Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kung Fu Girls On The Rampage

A story that could only have been told during the wild and wooly 1970s, WONDER WOMEN plays like a fake “book bonus” in a dogeared issues of FOR MEN ONLY. Combining riffs on James Bond and Fu Manchu with heavy dollops of sex, horror, and science fiction, director Robert O’Neil’s 1973 release is good-natured camp capped by a funky Carson Whitsett (BONNIE’S KIDS) score and a knowing performance by Nancy Kwan, a long way from Bill Holden and Suzie Wong.

Dr. Tsu (Kwan) is a brilliant surgeon with a private island fortress off the coast of the Philippines. Not satisfied with a mere medical career, she uses her all-girl army of kung fu fighters to kidnap the world’s greatest athletes, so she can transplant their body parts into wealthy old men. On the case: insurance investigator Mike Harber (played by producer Ross Hagen), who is hired by Lloyd’s of London to bring back a missing jai alai player.

Harber, for as much as he’s being paid (a continuity error makes it unclear), is pretty inept and plays no active part in the plot’s resolution. He takes a punch pretty well, though, and his cool personalized weapon, which is a sawed-off shotgun with a pistol grip, provides Harber’s characterization where the paucity of dialogue in Lou Whitehill’s screenplay can’t. Which is fine, because WONDER WOMEN movies. O’Neil (ANGEL) stretches his $110,000 budget far enough to create a pair of fine chase sequences and a number of fights and shootouts. Granted, the fight choreography, mainly involving weak-kicking women, is lame, but Hagen and stunt coordinator Erik Cord try to sell the action, and dressing the women in miniskirts and go-go boots forgive a lot.

Kwan (FLOWER DRUM SONG) really seems to be having a great time, as she slices into a brain while having a phone chat or extolling the merits of “brain sex,” a form of virtual reality that wears out poor Mike Harber. Her tongue slides seductively over Whitehill’s pulpy words, and her insouciant attitude towards the monstrous actions—literally, as she keeps her failed experiments, including an ape woman and a man with a light bulb jammed into his head, caged in the basement—plays nicely next to Hagen’s virile heroics.

Maria de Aragon (later to shoot second as Greedo in STAR WARS) and B-picture favorite Roberta Collins (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE) chew scenery as rivals in Dr. Tsu’s army. The PG rating keeps the kinkiness to a minimum, though O’Neil still manages to squeeze a few nipples into the frame. Sid Haig (COFFY) has a ball playing against type as an urbane accountant, and Marilyn Joi (KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE’s Cleopatra Schwartz) plays an uncredited cameo in an absurd and confusing epilogue foolishly shot in post-production by distributor Arthur Marks. WONDER WOMEN later appeared theatrically and on television as THE DEADLY AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

Thank Fred Olen Ray and Retromedia for getting this obscure action picture (I had only seen it cropped and censored on Turner Network Television) onto a packed DVD. In addition to WONDER WOMEN at its theatrical ratio of 1.78:1, Ray moderates a technically clumsy but entertaining commentary track with director O'Neil, which unfortunately gets a bit "inside baseball" on occasion. Stuntman Cord drops by for a brief (and, again, technically clumsy) interview segment on the Special Features menu, which also offers trailers and TV spots, a radio ad, stills, deleted scenes that were added to WONDER WOMEN's international prints (they contain no nudity or exploitation, but serve to give the female characters much-needed character traits), Super 8 home movie footage taken on the set, and six minutes of Hagen starring as Mike Harber in a never-completed sequel.

If only Ray had taken as much care with the sloppy copy printed on the back cover.

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