Sometimes a little just isn’t enough.
Near the end of last year the one-two punch of my watching the excellent documentary Popatopolis and the less-than-excellent slasher-spoof Sorority House Massacre II inspired me to begin composing a long essay on filmmaker Jim Wynorski that would serve as the introduction for an even longer deconstruction of the latter film. But about 2000 words into the first essay I began to worry that my negative conclusions were too self-righteous, considering I had only actually seen 8 of his 87 films in their entirety.
How could I seriously argue that Wynorski’s films almost always disappointed me for specific reasons, if I’d only actually been disappointed by less than 10% of his output? If I were an honest essayist I would have no choice but to sit through as many of his films as I could get my hands on. And so far, via the miracle of the Internet, that number is hovering around 40.
With the prospect of so much potential misery (and boobs!) ahead of me, it only made sense to turn this into the weekly blog project I had been looking for ever since I had to move The House of Glib to a new location and sacrifice 99% of its former content to the temple of my laziness. This is why, until my supply finally runs dry, I shall endeavor to review one Wynorski film each week in the order of their release. Based on what I know, this means some minor fun in the beginning, a whole lot of “meh” in the middle and some real pain at the end.
Sure does sounds like fun to me!
But first a brief primer on our subject for those of you unaware of his prodigious career:
Jim Wynorski is a director who is famous for making movies with large-breasted women in them. Having always worked in the world of low-budget B-movies, the majority of his films have been made with very small budgets in very short amounts of time. As a means to protect himself from the pitfalls inherent in these kind of productions, he often relies on either one of two strategies—turn the movie into a spoof that isn’t meant to be taken seriously (ie. Deathstalker II, Sorority House Massacre II) or direct it under a pseudonym (a meaningless gesture in an age where the IMDb reveals all). Because of this, films that should be simple, albeit guilty, pleasures, instead take on an air of defensiveness that negatively effect the finished product. At least that’s the case with the 8 I’ve seen thus far. Perhaps the other 30+ I have yet to see will prove my thesis wrong.
That said, let’s officially begin:
THE WYNORSKI PROJECT
THE LOST EMPIRE
I get the very real and very terrifying sense that the first Wynorski film I’m reviewing for this project may very well be the best one of them all. While it displays all of the hallmarks that have come to define much of Wynorski’s oeuvre (at least that which he’s been willing to put his own name on), The Lost Empire still feels like a real movie rather than a quickly produced facsimile of one.
Watching it you get the very real sense that it represents what he might have done had fortune allowed him to continue following his own muse, rather than force him to equip the tools of self-parody and denial in order to pay the bills. While nowhere near perfect, or even all that good, one can still feel a sense of playful effort in The Lost Empire normally absent from his later movies. Not only was Wynorski actually trying when he made his directorial debut, but he also appeared to be having fun doing it.
Right from the very first shot, it’s clear we’re in Wynorski territory as a floating optical spotlight moves across the screen before settling on the generous cleavage of Anita Merritt, who you all remember covered in mud, wrestling John Candy in Stripes. The comedic tone of the film is also quickly established by the horny befuddlement of the Asian jewelry shop owner, who is so transfixed by her endowments he runs her cash through one of those old-fashioned credit card machines.
It’s actually these silent moments of comedy that work best in the film. Unlike the jokes found in the dialogue, which are often too deliberately punny and referential to raise anything other than a groan, the film’s physical comedy does a good job of setting the mood required to get the viewer through a plot that is highly dubious even before you have a chance to start thinking about it.
After his busty patron has left, the Asian shop owner (played by an actor named Peter Pan, which I prefer to assume isn’t a stage name) is killed by a trio of mystical warriors whose throwing stars apparently have to do a weird spinning thing for about 10 minutes before they can do any damage. The warriors are in search of The Eyes of Avatar, a pair of ancient Lemurian glowing jewels their master requires for his plans of world domination and, which, the shop owner has been using as the eyes in a really cheap looking statue of a demon/dragon/whatever. The owner is killed in the melee, as are two of three police officers, whose appearance on the scene forces the last living warrior to flee with only one of the two “eyes”.
It just so happens that the lone surviving police officer is the rookie brother of Lieutenant Wolfe, a super bad ass Dirty Harry type who we first see blowing away a roomful of junkie thugs before they can make good on their promise to kill a bunch of school kids.
In a reveal familiar to anyone who played Metroid when they grew up, it turns out that the bad ass lieutenant is actually a smoking hot blond named Angel (Melanie Vincz, who spent the majority of her decade long career working in television) with a mustachioed FBI agent boyfriend (Paul Coufos, who resembles a poor man’s Lee Horsley, which I suppose would make him a poor, poor man’s Tom Sellick) and a preference for skintight outfits.
Her injured brother lives just long enough to give Angel one of the mystical throwing stars, which her boyfriend immediately identifies as belonging to a follower of Dr. Sin Do (Phantasm's Angus Scrimm), a cult leader devoted to worshiping Lee Chuck, a maniac who sold his soul to the devil for immortality, but avoided payment by killing an innocent person every day and giving away their soul instead.
Wanting revenge (I’m guessing, the script is kinda fuzzy on her motivations), Angel decides she has to travel to Sin Do’s hidden island fortress (which may or may not be the titular lost empire, again the script fails to illuminate) and take part in his potentially fatal games, which are only open to beautiful, athletic young women. The catch is that the games only accept participants in groups of three, forcing Angel to find three worthy partners to join her on her quest.
To that end she goes to the local reservation and calls forth the extremely busty spirit of Whitestar (Russ Meyer vet Raven De La Croix, who was dating Wynorski at the time and also appeared as a stripper in Screwballs, which he co-wrote, but did not direct), who appears out of nowhere and then goes on to show absolutely no signs of supernatural empowerment.
After getting a little Thelma & Louise action in a honky tonk parking lot, they travel over to a nearby women’s prison, where all of the convicts are busty centerfolds who settle their problems in courtyard mud fights. Along with the thrilled guards Angel and Whitestar watch as the buxom blond Heather (the late Angela Aames, whose cleavage you’ll recognize from the beginning of Bachelor Party) manages to take down the equally buxom, leather-clad Whiplash (former green-haired Star Trek vixen turned porn star, Angelique Pettyjohn), earning herself a spot on the team.
Together they descend upon the recruitment center and force their way onto the already-full list in what is probably the best scene in the movie:
Strangely, The Lost Empire actually noticeably deflates once the trio makes it to the island. Typically this is where the film would really begin, but the film’s low budget isn’t prepared to deliver on the promise of an island fortress or exciting sexy woman-on-sexy woman games and instead delivers scenes of the actresses running around the grounds of a local L.A. mansion and practicing their archery.
In fact, the only “game” we see is a poorly choreographed gladiatorial fight scene between Angel and a masked behemoth that won’t rank high on anyone’s action scale. Wynorski tries to make up for this by having Sin Do fall madly in lust with Whitestar, giving him the excuse to drug her and thus expose her abundant attributes onscreen.
But beyond this what bothers me the most about the island portion of the movie is the reappearance of Angel’s FBI boyfriend, who comes to the island because he found the missing “Eye of Avatar” hidden in her forgotten purse. Why he would think coming to the island with the one object Sin Do needs for his plan to take over the world is a good idea is never explained, but this is trivial compared to what his sudden appearance does to Angel’s character.
Despite introducing her as a Dirty Harry-esque bad ass, who has no problem kicking the butts of rednecks, cult guards and giant gladiators alike, Wynorski chooses to cut her honorary balls off by turning her into a standard damsel-in-distress during the climax, so her boyfriend can rescue her and save the day. For all her apparent strength and superiority, Angel apparently isn’t able to stop the madman using her own devices. And even when she has a chance to go against an odious minion, he's dispatched by his own incompetence rather than her intervention.
This, I’m afraid, is the first possible sign of a misogynist streak I suspect I may uncover as this project continues. I hope I’m wrong, but based on the other films of Wynorski’s I have already seen, I strongly suspect it is there.
Still, there is fun to be had in the end, most notably the moment where Whitestar preempts a gorilla attack by kicking the guy in the suit in the nuts.
Despite the protestations of no less than two different villains, there never was a sequel to The Lost Empire, which is a shame because even though the film stumbles in terms of plot, it does a good job of establishing an interesting compelling bouncy cast of characters who could have easily been put to good use in further adventures.
I think what sets The Lost Empire apart from what I’ve seen of the rest of Wynorski’s oeuvre is its refreshing lack of cynicism. While it contains the same large-breasted actresses, terrible jokes and references to old movies that define his later work, it features them less out of desperation than with genuine affection and joy. It’s the kind of film a young movie maniac would make after finally getting the keys to the kingdom, simple enthusiasm making up for all the deficiencies of pacing, budget and plot.
It is, for all of its flaws, a genuine movie made by a man who stopped making genuine movies a long time ago.