When Judge Adam Arseneau gets a three film DVD release, he promises to be in it for more than two minutes.
Our review of Spirited Killer, published September 19th, 2006, is also available.
Don't buy this DVD. How's that for a tag line?
Following in the legendary footsteps of stuntmen and martial artists like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, elbowing their way into Hollywood by way of their impressive back catalog in their homelands, Thailand's Tony Jaa is quickly becoming the next "big thing" in martial art films. Ask anyone who has seen Ong-Bak or The Protector, and they can attest to his physical prowess. He's got serious skills.
But everyone starts somewhere. Go back far enough into Jet Li's career, and you have films like Born to Defense, or Jackie Chan in Not Scared to Die. These are terrible, terrible films. Fans that are unfortunate enough to discover them suffer horribly in agony. Yes, they're that bad. In the spirit of this terribleness, Mill Creek has released Spirited Killer: Trilogy, a trifecta of unimaginable terribleness that has absolutely no redeeming qualities of any kind for North American audiences.
Facts of the Case
In Spirited Killer, a group of travelers visiting the forests are attacked by a sword-wielding maniac. The attacker is the Spirited Killer (Panna Rittikrai), a forest spirit that protects his territory by beating people up. It proves a very effective deterrent.
In Spirited Killer 2: Awakened Zombie Battles, two sisters are in search of their grandfather's body so it can be buried in their family tomb. In the jungle, they run afoul of gangsters performing an evil experiment involving blood that turns them into zombies. A Sword of God may be involved, a bunch of exorcists and zombie attacks are also involved. Also, the zombies know martial arts.
In Spirit Killer 3: Ghost Wars, two expedition parties form China and Japan converge in the forest looking for a sacred black stone. The locals, upset at the intrusion, call upon the Spirited Killer to stop them, but when he arrives, he comes with zombies, ghosts and ninjas to fight the invaders. No, seriously.
In the late eighties, an influential stunt team called Muay Thai Stunt formed and began to offer their talents to low-budget filmmakers in Thailand, even getting involved in creating films exclusively around showcasing their talents. These indie films, of which dozens and dozens were pumped out in rapid succession, highlighted the talents of filmmaker/choreographer/actor Panna Rittikrai, an influential and popular performer who lead the troop to great success in their native lands. However, interest in the genre peaked in the mid-nineties, and the team discontinued film production. A few years later, Rittikrai re-formed the group and revived the genre with his hand-picked protégé, Tony Jaa and a brand new production. The film was Ong-Bak, and the rest is history.
Trying desperately to capitalize on Jaa's new popularity, Spirited Killer: Trilogy catalogs three examples of these early films into one DVD package. His name is all over the packaging, and his face is all over the packaging, so one makes the reasonable assumption that Tony Jaa actually appears in all three films included…right? Oh, so wrong. Jaa has one decent scene in the first film, Spirited Killer, and that's it. He shows up a grand total of once, has one fight scene (admitted a good one) and that's it. The other two movies, I have no idea if Jaa is even in them. If he is, he is an unnamed cast member at best. It is true that Jaa was a member of the Muay Thai Stunt team during this period, but he was just a kid—one of dozens of men and women looking for their big break.
If you are unfamiliar with this late 90s style of independent Thai cinema, it's…well…it's an experience. Bodily function comedy get randomly mixed with martial art sequences, singing and dancing numbers erupt spontaneously at seemingly the most ill-timed moments in terms of narration, and plots are simply lifted and reorganized from Bollywood and Hong Kong films from twenty years earlier. You could call them an "acquired taste," but I don't actually know anyone who wants to acquire them. I'm sure the Thai love them, but from a North American perspective, they are terrible. Spirited Killer is the best film of the bunch, and that's not saying much; a low-budget, ratty, grainy and poorly created forest romp full of fight sequences and zero plot. The action is pretty stiff by modern standards, save for the fight with Jaa, where one can believe (if only for a moment) that things will get better. They do not. The two sequels are so obscure they're not even listed on IMDb. I pray that they don't really exist, and are mere figments of my imagination.
Awakened Zombie Battles (admittedly a great name) and Ghost Wars are horrendous products, and hardly any information exists about them on the Internet in English. Ramping up the comedic elements to an almost slapstick level, they are impossibly frenetic and confusing, and I confess to having no idea what the hell is going on in any of them. A bunch of people go into the forest and the Spirit Killer (whoever that is) shows up and beats them all up. Rinse and repeat. The action sequences marginally improve as time progresses, but the comedic elements rob them of their grit and impact, replacing it with cheap laughs and urination gags. Honestly, Awakened Zombie Battles, I have no idea how it even fits into this "series."
As for Ghost Wars, it's the silliest of the bunch. I love how the film crew decided the easiest way for people to tell who was supposed to be Chinese and who was supposed to be Japanese (out of the all-Thai crew) was to give bronze makeup to the "Japanese" actors. Problem solved! After all, it worked perfectly in Dr. No. Oh, and if you have black eye shadow on? That means you're a ghost. Just, you know, putting that out there, in case anyone was wondering.
Even for those who truly love this kind of "so bad it's good" drive-in cinema, these are tough films to appreciate. The stunt choreography and fight sequences certainly have potential, and you can see how the talented cast and crew went on to achieve success in bigger, more elaborate productions, but these are rough and wretched examples of early, unpolished work. Oh, and did we mention this isn't really a "trilogy"? Spirited Killer is actually the fourth installment in the franchise. Confused yet? Yeah, well, join the club.
We see a lot of bad presentations here at DVD Verdict, but this ranks down there with some of the sloppiest. From the transfer to the audio to the packaging itself, this is as bad as it gets. Take for example how the packaging proclaims the film language track as "Taiwanese with English Dub." This is an astonishing statement, considering Taiwanese isn't a real language. Taiwan is the common name for the Republic of China, which is a democratic state in East Asia, and Taiwanese might refer to denizens of this region, but it isn't a language.
How do you make that kind of mistake on a retail product? The spoken language in all three films is Thai. How do you mistake Thai for Taiwanese? Is it possible that someone tried to type "Thaiwanese" on the DVD packaging, and a spell checker (being unable to interpret deliberate racism or cultural ignorance) just substituted accordingly? I've spent three days thinking about it, and for the love of all that is holy, no other explanation makes sense.
All three films look terrible, subjected to low-budget recording and poor preservation, and are laden with scratches, tears, print damage, white and black specs, you name it. Ghost Wars is from 1998, but I've seen Shaw Brothers films twenty years older with less print damage. In addition to the horrible source material quality, some of the films have aspect ratio issues. I have no idea what Awakened Zombie Battgles original aspect ratio is supposed to be, but the one it is presented in is absolutely wrong. Everyone looks scrunched and impossibly elongated. And if you think you can cram three feature-length films onto a single DVD without some horrible compression artifacts, then you should go work for Mill Creek. What a mess!
Audio, in many ways, is worse. From the sounds of it, the film crews used strings and empty cans to record their films. A constant string of corny overdubs in the studio only make things feel absurd and unnatural. Tinny and crackling, the audio is wretched. There is no bass response of any kind, and unnatural thinness and treble in the dialogue. For no apparent reason, Spirited Killer is dubbed into English—a real drive-in grindhouse quality recording, this one, with horrible puns, bad acting and dreadful readings from all cast. In perhaps the most hilarious technical gaffe, Spirited Killer mercifully offers up the original Thai language track in addition to the dub, but fails to provide English (or any) subtitles for audiences to actually use it. It's just there for no reason. Just when you think it couldn't get any worse…
As for extras, forget it; there are none, unless you count the "surprise" Thaiwanese track for Spirited Killer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Forget Jaa and the flagrantly false advertisement on this DVD. The real star of the set is Rittikrai, the magic behind the scenes, serving as mentor, writer, director, actor, choreographer and other assorted roles. Jaa may get all the credit today, but Rittikrai laid the ground work. These three films are cheap, shot on microscopic budgets with bad equipment, but they opened the doors for more successful production work.
In a 2004 interview, Panna Rittikrai told the Bangkok Post, "My loyalest fans are folk people in the far-out [subdivisions] where they lay out mattresses on the ground and drink moonshine whisky while watching my outdoor movies." You have to admire the guy for knowing his audience, and making films for their tastes. I said earlier that most Thai films were incomprehensible for North American audiences, but I hadn't taken into account the moonshine. Maybe Panna's onto something.
I lost count of the things wrong with Mill Creek's presentation of the Spirited Killer trilogy. This is catastrophe at the highest level. If Tony Jaa was dead, he would be spinning in his grave, performing elaborate martial art routines. These might be "classics" in the strictest sense of Thai genre cinema, but even still, this release would qualify as one of the lousiest DVD presentations on record.
Taiwanese with English Dub? Seriously? I can't get over that one. It slays me.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Spirited Killer
Perp Profile, Spirited Killer
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, Spirited Killer
Scales of Justice, Spirited Killer 2: Awakened Zombie Battles
Perp Profile, Spirited Killer 2: Awakened Zombie Battles
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, Spirited Killer 2: Awakened Zombie Battles
Scales of Justice, Spirited Killer 3: Ghost Wars
Perp Profile, Spirited Killer 3: Ghost Wars
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, Spirited Killer 3: Ghost Wars
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