Monday, October 20, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: RAW FORCE (1982)

(US - 1982)

Written and directed by Edward Murphy. Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Geoff Binney, Hope Holiday, Jillian Kesner, John Dresden, Jennifer Holmes, Rey King, Carla Reynolds, Carl Anthony, John Locke, Mark Tanous, Ralph Lombardi, Vic Diaz, Camille Keaton, Jewel Shepard. (R, 86 mins)

Fans of early '80s grindhouse and late-night cable have largely kept RAW FORCE to themselves over the years, but that's likely to change with Vinegar Syndrome's release of the film in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. A revival of the MIAMI CONNECTION sort is likely, and while both are equally ridiculous, RAW FORCE at least knows it's ridiculous. Writer/director Edward Murphy is interviewed in the release's accompanying retrospective, and says "It was a movie for 17-year-old boys...and it probably still is." Probably the best Philippines-shot B-grade T&A actioner that Roger Corman never produced, RAW FORCE has a winking and very tongue-in-cheek attitude, mixing action, horror, comedy, and gratuitous nudity into a jawdropping plot that's equal parts kung-fu epic, DAWN OF THE DEAD, Nazisploitation, raunchy slob comedy, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, and THE LOVE BOAT. Anyone taking this seriously is completely missing the point: RAW FORCE is the kind of sleazy exploitation gem that demands to be resurrected on the midnight movie circuit.

Members of the Burbank Karate Club--including Mike O'Malley (Geoff Binney), John Taylor (John Dresden), Go Chin (Rey King), and Los Angeles cop Cookie Winchell (Jillian Kesner)--are on a cruise organized by dotty Hazel (Hope Holiday) and captained by the disgruntled Harry Dodds (Cameron Mitchell), that runs afoul of the jade trading operation of nefarious, Hitler-mustached villain Speer (Ralph Lombardi). When Speer gets wind of the cruise stopping at Warrior's Island, he dispatches his incompetent underlings--who look like a Village People tribute act--to stop them, which only results in a bar fight where the kung-fu Love Boaters handle them with ease. Speer's jade operation is a cover for his lucrative sex trade, abducting and supplying girls for a sect of monks (led by Filipino exploitation fixture Vic Diaz) that live on the otherwise deserted island. But even that's a cover for what's really going on: the island was settled by this sect in 1779 as the burial ground for disgraced martial artists, and the monks are there to watch over the kung-fu zombies who require the flesh of young women to survive. Not even Speer's henchmen are aware of the truth behind his operation, and when they abduct cruise member Eileen (Carla Reynolds), the Burbank Karate Club and gun-toting Capt. Dodds take action.  Because they're...the RAW FORCE!

There's some spirited and occasionally impressive fight choreography in RAW FORCE if it involves people actually schooled in martial arts, like Kesner (FIRECRACKER) or King. With most of the actors, however, it looks awkward and not-very-rehearsed, which of course only adds to the enjoyment. Like the filmmakers, most of the actors--particularly Lombardi as the evil Speer--seem to be in on the joke. RAW FORCE has such a pronounced sense of anything-goes giddiness that it's indicative of what might've happened if Filipino exploitation legend Cirio H. Santiago was clever enough to make a self-aware spoof of his own trash movies. In that sense, it almost belongs in the same category of self-conscious New World titles like HOLLYWOOD BLVD (1976) and PIRANHA (1978), but if anything, RAW FORCE is more ridiculous and cartoonishly over-the-top than almost anything Roger Corman was releasing in the early '80s, GALAXY OF TERROR worm-rape notwithstanding. It's not enough to have martial arts fight scenes and topless beauties throughout (including I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE's Camille Keaton and future DTV erotic thriller mainstay Jewel Shepard in tiny roles), but RAW FORCE take it several steps further by throwing in a Hitler surrogate as the primary villain along with evil, clapping, cackling monks and a kung-fu zombie army. And it ends with Dresden's Taylor breaking the fourth wall and winking at the audience as a title card promises "To Be Continued..." thereby essentially all but openly stating that yes, RAW FORCE is a comedy.

The cast is only as good as they have to be, though Lombardi, who obviously saw THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL and patterned his performance on Gregory Peck's Josef Mengele, chews the scenery with gusto, and the always-appealing Kesner is enjoyable as the tough-as-nails Cookie. Dresden is the nominal main hero, even though sporadically-employed 1970s TV actor Binney is more prominently-billed in what turned out to be his last role before retiring from acting at 37. It's great fun watching a grumbling Mitchell, who appears to be nowhere near the vicinity of sober, bitching his way through his role, endlessly griping about the lack of maintenance on the ship and the penny-pinching cheapness of Hazel's cruise operation--it's almost as if it's his own personal running commentary on being a once-promising 1950s leading man reduced to appearing in movies like RAW FORCE. With some of the film's financing coming from the Philippines' San Miguel Brewery, Mitchell (1918-1994) was the biggest name the producers could afford, and Holiday--Mitchell's girlfriend according to Murphy, even though she was married to character actor Frank Marth from 1967 until his death in 2014--presumably was part of his deal as they worked together on several D-list exploitation titles in the 1980s, including KILLPOINT (1984) and the MST3K favorite SPACE MUTINY (1988). Holiday had prominent supporting roles in the Billy Wilder films THE APARTMENT (1960) and IRMA LA DOUCE (1963) before she was relegated to TV and drive-in gigs.

Cameron Mitchell (1918-1994)
It was even worse for Mitchell by the early 1980s. He stayed busy but was a long way from Happy Loman in the big-screen version of DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1951), or playing the older brother of Marlon Brando's Napoleon in DESIREE (1954), or clashing with James Cagney over Doris Day in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955). Though he might still turn up in some all-star disaster movie like THE SWARM (1978), gigs for Mitchell in major-studio films dropped drastically by the late 1970s. Around the same time as RAW FORCE, Mitchell had a showy, cigar-chomping supporting turn with an Oscar-nominated Peter O'Toole in MY FAVORITE YEAR, which marked his last appearance in an A-list big-screen project. Mitchell continued making movies and was still guesting on TV shows like FANTASY ISLAND, MAGNUM P.I., KNIGHT RIDER, MURDER SHE WROTE, and SIMON & SIMON, and in miniseries like DREAM WEST (1986), but things like RAW FORCE and KILL SQUAD were pretty much the state of his career in the 1980s. In 1983, Mitchell even co-starred with John Leslie and Veronica Hart in the hard-boiled hardcore porno DIXIE RAY, HOLLYWOOD STAR, which was cut down into an R-rated softcore version retitled IT'S CALLED MURDER, BABY. Though Mitchell didn't partake in any sex scenes, it was very rare for a well-known, mainstream actor to appear in a XXX film (similarly-skidding '50s tough guy Aldo Ray co-starred with Carol Connors in the 1978 porno western SWEET SAVAGE), even if he would later claim he was unaware that it was going to be hardcore. No matter how many lowly, disreputable jobs he was offered, Mitchell never stopped working (eight credits in 1987 alone!) and while he was usually hired to overact and would often appear to be drunk, he would occasionally demonstrate that he still had that fire in his belly and would turn in an interesting and unexpectedly strong performance when no one was looking in something like THE OFFSPRING (1987). He died from lung cancer in 1994, never achieving a big comeback. Mitchell's final role came in Steve Latshaw's no-budget horror film JACK-O, released straight-to-video over a year after his death.

RAW FORCE marked Murphy's filmmaking debut, and he only made one other film, 1985's HEATED VENGEANCE, starring BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA's Richard Hatch. In the bonus features, the gregarious writer/director, who left movies to becoming a practicing attorney, talks about living as an expat in the Philippines after serving in Vietnam. He found work as a bit player in a slew of Filipino exploitation titles before stepping behind the camera. Like his cast, Murphy knows RAW FORCE is a stupid movie, but you can see the enthusiasm emanating from Murphy now and immediately see why RAW FORCE is so much fun. Murphy might be a bit too enthusiastic and reveling in the newfound attention that Vinegar Syndrome is bringing him. He talks about Holiday being Mitchell's girlfriend, but never mentioning her husband. Instead, he names Jonathan Winters as Holiday's ex-husband, and that was never the case. Winters was married once, to the same woman from 1949 until her death in 2009. Murphy claims to be good friends with Winters, even saying Winters was brought along by Holiday and Mitchell to a dinner meeting for a potential RAW FORCE II (it was never made, despite the joking promise at the end), yet he's surprised when offscreen interviewer Elijah Drenner informs him that Winters is dead (he died in 2013). I'm not saying Murphy is telling tales out of school--maybe Winters stepped out on his wife with Holiday, who knows?--or indulging in some full-of-shit revisionist history like Mark Damon claiming it was he, and not Roger Corman, who directed 1961's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, but it's possible that he misspoke and is simply confusing Jonathan Winters with someone else. It's also hard to believe Winters would even entertain the notion of accepting an offer to co-star in RAW FORCE II, unless he was just tagging along to get a free dinner out of it.

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