Friday, September 12, 2014

Pumpkinhead (1988) Blu-ray review

Despite the subjectivity of nearly every horror film in existence, there are a handful of titles that more or less remain above reproach because they’re just so damn beloved. These are the films that would make you question a person’s love of the genre if they claimed not to be a fan. When it comes to a title like Pumpkinhead (1988), horror fans should fall into one of two categories:

1. Those who love it. 2. Those who haven’t yet seen it.

After toiling away in Hollywood since the early ‘70s, special FX pioneer Stan Winston finally got the chance to direct his first feature length film (and it should have stayed his first and only, if you’ve seen his one other theatrical picture, 1990’s A Gnome Named Gnorm). Pulling from a concept screenwriter Gary Gerani had kicking around in his head since the late ‘70s, along with a poem written by Ed Justin, Pumpkinhead is a seminal supernatural creature feature; a morality tale pitting film’s two oldest foes against one another – good vs. evil. Swathed in atmosphere and anchored by a strong lead in Lance Henriksen, the true star here is the eponymous demon of vengeance, Pumpkinhead, who remains one of cinema’s most realized, emotive creations of latex and mechanics ever produced. Even heathens who only find the film to be decent can’t argue the beast Winston’s team conjured up isn’t an enduring icon of horror; its legacy only diluted by some truly atrocious sequels (although, being a child of ‘90s horror, I have to admit to fostering a soft spot for Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1994) despite the fact it is entirely unnecessary).

Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen) is a simple man. He lives in a modest cabin with his young son, Billy (Matthew Hurley), and their dog, Gypsy (who also played the Peltzer family pet in 1984’s Gremlins), since his wife passed away many years ago. By day, Ed and Billy run a local market & feed store by the roadside. One day, some city folk stop by on their way to a weekend getaway in the woods. Ed is forced to leave the shop when he forgets some feed for Mr. Wallace (played by John Carpenter crony George “Buck” Flower), leaving Billy “in charge” momentarily. And in that moment, Billy is run down and killed by Joel (John D’Aquino), a hothead dickhead who drinks constantly, thus ensuring that even when he does have a legitimate accident (see: Billy) he still has to go on the lam. Steve (Joel Hoffman), Joel’s brother, does the right thing by staying behind and trying to speak with Ed when he returns. As you might imagine, Ed is not thrilled.

Ed drives back down to the Wallace’s place, hoping to get in touch with an old woman who lives in these parts. She’s rumored to be able to conjure up something to even the score; a demon that Ed witnessed killing a man (Dick Warlock, in a very brief role) back when he was a young boy. One of Wallace’s kids shows him the way, down into the swamp where Haggis (Florence Schauffler) lives in a ramshackle cabin. Ed wants vengeance, which Haggis can provide… at a high price. Ed is instructed to dig up a malformed corpse from atop a small plateau within a pumpkin patch. He returns with the body, Haggis performs a ritual and the corpse transforms into the gargantuan demon of vengeance, Pumpkinhead. Numerous deaths follow.

It’s a tale as old as time – good vs. evil, revenge, justice, consequences. Pumpkinhead doesn’t succeed by doing things differently; it succeeds by getting a number of variables right, including the casting of Henriksen, who brings a strong sense of gravitas to the picture; delivering an atmospheric, almost gothic aesthetic set deep in the woods of Califo…er, the South; and, most importantly, Pumpkinhead as a character is unforgettable. Winston was mostly hands off during production because he had so much to manage running the ship. Thankfully, his shop contained a number of insanely talented individuals – Tom Woodruff Jr., Alec Gillis, Shannon Shea – that they were able to craft such amazing work in the span of several weeks. As a malevolent creature from another world, Pumpkinhead feels organic; it moves and emotes with as much realism as possible. Verisimilitude aside, the design is just flat-out spectacular, too. You almost can’t blame these producers for making sequels because it’s the kind of movie monster you want to see more of. Note I did say “almost”.

Henriksen is such a damn solid actor. He’s got this soulful charm to him, whether he’s playing a villain or a hero. It’s a magnetic presence. Side note: the guy is just like that in real life, too. Total class act. Here, as Ed Harley, he’s a man who makes a rash decision based upon raw emotion and a sense of total loss; he needs these kids to feel as he does, in this moment. Only after Ed is vicariously linked to Pumpkinhead does he understand the error of his choice, a wrong he desperately tries to right until the very end. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job filling Harley’s boots.

The film’s road to theaters was not an easy one, fraught with studio change-ups, a poorly-timed wide release date and very few screens. Still, it thrived upon hitting home video, where mass audiences were finally able to appreciate the hard work Winston and co. had done. It’s possible for some this is one of those “rose-tinted memory” films that might not hold up for first-time viewers more accustomed to CGI creatures and hot-bodied teens in their horror. I stress “possible” because, really, you can’t love horror and not love everything about Pumpkinhead. It’s a brisk romp through the swamp, full of creepy creature moments and gorgeously lit, looking like a southern-fried Mario Bava flic.

Fans of Pumpkinhead have likely purchased this film at least a handful of times – VHS (which had the best cover art of any release), a full-frame DVD, a special edition widescreen DVD and now, finally, the reigning kings of horror on Blu-ray, Scream Factory, have delivered what should be taken as the definitive version, with a 1.85:1 1080p image that looks just great. Barring an extensive 4K restoration, this is the best the film will ever look on home video. There’s not much to complain about here. The picture relies heavily on colored lighting and a brooding atmosphere to heighten the horror, with many shots bathed in hues of red or blue. That blue, in particular, looks very effective when coupled with all the smoke pumped into the shots when our characters are trying to escape from the woods. Black levels are stable and rich; and they need to be because nearly the entirety of the film takes place in dimly-lit woods. Contrast takes a bit of a hit at night, when details tend to get obscured by shadow, though much of that lost detail is just inherent to such low lighting. Unsurprisingly, the image looks best during the daylight scenes, when finer details are able to more fully show themselves. No digital tweaking has been done here; no DNR or unnecessary tampering. Other than a few minor specks, the print used here is in great condition. Some minor compression issues pop up in the background of a few scenes; nothing major, though. I’ve seen this movie a hundred times on a half dozen formats on this is unquestionably the best it has ever looked.

As usual, fans have the choice of an English DTS-HD MA in either 5.1 surround sound track or 2.0 stereo. Now, the film was originally mixed in Ultra Stereo and the additional tracks added for a more immersive experience aren’t completely needed. The multi-channel option does sound a bit fuller than the stereo track, so this will simply come down to a matter of preference for most. Personally, unless a 5.1 channel track is terribly done it’s usually my go-to pick simply because the soundfield is expanded more fully. If you’re a purist, however, just know the 2.0 stereo track gets the job done nearly as well. Dialogue tends to sound a bit thin and flat on either track, lacking presence. Rears get some sporadic play during tense moments, never quite delivering enough audible cues to be totally immersive. The highlight here is composer Richard Stone’s score (someone get on a vinyl release, ASAP), which is perfectly constructed for the film. Stone uses a great deal of Southern instrumentation here, including some great pieces done with slide guitar and harmonica. There’s nothing generic about this score. Subtitles are included in English.

Continuing on with their mission to provide amazing releases, Scream Factory not only included ALL of the bonus materials found on the previous special edition DVD but they’ve also included newly-produced featurettes in an effort to absolutely pack every bit of space on this disc with awesome material. In addition to the returning audio commentary, documentary, trailers and featurettes, the disc also includes new interviews, a retrospective on Winston and an image gallery.

Ported over from the previous DVD is this audio commentary, featuring co-screenwriter Gary Gerani and creature FX creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, moderated by filmmaker (and super fan) Scott Spiegel. It’s a mostly-active session, with all participants getting plenty of time to discuss their respective contributions to the film. Everyone does quiet down on a few occasions, leaving awkward gaps of silence, and some info is redundant if you watch the other bonus features first. Still, if you want to know everything you possibly can about the production, this is an essential listen. Pumpkinhead Unearthed is a six-part documentary that runs just over an hour. No stone is left unturned here, as nearly every available principal cast & crew member is interviewed about their work on the film. This documentary was excellent when it arrived with the SE DVD, and here, presented in HD, it’s no less interesting to watch all over again. Behind the Scenes is a vaguely-titled piece that looks at the genesis of Pumpkinhead as a practical creation. Most of this footage consists of the special FX crew guys testing out a rough form of the Pumpkinhead suit, as well as sculpting the “hero” head and seeing the entire thing all put together on set. Night of the Demon with Richard Weinman is an interview with the veteran producer, who has some vivid recollections about working with Winston, including one moment of testosterone overload when he and producer Dino DeLaurentiis got into a screaming match. Dino, of course, won. The Redemption of Joel with John D’Aquino is an interview with the film’s big jerk. Ironically, he originally wanted to play the Jeff East good guy role, but wound up playing the heavy. He makes mention of his death scene being very painful due to the rig in which he was hoisted up. The Boy with the Glasses with Matthew Hurley is an interview with the actor who played Ed Harley’s son. Young Billy is all grown up, looking very much like you’d expect Older Billy to appear. Being so young during the time of filming, he’s got nothing but golden memories of his time on set. He points to Henriksen as making a great effort to keep him comfortable during the shoot. Demonic Toys is an interview with Jean St. Jean, sculptor at SOTA toys, who talks about the process by which he created the 20” tall Pumpkinhead figure that was put out many years back. It looks badass, but I’ll say this: it can’t stand for sh*t. Kids, leave most of your toys in the box. Trust me. Remembering the Monster Kid – A Tribute to Stan Winston is a slightly moving, slightly long remembrance of the FX legend. Stan was a major innovator in the film world; this is undeniable. Some of his contemporaries (mostly those who worked on this film) show up to wax fondly on how much they admired him. A couple tales of his temper are worked in, though nothing all that revelatory or shocking is told. This could’ve had more substance to it, but as an effusive tribute it’s not half bad. A still gallery containing 102 images and the film’s theatrical trailer, looking rather rough, complete the extra material.

The cover art is reversible, allowing for display of either newly-commissioned art (which is some of the best to grace a Scream Factory title) or the original theatrical key art, which, frankly, isn’t all that awesome. Nobody would’ve minded if they chose the VHS art, but this is a very minor quibble. A slipcover featuring the new art is included on first pressings.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Legend Of Hell House (1973) Blu-ray review

There are a number of variables that can lead horror fans to make assumptions about a film’s quality before seeing a frame of footage, but none seems more arbitrary than the rating. Slap an “R” on a film and there’s a buzz of excitement in the air; garner a “PG-13” and almost immediately complaints pop up decrying that a film has been neutered for younger audiences. Sometimes the latter is true – and also foolish, since the 12-17 demographic that studios so desperately chase is a minor slice of the movie-going public pie – but, really, a film’s rating is not intrinsically linked to its quality. Just look to the past for ripe examples of horror films that are truly terrifying despite their (gasp!) “PG” rating. Of course, many of these examples were from an age before the advent of a “PG-13” rating. Still, the great thing about horror is that gore and nudity aren’t required to instill terror, and there is a subgenre that can skate by without either of those: hauntings. Going back to an era before these films relied almost entirely on jump scares, some of the most consistently lauded fright films are decades-old favorites such as The Haunting (1963) and Poltergeist (1982), both of which have “mild” ratings.

One film that seems to get overlooked on many lists is the British cult classic The Legend of Hell House (1973) which, personally, I’ve always found to be quite effective. The screenplay was written by famed literary icon Richard Matheson, based upon his own novel of the same name. The plot is very basic: four people are commissioned to stay in “the Mount Everest of haunted houses” in an effort to prove whether or not life continues after death. That’s it. There are no ulterior motives, no sneaky sinister characters, and no slow building of tension before culminating in a frenzied climax. Four people enter a home that is unquestionably teeming with paranormal activity and the spirits within endlessly torment them until the very end. Ably directed by John Hough, who has helmed many cult favorites during his career, the film stands as a strong example of using fear of the unknown (and unseen) to bolster scares without relying on graphic imagery.

The picture opens with the following text:

“Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true.” – Tom Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty.

Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), a prominent physicist, has been tasked by an aging millionaire to investigate the Belasco House, site of a massacre many years ago. The massive mansion was constructed by Emeric “The Roaring Giant” Belasco, a six-foot-five mountain of a man who disappeared shortly after the killings in his home. It is said the house is haunted by the spirits of those who died there. Previous expeditions to prove the existence of the supernatural ended poorly, with nearly every person who set foot inside dying under mysterious circumstances. Barrett brings along his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt); a psychic medium, Florence (Pamela Franklin); and a physical medium, Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowell), the one survivor of the research team that was killed in the home. Barrett is convinced the phenomena seen inside can be explained away as unfocused electromagnetic energy, and he’s brought along a giant machine (which looks like an old prop from “Star Trek”) that can reverse the energy fields.

Ridding the home of its evil won’t be that easy, however, as the four soon find out. Almost immediately, the place is abuzz with activity, which Barrett thinks is nothing more than Tanner using her abilities to manifest phenomena. Fischer is simply along for the pay day, keeping up his mental walls so as not to allow the house any influence over his mind. The others aren’t so detuned, and Barrett’s wife finds herself continually under a hypnotic spell that causes her to unleash her restrained sexuality. Tanner, too, is heavily influenced by the spirit of whoever resides here. She is continually attacked both mentally and physically, the latter of which comes in the form of a sleek black cat that is unrelenting in its attacks. Fischer finally lowers his mental block and lets his mind focus on the home’s energy, which lets the group uncover some of its hidden secrets. But, ultimately, Barrett thinks only his machine can clear the evil out and end all of this madness. He may be right; however, arriving at such a conclusion requires confronting the evil forces head-on from their origin point in the heart of the house, the chapel.

The Legend of Hell House might seem tame by today’s standards, especially when you consider it lacks anything visceral. They still get away with quite a bit for a “PG” rating, including some decent side boob action, a few strong sexual moments and some mild, bloody imagery. Where the film succeeds is by presenting a constant stream of nefarious activity that occurs almost as soon as our team of four enters. The scares aren’t major, but there’s an eerie undercurrent that’s slightly unsettling because of that intangible, unknown entity causing chaos. Is there only one malevolent spirit? Several? Barrett and his team are under constant attack, both from outside and from within their own group. What’s more, Barrett is able to play the skeptic despite an abundance of clearly inhuman activity because he attributes all of it to electromagnetic energy, claims Tanner and Fischer find dubious.

The acting here is very… British; and by that, I mean kind of stuffy. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that McDowell is the strongest player here, though I wish the script had exploited the angle of him being the sole survivor of previous investigations much more. Fischer seems to be the only logical person on this mission, knowing full well what awaits them in that place. He must be very hard-up for cash considering he voluntarily re-enters the place where his colleagues died in the name of scoring some extra scratch. Old millionaires must pay very handsomely.

Hough’s film plays, in many ways, like a Hammer picture, which makes perfect sense considering he spent a good deal of time directing at the venerable studio. The Legend of Hell House presents a solid ghost story along with a dreary, austere atmosphere. Again, the scares found here may seem tame in comparison to today’s haunting films, but there’s an undeniable charm in the ‘70s aesthetic and gothic setting. If there’s one complaint, it would be there are way too many title cards. On the last day in the home, the date and time must flash on screen a dozen times. If there’s a second complaint, it would be that the ending sort of fizzles out unexpectedly, especially considering the gravity of the secrets that are uncovered. When people ask me to recommend a good, scary horror film that they haven’t seen this has long been one of my go-to picks. Revisiting it now, some of the scares aren’t quite as impactful as I had remembered, though that doesn’t make the experience of watching it any less enjoyable.

For a film that’s over 40 years old, The Legend of Hell House sports a 1.85:1 image that is fairly strong for a low-budget affair. Film grain is very evident throughout, mostly lending the cinematic aesthetic it should, but occasionally it turns to noise and the image quality suffers. This mostly happens during some interior shots. The print itself looks to have been well-preserved, with only minor flecks & dirt apparent. Hough uses extreme close-ups quite often, which not only adds to the sense of claustrophobia even in a huge mansion, but the image detail gets to shine through more than ever. When the camera is shooting medium or wide, though, the picture is softer than a moldy piece of fruit. Black levels hold strong, with only a couple instances of looking hazy. Colors look a tad on the faded side; nothing much pops here. Contrast is stable, but under the weight of shadows image details are swallowed up. This is the kind of transfer that punches up every aspect of the picture as much as it can, even if the results aren’t eye-popping. It would require extensive restoration work to look much better.

There’s not much to be said about the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track. It’s clean, free of hisses & pops and carries the dialogue with good fidelity. The real standout here is the electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. It’s an atypical score that delivers an aura of foreboding, full of low-end instrumentation (think contrabassoon) and bursts of energy when the house comes alive. With so many labels churning out film soundtracks these days, someone should get on giving this its first proper commercial release. It’s absolutely fantastic. Subtitles are included in English.

Actress Pamela Franklin is the lone participant on the audio commentary track, which may just be a repurposed interview cut to use as a commentary. When selected, the disc starts off around five minutes into the movie, when Franklin’s character first appears. She’s pretty lively and quick with the anecdotes, but there are also many gaps of silence. This might’ve been better presented as a sit-down interview. The best extra included here is the Interview with director John Hough (1080p), which features the veteran director candidly talking about his style of shooting pictures, efforts to build suspense, the film’s energy, and he mentions they even had psychic advisors on set to make sure events were being presented correctly. He’s had a long, strong career and hearing him speak about his craft is a joy. The film’s theatrical trailer, a photo gallery, and a handful of radio spots conclude the supplements.

Ginger Snaps (2000) Blu-ray review

It could be argued that despite the lycanthropic lore of shape-shifters existing in mainstream cinemas since 1935’s Werewolf of London, the subgenre has yet to fully reach its pinnacle. An American Werewolf in London (1982) is often cited as the best werewolf film ever made, and rightfully so, but even with Rick Baker’s astounding make-up FX work there are inherent limitations preventing the film from showing off the rampaging beast in all its glory. The werewolf design is iconic, instantly recognizable, and the transformation Naughton undergoes is breathtaking every single time you see it. But the wolf trudges along like an ‘80s animatronic, incapable of the organic kinetic movement required to sell that this is a massive creature of considerable power. From there, every film in the subgenre is of wildly varying quality. Rob Bottin nailed the Eddie Quist transformation scene in Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981), yet the majority of that film isn’t exactly thrilling. Some films, like The Wolf Man (1941, 2010), forego turning their leading actors into a total creature and make them into literal wolf men. This effect can look incredible (Jack Pierce was a master of his craft back in those days) but viewers still aren’t seeing a “complete” transformation. Others go for broke and attempt to use practical FX to construct hulking furry behemoths that, more often than not, wind up looking disappointing on screen. Or when they do look amazing, such as in the much maligned Bad Moon (1996, and a film I happen to really dig), the story suffers. The point of all this rambling is that for such a beloved sector of horror, werewolf fans have always had to accept a certain degree of deficiency in nearly every film.

Ginger Snaps (2000) sets itself apart from the pack by doing something different that still operates within the wheelhouse of werewolf lore. In fact, to show how much it’s trying to be unique the word “werewolf” is never spoken once; they’re referred to as “lycanthropes”. This is as feminist a take on the werewolf tradition as anything ever done before, or since, using a young girl’s coming of age (getting “the curse”) as a metaphor to explain her drastic changes from sweet & innocent to savage & beastly. Writer Karen Walton only wanted to tackle this subject matter if it could be done in an atypical way, outside the genre norm and focused on horrors of the body – both natural and unnatural. This approach gives “Ginger Snaps” a very Cronenberg sensibility, which is no coincidence as both Walton and director John Fawcett cite the legendary Canadian auteur’s early efforts as a direct influence. The relationship between Ginger and Brigitte is similar to that of Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) in Dead Ringers (1988). These qualities are what make “Ginger Snaps” an aberration, since outside of the well-crafted story of two sisters there isn’t much else to laud.

Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) are two sisters with as close a relationship as any could have, and they are both obsessed with death. Their favorite pastime is to stage morbid, grisly death scenes, which they photograph for personal and, sometimes, school use. A string of dog attacks has had everyone in the neighborhood on high alert, but Ginger & Brigitte see the gruesome deaths as an opportunity to produce art. While out in the park one night, they come across a still-warm canine corpse, which comes apart messily as they try to move it. Brigitte notices Ginger gets some blood on her leg, but it turns out she’s just caught her first wave in the crimson tide. As soon as the revelation is made clear, Ginger is savagely attacked from out of nowhere by some…thing. Brigitte is able to wrestle her away from the beast, which is then struck by an oncoming van driven by Sam (Kris Lemche), a local pot dealer who also knows a thing or two about lycanthropy. The two girls head home, since Ginger refuses medical treatment, and Brigitte is shocked to see her sister’s grievous wounds have already begun to heal.

Now that she is inflicted with a new curse, Ginger’s behavior begins to radically change. She’s aggressive. She begins to flirt with the boys. And she starts to alienate herself from Brigitte. Concerned for her sister, Brigitte works together with Sam to understand her problem, namely, her gradual metamorphosis into something inhuman. Sam thinks that monkshood, a perennial plant, may hold the key to controlling Ginger’s urges, which are only intensifying. It wasn’t enough that she knowingly infected another boy with her disease, but she’s now moved on to killing local dogs and anyone who is foolish enough to cross her. The events lead up to a massive party on Halloween night, when Brigitte and Sam search for Ginger, who is quickly beginning to assume a more lupine form. Their mother, Pam (Mimi Rogers) attempts to help her daughters, as does Sam, but ultimately it all ends with an expected showdown between the two siblings.

Ginger Snaps unquestionably succeeds in presenting strong, developed characters that anchor the picture. Ginger and Brigitte aren’t the usually paper-thin female archetypes employed in most horror films. They have depth and meaning, giving events that occur later in the film weight because we’re emotionally invested on more than a base level. The girls talk like real teenagers (which means an abundance of “fucks” throughout the picture) and it’s easy to empathize with their outcast status. Underneath the veneer of death photographs and morbid obsession, they’re just another two female adolescents trying to find their way in life while transitioning into womanhood. Now, clearly, there are a number of inferences to be drawn from the conceit of a young girl becoming a woman juxtaposed with literally turning into a snarling, fanged beast. Walton was trying to horrifically visualize the feeling of a woman’s body “betraying” her via the changes that come with a certain age. Again, this is all very Cronenberg-esque stuff – the terror of seeing the vessel you inhabit, the flesh you trust, taking on a life of its own and becoming something unfamiliar. Isabelle turns in a solid performance that has her running the gamut of emotions, sometimes drastically within key scenes. Perkins, likewise, is equally adept at delivering the necessary pathos for viewers to connect to her character.

But, man, is that damn wig on her ever distracting.

On the lycanthropic side of things, well, most of that is left off screen. And that’s probably for the best. Fawcett wanted to do all of the film’s effects using practical make-up, a decision more directors should try sticking with, but this was also filmed around the turn of the century. At that time, CGI was still a bit rough if you didn’t have a massive budget (which this film did not), and had Ginger Snaps gone the CGI route it would have almost undoubtedly looked atrocious. Still, the lycanthrope presented here isn’t the strongest example ever seen in film. Maybe not the worst, either, but (unfortunately) it’s pretty close. The design doesn’t look like an organic creature; it’s more like a static sculpt that stands in one location and has limited mobility. It would be more at home in Knott’s Scary Farm than a feature film. Props for giving it boobs, though; you don’t see that too often. The film also gets some kudos for shaking up the werewolf mythology by eschewing cinematic traits like full moon shape shifting, silver bullets, and how the disease is contracted. Pro tip: if you’re going to have sex with a she-wolf, wear a condom.

While it might not be a total success as a true werewolf film, Ginger Snaps succeeds in a number of areas. Characters are well-written… as long as they’re female. Reciprocation doesn’t extend to the male actors, who are either totally absent in character (i.e. the girls’ father) or pander to expected male high school stereotypes (horny, pushy, jock-ish). The idea of bodily betrayal, and not conforming to the usual werewolf tropes, is also refreshing. The film is proof that strict adherence to unwritten genre guidelines isn’t necessary, and often times going outside those boundaries yields something that can galvanize genre fans. The only major downside here, really, is a lack of strong werewolf FX that could have capped this off on a stronger note. As it stands, Ginger Snaps is inventive horror filmmaking that managed to rise above most of the muck being churned out during its time period.

It could be easy to find fault in the 1.78:1 1080p image Scream Factory has presented here on Blu-ray, but let’s remember the home video history of Ginger Snaps. The original DVD release was unceremoniously dumped on fans in 2003, with a full-frame transfer and a total lack of extra features. Keen buyers might have snatched up the Canadian DVD, which was in the proper aspect ratio and loaded with bonus goodies. Both discs, however, lacked in the video & audio department by featuring some truly ugly, muddied visuals.

This latest release is unarguably the best the film has ever looked, as dubious a distinction as that may be. There’s a fine grain structure present throughout that looks very filmic, never noisy or too heavy. The print is in reasonably good shape, though white flecks and some dirt is noticeable. Colors appear warmly saturated, with red being a pervasive hue that pops off the screen quite well. Black levels are consistent and dark, though there are a number of moments when they do look a bit hazy. Contrast is acceptable, but it’s much stronger in exterior shots than interiors, where things get a little muddled. Definition is strongest in close-up shots, while medium and wide shots look slightly above average at best. Background elements are also lacking in minute detail, appearing soft and unfocused more often than not. On the plus side, no post-processing has been done here – no DNR or edge enhancement to ruin the picture. This is a suitable image for a low-budget production.

The biggest boost the film receives is in the audio, where the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track exhibits excellent fidelity to deliver a solid presentation. First off, Mike Shields’ score is absolutely exquisite, with the main leitmotif sounding very dramatic and operatic in execution. This is a film score that can stand independent of the feature and play wonderfully on its own. Dialogue is clean and always discernible, perfectly balanced alongside a bevy of sound effects and source music. Speaking of which, prepare to hear some horrifically dated tunes, especially during the Halloween party. There’s little activity in the rear assembly, giving this track a range that isn’t too expansive and lacks total immersion. The lycanthrope snarls and howls, however, sound beefy and thick; perfectly selling that what we are hearing is no ordinary wolf. An English DTS-HD MA 2.0 track is also included. Subtitles are available in English.

Fear not, owners of the Canadian SE DVD, because Scream Factory has ported over nearly all the good stuff as well as including some new features that are well worth your time. There are multiple audio commentaries, a documentary, featurettes galore, deleted scenes, cast auditions, trailers, and more.

Director John Fawcett delivers the first audio commentary, and he’s never at a loss for words. He dives right in, talking about the location shooting and finding somewhere to house a suitably bleak atmosphere. He also discusses the sheer terror he felt when it was discovered Emily Perkins had cut off nearly all of her hair just before being cast, requiring her to wear a wig that he clearly is no fan of. There’s a constant flow of solid information here. The second audio commentary is with writer Karen Walton. She delivers a track full of insight into the script, discussing her original ideas, thoughts on differing POVs in the film, and examining horror through a feminist lens. Fawcett’s track is a bit more in depth regarding the shoot as a whole, but this is no slog to get through.

Ginger Snaps: Blood, Teeth and Fur is a documentary that runs for over an hour. As you might guess based on the length this kitchen-sink-and-all piece looks back at the film’s early beginnings, when it was almost sunk due to backlash over “teen violence” films post-Columbine, to the casting, location shooting, FX work, scripting and much, much more. Katherine Isabelle is notably absent here, which may or may not be due to the fact she’s stated in interviews that she isn’t a horror fan and only used it as a springboard to get a bigger career. Whether that’s entirely true or not, her lack of appearance is conspicuous. Emily Perkins does participate, and, wow, has she ever grown up into quite the lovely young lady. Growing Pains: Puberty in Horror Films is an excellent, unexpected piece that looks at the horrors of coming of age with four notable female horror luminaries – writer Kristy Jett, filmmaker Axelle Carolyn, writer Heidi Honeycutt, and Fangoria’s Rebekah McKendry. The foursome looks back at films that have dealt with puberty, with some obvious and obscure selections for fans to consider. A reel of deleted scenes runs for around 25 minutes, but, annoyingly, these cannot be selected individually. Viewers have the option of watching them with the original audio, or with audio commentary from either director John Fawcett or writer Karen Walton. Featurette is the EPK that was found on the Canadian DVD, covering the usual bases. Cast Auditions & Rehearsals features Isabelle and Perkins during the process leading up to filming. Perkins is nearly unrecognizable with her shorn locks. Creation of the Beast looks at the design and sculpting process of making the lycanthrope seen during the film’s climax. Being John Fawcett is a silly, short video diary the director shot while on set. Theatrical trailers & TV spots are also included, and the disc is rounded out with a look at some of the production design artwork.

The cover art is reversible, allowing for display of either the newly created artwork (which is striking), or the original key art (which is sort of bland). A slipcover featuring the new art is included on initial pressings.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Under The Skin (2013) Blu-ray review

Nearly every ardent film aficionado understands that cinema is highly subjective, with most pictures garnering an equal number of supporters and detractors. Sometimes, half the fun in seeing a new movie is the post-viewing discussion that breaks out among friends over what did and didn’t work. Few films, though, can divide audiences more rapidly than art house movies. Where some viewers key in on subtleties and nuance, others see a pretentious mess that could bore a person to death. You don’t run across many people who have a “meh” reaction to something intrinsically artistic – either they love it and praise it endlessly, or they hate it and can’t spew enough vitriol. One such film that has recently divided filmgoers is writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). Adapted from the 2000 novel of the same name, which was written by Michel Faber, it’s the tale of an interstellar succubus that travels to Earth for the purpose of luring in lonely men and denuding their bones of flesh via an… unusual method. It has been met with stirring acclaim – it currently holds an 87% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes - though there seems to be an equal number of critics who found it to be a pointless exercise of languid cinema. While at a cursory glance it may be easy to see where they’re coming from, the fact is Glazer’s film is purposely unconventional and a bit obtuse, requiring much deeper thought if viewers want to gain knowledge of its true nature. Nothing is overtly spelled out; it’s all in the subtext.

An alien (Scarlett Johansson) arrives on Earth to take the place of her predecessor, who has died under unknown circumstances. What these two “women” share are attractive features that would interest most hot-blooded men, which is essential to their purpose. Johansson (her character is never named) drives the streets of Scotland at night, attempting to pick up on single, unattached men who are more than eager to follow her back to her flat. Once inside the austere, blackened tomb where she resides the men strip down and follow her sultry figure across the room before being enveloped by a viscous liquid that preserves them alive, yet slowly softens their skin before sucking the flesh from their bones. It is not a pleasant way to go, even when you consider their final view of her curvaceous backside. She views humans from an objective perspective, with little regard for their lives and emotions; she is merely a tool here to do a job.

Her nightly endeavors hit a snag when she meets a young, deformed man (Adam Pearson, who looks not unlike the legendary Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick) who is shy and unaccustomed to attention from such a beauty. His grotesque exterior belies the gentle person under the skin, and, so, she begins to learn there is more to humans than just their outward appearance. She decides to let him go. Her experience with this young man changes her perception of not only those around her, but herself; of the body she inhabits. This leads her on a journey of self-reflection and stark realization; a trial through which she attempts to assimilate within the human world, experimenting with food and relationships and sex; things which were once so foreign to her. Constantly shadowed by a male of her species, one who maintains a constant vigil over her affairs and cleans up any messes, she is eventually resigned to the fact that despite her best efforts, she will never enjoy the pleasures our world has to offer.

Plot is secondary here; the story is more concerned with capturing the existential journey an alien takes when confronted with the possibility of becoming something more than what it is. Much like the people around her, viewers are kept at a distance, merely observing her actions without becoming deeply involved. Her purpose on Earth is only vaguely defined – we don’t exactly know why she’s seducing and liquefying these men. So much of the film is left open to interpretation that viewers with a short attention span (i.e., sadly, most of the younger generation) will probably check out early on without considering the messages being conveyed. The title has a double meaning, as it not only refers to there being something more under the skin of Johansson’s character, but also of the film’s depth. A reasonable comparison might be the work of David Lynch (though this film never reaches those lofty heights) because without a deeper evaluation of what’s being shown it would be all too easy to casually dismiss it as artsy, theoretical garbage.

It’s hard to believe any man wouldn’t jump into a vehicle if propositioned by Johansson, but many of the men she preys upon are either uninterested or oblivious to her intentions. If some of the reactions seem rather candid and genuine, that’s because they are. Many of her nightly escapades were shot using hidden consumer-grade cameras mounted in a van, with the actress calling out random men on the street that were only told of the ruse after the shots were completed. It’s a subtle touch that adds an extra layer of realism. Even many of the film’s characters (none of whom are given screen names) were portrayed by untrained actors. The aforementioned young man with severe facial disfigurement? That’s his real face, and his casting is testament to the realism Glazer attempted to achieve. The alien “cleaner” who shadows Johansson’s every move isn’t an actor at all, but a world-class motorcycle racer. The role required someone who could drive at high speeds on slick roads, and rather than use a stunt double Glazer simply hired Jeremy McWilliams, an Irish professional racer, to don the helmet. As a result of these casting decisions, and the fact that most have very little dialogue, the film’s veracity is greatly heightened.

A good film can almost always be elevated by a great score, and the work done here by Mica Levi, aka Micachu (of Micachu & The Shapes), is exemplary. Droning bass lines are punctuated by bursts of Fox string sounds, a technique that has been used for decades to heighten tension and emotion. The score incorporates elements of electronic and acoustic instruments, giving the entire affair an appropriately alien feel. Levi’s leitmotif used during the film’s sequences of seduction is mysterious and sexy, like a lure that emanates from within and puts these men into autopilot. The atonal compositions are hypnotic, easily lulling viewers into a trance. It’s certainly one of the best film scores of the year thus far.

Despite a dearth of major activity, I never found myself bored while watching the film. Sure, Glazer lets himself veer into Terrence Malick territory at times, with long, sweeping wide shots that linger in a fixed position for lengthy periods of time. Thankfully, the Scottish landscape where they shot is so gorgeous that few will be bothered by witnessing its consistent beauty. If some find the film to be cold, well, that was intentional. This is a cold world to an alien being – it’s even cold to those who aren’t alien - and it succeeds in never allowing viewers to feel much comfort. Under the Skin is a stoic reflection of humanity through the lens of the ultimate foreign body. Some of Glazer’s directorial decisions are rather puzzling - with many questions left entirely unanswered - but for those who enjoy films that aren’t wrapped up in a neat package by the time credits begin rolling this is a cerebral experience that feels satisfactory. It may not be perfect, but it certainly is unique in a sea of homogenized cinema.

Viewers must keep in mind that the film’s 1.85:1 1080p image was produced using a variety of cameras, and so the results are going to vary from scene to scene. The color palette veers toward steely, blue hues with saturation stripped down in other colors. The muted aesthetic was intentional, as was the decision to shroud most of the film in a state of near-darkness. Black levels are inky and deep, aside from a few cases where contrast was boosted on purpose, rendering them a bit hazy. The nightly encounters with men on the street were captured using GoPro-style cameras, and they look about as reasonable as can be expected – grainy, not very detailed, and like a home video. Although much of what we see is bleak, the Scottish vistas look simply gorgeous and haunting. This might be far from what Blu-ray aficionados consider “reference quality”, but it is no doubt presented just as accurately as Glazer and his collaborators intended.

A great deal of the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track rests on the compositions of Levi because there isn’t a lot of dialogue to be heard. When characters are speaking, it is presented cleanly and balanced, though good luck making out what half the Scots here are saying. Those brogues are thick as a brick. The most boisterous moments come when Johansson enters a nightclub, with bass thumping and the sound of patrons echoing all around. Otherwise, the track comes to life only when Levi’s score is slowly working its magic to immerse listeners. Rears come to life for added ambiance, but this is a very minimal sound design that keeps viewers focused more on the images on screen and less on what they’re hearing. Subtitles are included in English SDH and Spanish.

The back cover sells the supplements a bit short, claiming to hold only one featurette. That one featurette is actually several shorter pieces that together form a nice making-of that runs over 40 minutes, focusing on camera, casting, editing, locations, music, poster design, production design, script, sound, and VFX. An insert containing a code for digital Ultraviolet HD download is included in the package.

Leviathan (1989) Blu-ray review

It’s nothing new to have studios release competing pictures with similar storylines in theaters within a given year; in filmmaking parlance they are known as “twin films”. It is, however, a bit unprecedented to have five movies with the same theme released within a calendar year. That was the case in 1989, when theaters and home video shelves were deluged by titles such as DeepStar Six, The Evil Below, Lords of the Deep, The Abyss and Leviathan – all films dealing with underwater crews discovering sea creatures that, with the exception of The Abyss, are far from benevolent. Of course, none of them was much of a commercial or critical success outside of The Abyss (and even that wasn’t a huge success), but both DeepStar Six and Leviathan have enjoyed moderate cult classic status on home video in the years since, with the latter generally seen as the better of the two. Director George P. Cosmatos’ film is a treasure trove of talent, both in front of and behind the camera – featuring actors Peter Weller, Ernie Hudson, Daniel Stern, Hector Elizondo, Richard Crenna, and Meg Foster; special FX make-up by Stan Winston, with assistance from Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis; score composed by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith… that is one helluva impressive roster. If the talent isn’t enough to lure in viewers, a basic description of the plot should be – it’s Alien (1979) meets The Thing (1982) underwater.

An eclectic crew of undersea miners has only three days left before their six-month mining operation for Tri-Oceanic Corp. is complete. During a routine maintenance run, Sixpack (Daniel Stern), falls off a sea ridge and stumbles upon a downed Russian ship, from which he pilfers a safe. When Sixpack returns to the crew’s underwater habitat, Dr. Glen “Doc” Thompson (Richard Crenna) translates the ship’s name – Leviathan – as well as a video log left by the captain, wherein he talks about a strange illness afflicting his crew. As everyone pores over the contents of the safe, Sixpack quietly slips a flask of vodka found inside into his pocket. Later that night, he shares a drink of vodka with Bowman (Lisa Eilbacher) in their quarters. The next day Sixpack is feeling under the weather, so he goes to see Doc, who discovers a rash on his skin. Not long after the exam, Sixpack lies dead on his hospital bed. Well, dead-ish. Whatever was in that vodka has started to … change his body. Bowman begins feeling the effects, too, and she eventually (unwittingly) winds up in the room with Sixpack’s body, where the two begin to grotesquely merge.

Doc and Beck (Peter Weller) want to avoid alarming the crew, so they wrap “both” bodies up in a bag and get the rest of the group to help flush it out of the station. Well, that plan doesn’t work so well when the bag starts moving and DeJesus (Michael Carmine) opens it up thinking someone is alive, at which point the newly-formed creature takes a swipe at Cobb (Hector Elizondo) and claws his chest pretty good. Everyone is able to force the creature into the “swamp”, a platform used to lower the workers to the ocean floor, but not before a piece of it wriggles out and remains on board. It soon begins to mutate into a lamprey-like creature, attacking crew members and assimilating their bodies, turning into a hulking, menacing beast. The few crew members who are left alive have to figure out a way to either kill it or escape, but with Tri-Oceanic’s CEO Martin (Meg Foster) unable to extract them things are looking dire.

Leviathan works, but the obvious influence of both Alien and The Thing are impossible to ignore; the film is wholly derivative of both, right down to Beck’s final line to the creature echoing both Kurt Russell from Carpenter’s film and Roy Scheider in Jaws (1975). The station’s design is awfully reminiscent of the Nostromo, the crew here is just as varied and distinct as those found in Scott’s film, and the idea of an ever-evolving, regenerative creature screams of Bottin’s work. But there are certainly worse projects to be cribbing from. About the only elements of this film that feel unique are the underwater setting and the concept behind how the creature came to be, neither of which are all that novel. Still, the film succeeds because of the sheer amount of talent involved; and because David Peoples and Jeb Stuart’s script maintains a good pace with commendable intrigue and action to prevent ennui from setting in. Other than some clumsy exposition, where characters make incredibly educated guesses as to the creature’s origins that magically fit together, there isn’t too much to roll your eyes at. These are smart, professional people who make mostly smart, professional decisions when faced with a lumbering beast consuming co-workers.

The film world lost a GIANT when Stan Winston passed in 2008. Creature design hasn’t been the same since. Now, we’re stuck with guys like Neville Page who, while very talented, tends to create creatures that have little variance from film to film. Everything looks like it comes from the same taxonomy. To list all of Winston’s achievements would be (and should be) needless to genre fans; his work is inimitable and easy to spot. The creature design for Leviathan, however, could probably be considered one of his lesser efforts. Both Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis discuss the difficulties of putting the final form together in the supplements on this disc; there were many. Many of the film’s “smaller” effects actually look quite good and convincing, and by peppering them in at short intervals throughout the film it excuses the fact that the main beast is only glimpsed in shadow until the very end of the picture. Once it’s seen, the result looks a bit like, as Ernie Hudson puts it in his interview, “a big chicken monster”. If you look at production shots, it actually doesn’t look all that bad, but the way it’s shot on film doesn’t do the design much justice. Admittedly, though, it does look cobbled together and not entirely congruent, which may or may not have been intentional.

Leviathan is a fun late ‘80s thriller, brimming with talent and bolstered by a strong score, courtesy of maestro Jerry Goldsmith, who weaves some atypical sounds into his representative work. So what if the film is derivative of other, greater works? Plenty of films can be seen as riffing on old ideas; it’s what Hollywood does. At least this film had the decency to pull from two of the most lauded genre pictures of all-time.

Scream Factory has been getting some flack online about their video transfers lately, some of which may be justifiable. Picture quality should always be of paramount importance, not that I’m implying they don’t care about image quality. Sometimes you just can’t do more with what you’re given, especially on a budget. Anyway, throw all that talk out the window because Leviathan is one of their best-looking efforts this year. The 2.35:1 1080p image is stellar, obviously sourced from a recently-mastered version of the film. MGM tends to do well on their horror titles when HD masters are made. The print used here is in great shape, very clean, with nary a hint of dirt of white flecks. Definition in the station interiors is superb, with fine details appearing especially strong. You can count the individual beads of sweat perspiring on DeJesus’ face, or count the crags on Richard Crenna’s. Cinematographer Alex Thomson makes some smart lighting decisions here, allowing for strong clarity and a good sense of depth in these close quarters. Colors are accurate and black levels hold strong. There’s a slight softness to the edges of the picture, which is simply a byproduct of shooting with anamorphic lenses. The only weakness in the picture comes during the “underwater” scenes, which weren’t actually underwater but shot on a soundstage at Cinecitta Studios in Italy. The set was bathed in oceanic hues, cameras were overcranked to give the sense of slow movement in water, and particles were fanned into the air to give the illusion of sediment on the sea floor. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to know this wasn’t shot underwater. The image often looks murky and soft during these shots, which only occur sporadically during the film. These are sources issues, though, and aren’t because of a bad transfer. Not a big deal and the majority of the film looks so good most won’t even care.

The disc offers the choice of an English DTS-HD MA surround sound track with either a remixed 5.1 or original 2.0 stereo option. The stereo track is a little tighter and more focused, but the expanded 5.1 track has better range and sounds fuller. Your choice will simply come down to preference. Goldsmith’s score isn’t his best work by any stretch, but the man was a master of mood setting and knowing how to manipulate emotions through music. He also loved using atypical sounds and styles, such as the bits of whales singing during the opening credits. Dialogue here is clean, centered and balanced within the mix. Fidelity is strong. The LFE track provides some deep, rumbling bass to convey the fury of the sea. Subtitles are available in English.

Leviathan – Monster Melting Pot features a handful of the film’s cast & crew (minus Weller) interviewed about their time on the set. Mention is made of all the underwater films of 1989, and how this one was done on a very short schedule. Tom Woodruff, Jr. notes that this was, by far, the worst suit he’s ever had to wear on screen, since it forced him to stand in a hunched over position for hours at a time. This is a little long, but there’s good info to be heard. Dissecting Cobb with Hector Elizondo is an interview with the actor, who has a vivid memory and an endless supply of humor, talking candidly about his time on the movie. Surviving Leviathan with Ernie Hudson is an ironically titled interview with Hudson, who is almost always second banana in his movies. He loved shooting the film in Rome, which meant he could bring his family on a great vacation. But he did not like all the swimming. Or the monster’s design. And he really hated the ending. The film’s theatrical trailer, along with a handful of other Scream Factory title trailers, closes out the supplements.

Motel Hell (1980) Blu-ray review

Of all the genres in cinema, the two that elicit perhaps the greatest response from audiences are horror and comedy. Fear and laughter are universal, but they can also be two of the most difficult emotions to properly provoke in large numbers. Unsurprisingly, as far as genre mashups go, few complement each other as well as these two. Many of horror’s most celebrated films are darkly humorous – Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987), Re-Animator (1985), Return of the Living Dead (1985), to name but a few. Some films play it straight, others keep it grim, but the ones that eschew tongue-in-cheek humor usually wind up playing more horrifically. Films that produce those moments of gallows humor so pitch black you aren’t sure whether to be disturbed or delirious with laughter. A perfect example of this would be Tobe Hooper’s seminal landmark of horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), where the comedy is so dark, peppered in between scenes of sheer terror, that for some viewers it simply goes right over their heads. When Drayton is zapping Sally with that cattle prod, he exhibits a wry smile, which should break the tension and allow for a bit of levity, yet it’s done with such subtly we aren’t sure whether to admonish his actions or laugh along with him. Hooper never plays the comedic aspects overtly, a trait that made him the perfect candidate for a similar film being set up at Universal some years later.

Of course, he never wound up directing that film, Motel Hell (1980), mainly due to the fact that Universal backed out after finding the script to be too bizarre and dark; and, also, because the subject matter was very similar to what he’d done just a few years earlier with Chain Saw. The project went into turnaround for a couple of years before being offered to English director Kevin Connor, who took on the job with one stipulation: that it be made as a black comedy. The film’s producers agreed, and Connor delivered a darkly humorous film, played straight, replete with equal parts hilarity and horror. Anchored by two stellar performances, especially the late Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent, the picture has been a strongly supported cult classic for over three decades.

Nobody smokes meat like Farmer Vincent, and it takes all kinds of critters to make his fritters. Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons), run the Motel Hello (the “O” flickers out an awful lot), a quaint little property on a farm, surrounded by trees and nature. It’s a countryside gem, supported by the profits generated from Vincent’s meat smoking business. The secret is in the meat, which happens to be human flesh. In order to keep a steady supply of flesh on hand, Vincent has booby trapped the land around his motel, catching passersby and tourists using various devices. But he doesn’t kill them right away; oh no. Vince has to make sure his meat stays fresh, and he does this by knocking his victims out with chloroform, burying them up to the neck in dirt, and slicing their vocal chords so the only sounds they can make are gurgling & guttural. Out on the hunt one night, he shoots out the tires on a motorcycle and takes out a couple. The man he decides to “plant” for use later, but the woman, Terry (Nina Axelrod), sure is purty. He takes her back home and cares for her, nursing her back to health. When she asks him about her companion, Vince says he died quickly and was buried the next morning, even taking her to his (false) gravesite.

Vincent and Ida’s younger brother, Bruce (Paul Linke), the town sheriff, stops by and immediately takes a liking to Terry, too. It would seem Bruce is in on the family business, but in reality he’s just a complete dimwit who is oblivious to his brother’s actions. Not that you can blame him, since Vincent is the most affable, altruistic old man this side of the Mississippi. Terry, despite seeming completely healed, decides to stay on at the motel a while longer, giving Vincent the idea that she’d be perfect to take over the family business. Bruce, however, also finds Terry to be an ideal mate, leading to a quarrel between the brothers. This should be an easy decision for Terry, however, since her one date with Bruce ended with him attempting to pretty much rape her before leaving to answer a distress call. And then Terry tells him she “had a good time” at the end of the night! Talk about mixed signals. Vincent arranges for him and Terry to get married, but Ida gets jealous, leading to a wild night of double crosses, escaped victims uprising against their captors, and the best damn chainsaw duel ever committed to celluloid.

“Meat’s meat and a man’s gotta eat!” Words to live by; words that Vincent lived by. Each of the film’s principal cast members are perfectly fit for their respective roles, but Calhoun is the one who carries this picture. The loveable ol’ cowboy was best known for his role on CBS’ “The Texan”, which ran from 1958-1960. Calhoun had a recognizable face and minor acclaim, but he never quite rose above the ranks of B-level status. In that respect, it seems fitting he would appear in a string of B-movies during the twilight years of his career, which included roles in the infamous killer rabbit opus Night of the Lepus (1972) and everyone’s second-favorite Roddy Piper film, Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987). As Farmer Vincent, he’s sweet as a peach, approaching every situation with an ever-present smile… even, and especially, when he’s about to off someone. It’d be like if you found out your sweet old grandpa was in reality a deranged maniac. Vincent sets his victims at ease before quietly gassing them out and then it’s off to the garden. The onus of success rests squarely on his broad shoulders, and Calhoun delivers. Speaking of delivery, he unquestionably has the greatest line of the film, delivered just before the credits roll, when he makes a startling confession.

Almost forgot, I’d be remiss not to mention the late, great DJ Wolfman Jack’s appearance as a TV evangelist who dresses to the nines in pure white. He, too, has one of the film’s best moments when he confiscates a copy of Hustler from Bruce, offering to “dispose of it properly” for him. Wolfman’s role is very minor, but certainly memorable.

Director Kevin Connor had already helmed a few notable genre releases in his native England before moving over to America for his stateside debut on Motel Hell. His feature film debut was the well-received Amicus horror anthology, From Beyond the Grave (1974), which was followed by minor cult classics like The Land That Time Forgot (1975), its sequel The People That Time Forgot (1977), and At the Earth’s Core (1976). Surprisingly (or maybe not, if he was looking to avoid being pigeonholed), he only made one other horror film after Motel Hell, 1982’s The House Where Evil Dwells, before dropping off the cinematic radar entirely for a long career in television. His decision to shoot the humor of Motel Hell seriously is a large part of why it has held up so well, because this could have easily been a goofy affair were it not for the deadpan delivery and ambiguous humor. Just as with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the humor runs as an undercurrent through the picture, always present but never directly pandering to audiences, until, perhaps, the very end. In many ways, Motel Hell is the perfect companion film to Hooper’s masterpiece, with an ending no less memorable. Even those who have never seen the film know the one iconic image it produced – Farmer Vincent, wearing an oversized severed pig’s head, wielding a massive chainsaw.

Motel Hell received a solid Blu-ray release just recently, from Arrow Video over in the UK, and this edition looks to be using the same transfer, which is a good thing. The film’s 1.85:1 1080p picture is heads above the previous R1 DVD release. The print used is in great shape, exhibiting only minor white flecks that appear very sporadically. Given the low-budget roots, this is likely the best it could ever hope to look. A moderate sheen of grain covers the image, maintaining the lo-fi aesthetic nicely. Colors are reproduced well, though perhaps they’re a bit muted at times. Black levels look slightly hazy during some scenes, though in others they’re perfectly acceptable and dark. Daylight shots look best, allowing for maximum detail to show through. Definition gets the biggest boost here, from the sharp lines on Vincent’s red pickup truck to a pair of leather boots or the texture on a burlap sack. There is no evidence of DNR or any other post-processing attempt to clean up the image artificially.

Scream Factory makes the most of the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track, even if the end result is still a bit thin and flat. While it may lack in presence, the track does offer up good - not great – fidelity, with dialogue presented clean & clear, even if it is a little low in the mix at times. The real treat here is composer Lance Rubin’s score, which is a hodgepodge of sweet ol’ Southern twang, electronic synth cues and frenzied action once the climax has been reached. The source music country tracks are a perfect fit for this deep fried black comedy. What it lacks in range and immersion, it makes up for in style and substance. Subtitles are included in English.

Now, on to the real meat of this package: the supplements. If you’re a current owner of the MGM Midnight Movies double feature DVD, then you will rejoice at the wealth of bonus material here; however, if you went ahead and bought the Arrow BD release then you’re likely wondering if there’s anything new, missing or ported over. And the answer is yes.

This disc brings over all of the bonus materials found on Arrow’s release save for one (maybe two, if you’re picky): a retrospective featurette featuring filmmaker Dave Parker talking about Motel Hell, and a commentary track with director Kevin Connor moderated by Calum Waddell. The latter feature barely counts since this disc also has a commentary with Connor, just with a different moderator. Additionally, there are plenty of interviews, featurettes, trailers, and more included here.

An audio commentary with director Kevin Connor, moderated by Dave Parker, kicks things off. This is a solid track, with Parker asking the right questions to coax a great deal of anecdotal information out of Connor, such as the fact he wanted Harry Dean Stanton for the lead role of Farmer Vincent but he got turned down. Parker is clearly a huge fan of the film, and his infectious enthusiasm for the project imbues the track with a good energy. It Takes All Kinds – The Making of Motel Hell covers all of the requisite behind-the-scenes basics of getting the film made, from the initial start as a very sinister, dark script right up to Connor’s involvement and everything after. Shooting Old School with Thomas del Ruth is an interview with the film’s director of photography, who gets very personal here, starting off with discussing how his wife’s death caused him to just delve deep into his work. From there, the discussion turns to how he shot this film, lighting decisions, etc. Ida, Be Thy Name – The Frightful Females of Fear features a handful of females who work in the horror industry discussing the roles of women in horror, focused specifically on the personality and appearance of Ida. From Glamour to Gore – Rosanne Katon Remembers Motel Hell is an interview with the actress. Here, she reminisces about how her career got started, what it was like working on the film; typical coverage but still good to hear. Another Head on the Chopping Block – An Interview with Paul Linke features Bruce, the clueless brother, who recalls his time on set. It seems the part was written for him specifically, whereas none of the other parts were written for the actors who got the role. It sounds like he had a fun time based on his stories. The film’s trailer is included, along with image galleries of behind-the-scenes and poster & production shots. The cover artwork is reversible, allowing for display of either newly commissioned art or the original key art. A slipcover of the new art is included on first pressings.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Darkman (1990)

Long before Sam Raimi became the creatively bankrupt Hollywood big shot some genre fans have grown to dislike, he was spilling his creativity onto the screen with some of the most inventive projects in cinema. Coming hot off the heels of “Evil Dead II” (1987), a film that garnered a positive response from both audiences and critics, Raimi was given the proverbial keys to the kingdom and called up to the majors (in this case, Universal Studios) to make a picture with something he frequently lacked: money. He had interest in helming adaptations of either “The Shadow” (which Universal already had in development with another team) or “Batman” (we know who had that at the time). Undeterred by these dead ends, Raimi did what creative directors do: he created a character that embodied the qualities he admired in The Shadow and Batman, but also one that would have been right at home with Universal’s classic monsters of the 1930s. His creation was The Darkman, a character whose origin story went through over a dozen drafts before “Darkman” (1990) was given a go from the studio brass. The resulting picture was Raimi operating within his wheelhouse, using his signature camera work and frenetic action to tell a gothic love story that, once again, was a hit with audiences and critics.

Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a scientist working on a synthetic skin to help burn victims, operating out of his lab near the river in L.A. His girlfriend, Julie (Francis McDormand), is an attorney who uncovers corruption within the city’s largest real estate developer, run by Louis Strack (Colin Friels), when she inadvertently finds a document detailing bribery. She confronts Strack, who does the rational thing by sending his henchman, Robert Durant (Larry Drake), and some thugs to retrieve the document and kill everyone in the vicinity. At the time, that happens to be Peyton and his lab partner. Durant has his goons disfigure Westlake before setting a time bomb and blasting his charred body into the river. Presumed dead, Peyton somehow survived the blast, with horrifying burns covering almost half his body. Doctors performed a procedure that neutralized any pain he could feel, but as a side effect it allows his adrenaline to go unchecked and his mental state to become unstable. Peyton escapes from the hospital and rebuilds his lab in an abandoned factory. The synthetic skin he’s been working on only lasts for 100 minutes in sunlight, but that’s all the time he needs (usually) to disguise himself as Durant and his toughs. He rechristens himself Darkman, dedicating all of his efforts to seeking vengeance against all those who were responsible for creating him.

Raimi came up with an awesome story that could only have worked in his hands. He and director of photography Bill Pope, frankly, shot the shit out of this thing. There hadn’t been a movie since “Creepshow” (1982) that so emulated and perfectly captured the essence of a comic book. Raimi’s work had always showcased impressive camera movements and acumen for visual style, but the massive increase in budget afforded to him on “Darkman” meant nearly any of his lofty ideas could be achieved. All of the crazy shots that made “Evil Dead II” so memorable are accounted for here. I love when Darkman goes into a fit of rage and we feel like we’re inside his mind as fiery cracks appear in his head, everything goes red, and the camera moves in a hypnotic/nauseating way. There’s so much life in the camera that cause scenes to pop and stick in your mind more than any standard direction could have done. The scene of Peyton’s attack is particularly impressive, with Neeson’s face smashed into glass cabinets as we watch from within. The camera swoops and zooms and pulls all around as he’s tossed, burned, nearly drowned, and finally blow sky high and into the river.

That scene also showed just a small indication of make-up artist Tony Garder’s excellent work to come, when Peyton grabs two poles that look like they belong in “Phantasm” (1979) and his hands melt away down to the muscle and bone. They did it the old-fashioned way: stop-motion. And it looks great. Gardner’s prosthetic work here should have earned him an Oscar nomination because it can be hard to tell where Darkman ends and Liam Neeson begins. For such a large piece worn over a head, the result is something so lifelike you’ll forget there’s a man underneath. The movement is about as fluid as a guy with no lips and a well-done face can get.

Speaking of which, Neeson really gives his all here as a once noble man who so desperately wants revenge because these guys ruined his chance at having just a normal life. That’s all he wanted. He has to live knowing he’s a hideous freak while his girlfriend is out there, alone, and he knows they can never be together. At its core, “Darkman” is just as much a love story as anything else. And to make that work, you need a guy who can do sympathetic and “I will find you and I will kill you”. And that guy is Liam Neeson. As Peyton, he’s jokey and casual, just happy to be alive and doing a little bit of good in the world. As Darkman, all of his inner rage comes bubbling to the surface like liquid hot magma and he has little control over the beast he’s become. Neeson portrayed the character with a genuine sincerity, giving him the ultimate tortured soul. He even went so far as to make sure the FX department had the teeth in tight so they wouldn’t move while he spoke, since it would compromise the authenticity. His performance is a standout in a film full of memorable roles.

Lots of credit needs to be given to Larry Drake, Nicholas Worth and Dan Bell, who are all “impersonated” by Darkman using his synthetic skin masks. I use quotations because these guys all do such a phenomenal job of playing their doppelgangers, who we’re supposed to believe are actually Peyton when he’s trying to trick the mob. Drake is especially good, showing two very different sides to Durant at the same time. I really love how Raimi used this as a plot device because it’s so damned fun watching Peyton use his skills to screw with everyone.

All these years later, “Darkman” holds up exceptionally well as one of the greatest comic book movies to ever hit the screen, and it’s not even based on one. Raimi was in his prime here, using all of his abilities to make the film not only memorable from a story standpoint, but just as unforgettable thanks to a wide range of visual flair. The excellent casting is anchored by strong performances from Neeson, McDormand, and Drake. Gardner’s makeup is outstanding is every scene. Elfman’s score is typical, but great if you forget all the stuff he did that sounds like it since. It’s superb. Since Universal doesn’t see it that way, though, Scream Factory has come along to deliver a package full of features that should please fans.