Raygunesque #14: Cannon

Art & Culture

For anyone who grew up in the VHS era – the children of the video nasty generation – the name Cannon still holds great sway. For many, it’s one of the prime movers of the VCR boom. What, you could argue, came first – Cannon’s low grade but thoroughly enjoyable B-movies or the kit on which to watch them?

The growth of this bona fide movie business outsider went hand in hand with the 1980s video explosion. If there was a company which personified the pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap ethos of the early, Wild West-style of the halcyon days of the nascent video rental market, giving the people exactly what they wanted, then it was Cannon. 

Sex comedies with teenage lads desperate for even a glimpse of knockers, erotic art films with Bo Derek, martial arts biffers, action films with helicopters disappearing behind hills and mountains before exploding, high concept sci-fi with low, low budgets… Cannon had the lot.

It also had a knack of catching trends and finding the right product for the right time, whether it was blending ninjas, horror and Flashdance-style dancing (no, seriously) or the breakdance craze.

And yet, and yet… despite what seemed like a z-grade investment, there were some gems in its, er, canon; names involved included some of Hollywood and beyond’s finest, there were art house successes, opera adaptations, some genuinely bonkers sci-fi and at least one of the finest films of the 1980s. Oh, and ninjas. Loads of ninjas. 

The history of Cannon, the story of the rise and sometimes ignominious fall of the risk-taking, flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants Israeli cousins at the heart of Cannon, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus is celebrated in Electric Boogaloo, subtitled The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films. It’s directed by Mark Hartley and is, effectively, the third in a trilogy of films about the world of exploitation flicks, taking on Cannon after Not Quite Hollywood, another “wild, untold” story, about Ozploitation films, and Machete Maidens Unleashed, which, self-explanatory title aside, was based around the Filipino film business.

So why Cannon? And why this kind of film? 

“I was never really interesting in doing documentaries,” he laughs. “I thought no-one else was going to tell it, someone needed to put that spotlight on Cannon.”

He was first drawn to Cannon by a certain affection for Michael Winner films and the rather barking Lifeforce from Tobe Hooper. “For me, Lifeforce is the reason,” he says. “I saw it when I was a kid, it blew my mind. I’ve never seen anything equal to it since. It was a major blockbuster, they took on the studios. Thank God they made that film.”

Even now if you ask Hartley his favourite Cannon film, the answer will be the same: “It’s Lifeforce hands down. Do you need to ask why? Anyone who loves Cannon needs to get down on their hands and knees and thank God for that film.”

After deciding to make the documentary, first port of call were Golan and Globus themselves, but this too, ended in typical Cannon-style. “They were very keen to be involved in the documentary,” he explains “They said they’d love to be co-producers, but we wouldn’t allow that.” And, as you’d expect from the creative team that read the script for Rambo: First Blood Part II when it was doing the rounds of potential producers and were “inspired” to make Missing In Action, the Chuck Norris hit, they’d soon set up their own documentary about their ultimately doomed company. 

The Golan and Globus take on Cannon, The Go-Go Boys, even made it to screens ahead of Hartley’s outing, a trick they’d learnt during their heyday. As Hartley notes, this is, after all, a company that would put together one-sheet promotional materials for the Cannes film market based on an merely idea or outline, then sell international rights to distributors (especially video ones), then use the cash to actually make the film, while as legend has it, you could get in a lift with them on the ground floor and have done a deal with Cannon by the time you got out on the third floor. 

Hartley ended up haven the unlikely partner of Brett Ratner a man much ridiculed among the film cognoscenti, but one who here helped it get made. As Hartley says: “Brett spent lots of lonely nights watching Last American Virgin [when he was younger]. That’s how the film got financed. He was the perfect producer. He left us alone, then he rang me and told me how much he loved it, then did press in Toronto.”

The finished film is not necessarily how Hartley first envisaged it, as he outlines. “When we set out to go an make it, we thought it would be a very different story, far more inspirational, with these two gruff outsiders who took on Hollywood, like David versus Goliath.

“But when we started talking to people, it became very much more of a cautionary tale.”

He’s got flak for the film –  “it does polarise people expecting it to be a fan boy picture. Somebody told me the film had pissed on his childhood” – but as Hartley explains, the Rashomon approach, with four or five people giving their version of how they saw it, works in its favour. “I think people appreciate how candid and honest it is,” he says. “I’m sick of seeing recent documentaries, where people talk to fans, authors, critics, scholars, but none of them have the first hand connection, telling first hand accounts, having been in the trenches. This is a much more candid and honest story.”

He’s thought about it from all angles – when we suggest that it pays less attention to VHS than we thought it was, he says the pre-sales were key for Cannon, not the VHS boom. Even in the UK, he points out, the company owned scores of cinemas as well as a video label, enabling Cannon to air its own films in its own outlets. By the time the big VHS bucks came along, he adds “our story is pretty much over”. 

The crash of the company was, he explains, down in part to its own ambitions. "They were their own worst enemies. They had three projects which could have set them up – Masters Of The Universe, Over The Top and Superman IV. They cut the schedules, cut the budgets, they didn’t really develop these projects and they were plagued by bad luck.”

Over The Top was also hit by Sylvester Stallone’s wage demands (“no-one’s really sure, you can decide which one you want to agree with… It shows just how much of a myth there was surrounding the company”), Masters Of The Universe came too late for the toy craze and Superman IV, well, Superman IV, like the others, suffered from budget cuts and is just, well, godawful. 

And yet despite its demise, Cannon still had a profound effect and influence. “What the Weinsteins went on to do, Cannon hoped to. They made all kinds of movies and got some grudging respect from the industry, but not enough respect. Whatever people say about the movies or Cannon, Menahem really did change movies.”

Menahem Golan sadly died last year, but with Electric Boogaloo and the likes of Lifeforce getting a new lease of life and some timely reappraisal courtesy of the likes of Arrow Video (“No one in their right minds would have financed a film that is that batshit crazy… it came out recently through Arrow and is well worth checking out,” says Hartley), Cannon’s legacy and influence is set to continue. 

And as for Hartley? He’s off to make a proper, narrative film. “People seem to have really enjoyed Electric Boogaloo. It’s a nice place to end my exploitation trilogy.”

Electric Boogaloo is out on DVD on July 13, and available to buy now on assorted legitimate download to own sites… Lifeforce and Runaway Train, among others, are available to buy from Arrow Video