I have conflicting memories of this film. I even had to check IMDB to see exactly when it came out at the theaters to give me some perspective on when I might have seen it on cable. IMDB says November of ’85, which means given the usual length of time (one year) it took for any theatrical flick to hit cable, I should have seen it at the end of ’86, but for some reason I keep thinking I saw it at the end of ’87, or even ’88, though ’88 may be pushing it. I remember recording it one night off HBO then watching it in my room later, but I remember Gerry (high school best friend) was watching it with me too at one point. But I have an odd notion it was the end of ’87 because I think I was wondering about this new Star Trek series that was coming on, and Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in September of 1987. Speaking of Gerry that particular viewing with him stuck out because he seemed, I don’t know, cynical, or uninterested in the movie, and that was odd because back then he and I were dabbling in karate and we loved Chuck Norris and Sho Kosugi flicks just to see all their moves. I remember when it got to the end and Kosugi was being beat on relentlessly and flashing back to his dead wife, Gerry made some kind of comment like, ‘oh, look, the hero being beat on and getting ready to kick ass,” or something like that, but in a tone like he had seen it a million times, in all honesty we had, but that never stopped us in the past from liking these films.
I also remember liking the opening song, ‘Back To The Shadows,’ that they also played at the end and would occasionally spend a night or two just rewinding the tape to listen to it.
I have seen, I think, just about every ninja movie Sho Kosugi made back in the 80s: Enter The Ninja (1981), Revenge Of The Ninja (1983), Ninja III: The Domination (1984), Nine Deaths Of The Ninja (1985), Pray For Death (1985), and Rage Of Honor (1987), but there’s something about Pray For Death that stands out. I actually think it’s his best ninja movie.
Kosugi plays family man, Akira Saito. He has an American born wife, Aiko (Donna K. Benz) and two sons, Takeshi (Kane Kosugi) and Tomoya (Shane Kosugi). As the movie starts they’re all living in Japan, but Aiko wants to move back to the states to see if they can start a life there. Eventually, Akira decides this could work and they do, starting up a restaurant in the bad part of town of Los Angeles. Not knowing America I guess I can forgive this.
But the store they bought from elderly Sam Green (Parley Baer) is connected to an unused cigar store the local mob uses to stash shit they’ve stolen. This particular night we meet two dirty cops, Trumble (Charles Greuber) and Daly (Matthew Faison), who have stolen this expensive piece of jewelry referred to as the Van Atta Necklace, but Daly suddenly decides to fuck everyone and keep it for himself, but making it look like he stored it in the floorboards of the store in this box.
Our main bad guy is a psychopath working for Mr. Newman (Michael Constantine), the mob boss. His name is Limehouse Willie and he’s played perfectly by the late James Booth. Booth plays him despicable and psychopathic enough for us to detest him on sight and relish the inevitable moment when Kosugi sends him violently into the great beyond. Until then we have to grit our teeth and endure his massacre of a lot of other characters in the movie, some we even like. Sam, for instance, who Willie thinks has the necklace when he finds its not where the cops told him it was hidden. Sam’s beaten to death on the hood of his own car. He then thinks Akira and his family has it since they bought the place from Sam, so he kidnaps one of Akira’s son and has him meet him down at the docks if he wants to get him back in one piece.
This is a scene that begins to show us how psycho Willie truly is. He chains Akira’s arms, rips open his shirt and cuts his chest deep. We also learn just how ninja Akira really is too as it concerns the horrors of torture. Akira didn’t even flinch at that slash. So Willie decides to take a blowtorch to Akira’s kid. He just refuses to believe the man knows nothing of this necklace, or is that he just likes to torture and kill people? Might be the latter. Yeah, it’s the latter.
Akira ninja’s himself free, grabs his kid, and escapes without Willie and his goons seeing it happen. But a new problem arises now. Even though Willie’s pretty damn sure Akira knows nothing of the necklace, he still needs to kill him because he knows who Willie is.
Back in the first act when Akira was in Japan we see he’s definitely ninja skilled for he reminisces about the fatal night his brother tried to rob the temple he was acting as security guard for, in a manner of speaking, and has to open a huge can of wup ass on the man, but one lousy misstep gets his brother impaled on a sword and Akira blames himself. Even his father whom he briefly fights with after the flashback can’t help him over the guilt. In one respect Akira is using this new life in America to forget his ninja self and how it got his brother killed, but thanks to good ol’ American scum Akira’s ninja’s skills will never get that rusty.
Shit escalate quickly as Akira decides to personally threaten Willie by sneaking onto his boat one night, take out all his men and come up behind him and sticks a knife under his throat. “Stay away from the Saito family . . . If you don’t, I promise you, you will pray for death!” Nice working in of the movie’s title.
And then it escalates further after that, as we knew it would. Badly, I should say. Like real fuckin’ bad. Aiko and one of his kids are run over by some of Willie’s goons, but their not killed, so Willie, posing as a doctor, infiltrates the hospital and rapes and kills Aiko. He tries to ice the son too, but cops show up.
Akira now has no choice but to let the full ninja within out, which he does beautifully, and totally, as he lays waste to the “protected” mansion Newman and his thugs reside in. Everyone is killed but Willie, and the fight between him and Akira ends up at the warehouse Akira and his kids were hiding out in as he prepped to go to go against the mob. This warehouse belonged to Sam Green and upstairs it houses a room full of mannequins and downstairs a lumber mill where their final fight takes place and where Willie ends up meeting a gruesome fate impaled to a log as it heads towards the giant circular saw to be cut in half.
Since this movie doesn’t pit a ninja against a ninja it’s dirtier, and street-like, which makes it more unique than Kosugi’s other movies. An ax and a chainsaw is employed in a desperate attempt by Willie to finish off Akira. Something you don’t typically see in a film like this, a dude going after a ninja with a fuckin’ chainsaw!
I’ve seen mentioned in other reviews the oddness of having a lumber mill and a room full of mannequins in one warehouse. Not so, in my experience. Without any real skills most of my jobs I’ve had in life are manual labor and there was one I worked in a old mill filling mail orders for a business that sold school supplies. One day I got the urge to go exploring during lunch and went upstairs. Incidentally, this mill was constructed back in the 50s and I guess Massachusetts was populated by giants, or something, back then because the stairs going up to each floor were spaced at an abnormal distance apart that required you to take bigger steps than normal as you climbed them. The building still stands to this day too. Anyway, on the second floor I entered the first door I saw there and came upon a room full of broken stoves, dryers and ovens. I mean a shit load of them stacked upon one another. All over the place. Central Radio is the go to place to buy one of these in this area and it hit me ‘ah-ha, so this is where Central stores all their defective and broken appliances,’ because you just can’t toss things like that in a landfill. Legally, I mean, so a room full of mannequins in a lumber mill isn’t so unusual.
Since director Gordon Hessler is now deceased here’s a small segment of an interview conducted with him from the book, ‘Science Fiction Stars And Horror Heroes: Interviews With Actors, Directors, Producers And Writers Of The 1940s-1960s (2006)’ by John Brunas and Michael Brunas (Research Associates) Tom Weaver (Author), about his problems with the MPAA concerning Pray For Death:
“One of your new films, Pray For Death , ran into trouble with the censors, didn’t it?
You know, there’s a double standard in the Motion Picture Association. If you’re working for a major, they really let you show heads being blown off and all of that sort of thing. If you’re not a major — Pray For Death was made for Trans World Enterprises — they just come down on you. They took out a sort of rape scene — it was not a voyeur scene, it was a necessary story point to show the villainy of one character and make the hero’s revenge so much more satisfying. It’s the same sort of rape scene that you can see at the opening of Jagged Edge , but they absolutely took ours out. You’ve got five old women making these decisions, and you cannot argue with them, you can’t discuss it or use logic, you’re finally blackmailed into accepting their wishes and cutting down, because a small company has just got to get the film released. The people here would not give it an R rating and we had to cut some very, very good sequences out of it.
Pray For Death was a horror film as well as being an action film; there are great horror overtones in it. It’s a very good picture and I think it’s very different from any martial-arts film you’ve ever seen.”
MGM previously released Pray For Death back in 2012 on their MOD Program, which is still in print. Arrow Video, however, are the ones who have finally released the blu-ray of it through their U.S. division. This happened back on the 16th of this month.
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 2.35:1 high definition widescreen—2.0 PCM Stereo (Original Uncompressed)—English SDH
The new digital transfer of the R-rated cut (1:34) looks spectacular, but there is a drop in quality when the cut footage shows up that I wasn’t expecting. Is it a deal breaker? I can only speak for myself. I’ve never seen any of the other overseas discs that have the cut footage spliced back in, but I understand some of them were pretty bad looking. I’ve never seen any of them, so I can’t compare but next time I watch this flick I’ll probably just put on the R-rated cut. Incidentally the uncut version runs 1:38, and it’s surprising to see what was taken out. All of it looks rather tame by 21st century comparisons. The R-rated cut can be accessed in the Special Features department on the disc.
Extras included . . .
- R-Rated Cut
- Sho And Tell Part 1: Birth Of A Ninja (19:05)
- Sho Kosugi On Martial Art Forms (18:57)
- Sho Kosugi Trailer Gallery (Enter The Ninja, Revenge Of The Ninja, Pray For Death, Rage Of Honor)
- 32-Page Booklet
- Reversible Cover Art (poster art similar to MGM’s MOD)
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The Sho And Tell and Martial Art Forms extras are worth the price of admission. The first extra is from a 2015 interview where a now 67 year old Kosugi (I would have never recognized him if I didn’t know it was him) talks about his career leading up to Pray For Death, and the second extra is from 1985 where he did what looks like a public access kind of talk show. This is the first time I’ve ever seen any kind of interview with him. Very nicely done, Arrow. The second part of that ’15 interview can be seen on Arrow’s Rage Of Honor blu-ray.