Friday, January 24, 2020

Lost Empire, The (1984)

... aka: Drei Engel auf der Todesinsel (Three Angels on the Island of Death)
... aka: Kauhun valtakunta (Kingdom of Horror)

Directed by:
Jim Wynorski

After a botched attempt at getting a film school education, Long Island native Jim Wynorski spent much of the 1970s working for publisher Doubleday (who'd later release the Wynorski-edited sci-fi compilation They Came from Outer Space in 1981), but his desire to work in film never went away. Quitting his job in New York, Wynorski relocated to Los Angeles and promptly went to work for legendary low budget producer Roger Corman. At Corman's New World Pictures, Wynorski cut his teeth editing trailers and helping to devise outrageous ad campaigns for a variety of exploitation flicks like SCREAMERS (1980). From there, he got to write several Corman-produced films like the Alien cash-in Forbidden World (1982) and the fantasy Sorceress (1982) before finally making his feature debut with The Lost Empire. Empire however was not made for New World but instead for a wealthy theater owner who was, unbeknownst to Wynorski at the time he was making this, actually looking for a tax write-off!

Few would have guessed it back in the early 80s, but this low budget exploiter would be the first of over 100 movies from a director who'd go on to make films in pretty much every popular genre over the next few decades. Though he spent most of his time making sci-fi, horror and action flicks (usually with heavy doses of meta humor) and then erotic thrillers and soft-core porn "spoofs," he also ventured into teen comedies, westerns, TV movies and even the occasional PG-rated kid's film. He was, in fact, the first person to cast a pre-star Jennifer Love Hewitt in a leading role.

What's especially interesting about Empire is that this is a virtual sampler of everything Wynorski would later offer up. Not only are the tongue-in-cheek tone and cup-size-casting established right out of the gate (a lingering close-up of a well-endowed blonde's cleavage is fittingly the very first thing we even see), but this merrily skips along touching base with nearly every exploitation subgenre known to man. Here you get action, horror, sci-fi, fantasy and comedy all rolled up into one, plus some Charlie's Angels-style girl power, some Conan the Barbarian, some Enter the Dragon, a pinch of creature feature, a bit of a buddy cop flick and even a mini women-in-prison spoof thrown in. This is Wynorski basically overflowing the kitchen sink, but the results are pleasantly silly and always entertaining.

In an attempt to remove a precious jewel from an ancient statue, three ninjas break into a Chinatown jewelry store and kill the owner. A face-off with police follows and everyone ends up dead. Among those killed is Rob Wolfe (Bill Thornbury), the brother of tough female policewoman Angel Wolfe (Melanie Vincz). Vowing to avenge his death, Angel is given a throwing star that clues her lover, FBI Agent Rick Stanton (Paul Coufos), in on just what they're dealing with. According to legend, two hundred years ago a man named Lee Chuck sold his sold to the devil for immortality but, in order to stay alive, he must send Satan at least one soul every 24 hours. That has linked him to nearly every major disaster of the past century. From the Titanic sinking to the Chicago fires, from Hiroshima to Jonestown, he's been directly involved. Lee Chuck's main priority however is acquiring the second of a pair of "Eyes of Avatar" jewels, which will grant him absolute power. Unbeknownst to Angel, the missing one happens to be hiding out in her purse.

Clues eventually point in the general direction of reclusive religious guru / wacko Dr. Sin Do (Angus Scrimm), who has relocated to an isolated island where he's rumored to be transforming cult members into an army of trained assassins. Dr. Sin Do holds frequent tournaments there and invites those he deems "perfect specimens" to compete for cash prizes... only no one seems to return. Since the tournament only accepts teams of three, Angel has a little recruiting work to do. She first selects Native American ghost Whitestar, who's played by voluptuous Russ Meyer film graduate and former stripper Raven De La Croix, who was also an associate producer and designed her own costumes. Her second choice is bosomy tough cookie prison inmate Heather McClure (the late Angela Aames), who is first seen winning a catfight against a sadistic dominatrix named Whiplash, who HAS to be the inspiration behind Wendy O. Williams' character in Reform School Girls and is hilariously played by Angelique Pettyjohn, another veteran exploitation actress who passed away at a young age.

Our spirited heroines, plus a half dozen other female competitors, are whisked away to the island in a jet by Koro (Robert Tessier), the bald and bushy-eyebrowed second-in-command to the guru. They're immediately dressed in skimpy outfits, thoroughly checked with lasers to make sure they aren't spies and then put on an obstacle course where they jog around orange cones and do jumping jacks, shoot arrows and practice spear throwing. It's all in preparation for the "games," which include a swordfight-to-the-death between Angel and a masked muscle man. Two guesses as to who comes out on top there. In between, the girls try to figure out just what's going on. There's an attack by a robot tarantula, a gorilla on a leash that's eventually kicked in the balls, a hilarious phallic laser weapon, a blood-drinking megalomaniac skeleton man, lots of sarcastic-girls-kicking-butt action and much more fun stuff crammed into every nook and cranny. I enjoyed myself.

The pace is fast, sets and costumes are surprisingly good and frequent John Carpenter film composer Alan Howarth contributes a fine electronic score to the works. The cast also includes Blackie Dammett (the father of Red Hot Chili Pepper lead singer Anthony Kiedis) as a corrupt cop, Linda Shayne (who co-wrote the T&A comedy Screwballs with Wynorski) as one of the island prisoners, Kenneth Tobey as a police captain (named in reference to his character from THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD), Anne Gaybis and Garry Goodrow. This was also the film debut of Debbie Blaisdell, who later became prolific 80s adult film actress Tracey Adams.

Even though Empire debuted in theaters in limited release in 1984, it wasn't given its wider theatrical release until the following year almost in coordination with the Lightning Video VHS release. Afterward, the film was caught up in ownership limbo and went unseen for three long decades. After Wynorski reclaimed the rights, it was finally given a restored DVD release in 2014.

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