Directors: Cirio H. Santiago and Don Schain
Shout! Factory

With the LETHAL LADIES COLLECTION, Shout! Factory presents three more enjoyable obscurities (all shot in the Philippines and – bizarrely – only two with Vic Diaz) from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures back-catalogue.

First up, TNT Jackson (Jeanne Bell, SOME LIKE IT COOL) arrives in Hong Kong (well, not really) in search of her ne’re-do-well brother Stag. After fighting off some random kung-fu thugs, TNT makes her way to “Joe’s Haven” a strip-club run by martial artist Joe “Dynamite Wong” (Chiquito, MR. WONG & THE BIONIC GIRLS) – who describes himself as Chinese in body and western in mind – from which Stag sent her a letter begging for money. Joe tells her that he received the letter and Stag never came to collect it. A fight erupts in the club and black-belt TNT dives in to help, impressing Charlie (Stan Shaw, ROCKY) who works for local drug dealer Sid (Ken Metcalfe, ENTER THE NINJA). Charlie is attracted to this foxy lady and thinks she may be of use in Sid’s business, despite the objections of Sid’s mistress Elaine (Pat Anderson, SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS) and his heroin contact Ming (Max Alvarado, BLIND RAGE). When Ming is ambushed while transporting a shipment, he suspects that TNT is involved. Sid tells him to organize another deal and Charlie insists on accompanying Ming along with a squad of fighters. TNT wants to join the squad and proves her mettle at Sid’s training camp, but is left behind. She and Joe track Charlie and Ming, but are in turn tracked by Elaine. After the latest heroin transaction is again ambushed, Sid and Charlie want Ming to organize an in-person meeting with his suppliers. Ming is determined to eliminate TNT, who lies low in a secluded shack. Charlie tracks her down and they do the deed; after which, she notices Charlie lighting up with the lighter she gave her brother. Charlie takes off for the quickly arranged meeting with the heroin suppliers. TNT is determined to find him and kill him, but the authorities who are planning to bust Sid’s operation

Released in the Philippines as DYNAMITE WONG AND TNT JACKSON, TNT JACKSON was prolific Filipino producer/director Cirio H. Santiago’s second collaboration with Corman’s New World Pictures following the stewardesses vs. kung-fu fighters flick FLY ME (which will be on volume 2 of the LETHAL LADIES COLLECTION along with THE ARENA and COVER GIRL MODELS). Co-written by actors Metcalfe – and Dick Miller (THE HOWLING), Elaine assumes that TNT is a stripper at first when she sees her in Joe’s club and she replies “I make my living on my feet rather than on my back,” to which Elaine sarcastically replies, “How amusing, I’ve never tried it that way.” Santiago’s direction is rather pedestrian but for the sequence in which TNT fights Ming and his men in her hotel room (TNT turns out the light, tosses some guys around, Ming turns on the light and gets thrown across the room, TNT turns the light back off, and kicks more ass, and so forth). The action is largely restricted to Joe’s club, Sid’s villa, and a hotel, but the climax takes place amidst the confusion of noisy, crowded festival on the Isla del Sol. Bell is certainly athletic, but it is hard to gauge her martial arts skill thanks to Santiago’s absurd under-cranking (the slow-motion bits come off well, though); the same can be said for Shaw. Anderson is bland for the most part, but she does get to get in on the fighting late in the film. Metcalfe is similarly bland, although it is odd that he scripted his own character as someone so ineffectual. Ciquito and Alvarado provide most of the film’s humor (Alvarado in a more understated way as the constantly vexed Ming).

Former Playboy Playmate Bell started out in television with a recurring role on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, and her subsequent career alternated between mainstream supporting roles in MEAN STREETS and THE CHOIRBOYS, and larger parts in exploitation such as BLACK GUNN, THREE THE HARD WAY, DISCO 9000 and POLICE WOMEN. She left acting in 1977 and married Aames Home Loan Company chairman Gary Judis in 1986. Shaw made his debut in TRUCK TURNER with Isaac Hayes. His first New World Picture was the bizarre DARKTOWN STRUTTERS. Much of his 1970s and 1980s work was composed of TV movies (including ROOTS: THE NEXT GENERATIONS) and guest appearances (WISEGUY, L.A. LAW, and as three different detectives on MURDER SHE WROTE). After ROCKY, he reunited with Stallone in the 1990s for DAYLIGHT, and returned to the boxing ring in 1998 as the fighter who figures into a political assassination in Brian DePalma’s SNAKE EYES. Anderson started out her exploitation career as one of BONNIE’S KIDS, before appearing in Santiago’s aforementioned FLY ME. Before returning to the Philippines for TNT JACKSON, she appeared in DIRTY O’NEIL and NEWMAN’S LAW with George Peppard. After TNT JACKSON, she appeared in New World’s stateside SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS (their attempt to branch out from their stewardess and nurse series) before heading back to the Philippines for Santiago’s COVER GIRL MODELS. After that she appeared mainly on television, with the exception of Marilyn Chambers’ non-pornographic ANGEL OF H.E.A.T. Metcalfe was no stranger to Filipino filmmaking or New World Pictures, having already appeared in Ken Loring’s COMBAT KILLERS, GUERILLA STRIKE FORCE, Eddie Romero’s BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT, THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE and THE WOMAN HUNT, Cesar Gallardo’s BLACK KUNG-FU (which he also scripted), as well as Santiago’s FLY ME and SAVAGE! He collaborated with Santiago on 20 films, including New World co-productions such as Charles Griffith’s UP FROM THE DEPTHS, COVER GIRL MODELS (also with Anderson), STRYKER, THE HUSTLER SQUAD for Crown International, THE MUTHERS (with Bell) and Santiago’s EBONY, IVORY, AND JADE for Dimension Pictures, and a handful of Corman co-productions under this Concorde banner in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Metcalfe also got in on the Cannon Films Filipino-shot action flicks as a producer on AMERICAN NINJA (as well as serving as casting director), MISSING IN ACTION, as well as location manager on ENTER THE NINJA (in which he also acted). He also did the local casting for Sidney J. Furie’s THE BOYS IN COMPANY C, HAMBURGER HILL, and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. Alvarado proved to be a very prolific actor in Filipino films with almost three hundred acting credits in between 1949 and his death in 1997. Ciquito has just over half as many credits as Alvarado, including several entries in the Filipino version of the MR. WONG series as well as a series of “James Bondat” spy films.

Thanks to the flashy trailer for FIRECRACKER, I watched that one first and then experienced déjà vu as I put on TNT JACKSON. Corman’s New Horizons/Concorde company cheaply remade some of his New World Pictures output (from lesser stuff like FORBIDDEN WORLD as DEADSPACE to classics like PIRAHNA, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, and farther back to Filmgroup with BUCKET OF BLOOD, as well as some of their own earlier Concorde productions like DANCE OF THE DAMNED [now slated for a second remake]), but New World’s FIRECRACKER is a straight-up remake minus the blaxploitation element and featuring (as well as being co-written by) Ken Metcalfe in pretty much the same role that he had in TNT JACKSON. This time around, Susanna Carter (Jillian Kesner, TRICK OR TREATS) arrives in the Philippines in search of her missing reporter sister Bonnie, who was doing a story on “The Arena” a martial arts club owned by Erik (Ken Metcalfe again). She discovers that Bonnie never received the telegram she sent to her at the hotel/bar run by Pete (Peter Cooper, UP FROM THE DEPTHS). When a bar fight breaks out, she helps Pete and his assistant Rey (Rey Malonzo, DEADLY FIGHTERS) clear out the riff-raff, so they are willing to help her in her search for Bonnie. Susanna heads over to The Arena and attracts the eye of Erik’s hired muscle Chuck (Darby Hinton, GOODBYE, FRANKLIN HIGH). She tells him that she is a black belt and is looking to make some money during her stay. She auditions for Erik on stage by fighting and beating one of his more ruthless fighters (Don Gordon Bell, NAKED VENGEANCE). Once again, a heroine shipment organized by Grip (Vic Diaz, pretty much any Filipino exploitation film you can think of) and he suspects Susanna had something to do with it. Erik’s mistress this time around is Malow (Chanda Romero), putting doubts into his head about Grip and Chuck, and trailing Susanna. Grip again sets up another shipment and Chuck double-crosses him, causing Erik to insist on a meeting directly with the suppliers. Once again, Susanna learns that the guy she’s slept with killed her sibling and her death match with him threatens to quash the authorities’ planned bust of Erik’s drug trade.

The plot of FIRECRACKER, also known as NAKED FIST, will hold absolutely no surprises for viewers who watched TNT JACKSON first. The blaxploitation element has been dropped, while the nudity and gore quotient have been upped for the 1980s. Like Bell’s heroine in the previous film, Kesner engages in some topless fighting (albeit with only two henchmen and after having her bra sliced off by a sickle), but the scene is played as more of a gore set-piece than a humorous one. Later, she and Hinton also engage in a very 1980s softcore sex scene which finds the two slicing away each others clothing with knives before some red gel-lit bumping and grinding in a bed with a mirror on the ceiling. Gore-wise, there are a couple bloody impalements, eye-gougings and an extra takes a table saw to the face (Santiago also outdoes the “gut punch” of the previous film here). The settings are generally more picturesque than those of TNT JACKSON, with Susanna and Rey’s trip to the mountains to train with a stick fighter providing some misty mountain views. Humor is what is missing from the remake without Ciquito, and the sub-blaxploitation barbs between Bell, Anderson and Shaw. Although Kesner and Hinton actually had martial arts training, their efforts jointly and individually are once again undermined by Santiago’s under-cranked camera. On the other hand, even though we know Susanna is going to triumph in the end, Santiago is able to wring some suspense (and some convincing blows) out of her climactic battle. The title sequence is a little lame, superimposing the title graphic and several screen credits over shots of strings of firecracker sending sparks towards the camera (it looks cheap rather than dynamic). The electronic score by Nonong Buencamino (HELL HOLE) is much livelier than the score for TNT JACKSON, if a bit repetitive.

After an early appearance in Gus Trikonis’ THE STUDENT BODY, Kesner made the TV rounds with appearances in HAPPY DAYS, THREE’S COMPANY and THE ROPERS before appearing in STAR HOPS (written by former Corman Filmgroup/New World associate Stephanie Rothman and directed by Barbara Peeters, who would go on to direct HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP for Corman). She followed up FIRECRACKER with KUNG-FU CANNIBALS, also shot in the Philippines. She married seasoned exploitation cinematographer Gary Graver and worked as production coordinator on several of his films (as well as appearing in his slasher entry TRICK OR TREATS). During this time, she also appeared in the new footage shot by Mardi Rustam for EVIL TOWN, the reworking of an unfinished 1970s zombie film with Dean Jagger. Kesner and Graver also attempted to finish Orson Welles’ abandoned THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, on which Graver served as director of photography. Kesner died in 2007 of a staph infection (Graver died the year before). Hinton, who started out as a child actor in such series as MR. ED and WAGON TRAIN, and later landed a six-year stint on the show DANIEL BOONE as the frontier hero’s son, isn’t a very impressive actor, but he’s more natural in his delivery and handles the martial arts scenes well (Hinton’s other exploitation credits include BLACK OAK CONSPIRACY, WITHOUT WARNING, Andy Sidaris’ MALIBU EXPRESS, as well as the Greydon Clark flicks HI-RIDERS, ANGEL’S BRIGADE, THE RETURN and WITHOUT WARNING. Diaz is his usual slimy self here, but does not represent an improvement over Max Alvarado in the previous film. Cooper has nothing to do as the bar-owner as he’s not a martial artist, and the character from the TNT JACKSON has been split into him and the younger Rey. Additionally, Susanna does a lot more of her trailing solo (as such, Rey disappears for the middle of the film and returns to fight off some extras while Susanna faces off against Chuck). Cooper made his acting debut in New World’s DEATHSPORT before heading to the Philippines for UP FROM THE DEPTHS. After FIRECRACKER, he stuck around for Santiago’s STRYKER and the non-Santiago/non-Corman exploitation pic AMERICAN COMMANDOS. Romero has well over a hundred credits over at IMDb, but FIRECRACKER seems to have been the only exported one. New World editor Allan Holzman (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS) is credited with the direction of additional scenes in this version, and I’m assuming his contributions included the sex scene and, perhaps, the gore inserts (which are grisly, but have nothing on what Chris Walas added to New World’s re-working of Sergio Martino’s ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN titled SCREAMERS). The whole chase scene where two white henchmen chase Kesner through a bunch of white hallways stacked with film cans and the ensuing topless fight also seems to be entirely added in, since the music cue that accompanies this sequence is completely different from the rest of Buencamino’s work (Paul Fox and Susan Justin – who scored Holzman’s New World directorial effort FORBIDDEN WORLD after this – is credited with music for the additional sequences).

Shout Factory’s anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer of TNT JACKSON has stable colors and little damage. The color scheme is mostly dull; however, when reds show up – be it blood or Charlie’s loud shirt in the last scene – they really pop. The mono audio is in good condition. FIRECRACKER comes to DVD in an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer, looking quite vibrant, partially due to Santiago and his cinematographer’s employment of saturated reds in the wardrobe and in the gore scenes, inserts or otherwise (cinematographer Ricardo Remias shot 26 films for Santiago, including the gravely unfunny VAMPIRE HOOKERS). The mono audio is in fine condition with the music score and typically overdone swooshing fight sound effect coming through strongly. Disc One also includes trailers for JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, THE HOT BOX, BIG BIRD CAGE, and FIRECRACKER.

Vic Diaz is back (but Cirio H. Santiago isn’t) for TOO HOT TO HANDLE (Cheri Caffaro’s in it, too). Here, Caffaro is the appropriately-named Samantha Fox, a socialite/contract killer in Manilla for a lucrative multi-hit assignment. As an audition, she takes out S&M enthusiast MacKenzie (John Van Dreelan, THE LEECH WOMAN) before being given her next three targets. MacKenzie’s murder makes the papers, and detective Domingo (Aharon Ipale, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF) and his partner Sanchez (Vic Diaz, who else?) surmise from the lack of evidence that the killer is a woman and a knockout. Domingo sees Samantha at MacKenzie’s funeral and begins to look into her background (the poor sap sent to search Samantha’s yacht ends up thrown overboard and cast off into a dingy 20 miles out to sea). Meanwhile, Samantha poses as a journalist to interview art collector Stockwell (Jordan Rosengarten), her next victim. When Stockwell’s butler describes her as a blond woman with horn-rimmed glasses, Domingo happens upon her at a party and arranges for a sketch artist disguised as a street artist to do a sketch of Samantha; she, however, is on to Domingo and they engage in a game of cat-and-mouse (with lots of heavy petting). All of Domingo’s evidence is circumstantial (he knows she posed as the journalist on the first visit to Stockwell, but he has no way of proving that the homely Filipino replacement maid that was working the night of Stockwell’s death was also her, but we know…), and Samantha is sure enough of her abilities to take Domingo into her bed and play amused sounding board to his theories. She’s also conveniently away on a business trip when beauty guru Madame Ruanda (Corinne Calvet, DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE) – who uses her island resort for white slavery dealings – is dispatched using her own youth rejuvenating treatments involving electrical currents. Since Stockwell was Manilla’s biggest smuggler and Ruanda headed its white slavery trade, Domingo surmises that the rumored syndicate that is trying to move into Manilla has hired Samantha to take out the competition. With them out of the way, that leaves the drug trade split between enemies Rossimo (Butz Aquino, THE LAST REUNION) and Calderon (Subas Herrero, ENTER THE NINJA). Loathe as he is to protect them, Domingo warns both of them and puts several of his men on surveillance; but which one will Samantha hit first (and how)?

TOO HOT TO HANDLE may be the most entertaining film on the set. A departure from New World’s other Cirio H. Santiago-produced and/or directed Filipino productions, the film was obviously green-lighted to cash in on the GINGER trilogy featuring Cheri Caffaro and director Don Schain (whose shocking recent credits have been as producer of Disney’s nauseating HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL films, yikes!). Schain keeps things moving at a brisk pace set to Hugo Montenegro’s breezy score, which includes the theme song “Lady Samantha” sung by Julie McFadden and penned by Montenegro’s son John. Caffaro looks striking throughout (having designed her own wardrobe) – and there are a lot of eye-punishing fashions on display in this one – and gives a knowing performance that only really spills over into camp when she is conveying Samantha’s intense arousal while watching a cockfight. She also hits the emotional notes when she’s required to show vulnerability in the film’s “I’m not as icy as I seem” après-sex smoking scene. Ipale’s Domingo de la Torres makes a good adversary for Samantha, and the two actors genuinely seem to enjoy each others’ company. Diaz is given a less sleazy role this time around and gets a hell of an exit (Diaz also served as production coordinator). Of Samantha’s victims, Van Dreelan as MacKenzie is the only actor who gets to make an impression, bearing most for his art; the death scenes having been toned down from the GINGER series (although there’s still plenty of sex and nudity to satisfy).

Caffaro, who first came to notice as the winner of a Bridget Bardot-lookalike contest in LIFE magazine, had previously been to the Philippines for Eddie Romero’s SAVAGE SISTERS. Besides this and the GINGER films, she also worked with director Schain in his racial drama A PLACE CALLED TODAY/CITY IN FEAR. Other than a couple TV appearances, a lot of her subsequent film work has been behind the scenes (including an associate producer and writing credit on college girl exploitation film H.O.T.S.). Following a part in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Israeli actor Ipale's career went straight to television with guest roles in POLICE WOMAN, HAWAII FIVE-O, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, KOJAK, THE LOVE BOAT and DYNASTY among others. His film roles included more than a bit of trash from THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES HOLLYWOOD to XANADU and ISHTAR. Some of his later credits included small roles in bigger budget films like THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY RETURNS, and CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, as well as a recurring role on ALIAS. Although Dutch actor Van Dreelen is best known for Alfred Hitchcock’s TOPAZ, his career included a lot of foreign generals, politicians, spies, and the like in TV shows throughout the 1950s and 1960s from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., and 77 SUNSET STRIP, as well as films like VON RYAN’S EXPRESS and I DEAL IN DANGER. In her native France, Calvet was a big star early on in her career. Stateside, her work comprised quite a few TV guest roles in which she played foreign spies and exotic beauties. One of her last roles was Albert Pyun’s THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER. Rosengarten’s only other appearance was in Santiago’s COVER GIRL MODELS (mentioned above). Aquino had previously appeared in EBONY, IVORY, AND JADE and THE DEATHHEAD VIRGIN, while Herrero had roles in THE BIG BIRD CAGE, BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA, BLACK KUNG-FU, SAVAGE SISTERS (with Caffaro) and later ENTER THE NINJA. Also carried over from the GINGER films was producer Ralph T. Desiderio, who also produced A PLACE FOR TODAY, as well as the meteor monster movie TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST. Screenwriters Don Buday and J. Michael Sherman followed up TOO HOT TO HANDLE with one other collaboration: the TV movie KISS MEETS THE PHANOM OF THE PARK (based on the Marvel Comics series which made the band superheroes on the side). Interestingly, assistant editor Andrea Scharf had previously worked on Bill Rabane’s THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION while Caffaro would end up as associate producer on his later film THE DEMONS OF LUDLOW). Cinematographer Fredy Conde also lensed Jack Hill’s THE BIG DOLL HOUSE.

Disc Two of the LETHAL LADIES COLLECTION is single-layer and features a progressive, 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that appears to be the best-looking of the collection. Only a handful of optical shots (the credits, the two- and four-way split-screens, and some matted-in television screen shots) look coarser, and there are some rare scratches. The mono audio is in fine condition. Included here is an audio commentary for TOO HOT TO HANDLE with actress Cheri Caffaro, moderated by AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE director Elijah Drenner. She discusses the GINGER films – relevant since they share the same director with this film, and the current DVDs of those films are barebones – and the differences between Samantha Fox and Ginger McAllister. Drenner keeps Caffaro entertained throughout by noting his five favorite Caffaro costumes that she wears in this film and why (“I’m Catholic,” he answers when she asks him why he likes her dominatrix outfit early on). Caffaro is lively and humorous throughout (when asked about permits for shooting the car chase, she replies “When you’re going to blow something up, you probably should tell somebody about it”), and Drenner prompts her for discussion of some of her lesser-known work as well as her current interests. The trailers on Disc Two are the same ones featured on the first disc, suggesting that these two discs were either intended as separate releases or they might show up as such in the future. A still gallery (with lots of cheesecake shots of Caffaro) is also included. (Eric Cotenas)