Oriental Rewrite: Merchant of Evil (1993)

Two pieces of cloth and you can still see the joins… Dave checks out a disparate action-thriller.

Unless you’re looking for ninety-odd minutes of mediocrity, punctuated by William Smith screaming racist epithets at well-dressed Asian men, then MERCHANT OF EVIL might leave you a little disappointed.

Smith is Victor Fortunetti: the lead player in a white slavery ring operating out of Hong Kong, although he spends a chunk of his time staving off local mobsters who want a slice of his pie. He acquires the girls with the help of a fixer, moustachioed smoothie Doug Masters (James Pfeiffer, brother of the film’s director), and his latest victim is the Vancouver-born Vanessa Henning (Dawn DeNoon, now a big shot TV exec), a naïve young thing who’s stopped over in San Francisco on her way to a new job in Los Angeles. She falls for Masters’ ‘clothes importer’ schtick, and, before you know it, she’s drugged and boxed up in a shipping crate. Thankfully, her sister, Erica (Tracy Hughes), is on the ball and she connects with ace private eye Mike Penney (Steve Viall) to prevent the next shipment of human cargo from leaving the country.

All of which sounds like an absolute riot — except Smith stays in the Far East, the others stay in ‘Frisco, and never the twain shall meet.

Enter budding actress, Tina-Desiree Berg, who explained to Femme Fatales just what went down:

“I later found out that this movie had been completed much earlier and taken to the American Film Market. When the producers couldn’t sell it, they hired a name in William Smith and a couple of new actresses, including myself, to pretty much give it a complete overhaul. It was a good break for me.” [1]

Helmer Scott Pfeiffer’s debut feature, the wildly enjoyable Fire Fight (1988), had done good business at the AFM, with sales to several territories like the U.K. where it appeared on tape via the long gone Castle Communications. As Berg mentions there was no such interest in Merchant of Evil, Pfeiffer’s sophomore flick, so the only solution was to splice in some new footage — but I’d certainly stop short of calling it an overhaul. Essentially, Smith’s combat gear obsessed madman (with a disfigured eye no less) is used to bookend the picture, and by adding a few scenes in ‘The Orient’, the intention was to add a broader dimension to the original cut which was set completely within America’s borders.

Thing is, Pfeiffer’s first version of Merchant of Evil ain’t that bad: it’s a competently made low-budget actioner that suffers from the usual array of iffy performances and limitations around stunt work. The twenty additional minutes only detract from the momentum of the core story. Berg is given practically nothing to do, and most of Smith’s mumbled dialogue suggests it was made up on the fly. Needs must I guess, and at least the revised edit attracted distribution in Germany. There was, however, no sign of Merchant of Evil in Blighty, while Pfeiffer had to self-distribute the picture under his own San Rafael Home Video label in the U.S.

His final time in the director’s chair, Pfeiffer went on to solidify an already established working relationship with Tanya York (he produced The Divine Enforcer (1992) with her) in 2002, when he was announced as the VP of Production and Development at York Entertainment.

USA ● 1993 ● Action, Thriller ● 90mins

William Smith, Dawn DeNoon, Tracy Hughes, Steve Viall, Tina-Desiree Berg ● Dir. Scott Pfeiffer ● Wri. Natasha Anne Marie

U.S. video art courtesy of VHS Collector

[1] Tina-Desiree Berg: Anti-Starlet by Gary Garfinkel, Femme Fatales, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 1994

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s