Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Rage of Honor (1987)

As I may have mentioned before, ninja movies were all the rage when I was young. I was a huge fan of Revenge of the Ninja (1983), which starred the amazing Sho Kosugi. I watched and enjoyed a few of his other films, like Enter the Ninja (1981)  and Ninja III: The Domination (1984), but none of them quite lived up to the impossible standards set by Revenge of the Ninja. Perhaps for this reason, I never watched Rage of Honor (1987) back in the day. In fact, I barely knew that it existed…

Gordon Hessler is a name that I came to recognize from British horror films, like The Oblong Box (1969) and Scream and Scream Again (1970). He directed those films, as well as The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die (1965), Cry of the Banshee (1970), and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971). He started his career working for Alfred Hitchcock on TV shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65). It seemed, to me, as if suspense and horror were Hessler’s thing. So imagine my surprise when I found out that he directed a 1980s martial arts action film like Rage of Honor.

Gordon Hessler went back into television after a successful run of theatrical features. he made some TV horror and suspense movies like Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973), Skyway to Death (1974) and Hitchhike! (1974), which stars Cloris Leachman as a woman who picks up a psychopathic hitchhiker on her way from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I saw this movie for the first time a couple of years ago and thought it was quite good. Hessler also directed episodes of TV shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75) and Kung Fu (1972-75) – an early indication of where he was going, perhaps? He directed many mystery, cop, and crime shows, including twelve episodes of one of my childhood favourites, CHiPs (1977-83). He also directed one of the most significant water-fountain movies of my childhood, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978). The halls of the elementary school were sure buzzing the day after that one aired on TV – but that’s another story.

I barely remember this show, but The Master debuted in 1984, and got cancelled after a total of 13 episodes. It was about an aging American ninja master, and starred Lee Van Cleef, Timothy Van Patten and Shô Kosugi. It’s hard to believe it failed with a cast like that – but more importantly, it starred Shô Kosugi! This is the first connection (that I know of) between Gordon Hessler and the most famous ninja star on the planet (and when I say ninja star I mean actor, not the little throwing stars that we all used to make in shops classes). Hessler directed Kosugi in three episodes of The Master. They must have gotten along well, because Hessler went on to direct not just one, but two Shô Kosugi ninja films: Pray for Death (1985) and Rage of Honor.

I saw Pray for Death when it first came out, and I recall being a bit disappointed by it. It just didn’t live up to the awesomeness of the first three Shô Kosugi ninja movies. At least, this is how my friends and I felt back in 1985. I have never tried to watch the film again, so perhaps I would have a very different experience of it now. And I think that my reaction to Rage of Honor might be proof of that.

Put simply, I loved Rage of Honor. It delivered all of the things that I look for in a Shô Kosugi ninja movie: amazing action, a compelling revenge story, cool ninja weapons, and just a little bit of campy humour to top it all off. I’m not sure whether to credit Kosugi, or some unknown stuntman, but he did some pretty amazing stunts in this movie. And whether it was all him, or a team effort, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a joy to behold. 

VHS box for Fire in the Night (1986), which features Robin Evans, one of the stars of Rage of Honor (1987).Perhaps in an inadvertent nod to Gordon Hessler’s horror roots, Rage of Honor features Robin Evans as Kosugi’s love interest. She is best known for starring in one of my personal favourites, One Dark Night (1982). Sadly, she had a fairly brief acting career with mostly TV appearances to her credit. She was, however, in one other movie that looks like it might have Not Quite Classic potential: Fire in the Night (1986), which has something to do with a woman and her father being terrorized by a rich dude who had the hots for her until she turned him down (or something). Oh, and the woman seems to be a martial artist. I haven’t seen Fire in the Night, but now I want to. Rage of Honor was Robin Evans’ final film (at least so far). 

Gordon Hessler and Shô Kosugi would reunite one more time for Journey of Honor (1991), which could be described as a Shogun or samurai movie. It was Hessler’s final film.

I avoided watching Rage of Honor (1987) for years because I didn’t expect it to live up to the holy trinity of ninja movies (Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III). My gut reaction, upon seeing it for the first time, is that it actually does live up to those earlier films. Perhaps multiple viewings will give me a different perspective – and I dare say that I’m going to find out, because I will undoubtedly be screening Rage of Honor again on another #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. – but for now I will simply call it a sparkling example of #NotQuiteClassicCinema entertainment.