This is maybe a little departure from the usual ninjology covered on this blog but I believe The VelociPastor (2018) deserves its place in the ninja canon. Not only do you get plenty of bokken for your buck (I’ve seen films with Ninja in the title that have far less ninjing than this) and direct references to deep ninja cuts but it also is full of SUPREME NINJA SPIRIT. Like, genuinely, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this looks like one of those depressingly ironic joyless CGI messes that litter the streaming services but it’s not. There’s knowledge and real heart behind this and I highly recommend it to ninjologists at all levels of study.
Greg Cohan stars as Doug, a priest whose parents were killed in a freak car bombing. Although a devout Christian, Doug has grown up feeling a sense of displacement and is haunted by bizarre dreams/flashbacks where he walks the forests of China and has his hand cut by a mysterious dinosaur tooth relic. What he doesn’t know is that he is actually the Dragon Warrior, and can turn into… a deadly velociraptor! He finds this out by chance when he saves a prostitute named Carol (Alyssa Kempinski) from being murdered in a park. She has no issue with the fact that he turned into a dinosaur and ripped a man’s head off before her very eyes. In fact, she loves it and wants to see more criminals meet the same fate, so Doug must face some big questions. Will he follow his heart, break his vow of celibacy with Carol and embrace his new role as a prehistoric vigilante? Or will he stay with the church and suppress his innate dinosaurness? And what of the strange ninjas who keep breaking into his apartment? Could the death of his parents be traced back to an ancient ninja conspiracy? Why YES. YES IT COULD.
I have to admit, I avoided this film for a long time because I HATE the aforementioned ironic movies that are “intentionally bad”, from Asylum all the way down to the micro-budget Disco Exorcist style nonsense. Those movies irritate me more than most because they just get it all so wrong. I have an entirely unironic love for B-Movies, especially those from the glory days of the 80s VHS boom, and with most of those new ones, the joke is laughing at how “bad” the old ones were. Which totally misses the point.
I didn’t watch movies like Eliminators or Ultimax Force or No Retreat No Surrender 2 (to name a comparative handful that spring to mind here) because I thought they were bad or I wanted to laugh at them. I watched them because I thought they were the most awesome shit I’d ever seen. Yes, I was a kid when those movies first went into my brain and maybe you can’t get it if you’re coming to them new as an adult but they gave me everything I wanted. They were technically movies for adults, in that they were loaded with sex and violence and bad language, but they had a unique “kid logic” that worked on the basis that it wasn’t worth making something realistic when instead it could be cool. Arguably, the less realistic something was – be it a fight, an explosion, a monster or a plot – the cooler it was because reality sucked then and sucks even more now. The makers of these gonzoid movies wrote ideas way beyond their monetary means and just went with it. Maybe the fact that VHS picture quality was so much worse than theatrical made them bolder. Maybe they thought “yeah, we can shove in some papier mache here and no one will even notice unless they pause the tape”? What you got was more than just a cheap effect though. It was an IDEA made flesh. It was something onscreen that you’d never seen before that was cool.
The VelociPastor is one of those rare 80s homages that actually ‘gets’ it. Like, REALLY, gets all of it. To make an truly funny parody of something, you need to know it inside out and I’m convinced writer/director Brendan Steere has wasted as much of his life as I have on this stuff. The film builds in so many of the popular video tropes of the 80s – ninjas, monsters, magic from the exotic Orient, occult antics (courtesy of surprise Aurelio Voltaire no less!), Vietnam flashbacks, irrational gore, kung-faux fights, split screen, workout montages, pounding rock tunes… It apes the IFD/Godfrey Ho/Filmark ninja films (Caucasians with headbands? check!), the Cannon films, the sub-Cannon films and even throws in a direct reference to the classic DIY ninja epic Miami Connection with its closing epigraph (delivered with immaculate comic timing).
What it does with these tropes is escalate them until they become a gag and then escalate them again until they become an utterly absurd gag. Like how the split screen sex scene (a gag) goes from being two split screens to about twenty-four screens by the end (an utterly absurd gag). It’s not humour that everyone will get, I suppose. On IMDB under Goofs, someone has included a scene where Doug delivers Bible quotations like Levitcus 24:25 and Matthew 32:6, calling it out because both verses that don’t exist. That, as Rainer Wolfcastle would say, is the joke. It pokes fun at 80s B-Movies never caring for fact-checks or cultural sensitivity but also lampoons those whole use out of context Bible quotes to justify absolutely anything (in this case, being a dinosaur vigilante). It’s a great multi-layered gag. I’m not trying to say The VelociPastor is a feat of towering intellect but it a lot smarter and funnier than people who don’t get it seem to think it is. It plays everything with an ultra-straight face the way classic Zucker spoofs like Airplane! or The Naked Gun! did and this is probably my favourite kind of humour when it’s done right. It’s long fallen out of fashion but this is what makes the VelociPastor feel like such a warm, big-hearted movie – how profoundly unfashionable it is.
I spent most of the film laughing, all the way up until the gloriously silly final fight sequence: so simple, yet so effective, as the VelociPastor is revealed in all his glory. They could’ve opted for CGI effects like the Asylum, but that would’ve looked soulless and shit and not even remotely 80s. I love that instead they opted for bargain basement FX with SOUL. The dinosaur costume looks nothing like a real dinosaur and it looks like it probably cost $100 to either make or buy, but it looks INCREDIBLE and if you don’t get a surge of joy when it’s revealed, we’re very different people.
I’ve said before I’m very much an ’emotional’ film watcher and perhaps more and more lately, with 2020 being such a tough year and the future looking bleak, I find myself chasing the emotional dragon of when I first discovered film; in the 80s, on VHS, via the outrageous, OTT, wonderful action/fantasy/horror movies of the day. It’s a high that’s nigh on impossible to get again nowadays, especially in the 2020s where everything already feels so cynical, so gloomy, so OBSESSED with dreary realism. There’s a slavish adherence right now to being literal over everything truly cinematic. I imagine the internet has something to do with that. In the 80s, there was no way for an audience to really feed back, beyond not renting something. They certainly weren’t going to lambast a direct-to-VHS movie for factual inaccuracies. Whereas now, online, no matter what your movie is, there’s thousands of people waiting to either correct you or – in the case of the aforementioned IMDB “Goof” – think they’re correcting you while getting it massively wrong. Either way, that instant sea of would-be critics dissecting every last detail has made filmmakers afraid to take risks, to be abstract. Instead we get Christopher Nolan – who wants his audio to be so “realistic” it’s inaudible – or an insistence that every horror film be a dry representation of grief and anxiety rather than a wild metaphor for them. The VelociPastor is probably the best time I’ve had with a film all year because it GAVE me that emotional high again. That feeling of being a spellbound child, watching stuff I just couldn’t believe was unfolding before my eyes. It’s nothing BUT cinematic. It couldn’t work in any other medium and it makes the most of this one.
The dawn of VHS was an exciting time because the stabilisers were off the bike and the kid riding it was going downhill at 100mph. It was a free for all, an opening of the floodgates to a world of mad ideas. Straight-to-VHS films were about giving the video-buying public what they wanted and the public wanted big loud escapism. They wanted to rent stuff they probably wouldn’t be seen in public watching, stuff that channeled their innermost desires and fantasies. They wanted broad strokes of heroes and villains and if the heroes were dinosaurs and the villains were ninjas – OR VICE VERSA – that just made it all the better. These films were reassuring in the best way and subversive by being so camp, so unrepentant in their trash tastes and so against the status quo of sophistication. The VelociPastor, through its clear deep love and knowledge for the genre, CELEBRATES these films and, as a result, becomes a great one in itself. It is also, I am confident, the only film you will ever see on this blog where the ninjas fight A DINOSAUR.