Tuesday, 10 November 2009

VHS Purgatory:
The Roller Blade Seven
(Donald G. Jackson, 1991)

You’d better believe I was pretty stoked when I found ‘The Rollerblade Seven’ in a pile of videos on sale outside a second hand furniture shop on my walk to work one day.

For those familiar with this movie and its cultural context, I realise that’s a line about on a par with “I was curious as the heavy-breathing, bandaged man approached me with the gardening shears”, but for the rest of us, some background is probably in order here.

I’ve been fascinated by Donald Jackson and his dedication to the noble cause of making post-apocalyptic rollerskating nun movies ever since I read Keith’s memorable review of his pioneering ‘Roller Blade’(1986) over at Teleport City.

Done reading that? Good. Sounds GREAT doesn’t it? Sadly, a quick look at IMDB over breakfast (I know, I know – it was a quiet week) reveals that ‘..Seven’ is actually Jackson’s fourth rollerblade movie, dating from 1991, making it a suspiciously late entry in the canon of ‘80s post-apocalypse movies. Not that, as it transpires, Jackson’s films really have much to do with that canon, or indeed any other kind of cultural phenomena that exist in what we presumptuously call ‘the wider world’.

If IMDB user comments may be taken as any kind of yardstick, audience reaction to ‘The Roller Blade Seven’ has not been kind.

“A Real Brain Melter,” says Dom from Leicester, awarding the film a 1/10 rating:

“This is one of the hardest to watch films ever, There are scenes with silence that seems to last hours before somebody comes out with the next badly written, badly acted line. There are action sequences that keep repeating - and we're not talking the quickfire 1-2-3 action repeat on a particularly good kick that was made popular by eastern directors, we're talking many, many repeats of long, bad fight sequences. Any kind of plot or vision is lost within the confusing continuity, the only thing thats keeps this film in the videoplayer (apart from the bet from a friend that i couldn't watch it all the way through without begging for it to be turned off and disposed off safely so it may harm no-one else) is the fact that although painful, this film is unintentionally hilarious.”

“Second (or possibly third) worst movie EVER MADE!!”, comments somebody called ‘Infofreak’:

“About 15 minutes into 'The Roller Blade Seven' I nearly gave up, but decided (masochist that I am!) to go all the way, baby! Because this is one movie you just gotta see ONCE, if only as a yardstick of sheer crapness. This is without doubt one of the worst movies I've ever seen in my life. Now maybe you're thinking "goodie! I'm in for some 1990s version of 'Plan Nine From Outer Space', or 'The Incredibly Strange Creatures...' hilarious laugh-a-minute good times". NO!! When I say BAD I mean beyond entertainment. This movie is so awful in every way imaginable, and absolutely torturous to sit through, that you won't be able to think of ANY reason to continue watching it until the end.”

‘Mds131313’ ups the ante, reflecting:

“This has to be the greatest practical joke ever. I'm amazed that all the other actors kept a straight face. […] If by some chance they weren't kidding and they legitimately tried to make a real movie then I feel sorry for everyone involved in the creation. I've had quite a love affair with cheesy movies, but this movie is so bad I can hardly watch it. They repeat pointless "special effects" so many times that it's obvious they were just trying to cover up the fact that they only shot 30 minutes of footage. If I were forced to watch this movie on repeat I would bludgeon myself unconscious with my own hands after about one and a half times through.”

‘Mystery Biscuit’ meanwhile weighs in with:

“I watched this film with a group of Nazis, a French Archaeologist and my ex-girlfriend on a small island in the Mediterranean.

When the tape was started, myself and my girlfriend were tied to a wooden stake at the far end of this cave like area. I told her to close her eyes and no matter what happened not to open them. The Nazi's and the archaeologist didn't close their eyes and after a few seconds started screaming. The Nazi's faces melted and the archaeologist's head exploded.

After a few seconds the video tape popped out of the VCR and landed back in it's box and the top snapped shut. Myself and my girlfriend were left unharmed.

Consequent to this experience, the video cassette was put in a wooden crate and stored in a huge warehouse of identical wooden crates, never to be see again.”

Such a card, that ‘Mystery Biscuit’.

Now the above comments didn’t really phase that much, simply because it is inevitable that any moderately strange low budget movie will attract its fair share of this sort of scorn (although it must be said that even by those standards, the sheer number of “Worst Film Ever!!!”s racked up by ‘Roller Blade Seven’ is remarkable). As you scroll down the page, it is equally inevitable that these entries will be tempered by a smaller number of 10/10 reviews by trash true believers, proclaiming the movie to be a wonderful/hilarious/awesome masterpiece of action-packed enjoyment, and denouncing the 1/10ers as schmucks who don’t get it.

And sure enough, ‘Roller Blade Seven’ has its supporters. And it’s when I read their comments that I really began to get frightened.

First we find somebody going by the name ‘fellinijunky’, who says:

“This is really a Rock n' Roll Great Film! It is like Fellini on Acid and I love Fellini!

I mean, there are so many twists and turns in this film, that it really keeps you guessing. This film is really different than any other action-adventure film I have ever seen, if you can call it an action-adventure. Yeah, it has martial arts and swordplay but this film is really not about that. This film is like somebody went out there, did what ever they wanted to do, and put it on film.

As an Art School Geek, this is the kind of film I would like to make if I had the money.

This film really has created a new and better genera of film-making and "It Rocks!"”

Uh… ok.

Moving on, Cammie Kim says:

“First of all, I am grad film student at U.S.C. In one of my classes we went through the three films associated with the project, THE ROLLER BLADE SEVEN, RETURN OF THE ROLLER BLADE SEVEN, and LEGEND OF THE ROLLER BLADE SEVEN, frame by frame. So, I believe I know these films as well as anyone, expect maybe the filmmaker, could know them. And, 'Yes,' I have gone to both Scott Shaw's and Donald G. Jackson's websites and have read what they have had to say about these films. What I have to say is that they accomplished exactly what they set out to do; to make a completely nontraditional, art based, film.

Now, I am not saying this is the greatest film every. What I am saying, however, is that the filmmakers used every element at their disposable to, as they put it, 'Push the envelope,' of film-making.”

Right. By this stage, it is safe to say that I have NO idea what to expect from ‘Roller Blade Seven’. Trying to reconcile these two perspectives, I can only believe I’m about to experience something very special indeed. Whether that’s ‘special’ in the sense that it needs its food cut up for it, only time will tell.

It’s clear that Donald Jackson’s films were somewhat, uh, ‘wacky’ from the word go. But by the time he got around to this one, dude was off on some other shit entirely. You see, In between churning out self-financed ‘Roller Blade’ sequels, spin-offs from his other sort-of success “Hell Comes To Frogtown” and other must-see oddities like “Mimes: Silent but Deadly” and “I Like To Hurt People”, Jackson gradually came under the influence of a guy named Scott Shaw.

Shaw initially began to work on Jackson’s films as a general collaborator/ideas man, but his contributions were gradually pushed to the fore, so that by the time ‘Roller Blade Seven’ rolls around, he has become the film’s star (rocking a distinctive blonde mullet, shades, trenchcoat and army boots combo), co-director and central conceptualist. Apparently what little dialogue the film contains is also lifted directly from some books he wrote (and there is no shortage of those).

You see, as well as being a martial artist, actor, stuntman, composer, author and self-publicist extraordinaire, Scott Shaw is also a deeply mystical sort of dude, a follower of ‘spiritual paths’, and a self-professed zen master. The credits to ‘Roller Blade Seven’ make copious reference to something called the “Masters of Light Institute”, which led me to suppose he might be a full-blown cult leader, but his current website makes no mention of such an organisation, so we’ll let it slide.

More pertinent to this review, Scott Shaw is also the sole inventor (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, you hear) of something called Zen Filmmaking. What is Zen Filmmaking, you ask? Well, in the words of the man himself:

“In Zen Filmmaking no scripts are used. There are no rules and no definitions. The spontaneous creative energy of the filmmaker is the only defining factor - this allows for a spiritually pure source of immediate inspiration to be the only guide in the filmmaking process.”

Yep, you got it. Zen Filmmaking. Further to the whole “making shit up as you go along” aspect of the zen method, this enlightening article by Shaw includes such other useful advice as “if the cops bust you for filming at a location, go film somewhere else”, and, staggeringly, “if your footage looks crap, use it anyway”.

Apparently, ‘The Roller Blade Seven’ was one of the first pure examples of this game-changing approach to the cinematic arts. Oh boy. Forewarned is forearmed, but it is still with a feeling of heavy apprehension that I press ‘play’ on ‘The Roller Blade Seven’.

The verdict?

My god, I don’t know what to tell you. I was stunned. Actually stunned. However weird and cheap and ludicrous and bad I was expecting ‘Roller Blade Seven’ to be, it beat me at every turn.

There is no way I can review ‘Roller Blade Seven’ in the conventional manner. It is simply beyond notions of good and bad, existing on another plain entirely. It is, as one of the reviews I quoted above sagely puts it, “beyond entertainment”.

It’s more like a dream. The kind of dream where you wake thinking “where the hell did all THAT come from?”, and feeling thoroughly unsatisfied. More specifically, it’s like a dream in which a guy with a late ‘80s camcorder decides to make his own fusion of Manos: The Hands of Fate and The Holy Mountain, utilising several out of work porn actresses and props found in the trash outside an abandoned skating rink.

When its detractors complained that the film has “no plot”, they weren’t exaggerating. There’s this… nun, I suppose, who is a psychic, apparently. She wears a robe and shades and a cardboard hat. A bad guy who lives inside "The Wheel Zone", whatever that is, sends some men kidnap her, and they march endlessly across a sunlit beach throughout the rest of the film. A man who looks like a cheap televangelist going on safari (Donald Jackson himself, I think) sits in a tent full of hanging smiley badges and talks a load of bollocks with Scott Shaw, who then sets out, presumably to go and get the nun, and after that… all vestige of sanity is lost. It’s a bit like watching Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasuredome on rollerskates. Only, y’know, not as good.

A succession of ridiculously garbed characters who are never introduced nor explained drift on and off the screen seemingly at random. Stuff happens, for no reason. Well, when I say ‘stuff’, I mean, people move from one side of the screen to the other, and sometimes they stop, and throw kung fu poses. Occasionally someone makes some ponderous pronouncement about “the Wheel Zone” and aside from that nobody really says anything much. A wide variety of terrible hippie music, like a mix CD you’d hear in an Amsterdam headshop, plays incessantly.

About halfway through, a woman turns up who seems to be some sort of protagonist. She wears an uncomfortably tight pink latex swimsuit. There are lots of shots of her ass. There’s a man with a bandaged face and a stovepipe hat who plays a banjo. His appearances are signalled by extremely loud banjo music. I think this is ‘humour’, of a sort. In the film’s only nod to post-apocalyptic traditions of yore, there’s a baseball bat wielding clown. Then there’s this man wearing swimshorts and kneepads and sitting on a sorta lifeguard chair in the middle of the desert, and at one point some kind of teddyboy shows up and starts talking to him about how he’s trying to find Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. I’m pretty sure that happens anyway – I may have passed out. And hey, look out everybody - here comes some sort of rollerblading minotaur beast! He can only wobble along slowly - looks like he’s having trouble staying upright. There are slow, stoned “fight” sequences wherein a variety of these strange characters are “defeated” by means of repeated footage of Scott Shaw swinging his sword around. Frank Stallone plays this grouchy military guy in a wheelchair - I'm not sure what he's all about. For about two minutes somewhere in the middle, there are boobs.

The film finishes up at an arbitrary point, when Donald Jackson performs a wedding ceremony in which Scott Shaw marries a woman who may be the pink latex girl, but may equally be somebody else entirely. They drive off from a desert beauty-spot carpark on Shaw’s Harley, and are pursued by some other people in a car. The people in the car shoot the happy couple (by pointing a gun out of the window and mouthing ‘bang’), and they lie dead at the side of the road. This whole sequence is repeated THREE TIMES, with seemingly identical footage and edits, as an epic southern rock song called ‘The Pride of the Yankee’ plays out in its extremely long entirety. The end.

Like I said earlier, there is nothing that can possibly be said as regards trying to pass critical judgement on this film. It’s just too much.

I can’t believe Karen Black is in it though! I mean, she’s been in proper movies – good ones even. I almost forgot to mention that here she plays a psychic who Scott Shaw goes to see at one point. They eat some mushrooms (which look like regular cooking mushrooms, rather than the psychotropic kind), and wonder about in the desert frenchkissing statues for a while. For her sake, I’ll imagine she must have been tripping already when Jackson and Shaw blundered in unexpectedly for a bit of Zen Filmmaking.

Subsequent to ‘The Roller Blade Seven’ and its two sequels, Donald Jackson directed over twenty more films in collaboration with Scott Shaw, including “Shotgun Boulevard”, “Ghost Taxi”, “Frogtown Warriors”, “Lingerie Kickboxer” and “Rollergator” (ROLLERGATOR!), prior to his untimely death from Leukaemia in 2003.

Since then, Scott Shaw has taken on the rights to Jackson’s ‘Frogtown’ and ‘Roller Blade’ series, and has furthered the art of Zen Filmmaking with a steady stream of films bearing titles like “Rock n Roll Cops 2: The Adventure Begins”, “Naked Avenger”, “Frogtown News”, “Blood on the Guitar”, “Hawk: Warrior of the Wheelzone” and “Samurai Johnny Frankenstein”, perhaps taking his ‘film whatever / use it’ philosophy to its natural conclusion with the release of self-explanatory ‘documentaries’ such as “Dinner & Drinks” and “A Ride With Linnea and Donald”.

It’s a strange and frightening world out there, and, like a Lovecraft protagonist spying a severed tentacle, the truly terrifying thing is that ‘Roller Blade Seven’ has only given me the merest glimpse of it.



Thomas Duke said...

I still totally wanna see this fucker. I guess "zen filmmaking" is some sort of precursor to the dogme movement, trying to capture fantasy instead of reality. Either that, or it's a brilliant excuse to cover up the fact that your film is cheap and shitty.

Adam Felt said...

Hi. I just saw this movie recently and ive been looking up reviews to see what the other opinions are. I think this is the worst movie ever made, no exaggeration, its the worst. I almost consider it fraud that the people who made this abomination call it a movie.

Anonymous said...

I want to see this so badly. Me and my friends love shitty movies. Have you all ever seen 'She' or 'The Swimmer' starring Burt Lancaster?