While they may increasingly sound like Luddites railing against inevitable technological progress, voices continue to be heard lamenting the alleged death of cinema. As in movies shown to audiences in actual theaters, on film as opposed to digital projection. They’re right: After 120 years or so, the experience of collectively experiencing actual celluloid does appear to be headed the way of the dodo.
Yet there’s at least one arena where the notion of seeing movies with strangers has not only survived, but experienced a surprising comeback in recent years. That would be the realm of midnight movies, which first found love amongst stoned hippies watching rock-concert flicks, the trippy likes of Jodorowsky’s El topo, and camp antiquities like Reefer Madness. It was the engine behind John Waters’ earlier successes, then scored a still-unequaled hit in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a quick flop in initial 1976 release that turned into the participatory plaything of a million gender-bending dressup youths for decades. Unfortunately, it also led to this largely-forgotten sequel of sorts and its labored consumerist satire:
By the millennium’s term, however, the midnight movie circuit was running on fumes, with too little new blood resuscitating the flagging appeal of overexposed staples. Then cameth The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s incredible exercise in world-class egotainment. It took a while for that 2003 film to find its audience, but once found, they proved fully stoked for the arrival of such later so-bad-it’s-great features as James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror and Neil Breen’s recent Fateful Findings.
Still, the fresh supply of spectacularly bad new movies hasn’t been enough to keep this pipeline fed. Previously undiscovered old nuggets had to be found, like 1990 WTF fantasy-horror “classic” Troll 2. And sometimes, an entirely overlooked career might be excavated.
Such is the ongoing case with Amir Shervan, an expatriate Iranian turned American director whose American work had long been forgotten by the time he died in 2006 at age seventy-seven. But then it was never really noticed in the first place: Even by the lowbrow, frequently overlooked standards of the later direct-to-VHS action-dreck era, the quintet of grade-Z features Shervan made here between 1987 and 1992 vanished without a trace.
Until last year, that is. Cinema Epoch began its Shervan reclamation project with Samurai Cop, an incredible hunk of vintage cheese completed in 1991. it made a splash on the midnight circuit, followed this year by 1990’s likewise hitherto-unknown Killing American Style. There’s more on the way, and bad-movie fans should be waiting with bated breath.
So what’s so special about Shervan’s films? You need to have a taste for this sort of thing, meaning the myriad terrible low-grade imitations that were made during the era of the already fairly stoopid big-studio vehicles for such eighties hyper-macho stars as Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and so forth. Direct-to-vid producers couldn’t afford those movies’ big names or big explosions. But anyone could raid their local gym to find some “actors” whose most expressive features were their muscles, and/or some big-haired women with physical assets not directly from nature, then have them run around with guns fake-blasting away at everything and everyone.
Kings of this kind of enterprise were Cannon Group, Israeli cousins Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus’ creatively money-shuffling enterprise. (The recent festival premieres of not one but two documentaries about the duo’s exploits suggests we are now fully able to appreciate the time-ripened camp of such quintessential cannon product as American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt.) But Shervan’s films were way below even Cannon’s thrifty standard. Indeed, the mystery remains: How did he manage to get funding for five features that practically no one has seen, until now?
Surely the literature on Amir Shervan will expand as interest in his oeuvre does. But for now, it’s very difficult to get more than a vague sense of his eccentric life and artistic path. (Unless you read Arabic, that is, since the Iranian Movie DataBase appears to have a thorough chronicle of his career.) One thing is clear: He was apparently quite a successful Tehran-based writer/director in the very commercial Iranian cinema before the Revolution of 1979. Under the Shah, nearly all things Western and racy were permitted, and it appears Shervan was a lusty proponent of exploiting as much sexiness and violence as the censor allowed. Here’s a skimpily-clad snippet from 1977’s Baba Goli Be Gooshe Jamalet:
Needless to say, these early films are very hard to see, not least in Iran, where it became criminal to portray anything offensive to a regime now based on strict Islamic religious principals. Ironically, perhaps, the censorial crackdown proved the making of many filmmakers forced to communicate in lyrical, metaphorical, minimalist terms that would eventually impress cineastes around the world, including Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. (Though those same filmmakers would nonetheless incite censure for acclaimed films whose objectionable aspects were so subtle they were hardly discernible abroad.)
Shervan’s prior work not only ill-qualified him for this new era, it may well have put him at active risk. In any case, his career ground to a halt. Eventually fled his homeland, returning to the U.S. where he had purportedly studied theater in Pasadena, California as a youth decades earlier. He must have had a rough landing, because he didn’t manage to put together a U.S. feature until 1987. That would be Hollywood Cop, which featured what would prove his starriest Western cast: James Mitchum (son of Robert), veteran B-flick ham Cameron Mitchell, plus faded 1950s hunks Troy Donahue and Aldo Ray. It’s a tale of a rich man’s child kidnapped for ransom. But it is far less interested in parental anxiety than in oiled female wresting, reckless Doberman endangerment, biker rumbles, and eventual martial-arts displays. Here’s a tasteful moment of vengeance:
It’s an entertainingly bad movie, although not necessarily world-class-bad enough to explain why Shervan didn’t make another for three years. In any case, when he returned, it was with a serious flurry of activity, making his other four U.S. features in less than three years. The first (in terms of release, if not necessary production) was Killing American Style, none-too-coincidentally made the same year as Michael Cimino’s big-budget, all-star remake of The Desperate Hours. In both films, a family is terrorized and held captive in their own home by murderous thugs on the lam.
But if Deer Hunter director Cimino’s flop was perceived as unintentionally cheesy, Shervan’s knockoff pretty much rolls like a dog in the limburger aroma of its own overpowering tackiness. Suffice it to say that it starts with a sequence of stripper auditions, then after several bloody shootouts introduces us to a wholesome family primarily composed of bikini models and one ponytailed, gold-chain-wearing arse-whupping dad (real-life kickboxing champion Harold Diamond).
He’s tough, although you might not guess it from his open-to-the-navel, collar-up lavender shirt, which seems more apt for someone who might be auditioning for Wham!! This is the kind of movie in which most of the women appear to have breast implants, and the men largely on steroids. In fact, dudes flaunt more cleavage than ladies here. Principal villains John Lynch and Robert Z’Dar can hardly keep their shirts on, they’re so pumped with manly urges toward sex and violence.
Meanwhile, police are trying to track down the malevolent fugitives, led by former NFL superstar Jim Brown in what must have felt like a serious movie-career low. (And to think just a couple years earlier he’d been mixing it up with Schwarzenegger in A-grader macho actioner The Running Man.) At one point the lieutenant’s investigations lead him to “The Pleasure House,” a bordello where he has the following exchange you can tell the actor himself can’t quite believe is really happening:
With its peppy synth-rock score, embarrassing racial humor (Shervan’s producer Joselito Rescober plays a scaredy-cat Japanese doctor), and mysterious final cast scroll (including the likes of “Buck Striker,” “J.R.,” “Mike” and “Lorraine”), Killing American Style is like eighties porn with all the sex cut out so you can more fully enjoy the atrocious acting, dialogue and fashions. The unique Z’Dar, his giant jawbone now becomingly obscured by a beard, returned in Samurai Cop, purportedly made in 1989 but unreleased (and then only to minor VHS markets) until 1991. It’s a tale of organized-crime gang warfare in which seemingly everybody knows some martial arts, including the police investigators led by low-end Miami Vice-type detective duo Joe (Matt Hannon) and Frank (Mark Frazer).
Frank being “the black guy,” he doesn’t get to do much more than roll his eyes and point a gun occasionally in this kind of movie. But with his spray tan, long feathered hair, permanent smirk and fabulously defined chest (one suspects he might describe it so himself), sword-wielding “samurai supercop” Joe is one major studmuffin. Dig his smooth moves (and those of some of other Shervan playas) in this compilation of witty seduction dialogue:
Samurai Cop more than made up for its long obscurity by becoming a late-breaking cult phenomenon, once released by Cinema Epoch in restored form last year. There are even plans afoot for Samurai Cop 2, bringing back some of the original players. Would Shervan have been grateful for the belated attention? Some filmmaker embrace being a camp icon, like still-active Ted V. Mikels (The Astro-Zombies), Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast) or, more reluctantly, The Room’s own Tommy Wiseau. Others take offense at having their earnest original efforts held up to ridicule, like Troll 2’s Claudio Fragasso.
One suspects, however, that with his shamelessly vivid emphasis on what he figured were the most salable elements in movies, Amir Shervan would have appreciated being upheld as a prince of cheese. He was just giving the people what he assumed they wanted, meaning maximum breast, brawn and bullets. Maybe he overestimated the extent to which audiences would bear cartoonish degrees of those box-office “assets,” sans the usual modifying grace notes of acceptable script, acting and production values. These are the works of a showman rather than an artiste, and it’s nice to imagine he’d be pleased with their excesses being embraced at last.
Cinema Epoch is purportedly already busy restoring Shervan’s even lesser-noted (take a minute to consider that term in context) features, including 1991’s Gypsy and the next year’s Young Rebels, both also starring the inimitable Z’Dar. Which whom you do not mess, as bourne out by this clip from his perhaps defining role as William Lustig’s Maniac Cop (taken from its even-better sequel):