(Orchestral Victorian music starts playing for some strange reason.)
Greetings, friends and fellow seekers of enlightenment. Scheduled for today’s curricular is a fascinating journey through the collected works of Poe and Shakespeare. We shall, my faithful readers, endeavor to articulate in both words and with the use of interpretive dance the hidden meaning behind the great masterpieces of these legendary authors. It’s a journey fraught with many chills and shivers. The intellectual rewards we shall gain for this exercise are endless and bountiful. We, my followers, will deduce, induce, produce, and infuse our minds with the infinite possibilities provided us by these masters of the noble literary arts. Brace yourselves, it’s about to get deep and philosophical in here.
Hem Hum! Pip Pip! Cheerio! All that.
Can I get a “Hell, no!”?
Throngs of readers: (if by throng you mean my mom) “HELL, NO!”
Let’s grab some popcorn, covered in enough butter to clog a rampaging bull elephant’s arteries, sit our fat asses down on the couch, pop some dusty, smelly old VHS tapes into the VCR and have our collective brains melted by some good, old-fashioned B-movie goodness. What is this “VHS” I speak of? Gather around children and this old-timer will explain to you why you’re all a bunch of brain-dead DVD addicts.
Back in the day, also known as the cesspool called the 1980s, a wonderful little invention referred to by the sages of the time as “Home Video” was creating quite a stir in the movie industry. Small studios, such as Cannon or Full Moon Entertainment, could now produce cheaply made films for a new market. Most often shot in foreign countries, with names that would give you aneurysms if you tried spelling them, and intended to stay in theaters only a short while before landing in that brand newstore down the street, the cheesy drive-through movies of yesterday were now the direct-to-video movies of the era.
It was a good time to be a fan of B-movies. Every trip to the local rent-a-flick was an adventure with hidden treasures at the bottom of every rack in the store (some of them the best b-movies on offer, some of them not so much). I’m talking about such classics as Alien From L.A., Megaforce, King Of The Kickboxers, the never ending Bloodfist series… cheesy, schlocky, candy-coated B-movie goodness wrapped in a fetching VHS box, whose cover art promised an endless supply of ninjas, barbarians, martial-arts extravaganzas, and boobs aplenty.
It was the time of Chuck Norris, of Michael Dudikoff, and of Sho Kosugi. A time when the word “Ninja” was slapped on every box, when sweaty dudes with broadswords hoped to become the next Conan and nubile young women were menaced by the killer du jour. It was the 1980s and the B-movie was king!
Join me, your older-than-dirt-but-still-faithful reviewer, as we examine 10 of the most symbolic direct-to-video movies of the ’80s, 10 memorable pieces of shlock…
THE BEST B-MOVIES THAT KICK ASS! (In no particular order because I don’t get paid enough for crap like that.)
No.10 American Ninja (1985)
If you’re a child of the ’80s like myself, then you undoubtedly have many fond memories of this little gem — less so its insipid sequels, but we’re here to talk about the original, the one that makes it on to our list of the best B-movies that kick ass.
Starring Michael Dudikoff, a Calvin Klein model turned actor, American Ninja features just the right amount of cheese mixed with seriousness for this kind of flick. Dudikoff is Joe Armstrong, an amnesiac soldier stationed on a tropical island just trying to get by until… NINJAS ATTACK! Don’t you just hate it when that happens? Here you are, just trying to enjoy a nice Pina Colada when BAM! Shuriken to the face!
If one could sum up the entire 1980s in one word it would have to be “ninjas”; those bastards were everywhere. You couldn’t scan a single shelf at the local video store without stumbling across half a dozen tapes with the word ninja in the title, which only goes to prove my theory that the ’80s were the coolest decade in the history of ever. Minus the hair. And the clothes. And the music. And… look, the ’80s had ninjas by the shit ton and that makes up for all those horrid fashion choices. Besides, I still say mohawks are going to make a comeback.
Directed by Sam Firstenberg, in his first of many collaborations with Dudikoff, American Ninja is a grade-A B-movie. Budget limitations hurt the flick’s overall scale, but the actors were clearly having fun and more or less seemed to be taking the whole thing seriously, which is a big boon if you’re making a movie this dripping with the buttery stuff. Aside from a screechy female lead, everybody in the cast gave decent performances. Yes, silliness abounds throughout the movie, but it’s shot and acted with such enthusiasm that you can’t really help but play along.
The great thing about American Ninja is that the story doesn’t feel like a one-off, there’s some world building going on and you can tell the producers had an eye toward making sequels to this thing. Joe Armstrong is a strong enough hero with a cool enough origin story to warrant a franchise. Throw in a memorable sidekick in the form of ’80s movie staple Steve James as the truly badass Curtis Jackson, a catchy score, and the best action sequences available for a picture this size and you end up with one of the best B-movies that is just this close to being on par with major Hollywood productions of the time.
It’s a classic. It holds up really well. Go rent it. NOW! THIS I COMMAND!
No.9 Arena (1989)
Starring soap opera mainstray Paul Satterfield, Arena is one of those hidden gems decorating bargain bins at your local media store. Here’s a story that would have worked just as easily in theaters as on video: In the distant future, matches will be fought exclusively by aliens. Humans are considered too frail to compete without getting their soft human entrails spilled, fighters now only include massive quadrupeds, thick-skinned monsters and the occasional cybernetic creation. But Steve Armstrong isn’t letting a little bit of discrimination stop him from entering the Intergalactic Fighting Championship.
Yep, it’s the classic underdog story, with a futuristic twist, complete with training montages, evil promoters and a sassy female trainer. And it works! Arena is basically Rocky in space, our hero will need to fight several matches, each against a stronger opponent, until finally making his way to the reigning champion, Horn, in a fight to the finish!
Acting is strong throughout best B-movie masterpiece, with many sci-fi vets putting in good performances. Watch for Babylon 5‘s Claudia Christian, Deep Space Nine‘s Armin Shimerman and Marc Alaimo, and sexpot Shari Shattuck who sadly manages to keep her clothes on. It’s hard not to find yourself cheering during the movie’s final fight, as Armstrong overcomes cheating from the opposing team and wins it all for humanity!
The story is all well and good but it’s the surprisingly awesome creature effects and make-up for all of Armstrong’s alien competitors that really puts Arena over the top. There are some truly amazing creations on display here, belying the movie’s tiny budget.
No.8 Bloodsport (1988)
If you were a kid in the ’80s, Jean Claude Van Damme’s magnum opus Bloodsport was the subject of many schoolyard discussions between you and your prepubescent friends: “Like, dude! This one guy gets his kneecap shattered and this one guy does the splits and punches this sumo dude in the nards! It was awesome!” Yes, back in the day we used to actually converse with each other instead of texting till our thumbs bled.
Bloodsport not only launched JCVD’s career, but it also gave rise to a metric ton of imitators. The martial-arts tournament genre literally exploded overnight, birthing Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s never-ending Bloodfist franchise on one end and superior products like Loren Avedon’s King Of The Kingboxers on the other. Even after all these years, Bloodsport still reigns supreme, towering over all its imitators, featuring a superior story, better performances and a memorable villain.
Van Damme stars as Frank Dux, a so-called ex-black ops operative, ninja, mercenary, and, as it later turned out, all-around fraud. But whether you believe the real-life Dux’ many lies concerning his background and achievements is to miss the point. At the time, we were willing to swallow the myth that a white guy could train under a wisemartial arts master and subsequently compete in the ultimate underground fighting championship that, strangely enough, nobody seems to have ever heard of. Bloodsport was Mortal Kombat before MK was even in glimmer in Midway’s eye, complete with fatalities, fighters with unique personalities, and a fantastic end boss in the form of Bolo Yeung’s terrifying Chong Li.
The fight scenes are incredible. A baby-faced Van Damme in the prime of his life makes for a sympathetic hero. The music is memorable. A villain you’ll learn to hate. What more does one need in a movie? If you’ve never seen best B-movie classic, do so and you’ll understand why, for a brief moment in time, Jean Claude Van Damme was the topic of conversation in schoolyards across the country.
No.7 Puppetmaster (1989)
While producers Yoram Globus and Mehahem Golan, along with their Cannon Group studio, were the uncontested kings of direct-to-video action movies, (American Ninja, later entries in the Death Wish series, many Chuck Norris features) it was’s Full Moon Entertainment that ruled the roost when it came to movies. Rising from the financial ashes of the defunct Empire Pictures, Full Moon prided themselves on two things: superb yet practical special effects and a wide array of imaginative critters. From Doll Man to the Demonic Toys, Full Moon horror movies always had visually interesting protagonists or antagonists. Yet none had quite the same impact as Andre Toulon’s killer puppets. First introduced in 1989’s Puppetmaster, Blade, Pinhead, Jester, Tunneler, Leech Woman, and their ilk would go on to star in a total of 10 movies, including a crossover picture with Full Moon stable-mates Demonic Toys.
Merchandise for the murderous puppets was everywhere for a while, with everything from comic books to card games to actual puppets. The original 1989 hit is a straight-forward horror flick, with a collection of psychics led by Paul Le Mat, of American Grafitti fame, investigating strange occurrences at an abandoned cliffside hotel. Sequels would further explore the origin of the puppets, from World War II all the way back to ancient Egypt. While later entries in the saga deviated strongly from the tone and feel of the original, the first three chapters of the franchise make for worthwhile viewing and provide a strong, complete trilogy. They’re worth renting and are a good entry point into the wonderful world of Full Moon Entertainment.
No.6 Trancers (1985)
Another Charles Band production, this time directed by the man himself, Trancers is another gem worth reminiscing over. Starring gravel-faced Tim Thomerson, veteran of more B-movies than most of his contemporaries combined, and a pre-fame (not to mention pre-plastic surgery) Helen Hunt, Trancers is a blatan rip-off of James Cameron’s The Terminator but does just enough things differently to warrant a viewing.
In the near future, Thomerson plays cop Jack Deth (I guess Rocky McGrimm was taken), who hunts the titular villains,-like pawns of a hypnotic criminal mastermind named Whistler. Shades of Blade Runner abound, from Deth’s trenchcoat to his time spent chasing creatures that can pass as human. But Trancers swiftly switches gears to the old sci-fi movie standby of time travel. Turns out Deth’s nemesis has managed to transplant his consciousness into the body of his ancestor and it’s up to Jack to do the time warp thing in order to bring this psychopath to justice. Further solidifying Trancers‘ status as a Terminator knock-off, Whistler is planning to assassinate the future rulers of the world by snuffing out their great-great-great (several more greats)-grandfathers.
The movie won’t win any points for originality, replacing Terminators with Whistler and Replicants with Trancers. The only truly original element the movie introduces is a handy little digital watch that allows Deth to stretch 1 second of time into 10 seconds, allowing him to dodge a bullet or make a quick getaway. It’s a neat little invention and I distinctly remember asking for one for Christmas. Still waiting on that, Santa!
Trancers spawned several sequels, each diluting the original’s to-the-wall commitment of making as enjoyable a movie as possible, you simply can’t beat the first movie for sheer B-movie thrills. In another life, Thomerson would have been a much bigger actor, he commits every ounce of his charisma to bringing Deth to life, giving him a mix of Chandler-esque gravitas with a pinch of Bruce Campbell-like wiseass. Helen Hunt defies genre conventions by playing her girlfriend role not as a damsel in distress but as a tough chick, along for the ride. Hunt certainly seems to have enjoyed her experience shooting Trancers, despite her movie and TV career taking off she was a good enough sport to return for the next two sequels in cameo roles. Nice to know some people remember where they came from.
What surprises await you on the other side of this best B-movie list? Click through and find out…