The Dragon Lives Again (1977)

There is almost no way to describe what happens in the public domain martial arts cheapie The Dragon Lives Again without overselling its low-key charm. Part of the 1970s wave of “Brucesploitation” pictures that capitalized on the untimely death of rising action star Bruce Lee by casting less talented knockoff performers like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, and Bruce Leong in his place, this is the kind of dime-a-dozen schlock that really has to swing for the fences in its basic premise if it’s going to stand out in any way. The filmmakers may have gotten a little overzealous in that effort here, making a deeply, deeply strange film by any standard while merely attempting to stand out among their Brucesplotiation peers. In The Dragon Lives Again, “Bruce Lee” teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist, “Clint Eastwood,” and a Party City-costumed skeleton army in Hell. I’m not exaggerating. If anything, I’m holding back other post-modern, copyright-infringing character inclusions (like soft-core porno icon Emmanuelle) in an attempt to simplify the concept. I also hesitate to hook anyone into watching the film based on that synopsis alone, since it promises a surrealist action spectacle that The Dragon Lives Again is not interested in delivering. There are certainly bursts of exciting fight choreography to be found here or there, but for the most part this is a weirdly low-energy hangout film where Bruce Lee chills in Hell with his newfound friends & enemies from pop culture royalty of past & present. The premise does little to prepare you for how lackadaisical the tone & pacing can be.

You may find the idea of a film “dedicated to the millions who love Bruce Lee” that opens with the beloved, deceased actor (played here by Bruce Leong) waking up in Hell a little distasteful. Would it help if I told you that most of the film’s commentary on Lee’s real-life persona revolves around his reputation as a lady-killer and, frankly, a slut? Or that he’s eventually successful in his war against The Emperor of the Underworld’s gang of pop culture misfits and earns his life back on Earth through his combat skills (a chance obviously never afforded to Lee in the “real“ afterlife)? Probably not. It’s as if The Dagon Lives Again’s major contribution to the “Brucesploitation” genre was to really lean into the ”exploitation” half of the portmanteau. This an R-rated picture with lengthy, nudity-filled trips the Emperor’s royal bathhouses. “Bruce” spends a lot of his screen time (when he’s not hanging out with Popeye or teaching gambling addicts how to shed their vice) either seducing women or turning down their offers to seduce him. When he arrives in Hell as a fresh corpse in the opening scene his nunchucks are mistaken by the Emperor’s harem as a bulging erection. The movie makes sure to pack the screen with just enough horned-up sleaze to fill the time between its occasional sequences of “Bruce” beating up famous pop culture characters & their nameless ghoul-goons in bursts of chaotic martial arts spectacle. And just in case you forget that the figure you’re watching onscreen is “Bruce Lee” himself, he goads his opponents with self-referential taunts like “Now enter the dragon!” before punctuating the joke with a punch to drive it home. The film is almost as sleazy as it is silly – no small feat considering its premise.

A lot of what helps The Dagon Lives Again go down smoothly despite its low-energy hangout vibe and weakness for exploitative sleaze is its self-awareness in just how silly it’s being from scene to scene. Of course, the film could not afford to animate Popeye the Sailor Man à la Roger Rabbit nor to hire the real-life Clint Eastwood to appear onscreen next to its knockoff Bruce Lee, so it only puts in the bare minimum effort for the audience to recognize those pop culture figures through their Spirit Halloween Store costuming. It directly acknowledges that visual discrepancy, though, with Bruce Lee’s unconvincing appearance as Bruce Leong being explained in a throwaway line about how when you die your face & body change in the afterlife. More importantly, the movie deploys classic Looney Tunes gags (like opponents being tickled mid-battle or a pistol firing a red flag instead of a bullet), joke needle drops for the Carl Douglas disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting,” and a credits-length spoof of the James Bond series’ iconic intros just to signal that nothing in the film should be taken too seriously (least of all Bruce Lee’s legacy). It’s almost less of a genuine artifact of Brucesploitation than it is a ZAZ-style spoof of the genre – just with a significantly less zany energy level. Besides, even if you did have a chip on your shoulder about the film’s careless handling of Bruce Lee’s legacy, you’ve already won the battle. Because of the film’s shaky-at-best rights issues, it’s currently only available in hideous, crudely cropped public domain transfers that frequently cut entire characters out of the frame while they’re talking. It’s already been banished to the hellish dregs of YouTube & PutoTV where only weirdos who are awake at 3am will stumble into it, perplexed– the only delirious, low-stakes state where this movie stands a chance to fully satisfy its audience anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Baskin (2016)

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The Turkish horror film Baskin knows how to craft a disturbing image & a depraved scenario, but is that enough of a foundation for an entire feature film? Without much of a story to tell the production winds up feeling like an HD home video of a trip to a haunted house, not at all like a narrative feature. This problem is further compounded when you’re forced to carpool to said haunted house with a gang of overgrown dude bro bully cops. The five interchangeable police officers who are tortured & destroyed by Baskin’s haunted house creations aren’t necessarily portrayed as sympathetic. In fact, they’re quite despicably abusive. However, after long enough exposure to their shitty macho jokes about bestiality & trans sex workers the film starts to take on the same one-of-the-guys locker room vibes that sunk the similarly visually-promising Witchin’ & Bitchin’. The characters are just as repugnant as they are uninteresting, but the film seems to think hanging out with them is enough of a narrative lead-up for a trip to a haunted house full of Hellish freaks when the truth is it makes the whole enterprise feel like a waste of time. There’s nothing accomplished in Baskin that couldn’t be conveyed in a still image, which is a huge problem.

The cocktail napkin plot sends the cops on a call to a remote, out of the city area, where they encounter some demonic, Event Horizon type shit, essentially entering the gates of Hell by careless mistake. The vile imagery of their Hell on Earth experience can range from beautiful (including a heavenly shot of God-sized hands plunging into water to save a drowning man, recalling the German Expressionist horror The Hands of Orlac) to despicable (eye-gouging & rape). The film tries to tack on a meaning in the depravity with some kind of Martyrs-esque philosophy about the spiritual transcendence of extreme pain, but it’s all very vague & never registers as anything more than aimlessly grotesque. Baskin is obviously proud of the demons & demonic lairs it built for the production by hand & those details indeed look great, but I get the feeling they’d be better experienced at a GWAR concert or an off-the-highway, Halloween season attraction in a warehouse. There’s not enough narrative or tonal effort here to justify a feature length film experience.

That’s not to say that the film can’t be scary. Baskin finds terror in simple, straightforward imagery. Its stark lighting & disembodied hands call back to the best of the giallo genre. Its flashlight-driven haunted house aesthetic reminds me of long gone teenage years of “urban exploring” in locations like abandoned pools & hospitals. There’s some interesting dialogue in the last act about how “you can carry Hell with you at all times; you can carry it inside you” and the film’s overall conceit about literally entering Hell opens it up to some sublimely surreal moments. There’s just not enough going on here to make its overall nastiness & cruelty worthwhile. After watching this year’s horror anthology Southbound achieve the same pull-the-rug-from-under-you terror of an unexpected trip to Hell, Baskin fails while reaching for (and without matching its grotesque cruelty for easy discomfort), this film feels more than a little useless.

There’s enough imagery in Baskin to promise that first time director Can Evernol might make some truly memorable horror pictures down the line, but that imagery is much better enjoyed as a scroll through Google image search results than as a painful 100 minute struggle through toxic bully personalities, dead still pacing, and demonic sexual assault. And if he never masters the craft of cinema, he at least has a future in the seasonal work of constructing haunted houses. Baskin isn’t successful as a feature film, but it’d make for a killer resume for that line of work.

-Brandon Ledet