Anyone who knows the history of independent movies will likely know about that of The Cannon Group, a company that, under the eventual guidance of two Israeli filmmaking cousins, became one of the most notorious B-movie havens of the 1980s. The must-watch 2014 documentary ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS as well as 1986’s THE LAST MOGULS (shown as part of the BBC’s OMNIBUS series) both take a more in-depth look at the studio. Despite their unorthodox business model and slate of mostly subpar content, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’ ambition and passion for filmmaking inspired me to name my flagship character, KT CANNON, after the company. I’d like to now focus on another studio of the past whose films have arguably an even more ludicrous reputation all their own.
I am thoroughly convinced that PM Entertainment, founded by namesakes Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi, was the Cannon Films of the 1990s. Their movies are practically of the same caliber as Cannon’s infamous library of films. And one man in particular, 11-time kickboxing champion Don “The Dragon” Wilson, was probably to PM what Chuck Norris was to Cannon, even though he wasn’t—and still isn’t—nearly as well-known.
The real difference is that PM made their films on budgets even lower than Cannon; the average was $350,000. One of the studio’s directors, Richard W. Munchkin, noted that due to those low budgets “it wasn’t about ‘what is the best way to tell the story,’ it was ‘how can I shoot 11 pages in one day.'” Not exactly the greatest filmmaking philosophy, and it shows.
From all the titles as of this point that I’ve selected at random and screened from the PM library so far, not only was I not impressed but much of the time I wasn’t even that interested. Sure, the Cannon films may not have been great works of art either, but with them it looks like people were actually TRYING; most of PM’s works look like the complete opposite. Here’s the dirty laundry list:
- The plots are all over the place (in one film supposedly about kickboxing, there was an unnecessary side plot focusing on the romance between the young protagonist’s trainer and his girlfriend, plus a very long scene where the main characters play slots and blackjack in the same casino the tournament is being held in. Also, I swore I was watching Cinemax After Dark at more than one point—enough said there).
- When they can finally decide what story they want to tell, the films rip off every cliché in the action and sci-fi books that even TV Tropes won’t touch, not to mention the overuse of slow motion sequences, particularly involving flipping cars (which became something of a signature PM technique) and almost every time anyone is thrown through a window, and more massive explosions than Michael Bay could shake a flamethrower at.
- Because so many of the films I watched had relatively similar plots and characters—and this has nothing to do with the fact that some of them were sequels—it was tough discerning one story from another. Especially when footage was often reused from film to film (a glaring example of this occurs when a climactic explosion that closed out one movie was used to end a relatively minor car chase ¾ of the way into another, totally unrelated movie…again with the extremely low budgets).
- In many cases, the acting is atrocious, and some of the dialogue and characters are just laughable beyond belief.
- There are often poor lighting scenarios (in another film I watched, an exterior scene was somehow tinted blue even though it was not intended to be a nighttime scene). The banks of blinking lights that are supposed to represent computers must have been old hat by that time as well, if not close to it.
- The films suffer from rather shoddy synthesized music scores; some of them were so overdramatic it was painful. (Many utilized E-mu orchestral samples that were so much the rage in the ’90s that they quickly became overused and clichéd.)
- Similarly, there is also the overuse of many canned sound effects (particularly from The Hollywood Edge’s Premiere Edition Vol. 1 library, which came out in 1990 and therefore also defined the decade), since they likely couldn’t afford foley. Many of these sounds get especially annoying to hear over time the more I hear them.
- The visual effects surprisingly aren’t THAT horrible, but most look sorely outdated by at least 10 years.
So what happened to the studio in the end? Well, renewed competition from major studios making similar product, only with star power, forced PM’s founders to cash out and sell the company to The Harvey Entertainment Group, former parent company of Harvey Comics, in 2000; the company was closed soon after. The PM film library was sold off to Echo Bridge Home Entertainment in 2002, so naturally many of their releases were later made available to DVD and digital platforms like Amazon Video, though oddly enough you may have better luck finding the original VHS tapes nowadays. Of course, a lot of PM titles are also free on YouTube by way of unauthorized uploads, which is how I found most of them in the first place. So unless otherwise specified, it’s not recommended wasting your money.
The real question that many of you are probably asking is why in the world did I put myself through this? I can name a few reasons: 1) To tell myself that I can actually make decent movies that have at least some production value; 2) To do research for projects that I’m developing which may spoof or affectionally parody elements of the aforementioned dirty laundry list; and 3) to write more BraveReviews like this—at least if the movie in question is actually worth writing about. In the case of the 12(!) films from a single studio that I watched, not one of them stood out enough to me to warrant their own separate and in-depth review.
There is, admittedly, a small part of me that thinks maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on PM. It’s not like these are the most terrible films I’ve ever seen—after all, nothing in my mind can ever touch the colossal flop that was the Warner Bros.-distributed BATTLEFIELD EARTH. Some are actually enjoyable to watch, at least to a mild extent. But as I mentioned earlier, I’m doing this for legitimate personal and career reasons because I know I can bring together likeminded people that can pay homage to an era and a genre of films that elitists in Hollywood have historically looked down upon (yes, yes, six technical Oscars® for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD notwithstanding, but that is still a major studio release—and even this low-budget drivel somehow has more story!!). Like Cannon, the PM way of doing things wouldn’t necessarily be my way of doing things, even if it did bring in the money. But it really is interesting seeing this method and seeing these films, and something tells me my opinions might change even a little upon repeated viewing. I’m one for second chances, after all!
I will end this retrospective with a classic example of a PM car chase sequence, which ironically comes from a movie I did not actually screen, but does it really matter? And yes…the late R. Lee Ermey somehow managed to find his way into this one!
Some of the information in this article was culled from this highly-recommended article about PM which goes into great detail about virtually everything: An oral history of PM Entertainment, a low-budget high-octane American dream.