American girls with deadly hands of kung fu dishing out vengeance in the Far East. A beautiful assassin employing sadistic methods of torture against members of the criminal underworld. That's the Lethal Ladies Collection for you. Shout! Factory recently released this three movie collection featuring a trio of Corman-in-the-Phillipines era sleaze under the omnibus title The Lethal Ladies Collection, as part of their Roger Corman Collection.
It's a nice coincidence that I received this set around the time that I was also prepping my review for Mark Hartley's documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed, which had a strange effect on watching what should have simply been your average 70's/early 80's sex and murder fare. Instead of taking in the ample skin and violence on display, I kept wondering, "Did that guy taking the fall there really get hurt," or "How many of the soldiers in this scene were actual soldiers in Marcos' military and how many of them were carrying real guns?" I'll admit, my thoughts never got a lot deeper than that--these movies have enough distracting content on their own--but I'd recommend that before you pick seek out any movies from this era you have a look at Machete Maidens to get a sense of how truly underground and strange this period of filmmaking was.
Anyway, here are the films and what I thought of them in brief:
Firecracker (1981, dir. Cirio H. Santiago)
Female karate champion Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner) goes to the Philippines to look for her sister who has disappeared. She stumbles upon a drug cartel and a tournament of no-holds-barred fights to the death in the action-packed Firecracker. Directed by genre specialist Cirio H. Santiago (TNT Jackson) and costarring Vic Diaz (The Big Bird Cage) and Darby Hilton (Malibu Express).
This was actually the first film I watched out of all of them and what I'd consider the "best" in terms of delivering sheer action. Kesner is an incredibly stiff and awkward actress but she somewhat convincingly handles the physicality of her role and seems pretty game for whatever director Cirio Santiago throws her way. A kung fu fight where she loses an article of clothing every minute until she's down to her panties? She's in. barroom brawl? Kesner's down. Incredibly creepy love scene with mustachioed co-star Darby Hinton? Why not, it's not like the knives were real.
Honestly, for its sheer goofiness, this was my favorite of the three movies in the set and I would have loved some behind-the-scenes material here. Sadly, all we get is the trailer.
TNT Jackson (1974, dir. Cirio H. Santiago)
"They call me TNT," martial arts expert Diana Jackson (Jeanne Bell) announces upon her arrival in Hong Kong to look for her missing brother. From there, she heads smack into what is known as the city's worst area, a no-man's-land that is a haven for drug dealers, thieves and killers. TNT does not know that her brother has been brutally murdered by Charlie (Stan Shaw), an American who has settled in Hong Kong and is bent on inching his way to the top of the city's drug-smuggling trade. But he has no idea what he's up against when he tangles with dynamite in TNT Jackson!
And then things get interesting: it seems that Firecracker was in effect a remake of TNT Jackson which was made seven years before as a kind of riff on Cleopatra Jones. The big switch, though, is that the male and female leads were black and as I'm typing this right now I'm realizing that even the titles are kind of similar with their allusions to explosives. So, that's me being a little slower than the filmmakers there.
Unfortunately, Jeanne Bell, besides being really attractive and rocking a thick 'fro, comes off as even more awkward than Kesner does a few years later with the same material. And your mileage may vary here, but the violence is somewhat less pronounced and the fights far less competently staged than this film's successor. The one (major) bright spot is Stan Shaw as Charlie, who comes off as a smooth operator and businessman who also happens to have powerful fists. Shaw (pictured above) was an actual accomplished martial artist and his chops show up here, and you finish the movie wondering how he never became a bigger star here in the U.S. in the 80's (I can remember him from childhood viewings of Harlem Nights and The Monster Squad but not a lot else besides).
Too Hot To Handle
Contract killer Samantha Fox (Cheri Caffaro) accepts a mission to kill a group of gangsters in the Philippines, but problems arise when she falls for the Manila detective investigating the murders. Director Don Schain, who was married to Caffaro, directed her in several films prior to Too Hot To Handle, including Ginger, Girls Are For Loving and The Abductors.
Although Firecracker is my favorite of the three movies, Too Hot To Handle is undeniably the centerpiece of the set, receiving a separate disc and commentary track with star Cheri Caffaro. Of the three movies, the Don Schain-directed film is actually the most well-produced if not the most frankly bizarre given the almost Tales From the Crypt-like punishments Fox dishes out to the several gangsters she encounters throughout the movie. But man, there are some really nicely paced cuts and beautiful shots throughout, coming off as a sort of Penthouse Forum Guide to Lady Assassins (i.e. they're crazy and want to get freaky).
Fox, a former model is perhaps the least accomplished actress among the three movies but does she throw herself into her role, chewing away at the scenery like--well, like an actress who only learned how to perform exclusively by chewing scenery. I say this without irony, though: I think the 70's and early 80's were worse off for Samantha Fox's character not getting her own franchise.
The Lethal Ladies Collection is available on DVD from Shout! Factory now.