This entry is part of the #staythefuckhome series, all written during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. In this series I’ve aimed to post about films that readers (at the time) can easily find and watch online. Keep yourself healthy and entertained.
After a solid run of what I consider to be beautiful, thought-provoking and “deep” films that are some of my favourites, I figured for this post I’ll temporarily take the quality dial, which is currently at A and crank it right down to… let’s say Z. My tastes in cinema can be really be all over the map as I enjoy a lot of what might be considered “trash” movies as there’s always little details in those films that provide a lot of enjoyment. I find there’s always an endearing, naïve wave of creativity in these types of films, especially as they’re shot with very little budget and tend to be the vision of filmmakers with amateur (using the technical term) ambitions. And this especially the case with this film gem… Ninja Terminator!
The film is in a long series of ninja action films created by Godfrey Ho, considered to be the “Ed Wood” of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, and one of many films in this series done with C-list American martial arts actor Richard Harrison. I have no idea what number this film is in this particular series, but apparently Ho cranked out around eighty films in the 1980s, eventually tailing off his prolific output in the 90s — his last film being created sometime in the mid-90s before going into retirement.
Overall I generally don’t have much interest in action films but for some reason I latched onto this one, and there’s a bit of a backstory to this one as well as to how I discovered it…
Both myself and my partner work from home. And my partner, who does music under the moniker Marcel Wave, works as a French-to-English translator — whose work involves translating a lot of articles relating to French business, science and most often tourism. We often share bits of work that we’re doing throughout the day and one day Lyle stumbled across this article when translating some articles about tourism on the west coast of France:
It’s a very bizarre phenomenon indeed — walking on a windswept French beach and seeing a regular stream of seaweed covered Garfield phones washing a shore. And the fact that this was a 35-year mystery even made it more weird. As the article states, only last year in 2019 it was concluded that a shipping container lost its payload off the Atlantic sometime in the 80s, releasing the plastic phones of everyone’s favourite lasagna eating cat into the vastness of the Atlantic ocean.
The article from The Verge above isn’t the exact article Lyle shared with me, but in the original article I saw there was a video clip of a blond mopped, middle aged man in a track suit having a tense conversation with another Asian man — rambling on about a “Ninja Empire” and a “Golden Ninja Warrior” with one of the more looser overdubbing jobs I’ve ever come across. And for added effect, the first man was making his threats over a comical Garfield phone. The clip, from YouTube, was from a film called Ninja Terminator and in turn that actor was Richard Harrison. What the hell was this? Did I have to watch this one now? What was I getting myself into?
The first course of action was to watch the trailer (see in Video section below) to get the gist of the film. First we get the ident of the film company, which attempts to do a grandiose John Williams-style orchestral blast with a white-suited figure holding some sort of shiny thing above her head. Then to the film! The logo NINJA TERMINATOR is plastered on the screen, which looks like it was drawn by that heavy metal guy in your mathematics class as doodle on an exercise book. The narrator’s voice booms over the action sequence through a wall of cheap reverb:
Ninja Terminator! A spectacular story of betrayal and lust for the supreme power of ninja technique!
Ok, something special is going on here, I thought. And as the whole film was on YouTube as well I decided to dive in…
There’s a LOT to take in with this one in the film’s running time of just over 90 minutes: ninjas wearing copious amounts of black eyeliner / cheap toy robots delivering threatening messages to adversaries / a prepared dish of “drunken crab”, whatever that is — everyone acting in the film, regardless of their race or nationality, is completely overdubbed with bizarre accents that don’t really match up to the mouth movements.
And some interesting wardrobe costuming choices as well, including one of the main “baddies” sporting a look that brings Al Pacino’s Scarface to mind, complete with reversed out monochrome black and white suit, topped off with a blond bob wig reminiscent of the long gone Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones. In fact, many of the adversaries in the film look like they would fit nicely in some turn-of-the-millenium 70s retro-style garage rock band.
And with it being a martial arts film, there’s many many action sequences of the warring parties in combat. However, as violent as it all initially seems, it almost comes across like a choreographed ballet. If you take out all of the sound it these sequences look like a high-energy, modern dance routine. These stunt actors definitely know their routines and I imagine for them it was probably quite fun to show off their skills. This all combines with some very bizarre imagery of ninjas disappearing and re-appearing out of nowhere, employing colourful smoke bombs and even what appear to be make-up mirrors to foil their opponents.
It goes without saying that the dialogue is priceless. There’s too many incredibly entertaining one-liners to even count. This film keeps delivering right until the very end.
But for me, the definite high point of Ninja Terminator is its soundtrack and sound effects. All the music sounds like it was recorded with all of the recording levels in the red on an overheated Tascam Portastudio. There’s an incredible mix of futuristic, industrial-tinged electro-synth bangers, bizarre prog/rock influences dirges and some lighter synth numbers for the more “tender” scenes of the film. The sound effects in the fight scenes are incredible, if a bit overbearing, sounding like they were birthed from an old 8-bit sampler with a terrible MIDI glitch problem.
The main “theme” track of the film was stuck in my head for quite a while after first viewing this wonder — the bridge bit starting at the 1m10s mark (see clip below) sounds like something I would have cooked up as a riff in my days writing in my old post-punk band Radio Berlin many years ago. Many of the other incidental pieces of distorted, proggy synth rock can be credited to British musician Steve Hillage, who had worked with the cult French prog rock band Gong, with tracks coming from his 1978 album Green. This isn’t listed anywhere in the credits. The only reason I know this is because I own a copy of Green on vinyl and after giving it a more recent listen I thought the songs sound very much like the ones in this film. In fact, they’re identical.
And finally — for the plot? Well, it’s straight forward but somewhat convoluted as well. And since the plot of this film isn’t really as important as the features that I’ve outlined above, I’ll take Wikipedia’s entry for the film take a stab at it:
The members of a ninja empire are in possession of an object of power composed of three individual pieces of a ninja sculpture which, when combined, makes the owner’s arms impervious to blades. Other ninjas feel the ninja empire is in need of reform and steal two of the three sculpture pieces. The ninja empire retaliates with threatening messages delivered via tiny robots which demand return of the powerful pieces. Ninja empire minions forge multiple attempts to attack the thieves but are quickly thwarted.
When you look at that wooden description, I’d like to think the narrator of the film, still in character, has started a Wiki account and wrote it himself.
So there you have it. I got a lot of entertainment out of this film although with saying that I probably won’t be watching a lot more of this type as I think the whole process of unearthing Godfrey Ho’s back-catalogue would provide to be grating and monotonous after a while. But it’s a unique wonder, especially the circumstances that lead me to it in the first place.
However, if these types of martial arts films intrigue you, I suggest checking out Shogun Assassin (1980), which brings a bit more finesse and artistic license to the genre. And yes, it as well has an amazing soundtrack.
NOTE 1 : There’s a selection of stills I managed to scrape for this entry but as any online media for this film is of poor quality, they’re not that crisp.
NOTE 2 : This film has nothing to do with the popular apocalyptic robot film, The Terminator (1984) — nor does it have anything to do with another low budget film, Lady Terminator (1989), which again has nothing to do with The Terminator.
Make it into a drinking game! Everyone time you hear the phrase NINJA EMPIRE or GOLDEN NINJA WARRIOR everyone takes a drink! You can also adjust the rules to your taste and lifestyle choices accordingly.