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Plot: vacationers face mercenaries, zombies, and cannibalistic monks.

The eighties was the last great hurrah for classic Filipino exploitation. As the 90s dawned Hollywood reinforced its grip on the international market with big budget, special effects-driven event movies that no little independent could ever begin to compete with. The decline of grindhouse theaters as well as the ever-expanding home video market cut directly into profit margins that were already razor-thin to begin with at this point. South America and Asia had served American producers and distributors well, but the eighties would signal the end of that too. In those waning days of dwindling budgets and shrinking international distribution elder institutions like Cirio H. Santiago, and Bobby A. Suarez managed to churn out their last classics. Santiago even was strong enough to survive the nineties. There was no doubt about it, though, the Pinoy exploitation industry, once so indefatigable and resilient, was starting to run on fumes. Like any good fighter it wouldn’t go out on a wimper. Raw Force was one of those sub-classics that kept the Philippines afloat in those dark sullen days.

The men behind Raw Force were Lawrence H. Woolner and Edward D. Murphy. Murphy was a professional boxer and bit part actor, and no stranger to the Philippines. As an actor he had gained valuable on-set experience working on Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968) from director duo Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero and as a producer Woolner was involved with the Antonio Margheriti giallo Naked You Die (1968). Half a decade later he would act as a presenter on Beyond Atlantis (1973). By the eighties he and his brother Bernard had firmly established Dimension Pictures. Under that banner he had produced several Stephanie Rothman features and now the company was looking for a rookie to write/direct a script based on an idea Larry had been kicking around. This project would combine two then-hot commodities that did good business at the grindhouses: martial arts and zombies. It’s almost as if Woolner saw Tsui Hark’s We’re Going to Eat You (1980) and couldn’t wait to do a Filipino-American action/martial arts take on it. There are enough similarities to warrant the comparison and to be mere coincidence. The cast Woolner was able to attract was the stuff cult cinema dreams are made of. To make it even better: Raw Force is just non-stop delicious gory fun.

The members of the Burbank Karate Club - Mike O’Malley (Geoffrey Binney, as Geoff Binney), John Taylor (John Dresden) and Gary Schwartz (John Locke) – have reserved a place on the cruise of foul-mouthed gun-fetishist Harry Dodds (Cameron Mitchell) and his often booze-addled business partner Hazel Buck (Hope Holiday) for their vacation. Also on the boat are vacationing platinum blonde LAPD SWAT member Cookie Winchell (Jillian Kesner, as Jillian Kessner) and her fellow blonde cousin Eileen (Carla Reynolds). Dodds is in the habit of making confused mildly-racist remarks to his Filipino first mate about opening a Chinese restaurant while soft spoken martial arts expert Go Chin (Rey Malonzo, as Rey King) slaves away in the kitchen. Before setting course for the South China Sea Dodds first embarks on a tour of the nearby ports where the occupants are free to engage in heavy partying. It’s here that Cookie, Eileen, John, and Gary go watch a martial arts competition while others go boozing at the Lighthouse Bar. Mike and Lloyd Davis (Carl Anthony) visit the local brothel (or “cathouse” as they call it here) The Castle Of 1001 Pleasures where madam Mayloo (Chanda Romero) overhears that they’re tourists and hands them a leaflet about Warrior Island.

At the Lighthouse Bar thick German-accented, twitchy-eyed, middle-aged accountant Thomas Speer (Ralph Lombardi) (who sports the fashion-conscious combo of horn rimmed glasses, a white suit, and a Hitler mustache) is engaged in matters pertaining his jade import business when he overhears the American tourists. Seeing an opportunity Speer decides that no matter what the cost the Americans must end up on Warrior Island (an island bypassed by the Japanese during World War II as it, according to local folklore and superstition, was the place where disgraced martial artists commited suicide) as he has understanding with the head monk (Vic Diaz) to provide warm bodies for his sexslave trading – and transport for his drug trafficking ring. When Speer’s merry goons try to kidnap Captain Dodds at the bar the incident inevitably ends up inciting an all-out brawl.

Speer’s goons are thwarted in their attempt forcing the German to wait it out. Upon nightfall he and his goons assault the ship in numbers leading to massive casualties and the vessel’s fiery destruction. The Americans manage to escape but are forced to make landfall on Warrior Island (whether it’s close to Savage Beach or Taboo Island is, sadly, never made clear). When Mike recognizes one of the slave girls as Mayloo, the proprietress of a brothel he and Lloyd visited on the mainland, it threatens to expose the monks’ true motives. As the situation deteriorates the strangers must learn to work together if they are to keep out of the the clutches of the ruthless mercenaries, the jaws of the sword-wielding undead, and the maws of the cannibalistic monks at the source of all the horror on the island.

And who exactly is in the cast, you wonder? Pulp mainstay Cameron Mitchell, famous around these parts for his roles in Blood and Black Lace (1966), The Toolbox Murders (1978), Supersonic Man (1979), and Blood Link (1982). Jillian Kesner from Evil Town (1977), Starhops (1978), and Naked Fist (1981). Carla Reynolds from Night Games (1980), Bits and Pieces (1985), and Maniac Cop (1988) and Don Gordon Bell from Cleopatra Wong (1978), Naked Fist (1981), Stryker (1983), Wheels of Fire (1985), Naked Vengeance (1985), Silk (1986), and Red Roses, Call for a Girl (1988). Joe Pagliuso from Revenge of the Ninja (1983), and Jerry Bailey from American Ninja (1985). Then there are television actors Geoffrey Binney, Hope Holiday (Mitchell's then-girlfriend), John Dresden, Jennifer Holmes, and Robert MacKenzie as well as Filipino exploitation veterans Rey Malonzo, Chanda Romero, and Vic Diaz whose combined filmographies are too extensive to detail. If all of that wasn’t enough there are brief cameos from Carl Anthony from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), and The Sinister Urge (1960); Hong Kong martial arts pillar Maggie Li Lin-Lin (李琳琳), Jewel Shepard from H.B. Halicki’s The Junkman (1982), and Return Of the Living Dead (1985); Camille Keaton from Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978), and Mike Cohen from the Weng Weng spy caper For Your Height Only (1981). Where else are you going to see a cult ensemble like this?

The good part? Raw Force is just as crazy as it sounds, and it’s never apologetic about it. During the Lighthouse Bar brawl one particularly dedicated exotic dancer continues her routine dutifully, in what was either left in intentionally or a case of very sloppy editing, seemingly unfazed by the property destruction happening around her. The boat scenes is made campy by the fact that the water around it is completely still. Evidently all the scenes, both on-deck and off, were filmed stationary. During the onboard party director Murphy spends inordinate amount of time pointing his camera at the various female cast members in advanced stages of undress. In true exploitation fashion each cast member develops a sudden aversion towards fabric and the camera takes a leering look at the heaving bosoms and bottoms of various nubile bit part actresses and no-name extras. The party segment not only will have you counting familar faces, there’s enough female nudity to satiate anyone’s craving. On top of all that, there’s a truly wonderful amount of gags, both visual and otherwise, that can be spotted during this section. Once the group makes landfall on Warrior Island Raw Force pulls out all stops as Murphy rips through action movie clichés as martial artists, cannibalistic monks, and explosions all happen in quick succession. That the piranha attack scene was borrowed liberally from Piranha (1978) makes it even better.

Boasting a star-studded cast of American hopefuls and Filipino veterans as well as a wide array of cult cameos Raw Force is almost guaranteed to have you in stitches. The action direction and fight choreography was handled by Mike Stone with exception of the Lighthouse Bar brawl that Murphy choreographed himself. The only thing Murphy would direct after Raw Force would be Heated Vengeance (1985). Meanwhile he continued acting in bit parts in, among others, the comedy 3 Men and a Baby (1987), the crime epic Goodfellas (1990), and the thriller Doppelganger (1993). His claim to fame is playing thirteen different guest roles in as much episodes on Law & Order (1991-2000). Producer and director of photography Frank E. Johnson would go on to do second unit cinematography on Predator (1987). Allegedly the original cut ran about 105 minutes but to get most out of their investment Raw Force was trimmed down to a more grindhouse- and audience-friendly 86 minutes. When, and if, there’s ever going to be a fully restored director’s cut is anyone’s guess. A sequel, purported to have starred Jonathan Winters as the ex-husband of Hope Holiday's character and Mitchell reprising his role as Captain Dodds, was planned (hence the “to be continued” in the credits) but as fate would have it, Woolner tragically passed away some three years later in 1985. Understandably, the promised sequel never materialized. Some things just are better without any sequels. Raw Force is one of those things.

Plot: hospital is haunted by apparitions and suspect slayings.

Ghosts are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and folklore. They were part of oral tradition before writing developed during the Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 BCE). From there out they came one of the earliest stories in ancient Chinese literature and they are very much part of everyday life in China to this day. The Chinese pantheon of ghosts and apparitions is especially interesting as it mixes ancient concepts of the cycle of life, death and rebirth with philosophical traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. In Chinese folklore there a multitude of different ghosts; some benevolent, some malevolent and the majority of them happen to be female. Roughly speaking there are three categories of female ghosts: the vengeful, the orphaned, and the hungry. The vengeful ghost seek retribution against those that wronged her in life, the orphaned ghost has no living descendants to offer libations in her name and thus she is forced to wander the mortal realm, while the hungry ghost is typically condemned for transgressions or wrongdoings engaged in during life. Just as in folklore and culture ghosts have been part of the Chinese cinematic landscape since the dawn of filmmaking. Asia has a long history in having some of the best ghost movies.

Whether it are classical examples like The Enchanted Shadow (1960), and The Ghost Of the Mirror (1974), post-modern fantasy-infused efforts like A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Green Snake (1993), or more contemporary outings as Ringu (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), Dark Water (2002), and The Eye (2002) Asia has a long history with ghost horror and has contributed many a classic to the subgenre. While hardly the worst of its kind Lift to Hell (電梯驚魂) occasionally manages to push the right buttons but isn’t exactly what you’d call riveting. It was based on the internet novel 18 Floors Underground (地下18層) by Bu Zhoushan Sanren and while we can’t vouch for how faithful it’s to the source material, it’s able to scrounge up an atmospheric scene here and there. Most of the time however Lift to Hell is, sadly, emblemic of Mainland China ghost horror at large in so many ways. It remains ever popular with young filmmakers due to how easy they are to make (consider them the Sino equivalent of found footage, slashers, or paranormal horrors) in general and the subgenre shows no signs of… well, giving up the ghost, you could say. Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia do this type horror far better, for all the obvious and not so obvious reasons.

In the old Peninsula Hospital in northern China head nurse Ma (Yang Qing) dies under mysterious circumstances one night after failing to take her medication. In her dying moments she remembers the 18th floor incident and the walls adorned with the words “today, it’s your turn!” written in blood. That same night Dr. Lin Fei (Blue Lan Cheng-Lung), son of hospital dean Dr. Lin Siyuan (Su De), sees what he believes to be a female ghost through the telescope from his flat in the opposite building when watching his girlfriend nurse Bai Jie (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na). Lin Fei is not liked by everybody, the nurses like him well enough, but for senior heart surgeon Dr. Zhang Tiankai (Robert Lin) his youthful idealism are a grave annoyance. One day Tiankai is accused by a journalist of the Medical Daily of plagiarising a German medical dissertation for one of his recent publications. He assumes that since they had their professional differences that Lin Fei must be behind it. When the elderly doctor too receives a “today, it’s your turn!” note in his email, he commits suicide by jumping out of the window.

All of this prompts the hospital’s geriatric custodian Hu Wei (Cai Hong-Xiang) to try and exorcise the ghost. When Lin Fei tries to consult the custodian he finds him not only unreponsive but he too commits suicide driven mad by terror. The spate of mysterious deaths stoke the rumors of the hospital being haunted among nurses and staff. The mysterious deaths compel Lin Fei to dig deep into the case history of the hospital. Since Lin Fei was the last to see old man Hu alive the good doctor is, understandably, among the suspects. This forces Bai Jie to end their relationship to safeguard her own reputation and future employment. As Lin Fei plunges deeper into his investigation Bai Jei starts dating Lin Fei’s senior Dr. Ouyang Ke (Tse Kwan-Ho). As Lin Fei follows the clues he discovers a medical malpractice case the hospital went to extremes to cover up. Will he live long enough to exonerate himself off any alleged wrongdoing, uncover the sordid truth behind Dr. Ouyang Ke, the mysterious death of Ouyang’s mother Dr. Ye Zi (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) on the 18th floor, and the alleged ghost that now seems to haunt everybody involved with the case?

Since this was a production from the Film Bureau it guarantees two things: first, there will be nothing that could be in any way construed as offensive to Chinese cultural sensibilities and/or to the state-sanctioned Chinese national identity. Second, the Film Bureau is in the habit of contracting a lot of models in their productions. In this case the prerequisite model is Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). Chau, the once-and-future Sino queen of cleavage, didn’t become a superstar overnight. She was a veritable internet phenomenom in and around 2009. In that capacity she was invited to the Knowledge Unlimited seminar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology that year where she was unable to answer a number of philosophical and existential questions. A year later veteran actor Anthony Wong singled her out for criticism and ridicule as a pseudo-model (models without formal training and who don’t meet the criteria for catwalk models, what the Chinese refer to as lang mo) calling them “bimbos”. Second, after slaving away in thankless decorative and flower vase roles of no real weight or importance in romances, ghost horrors, and comedies for almost a decade Beach Spike (2011) was sweet Chrissie’s first genuine hit and signaled that her career was on the uptick. 2013 was a busy year for her. In just twelve months Chau was in a whopping 11 (!!) movies including, but not limited to, Kick Ass Girls (2013), Cold Pupil (2013), and The Extreme Fox (2013). Of course, since sweet Chrissie cuts a dashing 32D figure you can bet that she’ll be changing clothes and taking a shower. This being Mainland China everything always stays within the realms of respectability.

Even in such a target-rich environment as the Mainland China ghost horror scene Lift to Hell is an abomination. Mired with a mess of a screenplay as well as cinematography and special effects that range from decent to amateuristic Lift to Hell is hardly a vital contribution to the subgenre. How many completely telegraphed (not to mention, obvious) jump-scares and creepy shots of darkened interiors can you throw at the viewer before boredom inevitably sets in? This is about as close to furniture - or interior design porn as you’re likely to get. There are endless meandering semi-creepy digital effects shots of elevator that you’d swear this is a Sino take on The Lift (1983) (which it isn’t, although it tries very hard to). How many shots of sweet Chrissie looking misty-eyed or constipated does the world really need? Cold Pupil (2013) had the good grace to make Chau an active participant in the plot. In what little Lift to Hell distinguishes itself from any other Mainland China ghost horror is that sweet Chrissie is given the opportunity to play multiple roles. Not that that in itself in any way an innovation, it’s an age-old continental European gothic horror convention dating back at least to the mid-sixties. The only really interesting thing that the screenplay has on offer is the explanation for its ghost. Not that that is much of a compliment as this is what Mainland China ghost horror is rightly infamous for. The law forbids it. There are no, and will not be any, ghosts, ever, in a Mainland China ghost horror. There are some mild allusions to the Diyu (地獄, or "earth prison”) of Chinese folk religion (that blends concepts of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism) but nothing is ever done with it.

Once every blue moon Lift to Hell generates a pulse and when it does so it’s able to conjure up a decent spooky image or good sound design. However rare said occurances might be it’s faint praise for a production abiding by pretty much all of the tried-and-true conventions. Lift to Hell is so rife with clichés and contrivances that it’s more fun to predict what’s going to happen next than it’s interested in scaring the viewer. On the whole it’s closer to We Are Not Alone (2016) in that it’s a good enough little genre exercise but nothing particularly compelling or even all that well written. It’s not nearly as subtextually rich as Verónica (2017) or P (2005). Chrissie Chau Sau-Na is easy enough on the eyes but at this point Blue Lan Cheng-Lung was a bigger star than she was. This means Chau’s relegated to the default position of love interest and Lift to Hell gives her practically nothing to work with. Not that sweet Chrissie is able to lift elevate Lift to Hell beyond the trite and mediocre. Don’t go in expecting a contemplative, introspective slowburn as Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku: The Sinners of Hell (地獄) (1960) neither hope for a grotesque bloodfeast with Mario Bava-esque lightning and set design in the way of Teruo Ishii's Jigoku: Japanese Hell (地獄) (1999). China, or Hong Kong, has spawned far better crafted ghost movies than Lift to Hell. This is not it.