If you’ve witnessed ninja stars spat into a mans face, a bear thrown into outer-space, or a scene of a man cutting a pizza juxtaposed with a scene of an abortion, then chances are you were watching a Cannon film. Such is the unadulterated absurdity that fills the expansive library produced by the prolific ’80s movie production house. Back then, movie theatres flourished with throngs of cinephiles eager to throw their cash at the next big screen thrill, and Cannon dished the films right back. After churning out cinematic diarrhea like the endless line of Deathwish sequels, birthing the film career of Chuck Norris with Missing in Action, and giving the world the most misguided take on creation of all time in the musical The Apple, Cannon quickly garnered a reputation for all things tasteless.
Australian fringe cinema documentarian Mark Hartley (Not Quite Hollywood, Machete Maidens Unleashed) has detailed the chaotic rise and inevitable collapse of the budget film mavens in his latest project Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films.
Run by two Israeli cousins, the eccentric and demanding Menahem Golan, and business savvy Yoram Globus, Cannon’s aggressive onslaught of movie detritus overwhelmed Hollywood during its zenith, as the studio became a go-to for pumping out low budget entertainment with high box office returns. Frequently starring gore, tits, or a fantastic combination of both, these are the films that give credit to the adage ‘so bad it’s good,’ But beyond the catalogue of movie misfires that any indie video store clerk would scoff at you for not having seen, it’s the absurd tales of the cousins unconventional practices, including selling posters of yet unmade films to finance the productions, that make this portrait of Hollywood outsiders so immensely enjoyable. Through hilariously curated clips, interviews with the actors, editors, and directors who lived through Cannon’s reign, Hartley offers a inanely fun trip through a period of guerrilla filmmaking when if you could think it, you could shoot it. Taking a break from touring his film on the festival circuit, I chatted with Hartley about his admiration for Cannon and the legacy they left behind.
When were you first introduced to Cannon’s work?
I was first introduced by seeing Lifeforce in the cinemas when I was a kid. I have to say I don’t think I’ve yet fully recovered from the experience. It was the most mind blowing, crazy thing that I had ever seen. Just the fact that it was a gigantic vampire, zombie space movie film that had so much money thrown at the screen and so many great actors playing it totally straight, it was just an amazing experience.
When did you first realize that Cannon had this incredible backstory?
It was always kind of on the radar, but I think it was when I read director Michael Winner’s autobiography Winner Takes All, he had great stories about working with Cannon on a number of films and that’s when I thought this could make a great documentary. Most of the time when I make these documentaries, I do it as an excuse to meet my film heroes, and Winner was certainly one of those so if I could do one on Cannon then I could chat with Michael Winner, and that was the inspiration for it.
What keeps you fascinated with B movies and the outskirts of cinema?
Well Machete Maidens was inspired by my love of Roger Corman’s proteges, like growing up with the films of Joe Dante, which made me want to meet them and that was my excuse to meet them. So it’s more commercial films that drew me to make movies about more subterranean movies. People may have a picture of me just sitting at home with a pile of exploitation VHS’ feeding into a machine but that’s not always the case.
As a filmmaker what did you take away from the story of Cannon?
One thing that I always feel is that I wish I’d been making films thirty years earlier. It seemed like there was so many great opportunities to get features made and keep making them. There were filmmakers that went and knocked on Roger Corman’s door, that knocked on Cannon’s door, filmmakers in Australia that made these films when they were so young that by the time they were thirty they’d made six or seven films. I certainly never got those opportunities, so you just realize that maybe through all the horror stories they were the best of times.
How do you feel about the way filmmaking and cinema audiences have changed since then?
I think the interesting thing is that these guys really tried to have their finger on the pulse of what audiences wanted. Well not so much what the audience wanted, but they had their finger on the pulse of what they thought the buyers wanted. So films that Cannon made would only get triggered once there were people in foreign territories that said ‘yes we want that film’. In a way they were fool proof because they could predict what audiences wanted to see, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Now people are been conditioned to like films and it’s the other way around where the films aren’t been made for us. When you look at the amount of different films Cannon made, their slate was so diverse, they’d be making art house films, ninja films, breakdance films, and these are all been made by the same pool of directors. Certainly we don’t get that breath of different genres been made these days either.
Did the changing nature of how people were watching movies with the increased accessibility of VHS affect the demise of Cannon?
I don’t think so. Most of the Cannon films were made for theatrical screenings, so video didn’t have a large play within Cannon history. Basically they stepped away from their business model that worked, which was to make low budget films under 5 million, boost them into profit, and clean up with them all over the world. But they wanted to take on the studios which they didn’t have the proper sensibility to know that they needed to put all their money on screen if they wanted to compete and get to that next level. They were their own worst enemies in the fact that they short changed their productions.
Looking back at these films you can actually enjoy them because of how poorly they’re done, and it’s birthed this retro genre of enjoyably bad movies. So what do you think makes a good bad film?
I think a good bad movie is one that never set out to be a bad movie. It’s a combination of people working their hardest to make a good film but having absolutely no idea how.
When you’tr making a film about exploitation movies, how did you prevent it from becoming exploitative itself?
Ultimately I knew that I wanted the film to be fair. I knew that as a filmmaker who never had any connection with Cannon that this wasn’t my story, it was their story. Everyone interviewed is someone who was there in the Cannon trenches. Their experiences with Cannon are what dictated the tone of the film. For me it was, how do I bring a bit of a reference to that and make that a little bit more fun in terms of the footage and in terms of the content. The last thing I wanted to do was a hatchet job on Cannon cause they don’t deserve it. They were there making films when there were a lot of people only talking about making films and you’ve got to respect them for that. Regardless of the stories people tell, everyone did have a fondness for them and agrees that they did love movies.
What films today do you think wouldn’t be getting made if not for the Cannon legacy?
Certainly the Millenium films, like The Expendables 3, are cannon films taken to the next level, and there’s no surprise that most of the executives at Millenium are Cannon veterans.
Menahem and Yoram didn’t participate in your doc, instead commissioning their own doc about themselves called the Go-Go Boys. Have you seen it and how do you feel about it?
I waited until we’d totally finished our project, but yes I have seen it. I was a little bit upset because I’d spent all this time researching and I thought there’s no way I can do this without those two guys. But in a way it was a blessing for the production because now your totally focused on these guys at their prime and you get a good sense of what it was like when these guys were operating in Hollywood. If we’d been constantly cutting to them as they are now, we wouldn’t have been really able to sell the reality of them in their prime.