Robert Vincent O’Neil’s WONDER WOMEN bust out onto DVD courtesy of Retromedia Entertainment.
Contrary to the theme song, the titular “Wonder Women” – whose numbers include Maria de Aragon (of O’Neil’s BLOOD MANIA), Roberta Collins (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), and an unbilled Marilyn Joi (NURSE SHERRI) – are not superheroes; they are in fact the globe-trotting henchwomen of Dr. Tsu (Nancy Kwan, NIGHT CREATURE) who needs able bodies for her transplantation experiments. On his way to Australia, Los Angeles police detective Mike Harber (Ross Hagen, THE MINI-SKIRT MOB) becomes stranded in the Philippines when his passport is confiscated by Lloyds of London insurance agent Lorenzo (Tony Lorea, FIVE THE HARD WAY) who wants to hire Mike to find a missing Jai-alai player (Ross Rival, KILLERS VS NINJAS) before his company has to pay out a half million dollars. A “blind” witness’ description of the kidnapping of the athlete by a gang of women driving a hearse gels with the circumstances around a similar disappearance of a basketball player in the States, and points to the mysterious “Chapel by the Sea”. What Mike doesn’t know is that his every action is under observation by the Wonder Women who will use their bodies one way or the other to prevent him from discovering Dr. Tsu’s lair before she can perform a financially lucrative brain and body transplant on a paraplegic duke (Lorea in a laughable dual role).
Not quite as thrilling or exploitative as the poster art suggests, WONDER WOMEN is nevertheless thoroughly entertaining for pretty much sticking to the formula of Philippine-set exploitation films. There’s a visit to the cockfights (which inspired Hagen’s later film SUPERCOCK), an impressive foot chase through a Manila market, an even more impressive car chase with knocked over fruit-stands, enthusiastic extras diving out of the way of cars (and off of bridges), and on-lookers who must have seen these pics shot on a daily basis. What, however, would a Philippine exploitation film be without Vic Diaz, who turns up here intermittently as Jeepney driver Lapu-Lapu. The mad doctor aspect is novel, with her lair being a sort of Pop Art temple with a dungeon of “mistakes” down below. Hagen is an entertaining and energetic lead, and De Aragon is equally impressive in the fight scenes; however, she is the only one of the Wonder Women that gets much character development (at least in the US version, see below). Kwan – who also did SUPERCOCK and NIGHT CREATURE with Hagen – is a bit stiff as somewhat of a Bondian villain, but Sid Haig (SPIDER BABY) is also on hand as Gregorious (or “old fishmouth” as Hagen calls him), who handles Dr. Tsu’s financial affairs and seeks out wealthy clients. Hagen is the credited producer, but the “executive in charge of production” is exploitation director Arthur Marks (LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT), and the theme song was performed by Annette Thomas who sang the theme song for Marks’ THE CLASS OF ’74 (a pseudo-sequel to his film THE ROOMMATES which incorporated footage from the 1972 sexploitation film GABRIELLA, GABRIELLA). One of the film’s executive producers was actor-turned-evangelist Ronald Remy (MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND), and banners bearing his name can be seen draping the back of more than a couple Jeepneys. The opening track of Carson Whitsett’s porntastic score (seriously, watch the opening) was sampled by exploitation Blu-ray/DVD company Vinegar Syndrome for their logo.
Originally released in 1982 on VHS by Media Home Entertainment as THE DEADLY AND THE BEAUTIFUL, Retromedia’s dual-layer, anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer is HD-mastered and sports occasionally eye-popping colors and is clear enough to spot Hagen’s stunt double. The photography is sometimes variable from shot to shot since it was shot on short ends, but most of the scratches – apart from those around the reel changes – seem to have occurred in-camera or during the processing. The last reel does sport a couple fleeting instances of missing frames (and the resulting disruption of the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track which contains a consistent level of hiss). The jungle scenes probably always looked murky, while there is also one overexposed shot during the chase scene. This transfer hasn’t been marred by the sort of edge enhancement and overzealous noise reduction evident in Retromedia’s earlier (including some very recent) releases. The end credits montage is windowboxed at 1.76:1. Code Red Releasing is reportedly preparing a competing edition, also with the director’s participation.
Retromedia’s Fred Olen Ray – who also worked with Hagen several times – moderates an entertaining commentary track with director Robert Vincent O’Neil who reveals that the original title of the film was “The Island of Cannibal Women”. O’Neil arrived in Manila and was wowed by the wealth of locations (including the Chinese Cemetery), and Hagen was impressed enough with his new treatment to throw the original treatment out and work on the new script with him. Maria de Aragon was the only American actress they had to fly in as the other actresses were already in the Philippines doing other pictures. The film’s four-month process of development and shooting was actually quite leisurely for this type of production. Tsu’s operating chamber with its flashing colored lights was actually a disco while the rest of her lair was an actual mortuary. He recalls having to hide the camera during the week-long shoot of the car chase scene since the sight of the camera would draw thousands of onlookers (he also mentions that de Aragon was working with a bad back, which explains why it seems like Hagen is running slower during the chase scene in any long shots that include both of them). He also refers to the Filipino crew’s “mañana syndrome”, shooting with a limited selection of lenses, and having to make stunt weapons. The film’s release was hindered by an injunction by Fawcett Comics who objected to the WONDER WOMEN title (O’Neill actually prefers the alternate THE DEADLY AND THE BEAUTIFUL title). The coda sequence was directed by Arthur Marks and tacked on after O’Neil had put the rest of the film together.
Stunt coordinator/second unit director Erik Cord (THE TOWERING INFERNO) appears in a video interview (10:11) in which he recalls working with the stunt women (actually they were all 14-15 year old girls accompanied by their grandmothers) – he used male doubles for the most dangerous parts – and over-enthusiastic “daredevil” stunt men who were too proud to wear Cord’s protective gear. He also recalls the American cast and crew adjusting to the local cuisine. He also mentions that Haig was working on another film at the same time with Pam Grier (presumably THE BIG BIRD CAGE or BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA). He also recalls doubling Maria de Aragon himself for the driving stunts (the guard that he inadvertently strikes with the Jeepney in the film was stoned) as well as Hagen for the fight scenes (as well as being thrown through a door and down a flight of stairs), and his headaches with the local crew.
The European version apparently ran a bit longer, and the disc includes five scenes (5:59) from a letterboxed (1.61:1) tape source revolving around Vera’s (Claire Hagen, THE SIDEHACKERS) – Dr. Tsu’s assistant – attachment to athlete Tony (still photographer Beau Marks, who went on to co-produce films like DIE HARD and PREDATOR) whose eyes Tsu plans to transplant into a wealthy customer, Tony’s reaction to losing his eyes, and a scene featuring the satisfied customer dining with Gregorious and Tsu. These bits explain Vera’s otherwise nonsensical motivations and actions during the climax (as pointed out by Ray in the commentary, who presumes that the distributor – Arthur Marks’ own General Film Corporation – cut it down). A short excerpt of silent 8mm footage shot on location (3:38) includes a look at the rehearsal and blocking of the scenes where Tsu shows Mike her lab. Also included are two workprint VHS-sourced scenes from the unfinished 1983 sequel WARRIOR WOMEN (6:32) depicting Mike visiting an illegal casino while investigating a sperm bank heist and getting beat up by the disco-tastic Warrior Women (Ray explains on the feature commentary track that Hagen was trying to get this project going when he first met him). Besides the film’s trailer (1:49), the disc also includes 60-,30-, and 10-second TV spots, as well as a radio spot (0:57) and a photo gallery. (Eric Cotenas)
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