David called me on my cell, and says, "Hey, get your reel over to Michael York's manager." And so I did. And so Michael duly saw my demo tape, and then I was called to meet him at a book signing he was doing for his book on Shakespeare. And as he said in his Megiddo book - ” five minutes later I could see that I was a man he could do business with”. And so he knew I didn't have a fixed vision, that I was going to be a conductor of fine instruments, as I often call myself as a director. You have to be a conductor of fine instruments, pick the brains of everybody and then weld their ideas into your ideas. I mean, immediately it was obvious that we should put Shakespeare in, Shakespearean quotes in the script. So when he saw my fondness for Shakespeare too, then I think that helped.

So then I was given to the Trinity Broadcasting people to have my professional past examined. I think they saw Britannic , the story of Titannic’s sister ship, which also sank. They deemed it very good value for money and special effects. I made it for $3.5M, ( perhaps little more than James Cameron’s catering budget!) So, they thought that I could handle a big look in a short shooting schedule. And I did. In fact, the schedule was originally going to be 44 days, and it was reduced to 38 days, which was a struggle but we did it. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world, it was great fun, and it may one day, someone will deconstruct it for a more popular audience.

I figured in some cases it probably would need someone holding their hands through it, saying, "Look, I don't think everybody's taking this so seriously, you know."

Much of the Christian press praised it, loudly.

Because they do...

And I am glad that the bulk of the Christian audience that saw it enjoyed it. Because how often does a big-scale VFX heavy Christian themed action picture come their way. Friends of mine called me after seeing it with suburban audiences a couple of weeks into the run. There was cheering in several spots and applause at the end. My job is to please an audience in whatever genre, so that was satisfying to hear. On the other secular side of the fence, I think only one reviewer got my tandem approach. Harry Knowles's Aint It Cool News review, well he had one correspondent who called it the kind of overtly high camp old fashioned B movie that they basically don't make any more. I'll take that as a great compliment.

That IS a good compliment!

Yeah, well I'm always interested in reworking a genre. Sadly only the faithful went on the release date, the week after the 9/11 attack. The secular audience stayed away from a film whose ad line stated….” In the beginning, the End had a name…( MEGIDDO )…That time is now…” Comforting words a few days after the worst attack ever on American soil. If they had written off the publicity expenses already committed to, and postponed the release till after Afghanistan – say February – and changed the ad campaign to a message of hope – then they would have done twice the business.

But according to an interview that I forwarded to you, the producers really did think that they were recording history as prophesied by the Bible.

Yeah, indeed, they said that God had positioned the release date of Megiddo to occur just after the terrorist attack when mankind needed to reflect on its ways. And there are those that believe that Biblical prophecy is about to come true, that we are in the time of Tribulation, which immediately precedes Armageddon, and will be followed by the Rapture. There are those that believe what George Bush is doing in occupying Iraq and inviting the terrorists to come there and fight American forces will bring about the very Jihad crusade that Ousama bin Laden set out to create, a clash between Muslim and Christian nations. However there are those that believe this is a Good Thing, because God will intervene on the Christian side, smite the heathen, and institute a New World Order. There are Right Wing Christians who justify American Imperialism as the Lord’s will. God created America to take control of the world for its own good.

A good way of disguising corporate interests.

Well yes! You'll die for what you're told is your God. But, if the God of the people who are telling you to die is -in truth- Money, then you've died for someone else's profits. I can't think of a justifiable war this century, other than World War Two. And again, if people hadn't been as craven and spineless and morally flexible in the 20s and 30s in relation to what was happening in Germany, Hitler could have been stopped. Hitler would have been avoided if the Treaty of Versailles had not been so punitive, and basically created the economic conditions that would bring about a fascist demagogue. And the present Middle East conflict would have been avoided if the British, French and Americans had not arrogantly carved up the Ottoman Empire to suit their own interests, while ignoring the interests and needs of the different ethnic groups in the region.

One thing I didn't ask was, have you actually watched the first Omega Code.

Yes I did. It has a promising start, some interesting mood and atmosphere and intrigue... but I'm afraid that from the moment that Casper van Dien leaps over that sofa on the talk show introductory sequence - it's all downhill from there. By the end, it is confusing and hard to sit through. Michael Biehn said to me "Did you see that first film they made? I tried to sit through it FOUR TIMES and I can't get to the end!" Well - it has one or two interesting moments, but it wasn't the compelling thriller it was advertised to be, but the Christian audience were so starved of anything that related to their area of interest, they went to it in great numbers. And it spawned the sequel.

Well, it's the whole concept of the starving man in the desert and the box of Sayo biscuits. He's gonna LOVE that packet of Sayo biscuits when he finally comes across them!

I thought surely there was a better movie to be made out of this kind of material. And lo and behold, I got my chance to try. But look, none of our films are perfect, certainly not mine.

It's incredible. Have you seen the Thief In The Night series?

The ones that you mentioned, those Seventies apocalyptic Christian ones, I've never seen those.

Oh, those Seventies ones are absolutely amazing. And you know I'm interviewing the filmmakers on Thursday. They're trying to get a miniseries, based on the seventies apocalypse series, off the ground for some Christian cable network.

There is a rival group of Christian filmmakers, who make the Left Behind series.

That's the one, yeah. I can't remember the name of their company, but they brought out Revelation and Tribulation...

Right. They've done VERY well.

They've done incredibly well, and yet… they really ARE awful, they're true B films.

But that's how starved the Christian audience is, for anything that speaks to them as decent. I mean, what can you say?

It's really quite interesting, because they're involved with a ministry called the Jack Van Impe Ministry. He's, I guess, one of the big Pentecostal bigwigs, who organised, I don't know if you know this, he organised an internet - not a survey, but a petition, an internet petition, that was sent out to about a thousand cinemas across America, with the names of thousands and thousands of born again Christian names, saying "We will blacklist your cinema unless you start to play Christian product." And that was about two years ago.

So that may explain why Trinity was able to get Megiddo into four hundred cinemas.

Yeah. I think it was only three hundred at the end of the day. They lost the states of New York and Washington D.C. - no theatre there would book the film after 9/11. Every theatre in those states cancelled their bookings.

Why, because it was seen to be in bad taste?

Yeah. You see a shot of the Pentagon in the film - and when I saw it with an audience 9 days after the Pentagon was hit, the audience winced at that shot. Now, I don't think that means you should cut it out, I think you should release the film at a more sensible time. Or a more prudent time in the market, or at least wait and see what a prudent time is. Megiddo is not a film that would ever have gone out of date, because it is, in a way, already dated - a Sixties epic in modern dress. Ten Commandments meets the Book of Revelations. Good versus evil, the wrath of God, the clash of nations, brother against brother - hey, you know, sounds like good stuff. But anyway, they decided to embrace the disaster of 9/11 and make it all part of the plan. And I think that was a major credibility blot, when God did not reward them with boffo box office.

Did you say it only got about six million?

$ Six million. Which is half what its predecessor got, but it did ship at least 450,000 video copies in the US and Canada alone. And it's a better film than its predecessor, I say with my customary modesty, and it's by no means perfect. But it's an interesting effort. But it could have done substantially better if they had judged the mood of the country more prudently, spent a bit more time thinking about it.

It was almost like the case of the fundamentalist minister who came out within a week of September 11 and said that New York deserved it, because it was a city full of paedophiles and sinners and sodomites! You know, that sort of thing is not good PR for the church.

No. Well, I think the church has got quite a few questions going on at the moment. I mean the Catholic Church, certainly. But I'm glad I made the film, I don't think it's harmed anybody, I don't think it will spiritually corrupt anyone, and it is certainly a visual document that is quite eloquent as to the whole philosophy of a particular branch of the Pentecostals in America, a very powerful branch.

One element that is missing from Omega Code and Omega Code 2, which was in the Left Behind series, is the whole concept of a rapture.

Yes.

So was it not in the job description to put in the rapture and...

I think it became ultimately a matter of budget. I mean, in the script, as Michael Biehn lies dying, he sees the Diane Venora character floating above him like an angel, so she's in heaven - but there was not a scripted rapture, other than the Mount of Olives splitting open and water gushing out. THAT aspect of the rapture, prophecy wise, was reflected, but the spirits all rising up out of the ground was not. And I think there was a genuine concern - perhaps a wise concern - by the producers, that it could look awfully hokey, it could look like something out of an early Sam Raimi film. Well, Sam Raimi would have done an interesting job on The Omega Code series (laughs).

I think so, yeah. If you look at those Seventies apocalypse films or even the recent ones, the Left Behind series, they always include the Seven Seals opening and the Four Horsemen. You sort of hinted at the whole thing about the Four Horsemen, the Pestilence and Starvation visiting the land, in a series of news stories.

Yeah. We were going to have more tribulation, we were going to have a blizzard of giant hailstorms smash the Pacific Design Center. There was meant to be all sorts of freak weather, which ultimately I got out of stock footage, and I created these little news broadcasts, to tell the audience about things we couldn't afford to do. Which is a low budget technique. But yeah, we could have had more, but that's the idea - God tests the people of the world with tribulations Will they still worship him in times of trouble? Or will they switch allegiance to a plausible celebrity who claims to be a benefactor to mankind, but really he represents the forces of evil. So those that side with the pretender, 'they will be cut down like winter wheat'. And that's the message

My point was that the other films are kind of almost beating the audience over the head with this whole Biblical Book of Revelations concept of the false prophet, and people accepting the mark of the Beast. In one film they're actually getting what looks like ink stamps on their arm, that kind of resemble bar codes. You know? And at one point the ink is kind of smudged, so it looks kind of shitty. And so I think to the credit of Megiddo you haven't kind of spelt it out to the audience.

I tried to eliminate scenes that would be so absurd in their internal logic that they took you out of the movie. However, there are those that believe the “ mark of the beast “ is your credit card number, and ultimately fallen believers will show their allegiance to the Antichrist by having it stencilled on their body, thus permitting them to receive food and water in the time of Tribulation. This was too complex a side issue for the film to explore.

In the light of all my comments, I don't want to appear to be stabbing the movie in the back retrospectively. I'm really quite pleased that it is what it is, that it turned out as well as it did, given the fact that it was an extremely difficult film to prep in eight weeks from a standing start, including rewriting. And shoot in 38 instead of 44 days. The works.

And the whole point of the article is particularly not to belittle the first Omega Code either, or to say that all these films are a little silly. You know, I'm seriously applying what is seen to be, what do they call it, apocalypticism, into that whole Christian theory of rapture, tribulation, armageddon.

You know why I think that the apocalypse movies and books and so forth are so popular right now, is because the world has become so complex, and so threatening. Not only are you threatened by geopolitics that you have no control over,and an environment and a food supply that is becoming more and more polluted and contaminated, you seem to be threatened by an economic system that becomes more and more oppressive to the middle class The rich get richer, the poor get audited, so that the once-contented, happy-little-vegemite middle class are now feeling the squeeze and they're frightened about the future. So if they can convince themselves that there's a future beyond the immediate future, that will give them what they've worked so hard all their lives for, to give them contentment and a life without fear, and all the things that Heaven promises - and all they have to do is obey the precepts of God's messengers on Earth, then that is some measure of comfort. But in a way, it's almost a neurotic reaction to a traumatic situation.

But it's a very human reaction too.

A very human reaction, we all search for the unknowable. I mean, my particular religious beliefs are completely different. I believe in the essential unity of all religions as different cultural expressions of the same search for the meaning of life, the imponderable, the unknowable. We don't know the answer. But we need to try to find it. So I believe that religion should not be a reason for conflict, it should be a reason for unity.

Well, that's pretty much my position too. But I'm sure that you didn't tell that to the Pentecostals! Unitarianism is possibly one of the big buggaboos or possibly one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse too.

Yeah, well, this is the way they are. Religion can be used as a control system, with a centralised authority that doesn’t like to share. But I would like to add that the rank and file Pentecostals that I dealt with on the film were all genuine decent likable people. On the last night of shooting, 300 Christian volunteers were swelling the ranks of our extras in the battle scenes. It was freezing cold. Groups of them huddled round small gas heaters for warmth singing Christian songs between set ups. I went over to one group to thank them for their contribution. And they decided to give me a blessing, crowding round me, laying their hands on me, even though I was not one of them. They prayed that I might find God like them. They were genuinely happy people. It was very sweet. I was touched. I accepted the blessing. Did it make me a better person? I think I am still the same. Perhaps it stopped me getting any worse! Anyway, that's it for the night.