Mercenary Mind

Mon, June 26th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Justin Gray, Columnist

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This is part one of a special two part interview that crosses from comics over into the world of Asian cinema, where badass Japanese schoolgirls brandish switchblades, redefine hazing rituals and wage gang wars. A place where naked samurai women hack and slash their way into your heart and supernatural creatures live among us. If you're a film nut, you're going to dig this.

I have with me Matt Kennedy, the main man behind Panik House Entertainment. For those that don't know, here is the lowdown from their official website:

Panik House is the world's most dynamic purveyor of extraordinary entertainment on DVD. Focusing on high-energy, wildly inventive genre films with a particular spotlight on Asian Cinema. Panik House approaches every title from a fan's point of view. Since these are the movies we love, we bring them to DVD with a sense of commitment, expertise and attention to detail that matches our passion and experience. Panik House searches the globe to find the most exciting, innovative and groundbreaking motion pictures to produce premium-quality, collector-caliber DVDs.

JG: Matt, lets just jump into this. You've had and continue to have a very interesting career. In fact there's a storybook quality to it in that Mel Brooks discovered you in an art gallery and put you into a commercial for his film "Robin Hood: Men in Tights."

MK: That's right. I had a job in a shop called The Soap Plant, which used to be the trendy hub of Melrose in the early '90s, right on the corner of Martel. Soap Plant had a reputation for employing really alternative looking young people, and at that time I fit that description 100%; I was tattooed and had a lot of piercings and colored hair -the whole nine yards. I normally worked upstairs in the La Luz de Jesus art gallery, but was covering for someone who had taken their lunch break downstairs. Casting agents and a lot of other Hollywood types were always shopping there, but one day in walks Mel Brooks, larger than life and mid sentence stops, turns and looks at me, points and yells, "Him!" and his assistant asked if I would be available for an hour and I wound up being in this ridiculous commercial for "Robin Hood: Men In Tights."

It wasn't until about a year later that I got really into acting, though. My friend Don Murphy (a fellow employee at my previous LA job, Fantastic Store Comics) co-produced "Natural Born Killers," and a girl I knew, a model, was engaged to the music supervisor, so we went to see it on opening day. She had an audition immediately afterwards, only I got bored hanging around, so I signed in and auditioned and I got hired and she didn't. She was really cool about it and hooked me up with her agency and I had a pretty lucrative acting career for the next five or six years.

JG: I want to thank you for making these films available because I've become a huge fan of "Pinky Violence," "Reiko Ike" and girl bos Yakuza movies as a result. Right now I'm working my way through the PV collection. How was Panik House formed? Give us an idea of how you get the rights to distribute these films and why.

MK: Panik House is really just an extension of my lifelong obsession with movies. I've been fascinated with cinema since before I could speak, and I have extremely vivid film-viewing memories going back to the age of two (which many people are truculent to believe, but it's absolutely true).

To make a long story short, I was an actor, a writer and a film critic who wound up booking films and formulating guerrilla marketing campaigns with David Shultz at the west coast offices of Troma, back in the Raleigh Studios days. David is a tremendous person, with exceptional taste in film, which he is now in a position to reveal through his company Vitagraph Films. I will confess to having worn not only the Toxic Avenger costume on occasion, but also Sgt. Kabukiman. There aren't many people in this business that I would have done that for, but David Shultz is one of them.

After a long stint at Hollywood Book & Poster I wound up taking a job as an assistant editor and lead researcher at Bill Lustig's Blue Underground. This was when it was just the special features division of Anchor Bay, so I started before a single Blue Underground DVD was produced. The education I received there is what has allowed me to run a DVD label today.

JG: I'm definitely familiar with Lustig's Blue Underground, which has been bringing out Giallo's like Argento's "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" and just tons of great low budget horror, Spaghetti westerns like "Django," drive-in style features, Italian police flicks and other foreign films. Between Panik House and Blue Underground I've been like a kid in the candy shop. In fact films made available by both companies have influenced a number of "Jonah Hex" stories.

MK: I Love "Jonah Hex," by the way!

JG: A completely unprompted plug! Thank you.

MK: The great thing about Blue Underground was that Bill Lustig was like the Knute Rockne of DVD talent, and the roster of industry players that came out of there reads like a who's who of indie DVD labels: Norman Hill, who brought a lot of the art-house licenses to Anchor Bay, now runs Subversive Cinema; Joyce Shen, who ran the production at BU now runs No Shame; David Gregory was the special features director, and John Cregan was the editor, and they both run Severin Films. Christopher Lee (not the actor) was the art designer at BU, and he does work for me and for John & David. So I'm thrilled to have worked with so many talented people, and I'm even more thrilled to call all of them friends.

As far as licensing, I've been collecting Japanese movie posters for year, and the "Pinky Violence" posters were always my favorites, so whenever possible I'd try to track down Japanese videotapes or locate TV copies and I was blown away that the films were actually wilder than the posters. Chris D. (American Cinematheque programmer and author of "Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film"), who has been a friend of mine for more than a decade, used to let me borrow all kinds of films he'd get from friends in Japan, and we'd watch these films at our buddy Donnie's place, a great genre-only video store called The Goblin Market. I was always pushing to license these films at Blue Underground, but the way many Japanese companies do business is quite different than American companies, and I won't say it requires a lot of patience, but it requires understanding the differences between the two cultures, or at least a willingness to try to understand.

JG: I completely understand from my days of working with a fossil amber company we sold a lot of products to a Japanese client and it took a fair bit of cultural learning to work most deals with him. It was complete culture shock for me when I was in Tokyo.

MK: At this time my wife was Japanese, and I was considering moving -to go live in Japan, but what happened instead is that we didn't move, and a group of investors asked me to run a DVD label for them. I spent a year trying to talk them out of it, but when I decided to stay in the US, I decided to take them up on their offer, and here I am, more or less.

JG: The seventies were an interesting time for genre films particularly because they explored social issues in an extremely brutal fashion. On the surface these films can be difficult to watch and unsettling due to the subject matter. Putting aside the context of Asian culture as it relates to these films and the whole bondage and rape fetish thing, would you agree that at their core these are stories about female empowerment?

MK: I absolutely agree. I've asked these questions of directors like Teruo Ishii and Kinji Fukusaku and even Suzuki Seijin, and they all said that they were only allowed to get away with the content of their films because on the surface was a very exploitive element that studios knew would sell tickets, but underneath was a female empowering concept that drew the right actresses to the roles. Because at the end of the day if the wrong actresses were cast, we wouldn't be sitting here having this discussion, because the films would just be kitschy T&A films. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I can't imagine that an actress like Meiko Kaji would have taken a role in any of these films if there wasn't a bold, proto-feminist theme of redemption within them. I also doubt we'd have gotten such high caliber performances out of Reiko Ike if not for the self empowerment issues in most of her films. You can tell when she's ghost walking through a scene, and it's only when she seems to be uncomfortable with the level of humiliation presented. Still it's hard to imagine anyone else pulling those scenes off.

JG: Absolutely, and the degree to which these characters are willing to exploit themselves voids any power rape might have over them. Particularly in a film like "Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom," where the tables are repeatedly turned on the abusers. Now you offer "Sex and Fury," which I always recommend to my friends who are fans of samurai flicks. Reiko Ike is one of the undisputed queens of exploitation cinema and thanks to Panik House she's able to reach a new generation. Oh and I'm riffing on her character in the upcoming "Heroes for Hire." Are there any other films in the genre you're looking to acquire?

MK: I have a very long list of films that I'd like to release. Not all of them are Asian films, either, but just within that one subdivision of world cinema there must be hundreds.

JG: Thanks to "Ringu," Asian horror has become synonymous with creepy children, drains clogged with hair and black-eyed wraiths hanging around in gloomy corridors. While there are a number of bad variations on the theme flooding the market, I see you're turning toward Thailand with films like "Bangkok Haunted" and "Omen," as well as the Korean film "The Uninvited," which offer more interesting stories. How do you decide which films to distribute?

MK: The barometer that I use is my personal taste, first and foremost. If I don't like it, you will not see it issued by Panik House. When it becomes tricky, is when there are films that I think are the cat's pajamas - that I absolutely love - but have no commercial value at all. I have investors and I have to be fiscally responsible when selecting titles, as far as how much I can spend on acquiring them. I can't shell out a hundred thousand dollars on a film that will sell five thousand units even if I think it's the greatest thing since "Seven Samurai."

And then there's the opposite; the case of being offered the right thing at the right time. In the case of "The Uninvited," I bought that film before I even had distribution because I think it's one of the greatest films ever made about the connection between the repression of childhood abuse and the metaphysical maelstrom that can wreak havoc, both spiritually and emotionally, not only on a victim, but everyone around them. If you ask someone else what it's about, maybe they'll give you a completely different answer. "The Uninvited" is like onion if it were a melon: level after level of subtlety that reveals itself differently to almost every person who watches it. When you peel back one layer, there's a different one underneath it. Sticking with that onion metaphor, I think I could say without exaggeration that the deeper the layer uncovered, the more likely you are to have tears in your eyes by the end. A very good friend of mine who recently became a father for the first time had a very difficult time watching the film. It strikes a different chord in almost everyone. I've seen this film with audiences who left the theater having undergone a real cathartic experience.

JG: That's exactly why you and I go to see films, but all too often I'm looking at the American releases and how homogenous and uninspired they are. That's somewhat understandable given what a bloated beast the movie-making machine has become, but there's been a loss of invention and creativity in taking a PG 13 approach to everything. I like certain films to be geared toward adults; I don't need my horror or certain other genre's watered down so they can be a great date movie. As a result I turn to a company like yours and I have to think there are a lot more people like me out there buying your dvd's.

MK: I don't like that most major movie studios think that audiences are dumb, and deliver a product specifically for that perceived audience. I also don't like it when they take something that is of a mature nature and monkey with it to the point that it loses the intended impact or no longer makes sense. I'd actually love to see the MPAA ratings abolished, because it's a total racket. It's about the least consistent, most ambiguous system of content monitoring I've ever come across. There are no hard and fast rules, they are under no obligation to tell you which content is objectionable or not, you're allowed to present only three cuts per submission and they charge $5000 for the privilege. The intention was to grab a cross section of the American public and make decisions about who's allowed to see what based on that. But that isn't what's happening. Instead you've got a group of people who think that "adult contemporary music" is actually contemporary music, think that "Friends" is pornographic, and have no idea what pop culture is about these days. They wouldn't even know what to read if Oprah didn't tell them. I mean these are not the people that should be making decisions about what the whole of the American Public gets to see.

JG: Don't get me started on the cultural barometer or we'll have another fifty pages of rants going here.

MK: On the flipside I think it's dangerous to advertise something that is absolutely not for kids in a forum where they'll be enticed by it. I used to go down to the Shrine for the monthly comic book & toy convention and it used to bother me that there were eight tables of hardcore pornographic videos - and I'm talking piled ten tapes high and pretty visible from any angle - within ten feet of a table that was selling "Pokemon" cards. I think it's important to know who the audience is for whatever it is being sold, and that's why I like to keep a certain consistent feel in everything I release. That's been important in branding the label, actually. There is definitely something "Panik House" in all of our titles, which allows us to release films from different countries, and various genres, not just because they're Asian, but because there's an X factor that permeates each of them. If there is any one film that carries the Panik House logo on it that is unlike the rest it's probably "Omen," and that's because I wanted to release a film that I could show my Mother or my niece, but one that doesn't treat a PG audience like a ship of fools. "Omen" addresses some pretty heavy metaphysical issues, and it's got some real creepiness, it just doesn't require a lot of gore or nudity to leave its mark. In a way that may make the film even more disturbing. It is a Pang Brothers' creation after all.

JG: I do dig those Pang Brothers. Okay we'll pick this up again next Monday with discussions on Matt's upcoming releases of Mexican horror films, his love of comics, the problems with the MPAA and lots more.

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