Thursday, January 26, 2012

See Stewardesses Battle Kung Fu Killers

Shout Factory returns to Roger Corman's deep vault to create a sequel to last year's Lethal Ladies Collection. As with the first, this Roger Corman's Cult Classics 2-DVD set teams up three sexy adventures released during the 1970s by New World Pictures.

New World found much success with its unofficial “3 Girls” series. These low-budget adventures combined sex, action, and soap opera and always involved a trio of lovely professional women falling in love and getting into trouble. The series began with THE STUDENT NURSES and soon moved to teachers, stewardesses, and cover girl models. Producer Roger Corman earned a lot of money making this film over and over.

Directed in the Philippines by the prolific Cirio H. Santiago, FLY ME focuses on sexy stews Toby (Corman regular Pat Anderson, SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS), Sherry (Lyllah Torena, who is curiously unbilled), and Andrea (busy television actress Lenore Kasdorf), who work a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Manila. Toby attempts a love affair with a nice doctor (Richard Young, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE), which is made difficult by her overbearing Italian mother (Naomi Stevens, THE DORIS DAY SHOW). Andrea teams up with an undercover cop to find her missing boyfriend, while white slavers swoop in to kidnap nympho Sherry.

Amazingly, all three subplots manage to intersect at the end. As you can imagine, tone is a big problem in FLY ME, which must be the only film to combine a wacky comic-relief mother protecting her adult daughter’s virginity with a sleazy storyline involving drugging nude women and selling them into sex slavery. “See stewardesses battle kung fu killers!” shouted New World’s one-sheet. With a mere 72 minutes of screen time to play with, Santiago still manages to waste time with travelogue footage serving as padding and Stevens’ screeching comic antics instead of more stewardess kung fu fighting.

FLY ME’s credits are interesting. Howard Cohen (BARBARIAN QUEEN) wrote the screenplay, but replaced his name with that of New World staffer Miller Drake (SCREAMERS). Future director Joe Dante (PIRANHA) was the dialogue director, according to the main titles. Oscar winner Jonathan Demme (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), who began his career directing Corman’s CAGED HEAT, receives an odd credit for “Film Director.” After the film was wrapped, Corman decided it needed more action and hired Demme to shoot fight sequences choreographed in Los Angeles by David Chow. Demme probably also filmed the opening scene with Anderson and cabbie Dick Miller.

Following the same “3 Girls” formula, director Santiago filmed COVER GIRL MODELS a couple of years later in Manila. FLY ME’s Howard Cohen also wrote COVER GIRL MODELS, which plays as a less sleazy, more action-filled remake with three sexy young women getting into scrapes in the Far East.

Mark (New World regular John Kramer), a mustachioed photographer for a women’s magazine, recruits a trio of lovely models for an overseas photo shoot. In addition to posing in skimpy bikinis, Claire (SIX-PACK ANNIE’s Lindsay Bloom) poses as a call girl to attract the attention of a movie mogul, Barbara (Pat Anderson from TNT JACKSON and FLY ME) becomes an unwitting courier of secret microfilm sewed into the hem of her dress, and bubbly neophyte Mandy (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD redhead Tara Strohmeier) tries to learn the do’s and don’ts of both modeling and lovemaking from stud Mark.

You know what to expect from a Santiago movie: inept fight choreography, clumsy story construction, and plenty of breasts. None of the various subplots are presented very well, though the vulnerable Strohmeier uses her nonchalant sexiness and charm to steal scenes. Most hilarious are the bad guys’ regular attempts to kidnap Barbara, which are always thwarted by a mysterious Filipino with the widest collar of all time who always appears out of nowhere just in time to kung fu her assailants.

The beautiful women and entertainingly bad action sequences are enough to keep my eyes interested, though Santiago fills time with the girls posing for pictures or wandering around town just to stretch to a releasable 73 minutes. Mary Woronov (DEATH RACE 2000) plays Mark’s editor in the opening scene shot at the New World office, probably by second unit director Mel Damski (YELLOWBEARD).

“Do you mean we have to satisfy their animal heat?” Girlfights, nudity, revolt, racism, shower scenes, whippings, betrayal—sounds like one of New World’s classic women-in-prison vehicles, doesn’t it? And that’s really what THE ARENA is—a sleazy and violent WIP set amid the squalor and slavery of ancient Rome. Think THE BIG DOLL HOUSE meets SPARTACUS.

The stars of BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA, Pam Grier and Margaret Markov, reunite as Mamawi and Bodicia, slave girls forced to serve the decadent Roman upper-class during violent gladiator matches to the death. While the rulers wring their hands at the games’ dwindling box office, corpulent Timarchus (Daniele Vargas) hits upon the idea of female gladiators, enlisting the sexy slaves for armed fights to the death in the arena. If you’ve seen enough 1970s drive-in movies about beautiful female prisoners pushed to the limit by a cruel environment, you know a bloody revolt is in order. Various body parts fly as these sensual sword-slingers carve a gory swath to freedom, led by black mama Grier and white mama Markov.

Happily, THE ARENA offers more action than talk, a good thing considering the execrable dialogue penned by John and Joyce Corrington (THE OMEGA MAN), and director Steve Carver nicely serves up a few helpings of wet and oily female nudity (including both leads) to complement the gore. Carver also made BIG BAD MAMA and CAPONE for New World before moving up to major-studio exploitation like DRUM (also with Grier) and LONE WOLF MCQUADE.

Filming in Italy allowed Carver to use Francesco de Masi (THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS) as his composer and Aristide Massaccesi as his cinematographer, much to the film’s benefit. Massaccesi, who had a directing career under the name Joe D’Amato, was often thought to have directed THE ARENA, due to Carver using Massaccesi’s name during production to foil Italian labor laws. Executive producer Roger Corman’s old HOUSE OF USHER star Mark Damon was the producer and ended up marrying Markov. Corman remade THE ARENA in 2001 using PLAYBOY Playmate Karen McDougal as the lead and the Corringtons’ original screenplay.

All three films are well-represented on DVD using 35mm prints: THE ARENA at 2.35:1 and FLY ME and COVER GIRL MODELS at 1.78:1. They look quite good, though FLY ME's battered and scratched 35mm print has been harvested of some of its nudity by a horny projectionist. THE ARENA contains two extra scenes that weren't in its 35mm source print, but have been ported over from a full-frame transfer for completist's sake. Trailers for FLY ME and THE ARENA are included. Steve Carver and moderator Katerina Leigh Waters provide an audio commentary about THE ARENA, which also receives its own 18-minute documentary featuring Carver, Corman, Mark Damon, and Margaret Markov.

1 comment:

Samuel Wilson said...

Sounds like it'll be worth it for The Arena alone. De Masi's score for Lone Wolf McQuade is a wonderful thing, so I'm eager to hear The Arena, too.