Pray for Death (1985) Blu-ray Review: More Revenge of the Ninja? Fo’ Sho!

Sho Kosugi has always been something of a special hit-and-miss performer in the world of B-grade martial arts movies. Although he had appeared in several films prior to his official “debut” role as the bad guy in Cannon Films’ 1981 epic Enter the Ninja, it wasn’t until said feature that he became “recognized” as an actor with a most effective screen presence. In fact, were it not for the fact that Sho seemed to only pop up in several notably low-budget (read: bad) ninja movies that were completely indistinguishable from one another (most of which have grown to become cult classics, naturally) ‒ to say nothing of the fact Kosugi-san couldn’t really “act” per se ‒ he could’a been a contender to the throne left vacant by the death of Bruce Lee.

Alas, it was the ’80s. But fortunately for Sho, ninja movies became a really big thing after the Golan-Globus production of Enter the Ninja and its unofficial “sequels” ‒ Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and Ninja III: The Domination (1984) ‒ hit screens. The honorable Mr. Kosugi was the only performer to star in all three films, graduating from heavy to hero by the second feature, which is best remembered today for the classic line “Only a ninja can stop a ninja!” Obviously, the parade of slimy, sleazy villains who inhabit the unruly world of Gordon Hessler’s messy 1985 Pray for Death never bothered to learn that vital bit of information (even Hong Kong’s notorious cut-and-paste disaster artist Godfrey Ho ‒ who made a slew of terribly ninja movies in the early ’80s alone ‒ was fully aware of that!).

Needless to say, with a title like Pray for Death, these bad guys will surely learn one should not cross a ninja the hard way. But not before most viewers learn an equally rough lesson: namely, Sho Kosugi’s latter-day ninja movies were even worse than the earlier ones (I say that as a fan of cheesy ’80s martial arts films, too). For Pray for Death lacks the grace and artistry (he said, tongue planted firmly in cheek) present in the Cannon/Golan-Globus trilogy. This, the first of two features produced by Trans World Entertainment ‒ a label whose cheapo releases on VHS from back in the day have become very collectable amongst the analog enthusiasts of today ‒ finds Sho Kosugi and his family (Donna Kei Benz and Sho’s real life sons, Kane and Shane) moving to the United States in order to pursue that illustrious American Dream.

Of course, they find themselves trapped in a nightmare instead, once we discover the run-down restaurant they purchase (in a run-down part of town) turns out to be a secret drop-off location for local mobsters ‒ represented by a severely down-on-his-luck, scenery-chewing James Booth and a nearly invisible Michael Constantine. After a pair of corrupt cops double-cross the aforementioned baddies, the nefarious Booth kidnaps Sho’s youngest boy, believing them to be responsible. They’re not, obviously, but that doesn’t stop the gangsters from trying to mow down Sho’s family (you know, because of loose ends and witnesses and such), to wit Kosugi honorably (though quite possibly stupidly) infiltrates the proverbial lion’s den just to warnthe very much psychotic Mr. Booth to leave his family alone.

Like his family’s fantasy of the American Dream, Sho’s warning doesn’t have the desired effect: instead, Booth declares war on the innocent immigrants, and it isn’t long before Sho is pulling out his old ninja gear and going into full ’80s training-montage mode ‒ complete with a wonderfully bad theme song, “Back to the Shadows” by Peggy Abernathy in accompaniment at full blast. This other Revenge of the Ninja also stars Norman Burton (the other other Felix Leiter) as a cynical, hard-nosed cop who is Sho’s only ally in the film (albeit a very ineffectual one). In-between this and 1987’s Rage of Honor, Trans World Entertainment made the most out of their contract B-grade star, and Sho Kosugi hosted thirteen direct-to-video movies for the distribution label (the dreadful likes of which included Godfrey Ho).

Previously issued on DVD-R via MGM’s Limited Edition Collection label, the very neglected ‒ though sloppily edited ‒ Pray for Death has rarely been seen in its uncut form until now. Arrow Video not only provides us with the best-looking transfer of the film to date (in glorious High-Definition, to boot), but also includes an integral cut of the feature film, which was heavily trimmed down from its original whiplash-inducing edited form to remove many shots of blood, gore, and even an unnecessary rape scene. The quality drops considerably when scenes from the extended version pop up (Pray-ers can’t be choosers, after all!), though it should be noted this is the first time we’ve seen the excised footage in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio ‒ which is reason enough to toss a few throwing stars into the air for joy.

In addition to the two cuts of the film, Arrow’s awesome Blu-ray also includes the first half of an intimate chat with Mr. Kosugi himself (bearing the undeniably cutesy title, “Sho and Tell, Part I: Birth of a Ninja”), who discusses his younger days before and after his move to America, and the beginning of his career in motion pictures (the second part of the interview is to be included on Arrow’s forthcoming release of Rage of Honor). An archival subject from ’85 is also included here, which features The Sho discussing various martial arts techniques of Japan. Arrow’s release is rounded out with a trailer gallery featuring previews for Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Pray for Death, and Rage of Honor; a 24-page illustrated booklet; and reversible artwork.

While Pray for Death will never win an award for being the best ninja movie ever, this genuine guilty pleasure of the ’80s still has a lot of nostalgic charm to it. Sho isn’t at his finest here, to say the least, and the title makes one yearn for the Cannon canon of the era (which is really saying something), which have already seen BD releases courtesy the folks at Shout! Factory and Kino-Lorber. Despite my often unkind words towards the production (face it, peeps: this is a bad movie!), I am grateful Arrow Video have enabled us to nearly complete Sho Kosugi’s true “Ninja Theater” legacy with this and the upcoming Rage of Honor. Now all we need is for someone to release Kosugi’s more enjoyable (and even dumber!) Nine Deaths of the Ninja on Blu-ray and the cycle will be complete.

The blood-stained katana is in your court fo’ Sho, Arrow.

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Luigi Bastardo

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