Cards of Death (1986)

I had several video store memberships back in the day — both with the chains (Blockbuster and Hollywood Video) an array of mom n’ pops — not counting the ones where I wasn’t a member that I’d road trip for a cut-out bin divin’ weekend (if I couldn’t find it as a rental, I’d buy the cutout version) — and my local comic bookstore.

Yes. At the comic book store.

As my neighborhood video store knocked a hole in their wall and the owner dumped all of his warehoused vinyl into the bay next door to not only sell, but rent records like video tapes (of which I recorded many to cassettes), my local comic book store also punched a hole in their wall and opened a dinky video store. Another comic shop — which was bit more of a drive — cleared out a corner and started shelving rental videos, as well. (For a fee, that comic shop would high-speed a copy; used vinyl record stores, before and during the early days of the compact disc, when everything wasn’t yet on disc, copied albums: first to cassettes, and then, eventually CDs.)

The U.S. reissue from the fine folks at Bleeding Skull. Hi, Hog. Dig the shirt.

What my cherish comic honey holes shelved is many of the films we’ve reviewed during our “Regional Horror Week” back in March, our “Hong Kong Week” back in May, and last month’s “SOV Week” and “Video Nasties Week” tribute . . . then there’s our “Japan Week” coming the beginning of next year (cut and paste those “weeks” into our search box to populate those reviews). For when your local comic book store decides to compete in the home video market, you know that they’re going deeper than the mom ‘n pop outlets where your dad is renting The Godfather, mom (mine’s an action whore) wants First Blood — and you’re renting a Wizard “Big Box” “video nasty” to the tune of Headless Eyes. (And let’s not forget our beloved pre-Internet catalog grey-market retailer VSOM – Video Search of Miami and our trusty Starlight Video bootleg catalogs helping us discover the deep corners of the VHS-doms. I miss that: I’d rather the ol’ catalogs and mail-order than the web. I know: shut up, nostalgic old bastard.)

Such a “deep” film is Cards of Death: the feature film debut — and lone film — by actor Will MacMillan. Born in Stuebenville, Ohio, he came to work at the Lovelace Marionette Theatre in Pittsburgh (the hometown of the online publication you’re reading right now). Oh, you know MacMillan. He starred in George Romero’s The Crazies and co-starred alongside Clint Eastwood in The Enforcer. Then there’s a dozen-plus network TV series, as well as Oliver Stone’s Salvador. Then more TV series and a couple of TV movies.

Did my common regional roots to MacMillan, along with the Romero connection, mean anything to me at the time when I rented the grey-version of Cards of Death from my ol’ comic hole? Nope. No more than the Hollywood and rock music lineage of Christopher Lewis inspired me to rent Blood Cult. All I know is that I saw a weird-and-wonderful, never before seen oddity imported and grey’d from Japan and I wanted it. And, as it turns out: it wasn’t an Asian cinema set-piece, but an American (SOV) flick masquerading as Asian cinema. And I think MacMillan inspired all of that later, Asian-VHS insanity from Japan and Hong Kong. I have a feeling, if you read reviews and interviews of the fans and makers of those films: MacMillan is name-dropped, often.

Yep. That’s the one. Originally issued on Japan Sony’s “Exciting Video” label. Only the “U.S.” cover was a fuzzy, laser-printed copy tucked into a clamshell sleeve and dubbed on a TDK-VHS tape.

Anyway, MacMillan wanted to move behind the camera. And with the home video revolution and the new accessibility of commercial video cameras — with the shot-on-video and direct-to-video successes of the likes of the influential SOV game changers Boardinghouse and Blood Cult, MacMillan realized he had a cost-effective way to prove his skills as a writer and director. And, from what I’ve read: to tell Hollywood to “f-off,” as he had grown disenchanted with the business. (I wonder why: he worked consistently; perhaps he lost out on auditions for a couple mainstream roles?)

And, with that, the crime-horror Cards of Death was born.

However, unlike the SOV’ers Boardinghouse and Blood Cult, Cards of Death couldn’t obtain (widespread) U.S. distribution — so no one saw it. Why? With its gratuitous nudity, lesbianism, sex scenes smeared in blood, and on-screen kills — more so than Spine, an SOV also released in 1986 — MacMillan’s vision was a perfect programmer for porn purveyors 4-Play Video, Inc. and producer Xeon, Ltd.’s joint, “commercial” SS – Sterling Silver imprint; the label was created for that porn-slasher hybrid’s marketing into the brick-and-mortar marketplace. Cards of Death would have made for a great, second release for the label — instead of having Sterling Silver go under after the release of Spine. Sure, MacMillan had years of mainstream Hollywood experience behind him. Surely, he had the industry connections. But a scuzzy porn-leaning horror film snipping inspiration from ’50s and ’60s French New Wave existentialism? It’s easy to see why MacMillan was left to his own devices to market and distribute his admittedly unconventional film. (Why do you think Alejandro Jodorowsky (Santa Sangre; 1989) never got his version of Dune made?)

So, in a business deal with details lost to the analogs of time, MacMillan got the film into the Asian home video market via Sony’s “Exciting Video” VHS imprint. That’s when Cards of Death — like Cheap Trick’s Japan-only released Live at Budokan breakthrough album before it — found its way back the greylands of the good ol’ U.S.A. to be nestled onto my local comic book store’s underground-video nasties shelf. Those shelves also held imported copies of Toshiharu Ikeda’s Evil Dead Trap and the grey-market rips of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (which took ten years to officially appear in the U.S.) and the Guinea Pig and Tomie franchises.

If only MacMillan turned the directorial reins over to Takashi Miike of Dead or Alive fame; for Cards of Death is under the same Sapporo Dome as Gozu (2003), Miike’s bizarre, low-budget direct-to-video horror with its mix of mobsters and ghosts and breast milk and cow-headed men. (Yeah, a Miike remake of Cards of Death is a film I’d pay to stream.) The violence of Cards of Death, while it has its moments, isn’t Evil Dead Trap-brutal — and is certainly not as expertly-crafted as a Miike joint — but it does foretell torture porn before there was an Eli Roth (his game-inspired Hostel, in particular). And that gore comes courtesy of another SFX artist (see our review of Night Feeder) who moved onto bigger and better things: Bryan Moore ended up doing the effects for one of Charles Band’s better Empire budgeters, Dolls (1987), by Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), and Underworld: Evolution. But let’s not forget Moore’s makeups on the oft-run USA Network’s Chopper Chicks in Zombietown and the much HBO-played C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud.

The you-want-to-shower-after vibe of Cards of Death comes in the form of graphic sex scenes: one features a nude, punk-rock makeup lesbian f**king Hog next to a corpse she just offed and drained into their wine goblets — and smear the bloody over their bodies. And if that’s not enough: a chair-cuffed cop (MacMillan as Captain Twain on the case) has his fingers, ears, and nose sliced off — then mailed to the police station. One gamer gets an axe to the chest and a crown of barbed wire around the face and throat — all in-camera. And there’s a (admittedly clumsy) human crushing by a pneumatic walled-device, aka “The Crush Room.” There’s an impaling on a wrought iron fence (because of cost, we don’t see the fall, just the aftermath). Then there’s rape. And strangulation. And sadism. And a chainsaw. And cheese graders used on dairy products and epidermal products. And bullets. And the coke flows. And there’s no mystery — and that seems to be MacMillan’s “narrative choice” — as we know our killers, and since everyone is killing, there’s no Giallo-done-to-death Voorhees POVs typical of the slasher genre for us to “guess” what’s what. MacMillan is about the existential weirdness, with what can be described as a slasher-porn inversion of Ingmar Bergman’s medieval masterpiece The Seventh Seal (1957). Is Hog a representation of death, while the felted-table of tarot card death is MacMillan’s version of Bergman’s errant knight and death perched over a chess board?

But what we do know: The “cards of death” is an underground card game (in a black-plastic draped and burning-neon, new wave room tucked inside a dilapidated warehouse) with its cult-following players fronted by the mysterious Hog — complete with a crudely-drawn spider on his forehead. The game’s stakes are one’s life. To up the weirdness — and which is why Sony Japan snapped it up for Pacific Rim distribution — our male players wear rubber masks (of clowns, skulls; interpret the subtext to your liking) while the females slaughter in full Nazi dominatrix regalia (your subtext guess is as good as ours) as they play a Poker-inspired game, only with Tarot cards. The rules are simple: If you’re left holding the death card in your hand, you die — with a violent Grand Guignol death set-in-wait for you. If you hold a winning hand, you win the pot, but you’ll lose the pot — and you’re own life — if you fail to kill the loser within 24 hours. The game is held every Wednesday. On Thursday, the loser’s body is dumped in the city. And the cops are stumped. And the financial windfall is so substantial, a priest with gambling debts is willing to play the game (he’s the guy that ended up fence-impaled).

So, why does the game exists? What’s the “end game” of the game? Why, after all of the seriousness of the film, do we have black comedy end credits — complete with goofy music, rolling? What’s our “message” take away? Well, what I do know: Cards of Death is grainy. It’s sadistic. It’s repugnant. It should not exist, but it does. Cards of Death is an SOV dream of a simpler, analog membership card time as we searched for the off-beat. And I love it.

But that’s not to say Cards of Death is not awkward and clumsy. While the scenes in the warehouse game room are entertaining and has its directing, thespian, and scripting weirdness-moments, the game’s over when the story returns to the jittery, flat camera work of awkward framing with the (awful acting) cops and their investigation. As with the (even more) awkward police investigation plot-jinxing of fellow SOV’er Spine ditching the bondage-murder antics of Lawrence Ashton — the grime that everyone came for — Cards of Death draaaags when the fuzz show up. We want the new wave weirdness and murderous lesbians. In comparison, the influential Blood Cult, with its admitted share of flaws, is clearly the better-shot film. And Cards of Death is, in turn, better shot than Spine. Got that?

MacMillan appeared in two more SOV-made films: Dark Romances Vol. 1 (1990) and Schemes (1994), so you can search for those to kill the cat. Sadly, we lost Mac in December 2015. You can read his obituary at Hollywood Reporter, People, and Variety magazine (notice how Cards of Death isn’t mentioned; and one obit is more detailed than the other).

And would you believe that some of the actors from Cards of Death not only moved onto other works, but are still in the business?

Ron Kologie, who stars as MacMillan’s son, Billy, appears in two, recent Lifetime holiday movies: Random Acts of Christmas and A Cheerful Christmas. (You know us and cable Christmas movies around here; denied: Fred Olen Ray or David DeCoteau didn’t make Kologie’s good cheer’ers. Oh, well.) Greg Lawrence, here as Ross, one of our intrepid cops, continued to work in indie features and shorts, including the works of Dennis Devine (Get the Girl). Joel Hoffman, as wrought-iron’d Father Morris, turned up in Slaughterhouse, Slumber Party Massacre II, and the much-loved Stan Winston-directed Pumpkinhead (Hoffman’s since retired; he’s a high school English and Spanish teacher).

You can purchase appropriate retro-VHS reissues — with the U.S. artwork — via Bleeding Skull and Mondo’s joint efforts. Oh, yes! The You Tube gods have delivered a streaming copy. If there is one SOV’er you decide watching this week, make it Cards of Death: even with its flaws, it’s a Dan Curtis, tape-shot ’70s TV movie on acid with a speedball chaser, a dominatrix with an axe, and a coil of razor wire.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.