Saturday, September 17, 2011


I’m running low on fodder for my on-going Festival of Bad Cinema, so when I was in the city recently I dropped by 78 Records and picked up ‘Savage Cinema’, a collection of twelve exploitation movies from the 60s and 70s. The fact that at least two of those twelve were featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 gives you some idea of the impressive level of horribleness.

First out of the gates: 1976’s ‘Death Machines

I really don’t like this proposed revamp of the Washington Monument…

Using methods never even slightly explained, an evil organisation led by Isaac Asimov (judging from the shadowy silhouette with sideburns the size of chipmunks) wrests control of the assassination market with a trio of bullet-proof, mind-controlled karate champions. One of their jobs - wiping out the teachers and students at a suburban karate school - results in whiny bartender and karate wannabe Frank Thomas losing a hand but gaining a thirst for revenge. His desire for vengeance is tempered by his love for Florence, a codependent nurse he meets at the hospital, but even so he knows that more will die unless he can stop the Death Machines.

However all of his moaning and erratically scripted dialogue with Florence just distracts attention from the true hero of ‘Death Machines’: Madame Lee, manager of the day-to-day operations of the assassination business, and the greatest female character in the history of bad cinema.

“Hewwo evewybody!”

She draws her eyebrows on an inch or so above where they should be. She sports a wig that looks as if she’s wearing an immaculately arranged cocker spaniel on her head. She has a speech impediment so pronounced (if you’ll excuse the pun) that she’s barely comprehensible, let alone effective. And given that she’s shown swilling wine in virtually all of her scenes, one can only suspect a serious drinking problem.

“Ah shiwaz, my one twue fwiend…”

But while beauty is skin deep, crazy goes right to the core. Madame Lee’s business model relies heavily on the “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” school of project management. Want to expand your business? Throw someone off a skyscraper. Making a pitch to a prospective client? Decapitate his driver. Freshening the product line? Shoot your assassins in the head.

“I’ve been weading ‘The Seven Habits of Highwy Ineffective Cwiminals’…”

My personal philosophy is more along the lines of the old adage, “You can catch more flies with honey than you can with slaughtering them and putting their heads on tiny little pikes as a warning to others.” But maybe that’s just me.

I should add that while Madame Lee is the greatest female character in the history of bad cinema, she was not played by the greatest female actress – this was, thankfully, the sole performance of Mari Honjo’s career. If only the role had been given to Ursula Andress*, we could have averted the entire energy crisis of the 70s by powering the world on this movie’s awesomeness.

Sadly, and in a complete contradiction to the prevailing ethos of the 70s, Whiny Frank and Florence not only survive to the movie’s end, but vanquish Madame Lee and her henchman. Madame Lee dies as she lived: with enormous hair and a ridiculous look on her face.

“Tell my wine waiter… I wuv him...”

The Death Machines escape, however, and are shown fleeing the country via an unspecified airport.

Note that the Black Assassin has been cunningly disguised as your Year 11 English teacher.

This final image is frozen, to allow the thought of the Death Machines loose in the world to sear into the audience’s consciousnesses. And it stays frozen, with music playing over the top of it, for a total of sixty seven seconds. This was presumably intended to be the background for the closing credits, but said closing credits were not created, perhaps because everyone from the director to the assistant best boy refused to take any responsibility for this craptastic mess.

But I’ll leave this review reflecting on happier times, with Madame Lee captured in all her magnificent, incomprehensible glory. In this scene she’s either setting up a meeting with a local crime boss, or ordering some new bookcases from Ikea… it’s impossible to tell.

* As the astute reader already knows, I’m all for every character in every movie being played by Ursula Andress, from Willy Loman to Willy Wonka. What can I say; I dream of a better world.


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