Tuesday, January 3, 2012

ECSTASY AND BLOOD: THE BRILLIANCE OF LADY TERMINATOR

(Note: I wrote this for a book that the excellent film writer and all-around awesome guy Craig D. Lindsey was assembling on 80's action cinema. For reasons that I don't know in full, the book never came to be, and with Craig's blessing, I'm posting just what the world needs: 20+ paragraphs on one of my favorite films ever. Most of my background info comes from the DVD supplements; a month or so after I submitted this article, this interview with Barbara Anne Constable, her first ever, went online, which fills in many, many more blanks for the curious reader.)


ECSTASY AND BLOOD: THE BRILLIANCE OF LADY TERMINATOR

To explain to the uninitiated why H. Tjut Djalil's LADY TERMINATOR is in fact the best movie in the world - once minor considerations such as taste, logic, and good acting are removed from the equation, anyway - a thought experiment may be helpful.

Imagine you are a low-budget Indonesian exploitation film producer, working for P.T. Soraya Intercine Films, and on the heels of the success of TERMINATOR, you've commissioned a low-budget ripoff. Maybe you've even come up with the name, and possibly even a tagline. (My favorite: "First she mates ... then she terminates!") All you need is a script.

And, one after another, they come: all the thinly veiled transmutations of the TERMINATOR story, with all the originality you might expect. An endless cookie cutter string of them. And then, one day, you hear a pitch that's rather different.

Specifically, it starts 100 years in the past, and involves a woman who has a snake living in her vagina that bites off the penis of any man who is unable to give her sexual pleasure.

(Presumably you, oh hallowed employee of P.T. Soraya Intercine Films, are leaning forward at this point, either in extreme interest or extreme confusion, thus foreshadowing the reaction pretty much any sane person will have to the entire running time of LADY TERMINATOR.)

This woman - the South Seas Queen, as it transpires - finds herself on the back foot one day, when one man, unexpectedly, gives her sexual pleasure, and catching her unawares, removes the snake and, using magic hand powers, transmutes it into a dagger. All of this leads to the South Seas Queen cursing his progeny, which takes us to the present day, and a beautiful anthropology student investigating the South Seas Queen, and ... well, you can see where this is going, can't you?

If you're this functionary of P.T. Soraya Intercine Films, your answer is: into production.

Thought experiment over. When I describe this story to people who need convincing that there is no better use of their time than watching LADY TERMINATOR, they are generally convinced that they are in for one of the most batshit insane experiences of their filmgoing lives. Which is in fact true. But what's really remarkable about LADY TERMINATOR is, in fact, that the plot device of the South Seas Queen is possibly one of the MOST explicable things about this film.

"The most important thing in a film is the script. It's like a blueprint for building a house." - H. Tjut Djalil.

The South Seas Queen isn't the product of the imagination of a feverish mind, or if it is, not one that was writing rip-offs of Hollywood films in 1988. It's actually an ancient Javanese legend. On the Region 1 Mondo Macabro DANGEROUS SEDUCTRESS DVD, there's an interview with Djalil where he explains that there's actually two versions of the legend, one from west Java and one from central Java, and that the west Javanese version seemed more adaptable. And in the context of low-budget production, using a story set in the past means that you don't have the art department requirements of setting something in the future - just dig up some old costumes, wall hangings, and a four-poster bed, and you can be shooting by the afternoon!

(You might think, also, that there's a benefit about using an ancient legend, because it's in public domain and free of copyright entanglements. Then you remind yourself that the film in question is in fact LADY TERMINATOR, and that the chance of any such niceties being a concern to anyone at P.T. Soraya Intercine Films is next to nil.)

The legend also has the advantage of seamlessly introducing into the TERMINATOR mythos the magic, missing element of the original movie: copious sex and nudity. From our present-day vantage, it's easy to imagine a version of LADY TERMINATOR that's an ode to female empowerment. Despite multiple bloody castration scenes (on behalf of that aforementioned snake), it's safe to say that this film has other things on its mind.

“''Lady Terminator'' may sound like a female counterpart of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film ''The Terminator.'' In fact, it is a vile reversal of those nauseating movies whose point is to show naked women being hacked to pieces ... (it) is too lurid, repulsive, and psychologically warped for audiences to laugh at its badly dubbed English and thoroughly amateurish production values. Its single redeeming feature is that the ending does not promise a sequel.”- Caryn James, from the New York Times review of LADY TERMINATOR.

To underline the most significant fact about that quote, and to me far less explicable than the fact that a TERMINATOR rip-off involves Javanese legend and a snake living in a woman's vagina - LADY TERMINATOR was actually reviewed in the New York Times, and actually had a theatrical release in the States. From the far-distant remove of 2010, it's hard to imagine a non-ironic theatrical release of a film like this today, even in a small release pattern.

But in the late 80’s, these movies weren’t being sold to a jaded, ironic audience – they were sold to a diminishing but eager audience who wanted sex and violence in bucketfuls, and on this account, to say that LADY TERMINATOR does not disappoint is an understatement. And that’s part of the joy of watching LADY TERMINATOR, especially with an appreciative audience – it’s impossible not to revel in its excess. In this movie, it’s not enough for Lady Terminator to machine-gun a guard from a balcony, watch him land on a car, throw him on the ground, and machine-gun him at least 30 additional times from three different cameras – this sequence ends with Lady Terminator kicking him in the balls as she walks away, for good measure.

And it’s moments like this that the enjoyment of LADY TERMINATOR as a piece of “so-bad-it’s good” cinema collides with a feeling that is virtually indistinguishable from the glorious excesses of action cinema that are enjoyed as pure pleasures. It’s tempting to lump in LADY TERMINATOR with TROLL 2 or THE ROOM as a disasterpiece of gigantic proportions, but it’s neither accurate nor fair. All of those films are enjoyable precisely because they fail in such a committed way. As a director, Djalil couldn’t be called talented, per se, but he has at least a passing sense of where to put the camera more often than not, and a fair number of the film’s directorial failures, technically speaking, are borne of over-ambition rather than unremitting ineptitude. (An impending tidal wave that capsizes a boat early on, for instance, seems like an eighteen-inch tall wave photographed at a high angle.)

As a director of actors, it’s hard to be as forgiving. To be fair, once lead actress Barbara Anne Constable becomes possessed by the South Seas Queen and becomes the Lady Terminator, her woodenness almost becomes a virtue; until then, her plausibility as an anthropology student rivals Denise Richards’ turn in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH as a nuclear physicist. And while leads Erica (Claudia Angelique Rademaker) and Max (Christopher J. Hart) are pretty banal, I’ve seen worse. (Despite those glowing endorsements, none of the three seem to have appeared in any other movies.) There’s not much that can mitigate the sheer awfulness of a litany of supporting performances, however, from the cackling undersexed drinkers on the beach who are Lady Terminator’s first victims to the completely irrelevant stoner friend of Max (named “Snake”) to the bellhop who is overeager to jump in bed with our titular character, not to mention any number of random people who get shot by machine guns and writhe in ludicrous ways.

There’s a mitigating issue with judging the quality of the performances in LADY TERMINATOR (not to mention the script), though, which is that the only copies I’ve been able to find are dubbed into English. While many assert that that’s the original source language of the film, Djalil makes it clear in his interview that it was dubbed for export. I’m of mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’m historically a purist when it comes to insisting on watching foreign cinema in its original language, and there’s something condescending about finding a film laughable on the basis of its bad dubbing. On the other hand, the dubbing work in LADY TERMINATOR is a glorious gift to the world, without which we would have never had such lines as:

- “I’m not a lady, I’m an anthropologist!”
- “I think I’ll marry my right fist, I use it so much already!”
- “Wow, that’s what I call police brutality, man.”
- “Listen, Jack and I have seen more dead bodies than you’ve eaten hot dogs, so shut up and eat!”
- “I’ve heard of the ultimate blow job, but uh… this is too much!”
- “Come with me if you want to live!”

Ok, in the case of the last line, that’s not remotely true. It is, of course, just one thing of many in this film blatantly lifted from THE TERMINATOR. And it’s the tension between making a movie that makes sense and having to arbitrarily fit increasingly irrelevant references to the original film in that help make LADY TERMINATOR such a singularly bizarre film. This incongruity reaches its apex in the scene where Lady Terminator cuts her eyeball out and washes it in the sink. Why? There are only two possible reasons: one of them might have to do with some mysterious energy ball that a mystic hits her with in the eye earlier, and the other might have to do with its notoriety from the original film.

(As an aside, the random descents into mystic shit flying out of people’s eyes or other locations are pretty stunning for their arbitrariness, especially given Lady Terminator’s over-reliance on machine-gunning the opposition. But Djalil is also the director of MYSTICS IN BALI, and fans of that movie will find some similar effects going on here; and even the plot of a woman interested in something of supernatural origin is slightly similar in structure.)

It’s easy to make fun of the endless TERMINATOR rip-offs, but just when you think you’ve seen everything LADY TERMINATOR has to offer – including a final, no-budget variant on the original TERMINATOR’s endo-skeleton reveal - there’s something even more unexpected.

“The struggle within our souls is never-ending. The life of man short and brutal, torn between good and evil. Of the eternity around us, we know nothing. The stars look on. They have been here long before mankind appeared on our small planet, and will be here long after we are no more.”

Those are the final lines of narration in LADY TERMINATOR.

Yes, really.

At what point someone decided LADY TERMINATOR needed to provide an excursis on existentialist philosophy as an outro, I have no idea. But this is just one of the many mysteries and glories of LADY TERMINATOR, a film that keeps on giving, a film whose greatest mystery may just be that, despite being designed as an eminently disposable rip-off, it has endured as not just one of the most enjoyable action films of its era but a truly astonishing, singular film, one that will bring more joy to your life than you could imagine any film involving multiple castration scenes possibly could.

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