Anyone who grew up watching films in the 1980s will be familiar with the Cannon Group – as well as owning a chain of cinemas in the UK, the company, run by irrepressible Israeli cousins Menahem and Yoram Globus, seemed to dominate the video rental market. The distinctive deconstructed c-shaped logo at the start of a VHS would normally mean you were in for 90 minutes of Chuck Norris beating the hell out terrorists or Charles Bronson gunning down unconvincing street punks in a disused warehouse.
But Cannon – subject of the brilliantly entertaining new documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films – didn’t just make ninja sequels and action films with exploding Jeeps, they dabbled in just about every genre, from musicals to sci-fi and adult erotica. And they even invented a few of their own (including the ‘arm-wrestling movie’, with 1987’s Over the Top). Here are some of the weirdest and wildest releases from the company’s prolific tenure as Hollywood schlock-meisters.
This sci-fi musical posits a future world where music is controlled by something called ‘The Apple’. Sounds prescient, doesn’t it? There’s even a Simon Cowell-type, the devilish Svenagli-figure Mr Boogalow, who takes naïve teens and moulds them into asinine chart-topping acts. Is this one of those ‘cult classics’ – a forgotten gem perhaps – that’s ripe for rediscovery? Maybe not. It is, in fact, excruciating tripe, so bad that at an early preview screening the audience, who were given promo records of the soundtrack, hurled the discs at the screen at the end of the film, shredding it to pieces.
If nothing else, Cannon knew the ingredients needed to sell a film. X-Ray, aka Hospital Massacre, a slasher directed by a regular Cannon director Boaz Davidson, ticks all the horror B-movie boxes: a maniac on the loose; stabbings; decapitation; nudity from a Playboy Playmate; a twist ending. Admittedly, it lacks logic and tension, but hey, you can’t have everything.
Charles Bronson, heading into retirement, found steady employment with Golan and Globus in numerous, arguably entirely unnecessary Death Wish sequels and, well, Death Wish knock-offs. Death Wish 2 is particularly unsavoury (with four minutes falling foul of the British censor on its initial release), but who can resist such zingers as this, Bronson’s quip to a crucifix-wearing punk he is about to shoot: “You believe in Jesus? Well, you’re gonna meet him.” Being the 1980s, the film features the obligatory ghetto blaster, here blasted in half with a machine gun. Surely a cinematic first. A year later, Bronson appeared in the similarly nasty 10 to Midnight, this time playing a cop with a penchant for v-necks, after a serial killer with a penchant for running around in the nuddy. It’s American Psycho meets Dirty Harry, and it’s brilliant.
Cannon seemed to think that by having a film that was half teen sex comedy (like their massive 1978 hit Lemon Popsicle), and half vicious revenge thriller in the Death Wish 2 mould, they might replicate the box office of two of their most successful releases. The result is an uneasy mix – and a brilliantly sleazy slice of downbeat exploitation cinema. Ernest Borgnine and Richard Roundtree, in supporting roles, give the film the merest hint of respectability – as does the film’s unintentionally hilarious opening dedication, to ‘King Vidor’ – the legendary director from Hollywood’s Golden age, who may, or may not have appreciated being connected with this nasty, trashy action-packed piece of cinematic mayhem. The New York Times said it best in its review: ‘It may be cheap, but it isn’t dull.’
As Boaz Davidson says in the documentary, “people didn’t know the word ‘ninja’ until Cannon came along”. Fresh from the success of two ninja films starring Franco Nero, himself ninja-ignorant when he was cast in the first film, Cannon decided to mix things up, with a female lead character (played by Lucinda Dickey, a professional dancer, who also starred in Cannon’s two breakdance films), an aerobics instructor possessed by the spirit of a ninja warrior, in a not entirely successful cross between Enter the Dragon, The Exorcist and Flashdance. Cannon went on to make four American Ninja films, three of which starred Michael Dudikoff, who Menahem promised would become the next James Dean. He didn’t.
For Cannon, it was whatever sells, and, as anyone knows, sex sells. And so, after Bo Derek proved a box office bonanza in ‘10’, stripping off to Ravel’s Boléro, they decided to try and repeat the trick, and had her getting naked in Bolero, not to it. That’s all she did. No witty script by Blake Edwards, no Dudley Moore. Scene after scene of Bo disrobing or in the throes of passion. There is a vaguely Hemingway-esque plot about a bullfighter whose nuts have been gouged by his opponent. Anyone who paid good money to see the film will have some idea of what that feels like.
Cannon threw everything they had at this sci-fi spectacular that they hoped would be the box office hit of the year: and so, there were extravagant special effects, scenes in outer space, London being blown up, space aliens, vampires, nudity – with a script by the writer of Alien and a director fresh from Poltergeist. Sadly, the film failed to recoup even half its budget in the US. But its reputation is starting to gain traction, and it is now regarded as a unique and demented curio.
According to the documentary, Menahem Golan actually interviewed the orang-utan from Every Which Way But Loose for the lead role in this kids adventure film. In the end the real-life ape bit his kid co-star, so had to be replaced by a dwarf in a monkey suit. The resulting film beggars belief. Director Boaz Davidson says that during location filming in Africa he felt like the real monkeys in the trees were looking down and laughing at him.
Keen to be taken serious as filmmakers and not just chop-socky merchants, Cannon started bankrolling films directed leftfield art-house directors like John Cassavettes and Barbet Schroeder (it wasn’t smooth sailing – Schroeder went to the Cannon offices with an electric hand saw and threatened to cut off his fingers if they didn’t re-instate the budget for his Bukowski film Barfly). Cannon even signed up Jean Luc Godard to make a version of King Lear, starring Molly Ringwald and author Norman Mailer – the nonsensical film sank without a trace, becoming such an unseen obscurity that Quentin Tarantino was able to beef up his acting CV when he was starting out by saying he’d appeared in it.
By now the company was overstretched, projects were announced but never made, and some, like this version of Jules Verne’s classic tale, were halted mid-production, but still released. How? The director, Rusty Lemorande, explains, in a post on IMDb: ‘Only the approximately first eight minutes of the film were written or directed by me. The remainder of the film is actually the sequel to Alien In LA which was tacked on’. It was the start of the end for Cannon, who limped on for a while, releasing their final film in 1994, Hellbound, starring, appropriately enough, Chuck Norris, and combining most of the genres they had excelled at, namely, martial arts, action, thriller, horror and fantasy. Fittingly, it is complete and utter crap and an absolute blast.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is released in cinemas on 5 June; American Ninja 1-4 and X-Ray were recently released on Blu-ray by 88 Films; Going Bananas is currently unavailable, which is probably for the best.
Published 2 Jun 2015
Crash, bang, wallop! Don't miss this lid-lifting exposé on the trailblazing B-movie studio.
By Anton Bitel
Classic ’80s actioners Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination are coming to Blu-ray and DVD.