Brian Thomas watched three movies a day last year. As he worked 14-hour days to complete the guide to Asian action films he was writing, the West Rogers Park apartment he shares with his wife, Kristin, and their pets began to overflow with videotapes and DVDs. “I didn’t see my wife much,” he admits, “although she watched some with me.” When they needed a break from the mess, they’d go out to the movies.
Thomas saw his first Japanese monster movie, Godzilla Versus the Thing, on TV while growing up in Kane County in the late 1960s. “A lot of these movies had just the kind of things I wanted to see and wasn’t getting,” he says. “You’d see American science-fiction movies and want to see the big monsters breaking up cities and fighting each other, and a lot of times it was just a lot of scientists standing around and talking.” Later, he got hooked on kung fu flicks like Enter the Dragon and Five Fingers of Death, in which “the fight scenes are the point of the whole movie.”
After high school he moved to the city and briefly enrolled at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art before transferring to Columbia, where he studied animation, illustration, and film. In those days some of the downtown theaters would show four or five kung fu movies in a row–and Thomas would see them all. “They’d start showing the movies at eight or nine in the morning and keep running them until midnight,” says the self-described loner. “You’d go in there and fight the rats for your popcorn.”
He had a semester left to go in 1983 when he decided to pack it in. Instead, he found work as a comic book illustrator, drawing titles like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. At the end of the day he and his friends would go to Chinatown to catch Jackie Chan movies. “I think a lot of people drawing comics back then were the first ones to get hooked into Hong Kong action movies,” he says. “They were making movies where the characters could act like superheroes, which wasn’t really happening in the States.”
His career as a critic began almost by accident, when he started reviewing science fiction, horror, and action movies for the newsletter of the Psychotronic Film Society in 1985. “I was going to early meetings at Mike Flores’s apartment and Del Close’s place,” he says. “I was showing up at shows and talking about movies, and they said, ‘Hey, why don’t you write some of that stuff down?'” The experience led to work for other publications, including Cinescape magazine and the VideoHound line of film guides. (He stopped drawing comics when the industry fell apart several years ago, and until he started making a living as a writer he supplemented his income by designing Web sites.) A few years ago he pitched VideoHound the idea of a book on horror movies, but the imprint already had one of those. Instead, said the publishers, how about a guide to Asian action movies?
Originally envisioned as 600 pages on Hong Kong film, the 936-page finished volume, VideoHound’s Dragon: Asian Action & Cult Flicks, wound up including a whopping 1,150 reviews, 900 or so written by Thomas. It covers Asian cinema from India to Japan, and includes a glossary and sidebars on topics like Bollywood, Jet Li, and the “Hip Hop Vampires of China.”
Thomas declines to name a favorite film, but recommends newbies not miss The Killer, The Legend of Drunken Master, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ghost in the Shell, and Return of the Dragon. He’s moving on, though. These days he’s seeing and reviewing about one DVD a day and working on proposals for VideoHound books on animation and European psychotronic films. “It’s time to watch some spaghetti westerns,” he says.
On Thursday, November 13, there’ll be a release party for VideoHound’s Dragon at Liar’s Club, 1665 W. Fullerton. It starts at 8, with screenings of kung fu trailers at 8:30 and DJ Psychomike (Flores) at 10. It’s free, but you must be 21. For more call 773-665-1110 or see www.psychotronic.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.