He has a woman that takes a knife out of her behind to kill somebody. How does he think this is going to make money?”
More than 30 years after Iranian filmmaker Jahangir Salehi Yeganehrad, a.k.a. John S. Rad, began work on the L.A. sleaze cult film Dangerous Men, his daughter, Samira Wenzel, still shakes her head thinking about the mesmerizing, incomprehensibly riveting movie.
“I asked him, ‘What do you think? This is going to make millions of dollars?,'” Wenzel says. “He goes, ‘Well, there’s two ways of making money in the movie industry: One is you really need to spend a lot of money, get really good, top-notch actors and actresses and be with a Warner Bros. or a Disney. Or you can be on the…” — she pauses to find the right, deferential terminology — “other spectrum.'”
That other spectrum took Rad 26 years to complete. The director started the film in 1979, completed shooting in the mid-Nineties and spent years in post-production before releasing the film in 2005, just two years before his death at age 70. While the film reportedly made $70 upon its initial release, it’s since become a cult classic, with Drafthouse Films recently releasing the film nationwide and prepping a DVD/Blu-ray release for early next year. “The most effective way to get people excited about it is to just lay out that the filmmaker spent more than two decades making an action movie that takes place over the course of 10 days,” says Zack Carlson, an Austin-based film programmer who screened the movie at this year’s Fantastic Fest. “The more they think about that, the more impossible it gets.”
Try to explain the plot of Dangerous Men, and people will think you’re in the middle of a psychotic breakdown. A young woman and her fiancé are attacked by two villainous bikers during a breezy stroll along a beach; after he’s senselessly murdered, she goes on a murderous rampage through Los Angeles, stabbing and shooting as many pimps, johns and rapists as possible. The dead man’s brother, a cop who, we are told in every scene, is “supposed to be on vacation,” is investigating the case. However, for reasons not entirely clear, he shifts his focus mid-film to a bleached-blond mulleted biker named Black Pepper.
“At one of the screenings, [the director] asked people, ‘How did you like it?’ Everybody said, ‘Yeah, it was nice.’ They were all lying.”—Cinematographer Peter Palian
“For reasons not entirely clear” is actually a charitable way to describe the exuberant, surreal experience of sitting through the movie as a whole. The performances are wooden enough to put Germany’s Black Forest to shame. The fight scenes recall two five-year-olds throwing simultaneous tantrums. Different actors play the same role, presumably due to the years-long shooting schedule, while tangential subplots appear and disappear with no resolution. There appears to have been a one-take-maximum rule for each shot. “At one of the screenings, he asked people, ‘How did you like it?'” says the film’s cinematographer Peter Palian. “Everybody said, ‘Yeah, it was nice.’ They were all lying.”
The joy of Dangerous Men, for a certain type of film lover, is that there are more questions than answers. Why is a highlighted script so visible on the desk of one character? Why does a biker bar have an espresso machine? Why are three minutes of the film devoted to a phone call between a peripheral cop and his wife, leading to a sex scene that’s as awkward as it is meaningless? Why is there romantic music (composed by Rad himself) playing during a tense scene between a kidnapped biker and a vigilante cop? And why does one character hide a knife in her ass? (That one has an answer: “That was his great idea,” Palian says. “He was always saying that nobody had done this.”)
Despite appearing to be an amateurish vanity project, Rad had made several films in his native Iran prior to Dangerous Men. He became the personal cameraman for the Shah of Iran, a relationship that would allow the director access to unlimited resources for his own films. When he needed thousands of men dressed in white robes to walk through a “tunnel of life” for one film, “all he had to make was one phone call and he was given men from the military to help him,” Wenzel says.
An engineer and importer/exporter by trade, Rad would eventually become a multi-millionaire in Tehran, owning multiple villas, restaurants and theatres. After making 11 films in Farsi, Rad fled with his family to New York when the Islamic Revolution overtook the country in 1979, leaving behind virtually his entire fortune and starting all over in the United States.
Rad began work on Dangerous Men upon entering the U.S. and would eventually be credited as writer, director, producer, executive producer, co-editor, location scout, stage designer and lyrics and music composer. A fiercely private, independent man, Wenzel says that part of the reason the film took so long to make was Rad’s insistence that he not be financially tied to anyone.
Why does one character hide a knife in her ass? “That was his great idea. He was always saying that nobody had done this.”—Cinematographer Peter Palian
“He always believed in doing things without going into debt,” Wenzel says. “He always wanted to do everything in cash.” Rad became an architect after moving to the U.S., earning enough money to shoot one scene before running out of funds and waiting up to a year at a time to shoot again. “He was very particular and very demanding,” she adds. “If something didn’t go the way he wanted, he would reshoot and reshoot and reshoot.”
Watching Dangerous Men, it’s hard to reconcile the baffling gap between creator and product; the self-made millionaire who spoke nine languages and had a black belt in karate who labored for decades to produce such a raw, scattered, incoherent work.
“It’s a completely unfiltered vision from someone who obviously approached movies in the most unique possible way,” says Carlson. “It’s fearless. He just let his impulses and ideas unfold, and what he ended up with is infinitely more fascinating than any movie deliberately made to be unusual.”
Rad paid out of pocket to screen the film in four L.A. theaters for a week; when he attended a midnight screening of the film, he was surprised to hear the frequent laughter of the crowd, telling his daughter angrily, “Oh, these are just a bunch of drunk people.” Even Rad’s family isn’t sure where the line between intentional and unintentional humor lies in the film. “He was trying to give a message, but I don’t think it came out the way he wanted to,” Wenzel says. ” He would get insulted very quickly if someone would laugh at a section of the movie. When my daughter laughed at a scene, he thought that was very unacceptable. I’m still trying to analyze where he was coming from.”
Despite the crude production, Rad hoped the creation — and more importantly, the completion — of the film would inspire others. “I think what he was trying to do is get a message across that nothing is impossible,” says Wenzel. “He was going to be an inspiration for young people who loved theatre, but didn’t feel like they could do a good job or didn’t have the money to do it. You can act if you’ve never acted before. It may come off as cheesy, but if you practice, you’ll get better.”
In a gesture that’s as benevolent as it is ironic, Rad hoped the profits from the film would go toward a school to teach children filmmaking skills. Wenzel still hopes to establish a foundation in her father’s honor. And having recently found one of his prolific grandfather’s scripts, Rad’s 23-year-old grandson has already begun looking for investors to bring the film to fruition. “Are you ready for a sequel to Dangerous Men?” Wenzel asks, displaying the P.T. Barnum-esque marketing skills of her father. “I hope it doesn’t take him 25 years.”