TOO HOT TO HANDLE
Color, 1974, 68m.
Directed by Cirio H. Santiago
Starring Jeannie Bell, Chiquito, Stan Shaw, Max Alvarado, Pat Anderson, Ken Metcalfe
Color, 1981, 77m.
Directed by Cirio H. Santiago
Starring Jillian Kesner, Darby Hinton, Rey Malonzo, Don Gordon Bell, Vic Diaz
Color, 1977, 85m.
Directed by Don Schain
Starring Cheri Caffaro, Aharon Ipale, Vic Diaz, Corinne Calvet
Shout Factory (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
TOO HOT TO HANDLE
First up is the earliest and most commonly available title of the set, thanks to a slew of cruddy public domain editions of the years culled from colorless, battered reissue prints: TNT Jackson, presented here for the first time on home video in an immaculate widescreen transfer. This one's mainly notable now as a T&A vehicle for sitcom actress Jeannie Bell, here sporting a wild afro as Diana "TNT" Jackson, karate expert extraordinaire on a quest for vengeance against the drug runners who killed her brother. Her search takes her through the underbelly of the Hong Kong underworld (though mostly shot in Manila) where she becomes romantically involved with the shady Charlie (The Monster Squad's Stan Shaw), his nasty boss Sid (co-writer Ken Metcalfe, who penned this with Corman regular Dick Miller!), and a martial arts master (Chiquito) with a few tricks of his own.
Fast, trashy, and fun, this film is the epitome of cheap '70s drive-in thrills including a topless kung fu fight scene in a hotel room and a ridiculously gory fate for the main villain in the closing seconds of the film. Seeing this film in prime condition helps tremendously as the copious travelogue footage now seems much more colorful and lively than before, while the blood also flows much redder during the numerous fight scenes. Sure, it's mostly incompetent on the usual cinematic levels (for instance, it's now easier than ever to spot Bell's distinctly male stunt double), but it's still pretty good for prolific Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago, who went on to films like Dune Warriors, Styker and Equalizer 2000.
However, Santiago and writer Metcalfe also teamed up seven years later for a virtual remake of this film, except with a shapely blonde martial arts master starring instead. Firecracker (also known as Naked Fist) stars another sitcom actress, Co-Ed Fever's Jillian Kesner (the late Mrs. Gary Graver!), as Susanne Carter, a martial arts expert in the Philippines looking for her vanished sister only to tangle with the criminal underworld, who... well, sound familiar? One new wrinkle this time is introduced right in the opening scene as we witness a covert den where martial artists are pitted against each other to the death, with American badass Chuck Donnor (Malibu Express' Darby Hinton) dispatching his opponent with a spear to the chest in midair. Of course, it's only a matter of time before Susanne and Chuck get nasty in the sack (a kinky scene in which they slice each others' clothes off with a knife and straight razor), but that's nothing compared to this film's amped-up reprise of TNT Jackson's topless fight scene with Kesner losing her bra to a scythe and continuing to take on a horde of baddies. This one also outdoes the prior film's grisly payback for the top villain and throws in even more action scenes (at least one about every ten minutes or so); however, for real movie hounds, the real head-spinning element here is the inclusion of virtually the entire American music score for Shogun Assassin!
Truly amazing stuff, this one has been nearly impossible to find on video for decades; if more people saw this one, it would easily become a huge cult classic. (It didn't get billed in the trailers as "the first erotic kung fu classic" for nothing!) Incidentally, Kesner followed this up the next year with the equally insane Raw Force, a nudie/zombie/ghost/kung fu mindblower that would make an even better co-feature. As expected, the transfer here is excellent and does the best possible job with the variable original film (which looks colorful and sharp throughout except during some obvious stock footage travel shots). Both films are contained on the first disc along with some bonus trailers for an array of Corman titles from Shout Factory (Jackson County Jail, The Hot Box, The Big Bird Cage) as well as a TV spot for Firecracker. If you want to see the much raunchier and truly unforgettable European trailer, be sure to check out the Dutch Night of Bad Taste compilation.
Disc two is devoted entirely to Too Hot to Handle, a vehicle for the most familiar female name in this set, Cheri Caffaro. Best known for starring in the "Ginger" trilogy of roughie spy films (Ginger, The Abductors, Girls Are for Loving), she had her best run acting in films directed by her husband at the time, Don Schain, with whom this proved to be her final collaboration. It's basically another twist on the Ginger formula with Caffaro as an international assassin named Samantha Fox (yes, really), whose first kill is an outrageously depraved S&M sequence involving a plastic bag, peekaboo underwear, and a crucifix. You also get to see her in pigtails as a tourist, in brownface as a Filipino maid(!), and often in nothing at all. In between jobs she has a steamy affair with the furry police chief, Domingo (The Final Option's Aharon Ipale), but if you've seen the other two films, you won't be surprised by the direction that takes in the explosive climax. Rampant split screen abuse (sometimes up to four at a time), a surprising funk score by lounge legend Hugo Montenegro, and a nasty bit of real-life cockfighting (used for the freakiest intercutting this side of Poor Pretty Eddie) make this a bizarre and wildly entertaining timewaster that wraps up the Caffaro '70s legacy in high style.
Unlike the other two films, this one gets an audio commentary with Chaffaro and American Grindhouse director Elijah Drenner with topics including the intense heat of shooting in the Philippines, the female audience appeal of her films, the start of her career, and a plug for her website, of course. It's good fun, and as always, actresses from this era have lots of great stories to tell. The disc is rounded out for some reason with the same trailers, but hey, they're all worth watching twice.