This may be the first time in a Jackson Film that I literally don’t have a clue what I’m looking at . A figure clad in black, with one of the pointy Roller Blade hoods dances in front of a yellow tent. No, not a tent, a teepee; complete with Native American drawings on the sides. he’s got a purple cape on and a bow in one hand and dances in a manner that, given the context, feels like a medicine man dancing to bring rain or end a curse.
We go to quick cuts. Flashes of images. A plastic smiley face. A robotic Groucho Marx (We’ll see more of him later – this prop actually gets his own credit at the end . Another static puppet- a classic Jackson flourish). An attractive young African American woman comes in, addressing a penitent monk named Cruisader Blade .
“My name is sister Valjean. I was sent here by the cosmic order of Roller Blade to help”
Oh my God. This is another Roller Blade movie isn’t it? And not just a Roller Blade movie, it’s a Black Roller Blade movie. It’s unclear exactly when this was filmed, definitely sometime around 1999. It’s likely it was around the same time as Legend of the Dead Boyz, since it shares much of the same cast. Cruisader Blade is John Duvernay, a holdover from Deadboyz in his only other film role. I recognize the Blade sisters we are about to meet as the Church ladies from that film
Sister Valjean hands Cruisader Blade her sword, and removes her hood, then begins to dance. Like the Roller Blader, It all has the feel of a medicine man’s rain dance. The man in the monks robe looks on, a large gun by his side.
We flash back to the figure at the tent – I’m wondering is this is a god of some sort. It’s never quite spelled out, though she’ll be out there fighting on Roller Blades later on, like one of the Roller Blade Warrior nuns from the previous films. They were never masked like this though. There’s no clear name in the credits, so we’ll refer to her as the Roller Blader.
Cruisader Blade is transformed in his mind – a smiley face bandana and John Lennon sunglasses, a black coat over a purple shirt and he dances with the Roller Blader as bogos play in the distance.
In another place, a couple embraces under a strobe light, traveling through time in a magical teepee. This is the Pharaoh – the villain of the piece (at least that’s how they talk about him) Their destination, is Los Angeles. The Pharaoh is played by Jimmy Jean-Louis, one of the more accomplished actors of the piece. You may have seen his ripped physique is films like Hollywood Homicide, Monster In Law and Tears of the Sun. Most recently he’s done several episodes of Arrow, as well as a bunch of other TV, but when this movie was shot, his filmography consisted mostly of a handfull of Emanuelle movies. He’d also play the Pharaoh in the unreleased “Blade Sisters”.
We cut away.
“Baby Blade sent you here to save our new order – the cosmic order of the Roller Blade from the evil Pharaoh”
Cruisader Blade prays in the presence of a child an several young women in cloaks. They are the Blade sisters. They draw their power from the kids, baby blade and bo blade.
“I don’t want to fight a Pharaoh,” one protests. “I don’t have any powers!”
Cruisader Blade tells her she has cat senses, and the sisters have their will. This particular sister is not from their world, and all she wants to do is go home. She scoffs as the others pray.
“You must go on a journey through this land.” He warns them, reassuring the sisters that if they get in trouble, he’ll send Baby Blade to help. He then gives a very familiar warning;
“You will meet angels and you will meet demons. But beware, sometimes, they are one in the same.”
For the first time in any of Jackson’s films, I actually hear someone, the scoffer girl, question this philosophy.
“And how are we supposed to be able to tell the diffrence?”
From the inside he replies. – the positive energy.
“May the happy face bring the power and focus to all of us”
We cut to a sillouette of the Blade sisters and Baby Blade as they head into the wastes around L.A. We get quick cuts of the Pharaoh and his woman from the teepee (along with some stage directions that didn’t get muted out) looking out towards the camera, similar to the guardian angels in Legend of the Dead Boyz. Elsewhere, the Roller Blader plots and Cruisader Blade contemplates. Both stare at a roatating disco light.
Arriving at a roadside, the Balde sisters thumb a ride into the city. They are trying to get to the sanctuary where they will perform a ritual. We know all of this because the Blade Sister Mystic chatters on incessantly to the poor schulb who had the bad luck to pick them up.
Cruisader Blade watches them on the rotating disco lightball he referred to as his “crystal ball”. The metal Groucho Marx doll sits next to him. The Blade sisters’ car rolls through the night city and we flash back to more dancing in front of the yellow teepee. The disjointed nature of the scenes provides interesting imagery but makes the story hard to follow.
Suddenly we cut to a fight in an abandoned parking lot. Bandanna and the faceless Roller Blader with her katana leap into action. One of the attackers jumps on a motorcycle and jets, the Roller Blader pursues him on her roller blades. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, In a narrow alleyway, the luchadore masked cyclists traps the Roller Blader and they fight. She knocks him down and we cut back to the swirling (not a) crystal ball. More quick cuts under bongo music as bandana hypnotizes one of the attackers. The motorcycle returns and she jumps on the back, escaping just as the Roller Blader arrives with her sword. We cut to a sword fight – a blade sister versus a man in a gold mask. He kicks and presses the attack, pinning her to a chain link fence, the sword edge at her throat. Bandanna appears from behind and with a touch, Gold mask falls. The Roller Blader skates in circles around him, kicking him down as he ties to get to his feet. He reaches for his sword, but the Roller Blader seizes it. Suddenly a Ninja runs up! He kicks the Roller Blader down and runs off with Gold Mask on his shoulders. Bandana comes an heals the Roller Blader, and they head out to go stare at the (not a) crystal ball.
In the wilderness the ninja swings his sword as the Pharaoh and his consort from the teepee look on and kiss. (I can see a sliver of white skin that ninja by the way, it’s a safe bet that it’s Scott Shaw under that plague mask, doing the sword work). He starts to fight another black suited man in the same mask. It’s impossible to tell which is which (unless its a metaphor for fighting with yourself). We cut to another part of the wilderness as the Blade sisters wander. They find the sanctuary where they will preform the ceremony that will protect them. It’s still in the distance tough. They hope to reach it by nightfall and get to hiking. The rough terrain makes it hard in those high heels.
More ninja fights and bongos as the Blade Sisters draw closer and the Pharaoh watchs on.
By a brook, a lone swordswoman sits. This is the lost Blade Sister, Toledo Blade. She is stalked by an orange ninja in a luchador mask and his dark companion in the plague mask. He gets up and starts to wander through the brush, searching for her horse as the guardians look on. Toledo Blade pushes RoboMarx – (Actually the false prophet Elija who has led Sister Toledo astray – no, really) in a high tech shopping cart by a polluted river.
Meanwhile the other Blade sisters are captured by a laughing maniac in a top hat and his ninja sidekick – the Crow Ninjas! The Blade Sister Mystic arrives to save them, but ends up as just another prisoner. In the cell, the Blade sisters bicker. We get some exposition that the skeptical sister apparently summoned the there blade sisters when she was on her computer searching for a cure to Y2k. It’s all beside the point. They need to find Toledo. The Blade sisters won’t have true power until all three are reunited.
Toledo for her part, is searching for her sisters as well, even as she runs into the french speaking Pharaoh . He asks her to come with him.
“Do you really think I could come with you? You stole the only thing that matter to me! The only man I ever loved…you took his life!”
She continues to wander, trying to figure out who summoned her, and what this Y2K thing is (Considering this didn’t get released until 2008, all the Y2K references not only date it, but now feel quite ridiculous). If she could just contact the mystic,it’d all make sense. Meanwhile the sisters are tied up because one tried to escape between scenes (we don’t see it, we just hear about it) Now they are hoping that Toledo will rescue them.
The Crow ninjas come to harass them when suddenly Toledo arrives out of nowhere, in all her violent spandex glory. She lays a beatdown on the ninjas and frees the sisters.
“We can work it out but you’re going to follow me” Toledo declares.
Baby Blade watches the (not a) crystal ball. the Pharaoh and his woman hold each other in the teepee. Smoke rises behind them, engulfing them.
It ends with familiar images. The Roller Blader dancing in front to the teepee, the blade sisters in prayer.
I’ve seen a lot of b movies and watched a lot of bad directors, but very few have inspired the sort of obsessive fascination I have for Jackson.
Donald Jackson was born on April 24, 1943 in the midwest, growing up in Adrian, Michigan. He began collecting comic books at the age of five and this formed his desire to make movies. While working at a factory building speedometers, he met Jerry Younkins. Younkins was involved in an industrial accident at the factory, losing a couple of fingers. The factory paid him off, giving him about $6000. Jerry and Don quickly decided that this should go towards their shared goal of making their first film. Jackson wanted to do a pulpy privet investigator movie with as black lead. Younkins disagreed and pointed to the success of “The Exorcist” and the hype around occult horror movies. He persuaded Jackson that this was the way to go instead and Jackson reluctantly agreed. Don took sick leave from work, claiming that he was under a doctor’s care, they found a camera crew and set to work creating “The Demon Lover”.
The Demon lover was a troubled production, with Don frequently butting heads with his crew. The inexperienced filmmaker never had a firm plan on what was going to be shot or how to accomplish it, but his charisma managed to draw people in and secure actors and sets. They brought in Gunnar Hanson from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ted Nugent lent them his house and penned music for the film. Money dried up quickly, with a $5000 payout to Hanson alone and another $1000 to keep the camera crew working. Jackson was soon forced to mortgage his house, his car, and even his furniture to get the film made. The camera crew ran off at the last minuet after trashing Jackson’s mother’s home where they were staying.
Somehow, the movie got finished. And after two years of post, it was released to moderate success on the drive in circuit. Jackson never saw a penny, and when the factory discovered he’d been off making a movie instead of sick like he had claimed, he lost his job. Hanson was demanding more money – his deal had been $5000 up front, with another $5000 on the back end if Jackson turned a profit. He never did and was therefore unable to make the secondary payment to Hanson – a sore point that Gunnar would still be holding on to when Jackson ran into him at Comic Con in 2000, more than twenty years later.
“I walked up to say, “Hi.” I asked him why he was mad at me and all he could tell me is that I owed him $5,000.00. ”
In the meantime, The camera crew was spreading the word that Jackson wasn’t to be trusted, even going as far as to release a documentary on the making of “The Demon Lover” in an effort to paint Jackson in as crazy a light as possible. Still, he had made enough of an impact that he was getting noticed. Sam Raimi contacted him, telling him that he was one of Raimi’s biggest cinematic influences, and Don was happy to talk with him about what it was like to work on an indie Production like “The Demon Lover”. Other projects were explored. One even involved legendary Cleveland horror host “The Ghoul”, but never materialized. While he never stopped trying, it would be ten years before he would make a return to the film making world with the advent of the VHS market.
This time around, Jackson would play to his strengths, and his own interests. In addition to comics, Jackson was a fan of professional wrestling.
“In the Midwest, were I grew up, Wrestling has always been one of the lifeblood’s of sports.”
Matches would be on television every weekend and at least once a month there would be one big matchup in the city. Jackson was a frequent attendee. It was there that he started to get an idea for his next film.
“What I began doing was to take, first my 8 mm, then my Super 8 Camera, and later my 16 mm Bolex to matches and I began to put a lot of wrestling footage together.”
What Jackson needed was a star. Someone to focus on. Big names like Hulk Hogan were out of the question. Payments would have to be made, and clearances for every shot would be necessary. Jackson didn’t have that kind of cash or time on hand. He found his star in a well known heel named “The Shiek”.
“I went up to him at a match one day, told him what I wanted to do. And, he was the nicest guy. He gave me full access. He also introduced me to many of the other wrestlers, who allowed me to film them, as well.” A real coup would be getting footage of Andre the Giant and Dusty Rhodes for the nascent film.
Jackson’s idea was to make a horror film based in the wrestling world. “Ringside in Hell” however, failed to get traction and Don decided to change direction, cutting the horror scenes and instead, taking inspiration from Robert Altman’s “Nashville”, began to create something following the people in this world – the stars, the up-and-comers, and the never-will-bes, diving into their own personal stories as they orbit the bigger narrative. Slowly he put together a feature that was half documentary and half narrative. After running out of resources with a film that was too short for a VHS release, Jackson added an entire new subplot revolving around a movement against his main character the “Stop the Shiek” drive. The film would become “I like to Hurt People”, and it would finally garner him the attention of Hollywood. Jackson would take matters into his own hands and sent out copies to various film studios, and New World pictures showed some interest, agreeing to pick it up and distribute it. They paid Jackson $50,000. It was enough to finance his move out to Hollywood.
Now settled in out west, Jackson needed work. He leveraged his contacts at New World to get work there as a camera operator and started to make contacts out there like Fred Olen Ray, who would loan him out both his son Christopher and his girlfriend Michelle Baur to be in his next project. One of Don’s early jobs was assistant camera on effects for the sci-fi foray, “Galaxy of Terror”. It was n this film that he’d make another Hollywood up-and-comer. James Cameron was working on FX where Jackson was shooting and Cameron would become a contact that would lead to more work on future films, not the least of which was “Terminator”.
Cameron was almost finished with the film, but wasn’t happy with everything and needed some additional scenes filmed. The problem was, he was out of money. It was at this point that he called up Don for help shooting things like the opening where Schwarzenegger arrives at the L.A. Observatory. Time drew short. Cameron was on his own dime and the shoot was about to go into overtime for Schwarzenegger, even as the crew decided to break for lunch. Cameron looked to Don for a solution.
“We got a small portable light, known as a “Mini Cool,” out of the truck of my car and I had Jim hold it and pan it as Arnold walked through the scene. We got the shot, Arnold got to go home without being paid overtime, and the movie was completed.”
Still, Jackson wasn’t content to just run film on other people’s productions. he came to Hollywood to make his own films. He was working on his next project – a post apocalyptic roller skating battle called “Roller Blade”, which he was financing using his credit cards. Around this time, the returns were coming in for “I Like To Hurt People”, making half a million dollars for New World Pictures. He was $5000 in debt when New World came to him and asked if he had any other projects in the works. Jackson grabbed the footage he had and cut it into a trailer. It didn’t take long for them to work out that a $5000 movie gave them ample room for profit and New World immediately snatched it up.
I’ve written about Roller Blade elsewhere. It was screened for us at the Cedar Lee theater and left me gobsmacked and unable to move half of my body for several minuets. Yet despite the abject lunacy of a sci-fi epic about roller skating nuns in a dystopian future, the combination of creativity and the unique promotion of Roller Blade as the first film marketed direct to video, made the film a success. After raking in a million dollars in sales, New World was ready to give Jackson a shot at a film with a big budget, stars and support. That film would be arguably Jackson’s most well known film; “Hell Comes to Frogtown”.
The problem with increased budgets from a legitimate hollywood studio, is that they come with increased scrutiny. Jackson suddenly found himself surrounded by handlers. He would constantly butt heads with the script supervisor who insisted on word for word line readings when Jackson was more interested in getting the jist of the dialogue. The strict adherence to structure and process that the studio imposed constantly rubbed Jackson the wrong way and by the time Frogtown was finished, Jackson’s relationship with New World was also finished. Donald Jackson departed the studio system, never to return. Leaving the studio however didn’t mean leaving film. Long time collaborator Scott Shaw once said of him; “Don was an obsessional filmmaker. He loved making movies. But, he was willing to make them at any cost.”. Jackson would spend the rest of his career making films independently, raising the money in any way he could. At one point Jackson even found himself in the middle of a ponzi scheme with investors raising money using his name and reputation. The financiers managed to get their hands on over five million dollars before the bottom fell out. Jackson received a mere $500,000 of that. He managed to get three films in the can before the scheme was revealed and the investors went to court. Jackson emerged with his films as well as footage shot for future movies as well. He began to leverage the name recognition behind films like “Hell Comes to Frogtown” and “Roller Blade” producing sequels to each. The modest budgets in these productions is evident, but there is still a sense of linear storytelling and structure to them. They are commercial rather than strictly abstract and artistic as Jackson’s output would later increasingly become.
More money could be found in the family video market. Shaw recalls the era.
“Don knew that if he attempted to sell these investors on making the kind of films he actually wanted to make; i.e. more exploitation based films, they would never invest. So, what he did was to take his own unique vision of comic book based characters and create films, which he felt could be viewed by the younger audience. He did this, while siphoning money from those films, so that he could create the kind of movies that he actually wanted to make.”
Don himself would put it simply; “What I did, was give them the Donald G. Jackson version of a Children’s film — weird.”
The children’s films were never among Don’s favorites. He used to refer to them as “Just another piece of shit on the crap pile.”, but it was becoming evident that he was building his own style and collection of stock players including people like Joe Estevez and Robert Z’Dar
This was the era where Jackson would frequently collaborate with scriptwriter and actor Mark Williams, possibly best known as the artist who designed the album cover for the band Poison’s “Open Up and Say…Ahh!” record. Jackson met Mark via Steven Wang, the artist that created the creature effects and masks for Hell Comes to Frogtown back in Don’s New World days. Mark had moved to L.A. to pursue a career in movies. Much like Steve, Mark was also an FX artist, pursing a career path in the field when he met Don. Also being heavily influenced by comic books, Mark and Don meshed well. According to Scott Shaw
“Mark became an essential element in the filmmaking of Donald G. Jackson, beyond simply the SFX. Don would provide Mark with the concept for a film and Mark would go home and write the entire script in one evening.”
William’s enthusiasm however didn’t match Jackson’s. Don would go hour after hour, even day after day perusing his cinematic vision. He’d constantly be working on set and it wouldn’t be unusual to see him spending hours doing an insanely excessive amount of takes on a single scene in order to get things just right. Williams on the other hand might show up and just hang out puffing on a cigar while he occasionally handed out story direction or acted in a supporting role here and there. Jackson’s work ethic was fanatical. William’s was not. The relationship burnt out in a quick four years with Don eventually exploding at Williams in anger and furiously firing him. They would never speak again, though Jackson would attend William’s funeral at Dark Delicacies in Burbank after the creator’s untimely death from cancer in 1998.
Williams wasn’t the only victem of Jackson’s temper. Outburst on set were common. Scott Shaw remembers one particular incident “we had brought on this one guy who was the godson of actor William Smith. Good guy. I really like him. But, he pissed Don off for some nondescript reason and Don just went off. I was driving in the car behind them and for nearly an hour I could hear Don screaming at the top of his lungs at this guy”
During the filming of “Rock ‘n Roll Cops”, Jackson started screaming at Robert Z’Dar.
“I wish we could get a decent fucking actor on this set!”
Z’Dar, as huge and intimidating as he was, gave a soft and simple response. “I take exception with that, Donny.” He’d put up with it most days, but at one point on the set wher he and Jackson were filming the sequel to “Hell Comes to Frogtown”, the abuse just became too much. Z’Dar, decked out in leather and a jet pack, ripped off his Texas Rocket Ranger helmet and flung it at Jackson who lept up to doge the large chrome colored projectile.
By far, the worst victem of Jackson’s outbursts was Ed Wood alumni Conrad Brooks. Like Z’Dar, Brooks fell in to Jackson’s regular rotation and the two were fast friends. But Jackson was also abusive. Shaw recalled the way Jackson would treat Brooks.
“I believe this abusive mindset was one of the key downfalls to the overall career of Donald G. Jackson. He would test people and if he would find them venerable, he would go after them nonstop. Conrad was often on the wrong side of this abuse. ”
“I guess I shouldn’t have been so hard on him,” Jackson once admitted, but he never apologized.
Scott Shaw met Donald Jackson when he was called in for The Roller Blade Seven, the third film in Jackson’s post apocalyptic roller skating series. That partnership emerged with mixed results and Shaw parted ways with Jackson for a time under bad terms. Jackson went off and made his kids films and Shaw went off to shoot “Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell” and other films of his own. Shaw would find himself drawn back into Jackson’s orbit in 1995, shortly after Jackson was diagnosed with leukemia. Jackson was given six months to a year to live.
“He found out he only had a few more years to live as he was dying from leukemia. He remembered how well we worked together and that I was one of those people who gets things done. I think he wanted to leave a legacy and without someone like me that wasn’t going to happen.”
Jackson would defy the odds, and live another eight years, producing over a dozen films with Shaw. This was the era he truly embraced Zen filmmaking.
“Many people believe that Zen Filmmaking is simply based upon the fact that no screenplay is used in the creation of a Zen Film. Though this is the basis for Zen Filmmaking, in reality it is much more than this.” says Shaw, who describes how the idea of Zen Filmmaking came to being on the set of The Roller Blade Seven;
“Don and I were very disappointed with the performances of the massive cast we had hired to take part in the film. We looked at each other and realized that the majority of them did not have the talent to truly pull-off the roll of the character they had been assigned. With this, we came to a realization to just go out and film the movie, not expect anything from our cast and crew, and make up the story as we went along. After a few days of this style of production, I had a realization, based in my lifelong involvement with eastern mysticism. I looked at Don and said, “This is Zen. This is Zen Filmmaking.” And, that was it”
Shaw returned in time for Jackson to begin the final installment of his Frogtown series, though that was far from the only collabration.
“It is essential to note that the moment Don and I began working together again, we did not wholly focus on Toad Warrior. We, almost immediately began to formulate, come up with other projects, and begin filming them, as well. Most notable filmed around this same period of time were the films that became Shotgun Blvd. and Ghost Taxi. Though none of these first, “Next Generation Zen Films,” rose to the cult status of Max Hell Frog Warrior, at least in my opinion, they were all better films than Toad Warrior.”
For the rest of his career, in addition to Jackson’s own curious directorial signatures like Swords, roller skates and L.A.s 170 overpass bridge, you can see the specific methods of Zen filmmaking present.
Scott Shaw’s Six Tenets of Zen Filmmaking
1. Make all unforeseen situations work to your advantage.
2. Don’t waste time, money, and energy attempting to create your sets when you don’t have to. Instead, travel to them and allow their natural aesthetics to become a part of your film.
3. Just do it! Ninety-nine percent of the time you can get away with it.
4. Never let your story line dominate your artistic vision. Too many would be filmmakers attempt to write what they believe is a, “Good Script,” and then try to film it. Without an unlimited budget it is virtually impossible to get what is on the page on the stage.
5. Zen Filmmaking is a spontaneous process. If you acutely plan your productions, with screenplays, storyboards, and locations, there is no room for the spontaneity of Cinematic Enlightenment to occur and you will always be lost between the way your mind desired a scene to be and the way it actually turns out.
6. Ultimately, in Zen Filmmaking nothing is desired and, thus, all outcomes are perfect.
If that sounds terrible…it frequently is. And that’s fine by Shaw. ““We did not set out to make Gone with the Wind… It’s not intended to be good.” It’s a quick way of creating movies though. Jackson would always have several movies in varying stages of completion, a valuable thing given the uncertainty of his future. Sometimes things work out. I think “Ride with the Devil” is one of the better efforts. But the films frequently fall short of the artistic heights that this format presumes. Writer Michael Adams, author of “Showgirls, Teen Wolves and Astro Zombies” is perhaps the only person on earth who has watched as many of these films as I have. Here’s how he describes it.
“It’s 1:05 a.m. I’m staring blankly at the blank plasma screen. She (my wife) looks at me, looks at the TV.
“What are you doing, bubble?” she asks, a flicker of concern mixed in with amusement.
“I’ve cracked,” I say. “I can’t watch any more of this dude’s movies. I think this guy has broken my brain.”
“They’re that bad, huh?”
I nod. “And they’re all the same.”
“How much can you say? He tried, mostly failed, and died” Ted Newsome once wrote of Ed Wood.
The term “The next Ed Wood” has been entirely overused since the Medved brother’s golden Turkey awards in 1980 declared “Plan Nine From Outer Space” to be the worst movie of all time (It isn’t. It isn’t even the worst movie Ed Wood ever made). Since then, this mantel has been directed at any and every low -budget filmmaker in Hollywood. Artist Johnny Em even directed the term towards me in my student film days. With most filmmakers it’s mere hyperbole. If any filmmaker ever deserved this sobriquet however, it was Jackson. When looking at Jackson’s life and career in overview, he parallels Wood more than any other director I can think of.
Both men started out working behind the scenes in film doing whatever jobs the studio had available. It was an attempt to break into the business in whatever way they could. They both seized whatever opportunities came their way and bent those films into their own vision whether it was “Bride of the Monster” or “I Like to Hurt People”. Films like “Hell Comes to Frogtown” or “Glen and Glenda” would deliver the studio a far stranger production than they had bargained for.
Both had to fight for creative control of their films. As far back as “Glen or Glenda” Wood had to put up with things like producer George Weiss inserting a short B&D lesbian scene in to the film without Wood’s knowledge or consent. It’s a move that feels very reminiscent of the way Jackson’s financer Tanya York, would recut the footage from both The Roller Blade Seven and Return of the roller Blade Seven into one unauthorized feature she titled “Legend of the Roller Blade Seven”. Wood ended up changing the name and ending of “Bride of the Atom” to appease investors. Still, he fared better than Jackson on “Hell Comes to Frogtown” where control was largely wrested away from him by the studio assigned co-director.
Both men had an unstoppable desire to make films, and yet both lacked resources, time, and patience. They both were masters of the one take scenes and would race through their productions with little regard for traditional film structure. What they lacked in traditional resources, they made up for in their synchronicity with their stock casts. Both had their reliable B-listers; Wood with Bela Lugosi and Jackson with Robert Z’Dar. They would back that star power up with fringe b-listers, Wood with Tor Johnson and Jackson with Joe Estevez and Scott Shaw.
There was a surprising prudishness to both Wood and Jackson as well. In his book “The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood”, Andrew J. Raush writes of Wood’s film “The Violent Years” ” After watching this, one must conclude that Wood was somewhat of a conservative man (startling considering the number of pornographic films Wood would later make or be associated with)”
“His simplistic assertion in the film that leading children “Back to God” would ultimately put an end to juvenile delinquency”
It’s interesting to note a similar conservative message in “The Sinister Urge”, Wood’s cautionary tale warning of the perils inherent in pornography (and sadly foreshadowing his own descent into that genre).
Jackson likewise had his own reservations, particularly when he was still under the influence of his community in Michigan. He was never comfortable with the occult subject matter in “The Demon Lover”, and frequently would express his regret in making it. When he returned home to his native Michigan around the turn of the century, he was welcomed back with open arms and considered the hometown boy made good. At one point Scott Shaw recalled Jackson asking him for a reedit on “the Guns of The Chupacabra” to eliminate the nudity, so he could show it to his friends. That edit would go on to be know as “Crimes of the Chupacabra”.
These old-fashioned values also came through in a certain degree of patriotism. You can frequently see it displayed by wood in places like “The Sinister Urge” where he hints that porn may be a strange foreign plot to wipe out the American way of life. It’s a motif that would pop up from time to time in Wood’s work, not the least of which is “Plan 9 From Outer Space” which can be boiled down to America vs. the Flying Saucers! For Jackson, the best example is simply the names of the scientists in Hell Comes to Frogtown; Star, Spangle, and Banner.
Both Jackson and Wood had one notable film and a lesser known one or two before their careers would be drug down into smut. It’s interesting to note that they were both incompetent flesh peddlers, delivering some of the least arousing nookie films ever made. It’s obvious that their hearts were never in it. Both kept up a good front at first, at least trying to infuse these blue features with some sort of plot before giving up and just delivering the requisite boobs.
To be fair, both Wood and Jackson manage a few legitimate films mixed in with the smut. in 1970 we got one of Wood’s movie scripts made into “The Revenge of Dr. X”, a blatant Frankenstein rip-off. There’s also 1974’s “Fugitive Girls”, a reimagining of the girl-gang theme from “The Violent Years”. Jackson would fire off Toad Warrior, and Shotgun Boulevard along with a handful of other Zen films that Scott Shaw would finish for him.
Neither ever gave up. Neither ever stopped working.
I’m grateful that Scott Shaw was there for Jackson at the end. He helped him keep going, keep filming, keep making movies. Wood should have been so lucky. After all, it’s what he had done for Bela Lugosi. Upon his death in 2003, Jackson transferred all rights to all of his films to Shaw, who has been a fine custodian of his legacy.
It’s a legacy of lunatic guerrilla filmmaking and insane story ideas that absolutely fascinates me and is very much a life that is worth exploring.
Hawk : Warrior of the Wheelzone is basically a remix of The Roller Blade Seven (and of course Roller Blade Seven was almost unwatchable to me). This was an attempt to make it more coherent partially for re-release and partially as a response to the renegade producer Tanya York’s unauthorized re-edit that she released as “Legends of the Roller Blade Seven”
I have to admit, the recap on this film is interspersed with a more informative prologue, using clips from the movie that help me understand better what’s going on. Also the music is better. Just fifteen minuets in I can already see a big difference. It’s still absurd mind you. It’s still a movie about leather clad nuns and roller skating ninjas, but I also feel more like I can follow the story…. though I wonder how much of that is just Stockholm syndrome from watching the first one.
Hawk is recruited to go rescue a psychic who has been kidnapped by the evil Pharaoh Joe Estevez. As Donald Jackson’s priest character tells him “You will meet many along the way. Some are angles, some are devils. Sometimes the angels ARE the devils.”
Hawk begins his mystic journey through the desert on his rescue mission, traveling through the desert. Did I mention that there are roller skating ninjas in the desert? Ninjas of all sorts tend to be a Jackson staple. Expect to see more of this as we go along.
While on his journey, Haw encounters a salvage marble yard, the home of Karen Black’s “Psychic (or Not)”. When Black appears on screen it almost legitimizes this as more than just a patchwork piece, but she uses her role to wax philosophical and make out with Scott Shaw.
Joe Estevez chews the scenery as Saint O’Fender. Frank Stallone wears armor. Then the clown appears, complete with background music from The Invisible Man’s banjo.
That’s kind of the problem. The film seems to start with a story but the middle devolves into a random, Zen mess.
I’d honestly been dreading this, but it really is an improvement. (I know I keep saying it, but such is my shock. It’s like, did they deliberately use the WORST takes and just toss them into a blender instead of an AVID?) This time around it feels more like a road movie rather than just an acid trip. At least most of the time. The clown and banjo player are still incomprehensible to me, along with the dancing in the desert and that’s where it really starts to fall apart again but at least it’s more linear. The production values still come off as amateur though, even if Karen Black is there kissing Scott Shaw. The 80 minuet running time makes it more manageable as well, although there’s probably another fifteen minuets that could have been dropped. And that’s the thing, it isn’t necessarily BETTER, is just makes a teensy bit more sense. If you’re going to brave this series, I highly recommend swapping this out with Roller Blade Seven and watching this instead.
The movie starts off with the familiar giant white on black credits, and this time has bongo music playing over them.
Good news here though, the bongo player is a narrator and that almost promises us a more coherent story. I feel so cheated though, because the flashbacks done in the first ten minutes probably make more sense on the entire last film, encapsulating Roller Blade Seven perfectly and with no clowns. It explains that Stella Speed, the roller skating chick in red, was under a spell that kept her from drawing her sword… Something that was never quite clear before and that I complained about constantly.
After the death of his wife, Hawk, the hero, seeks out Saint O’ffender, battling through reused footage to reach him as the narrator plays the bongos in the background. Joel Estavez’s Saint offender is weird cross between Martin Sheen and Eric Roberts… Slimy and yet the sort of guy you just can’t take seriously. Still, this is really his film. he has the most lines and the is the real focus, chewing his way through the scenery every chance he gets. While he tempts Hawk, is marauders cause havoc in the Wheelzone.
“Desire is a fools cup of tea”
As you can see, the dialogue hasn’t improved – if anything it’s gotten worse. So has the dubbing. We’re back to that weird method from the first movie where they try and hide peoples mouths because they know they can’t possibly match up the lips to the words. Then again, there’s other times where they don’t even bother – it’s just words coming from a character who’s mouth isn’t even open.
Scott Shaw once related a story that may just shed some light on the sound issues.
“Don made one of the cardinal mistakes of filmmaking while we were at the original editing facility. He arrived one morning. With him was all of our original audiotapes from the production where we had recorded our dialogue. We were recording our sound for the film on the then new DAT tape system. He went to the bathroom en route to the studio. There, he forgot the tapes. They were all in a paper bag. I was already guiding our editor when he arrived at the editing studio. He sat down for a time and then remembered he forgot the tapes. He went back to the bathroom to get them but they were gone. Someone had stolen them. He, of course, massively freaked out. We searched for them, asked people for them, put up notes, but nothing. They were gone. That was all just part and parcel to the RB7 experience. The only thing that saved us was the fact that we had much of the dialogue recorded on our ¾ inch edit tapes.”
I have to wonder if that’s what happened with the scenes in this film, because the studio bound scenes seen recorded well, but anything outside – and there is a lot of footage shot outside is all terribly overdubbed. Shaw also states that there were entire scenes not used because there was no audio for them – I suspect some of those scenes are included in Return.
Because this was filmed at the same time as the Roller Blades Seven, all the actors are back – we get flashes back to Karen Black as Tarot, and even Franks Stallone gets some screen time as the black knight, alongside his grotesquely deformed minion (where is this makeup in the last movie any how? It really needed it!). Hawk fights off the temptation and the temptresses, only to find himself back in battle, face-to-face with the black knight in more reused footage.
Joe Estavez comes back to tempt Hawk again, this time through food. This movie probably should’ve called The Last Temptation of Hawk. Meanwhile, the spirit of Harks dead bride dances with her sword around the narrator as he continues to play bongos. There is a suggestion that she is in a sort of limbo, and that it was her spirit that saved Hawk from his previous temptation. She enters the feast and Hawk barely notices her in his almost dreamlike state.
Hawk, his soul in flux, left O’ffenders lair to meditate – thrusting us into a cacophony of disjointed clips from throughout the film.
About an hour in they remember they need to connect this somehow to the rest of the roller blade seriesis and attempt to do so with the debate between our wondering priest and Saint O’ffender that flashes back to the nuns are the previous film. It’s a nonsensical back and forth, occasionally intercut with unrelated film clips – when in doubt, cut to some nudity!
It’s informative though, because the wandering priest is played by our director Donald G Jackson. If you wanna get a feel for how he speaks and what it was like to be around him – this is actually a pretty good representation, and jibes with interview footage I’ve seen of him.
It almost seems like they originally shot enough footage for a movie and a half, and decided to harvest enough recycalable shots to make both Roller Blade Seven AND the Return of the Roller Blades Seven – possibly picking up a couple of extra shots of Jackson and Estivez to pad the second movie. It’s not enough, and things completely fall apart towards the end as they almost seem to be dropping in clips from both films at random, ending in a climactic sword fight between Hawk and Saint O’ffender where I think (it’s not clear) Hawk gets his wife, Stella Speed back.
It’s a bizarre swan song for the series (or is it?), and it’s easy enough to see why the two RB7 movies would be re-edited and combined several times to try and create something that would make more sense.
May the sun shine bright on your blood stain blade as you skate the pair of righteousness. All is well.
So I’ve heard that RB7 is possibly the worst film ever made. That didn’t daunt me, I’ve heard that before and I don’t usually believe it. Didn’t the Medved brother declare Plan 9 From Outer Space to be the worst film of all time? It wasn’t even the worst film made that YEAR.
I wasn’t expecting a lot. I was aware the budget had been slashed for this one. They had $30,000 and a 16 millimeter camera. This was going to be rough to make.
It was also around this time that Donald Jackson started getting thick with Scott Shaw – a musician, actor, artist and academic with a focus on eastern philosophy. Together they birthed the concept of “Zen Film making”, where no script is used. You come in with an idea, roll the film and let things happen as they will. That’s fine. It’ll be interesting and I can review anything right?
Turns out I was wrong and also Very wrong. RB7 is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen come out of Hollywood. It makes a Neil Breen film seem coherent. The only possible way to adequately review and describe this is to give you my stream of consciousness that I recorded on Facebook while watching the film.
So much danger, so much danger, SO MUCH DANGER! and then DIRECTED BY in huge white letters.
Sending his minion out to kidnap a psychic… I feel like we’ve tried this ground before.
At least the nuns have traded red and blue for black leather habits (it helps the ninjas blend in)
That’s a billy club, not a gun. STOP HOLDING IT LIKE A GUN!
Roller Blade Warriors starts out promising enough. We open with two riders on a horse travelling through a wintry desert. This could be the opening to any early 80s sci-fi fantasy, as an overdubbed describes the world and the legend of Roller Blade. Sister Karen Crosse escorts a young Psychic named Gretchen Hope to the safety of the nuns Mission. Crosse is played by Kathleen Kinmont , a veteran of cult sequels like Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Meyers, Snake Eater II: The Drug Buster, and Bride of Re-Animator. She’d go on to be a familiar face on TV. Her young companion is Elizabeth Kaitan, who was a frequent victim in slasher sequels like Silent Night Deadly Night 2 and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. She’d spend the rest of her career doing low budget boob flicks with directors like David DeCoteau and Joe Esposito.
We start off strong with a sword fight in this snowy desert, a skeleton languishing on a post in the background and blood on the fresh snow. ). It’s overdubbed by a Rory Calhon doing his best David Carradine impression and soon plunges us into the same incomprehensible post-apocalyptic imagery. You have the imagery of the abandoned factories juxtaposed with tuxedos and human sacrifice.
We cut to a beautician named Karp working on his patient. Manicure, make-up and general prettification along with nice shoes and satin underwear, he preps this person in his tent. Slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, the make-up artist brings this person to the abandoned factory. A man in a hazmat suit and gas mask drags her in. She’s manacled to an old mattress and left as a sacrifice to the creature that lives in the stacks. But the monster is unhappy, because it turns out this is not a real woman – it’s a man made up as a woman and the monster only likes to eat women. The rejected sacrifice is tossed from the top of the battery, its blonde wig scornfully cast down beside it and the monster raging behind a smoke. My first impression of the monster is that it looks like the hand puppet from the first Roller Blade has grown up. The man in the hazmat suit is not pleased.
Terrified, Karp and his partner, Streak (A scruffy long hair in a leather duster), promises to go beyond the rocks, all the way to Hell’s Anvil to go and try and find a real woman – if there are any left in this wasteland. Together they assemble a team to go out looking for women to sacrifice. They grab a tracker, Kosai, who looks uncannily like Rufio (the kid who took over the Lost Boys when Peter Pan left in Hook) and acts like a dog. Off they go searching for “girlflesh”.
There are actually some clever innovations in the Roller Blade universe this time around. The nuns ride a jury-rigged bike with wind sales, and it gives us a greater look at the broken down society (Something that was missing in the previous film). It also follows, for the most art, the traditional three act structure, thanks to the scriptwriting contributions of Randall Frakes. Both the dialogue and sound have improved as well. We’ve moved past the awful dubbing, and while the dialogue remains ridiculous, it’s not quite as over the top. They’ve gotten rid of most of the Kings English, though it still seeps in from time to time. What is still over the top though, is the score. For this entry, they decided on a bouncy, goofy, Benny Hill sort of background music that gives this a really strange feel. They frequently switch over 2 to chord synth cues, but that goofy music comes in so often that it just breaks me out of the film and reminds me how ridiculous (Indeed there are frequent slap fights that remind me of the three stooges) this all is.
After acquiring a bike, the nuns shed the red and blue robes from the last film for more appropriate post-apocalyptic garb.
“I have to get you to the mission!,” Crosse insists to the psychic Hope. “Mother speed is waiting!”
Strange that it may seem, These are comforting words – placing us firmly in the world that Donald Jackson created with the first Roller Blade. Despite the higher production values, if feels good to be back in familiar territory. The nuns fill up their water skin at a shallow brook and pray before heading back to the wind powered motorcycle to retrieve their camping gear.
Elsewhere in the desert, roving gang of barbarian women on roller skates wonder through the windy canyon. These are Roller Blade warriors commanded to meet up with Crosse and Hope, skating the path of righteousness. At least, that’s what the narrator tells us. One volunteers to go alone to retrieve the psychic and her mentor.
Back in the Devil’s Anvil, the group of men searching for a virgin sacrifice come upon a steam punk pimp. Kosai the tracker perks up.
“I smell something!” he exclaims, smelling the air. “It smells like a girl, on wheels!” while half of the group goes off with the pimp to examine his wares, the others go searching for the roller blade warriors. It doesn’t take long before they find the single girl who is off looking for her compatriots. She wields her samurai sword and engages the two men. Unlike the blades in the first rollerblade film, this sword isn’t meant for healing; it’s absolutely a weapon designed to kill. The fight goes all over the rocks, with the hunter giving into his rage and slashing her across the belly. His partner is furious.
“Are you kidding me? The thing in the stacks only wants fresh meat! She’s no good to us now!”
The hunters that followed the pimp are having better luck, he doesn’t deed have three girls for sale – they examined them to make sure the movie has the requisite nudity for an “R” rating. (Nice to know you can still get breast implants after the apocalypse (It’s cruel and gross but just shy of getting to rapey. That happens later).
Back on the trail, the two roller blade warriors find their fallen companion. She’s too far gone to heal, and they set off in search of revenge. Meanwhile, the hunters and the steam punk pimp drag the three girls down the road. The roller blade warriors come across them, and leap into action, slicing and dicing the pimp then freeing the slave girls.
The hunters escape and meet up with you after their team. They’ve got to find a way to avoid the roller blade patrols in this area. Suddenly, Karp remembers that there is a cannibal up in the hills and they head out in that direction to recruit him.
While the hunters look for their cannibal ally, Crosse and Hope get to know each other better. The nun wistfully tells the young psychic about how much she misses her man – the lawman who guards the mission (I can only assume she’s referring to Marshall Goodman from the previous film though she never mentions him by name). They wrap up in a sleeping bag and get ready to snooze.
“Can I ask you a question?” Hope asks. “I never loved a man… What’s it like?”
“Warm, like soup.” Crosse replies.
With that comforting thought, they drift off to sleep… But the psychic awakens in the morning, screaming. Evil is near! It’s down in the valley below the rocks, and it’s coming for them! Crosse grabs her blade and sets off to investigate, only to find the hunters have stolen her bike!
The cannibal looks like an old mountain man survivalist and comes down to greet the hunters, shotgun in hand. Above him, Crosse stalks him, sweeping down and cutting him up with her sword. Unfortunately, while she is distracted by killing the cannibal, one of the hunters lobs a rock at her head, knocking her off the ledge. Up the rocks, the hunters capture Hope.
Below, we discover that Crosse wasn’t killed by the fall, merely knocked out. When she awakens, she starts to have flashes of the psychic as the hunters on horseback transport her back to their stomping grounds.
“I saw a fair angel, riding a prancing horse, coming to Abadoooooooon! And in my dream, she was being followed by a she-demon on wheels…”
Crosse follows the trail of the hunters to the city of Abaddon, complete with the requisite sign “if you lived here you be home now” it’s buried and half hidden in the rubbish, but it’s there nonetheless. If Abaddon looks familiar by the way, it should. This is the same factory complex used in the climax of Robocop, frequently shot from the exact same angles. Terminator 2 had shot here just a year and a half prior. Jackson was familiar with the location already from his time on Hell Comes to Frogtown, and it was an old favorite.
She meets an old man at the door; Rory Calhoun, finally appearing in the flesh. Crosse must defeat this sword wielding guard to be able to get inside. She brings him down with a blade that pops out of the toe of her roller skates (It seems to me like the spurs on the heels would have worked just as well…). Dying, he gives her his sword.
“He still has a lot of killing to do. Besides, you’ll earn it in time.”
The blue wrap on the white grip of the katana as well as its red scabbard makes me think of her nun’s robes from the opening sequence. Infiltrating further inside, she swipes a jug of moonshine from a couple of rednecks in a barn. They pointed her towards “Streak” – the harvester who collects women to feed to the thing in the stack. She heads over to the local saloon. There Crosse discovers Rinaldi – the man in a huge fur coat who runs things in this town (Take note of that name by the way. You’ll be seeing a lot of villains with the same moniker in Jackson’s later films). He shows her around this mining town where they dig for uranium, taking her to the processing plant (the stacks where the monster lives). The psychic connection is still live, and Crosse flashes on and uncomfortable rape sequence and she can tell that Hope is not there. They need to keep searching.
Out of nowhere, Rinaldi the bursts into the hunter’s lair, pulling them off the girl and lays a beat down on them. The problem is, he’s not there to rescue Hope, The hunters are working under his orders.
Back at the bar, Streak starts hitting on Rinaldi’s girlfriend – mentioning that one of these days he’s going to be the head of town, after he takes Rinaldi out. It’s bad timing because Mr. big fur coat walks in with a very long gun pointed straight at it. It’s at this point that Crosse catches back up with him, just in time to see Rinaldi blow the hunter away.
“What’s he a sinner?”
Rinaldi then tries to convince Crosse that the psychic is dead. She’s not buying it, and demands to see the body – maybe she can heal it. He takes her up to a vat of bubbling green toxic waste to convince her. She prays for vengeance as Rinaldi offers to put her up for the night in a room above the saloon.
Mother Speed sends out a search party to find the Roller Blade patrol as well as Crosse and the psychic. They promptly get caught by nomads with drugged water.
Rinaldi dines with his girlfriend who expresses concern about Crosse staying with them. He’s preparing to sacrifice the psychic to the thing in the stacks while Crosse still has nightmares about the psychic’s assault. When she wakes, she realizes the psychic is still alive.
Rinaldi carries the girl into the monster’s lair as his girlfriend gives Crosse the history of the town. These sacrifices have been going on for a long time. They arrive at the entrance to the stacks, the factory that houses the monster as the psychic gets strapped to the bedframe for the monster to find her. Through the smoke, the monster gets closer and closer as Crosse searches for her young ward. She finds Hope and they take off, slipping though the smoke, only to find themselves locked in by Rinaldi. In the distance, the monster growls.
Back in the desert, the search party wake up, finding themselves tied up. Their captors wander back in the tent, but the overpower them and escape – now disguised as the nomads.
We cut to the factory, where the bloated mutant monster has found our roller blade warrior and her psychic. Crosse draws her sword and battles the beast, eventually running him through and escaping the depths of the stacks. There’s daylight in sight but she’s not out yet. A simple stabbing isn’t enough to keep a good monster down though. It awakes in a rage and comes after them. It’ll take some trickery to take out the monster before they can slip out of the factory.
Now on the outside, Crosse and Hope find they still have the hunters to deal with. They are joined by the search party, still disguised as nomads. They rip off their desert robes (Fortunately, it hasn’t messed their hair up at all. The apocalyptic future sure has some good hair spray) and the battle commences. All that metal and concrete makes a spectacular setting, with different levels and constant shape and movement. The last of the hunters, the beautician in his tux, grabs his gun and blows his own head off, rather than face the steel of a Roller Blade Warrior.
The last to face them down is Rinaldi.
“You wouldn’t hurt an unarmed man?” He quips, removing his right arm. It’s a cybernetic prosthetic and it doubles as a gun. Crosse races her way towards him as fast as her skates can spin while Rinaldi unleashes blast after blast from his arm-gun. The ground explodes around her as she races through the smoke, swinging her samurai sword. The gun jams and Rinaldi finds himself defenseless as Crosse turs his own weapon back on him.
“Please! Agent of Mercy! No!”
“God forgives,” she replies, her eyes cold as steel. “I don’t.”
With Rinaldi dispatched, the women find the horses left behind by the hunters and ride off into the post nuclear sunset. Mother Speed is pleased.
“Bless you all. Now go forth, and skate the path of righteousness!”
A third direct sequel to this film was planned, but ultimately scrapped. Still you can’t keep a good man down, and Jackson would be teaming up with Zen filmmaker Scott Shaw to create a whole series of spinoff sequels set in this same universe.
More on that next time
You may remember me doing an article last year on a film called “Roller Blade”. It was the surprise feature screened at the Cedar Lee and it seared my eyes out of their sockets with it’s absurdity.
I had to know more. I needed to understand how such a thing could be made in the first place, much less spawn sequels.
Yes, sequels. Roller Blade ended with a title card promising a sequel which I was assured existed. That was it, I had to know more. A quick check of IMDB showed that not only was there a sequel, there were several…but it gets confusing from there on out and it’s hard to tell what is what. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s do a quick recap of the lunacy that is Roller Blade. (for a more in depth review, hit the previous article on the subject here; https://argocitycomics.wordpress.com/2018/12/04/roller-blade/)
In a post apocalyptic future a group of nuns in red and blue KKK robes do battle in the wastelands wearing roller skates and carrying butterfly knives. Led by Mother Speed and occasionally assisted by Marshall Goodman, they struggle against the gangs of punks on skateboards (because roller skates would be too establishment I suppose) and the minions of El Santo’s evil twin and his demonic hand puppet who live in the acid factory.
There. You’re caught up.
So what happened to RB2 : Holy Roller? I can’t be sure. Donald Jackson, the director and guiding force behind all the Roller Blade films, passed away back in 2003 so he’s unavailable for comment, but some interviews do remain. He was known as the Ed wood of the video age, and watching his films it’s easy to tell why. Roller Blade, made on 16mm film for about $5000 was absolutely a success. Jackson had been working for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures at the time in various capacities. They had acquired his movie “I like to Hurt people”, a wrestling documentary for fifty thousand dollars which financed his way to Hollywood. He parlayed that relationship into other work for New World, operating cameras. While he was making contacts with folks like Fred Olen Ray (Who’s son and girlfriend would both end up in Roller Blade) and James Cameron, “I Like to Hurt People” had made New World half a million dollars. Through these kind of contacts he managed to convince New World to pick the film up for distribution. When they came to him asking if he had anything else in the works, he quickly cut together a three minuet trailer to screen for the execs. They watched it in silence and then stared at Jackson, his heart lodged in his throat. Mentally the execs did their calculations. Finally one announced that they could probably move 10,000 units which would turn a profit. This occurred at a time when the video market was just beginning to take off. Roller Blade was hyped by New World as, “The First Straight to Video Feature Film”. They took out full color ads in Billboard magazine and advertised the movie in Variety – all common for a theatrical film, but at the time completely unheard of promotion for a video release. Roller Blade made them over one million dollars. New World was still a player in 1989 when the next film was made, but they weren’t a part of it. While they did fund Jackson’s next film “Hell Comes to Frogtown”, the experience was marked by constant creative differences between Jackson and the studio.
“After Roller Blade made them a million dollars I didn’t have to even show a trailer for the next film. I only had to say one word; ‘Frogtown’. They said okay and gave me a million and a half dollars.”
The increased budget and addition of star power was given in exchange for a great deal of Jackson’s creative control, and by the end, he never wanted to work with them again. He would later talk about the experience in interviews;
“I am a very hands on Director. The downfall of the relationship all stared at one point, the first day of shooting, when they had an art director creating one of the sets. When he finished, I checked it out and it all look too clean and pretty to be a part of the film. I told him about it, but he didn’t listen. He had all the arrogance of an art director and felt he had to answer to no one. So, when he stormed off of the set, I got a few can of spray paint and went and spray painted graffiti on the wall of the set. When he came back, he freaked out. He complained to the powers at New World and they had a talk with me. They told me, “Everybody has their job on a studio film. Yours is to direct the actors.” So, that was the beginning of the end.”
To complicate matters further, New World was beginning to run into financial difficulties and after striking 2000 prints of “Hell Comes to Frogtown”, the film still ended up going direct to video. When it came time to return to the Roller Blade series, Jackson was on his own. The concept of Holy Roller (More a place holder title than anything) no longer appealed to him. The concept had moved on and would now become Roller Blade Warriors.
The good news is Roller Blade Warriors was actually a better film than Roller Blade. It looks like there was enough money to invest in something better than a consumer grade camera and someone learned how to use a boom mic. There’s not really a lot of information on this film though, and Jackson doesn’t speak a lot about it in interviews – it’s always much more about his later movies, the ones that were more experimental. He explains the move from knives to swords as part of his affection for Kurosawa films.
“This was very intentional. Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa are two of my biggest influences. As we filmed the entire movie in a very spacious outdoor environment, I was allowed to pay tribute to these two directors and add my own style to the mix.”
An example of that style involves a story about how half way through Roller Blade Warriors, Jackson ripped up the script and winged it through the rest of production, foreshadowing his future film methods. Nevertheless, it’s possibly the best entry in the series. Roller Blade Warriors was successful enough to get a Roller Blade 3 green lit.
It’s at this point that things begin to get weird. Jackson hooked up with actor/musician/academic Scott Shaw during the preproduction of Roller Blade 3. The production was already in chaos, with one of Jackson’s crew interfering, staging a coup and stealing the investor. Eventually the production fell apart. However Shaw was still on board and Jackson was able to secure $30,000 for the two of them to create a pair of sidequels, set in the same universe but more far removed from Mother Speed and her convent. In interviews he made it clear that was the intent from the beginning.
“What Scott Shaw and I did with Roller Blade Seven (and the Return of the Roller Blade Seven, filmed at the same time). Though the movie was based on the same premise, it was time to take the concept to the next level — which we did.”
That next level would be what Scott Shaw would dub “Zen Film making. A method of making film without scripts. You came up with a concept, ran the camera and filmed what ever happened next. Shaw recalls the moment he coined the term –
“We were in the office, discussing the results of the previous weeks endeavor. Don was fuming as he often did. Blaming others, as he almost always did. We decide that we needed to let go of all the structure and throw all of the plans that we had for the film out the window and just go out there and film. It was then and there that I came up with the title, Zen Filmmaking. “Let’s just be Zen. This is Zen. This is Zen Filmmaking.”
Sometimes there would be some guidance needed. words and phrases would be drawn from one of Shaw’s books Essence and Time, to keep the vision consistent.
“Whenever someone wanted some dialogue to memorize we would give them the two books by Scott… These books were made up of Spiritual Aphorism. So, this really kept the film focused on the spiritual essence of life — which is really what I wanted.”
In addition to the new film making style, there would also be technical advances –
“We also invented a new type of cinematography, in association with this film, known as, “The Roller-cam.” This is where we had a masterful skater film many scenes while skating around the actors using my Bolex. This gives the film a very spiritual sense of nonstop movement.”
“The way these character developed is the essence of Zen Filmmaking. We never had any plans for any of these character. In fact, just the opposite. We gave the people a little guidance and they did the rest.”
For instance, “The costume for the character Fukasai Ninja was just something our art director, Mark Richardson had lying around. He tuned it up a little bit to better fit the movie — so an actor could roller skate in it. And, bam, the character became a big part of the film.”
Shaw for his part has contended that he was ill used in the making of these films, never taking a salary because of the low budget, but increasingly asked to do more and more including casting, production and music.
“Don suggested I go and set up the fights. I figured I had some time so I was first working with the girl and her opponent. Maybe ten minutes into the session Don walks up, “Okay, let’s shoot.” But…Here’s the thing, Don didn’t even care that the people weren’t ready. All he cared about was getting something/anything on film. So, all of those one-on-one fights you see in the film were choreographed on the spot. I told them do this or do that, and that was that.”
Shaw claims this caused a break with Jackson (which is odd considering IMDB still shows them making movies together untill Johnson’s death) and he claims, Don said on the way to his deathbed, “I really want to apologize for what happen to you on Roller Blade Seven.”. When he passed, Jackson turned over all his film rights to Shaw.
The next part is where things get tricky, because the bad feelings and politics didn’t end with that. There was interest in another entry, but both films were so highly stylized and non-linear that there was difficulty finding funding or distribution. This is when the the executive producer, Tanya York decided to take things into her own hands, editing both movies into one feature and re-releasing it under the name “Legend of the Roller Blade Seven”. It makes a certain amount of sense. Both RB7 and the Return are short films, clocking in under 90 minuets and incorporating a lot of re-used footage. However, the re-edit was in violation of York’s contract and alienated both Jackson and Shaw. Shaw took the film back and re-edited it himself, releasing it again under the title “Hawk, Warrior of the Wheelzone”. To make things more confusing, Shaw offers Lite versions of the films, unseen scene versions and his own Zen documentary on Roller Blade 3, the movie that never was. (Shaw by the way, seems somewhat disconnected from the reality of what things actually cost, offering each of these films for $25 on DVD – plus shipping. You can also get his autograph for a mere $125 on Band Camp)
For our purposes, We’ll be watching and reviewing only the “official” films and not Tanya York ‘s remix. This isn’t Blade Runner, and apocryphal mix tapes just muddy the waters further.
Quotes taken from the documentary “Donald G. Jackson : Confessions”, “The Roller Blade Seven: The Story of the Production” by Scott Shaw, originally published on Blogspot.com and “Donald G. Jackson; The Final Interview” Originally published in Trash Times, Issue #13
It’s that time of year again, when Cleveland Cinemas smacks us about the head with the celluloid equivalent of a brick wrapped around a slice of lemon. I’m a fan of bad movies, a regular attendee at Cinema Wasteland, and a member in good standing of Cinemageddon. Yet somehow, David Huffman still consistently pulls out the most bizarre movie gems that were never on my radar.
This year, the Cedar Lee theater screened “Roller Blade”… a film that makes “Shredder Orpheus” look like “Gone with the Wind”. Don’t be deceived, there are no actual rollerblades in this film, 1986 was a little early for that. What we do have are roller skates, and butterfly knives tucked in by the heels – thus categorizing them as “roller” blades.
Set in the dystopian post apocalyptic near future that was so popular in the 80s, we’re introduced to our three main factions. For starters, there’s the madman at the acid plant (or is he a puppet? Or is he just wearing a puppet? It took me most of the film to finally come to the conclusion that Santos evil twin was somehow kind of conjoined to an evil mutant. It kind of looks like somebody glued up an old Boglin head onto a baby doll and then spray painted the whole thing brown). On the other side there is a convent full of Nuns in KKK robes – but colored red and blue to make things more confusing. They’re called the Cosmic Order of Roller Blade, and led by Mother Speed. They ally with the local Marshall… Though I can’t tell who was actually in charge. Sometimes he seems to have authority over them, and other times they seem to be calling the shots (After doing some research, it appears he was meant to be there protecting their monastery). There are also homeless people on roller skates pushing shopping carts, and punks who demonstrate how anti-establishment they are by riding skateboards instead of roller skates.
After a lengthy introductions in the first act, the action starts with a blonde in spandex stabbing a dude on the sidewalk because he was foolish enough to go outside without roller skates. She is apparently doing a job for the mutant in the acid plant -work for hire mercenary stuff. When she demands batteries for her walkman he tells her to go infiltrate the convent so that she can steal their crystal McGuffin. It’s not clear what it does other then turning the Nun’s butterfly knives into magic healing wands, but they suggest that humanity will end if it falls into the wrong hands. The blonde lets herself get roughed up by the punks so that she can prey upon the mercy of the nuns and steal their power crystal. In the meantime the acid mutant and Santos evil twin kidnap the marshall’s son because, reasons.
The third act explodes in a climatic battle where Santo’s evil twin uses the crystal to power a sled on wheels across the chasm in an attempt to escape to “Meccho” while the nun and the Marshall look on. They realize the crystal wasn’t that important, and salvation is actually in the human heart.
Don’t let that semi-coherent description fool you. This thing is all over the place. I was encouraged to see the New World logo come up in the beginning. Corman films are usually bad, but fun. Nowhere however, does Corman’s name show up here (Fred Olen Ray’s does though. I assume they abducted his kid to get this thing made). I find myself wondering if they just distributed the movie rather than actually producing it. I suppose it may have been filmed on some of their leftover sets, but it lack the professional panache that you get as a bare minimum from a Corman studio flick. I think that’s a professional grade camera shooting this – the state of consumer electronics in 1986 would have this looking more like Chester Turner’s “Black Devil Doll from Hell” or “Tales frm the Quaddead Zone” filmed around the same time. But they must have spent too much money on the camera because they obviously couldn’t afford sound equipment. This entire thing is sloppily overdubbed – and they knew it when they were filming. Every other shot outside the studio sets involves characters talking into large walkie talkies, strategically placed in front of their mouth so you can’t see their lips move in contrast to the dub. Two exposition scenes have been zoomed into and cropped just above the actors mouths. Entire conversations occur without seeing any lips move. Occasionally grunts are inserted to cover long shots with mouths working. Even the mutant hand puppet can’t synch his mouth with the lines he speaks.
The dialogue that is used doesn’t help any. There was a moment when shopping cart guy dies for the first time (Yes, I said “First”, as in multiple times) and the overdub gets really hollow as he says “Ow! (not the sound, he says the word)What did I do to deserve this?”. In other scenes, the King James English comes off a particularly distracting. “Hold! Skate not from this place! Word has come that little Chris has been taken!” At one point I turned to Johnny Crayfish next to me and asked “I’m really hearing this right? This is the ACTUAL dialogue they chose and not just a parody right?” He shrugged and shook his head.
After 88 minuets, the credits rolled. The final title card reads “Watch for Roller Blade 2 : Holy Thunder”
You’re kidding, right?
I turned to the back of the theater where the film programmer was standing, bewilderment on my face .
“Does that actually exist?”
He nodded. My buddy Mark spun around and shouted “DOUBLE FEATURE!”.
“Not tonight,” Dave wisely declined this demand. “I can’t believe you guys all stayed through the entire credits!”
I discovered that in fact, not only does a sequel exist – there’s actually FIVE movies in this series (Six if you count the remixed and re-released version of The Roller Blade Seven. Seven if you count the documentary on the unmade Roller Blade 3).
I need to know more. Expect a new Franchise Focus coming next year.