JUNE 11, 2013
Most of my nightmares are based on things that I've never experienced, or saw in movies that weren't horror at all - tidal waves and being stuck in out of control cars (my brakes almost never work in dreams!) are far more common than being chased around by Michael Myers or whoever. But one of the most vivid I've ever had was certainly caused by a movie; 6-year old BC saw Ninja III: The Domination at his grandfather's house, and later on was menaced in the middle of the night by the film's ninja villain, perched on my 2nd floor window, pounding on the glass and shouting NINJA! over and over. I even told my mother about it the next morning as if it was just a really scary thing that happened in the middle of the night and not just a nightmare, and to this day I still get some goose bumps thinking about it. Shit was scary, man.
Maybe that's why I never watched the movie again until now - not-too-subconscious fear of that ninja coming back to get me again. But I am a dedicated reviewer of the stuff I get sent to me, and so when Shout! Factory sent along their new Blu-ray I knew I had to man up and face my 25+ year fear. Which is hilarious, because despite being about a possessed woman and listed as a horror movie in the IMDb (the first two films in the mostly unrelated series - Enter The Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja - have no horror elements whatsoever), this is the furthest thing from a scary movie that I've ever reviewed on the site, I think (OK, maybe Ghost Town). I mean sure, there are a couple of gory kills (ninja throwing stars!), and there's a couple of baffling scenes inspired by Poltergeist, but it's a straight up action/martial arts movie at heart.
I'm not knocking it though - it's awesome in its cheesy 80s way. I don't think you could come up with a more 80s plot if you TRIED; it's about a ninja who possesses an aerobics instructor to get revenge on the cops who killed him - the only thing that's missing from this "80s movie Bingo" is a subplot about drug smuggling. But they make up for it in the details; there's a hot tub, V-8 juice, a giant ugly clock, lots of pastel clothing, an out of nowhere sex scene... in short, there isn't a frame of the film that you can look at and not know for sure that it was from an 80s film.
Plus it's pretty action packed, and with tons of impressive stunts despite the low budget. The opening sequence is a masterpiece of old-school stunt work - it goes on forever as the Ninja seemingly decimates an entire state's worth of cops, all in spectacular fashion. Tossing them out of helicopters, stabbing them as they drive, knocking them off motorcycles - it's super badass. Star Lucinda Dickey isn't as impressive with her fighting skills (her aerobics skills are unmatched), but it's not even a big deal - after a while she dons a ninja outfit to lay waste to more random stuntmen and at that point the film's stunt guys take over for her anyway. Plus the good guy ninja (Shô Kosugi) has an eyepatch and fights a bunch of folks on his quest to kill the bad ninja once and for all, so you're never more than 12-13 seconds away from someone being kicked or killed.
Another hilarious thing about the movie is that every single man in the universe is a stocky stunt guy. It's fine that the cops are inexplicably all well built, but why do random hospital orderlies, aerobics dudes, and morgue attendants also look like brick walls? The movie must have employed every single working stuntman in Hollywood at the time of its production, and they STILL didn't have enough - on the commentary, stunt coordinator Steven Lambert frequently points out scenes where he'd play the ninja AND the guy he was killing (in separate shots) which is just hilarious. The special FX work isn't great (there's a dummy of Dickey at one point that couldn't have looked good even on a murky VHS, let alone this pretty eye-catching blu-ray), but it's kept to a minimum anyway, so it's no big deal - after all it's a martial arts flick with some horror, not the other way around, and thus the effort/skill went to what really mattered.
Lambert and director Sam Firstenberg aren't afraid to point out a few of their missteps or laugh at some of the weirder bits in the movie (like that V-8 scene), but their commentary is thankfully not a MST3k audition tape - they're proud of their flick and the work that they did on it. Lambert can drone for a bit too long at times, pointing out who was who and who did what in a short sequence (paraphrasing here, stuff like "That's me in the closeup, and that's Ted, and that's me doubling for Ted..."), but Rob G from Icons of Fright/Fearnet (and my horror trivia teammate!) thankfully does his job as a moderator and keeps the conversation moving, giving both men equal time to talk (it's a shame Dickey couldn't be located to join them, however). Firstenberg discusses the movie's Poltergeist influence and working with Cannon (who ELSE would make this movie?), and about the differences between the 2nd film, Revenge of the Ninja (which he also directed), and points out that even though Ninja III came out after, it was actually shot BEFORE Breakin', and it was Dickey's work here that got her the job on that fellow Cannon production, and then they worked together on the immortal Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.
There's also a pretty substantial collection of behind the scenes photos, posters, and lobby cards for the film, which makes up for the lack of the trailer or any video supplements. However, you DO get a DVD copy of the film along with the Blu, so you can keep the high def copy for yourself and pass along this batshit masterpiece to a friend. As I pointed out on Twitter, Ninja III actually sold more tickets than movies like Office Space and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (domestically anyway), and it's a shame that a movie this earnestly ridiculous will never get a theatrical release again, let alone a wide one that allows it to compete with the big budget productions (on the weekend it opened in 1984, it had the highest per screen average of any film in the top 10). So pick the disc up and celebrate a bygone era where it was OK for movies to be silly and nuts, before "grim" took over as the key element for pretty much every other movie that comes out.
What say you?