The Ninja Trilogy (1981-84), Septic Man (2013)

First published (in a shorter version, without Septic Man) by Little White Lies, as the first part of my Cinema Psychotronicum column

Sometimes genus and species can be difficult to pin down. Take the brand of cinema known broadly – very broadly, in fact – as ‘psychotronic’, a term first appropriated by Michael Weldon from the 1980 cult SF flick The Psychotronic Man (1980) to describe films

“traditionally ignored or ridiculed by mainstream critics at the time of their release: horror, exploitation, action. science fiction, and movies that used to play in drive-ins or inner city grindhouses.”

Psychotronic cinema is a hard and loose category of termite art which, whether because too shamelessly genre-bound or just too wacky-backy niche, occupies the critical margins. Still, exploring is always best done at the outer edges – and so this column will be dedicated to direct-to-video dross, disinterred B pictures and the odd (and I mean odd) film orphaned at the festival fringes.

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Emblematic of all things psychotronic is Jesse Thomas Cook’s Septic Man (2013). Quick to assert its rejection of good taste’s normative boundaries, it opens with a woman literally vomiting and shitting herself to death. For in smalltown Collingwood, Ontario, there is something in the water – a toxic cocktail of exotic diseases that are killing off the locals. Accordingly, ‘septic man’ Jack is hired by a shadowy figure (Julian Richings) to find, and fix, the source of the outbreak. Yet as Jack plumbs the depths of his evacuated hometown, he gets trapped in an outflow tank at the sewage plant, and finds himself transforming into a monstrous incarnation of the town’s buried unconscious.

The Toxic Avenger and C.H.U.D. (both 1984) are the obvious reference points for Jack’s subterranean metamorphosis, but there is something altogether more elusive going on in Cook’s film. Perhaps it is the screenplay by Pontypool‘s Tony Burgess, which keeps confounding Jack’s actual experiences with hallucination and metaphor. By the end we are not sure whether a strange pair of fraternal serial killers (Robert Maillet, Tim Burd) exists in the bowels of the sewer or only of Jack’s mind, or indeed whether Jack has truly unclogged the system or just furnished it with more blockage of his own.

Jack’s slow death down below is decorated not just with the expected shit, waste and rot, but, paradoxically, with the imagery of birth (birth being this young father-to-be’s principal anxiety). As he takes on the town’s sickness, he also becomes a new, ambiguous hero of the underground – and there is even, accompanying the film’s closing credits, a country theme song commemorating Septic Man’s idiosyncratic exploits. The results, deeply unnerving, impenetrable and wrong in all the best ways, might well linger in your brain like a bad smell.

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The so-called Ninja Trilogy comprises Menahem Golan’s Enter the Ninja (1981), and Sam Firstenberg’s in-name-only sequels Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and Ninja III: The Domination (1984), all unified by the appearance of actor and real-life practitioner of ninjutsu Sho Kosugi (playing a different character in each title), and all rightly celebrated as showcases for the most egregious, Eighties-inflected cash-in excesses of Golan and Globus’ Cannon Films. Though the groundwork was laid by The Octagon (1980), it was these three films that began a veritable explosion of ninja presence in mainstream action flicks.

The very title of Enter the Ninja riffs on/rips off the East-West martial arts clash of Enter the Dragon (1973), and the opening credits boast a fetishisation of Japanese weapons and techniques that would pervade the trilogy. Yet as recently certified ninja Cole (played improbably by the original Django Franco Nero) intervenes to defend an impotent rancher and his wife against a ruthless land-grabber, Enter the Ninja proves to be as much oater as assassin’s actioner. Christopher George makes for a hilariously camp villain, dedicating his free time to choreographing female synchronised swimmers in his office swimming pool. Who knows where the flashbacks to Cole’s Angolan Bush War experience fit into all this – but the anything-goes approach to genre is key to the whole trilogy’s charm.

Indeed, genre ran even freer in the sequels. Altogether gorier, and featuring a masked killer who takes out his opponents one by one, Revenge of the Ninja appropriates part of its form from the then-voguish slasher (“What is this, Halloween?”, a character is heard to ask), and part from the gangster flick. One sequence shows Kosugi’s Japanese migrant facing off against a hatchet-wielding Native American, another sees him taking on the Village People in a children’s playground – and there are not one but three scenes of violence set in and around that great signifier of Eighties affluence and eroticism, the hot tub – the last of these, somehow, in the middle of the thrilling roof-top climax.

Craziest of all though is Ninja III: The Domination, which somehow combines a now unstoppable (and not remotely stealthy) ninja killing machine with an exorcism motif lifted straight from the horror genre, and gratuitous aerobics sequences (showing off the talents of Lucinda Dickey, flush from recent success in Cannon’s Breakin’). Dickey’s possessed Christie uses supernaturally acquired ball-breaking skills to take vengeance upon the policemen who had (sort-of) killed a Terminator-like ninja, but baulks at harming her hirsute cop boyfriend Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett), especially during their V8 juice-dripping foreplay. And yes, there is even another gratuitous jacuzzi scene in this entirely undisciplined, over-the-top, tone-deaf Eighties hot tub time machine, now disinterred by Eureka! to prove that ninja, ever popping up where you least expect them, can never truly die.

Septic Man is released on VOD & DVD by Sharp Teeth Films, 11th January

The Ninja Trilogy is released in a new Dual-Format special edition collection by Eureka!, 18th January

Anton Bitel