by Joshua Moss
"Mighty Peking Man," the latest release from Rolling Thunder, hit the midnight movie circuit last week, reaching excited viewers in 13 markets. The specialty division created by Quentin Tarantino to help the fun, bad movies of yesteryear return again, Rolling Thunder has helped revive the moribund midnight movie genre. "I don't want to release new films so much as older exploitation movies and give them a new life," Tarantino wrote in an LA Weekly article last summer. "This is the personality I want the company to have. We're here to bring back the glory of '70s chopsocky movies, Italian crime films, blaxploitation -- we'll get a spaghetti Western in there eventually."
Following up on previous successes like "Switchblade Sisters" and "The Beyond," Rolling Thunder hopes to once again offer up a wild late night date-movie alternative. As to the film itself, "Mighty Peking Man" aims to please on no uncertain terms, featuring a giant Ape, lots of destruction and a half-naked blond model. Sound like another film? You'd be right. "Mighty Peking Man" (released in the U.S. in a shorter version as "Goliathon") was originally created to cash in on Dino DiLaurentis' "King Kong" remake and was shot on the cheap in 1977 by Hong Kong exploitation producers, the Shaw brothers. Starring future John Woo superstar Danny Lee ("The Killer") and then 20-year-old Swiss beauty Evelyne Craft, "Mighty Peking Man" is an almost psychedelic merging of a variety of film styles -- there's bad rear screen projection, stock footage of natural disasters, funky miniature Godzilla action (cardboard houses never had it so bad) -- all wrapped around a cheesy love story and a requisite statement about how nature should be left alone. Like Mr. Kong, the Mighty Peking Man is really just misunderstood. But society destroys him, natch. When will society learn? Offering a real life Mystery Science Theater, the idea isn't so much to laugh at the film but find the joy inherent in the melodramatic emotions and goofy fun that modern movies seem to have lost. "Mighty Peking Man" may be a muddled mess, but who cares when you got a giant monkey running around with a hot Swiss model.
Cowboy Booking International, the mini-distribution outfit founded in 1995, is working with Rolling Thunder on the limited release exhibition schedule of the film, with 3 more markets opening this Friday (Toronto, Chicago and Berkeley, CA). Cowboy's unusual marketing tactics continue to make heads turn. When they helped release Lucio Fulci's "The Beyond," a campy gross-out 70's flick, bloodshot eyeballs were sent out to everyone in the industry. For "Mighty," fortune cookies are the item of promotional choice, with such "MPM"-themed messages inside as "wearing skimpies makes you feel mighty" or "beware of zombies and apes that come out at midnight." And a few lucky ones will find a coveted golden ticket inside, which offers a gift package including a souvenir scrapbook, along with a full-color centerfold of Ms. Kraft.
And a couple of weeks ago, you could've even spotted the still voluptuous Ms. Kraft in the flesh; Cowboy brought her over from Switzerland, twenty years after her brief but memorable film career, for a dazed round of publicity. At a dinner in her honor at the somehow appropriately chosen New York drag-queen restaurant Lucky Cheng's, Ms. Kraft seemed stunned that anyone still cared about the film, but was polite and excited at all the new attention she was receiving. After acting in a variety of other European films, including the German Superbug trilogy (a Herbie Love Bug rip-off), Ms. Kraft got married and became a successful businesswoman, as the president of a major construction company, with interests particularly in Nigeria.
Even with the now 40-something Mrs. Craft's sudden renewed fame and a boat load of fortune cookies, "Mighty Peking Man" is still a harder film to market than, for example, "The Beyond" with its already built-in Italian horror fan-base, says Cowboy Vice-President John Vanco. Opening weekend grosses for "Peking Man" did not show the same enthusiastic response that "The Beyond" got, a virtual sell-out at many of its venues. According to Cowan, they were "fairly happy" with receipts in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, but "disappointed" with the box-office in the remaining markets.
"It may be that midnight movies do much better if you open them up in the middle of the summer," says Vanco. Or it may have been simply a poor weekend; the distributor was betting on big crowds for Cronenberg's "eXistenZ," which also had midnight shows, but according to Vanco, they didn't do so well either. Still, "'Mighty Peking Man' is not as well known," says Vanco. "We have to do a lot more work to let people know about this film. But we're optimistic." If there is one sign in Cowboy's favor, it's that critics have praised the "Mighty Peking Man" re-release. Last Sunday night on "Siskel & Ebert," Roger Ebert and guest critic Harry Knowles (from aint-it-cool-news.com) gave the film two thumbs up with Ebert offering just the right quote-grabbing words to reinvigorate midnight movie madness: "genius, crazy, demented-weirdness."
[Joshua Moss is a screenwriter and filmmaker living in New York.]