MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE

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For this week’s double feature I have decided to go with the two low budget movies John Carpenter made as part of his deal with Alive Films in the late 80s. A little burnt on dealing with big studio films, these where modestly budgeted flicks which Carpenter wrote and directed himself and were financed by Alive. A disagreement over the budget of a third film ended the deal, but these two films have become cult classics. I have covered Prince Of Darkness here before, but do think it makes a really good fit with the other film in the Alive Films/ John Carpenter collaberation, They Live
… If you are interested in these titles, both films are currently available with gorgeous new prints and some fun extras from the awesome folks at Scream Factory.

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PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

Prince of Darkness is a strange movie written by Carpenter and combining religion and theoretical quantum physics. It sounds like a contradictory combination, but it works better then you might expect. It was the first of a multi-picture deal with Alive Films where Carpenter would make 3 or 4 low budget flicks. The second and last film was the cult classic They Live, as a disagreement over the third film’s budget ended the collaboration.

The story opens with the death of a priest who presided over a small inner city parish. Enter Donald Pleasence as another priest…who’s name is never given…who discovers that the deceased priest was part of a secret society within the church called The Brotherhood Of Sleep. And this sect have been protecting a dark secret that may challenge the very core of what we have come to believe both scientifically and religiously. A team of college students, led by Professor Birack (Victor Wong from Big Trouble In Little China) and including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), are brought to the parish to investigate a strange cylinder filled with a pulsating green liquid in a locked chamber in the basement, as well as, the scriptures that come with it. They discover that the liquid is a form of the Anti-Christ and it seeks release in order to bring it’s father, the Anti-God into our world. And as members of the team start to fall under it’s powerful thrall and they all become plagued by the same strange dreams, it’s terrifyingly obvious that the remaining team members are in a fight against an ancient evil that their science may not be able to contain.

Carpenter delivers a very odd but effectively creepy film. It’s has an atmosphere of dread from the start to the finish and presents a very chilling scenario that there may be things in existence that neither our religion or science may be able to handle. And as these are two things people most put their faith in, it is a disturbing concept. It also presents an interesting idea that Bible prophecies may have actually been warnings sent from the future as the dream effecting all our college science students appears to be exactly that. Carpenter also presents the possibility that certain Bible stories were put in place to cover more disturbing truths as the scientific knowledge to explain or understand the reality of it was not available. Basically we were told things in fable form because the science wasn’t there to properly explain it and we weren’t advanced enough to understand it. As someone who was born and raised Christian yet has always had an interest in science, I actually have had this thought myself occasionally and it was interesting to see the master filmmaker weave this theory into his plot. Carpenter also uses his low budget well and keeps the story, for the most part contained in the church. Again working with the fear of isolation as a horde of homicidal homeless people keep our besieged team members inside. Gary B. Kibbe provides the atmospheric cinematography and would collaborate with Carpenter on seven more projects and he gives Prince a very unsettling look yet, rich with color. This is a strange film that may not appeal to everyone, it took me a few years and repeat viewings before I fully appreciated it and it’s grown on me since I first saw it in 87 and wasn’t quite sold on it then.

The film has it’s flaws, some of the make-up FX are cheesy and some of the violent death scenes, especially those perpetrated by the army of homeless people surrounding the church, lead by Alice Cooper, seem a little out of place in a film that starts out working in subtlety. But since it does switch gears and become more of a traditional horror film in it’s second half, as the possessed students try to kill or possess the others who are fighting against their former friends to stay alive, so in the overall scheme they work fine. Some may not have patience for some of the science heavy dialog, but I though Carpenter’s script does a good job of giving scientific explanations for some of the more supernatural elements of the religious scripture presented in his story. Regardless of your beliefs, Carpenter poses some interesting questions and the film is really creepy throughout. And adding to the effectiveness is one of Carpenter’s spookiest scores to date composed with frequent collaborator Alan Howarth.

Overall, Prince Of Darkness is perhaps Carpenter’s oddest and most daring film, in some respects, but yet another that wasn’t all that well accepted at first and now has gained a following over the years and rightfully so. This flick may not be for everyone and it’s mix of science and religion may not work for some, but I think it’s an interesting and thoroughly creepy movie that not only presents some well executed traditional horror elements, but poses some interesting questions and theories about what we believe in as well. Also stars another Big Trouble In Little China alumni, Dennis Dun in a fun role as a skeptical student.

3 canisters of gooey pulsating dormant evil!

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THEY LIVE (1988)

John Carpenter wrote and directed his second and last feature in the ill-fated Alive Films deal. This flick was a fun alien invasion, Sci-Fi/Action flick based on the short story Eight O’Clock In The Morning by Ray Nelson. Carpenter also mixed in some deft messages about class warfare and how the rich and powerful manipulate the government and media to reduce the rest of us to little more then slaves…a message even more relevant today then it was in 1988, with big corporations running our media and, to be honest, our government…but I digress…

The story focuses on unemployed construction worker John Nada (Roddy Piper) who through a series of events comes across a pair of special sunglasses that let him see the world for what it truly is, an alien run society where humans who collaborate and cooperate are made rich and powerful and those who don’t are coerced by subliminal messages placed in all the media to basically follow orders and do what they are told. If you’re not one of the haves, you’re little more than a have-not slave. Nada has nothing else to lose so, he decides to join a growing underground rebellion and fight back, taking reluctant friend Frank (Keith David) and accidental hostage Holly (Meg Foster) along for the ride. But the aliens are everywhere and so are the traitorous humans that have sold out and John Nada and Co. have some pretty big odds to overcome if they are to find and eliminate the beings’ hypnotic signal and wake the world up from it’s alien induced slumber.

They Live may not be Carpenter’s strongest work, but it is still a fan favorite and a lot of fun. The film moves fast and there is a lot of suspenseful action including a now classic fistfight between “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and The Thing’s Keith David and the gunfight finale inside a cable TV office building. As usual Carpenter gives the film a nice look on a low budget with Gary B. Kibbe once again filling former Carpenter DOP Dean Cundey’s shoes nicely with some beautiful camerawork. The political messages are a little heavy-handed, but there is enough action and aliens to even it out and the film has some really nice SPFX for a very modestly budgeted film especially those that portray the real world as seen through the signal blocking glasses. The film has some clunky dialog and it could have used some more time within the workings of the rebellion to get us a bit more endeared to the freedom fighters before they clash with the invaders, but the focus is on Nada and Frank and it is they who are left with the task of taking the bizarre invaders down. The film also has some very uniquely designed extraterrestrials to act as our villains and the make-up FX work well. It is both one of Carpenter’s lighter films and yet, ironically, one of his most politically and socially critical. As, despite the dire message, the film also has a very satirical sense of humor as well and that helps us past some of it’s flaws as it doesn’t take itself too seriously that we don’t have a good time watching Piper run out of bubblegum and kick ass.

And as for our leading man, Piper does OK here. Carpenter hired him because he felt he had a look of someone who has lived a hard life and that works in the case of down on his luck Nada. Piper isn’t the best actor, but he holds his on especially during the action scenes and only stumbles a little in some of the more dialog heavy moments. Kurt Russell would have been prefect, but Piper works better than expected. Keith David is good as always. He makes Frank a likable and honorable man, but one who we believe doesn’t take any crap from anyone. Foster is a little stiff as Holly, but since she plays a woman thrust into a very surreal situation, it almost fits the part. There are also some solid small roles from frequent Carpenter collaborators like Peter Jason as the rebellion leader Gilbert and George ‘Buck’ Flower as a homeless man who discovers the benefit of playing nice with the ruling alien elite. Carpenter and associate Alan Howarth again deliver a memorable score to support the film.

They Live is now considered a cult classic and I certainly agree. While it may have some familiar elements and common themes, it still comes across as a unique little movie and one with an important message that still resonates almost three decades later. And despite it’s message being a large part of the film’s plot, Carpenter wraps it with a fun, Action/ Sci-Fi coating to make it easily digestible. Piper may not have been the strongest actor to cast in the lead, but he does carry the flick and it’s fun to watch him have a good time with the part even if he stumbles a bit in the film’s more serious moments. Not Carpenter’s best flick, but still very enjoyable and once again another film that has found it’s audience years later. Again John Carpenter proves he is a director who is well ahead of his time.

3 men all out of bubblegum!

they live rating

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: PRINCE OF DARKNESS and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS

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For this week’s double feature I have decided to go with two underrated and under-appreciated films from recent birthday boy, legendary filmmaker John Carpenter. These two films also happen to be his strangest and most surreal efforts. Carpenter has referred to these two films as the second and third part of his “Apocalypse Trilogy” that was started with his classic The Thing. I wasn’t sure about either when I first saw them but, both have grown on me over the years and I have now come to believe that they are not given their proper due …

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PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

Prince of Darkness is a strange movie written by Carpenter and combining religion and theoretical quantum physics. It sounds like a contradictory combination but, it works better then you might expect. It was the first of a multi-picture deal with Alive Films where Carpenter would make 3 or 4 low budget flicks. The second and last film was the cult classic They Live, as a disagreement over the third film’s budget ended the collaboration.

The story opens with the death of a priest who presided over a small inner city parish. Enter Donald Pleasence as another priest… who’s name is never given… who discovers that the deceased priest was part of a secret society within the church called The Brotherhood Of Sleep. And this sect have been protecting a dark secret that may challenge the very core of what we have come to believe both scientifically and religiously. A team of college students, led by Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), are brought to the parish to investigate a strange cylinder filled with a pulsating green liquid in a locked chamber in the basement, as well as, the scriptures that come with it. They discover that the liquid is a form of the Anti-Christ and it seeks release in order to bring it’s father, the Anti-God into our world. And as members of the team start to fall under it’s powerful thrall and they all become plagued by the same strange dreams, it’s terrifyingly obvious that the remaining team members are in a fight against an ancient evil that their science may not be able to contain.

Carpenter delivers a very odd but, effectively creepy film. It’s has an atmosphere of dread from the start to the finish and presents a very chilling scenario that there may be things in existence that neither our religion or science may be able to handle. And as these are two things people most put their faith in, it is a disturbing concept. It also presents an interesting idea that Bible prophecies may have actually been warnings sent from the future as the dream effecting all our college science students appears to be exactly that. Carpenter also presents the possibility that certain Bible stories were put in place to cover more disturbing truths as the scientific knowledge to explain or understand the reality of it was not available. Basically we were told things in fable form because the science wasn’t there to properly explain it and we weren’t advanced enough to understand it. As someone who was born and raised Christian yet has always had an interest in science, I actually have had this thought myself occasionally and it was interesting to see the master filmmaker weave this theory into his plot. Carpenter also uses his low budget well and keeps the story, for the most part contained in the church. Again working with the fear of isolation as a horde of homicidal homeless people keep our besieged team members inside. Gary B. Kibbe provides the atmospheric cinematography and would collaborate with Carpenter on 7 more projects and he gives Prince a very unsettling look yet, rich with color. This is a strange film that may not appeal to everyone, it took me a few years and repeat viewings before I fully appreciated it and it’s grown on me since I first saw it in 87 and wasn’t quite sold on it then.

The film has it’s flaws, some of the make-up FX are cheesy and some of the violent death scenes, especially those perpetrated by the army of homeless people surrounding the church, lead by Alice Cooper, seem a little out of place in a film that starts out working in subtlety. But, since it does switch gears and become more of a traditional horror film in it’s second half, as the possessed students try to kill or possess the others who are fighting against their former friends to stay alive, so, in the overall scheme they work fine. Some may not have patience for some of the science heavy dialog but, I though Carpenter’s script does a good job of giving scientific explanations for some of the more supernatural elements of the religious scripture presented in his story. Regardless of your beliefs, Carpenter poses some interesting questions and the film is really creepy throughout. And adding to the effectiveness is one of Carpenter’s spookiest scores to date.

Overall, Prince Of Darkness is perhaps Carpenter’s oddest and most daring film, in some respects but, yet another that wasn’t all that well accepted at first and now has gained a following over the years and rightfully so. This flick may not be for everyone and it’s mix of science and religion may not work for some but, I think it’s an interesting and thoroughly creepy movie that not only presents some well executed traditional horror elements but, poses some interesting questions and theories about what we believe in as well.

3 canisters of gooey pulsating dormant evil!

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in the mouth of madness

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995)

John Carpenter directs what might be his most surreal film, from a script by Michael De Luca, and the final film in Carpenter’s self denominated “Apopcalypse Trilogy” begun by The Thing and Prince Of Darkness. The Lovecraftian film opens with Insurance Investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) being dragged in a straight-jacket into an insane asylum. An interview with his psychologist, Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) reveals that Trent was on a case to discover the whereabouts of famous, best-selling horror author Sutter Cane (a creepy Jurgen Prochnow) when his publishers file a claim that the Stephen King-like author is missing and hasn’t delivered his next book, which is due to be released very soon. Trent starts to read Cane’s books as part of the investigation and starts to have strange hallucinations but, chooses to wave them off as effects of his imagination combined with Cane’s effective prose which is said to have an equal effect on his readers. He decides to find Cane’s favorite setting, the supposedly fictional town of Hobb’s End which he believes is very real and is where Cane is hiding as part of a publicity stunt. Publisher Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston) agrees to Trent’s quest as long as he brings Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) along with him. But, while the journey does indeed lead to Hobb’s End, Trent and Styles find that the town may not be all that is real from Cane’s books as they are slowly drawn into a nightmare that may suggest that the belief in Cane’s novels by his massive fan-base, may be giving life to his prose and that his influence for those books may be from darker depths then just his imagination. Can Trent and Styles escape this living nightmare or are they just characters whose fates have already been decided by the pen of Sutter Cane and the ancient evil that serves as his muse.

Carpenter presents one of his strangest and most surreal film to date and while it gets a little hard to tell whether Cane’s books are effecting reality or if we are actually watching one unfold before us and it’s taking such life that it’s characters don’t realize they’re fictional… but, maybe we’re not supposed to figure it out which, does add to it’s unsettling atmosphere. Carpenter delivers his trademark visuals supported by frequent cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe and we get glimpses of horrible things lurking in the shadows, all tentacles, eyes and teeth, much like the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft. Hobb’s End seems like a typical sleepy New England town but, Carpenter slowly reveals that there is something horribly wrong here as there is an evil underneath the Norman Rockwell exterior with it’s children blood-thirstily pursuing a frightened dog or the sweet old lady who runs the inn and keeps her frail old husband handcuffed behind the counter. When we finally meet Cane things really start to spiral into madness for Trent and Carpenter takes us on the ride with some of the most bizarre and trippiest sequences he has presented and that’s saying a lot.

Where Madness really stumbles is in some weak dialog in it’s script and in an area that Carpenter is usually strong in, casting. For characters in a John Carpenter film, I found Trent and Styles to be fairly weak… though it is not his script or they, his original characters… characters from Carpenter’s own scripts are usually memorable and strong. But, I also thought that Sam Neil and Julie Carmen, didn’t quite fit their roles properly with Carmen especially appearing very uncomfortable or unsure how to play the material. She is the weak link in the film though I don’t really feel Neill, who I am a big fan of, quite fits the role of Trent either. He just seems like he really isn’t clicking with the weird material though he is nowhere near as awkward as Carmen who is borderline annoying here. Neill at least seems to enjoy playing the ‘going mad’ part of his role while Carmen gets worse as the story gets stranger. Prochnow is the only one who seems to get what’s going on and dives in with both feet in his portrayal of the sinister Sutter Cane and Heston is a perfect fit as Arcane Publishing head Harglow. Except for a few of the supporting characters in Carpenter’s The Ward… another film not written by the master… this is one of the only Carpenter films where weak characters or miscast actors were a factor. Classic characters are Carpenter’s forte’, at least when he writes the script.

Overall, In The Mouth Of Madness is a creepy, freaky, surreal film that works far more then it doesn’t. It’s his visually and conceptually most surreal film and it is very effective in both atmosphere and delivering some really cool creatures and bloody gore. Carpenter again writes a cool score, though this time with composer Jim Lang. While it’s leads don’t seem quite right for their roles, it still provides a spooky 90+ minutes that messes with your head a bit and there’s nothing wrong with that. Another Carpenter film that has garnered a bit of a cult following and as a fan of his work,  I agree this under-appreciated flick deserves it, even with it’s flaws. Also stars Bernie Casey as Trent’s boss Robinson and John Glover as an eccentric asylum employee.

3 deranged Sam Neil’s!

in the mouth of madness rating

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Once again director John Carpenter was ahead of his time with this spin on the type of SPFX filled supernatural/martial arts flicks that were being made as part of the revisionist Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s like Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain (1983). Unfortunately, like his masterpiece The Thing, Big Trouble failed at the box office and would only years later be recognized and loved for the classic it is. As an avid fan of Carpenter, I was there opening night in 1986 and my friends and I loved it and immediately started quoting characters and making references, years before it got the attention it deserved. I’m proud to have championed this flick from the beginning. I had yet to see Zu, but heard enough and saw enough from the film, to know what Carpenter was doing. The Hong Kong cinema wouldn’t catch on here in the US till the early 90s and sadly it was only then when movie fans realized that Carpenter nailed the spirit and frantic fun of those movies perfectly with this deliriously entertaining flick.

This martial arts/action/fantasy/comedy starts out with obnoxious but lovable truck driver, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) visiting his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) the owner of a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When going to the airport with Wang to pick up his bride-to-be Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), Burton meets spunky lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and witnesses the abduction of Miao Yin by a ruthless Chinese street gang. Now the macho, but out of his element, Burton is pulled into a world of sorcery, martial arts and monsters as he vows to help Wang retrieve his fiancé from evil 2000 year old sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong) whose marriage to the green-eyed Chinese girl will render him corporeal once more and unleash him upon our world. Armed with his bravado, Wang, Gracie and good sorcerer Egg Shen (Victor Wong), Jack enters an underground world filled with supernatural warriors and lethal creatures and faces the fight of his life but…”It’s all in the reflexes” for this wannabe hero!

Simply put, Big Trouble In Little China is an absolute blast of a good time with Carpenter at the top of his game delivering an action packed and FX filled adventure that is a delight from start to finish. He populates the film with some of the liveliest and most colorful characters in a Carpenter film and proves that the master of horror and suspense could also master comedy and fantasy too. Not to mention an exhilarating martial arts flick as well, as the movie is loaded with intense and thrilling action scenes to go along with the monsters and magic. And like the Hong Kong films that the script…by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, adapted by W.D. Richter…pays homage to, the movie perfectly mixes the hand to hand combat with the supernatural elements to provide top notch entertainment. Carpenter once again scores the film…and sings the film’s theme song with his band The Coup De Ville’s…and frequent collaborator and cinematographer Dean Cundey returns to give a sumptuously colorful look to the incredible ancient China themed production design and the perfectly framed shots by the master director. It’s a true Asian fantasy world they create beneath modern day Chinatown to match the ancient China setting that the films this is inspired by generally have. It may be Carpenter’s most elaborately staged movie up to this point with it’s spectacular sets, grandiose fight scenes, make-up and SPFX even with all the big action sequences and FX of his previous film, the sci-fi/romance Starman.  Carpenter gives it all a lightening fast pace and energetic intensity…as well as, a generous dose of wacky humor.

And as for the cast, Kurt Russell is obviously having an over-the-top good time with one of his greatest characters, the lovable lug Jack Burton. He’s an obnoxious legend in his own mind, but Russell makes him once of his most endearing portrayals and certainly one of his most quotable characters aside from Snake Plissken. The rest of the cast including Dennis Dun as the noble and love-struck Wang, Cattral as the adorable yet feisty Gracie, Wong as tour bus driver and sorcerer Egg Shen and Hong as the eccentric and powerful Lo Pan are all having the time of their lives with their comic book style characters and it really helps solidify the live action Chinese fantasy world in which the film is set.

Sadly under-appreciated at the time of it’s release, this film is now getting the love and respect it deserves and has a large and faithful following that will drop a quote from one of it’s many delightfully hilarious lines at any given time. It’s a funny, action-packed fantasy and simply one of John Carpenter’s best films in a versatile filmography. A real blast and one of my favorite movies. Also stars Donald Li as Wang’s bud Eddie and Kate Burton as naive reporter Margo Litzenberger. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?!

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Jack Burton T-shirt images (out of 4)!

big trouble rating

BONUS REVIEW

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ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983)

While I have not read a direct quote myself, it is said that Carpenter has stated that this film is the film that inspired the making of Big Trouble In Little China. It is certainly the most famous and closest in content and tone of the Hong Kong films around that time, so it’s easy to believe. Chinese Ghost Story wouldn’t be released until 1987 which would then be followed by an avalanche of Chinese fantasy/martial arts epics that continues even today, so Zu is a strong bet to be the film that writers Goldman and Weinstein and director Carpenter were trying to catch the spirit of. As I am looking back at Carpenter’s martial arts classic, I thought I would take a look back, as well, at one of the first of the new wave Hong Kong cinema to catch the attention of the West and bring legendary Hong Kong director/producer Tsui Hark and his sumptuous visual style to the film world’s attention.

Like the gangs in Carpenter’s classic, the ancient China set Zu features warring factions…designated by the colors they wear…all trying to take control of the Zu mountains. When fate separates soldier Di Ming Qi (Yuen Biao) from his troop, like Jack Burton, the over his head grunt becomes involved in a battle of good vs evil involving supernaturally powered warriors, both male and female, monsters, magic and powerful sorcerers representing both sides.

Though fairly low budget, Hark provides some spectacular FX filled battles, some very atmospheric and beautifully designed sets and settings, with some sumptuous and atmospheric cinematography by Bill Wong. The same kind of elements that Big Trouble in Little China is filled with. The production design is quite lavish with it’s massive temples and cavernous mountain passes and Hark also fills his movie with demons and monsters to go along with our heroes and villains and there are mystical battles and demonic possessions involving creature and warrior alike. The action is quite exciting as are the fantasy set pieces it is featured in and this is the first film to really put to use the rapid fire editing that would become a trademark of the Hong Kong cinema of this era and is imitated by so many of today’s filmmakers. The SPFX are well orchestrated for a low budget film and even employed Western FX masters Robert Blalack and Peter Kuran in creating some of visual artistry. The sets are also quite extravagant and really add to the film’s fantasy atmosphere which at times resembles an Asian themed Disney fairy tale with a dark edge. As with Carpenter’s film, Zu also has it’s share of laughs and comic moments to mix with the more chilling and thrilling sequences the film presents and let’s not forget it’s share of beautiful ladies such as legendary Hong Kong actress Brigitte Lin whose gorgeous yet lethal Ice Queen, can charm a man or literally freeze him solid.

Sure, all these years later this charming Hong Kong classic may seem cheesy to some and does get silly at times, but to me it’s a nostalgic and really fun martial arts fantasy that inspired many a filmmaker and one of John Carpenter’s most entertaining flicks…not to mention getting the Hong Kong cinema back on the film geek map after the prolific martial arts films of the 70s ran their course. Also stars Hong Kong movie legend Sammo Hung and has fight choreography by another Hong Kong cinema legend, actor and choreographer Corey Yeun. A really fun movie.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 mystic swords (out of 4)…of course this film has a few of those, why wouldn’t it? zu rating

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