Review: Episode One of “Dracula’s Kung Fu Theater” – ‘The Magnificent Fist’ (1979)
When I pressed play on the first episode of RetroTV’s new kung-fu movie show that’s hosted by the one and only Dracula himself, I admittedly had no idea what to expect; the most relevant points of reference I had for what I was getting into were “The Last Drive-In w/Joe Bob Briggs” and “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” though I wasn’t sure how closely it’d align with those formulas. Turns out it’s a highly enjoyable show that borrows some basic ideas from both, while adding a heap of its own personality and style into the mix. It has a lot of scripted humor during the bits with “thoughts from the host” moments, much like the former, but chooses to focus on one film each episode where the host gets to riff on it during the breaks, much like the latter.
The heart and soul of a show like this is the host, and Dracula along with his merry crew of misfits really deliver, with their banter making the whole experience incredibly wholesome and charming to watch. Dracula is joined by the super-stinky “Pete the Werewolf” who he keeps locked in a dungeon with all of the VHS tapes they watch on the show, as well as the Transylvanian Censor Board’s “Yarmo the Censor” who keeps Dracula’s foul mouth in check with a shock collar of sorts, and Howard Renfield the “Director and Best Friend” of the crew who hits the viewer with a reassuring thumbs up anytime he appears on screen.
Oddly enough, Dracula and his friends hang out in his Transylvanian estate and watch kung fu movies together. Turns out Dracula himself denounces the horror genre and is in fact a self-dubbed connoisseur of kung-fu who’s seen all the classics. Having amassed a huge VHS collection over the years, he pulls an obscure, all-but-lost film from his archive each week to share with the viewer.
The first feature the show highlights is Wah Man’s 1979 film The Magnificent Fist starring Carter Wong, who readers might recognize from John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China where he played Thunder, one of the powerful sorcerers depicted in the film. Here he plays Swallow, a seemingly normal man who breaks rocks for a living by day, but who becomes a martial arts wielding Robin Hood of sorts by night. He has just discovered some ginseng in the forest that he’s gathered for his ailing father when he’s attacked by members of the local Japanese gang that’s recently began running protection rackets and committing crimes in his local Chinese village, most of which are centered around the ginseng trade. Swallow has had it with this gang by this point, and begins to wage a small war on the gang at night while the village is sleeping, where he distributes the wealth he’s stolen back from the gang to the local townspeople.
He does a whole lot of kung-fu over the film’s eighty-seven minute runtime, all which is choreographed quite well with some fun set pieces. It feels fairly grounded and believable compared to a lot of the sillier, more over the top dubs that we often got stateside, and overall is a quite enjoyable martial arts film with a competent story and heaps of action. The dramatic scenes aren’t anything special, though they’re always brief, and the fights are a blast to watch which is the real selling point of these movies anyway.
The presentation of the show feels very nostalgic, with the movie being displayed within the confines of an analog TV inside Dracula’s castle; a cuddly spider will occasionally drop down beside the TV as you’re watching, or Dracula will pause the movie to make a few jokes. This helps combat quality loss greatly, as the films are all VHS transfers so this keeps them from being stretched across the giant flat screen TV sets we have today and makes the 4:3 aspect ratio feel much more natural in the process. The notion of watching old, hard to find kung-fu movies is something I’m absolutely here for but that’s not even necessarily required to have a good time here, as the show offers much more than the film itself via the aforementioned humor and charm the cast injects into the experience; there’s clearly a lot of heart put into this production accompanied by an evident passion for classic kung-fu films.
You can catch new episodes of “Dracula’s Kung Fu Theater” as they air on Retro TV Fridays at 10PM E|P (to find out where Retro TV airs in you area, head to http://watchretrotv.com) or on the It’s Real Good TV app via the Retro TV live feed Fridays at 10pm ET/7pm PT which you can find at https://bit.ly/DraculasKungFuTheatre. The show is also available via VOD on the It’s Real Good TV app the day after it airs live, which you can download in your Roku, GooglePlay or Apple stores, as well as access online at https://itsrealgoodtv.com.