Tuesday, November 09, 2010

My Interview With Video Watchdogger John Charles

Although John Charles and I have never met, we have been friends for just about a decade. We first became acquainted as members of and regular posters at Mobius Home Video Forum back around 1999 or so. Not long afterwards, we began corresponding through email and trading VHS tapes back and forth between Central Illinois and Ontario. Now, it's text messages and DVDs.

John is also Associate Editor of Video Watchdog (the latest issue carries his interview with dubbing specialist Ted Rusoff) and the author of the essential THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, 1977–1997: A REFERENCE GUIDE TO 1,100 FILMS PRODUCED BY BRITISH HONG KONG STUDIOS, now in its second printing from McFarland. If he didn't cover it in the book, it's probably on his Hong Kong Digital website.

John is a bright, interesting guy—and I'm not just saying that because we have similar tastes in film! John and I conducted this interview via email.

Since you literally wrote the book on Hong Kong Cinema, I'm curious how a teenager in Canada in the 1980s got hooked on the genre. I'm guessing these films weren't easy to find.

Thanks for the kind words. Aside from the Shaw Brothers kung fu movies that ran in World Northal's Black Belt Theater TV packages, I didn't actually get into Hong Kong films until 1991. At the time, Erik Sulev was reviewing them for Video Watchdog and also selling dupes of the big HK titles through his label, White Dragon Video. Erik made these films sound incredible, as did a few other writers at the time. I figured it was likely hype, but I was intrigued enough to buy a copy of John Woo's THE KILLER from him (he was selling the extended Taiwanese version, though I didn't know that at the time). I watched THE KILLER...and then immediately watched it again. I was just intoxicated by the incredible action sequences, the unbridled but involving melodrama of the storyline, Woo's incredible directorial technique, and the charisma of Chow Yun-fat. I then bought A CHINESE GHOST STORY and ANGEL from Erik, and loved them almost as much.

I immediately wanted to see a ton of these movies, but didn't want to continue paying $30 or so for each of them, so I looked into renting tapes from local Chinese grocery stores. Once I overcame the communication barrier (which started with the inevitable "No, no, no English movies here!" after I stepped two feet into the video section), I found the tapes to be almost unwatchable. I had a laserdisc player by that point and knew from Erik and other guys in the Toronto zine community that HK laserdiscs were decent quality and pretty widely available, so I set about traveling back and forth from Toronto, renting 6 or 7 movies at a time in order to make the trips worthwhile.

Did you see any of Jackie Chan's movies then?

I had seen some of the Chan movies that had been released in English up to that point, though the only one I had seen theatrically was the infamous SNAKE FIST FIGHTER. When I started renting movies in Chinatown, I got caught up with Chan's back catalog, though it was tricky because the vast majority of Golden Harvest's movies were released on LD by a company called Star Entertainment and their transfers almost never had subtitles. So, if you wanted to see movies featuring Chan or other Golden Harvest stars, you had to rely on the old Cantonese tapes (which were invariably terrible and sometimes also lacked subtitles) or the Mandarin-dubbed Taiwanese tapes (which often had subs and were somewhat better quality, though usually only available as dupey bootlegs).

I know you saw most of the Cannon films theatrically in the 1980s, but were you also already a fan of other types of "psychotronic" movies?

Oh god, yeah, I was warped by this stuff from an early age. I remember getting very disapproving looks in Grade 6 during one of those "what did you do on the weekend?" discussions. Other kids discussed family trips, scouting and the like, while I talked about being amazed by ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE on WUTV's Sci-Fi Theater. Not really what our teacher was looking for, but I think he was getting used to my interests in life by that point. That was also the year that I met Dean Dawson and he introduced me to Famous Monsters of Filmland. Within months, I went from being a nearly straight A student to the low Cs and stayed in that range until university (where I finally got my act together and graduated with honors).

I'm guessing you had the same "I have seen God" reaction when you first ran across Michael Weldon's PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM, a compendium of the sort of weird movies I loved and write-ups for a bunch more I'd never even heard of (INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS?! What the hell is that and where do I find a copy?). I figured Weldon probably wasn't making a living writing about these movies, but it was close enough to my idea of a dream job that I decided to try my hand at reviewing.

I was gonna ask you about the Weldon book. It came out when I was in high school. I was bowled over by the impressive range of movies. I liked sci-fi then. Not horror so much, though I was familiar with the Universal pictures that played on TV a lot. But the Weldon book described not just sci-fi and horror, but biker flicks and cannibal movies and weird stuff like Hugo Haas melodramas (which I've still never seen). And Weldon made them sound so enticing in just a paragraph or two. How could we have ever guessed we would someday see stuff like INCUBUS (1965) in our living rooms? I remember reading about Al Adamson and Larry Buchanan and Andy Milligan, these bottom-of-the-barrel filmmakers, and being so intrigued by Weldon's descriptions of their movies. And when I finally got to see them, they were just as terrible as I expected!

Yes, we are just unbelievably spoiled nowadays when it comes to obscure cinema. I didn't get a VCR until I was 16 (and was the only kid in high school to have one, which instantly boosted my cred), so prior to that, I would stay up late to see some probably cruddy low-budget horror movie because who knew if it would ever run again? Now, you can just go online and find most any movie you can think of for sale. Also, fansubbers have made a number of otherwise inaccessible foreign films easily obtainable in versions that English speakers can fully appreciate.

Even though they're often terrible and arguably not worth the effort, time, or expense we go to in order to see them, we still keep coming back. Why do you think that is? I've never seen GOODFELLAS or GONE WITH THE WIND, but I've seen about a dozen Al Adamson movies. There must be a reason for that.

I think there's a bit of cinematic archeologist in many bad film fans. Sure, many of these pictures are rubbish, but they're often incredibly unique and wonderfully peculiar. Anyone can stroll into work and talk about watching MAD MEN the night before, but I've managed to see the surviving footage from COMPASS ROSE, one of Andy Milligan's unfinished movies. Precious few people will care (or even know who the hell I'm talking about), but I like having that distinction.

I remember reading someone--it might have been Stephen King?--called it panning for gold. There is a certain thrill to plowing through a bunch of forgettable flicks hardly anyone has heard of and then finding that rare diamond in the rough. Either something surprisingly good (SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE, as obscure a good thriller as they come, is an example) or amazingly, hilariously bad. The fun is not just in unearthing it, but sharing it with other fans.

Did you write the book before or after you joined the Video Watchdog staff?

Yes, SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE is a good example of a movie I knew nothing about that turned out to be much better than expected.

Erik Sulev left VW after a few issues, so I took over the HK reviews from that point on, circa 1993. I started the book in earnest in 1997.

Okay, let's talk about VW first. You go way back with Tim and Donna Lucas almost to the beginning of the publication, right? Tell me how you got started there.

I became familiar with Tim's work through his Video Watchdog column in Gorezone. When he announced that he was starting his own magazine, I subscribed immediately. I knew that the Vestron unrated version of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was missing footage and had heard the Canadian CIC Video release was intact, so I tracked them both down, charted the differences, and sent that information in. My letter was published in issue #3 and I continued to send in write-ups on other video releases that also ended up in the Letters section. Tim eventually decided that I could write and knew my stuff, so he offered me a spot on staff. I took over the Canadian video reviews and made my debut in issue #12 with that cinematic milestone ABRAXAS, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE. This was so long ago (1992), I actually typed the reviews out and mailed them in.

In the eighteen years that you've been on the VW staff, what are the most significant differences between genre movies then and now?

Well, around 1990, we really began to descend into a mire of cynically conceived and often poorly executed sequels, remakes, prequels, and imitations, with fewer and fewer genuinely original and exciting productions getting made and properly distributed. Now, 20 years later, the situation is essentially the same, only much worse.

On the one hand, thank God for foreign movies and old movies. Between those and titles I am eager to revisit, I will never run out of films to watch. However, part of me is still drawn to seeing movies on the big screen, even though the real gems are few and far between these days. The moviegoing experience has also never been better from a technical standpoint, but I can't remember a time when I felt less like being in the middle of a crowded theatre. That said, I still see 3-4 movies a month theatrically, and if I lived in Toronto and had easy access to great rep venues like The Bell Lightbox and The Bloor, it would probably be 10-12.

As you know, Hollywood has never been more cynical than it has been the last three or four years, seemingly remaking every horror picture in sight. Even less iconic films such as THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW and TERROR TRAIN have been jammed through the sausage maker to less than satisfactory results. That said, are there any genre movies you'd actually like to see remade? And why?

Remakes should only really happen if there is something about the current era that might lend new interest to an older storyline, or improved technology can better realize something that was beyond the budget of the older picture. I guess about the only saving grace to be found in the current avalanche of remakes is that many of these older movies were hardly sacred texts to begin with. I mean THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW? Last year's remake was rancid and actively annoyed me, but it hardly sullied the original in my eyes.

I wouldn't mind seeing someone take another shot at lesser pictures like FOOD OF THE GODS, EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, and the like, which have fun premises but didn't really come off. The little kid in me would love to see a big budget re-do of ROBOT JOX and some of the other Charles Band pictures that were too ambitious for their own good. I'd rather the genuinely good pictures simply be left up on the mantelpiece for us to continue admiring.

What are your duties as Associate Editor of Video Watchdog? Aside from the film reviews and occasional article.

I occasionally offer input on whether we should accept a certain feature and offer suggestions about how certain departments might be improved, but mainly I'm a proofreader. Each issue is usually read five times, with Tim doing the first read, then me, then him checking my corrections and making any others, me checking those and making any additional changes, and him doing the final check.

Why did you decide to write the Hong Kong Filmography book and how did you go about it?

I quickly grew to love these movies with a passion and was eager for more information. Unfortunately, almost without exception, English commentators writing about these movies clearly knew little or nothing about them and their personnel, with Tom Weisser's godawful Asian Cult Cinema book being the low point. There's just no excuse for that book, and it was what prompted me to write my own HK movie guide, a project I ended up spending 2 1/2 years on.

Sounds like you wrote it because it was the book you wanted to read and nobody else was writing it!


Why pick 1977 as a start date? It seems like so many seminal HK works came out before that date. For instance, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH aka KING BOXER, which is (and I know you'll correct me if I'm wrong) considered the first HK martial arts film to become an American mainstream hit.

McFarland wanted a time line that could be included in the title (which is on the wordy side; I would have been happy with just THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY 1977 - 1997) and given what movies were available to me, this two-decade span seemed like the best choice. In the years since then, the Shaw Brothers vault has opened up, and several hundred previously unavailable titles are now on the market. That is the one area where I think the book now falls a bit short, but I included as many Shaw titles as were available to me from 1997 to early 2000, when I submitted the manuscript, and went on to cover a few dozen more on my Hong Kong Digital website and in VW.

What are your favorite films covered in the book, and which one do you think has fallen under the radar, but deserves more attention?


Sleepers? Can't name just one. I really like PEOPLE'S HERO, a tense hold-up movie with a terrific central performance by Ti Lung. BET ON FIRE is a great example of the Hostess Movie, a popular '80s sub-genre where invariably beautiful young women in desperate straits try to survive the temptations of crime and drugs in the world of HK hostess bars; melodramatic trash, but strangely endearing and in the case of this film, admirably intense. DRAGON CHRONICLES: THE MAIDENS OF HEAVENLY MOUNTAIN is viewed by most as a colossal disappointment, but I love its odd, comic book inspired visuals and flagrantly hammy lead performances by Brigitte Lin and Gong Li; its stock with go up if a coherently subtitled version ever surfaces. POM POM AND HOT HOT is a raucous and very entertaining buddy cop comedy mixing sophomoric humor and the wildest gunplay this side of a John Woo movie. GUNMEN is a blatant imitation of Brian DePalma's THE UNTOUCHABLES, but it has great, violent action and Kirk Wong's stylish direction to distinguish it. EDGE OF DARKNESS is a superior Triad/undercover cop movie directed by veteran stuntman Fung Hark-on that nobody seems to have seen, but is very efficient and satisfying. Those stand out for me.

What's next? Any more books down the pipe?

Nothing at the moment. I've spent the last few years catching up on all of the American, British and European movies that I missed while going HK crazy and spend most of my time now glued to Turner Classic Movies. So, maybe I will someday write a book on 1930s Old Dark House movies to go alongside your inevitable Bowery Boys tome.

Ha, right! Big thanks to John Charles. Be sure to pick up the current issue of Video Watchdog featuring John's interview with Ted Rusoff. John's book THE HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, 1977–1997: A REFERENCE GUIDE TO 1,100 FILMS PRODUCED BY BRITISH HONG KONG STUDIOS is available in paperback on Amazon.


Richard Harland Smith said...

It's about time someone interviewed this man!

Shane M. Dallmann said...

Bravo--excellent interview with a fascinating fellow!

Reel Distraction said...

Excellent interview. Really enjoyed reading this.