Monday, December 07, 2015

Death Machines (1976)

When you see the 'Crown International Pictures' logo come up at the start of a movie's opening credits, you know that you are about to sit through a slice of prime drive-in schlock.  A contemporary of and clearly modelled on American International Pictures (AIP) - which it actually outlasted, AIP losings its identity after being sold to Filmways in the 1970s - Crown International's main business was the production and distribution of cheap exploitation pictures aimed squarely at the drive-in market.  Their films are characterised by the use of grainy colour film stock, often tinny sound, discordant and often seemingly randomly applied electronic musical scores and casts of unkowns.  occaisionally, you might vaguely recognise the leads, sometimes from TV, mostly from other low budget movies, (although, now and again, a genuine 'name' performer like Glenn Ford, Jayne Mansfield or Mae West will pop up).  Active as a production company up until the 1990s and a distributor until 2003, Crown International now seems to be content to exploit its extensive back catalogue via DVD and TV sales.  Thankfully, for me at least, Talking Pictures TV appear to have acquired the UK TV rights to Crown International's films and is busy showing them in late night slots.

I've already watched a number of their films courtesy of Talking Pictures TV and found them fascinating - particularly in the way in which their style barely seems to change.  Beyond an increase in the amount of female flesh on display and the addition of slightly more graphic violence, their 1970s and 1980s output in pretty much indistinguishable from that of the 1960s.  Of the movies I've seen so far, which have run the gamut from westerns to war movies, taking in biker flicks, teen sexploitation and science fiction, 1976's Death Machines is perhaps the most representative of the Crown International 'style'.  In a tpical piece of marketing misdirection, both the trailer and the film's title sequence suggest a science fiction element which is barely present in what is more or a less a gangster/martial arts crossover.  The plot is barely comprehensible, (due in no small part, to the fact that the villainous 'Dragon Lady' can seemingly barely speak English, rendering much of her expository dialogue incomprehensible), concerning the use of a mind-control drug to create three apparently unstoppable assassins, who are then used to eliminate the local opposition.  Now enjoying a local monopoly on hit men, the Dragon Lady forces other local gangsters to pay her price for the use of her assassins to carry out their hits.  As far as I could make out, she was in the pay of the Yakuza, who were using her activities as some kind of trial for a possible wider use of the mind control drug.  Inevitably, she and her henchman double cross their paymasters.

The various hits carried out by the assassins result in sequences of trucks being driven into restaurants, shootings and, most spectacularly, an attack on a martial arts school, which leaves only one survivor, (who loses a hand in the attack).  Being the only witness to their activities, the assassins keep on coming after him, which effectively forms the main part of the 'plot', such as it is.  However, this aspect of the story seems to get forgotten about for long stretches of the movie, which keeps switching, seemingly at random, between proliferating sub-plots, which include the police investigation into the attacks and all the departmental rivalries and internal politics this involves, (there is a stock shouty police Captain - sporting a disturbingly inept make-up job - who keeps tearing strips off of the lead detective for not doing his paperwork), a romance between a nurse and the witness and the witness' post-traumatic stress.  Random sequence follows seemingly random sequence: the assassins kidnap and rape a girl, Dragon Lady's henchman uses photos of this to blackmail her banker father, when this doesn't work, he blows the banker up; meanwhile, one of the assasins is captured by the cops, escapes, wrecking the squad room in the process, before winding up in a bar where he beats up a gang of over age bikers.  Most mysteriously, a middle aged bum loses his temper and wrecks the bar the witness works in - for no good reason plot-wise.

Death Machines eventually rolls to an underwhelming climax, with the Dragon Lady and her henchman dead, but the now rebellious assassins still at liberty.  Everything is shot on the usual cheap and fuzzy film stock with terrible sound and poor lighting.  Nevertheless, the whole thing is, like most Crown International pictures, perversely entertaining.  The scattershot arrangement of apparently random scenes and plot elements lends the thing a surreal feel.  You can't help but suspect that at some point in the editing process the various film elements were scattered by a gust of wind and what could be salvaged were slapped together in a panic, creating an incredible kaliedescope of violence where the rules of cause and effect have no sway.  Like all good schlock, it has an air of delirium about it - when it finally ends, you are left feeling as if you've awakened with a start from a half-remembered dream.  Death Machines might well be bottom-of-the-barrel exploitation, but it is at least entertaining (and sometimes baffling) bottom-of-the-barrel exploitation. 



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