Heads or Ponytails


Less a “restored classic” (per press notes) than a playful, scruffy alternative to the fastidiously orchestrated spectacles currently on offer, 1974’s Master of the Flying Guillotine (Cinema Village, opens May 31) snags the viewer’s attention by lacing its martial-arts high jinks with a compelling weirdness. And while the movie’s an obvious relic of chop-socky cinema’s heyday, its extravagant bloodshed and super-powered characters are clear precursors of the sanguinary dustups fetishized in more recent arcade and anime hits.

All’s well that ends gruesomely in this punch-drunk jaunt through medieval China, where political intrigue takes a backseat to the jubilant slaughter it enables. The plot, such as it is: Titular villain, suddenly short two acolytes, seeks revolutionary goodie-goodie responsible for their demise so as to enact vengeance. The twist: Said miscreant is a blind old codger who’s untroubled by multiple hatchets to the chest, and who deals lethal whup-ass from the business end of a bizarre fez-meets-sawtooth contraption known as the flying guillotine. (Nota bene: Never anger a man who ventures forth from his own home by setting it ablaze after leaping through the ceiling.) Aforementioned hero the One-Armed Boxer (writer-director-star Jimmy Wang Yu), meanwhile, dispenses his own brand of deadly kung fu gimpery while scampering about on walls and ceilings. Less is hardly more for Yu, and so, en route to his final madcap encounter with ol’ Mister Guillotine, we’re treated to a tournament wherein many a noble warrior dies a bloody, bloody death. Highlights include strangulation by ponytail, yoga-induced arm extension, and the visceral thrills (and, eventually, spills) unique to a brawl above sword blades. Low points include most of the dialogue, but Yu’s broken-bones scripting insures that any pause for blather is immediately followed by outlandish carnage. Historical setting be damned, it’s all punctuated by the clunkiest soundtrack Throbbing Gristle never recorded, though the hapless funk of the title theme might be better than anything they ever did.

Ultimately, Master‘s charm rests on its ardent exhibition of such low-rent components. Far from digitally rendered hoopla, the refurbished film still looks like it was processed in a public rest room. Flickering through the murk, though, is enough spastic imagination and lovingly choreographed mayhem to fuel a heap of poverty-row photoplays—or summertime blockbusters.

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