Monday, October 29, 2012

The Modern Grindhouse Part 5: MANIAC (2012)


When it was announced in 2011 that Elijah Wood would be the star in an Alexandre Aja penned remake of William Lustig's seminal 1980 exploitation film MANIAC, I was in a state of guffaw-powered disbelief. "Seriously?" I cried aloud, to no-one in particular. That's not to say that Elijah Wood is a bad actor - he's a reliable presence in pretty much everything I've seen him in, be it as a hobbit, a stoner with a talking dog, or a mute avatar of Christian themed destruction - it's just that... well, we're talking about a fucking remake of MANIAC, aren't we?

Bill Lustig's original film was such a nasty and memorable piece of work largely because of Joe Spinell's utterly devastating performance as Frank Zito, a psychologically shattered serial killer that slithers from scene to scene with all the grace of a half-shaven gorilla, staring down his prey like a wildcat and striking with bold, bloody abandon, carving the scalps of his victims free with a straight razor only when he was finished. This may sound like a thankless role filled with countless masked killers, but where Lustig's film differed most from the competition was in its focus on the killer himself. After a night skinning young lovers, he returns home to stew in his squalid apartment, playing dress up with his only friends - generic and bloody mannequins, wearing the scalps he's returned home with, whom he speaks to as if they were living, breathing, feeling people. Spinell's performance was ruthless and as terrifying as any beast to grace the silver screen, but there was a deep sense of sadness and irreparable psychological distress permeating his every action. The film's tag line - "I warned you not to go out tonight!" - is less a threat than a childish plea, the jabber of a madman who's sense of self worth is tied to the trophies he drags home with him. No matter how terrifying, amoral and disgusting Spinell's performance, it was also just vulnerable and real enough that, somehow, you still legitimately felt bad for a man who was murdering strangers in the streets of New York! This was a pretty impressive feat, particularly when - over thirty years ago - the market for "serious" films trying to dissect the mystique and fear of the serial killer was a market that the cheap-o direct to video market had yet to find. You know, the kind LIKE THIS.

The public's first official look at Elijah Wood as "Frank".

To be fair, the far-earlier Ed Gein inspired Deranged had dealt with similar subject matter in a somewhat serious way, but where that film excels as a kitschy 70s character drama it mostly fails as a horror spectacle, wavering somewhere between the surreal and the absurd, only some of it clearly intentional. Maniac had it all, with trendy stalking POV shots, excessive and vivid gore courtesy of Tom Savini, and a unique grimy aesthetic that came from shooting sans-permits in the filth strewn streets of the Big Apple (on 16mm of course). I'd argue that it sits as a comfortable runner-up to the almost accidental masterpiece that is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, perhaps the greatest exploration of that which scares us all the most; the idea that our fellow man might secretly be a legendary monster made flesh... and now they were going to remake it? With Frodo fucking Baggins?!

Now as I'd said, not all hope was lost on this project. The script was written by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur, the pair of young French film-makers that turned their love for Lustig's film into an impressive director debut for the former, Haute Tension (or "Switchblade Romance" or whatever you want to call it). The pair also wrote the minimalist 2007 thriller P2, which was in turn directed by Franck Khalfoun, and while that film was inherently small in scope, I can say it was a lot better than the simplistic material demanded. I won't lie and say that the story of a woman terrorized by a parking attendant for 90 minutes left me certain that he had the chops to take a whack at Frank Zito's legacy, but the staff here clearly has talent, and so while I was still dreading the safe, generic turn this easily could have taken... well, I deserved it to the lot of them to give it a fair chance.

The American premier to the public was at around 9:30 last Wednesday. I was in the audience at The Cinefamily's "Silent Movie Theater", expectations not yet defined. Director Franck Khalfoun, star Elijah Wood, and supporting cutie Megan Duffy were all in attendance, and the entire theater was packed with people just as curious and excited as myself to see what the Alexandre Aja penned "remake" would turn out to be... I won't deny that seeing any film under the circumstances is sure to color one's opinion of it, but with as uncertain as I was going in, I'd like to think I can take the film for what it is, no more, and no less...

So it's with a measured level of surprise - perhaps even shock? - that I say this; Franck Khalfoun's 2012 remake of MANIAC is an excellent film. A wildly different film than Bill Lustig's original, make no mistake, but it springs off from the 1980 film's core in unusual and largely satisfying ways to forge a completely new identity. This is less a trumped-up version of the original than a completely new film loosely inspired by its supposed "original"... think Brian de Palma's Scarface or David Cronenberg's The Fly, largely original films that share a certain level of marquee value and thematic similarities, but little else with their namesakes.

So... is it weird that a guy who restores mannequins for a living
DOESN'T casually wipe off the faces on his personal collection?

Shot (almost) entirely in a first-person POV, we're introduced to 'Frank' through virtually nothing but incidental reflections, and given no choice but to listen to him coo quietly like an excited child, creating an uncomfortable persona that questions a terrified victim as if he were talking to a puppy he was just slightly annoyed by: "Why are you running? Don't you know that I already know where you live?" Unlike Joe Spinell's take on the murderous brute, here we can actually see brief moments of the demons that reside in his mind creeping into what he knows as reality, showing a woman he's falling for bleeding from the scalp and replaying his most recent hunt as a distorted impressionist memory on the big screen, reminding Frank - and in turn, us -  that no matter how much he wants to live a normal life and put violence behind him, he's physically unable to control those dark impulses. A bit part of the appeal in MANIAC '80 was the fact that you were forced to stay in the killer's deranged world, even after the killing was through. MANIAC '12 literally puts you inside the killer himself, and gives you absolutely no other point of view to cling to. To watch the film is to experience madness first hand, not just the gory aftermath and an exploration of how we even got there.

Whilst I was skeptical of Wood's physicality working in a role like this - he is, make no mistake, a pocket sized individual with all the visceral terror of a woodchuck - the unique way in which the film was created means that we're essentially feeling the story as felt by Wood, not literally watching him act most of it out. To his credit, Wood was there for every day of filming - even for scenes they realized it would be physically impossible for him to be in - so that he could work out the blocking and pacing in a consistent manner. The result is it becomes all but impossible to tell when Wood is or isn't behind the camera, and is a technical marvel that they could consistently keep the long, unbroken takes and even use reflections as a narrative device without needing to digitally remove anything; while there are a few moments that would have been possible without special effects, the vast majority of the film takes the guerrilla approach and expands it into fine visual art, surpassing the cliche of the stalking point-of-view "killer cam" until it supersedes cinematic reality itself. The only thing that almost betrays it are the intermittent flashbacks to Frank's childhood, showing the extreme dysfunction that's led him to this blood stained spot, and further building a case for why Wood was the right choice; while the original 1980 film had moments and suggestions of developmental infantilism, this one takes it much further, portraying Wood as... well, you'll just have to see it for yourself, I'm afraid.

The complete "Red-Band" trailer.

The film is infused with an 80s synth-pop score that fits the material well enough, and the visuals have a heavy contrast, and turns night into a sickly green wasteland. While CG is rare, it's mostly used to hide the seams of the otherwise mostly-there gore effects provided by the KNB,which are consistently excellent, though anyone expecting the creative, kitschy set pieces Nicotero's been freed to unleash on the set of The Walking Dead or when hanging around Eli Roth might be let down, but the effects are consistently impressive, walking a fine line between being (occasionally) surprising and slightly funny, to downright repulsive and squirm-inducing. With one scene in particular - I'll not spoil it, apart from saying it takes place in a parking lot - if you can watch it unfold and not cringe, congratulations! - you're a robot and clearly do not understand this organic concept called "pain". Still, anyone expecting a rehash of Tom Savini's truly masterful violence from the original film may walk away let down; if Lustig's film was about expanding the impact and using violence as an expression of art, the remake takes the opposite route, showing viewers how visceral and dirty the act of destroying the human body really might be. There is one moment taken from the original film that packs a gristly punch, and it honestly outdoes the Savini version with the inclusion of one final twist... but whether or not you'll take to that probably depends on how seriously you take the symbolism the film has been pushing up to this point. Oh yes, there's a running theme in this one that wasn't ever really explored in the original (not to any degree, at the very least), and it leads to a few utterly bizarre and memorable moments...

I'm not convinced that this replaced Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as the finest filmic study of the All American Psychopath, but it has put us in the shoes of a deranged madman like no other film I can remember. It might have sounded like a glossy snuff film on paper, but in actuality it's a portrait of a man haunted by his own demons, stuck in a state of permanent destructive behavior that inevitably is the undoing of both himself and everyone around him. Films of this nature rarely list "murder" as their addiction of choice, but it works on every level that it should, and the fact that the film still finds brief, clever ways to pays homage to the film that inspired it is nothing short of heart-warming. Every fiber of my being was ready to dislike this film just as hard as I'd disliked drastically overhauled and perhaps even well meaning but inevitably tacky revivals like Marcus Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (the latter of which improved dramatically on its Director's Cut, admittedly)... but I just can't say anything particularly bad about this film. I'd like to watch it again before applying those dangerous words like "masterpiece" or "game changer" or "sugartits", but it'd take me stumbling upon some pretty major as-of-yet unseen faults to change my opinion to anything but enthusiastic. In short, MANIAC '12s transition from the grindhouse to the arthouse is about the craziest change of pace I can think of, but I can't fault anyone for finding a way to make it work regardless.

I'd recommend seeing it, but... I can't tell you how, exactly. As of this writing there is no US distributor for MANIAC '12, and I'm not aware of there being any planned home video release anywhere in the world - not this early on, anyway. The intentionally distorted POV cam lends a certain level of softness and erratic movement to the whole film so it's never really typical eye candy, and anyone expecting any erratic shifts to beat-up 16mm will only get a consolation prize of a brief dream sequence in the vein of 1920s German Expressionism. Even selling the film is going to be difficult, because despite having a big Hollywood star in the central role, cutting together a trailer that showcases Wood's big blue eyes is going to be a challenge... and I can't imagine any sane, sensible way to trim the violence down to an R-rating as it is now. (Hell, even the title card plays on top of... well, you'll see.) With the current dearth of options, I'll keep readers of the Kentai Blog in the loop as to when they can get a copy of their very own, regardless of what form that might take in 2013.

Grindhouse meet Arthouse. Classic meet Remake. Kentai... eat some goddamn crow. I almost hate to say it, but I couldn't be happier to munch on some carrion pie this time. And hey, for those of you who, like yours truly, expected a pile of shit to justify the knee-jerk reactions that announcing a remake of a cult-classic are always sure to bring, we still have this to look forward to!

What's that, Anchor Bay? It comes out on DVD just one week after its theatrical run, and for some unstated reason there's no trailer available, despite the release being just one month away?! None of that sounds like a red flag to me... but, I guess whether my skepticism that this will be tolerable in any way signifies that I've truly learned nothing, or I'm just not a total idiot remains to be seen.

Hope you've had fun at the Modern Grindhouse, friends!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Modern Grindhouse Part 4: SUMMER LOVE

While not my particular specialty, it'd be downright ignorant of me to ignore or trivialize the importance of the Spaghetti Western in the evolution world cinema, particularly in the realm of 70s drive-in double features. Sergio Leone in particular stood out as a legitimized talent in the consciousness of the mainstream, his "Dollars Trilogy" in particular being an iconic and respected set of films the world over. Italy certainly offered up costumed morality plays in the name of commerce and entertainment, but it was perhaps Django, the fantastic and over the top tale of corrupt morality and nihilistic savagery, that re-defined Italy as the cultivator of the most exciting cowboy films the world over. It's been estimated that over 600 Euro-Westerns were produced between 1960 and 1980, and while I can't claim to have seen even a fraction of them, I can say that I quickly learned what I liked...

Y'see, while I can't claim to have watched a hundred of these things, I'm still well aware that there was a pretty drastic difference between the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and the 1970s. The former were typically low key stories that focused on a level of simplicity - they were costume dramas, not genre melding experiments, because the iconography of the lone gunman was marketable and appealing to every nation and culture the producers behind these projects could market them to. As the years wore on and audiences started getting bored of the same old story, the formula started to change. They went in shifts, going from tragic tales of lone heroism to burlesque comedies, reaching their peak in 1968 and trickling off to nothing a few scant years later, leaving only directors who were given limitless freedom over the film; this led to the morally ambiguous Bret Harte story adaptation Four of the Apocalypse, the thinly veiled religions experimentation like Keoma, and the just-plain-weird psychedelic trip Matalo! The Western as the world had known it had changed forever, trying desperately to find an audience that more and more found contemporary storytelling more engaging than bandits with six shooters, and perhaps no film showcased that shift better than a little Mexican movie called El Topo... but, that's another story for another day.

Yeah, you knew this was coming...

The Western has come back in an unusual way, with big-budget Hollywood remakes of True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma, along with bizarre Western/Horror mash-ups like Burrowers and Dead Birds. This Christmas, Quentin Tarantino - the man who, love him or hate him, literally coined the concept of loving and respecting Grindhouse Cinema to a new generation - is set to release "Django Unchained"... but perhaps more relevant to this review would be reminding us all of the last film Tarantino actually appeared in to any substantial fanfare, Takashi MIIKE's 2007 deconstruction of the Spaghetti Western as a whole, Sukiyaki Western Django. Remember that bizarre experience? A two hour piece of bitterly confusing Engrish performances broken down like a stage play, culminating in everyone in the audience being either confused or enraged? I won't say that I don't find the film fascinating on some insane level - hell, how could I not? - but it absolutely wasn't Miike mining the post-modern tropes I think the casting and plot synopsis had suggested it would be. It's not really a Western. It's a parody of a vague impression of a Western.

It was perhaps closer in tone to another dramatic rejection of the fundamentals of storytelling, Juvenile A: Big Bang Love, with the goodwill of the Macaroni Western (as it's adorably known through Japan) acting as his starting point to tell what, at its core, has nothing to do with anything but the unfortunate sameness that permeates all facets of human culture; violence, subjugation and  wanting to feel connected to those around you. And yes, it went about it in roughly the most ass way possible... but come on, you didn't really expect Miike to say he was making a Western with Quentin Tarantino and then actually get a fucking Western, did you? Promising a chocolate cake and then presenting something that tastes like meatloaf pounded into a vague cake-shape frosted with chocolate icing just to spite you is... kind of his whole modus-operandi. He delivers exactly what he promised, in the least conventional way possible possible. If someone can actually come up with any other explanation for Yakuza Horror Theater: Gozu, D.O.A 2: The Birds, or Happiness of the Katakuris, I'd love to hear them.

Kentai's still got a boner for Miike, is what the above paragraph means. Don't worry though, Harakiri: Death of a Samurai 3D is sure to shake whatever goodwill 13 Assassins revived in me.

I can't speak for what Pitor Uklanski, the writer/director behind the 2006 "First Polish Western" originally titled SUMMER LOVE. What I do know is that the film is an amazing experience, a slick and gritty take that spins a story that could have been from a simpler time into a pastiche of gorgeously stylish visuals,  grotesque parodies of human nature, and a mounting sense of both ghoulish humor and escalating violence, balling slowly into a fist that's gently pushed right into your gaping mouth, leaving you equal parts scared and wanting more. It's really a shame that such an unusual and impressive feature was given the rather generic "Dead Man's Bounty" title in North America, since I'd imagine with the more outre title - a reference to a song that fills the first reel, of all things - perhaps Lionsgate would have at least given the film the attention it deserves, even if it wasn't from the audience it was hoping to court.

A stranger wanders into a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, dragging with him the corpse of Val Kilmer - no, really! - and a poster promising a bounty of $500, enough money for the wild and morose denizens of the town to walk with their heads held high to the cities just outside of their slum-bound grasp. When the broke town decides they're going to collect the bounty themselves, they start a fight with the stranger that ends with him fleeing to the mountains, and the handful of residents leaving to find him and secure their new fortune... but have they messed with the wrong stranger?

It's a simple tale, no doubt, but one that does so much more with its premise than it deserves to that I refuse to talk about the actual plot any further. Nobody, absolutely nobody in the film has a name. The protagonist, known only as "The Stranger", never utters a single word. Perhaps wisely, the all Polish cast (Kilmer excluded) chooses to let their expressions and actions do most of the talking, though not to be outdone by the film's minimalism, the single most heinous act of violence to be found is relayed as a story by a character who was, up until that point, seemingly the only morally grounded character in this god forsaken town. The film isn't quite a total rejection of love and humanity so much as it is a story that takes place beyond it; the people in this one-horse town are so cut off from anything resembling good fortune or a way out that they've sunken into an almost undead state, saturating themselves with drink and bitterness, content to wither away to dust... until The Stranger suddenly makes their peaceful existence impossible, by little more than his mere presence.

Remembering that a world exists beyond their patch of nothing upsets everyone, and the notion that those things outside the walls they put up around themselves could actively be a threat drives them straight to paranoia and bloodlust. Like I said, it's not deep storytelling, but it's only as visceral as it is memorable, giving what should be minor presences - barely even characters - a chance to define themselves in ways that make little sense except in their own shattered, dismal scope of what reality might be. Much like Nicholas Winding Refn's adaptation of Drive, Uklanski's debut film is a typical action narrative filtered through the lens of an arthouse aesthetic, crushing its simplistic characters under a style that infuses what would otherwise be mundane with a sense of urgency and importance. In short, it's a film that has a dozen negative reviews on IMDb because people didn't have a clue what they were handed, and were upset that they didn't get a typical narrative driven genre movie when they were given something far more rare, and important... they were given a chance, driven entirely by madness and love, the result of which is far more than its individual parts could ever hope to have been on their own.

"Pretentious symbolism? In MY Western?!"
It's more likely than you think.

Every piece of thought out criticism seems to imply that the film is an allegory for the Post-Soviet existence of his homeland. If that's true, and I don't know nearly enough about Poland as a culture to say it is or isn't, I can't say it stuck out as anything unusual in the context of the story as it's told.  As I've said, it's very broad-strokes storytelling with a mute hero, so if the drunkard sheriff reminding everyone in town "there'll be no hanging without the law!" as everyone rounds up their weapons and starts building a platform to do just that, it doesn't seem out of character for the universe the film takes place in.

The landscapes on display are beautiful, scenic wastelands that could well act as a hellish wasteland but are given enough room to breathe and become majestic expanses of a world not ever before seen in American or Italian westerns. Conversely, the interiors are all dark and grubby, intentionally drained of color and cast the miserable little town as a literal expanse of lifeless nothing. Only the deep crimson hue of blood ever breaks the silence of the unnamed town... well that and tomatoes, I guess. The film looks scrumptious, always, and that makes Lionsgate's treatment of it all the more shameful... but we'll get to that shortly. In many ways it's the very essence, the boiled down concentrate of the Spaghetti Western, and it looks the part at every turn. If Miike's take was to spoof the essence of the cinematic Old West, this was to consume every part of that aesthetic, being perhaps the ultimate Neo-Western at the expense of any narrative complexity.

Acting is pretty good across the board, though amusingly Kilmer's presence is something that literally could have been carried out by a mannequin; he doesn't talk or blink or even fucking move. He's a corpse from the first frame to the last, serving as a framing device rather than a character, and supposedly the film's producers approached him at a festival with a literal bag full of $50,000 and asked him to shoot for one day, without any lines. He took the bait, and bam, like that there was exactly one name in this movie that might be recognized outside of Eastern Europe. Personally, I think these guys got fleeced, but whatever. The rest of the cast are native Polish actors who struggle - just occasionally - with English pronunciation, but it's nowhere near as disastrous and comical as the pidgin "Engrish" in Miike's attempt at much the same style. There's a sense of humor, and many of the characters have tics that are funny, but nobody is given nothing to do; every character has some axe to grind, and every actor has tried to draw something out of it, even when the simplistic narrative gives them far too little wiggle room."Minimalist" is the word I'm looking for; and if you can accept these performances for what they are, archetypes with a twist, they work.

The Lionsgate DVD is a hot mess, and that's a real shame. Anamorphic, interlaced NTSC at roughly 1.75:1, the film is obviously a pan-scan "16X9 Full Frame" version made for broadcast from its original 2.35:1 scope. There's just no other sane excuse for shots like this to happen, considering how gorgeous the lighting and set design in this film tends to be:

Uncompressed PNG, with no aspect ratio correction.

As if to quell any doubts I had, the shot of "The Woman" - where the original 'Summer Love' title would be on theatrical screenings - is letterboxed to about 1.9:1, while the end credits are full blown 2.35:1 scope! Needless to say, the original titles have been replaced, and we get a rather obnoxious animated title for LG's less subtle US title. Under most circumstances I'd recommend tracking down a less compromised release, but... sadly, I don't know if there is one. I think I got this for about five bucks shipped, so I'm not going to bitch too hard, it's just frustrating that such a pleasant surprise of a film - one I only stumbled across purely by accident, at that - got such a shitty presentation, bargain bin or not.

Audio fares better with both 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby audio. The film is presented on a single-layered disc with only a brief gallery and a handful of trailers (including LG's laughably action oriented Dead Man's Bounty trailer), so I can't say the compression for the 95 minute film is even on the radar of things to complain about. This film is crying out for better treatment, but in the meantime, the DVD is dirt cheap (I got mine for about $5 shipped), and can be found on Amazon Instant Video for even less.

While I wouldn't say that the film is perfect - the narrative is simplistic, occasionally the odd shot meant as foreshadowing just seems out of sequence, and Kilmer in particular is more of a distraction than a real hook - I'd still recommend this film to absolutely anyone willing to try something that's as off the wall as it is visually stunning. I can't even guess what Uklanski was trying to say by filtering the iconography of the Spaghetti Western through the medium of the Polish art house, but the results are a raw, mesmerizing experience tinged with Prog Rock and raucous explosions of color, all in the name of a genre that the 21st century just isn't sure what to do with anymore.  More than any of the films we've looked at in the Modern Grindhouse cycle so far, this one is absolutely recommended.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Media Blasters Megalon Menace!

Goddamn it, Sirabella, how do always manage to top yourself...

Late last year my favorite studio ever, Media Blasters - more specifically, their Tokyo Shock subsidiary - released DESTROY ALL MONSTERS on DVD and Blu-ray, using Toho's own HD remaster from the original negative as their starting point. After several months of expected delays, the US release delivered on its Special Edition status, including a new English language commentary with notable English speaking "Godzilla Experts" Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle*, the vintage AIP English dub (supposedly sourced from a VHS recording of a TV broadcast), an extensive production gallery, even the Ken Films Super 8 version of the film as an Easter Egg. While a pretty typical Toho HD restoration, with the expected hazy focus, funky processed grain and weak black levels that typify everything they touch, overall Media Blasters hit that release out of the park...

...except for the little fact that they never sent a check disc to Toho. Reports suggest that Toho wasn't happy with them using a wide variety of random images in the galleries over the complicated ownership rights that Japan deals with (and most of the rest of the world doesn't), and ordered a cease and desist on all further wholesale of DAM. I could also be a ponce and point out that some of the images in that gallery are repeated up to four times, but that's neither here nor there. Whatever was already "in the wild" sold out quickly, and as it stands the Media Blasters Special Edition DVD will set you back $40, even used, while the Blu-ray will easily double that price tag.

So here we are a year later, and their latest rubber suited monster mash epic - GODZILLA VS MEGALON - went straight to DVD, rather than a simultaneous SD and Blu-ray release. Sirabella swore up and down that after the DAM Incident of '11 that GVM would be a bare-bones affair, and heck, they never even pressed copies of GVM, so a delay was only natural while they made up with their Toho Overlords and came up with a strategy that'd satisfy both sides of the Pacific.

And yet, according to the one guy who's been nothing but transparent about the issues surrounding MB and Toho, consumers are reporting that there are, in fact, two separate pressings of the title filtering into all major retailers - some from 2012 that are, indeed, limited to the feature and trailers, while other lucky bastards are getting the initially promised 2011 Special Edition, complete with the Stuart Galbraith IV commentary track!

I'm so shocked by this turn of events, my only possible recourse short of writhing, shrieking, Lovecraftian insanity is to post Megalon Rule 34. John Sirabella, you are forcing my hand to post kaiju softporn. I hope you're happy with yourself...

What on Earth are we to make of this? It's not so far to think that John Sirabella was lying through his teeth the whole time; he had already produced a batch of discs for retail release of GVM, didn't forsee DAM to be the disaster that it was, and decided "Fuck it, just sell 'em off and hope nobody notices". Considering the discs were replicated in 2011 and they include materials that only Media Blasters even has access to, nothing else even makes sense. The only other possibilities - that MB pressed copies AFTER they had created a rift with the content provider with the intent to sell them, or perhaps that they got copies made that he wasn't aware of when he made the statement - but resold them instead of destroying them, regardless of if the content on them has been released with Toho's consent - really don't make Sirabella into much more than a skeevy opportunist either way.

I'd be more angry/giddy ("Addy?" "Gigry?") about all this if I didn't figure that Media Blasters was already circling the drain... along with the rest of the home video market in general. I have little doubt that any recourse MB takes with Megalon is going to lose them money at the end of the day, and while this is exactly the kind of short sighted nonsense that got them in trouble to start with, I've heard from sources close enough that I trust them totally that they've been struggling to move so much as 1,000 copies of most of their Blu-ray releases. At last, MB's miserable reputation for QC precedes their title selection, though having spoken with a number of licensors over the last few years, selling more than 3,000 of anything you could call a "niche market" title may as well already be a victory. It's a sad thought that those numbers barely keep the market alive, but this is why even licensors that haven't actively thrown in the towel yet - Blue Underground, Synapse Films, Unearthed Films, pretty much anyone cut from that cloth - have been mostly silent on announcing new HD titles for the last year. The market's tough, and at this point nobody's making any goddamn money selling other people's movies. It's sad, but that's the reality we live in... and it's brought down both larger and smarter businesses that Media Blasters, so the fact that I'm even talking about them fifteen years after Kitty first opened its doors is kind of a surprise.

Media Blasters has an almost unique position as one of the most consistently frustrating licensors in North America: Frustrating because they continually delay, short-change, and otherwise treat their own titles with less care and finesse than they deserve, and tend to do dumb shit that only drags whatever opportunity they had to success straight down into the crapper... like, you know, pissing off Toho by fucking with Godzilla, the only thing that keeps them relevant world wide. I've briefly met Sirabella and known a few people who used to work for him. I also know through friends of a wide variety of people Media Blasters has owed either money or credit to that surfaced either far too late, or not at all.  At this point, they're the bastard company I almost love to hate, because every single time they start delaying a title into oblovion, it's probably something worth watching and absolutely deserving of the asking price... it's just too bad any support thrown at it goes back into the Rube Goldberg machine designed to make you as a customer miserable. Sadly, I'm still waiting on that A-KITE Blu-ray... and still waiting to see if we even get an official announcement for an uncut Blu-ray, at that.

Oh well... In other MB related news, ゾンビアス ZOMBIE ASS: TOILET OF THE DEAD is their latest Tokyo Shock announcement - and hell no, Shinobi Girl doesn't count. I'd much rather give that cash to Discotek or FUNimation or Well GoUSA, or whoever else is left that hasn't kicked the bucket yet, but if Sirabella puts that trashy fecal-flinging undead epic on Blu-ray, he'll inevitably get my money.

It's really as sad and simple as all that: I'm here for the movies. Not for the labels, or the men who run them; I want to buy movies, and I'll do what it takes to feed my addiction. 'Nuff said.

* That's not to imply that these gents AREN'T full blown Godzillaphiles, but... how does one even quantify that, I wonder?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Modern Grindhouse Part 3: GUTTERBALLS

When slasher films literally dominated the box office in the early 1980s, it was much to the chagrin of the professional critics of the day, with likely none more vocal about his disgust than Roger Ebert. While I disagree with his assement that films like Friday the 13th Part 2, Maniac and I Spit On Your Grave were "dangerous films for dangerous minds", there is an undercurrent of mindless savagery in the films that doesn't always neatly fit into the post-modern stereotypes put down by both genre researchers and, perhaps most notably, Wes Craven through the 1990s. There's plenty of praise to be had for the blatant dissection in attempting to understand, in both a primal and sociological level, what the human mind finds so appealing about watching a masked lunatic pick off what would typically be the story's heroes one by one, but a lot of the most basic "slasher movies are about the punishment of sin" fall apart, at least under scrutiny, and particularly if we include the wide swathe of decent films that didn't happen to inspire a dozen sequels. Certainly there's a lot of constants and themes in these films, but one of the most undeniable constants in the post-Friday the 13th landscape was just how fucking mean they were. Everyone loves to talk about Jason Vorhees as some kind of Reagan-era boogeyman punishing kids for premarital sex and smoking dope, and perhaps there's some truth to that as the sequels got more inclined to wink at the cameras and make jokes about "that monster picture on the late show" and all that, but let's back that bullshit up to Part 2...

Aha, some of you already know what scene I'm talking about, don't you? The premarital lovers being speared through mid-coitus in a scene taken right out of Bay of Blood?  Nope. Because while that iconic double-murder does seemingly support the "serial murderer as a force of brutal conservative righteousness", it's completely undermined by the scene right before it! Jason Vorhees also kills the kid in the wheelchair, clubs him right in the back of the head with a machete, for no fucking reason at all. The kid wasn't whackin' off or shrooming, he was just lamenting how much his life kinda sucks and BAM! Blade to the goddamn face. (Yes, Jason actually stabs him in the back of the head so furiously the blade is immediately stuck to his face. Go watch it if you don't believe me!)

Jason wasn't alone in punishing absolutely everyone because FUCK YOU, either: In My Bloody Valentine, The Miner takes his vengeance on the kooky Scooby-Doo inspired bartender, who's actually trying to help his cause in a non-violent way, by putting a pick-axe through his eye. In The Prowler, a douche waiting for his girl to get out of the shower gets a knife through the back of his head, but it doesn't kill him instantly: Instead, the masked killer twists the blade and holds his mouth closed as we watch the life drain out of him for what feels like an eternity. But perhaps the most mean-spirited of the bunch was The Burning, which gives Cropsey - himself a supposed sadist to begin with - every reason to fall into the black abyss of madness when, at the end of the firs reel, the doctors who have patched him back together after a hideous prank gone wrong "I'm sorry, but... the skin grafts just wouldn't take." The Burning especially gives no quarter, savagely murdering children who were completely innocent of any wrongdoing, while simultaneously letting the snot-nosed punks who wronged him in the first act get away with it up until the final reel. There is no love, no fairness and no mercy to be found in the early wave of mainstream slasher films, and they kept ratcheting up that brutal spite until there was nothing left but to parody it all by the middle of the decade, and finally let the monsters rest until Michael Bay decided it was time to dust the lot of them off for a round of increasingly god-awful remakes. Do all of you realize how close we were to getting a remake of Rosemary's Baby? Too close for comfort, that's for goddamn sure.

Why do I bring all of this up? Because that lost and almost divine sense of bewildering cruelty is the sole energy that drives Ryan Nicholson's 2008 throwback slasher movie GUTTERBALLS. As if posters openly mocking Maniac, Halloween, Happy Birthday to Me and others weren't a tip, the film is a dedicated to being a lost piece of 80s Americana. Taking place entirely in a single bowling alley with a vintage soundtrack and bathed in the harsh neon lighting of nostalgia,the storyline itself is simple enough: Taking place over the course of two nights - both the warm up and final round between a trio of rock 'n' roll misfits and preppy assholes at the Balls to the Wall lane after hours. The ball tossers and a gaggle of groupies show up, but a mysterious contestant known only as "BBK", though only a few of them know what horrible acts soiled the arcade upstairs the night before, and as BBK lights up the scoreboard it's possible that nobody will ever live to tell the world what happened...

Slasher films in particular have been described as ode to misogyny, but that's a dramatic oversimplification of the Freudian way in which viewers univerally react to the sight of a larger, domineering male figure taking what he wants - directly sexual in nature or not - from a smaller, weaker female. Part of the appeal of most slasher films is in the inevitable inversion of this very concept, with the emergence of the "final girl" finally standing up to her attacker and turning the tables with the same bladed, phallic tools of the trade that Jason and Michael and their multitude of imitators used (though obviously, not all slasher films stuck to the post-modern numbers Scream applied to them as a whole). Granted this all traces back to its overtly sexualized roots in the roots of the genre's predecessors - particularly Psycho, and the multitude of dysfunctional giallo killers "Mrs. Bates" inspired - but its presence is typically both implicit and symbolic, only spilling over into the blatantly erotic-grotesque in later, satyrical works like Jason Goes to Hell and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2...  for better or worse, Gutterballs fists the notion of symbolism into a bloody, twitching pulp.  The threadbare storyline is packed with a never ending torrent of misogyny, homophobia, petty insults and thinly veiled threats make up the vast majority of the dialog. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the word "fuck" over 500 times over the course of 96 minutes. It's hatred of absolutely everything is as boundless as it is sincere, with the rocker kids treated as disposable idiots, and even the victim of the savage violation that takes up over ten excruciating minutes is reduced to little more than an angry victim by the end of the film. I Spit On Your Grave may not be a perfect film, but it uses its hatred and fury to build toward something thematically important; in GUTTERBALLS, it's just the fabric that binds the increasingly over the top set pieces together, the blood that flows through BBK himself.

Unfortunately, that spite and anger becomes increasingly hard to watch - not because it's crossing boundaries and shocking the squares, but because after a while hearing the same douchebag scream at his friends to find his whores and get him a beer, you just stop giving even half a fuck about any of it. It's easy to shrug off the victims in slasher films as disposable and interchangeable walking set pieces, and sometimes that couldn't be more true, but when you're actively waiting for everyone to die just so they'll shut the fuck up already, something's gone horribly wrong. I get that the point was to make these characters unlikeable, but there's a way to create villains that are nasty and still fun to watch, something this film never seems to understand. With literally an hour of the film being oversexed meatheads screaming juvenile insults at each other, the rad licensed vintage soundtrack and over the top throwback fashions can't keep the film from being a long, humorless slog between the over the top violence. Those absolutely vile fatalities gleefully smeared on the filth-covered bathroom walls and are pretty impressive in their clever savagery, don't get me wrong, the only real pleasant surprises come in the last 20 minutes when the film shifts gears and reveals the identity of BBK... among several other factors that have been obscured until then. I'd love to recommend the film on the merits of it being the single most fury-fueled slasher film, but... honestly, I just can't. The film is tedious, at best, and it probably would have made a decent 30 minute short, but at feature length it's mostly one scene after another of annoying asshole trying to out-asshole each other.

Also, can someone explain to me why we see BBK existing before there's a reason for him to seek any vengeance? I'm sure that opening credits montage was meant to take place between the first and second night, but the way it's plopped into the film it just makes absolutely no sense. A shame; the montage itself actually kind of cool, it's just a dumb-ass place for it. Was the rape originally meant to be shown in flashback, maybe? Bah, now I'm just overthinking it...

I honestly think even the most easygoing viewer is going to be watching with clenched fists, just waiting for everyone to get their goddamn eyes stabbed out so they can move on with their lives. Writer-Director Ryan Nicholson has successfully come up with a stylishly satisfying and increasingly offensive love-letter to the 1980s extreme gore scene, but he didn't find a way to make it half as likable as the films he clearly loves so much. I've not seen his earlier feature, Live Feed, but I honestly hope he hooks up with a competent character writer for the Gutterballs sequel called (what else?) GUTTERBALLS 2: BALLS DEEP. There's a lot of individual scenes to like in this film, but it all falls apart like wet toilet paper when we're left with absolutely nobody to root for except a killer with no personality. On the off chance that you're reading this Ryan, I promise I'm not trying to be a dick, but please, go watch some Frank Hennenlotter and Peter Jackson films before you start shooting the sequel; those two always have a sort of kitschy likability to their characters, and that's something this film desperately needed. That's the one thing missing from Gutterballs, and if you can improve on that, your films will probably be a lot of low-brow fun... as it stands I'm recommending it as a cultural oddity of Rage Squared. And it's not like there aren't some stunning exploitation films made in the last few years that can claim to be doing much the same thing.

Not helping much is the cast, which is consistently dreadful. In the last film we looked at - Dear God No!, if you're just joining us - the cast was generally "meh" while the lead put in a performance that was understated but totally believable, and worked fantastically in the confines of the film itself, particularly when you factor in that even if he DID sucked the film would have kinda' held together. Sadly, everyone in front of the camera in Gutterballs sucks really, really hard. Now I admit, being a yank from New England I'll always think Canadian accents are ever so slightly hilarious, but it doesn't fucking matter; everyone is at the same level you'd expect from either a middle of the road Seymore Butts video, or a bottom of the barrel highschool production of Rent. It's hard to say if it's just the dreck posturing dialog they were given, or if they all just suck that fucking hard naturally, but the only one of them who occasionally comes off as even slightly funny is the grouchy old janitor, played by Dan Ellis. Even then, he's not a particualrly believable or even likable character; he's just a breath of marginal dependability from a bunch of twenty-somethings he can't help but outshine. Candace Lewald also gets a pass for clearly having been waxed less than 24 hours before they shot the opening scene, but if she were an out of work pornstar trying to transition back into a life that didn't involve trading one kind of blow for another, I wouldn't bat an eye. I should be ashamed for assuming these sorts of things out loud, as that's probably a downright cruel oversimplification for a lovely human being, but she really, really sucked.

I won't fault the film's aesthetic, however. Lit almost exclusively with black lights and neon, covered in fashions that would make the kids in Breakin' hang their heads in shame, a soundtrack chock full of Harlequin and Loverboy tracks, the film's look and sound is pure radical chic, only betraying its modern roots with a brief mention of cellphones that seems to have slipped under everyone's common-sense radar. I'm much more willing to forgive the presence of a couple 90s arcade cabinets and some modern Pepsi logos, but unless your joke is going to be pulling an 8 pound brick of a cell phone out of your back pocket, leave your cellphone gags in the '00s, will ya? For that matter, it never explicitly says the film takes place in 1987, but if it doesn't... well, they've missed a ripe chance to either point out how unintentionally hilarious the horrors of the period were, or play up that people are so disappointed with the modern world that they'd rather spend their time mired in a faux-vintage existence. The film does neither, and instead seems to use the 80s aesthetic because... well, just because. That's fine, I guess, but when other throwback films in recent memory, like Let Me In and The Devil's Rejects, take full advantage of their old school setting it's disappointing for only the most superficial aspects of the era to be represented here.

And yet, for all the frustration I've had sitting through this film, I wouldn't doubt if a part of my dissatisfaction subconsciously comes down to the fact that virtually nobody on the planet has actually seen the "Final Cut". See, the American DVD from TLA Releasing (which appears to be out of print?) runs 96 minutes, and does feature plenty of frontal nudity, most of it in the form of surprisingly impressive rubbery prosthetics. This was sold as the "HARDCORE BLOOD EDITION" in Austria because the German FSK board demanded over 25 minutes of cuts, which was later waived down to a mere 14 minutes and change... but that's not the whole story. Last year, Ryan Nicholson released the extended "Pin-Etration Edition" exclusively through Plot Digger's website, which promised even more graphic sexual violence, as well as some 'outrageous' insert bonuses. It was originally announced as limited 669 copies, but sales were evidently so dire he dropped it down to a mere 69 hand-numbered copies. I didn't hear of this until it was sold out, and the usual hives of scum and villainy that is The Internet have turned up nothing, so while my understanding is that the "Pin-Itrated Edition" splices in hardcore shots similar to Thriller: A Cruel Picture, I can't actually confirm that's the case myself. Man, how long has it been since that's happened... part of me thinks the already 10-minute-plus gang rape that sets up the rest of the film is unpleasant enough, but considering how much of the film is intentionally designed to be in ferociously bad taste, I can't blame Ryan for going down the only obvious road left for the film to take. I mean, for crying out loud, the 'softcore' version features a couple being choked to death with their own... well, you get the point.

This DVD-R has actually sold for $255 on eBay.

If, after every caveat I've set out above, you're still interested in picking up a copy of this frustrating piece of potential and can live without it having hardcore porn spliced into a scene that looks like borderline violent porn anyway, the TLA Balls Out DVD is as good as it's going to get: presented in an oddly squished 2.0:1 aspect ratio and presented interlaced, it looks about as good as a film shot on NTSC DV is going to, and I can't imagine an upscaled Blu-ray is either likely or especially necessary. You get the original trailer, director's commentary, a 5.1 mix and the "Behind the Balls" documentary. Germany gets a set of 4 galleries and the Nordic DVD includes "Behind the Bag", but so far nobody seems to have gotten the rights to the "Bare Boner Footage" included on the Pin-Etration Edition, and knowing that all uncut PAL releases are interlaced standards conversions, I'd recommend tracking down the TLA disc above any currently available import. You can get it STRAIGHT FROM PLOTDIGGER, along with the uncut "Special Colostomy Bag Edition" of Ryan's follow up film, HANGER, an ode to abortion monsters everywhere, before it too disappears into the ether forever.

Ryan Nicholson seems like a nice, laid back guy in all of the behind-the-scenes footage in this film. He's quite an accomplished special effects make up guru and I don't doubt that he's got a fun, nasty film or two in him... I just think this one is tedious as hell, and considering how fun the premise sounded, that's really a shame. Avoid, unless bowling pin sodomy happens to be your personal fetish.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012


Because holy shit, YES!

Discotek Media has officially licensed both the original 92 episode MAZINGER Z/マジンガーZ and 25 episode CUTEY HONEY/キューティーハニー TV shows from 1972 and 1973, respectively.

It's official: There are no more rules anymore. Anything and fucking everything can happen.

Now, if he can just complete the Nagai Holy Trinity with one more fourty year old TV show... and don't y'all even pretend you don't know which one I'm talkin' bout.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The Modern Grindhouse Part 2: DEAR GOD NO!

DEAR GOD NO! might embody both the success and flaws of 70s exploitation films better than many of the recent throw-back trash films of the last five years, and while that doesn't make it an especially good movie, it does make it an amusing and overall successful venture into the dumpster of B-movie mayhem.

The Impalers, meanest bunch of biker bastards Georgia has ever spawned, rape and murder their way to a meeting with the head honcho of their little club who thinks their "no witnesses" policy is starting to reflect badly on the rest of the gang. Jett and his cronies establish how little of a shit they give, and find themselves on the road raising hell, until they cross paths with an anthropologist who's sure he's made the discovery of the century... pregnancy abuse, cop capping, ball tripping, father murdering, alcohol swigging, scientist stabbing, and a goddamn Bigfoot ensue.

Brimming with totally random Pink Eiga posters, Corman brand Malt Liquor, strippers in Nixon masks, Cannibal Holocaust-inspired insignias, a fine bottle of "De Ossorio", and opening with an assault on the Monza Monestary's recently raped and murdered nuns, the film is full of tongue in cheek moments, but it never goes the blatant spoof route and plays its grotesque and tasteless brand of biker-action with a sense of humor that clearly gets why old exploitation movies were fun without ever actually making fun of them - you know, that fine line of laughing with something versus laughing at it - which something I don't think the last title we looked at, Father's Day, quite ever came to terms with. It's clear that producer, director and co-writer James Bickert "gets it" in a way that so few people who are in charge of throwback entertainment do, and with that in mind, I can't recommend enough that you find him on eBay and go buy the movie straight from the source.

He's got a family to feed, maybe! Or perhaps he's living in a cardboard box, and the rent on those things are outrageous. I'm all for trying before you buy, renting or streaming or whatever filthy things you do with BitTorrent - I know, I know, I don't need to hear about what you do with the latest episode of Family Guy - but all the same, if you're even on the fence, do the right thing and give this guy twenty goddamn dollars. You'll waste more on the pizza and beer you'll buy when you actually sit down to watch it, and after the alcohol farts and cheesy constipation have long ebbed, the disc will be waiting to give you another equally cheesy thrill ride.

"But is it art", I can already hear some of you cry? By which we actually mean, is the film as a whole any good? Fifty-Fifty, I'd say. Remember how I said it has a lot of the same flaws as a 'real' 70s exploitation film? One of them is that the acting is pretty mediocre, with the distinct exception of Jett Bryant as the leader of the biker pack, who spits out a weary combination of spite and bemusement like he's seen it all, done it all, and really couldn't care unless if you're goddamn dead yet or not. He's awesome, and it's kind of a shame the rest of the film can't quite keep up with him. The script itself is full of cheeky class-clash dialog that fully justifies it's "Meet the .01%" poster, but the actors playing the waspy scientists are so dull that it never works, and Jett's sidekicks (particularly the two brothers) are consistently more annoying than amusing, while 'Spider' and his regular over-dubbing gets old fast. It also sticks to only a handful of locations, and it never breaks out of its own grungy comfort zone to deliver anything substantially more than its marketing ever promised - there's no actual exploration of moral ambiguity, no surprises beyond how debauched the cast gets, and with one passing easter egg that flies by on a newspaper, not much to tickle our subconscious as viewers of throwback schlock, begging the question if we're doing this out of some horribly ironic masochism, or if we legitimately love being handed a plate of raw B-movie excess on its own merits.

People less forgiving will probably call this a grotesque one trick pony. My reply is a shrug, followed with a snarky "go on..." Nobody ever promised it was a new standard in boob-filled biker revenge movies, or even suggested that it was a clever deconstruction; the fact that Bryant made a top-down exploitation film that's peppered with nods to its inspiration is just a fun Easter Egg hunt, not a promise of anything more profound. Besides, the film is quick to shift gears and with a runtime of only about 80 minutes it never really has the chance to actually get boring. Cinematography is always competent, if not exceptional, and while the extreme gore isn't especially realistic, it's certainly plentiful and almost always in poor taste. The few CG effects that litter the film aren't much worse than crap I saw on the big screen less than a decade ago, so I guess they get a pass. This isn't a style-over-substance overload, but let's face it, Karim Hussain can't lens every cheap exploitation film ever made ...or can he?

Direct something again, you crazy bastard!

Anyway, while I wouldn't even bother showing this to someone who hasn't at LEAST seen Werewolves on Wheels, Snuff, and at least one the Ilsa the Wicked Warden trilogy (which is actually four films, and no, don't ask me to explain it...), I still think the project hits more than it misses, and I legitimately laughed several times at how absurd the film was without ever feeling like it was trying too goddamn hard to make its premise work. It's a trashy movie made for trashy people, and if you think you can groove on that, it's absolutely recommended.

The only Blu-ray for this film currently available is an eBay exclusive BD-R being sold by the film maker James Bickert himself, in a handful "Strictly Limited" editions with different covers, bonus features and formats, including DVD+BD-R combo packs and even VHS tapes for the crazy folks that are convinced that's a good thing. It's reminiscent of Germany and their asinine "5 completely different covers, limited to 333 copies each!" business strategy. In any case, I got the original BD-R featuring the bad-ass original release poster by the fine folks at The Dude Designs, and sure enough, the disc came hand-numbered with the title and director's own John Hancock scrawled on top of a generic injket-top BD-R in sharpie. Nothing will quite top Albert Pyun being willing to sign his similarly super-independant release of the Captain America Director's Cut with "AMERICA! FUCK YEAH!", but this cheap-ass paper cover with excess paper on all four sides comes pretty goddamn close. I also got a "Don't Be A Todd!" bumper sticker and a pamphlet for the 2012 Atlanta Ghoul Guide, which was a nice touch. I'd happily pay a couple bucks just to get a booklet featuring all of the faux-vintage international posters they've put together, ranging from Japanese VHS to German lobby cards and back, but at least you can ogle a good chunk of them as a bonus feature... if you're clever enough to find it, anyway.

Cheap ass burn or not, I'm surprisingly satisfied with the actual quality of the disc. Much like Father's Day it comes on a single-layered disc using the antiquated MPEG-2 and Dolby Digital codecs. Shot on Super16 and mastered in High Definition, I have very little to complain about when it comes to the visual presentation; Grain is consistently course, black levels are more solid than they ought to be, and with a few passing exceptions compression blocking and banding are never really an issue at the disc's 25 mb/s average bitrate. Some of the stock footage and special effects looks a bit worse for wear, but knowing the LSD trips and moonlit stock footage would have been optically sourced garbage in the Bad Ol' Days of analog film editing, I can live with it showing some macroblocking or funky digital noise, and if I want to be a total douche I'd point out that the gamma looks elevated, leaving "total darkness" in the last 15 minutes something of a deep gray affair. The film features a brief two scenes of "grindhouse" print damage, and while both are clearly artificial they're tastefully and consistently handled. There are a handful of wonky visual effects shots - heck, I swore I was tripping balls on one shot of the cops talking in their car where the top of the screen was completely frozen, while the two carried on a conversation! - but they just add to the shoestring charm.

The only other oddity is that the transfer is 1440X1080, which is virtually unheard of on Blu-ray. Formats including HDCAM and HDV are native 1440X1080, so it's not unthinkable that the production was shot on 16mm film, transferred to one of these digital formats, and then edited from there. 1440X1080 typically has a flag to stretch the pixels out to a 16X9 widescreen format, and this is no exception, so it just means that the Blu-ray's resolution was limited by the original production methods. Nothing to get upset about, but it sure makes screenshots look strange...

The 192 kb/s Dolby Digital stereo track is... adequate? There isn't a lot of bass or obvious stereo phasing, and I was a bit disappointed to find that dialog occasionally mixes into the kitschy Southern Fried rock soundtrack, making parts of the opening scene damn near impossible to make out. That said, anyone upset that this wasn't lossless is bitching to bitch; the mix itself is simply no show stopper, and while it likely couldn't have hurt, I doubt a lossless offering would sound substantially different. With roughly 4 gigs on the disc left unused it's a shame they didn't offer an uncompressed PCM track, but again, the mix we got is what it is and I'm left with little recourse but to shrug and think of it as good enough.

The menu is actually a clunky SD monstrosity that'd be kind of crumby even for a DVD. That's actually the biggest complaint I have about the Blu-ray - which means it really isn't half bad, considering the director made this in his living room. The only advertised bonus feature on the Blu-ray  is the original red-band trailer and three commentaries, but if you play around with the menus you're sure to find five more amusing easter eggs, which later became the advertised bonus features on the DVD. The DVD included 5 more hidden bonuses, but having gotten the initial release and not the "Combo" set, I honestly have no idea what I'm missing.

Apparently there's also a "42nd Street Slut Cut" exclusively available on VHS with even more gore and a teaser for the film's upcoming sequel, Frankenstein Made Bikers. Honestly, I'd love to see what this alternate version has, but not enough to actually buy a fucking VHS tape in 2012. Sorry guys, I know you need to make money and all, but I'm so goddamn done with that tape shit... unless you're willing to sell me an original HDCAM copy, I'm out.

...unless Elvira signed it first, I guess. With her boobs.
Wait, can she do that? Can anyone do that?

I haven't said a whole lot about the film mostly because I want anyone reading this to give it a look. When it rains it pours corn syrup, and when it rapes it's probably incestuous or involves Frankensteins. The film is perhaps one-note by design, and probably won't win over anyone who isn't already susceptible to the charms of the bone-headed B-movies of yesteryear, but I don't see that as an inherently bad thing. The film knows its target audience and gives them exactly what they're looking for, right up to the final minute. I thought it was a lot of fun, and I'm willing to bet a lot of you out there in The Tubes will feel the same way I do.

What more can I say, James Bickert? You did good, you got yourself twenty bucks for it from your friend Kentai. Release that alternate version on DVD and you'll make yourself twenty more.  There's room to improve in the sequel (mostly this: find better actors), but I feel like this is a guy who's on his way to amusing my schlocky funny bone for years to come. Too bad the only other notable feature he's made is--

...wait, it's a feature film called DUMPSTER BABY? No foolin'? Fuck'n sold, man.

Bickert in his natural habitat: Directing wanton topless fury.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Lords of Salem Return

I literally have a throbbing filmboner watching this teaser. Rob Zombie described THE LORDS OF SALEM, shortly after filming had begun, as "if Ken Russell directed The Shining", and I'll say that this two minutes delivers exactly what was promised, if not so much more...

I don't have the slightest goddamn clue how any of this gorgeous footage is supposed to relate to the story outline we've been given for the last year or two, but I can't remember a trailer giving me this much of a rush since PROMETHEUS... which, admittedly, didn't pan out quite as much as I'd hoped it would. For those wondering, the recently released deleted scenes (particularly the original ending, extended Engineer scenes and unused "mutant attack" scene) would have helped the film dramatically.

I won't lie, I've long been one of Rob Zombie's bigger cinematic supporters over the years. I thought his grim and filthy reboot of HALLOWEEN was exponentially more interesting than Carpenter's supposed "classic" which plays out as a sort of Argento Lite*, and knowing that a lot of the imagery pulled from the original film (such as Michael wearing the sheet like a ghost) were put back at the insistance of the film's producers make me wonder how far he would have taken it without any outside interference. And, of course, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS - arguably the catalyst to the revival of 70s styled exploitation films - remains one of my favorite films of the last decade. I was mostly ambivalent towards HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, satisfied that Zombie knew it didn't work, and more importantly, knew exactly why and didn't bother trying to convince anyone who hated it that they were stupid. He knew what he did, and only improved from there, something that plenty of otherwise promising talents have failed to do.

*To be fair, it has a bitchin' score and some decent camerawork. Also, the scenes added to the TV version kick up the film's quality by at least 20%.

I haven't written about H2: HALLOWEEN 2 because... honestly, I don't really know what to make of it. It's very much a bitter, reactionary experience, with Michael Meyers' presence one of increasing irrelevance and indignity. If his goal was to question what happens to the "final girl" after surviving the ordeals beset upon her by the misery of her very survival, yeah, I think this film does that. If it was to cock-slap every asshole fanboy who acted like his last take on the character was somehow more disrespectful than fighting Bustah Rhymes, again, I'd say mission accomplished. If it was to hold together and work and be a singular film as well as a sequel to one of the most interesting slasher films in history... no, god no it didn't do that. It's not a terrible film, but it's a messy, confusing, and fragmented experience that never adds up to much. Here's hoping that Rob Zombie has learned from this and that The Lords of Salem comes to a satisfying whole of Sex, Witchcraft, and Rock 'n' Roll.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Dark Days of the Living Dead: Twilight Time's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Blu-ray Dissected

Last year I wrote that Twilight Time's limited edition Blu-ray of FRIGHT NIGHT was a perfectly competent release; perhaps the result wasn't so fantastic that it justified the $35 shipped price tag it sold for, but there was nothing to complain about. It set a certain level of expectations for the still fledgling label, itself an experimental spin-off from soundtrack CD specialist Screen Archives Entertainment, offering an exclusive distribution on a number of titles that labels like Fox and Sony had officially given zero fucks about. Admittedly there's been a few "genre" titles in the mix ever since - The Mysterious Island and The Time Machine were both given limited releases (and have since sold out), while Enemy Mine was even put up the same day as the title we're going to talk about in just a few minutes - but as time passes, THE TWILIGHT TIME CATALOG continues to be a seemingly eclectic mix of "second-tier classics" and even contemporary features like Steel Magnolias and As Good As It Gets. Under the circumstances, the inclusion of 80s horror and sci-fi films seems a bit unusual... unless, of course, you take the high road and consider the fact that good horror, fantasy and science fiction films are just as valid a genre as musicals, westerns and historical epics. It's a stretch for a lot of people, I know, but I'm glad Twilight Time has taken the boutique model and shown that they'll try damn near anything once, if they think it's worth the time of day.

Do you want a movie Twilight Time licensed? The audio and video will be whatever HD materials the licensor has already made, you'll get the isolated score and trailers, a short booklet - maybe some commentaries if you're a good boy, and it'll cost $35 shipped (more for some earlier releases). It's Twilight Time or goddamn nothing for these films on Blu-ray, and under the circumstances, I was happy to spend the money - sure, I'd rather spend $8 on and get virtually the same disc with uglier packaging, but if Sony doesn't think that these films are worth the cost to press the disc, I'll happily take my business elsewhere. The more we focus on studio politics and price points, the less movies we actually get on Blu-ray, and as far as I'm concerned that's the only goal we, as fans, should even have...

So it was without hesitation that I pre-ordered my copy of Tom Savini and George Romero's 1990 version of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Savini himself admits that he didn't fight very hard to get what he wanted out of the film, largely due to him going through a messy divorce at the time, and both critically and financially, the film seems to have struck a "Who Cares?" cord. Retrospect has been kinder to the film than perhaps audiences were over 20 years ago, and having skipped the film for years now in favor of George Romero's original, I was excited to give it a try for the first time on BD. I know buying a film sight-unseen is a dangerous game, but I wanted to show Twilight Time that their choice in focusing on slightly aged horror films was a positive one, and so I happily put in my order, unworried that we'd get anything but a decent release similar to the HD broadcasts that have been kicking around for the last two or three years.

How naive I've grown...

I can't claim to be a long-time fan of the Savini film the way I can of Romero's original "Dead" trilogy, but there's plenty of people who watched the film on every format it's been released - VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, HDTV, and even 35mm revival showings in the last few years. Simply put, the film has always looked a certain way, and this Blu-ray deviates from that look dramatically, particularly the first 20 minutes leading up to the shot of Ben turning the lights on inside of the house. After a solid three minutes, the image gradually shifts from looking neutral to a dark, hazy blue, a particular shade that's almost exclusively reserved for day-for-night photography. This is odd, particularly when you factor in that the commentary (on the Blu-ray, no less!) has Tom Savini himself mentioning that while the script called for a cloudy, miserable day to open the film's first act, the weather was gorgeous when they got to Pennsylvania, but that he realized watching the rotting and half-undressed corpses shambling around in beach weather actually carried a creepy charm unlike any he'd ever seen before.

This is a problem isn't merely the fact that it's "different", but it's objectively wrong in the context of the film's narrative! When Barbara runs towards the farm house, the birds are chirping, Ben drives up in his truck with the lights off, highlights remain solarized... it's plain that it's the middle of a bright, sunny day, regardless of the dark haze over the image. To put this into context, when Barbara makes a break for freedom towards the end of the film, she walks through a forest of crickets and spring peepers - ambient sounds that tell the viewer, in no uncertain terms, that they're dealing with a scene that takes place at night. Had the 5.1 surround mix replaced the sounds of birds chirping with crickets, maybe this change would have been a bit more convincing?

Oh wait, Because of the compromise made on location, Tom Savini and editor Tom Dubensky came up with a cool little montage 19 minutes in to the film, showing the setting sun, black clouds rolling in, and the moon rising... in other words, we now see the sun set about 10 minutes after the film has already gone dark on the Blu-ray. Honestly, talking about these changes don't do them proper justice... why don't I show them to you, using a 720p HDTV rip as a control subject?


Personally, I wish they'd have just left it as-is. That first reel is a rough goddamn ride to sit through. After the first 20 minutes, highlights remain a dull gray-blue and there's still an unusually cold push, but as this footage was primarily shot at night and in the dark (or, more often, indoors emulating nightfall) the effect seems much less awkward. It's still there, as you can plainly see by Tony Todd's light blue torch and the purple skinned zombie, but with nothing to actually compare it to, I think you gradually just get used to it. I can't stress enough that the first and last five minutes or so of the disc look gorgeous, slightly dull contrast or not, and had the transfer consistently looked like the opening shot of Patricia Tallman and Bill Mosley climbing out of their car, this could have been a spectacular looking release from start to finish.

When this controversy broke, fans everywhere demanded blood, and Twilight Time - after initial denial that the disc looked anything like the screenshots posted - went back to Sony and got confirmation that the BD was sourced from a 2010 HD master approved by Director of Photography Frank Prinzi. Shortly before that confirmation, Tom Savini watched the disc and called the picture quality "fantastic" via Facebook. In other words, if it pisses you off... that's too goddamn bad, because everyone in the film-making foodchain is perfectly happy with the results, revisionist or not. Twilight Time, for all the drama they endured over an admittedly bone-headed change to the film, still took the high road and offered anyone dissatisfied with the transfer a chance to return their copies, open or not, for a full refund. Much to their credit, they've made a waiting list of fans who were asking if there would be any potential left-overs, and they're limiting them to 1 per customer, and refusing anyone who already bought one right from the start.

Not that anyone with a brain would actually do that; the film has been selling on Amazon and eBay for upwards of twice the retail price ever since it was announced as "Sold Out!", and only a handful of copies have actually been returned to Twilight Time in the wake of this whole backlash.

For what it's worth, respected film restoration guru ROBERT HARRIS and head of Synapse Films DON MAY Jr. have voiced their support of the transfer. And, yes, to the disc's credit, color timing aside it's... perfectly fine. Grain levels fluctuate on specific shots in a way that makes me think some relatively minor digital manipulation is going on, but print damage is virtually non-existent, resolution is a marked improvement over any other release outside of -  and perhaps including? - a 35mm print, and the framing seems less cramped than the HDTV print, which has been cropped particularly hard on the left side. Sony Pictures always does a perfectly competent job with their "B-tier" catalog titles, not giving them the same love as Taxi Driver or Lawrence of Arabia, clearly, but they're still making new scans and giving them a proper once over for archival purposes. Honestly, the fact that this was a new 2010 master with DP approval means they were trying to do the right thing... it just so happens that the DP in question made some horrible decisions in the film lab.

And yet, somehow... I don't think I really give a shit anymore. This is easily on par with Dario Argento's atomic HD remaster SUSPIRIA, Francis Ford Coppola's crushed to hell DRACULA, and the grotesquely asinine color timing William Friedkin was experimenting with up until, and including, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but with all due respect, two of these were visually stunning pieces of celluloid eye candy, and the third was an a needless explosion of creator weirdness that was so over the top, the always lucid and brutally independent director put together a behind-the-scenes featurette showing his very sanity crumbling. These are some  pretty goddamn important films- well, okay, maybe not Dracula as much as the other two - but even Dracula, for all its' post-modern posturing and Reeveism, is still an indisputable work of unique visual finesse. These films should have come to Blu-ray looking perfect with absolutely no margin for error, and yet we got handed a hot mess in every case.

To put this into perspective, we've all spent over a week discussing, arguing, and moaning about the fucking 1990 remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The one with even less gore and a happy ending and the skill and production values of the average Hallmark movie. Don't get me wrong, it's an okay little reboot mostly meant to tie in with the Romero/Savini works that followed and, finally, get George some gottamn cheddar for having been the guy who made Night of the Goddamn Living Dead. Also, Patricia Tallman in a 12 year old boy's haircut toting a shotgun? Unf, I'll take that over Judith O'Dea being a wimpering sack of vintage vagina-related uselessness any day. But's it's just sort of dull, isn't it? Yeah yeah, I get that it has kind of a cool feminist twist, some amusing redneck gags as an afterthought and a couple of chilling ghoul designs, but when all is said and done, it's not a seminal film in the same league as George Romero's 1968 original, and I was actually disappointed by how restrained and dull the inevitable carnage in the 1990 version was. The fact that I don't think the film is especially great, however, does NOT invalidate its place as a work of the cinematic landscape worthy of preservation and respect... it just means my energy to complain about it has waned over the last seven days.

The two people tasked with that very duty, Prinzi and Savini, both say they think it looks fine. What the hell are we to do? We can't even boycott the goddamn thing if we want to because it's already sold out! History lost this battle before it even began, and about all we can do is suck it up and sigh at the absurdity of it all. Oh yeah, before I forget, some "camera shutter click" sound effects are missing from the end credits. Whoop-dee fuckin' doo. Considering the color timing issue it's sort of like complaining that there's a dead fly in your Extra Fancy Dog Shit Mousse.

And by the by, everyone upset that they paid a "premium price" really needs to chill the fuck out. That Japanese tape up there, the best copy of the film going about twenty years ago? Using today's exchange rate it'd cost just shy of $200. If you'd paid THAT much and gotten this transfer, yeah, I'd be pissed with fury to spare. As it stands, you'll break even if you don't like it, and can only profit if you decide some stranger on eBay will dislike it even less. Problem, fucking, solved.

As for me, I ordered this and also the Columbia DVD. Remember that documentary with the missing footage? Yeah, I figured that was worth six bucks. I'd say y'all reading this should probably do the same, but it's too late for anything else. Well, unless you'd rather buy it through VUDU and watch the properly color timed version in HD on your PS3 and PC and whatever else can handle it... and uh, did I mention bringing in the DVD gets you a coupon to get the $12 Vudu version for $5? Can't say I'm willing to spend even more money just to own a low-bitrate HD download to compliment two physical copies, but it's worth a thought for anyone who missed the boat and is more willing to pay for a decent HD master than steal a crumby one.