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THE LOST EMPIRE (1983)

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"Now it’s beginning to make sense!"
"What are you talking about?"
"I’m talking about international terrorism, mass murder, and a legend of supernatural horror that goes back over two hundred years!"

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Director: Jim Wynorski

Starring: Melanie Vincz, Raven De La Croix, Angela Aames, Paul Coufos, Bob Tessier, Angus Scrimm, Art Hern, Bill Thornbury

Screenplay: Jim Wynorski

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Synopsis: A jewelry shop in Chinatown contains a statue with one glowing red eye. Three masked figures kill the store’s owner, then try to pry the eye free. The police arrive, and after a bloody fight, all of the intruders and all but one of the policemen are dead, the other being seriously wounded…. Children are being held hostage in a school. A black-clad figure enters and takes on the terrorists, killing all three before revealing that she is Inspector Angel Wolfe (Melanie Vincz) of the L.A.P.D. A man enters the school room and Angel strikes him, breaking his nose and knocking him down, before realising that the newcomer is Federal Agent Rick Stanton (Paul Coufos), an old friend. The two spend the night together. The next morning, Angel receives a phone-call telling her that her brother, Rob (Bill Thornbury), is in hospital after the jewelry shop confrontation. Angel and Rick rush to his side. Rob gives Angel a strange star-shaped object and a cryptic message, that "the Devil exists, and the Eye knows where". Rick recognises the star and tells Angel about the legend of Lee Chuck, who gained immortality at the price of giving the devil a new soul every day. Angel visits the crime-scene. As she gazes sadly at the spot on which her brother was wounded, the glowing red eye drops unnoticed from the statue into her handbag. Angel is startled by the sudden appearance of a mysterious Chinese man, who turns out to be Inspector Charles Chang (Art Hern). Chang tells Angel and Rick about the Eyes of Avatar, into which the Dragon-God placed enough power to allow anyone possessing them both to rule the world; and about his belief that Lee Chuck is both real, and in possession of one of the Eyes. He further tells them that Dr Sin Do (Angus Scrimm), the leader of a religious cult, is somehow involved with Lee Chuck. Angel learns that Rob has died. Grief-stricken, she forces Rick to tell her more about Sin Do, who is recruiting women for an army of terrorists, luring them to his island by promising them fabulous wealth. When she hears that Sin Do only accepts women in trios, Angel travels to an Indian Reservation to see Whitestar (Raven De La Croix), an old friend, and asks her to join the mission. Whitestar agrees. The third recruit is Heather McClure (Angela Aames), a criminal who Angel promises a parole in exchange for her help. The three sign on, and are flown by plane to Sin Do’s mysterious island fortress of Golgatha….

Comments: Something classy to kick off the New Year…. You know, there’s a gap in my cinematic education. For all of my wading through the shoals of the world of weird film, I have seen very few movies that can be classed simply as "exploitation films". Aware of my shortcomings, I have been afflicted by severe pangs of jealousy while browsing though "The Unknown Movies Page", "Dante’s Inferno" and "Stomp Tokyo", envying Keith and Mike and Chris/Scott (The Thing With Two Heads) their ability to wax lyrical about the careers of such luminaries as Shannon Whirry, Kathy Ireland and Maria Ford (okay – so perhaps "lyrical" isn’t exactly the right word….). It isn’t so much that I have avoided this somewhat murky genre as that the films in question just haven’t come my way. So I was thrilled when, out of the blue, Channel 10 produced The Lost Empire, Jim Wynorski’s debut feature, which gave me, I suspect, an unusually easy ride into the world of exploitation.

A glance at the opening credits was enough to confirm my suspicions of my ignorance: I’d never heard of either Melanie Vincz or Angela Aames. However, although I’d never seen her, I certainly knew who Raven De La Croix was, and I had heard of Angelique Pettyjohn (and now, having seen her, I’m not likely to forget her….); and so, taking heart and opening a beer, I settled in to find out what I’d been missing all these years. Short answer? – breasts. Lots of ‘em. All shapes and sizes and configurations. (In the spirit of Joe Bob Briggs and Nathan Shumate, I did try to do a count, but somewhere along the line – probably about the time I decided I needed another beer – I lost track.) But this isn’t just a film for mammary fetishists – no, indeed! We’ve also got buttocks! – lots of ‘em. And skimpy costumes, simulated sex, female mud wrestling, a shower scene, statuesque women doing martial arts, archery, and gladiatorial combats, and a mass "physical examination" sequence. All of which gave birth to a sneaking suspicion that The Lost Empire was intended for a male audience…. Now, given this description of the film’s content, there are probably some people out there who think I was – or should have been - offended by it. But, on the contrary, rather than being offended, I confess I rather enjoyed the sight of a plethora of gorgeous, tough, capable women beating the living crap out of any man foolish enough to get in their way.

Admittedly, this depiction of women isn’t exactly an ideal one, but it sure as hell beats most of the alternatives out there: like that found in a lot of other exploitation and horror movies, where we have women as weak, helpless, whimpering victims, ruthlessly punished for their perceived sexual misconduct; or even that in mainstream Hollywood movies, given the increasing trend for any film that can be said to have a female star to have its central character almost entirely defined by her motherhood (don’t start me….). Besides – perhaps unusually - The Lost Empire is a remarkably good-natured film. Its three female stars, Melanie Vincz, Raven De La Croix and Angela Aames, have a real chemistry in their scenes, and throughout look as though they’re having the time of their lives (Aames, in particular, can barely keep a straight face). The plot is ludicrous, the dialogue overflows with howlers, the acting varies from competent to abysmal, and the action is studded with bizarre non sequiturs, such as Sin Do’s lackeys tracking runaway women with a gorilla (and a tacky-looking "gorilla" it is, too. I suspect that Jim Wynorski, like Ray Dennis Steckler in days of yore, was unable to pass up a free gorilla….). The film rips on everything from Enter The Dragon to Chariots Of Fire to Dirty Harry (Angel and one of the terrorists in the school re-do the "how many shots" sequence, leading to Angel quipping "if you’re going to come to school, you should learn to count". Which dates the film, in a way: my guess for the punchline was "you should bring more guns"….). It has costumes that are positively mind-boggling, and worn with a disregard of probability that is quite awe-inspiring. For instance, when Angel learns her brother has been injured, she dresses for a trip to the hospital in an agonisingly tight cat-suit with a plunging neckline – then gets annoyed with the doctor for not recognising that she’s a cop! Better still, the costumes are just so-oo-oo eighties - right down to the twisted cloth head band across the forehead (oh, c’mon – I can’t be the only one old enough to remember that!). And as if all of this wasn’t enough, there are brief appearances by Angus Scrimm, Kenneth Tobey (yay!), Tommy Rettig and Linda Shayne (yes, I’d heard of her, too!) Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is its technical competence. Some care obviously went into the special effects, which are better than you’d expect, while the score was provided by John Carpenter collaborator Alan Howarth, and the cinematography by Jacques Haitkin (A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Hidden, The Ambulance). In short, The Lost Empire is an unexpectedly entertaining piece of nonsense. Now – bring on Angel Of Destruction!

Footnote: While checking a few points at the IMDb, I was considerably amused to discover that the only other review of The Lost Empire linked in was from – yes, you guessed it – "The Unknown Movies Page". Check it out!

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