With Thor: Love And Thunder director Taika Waititi citing “1970s panel van art and 1980s movies like The Beastmaster” on ABC News Breakfast as major influences on his latest Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, FilmInk instantly went sliding through its DVD collection (yes, we still have one of those) for other likeminded movies. There was the aforementioned The Beastmaster (a ball-tearer from Phantasm mastermind Don Coscarelli); Conan The Barbarian, Conan The Destroyer and Red Sonja (of course); the mind-blowing nouveau-style take of Mandy with Nicolas Cage; the original Clash Of The Titans; Ralph Bakshi’s wonderful Fire And Ice; Richard Donner’s underrated Ladyhawke; Ron Howard’s epic Willow; Ridley Scott’s underrated Legend; and – one of the very best of the sword-and-sorcery genre – 1982’s The Sword And The Sorcerer, a bloody, violent mini-epic and low level cult favourite.
All of which brings us to that film’s director, Albert Pyun, a man well known and oft-discussed in cult film and niche circles, but largely unknown to those outside of that world. Is that enough to qualify him as an appropriately neglected and Unsung Auteur? He’s certainly no Steven Spielberg, so for our purposes, it’ll do. First things first: Albert Pyun has directed, well, a lot of crap…pure, low budget, irredeemable, exploitative crap. Nonsense like Alien From LA (starring fashion model Kathy Ireland), Post Mortem (with Charlie Sheen), Raven Hawk, Arcade and many of his other films are not worthy of detailed discussion, sitting (un)happily as nothing more than bottom-feeding exploitationers. There are, however, enough diamonds in the mud to position Albert Pyun as something considerably more than “the new Ed Wood” as Live Journal subtitled its career run-through of the director.
Born in 1953 in Hawaii, Albert Pyun grew up watching movies on his island home’s low-rent cinemas, which were largely attended by US Marines. The programming reflected this, and Pyun took in a steady diet of bloody horror and bone-breaking action flicks. While in high school, Pyun worked at a number of production houses in Honolulu before receiving an invitation from the great Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune, to travel to Japan for an internship. Initially set to work on Dersu Uzala for legendary director Akira Kurosawa, Pyun was moved onto the TV series Red Beard when Mifune dropped out of the Kurosawa film.
The series was, however, helmed by Kurosawa cinematographer Takao Saito, and Pyun still received a masterclass in film production. “Kubrick, Leone and Saito taught me the importance and the art of the frame,” Pyun once said. “Composition, colour, balance…and how they are as important as dialogue, music and editing.” Pyun eventually returned to Hawaii, where he found work as a commercials film editor, which put him in the orbit of several major advertising companies. After several years as an editor in Hawaii, Pyun moved to Los Angeles and kick-started his long aimed-for career as a feature film director.
Albert Pyun debuted in 1982 with the aforementioned The Sword And The Sorcerer, which went on to become one of the most financially successful independent films of the year. A thrilling, blood-drenched tale of high adventure co-penned by Pyun, the film stars Tarantino fave Lee Horsley (remember TV’s Matt Houston? Snowy River: The McGregor Saga?) as Talon, a powerful young warrior who wields a three-bladed projectile sword (yes, it’s even fucking cooler than it sounds) and faces both an evil sorcerer (Richard Moll) and an even more evil king (the late, great Richard Lynch) while avenging his family and romancing the beautiful and feisty Alana (Kathleen Beller). Occasionally freaky, often visually audacious, and constantly narratively compelling, The Sword And The Sorcerer is unquestionably one of the best of the much maligned sword-and-sorcery genre.
The success of the film saw Pyun nearly stagger into the mainstream (he almost found himself in the director’s chair for a version of Philip K. Dick’s Total Recall starring William Hurt), before course correcting into the low budget world of sci-fi, fantasy, horror and action. Pyun followed The Sword And The Sorcerer with 1985’s amusing Radioactive Dreams, an odd but strangely endearing mix of post-apocalyptica and noir-style detective fiction starring John Stockwell, Michael Dudikoff, Don Murray and George Kennedy. Pyun kept it interesting with 1986’s Dangerously Close (an original, MTV-inspired tale of teen vigilantes) and Vicious Lips (a wacky sci-fi musical featuring Wagga Wagga’s Linda Kerridge, who famously appeared as Dennis Christopher’s Marilyn Monroe lookalike crush in Fade To Black) before directing his other key work with 1989’s Cyborg. An early work of martial arts superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme, the film is a grim, bloody and horribly imaginative dystopian sci-fi action flick obviously influenced by Mad Max 2 (but then, what wasn’t?), and featuring a dramatic crucifixion scene to rival the very impressive one in The Sword And The Sorcerer.
Cyborg was a financial success, but Pyun still journeyed further downward into off-grid exploitation filmmaking, much of it execrable. There are, however, several bright or at least curious entries on the director’s resume. Though it really, really sucked, Pyun was one of the first filmmakers to make a big screen Marvel movie with 1990’s dreadful Captain America (which featured plastic ears – !!! – on Cap’s head-piece and a Red Skull responsible for the assassinations of The Kennedys and Martin Luther King!), while his 1991 sci-fi flick Dollman is a true one of a kind. A prime candidate for a remake, the low budget charmer stars the great Tim Thomerson as a brilliantly hard-boiled, Dirty Harry-style intergalactic cop who lands on Earth…where he is only 12 inches tall. Again informed by Pyun’s obvious love of classic noir-style detective fiction, Dollman is a real delight. 1993’s Brainsmasher…A Love Story is a similarly engaging, Big Trouble In Little China-style genre mash-up starring Andrew “Dice” Clay and Teri Hatcher, while 1997’s Crazy Six isn’t great, but is likely the only film in which you get to witness the unlikely team-up of Burt Reynolds, Ice-T, Rob Lowe and Mario Van Peebles.
As well as sequels to his own Cyborg and the Van Damme classic Kickboxer, Albert Pyun is also responsible for the truly wacked out oddity that is 2008’s Road To Hell, an “unofficial” sequel to Walter Hill’s 1984 cult classic Streets Of Fire, in which that film’s star Michael Pare returns as pretty much the same character in the form of war veteran Cody. There, however, the similarity ends, with the film so morally, stylistically and thematically divorced from Hill’s action fave that you have to question if Albert Pyun has even seen it. Shot against process screens and featuring Cody doing things utterly antithetical to everything that Pare and Hill originally conceived of, Road To Hell is at least a film like no other…but not necessarily in a good way.
Though now seemingly felled by illness (“Dementia has beat me,” Pyun has said. “It has taken control of me in every way. Who I was is no longer there”), Albert Pyun appears to have a few projects in development, but whether they will see the light of day or not is another matter. Either way, this highly unconventional and very much Unsung Auteur boasts a resume of strange, jarring and occasionally truly wonderful films that couldn’t have been directed by anyone else. Albert Pyun is a true original, and in the often tired world of cinema, that is a rare and very special thing.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.