Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Lost Empire
It’s time for another Jim Wynorski film.
The Deathstalker II director has a made a lot of movies. Some of them with indefensible titles like The Witches of Breastwick and Piranhaconda. The man is so prolific, he can journey from family movies to crude sex parodies within six months. If we ever discuss another erotic thriller, his 1994 film Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry III is a prime candidate. The man worked with Roger Corman, Fred Olen Ray and some of the best fly-by-night producers of the 90s and early 21st Century. And while some of his films are immensely enjoyable, like previous Weekend Cheesy Movie entries Deathstalker II and Chopping Mall, there is a certain sleaze factor to him.
In this regard, it is easy to see the sleazy impulse in his early scripts for films like Sorceress and Screwballs. The former is a Roger Corman-produced sword-and-sandal picture with the high ambition of getting some twins to take their tops off. The latter is about a bunch of horny teen boys trying to get girls to take their tops off. But when Wynorski finally got the chance to direct, a certain innocence enters his work. And it begins with this weekend’s cheesy movie, The Lost Empire.
The plot centers on LAPD Inspector Angel Wolfe (Melanie Vincz). Her brother is also on the force and answers a call about a robbery at a Chinatown jeweler store. When he and three other officers arrive on the scene, they end up confronting a bunch of ninjas. The other cops die within moments, but Angel’s brother manages to hold on long enough to give her a ninja star and tell her “the Devil exists, and the Eye knows where.”
After her brother dies, Angel’s sometimes lover Rick Stanton (Paul Coufos) tells her the ninja star could only originate with one person: the legendary Lee Chuck. He’s said to be immortal and that he must give the Devil a fresh soul every night to make good on their bargain. Later, Angel visits the crime scene, where a mysterious red gem slips its way into her purse, and meets with a precarious Charlie Chan knock-off who guesses why Lee Chuck’s ninjas tried to rob the jeweler store. They were after an artifact called the Eye of the Avatar. When combined with the other Eye, the two gems can generate enough power for Lee Chuck to conquer the world. Spoiler: it’s the gem in her purse.
He also tips Angel off to a connection between Lee Chuck and a cult leader named Dr Sin Do (Angus Scrimm). She decides to investigate the cult on its mysterious island; recruiting Native American warrior woman Whitestar (Raven De La Croix) and incarcerated criminal Heather McClure (Angela Aames) to accompany her. There, they discover Sin Do is running some sort of martial arts competition to find women worthy enough to join Lee Chuck’s army. In reality, Sin Do and Lee Chuck are one and the same, and he uses the cult to keep a fresh supply of victims for his debt to Satan.
And if the whole thing sounds like a fever dream cooked up from watching a marathon of James Bond movies, Charlie’s Angels and Enter the Dragon, that’s the charm. Wynorski, as writer and director, could not be more transparent about his influences unless he appeared on screen to tell you which scenes correspond to which source. Nonetheless, he still managed to deliver a satisfying, if paper thin tale thanks to a tactic he would employ again in Deathstalker II: his main characters quip in the face of “serious” moments. Where a completely straight action or fantasy film would see the hero grimace with stern purpose when infiltrating the enemy camp, Angel, Whitestar and Heather delight in pointing out the silliness around them. And as in Deathstalker II, it makes them fun to follow. Also, since this is a Wynorski picture, they are beautiful women in very skimpy outfits; which no doubt adds to the appeal for a certain demographic. But unlike the way the camera leers at the Harris twins in Sorceress and the way Wynorski wrote their characters into very compromising positions, the main trio of Lost Empire are very much in control of their situation and appear to be having fun throughout. And that’s even when you factor in Aames’s nude scene being a shower scene and De La Croix’s nude scene involving a snake crawling on her. These moments shouldn’t work, and yet they come off as natural parts of the film’s very silly reality.
This is where the off innocence of Wynorski’s early directorial efforts comes into play. Though the man is very forward about enjoying the presence of busty ladies in little or no clothes — the film’s first shot is a Bond style buttonhole view onto a woman with very generous cleavage — he tends to play it safe here. Nudity is divorced from sexual situations and threats of violence (except for one really terrible joke about a vaginal exam) and the titillation is focused entirely on the fact certain scenes contain bare breasts. In the 21st Century, there’s really something quaint about that.
But beyond the T&A, the film’s entire story feels innocently juvenile. It mixes the Devil, ninjas, bad ass women, the C.I.A., a doomsday weapon straight out of a Bond movie, and crime thrillers with the same sort of reckless can-do attitude which makes Deathstalker II the best Conan knock-off ever made. It has a certain conviction about itself even as the characters make fun of their goofy, cheeseball world. Since this was his first film as a director, Wynorski put more of his soul into the production and it definitely shows. Even if he’s not completely serious about his story, he is serious about making its tone work.
As far as performances go, the main trio do pretty well for what Wynorski asks of them. But even a bad line-reading feels at home here. Coufos, meanwhile, makes for a great romantic foil and Scrimm delivers a wonder Scrimm performance as Lee Chuck. Mercifully, Wynorski makes no attempt to put him in Yellowface, so you can enjoy his villainous turn without any hinkey feelings.
That said, there are a handful of regressive jokes in the movie. The aforementioned vaginal exam gag, the Charlie Chan knock-off’s terrible yellowface make-up and performance, and a moment in which a couple of coded gay characters compliment Coufos for holding one of Angel’s purses certainly make you wonder if the film is about to dive off a cliff. But, luckily, Wynorski reins in this sort of humor in favor of the more innocent tone. Which means more than anything else, The Lost Empire is a pseudo-spoof of martial arts movies with an added injection of T&A. The fact he failed to cast a single martial artist in the picture only makes it better. While perhaps not as classic (or classically cheesy) as Chopping Mall or Deathstalker II, it is still a fun and brief (86 minutes) slice of cheese.
The Lost Empire is available on Amazon with a Prime subscription. It is also available as a BD-R release.