Sunday, August 1, 2010

Death Machines (1976)

Some shadowy mastermind (in fact, he is so shadowy that he will only appear - sitting in the shadows, obviously - in one scene and afterwards be completely forgotten) plans to build the greatest organization of assassins the world has ever seen. To manage this feat, he delegates the control of his army of three mind-controlled, mute, slightly bullet-resistant (unless they get shot in the head, then it's time to cry like a baby) assassins to Madame Lee (Mari Honjo) and her frightening, probably cannibalistic hair (which would go on to star without Mari in future masterpieces like The Hair of Horror and Planet of the Cursed Hair).

Madame Lee firstly sends the killers (let's call them White-Guy-Who-Is-Especially-Bad-At-Screen-Martial-Arts, Black-Guy-Who-Is-Maybe-A-Little-Better and Asian-Guy-Who-Would-Probably-Be-Allowed-To-Get-Killed-As-Thug-Number-2-In-A-Mass-Fight-In-A-Real-Martial-Arts-Movie) out to murder the professional killers working for the local Mafia boss. Since the death machines are supposed to be brilliant martial artists, they do this by throwing a guy from a roof without a fight, shooting another guy with a bazooka and other typical martial arts methods of murder.

Afterwards, the Mafia boss is only too willing to let the death machines replace his own men. After all, there's no reason at all for him to feel uncomfortable with his new partners.

The first job the trio is going to do for the Mafia is the assault on a karate school to kill its owner. Since they aren't allowed to leave any witnesses, our murderers continue in their subtle style and kill everyone in sight, except for a guy named Frank (John Lowe), who's only losing a hand.

Frank, who is our hero for some parts of the movie, will spend a bit of time mourning the loss of his hand and hooking up with a nurse, while some form-hating cops are doing nothing (yet we still have to watch them do it), and our bad guys have random adventures.

The non-climax comes when Frank randomly spots our bad guys on the street and follows them home.

Death Machines is one of those US grindhouse films that tried without much enthusiasm or ability to cash in on the success of martial arts films of a much higher quality.

It has some of the usual problems of US martial arts cinema, and some completely its own. First of the "usual problems" is of course the sad fact that nobody in front of the camera seems to have any experience or talent in stage fighting, leading to fights that don't even seem to pretend that anyone is actually hitting anybody else. The thought of anything that could be called a fight choreography is of course right out. In fact, you will find better choreographed fights in most serials; at least there, the actors were looking enthusiastic, and not like people in a coma.

The second of the usual problems is the way director Paul Kyriazi films the action - with all the élan and enthusiasm of a guy in a coma, with a decisive lack of creative ideas and an equally decisive lack of ability to let anyone do anything even mildly interesting to look at.

These things are of course the sort of crap one is used to when watching US martial arts films of the era. Yet not all of those movies have the special aura of lacklusterness that surrounds Death Machines, the way the script doesn't seem to tell a recognizable story and lacks even the focus to concentrate on one or more protagonists. Characters just drift in and out of the film at random. After five minutes of killer business that doesn't seem to be all that important, there are five more minutes of boring cops bickering with their boss (who - gosh! - wants them to file reports about what they are doing), then five minutes of moping with Frank and so on. In an act of special cruelty, Death Machines doesn't even feature a climactic battle. Instead, everything that might be vaguely of interest to the film's audience is done off-screen, while we watch Madame Lee get shot by the police.

One might even get the idea that the film's script as it was filmed was missing a few pages while one tries not to fall asleep out of boredom.

Kyriazi shows an amount of disinterest in his audience that is on par with that on display in an El Santo movie from the late 70s, but Death Machines is even lacking the basic charms of masked wrestlers and women in bikinis. It's not all bad, though, or rather, it is all bad, but not everything bad about it is mind-numbingly boring.

Take Madame Lee's hair -an inhuman thing that's probably nurtured by sucking her brain fluids - which seems to be so heavy that the poor woman moves as if she were a hundred years old and permanently off-balance. In its own, terrifying way, The Hair dominates every scene it is in, magnetically pulling eyes and brainwaves in its direction. Why is it on that poor woman's head? Is it an alien? A creature from another dimension? We will never know.

And speaking of things from another dimension, Death Machines also wins my admiration by way of an especially abstract and/or random synth and percussion soundtrack that sounds like the sort of music a very jaded rock star who wants to get kicked out by his record label might produce.

Apart from The Hair and the music, there are a few silly and idiotic bits and bobs that might cause a smile or two hidden throughout the film, like the intensely bored way the naked dancer in the bar Frank's working in provides the movie with its mandatory second pair of naked breasts, or the stupid bar fight, but these moments of entertaining badness have a hard time to win their fight against the vibes of apathy and boredom the film gives off.

Of course, if one is stricken with the cult movie bug, apathy and boredom are like old, smelly acquaintances one does not like to meet, yet will never be able to shake for too long.



Todd said...

So I guess I shouldn't be too disappointed that this is listed as being in my Drive-in Classics 50 movie pack, yet actually isn't. You do make the hair and music sound intriguing though.

houseinrlyeh said...

They probably left it off to avoid being sued for causing mental and emotional suffering.
But yes, hail to the hair.

Todd said...

Yet they left Black Hooker on there? Hmm. I'm not buying it.

houseinrlyeh said...

Then The Hair commanded them!