Friday, June 26, 2015

Scarecrows (1988) Blu-ray review

Chances are if something creeps, crawls, slashes, snarls, bites or brutalizes horror has produced dozens of films about it. Why, then, is there such a dearth of killer scarecrow movies? Perhaps it’s due to the fact that none made so far have been an outright success, but in terms of subject matter scarecrows are tailor-made for terror. Those straw men look nearly human, yet they lack most of the specific features – eyes, mouth, nose, etc. – that make us who we are. They exist very close to the “uncanny valley”; that place where Robert Zemeckis’ creepy CGI humanoids reign supreme. It would seem like horror should be rife with scarecrow pictures. Yet, as of 2015 there are only a handful of films featuring them - most of which aren’t even well liked. The apex of scarecrow horror is almost unquestionably Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981), a TV movie that far exceeds expectations in every way – the acting, story, atmosphere and scares are outstanding. There’s also Night of the Scarecrow (1995) directed by one of my favorite B-movie helmers, Jeff Burr. A third film that fits nicely between those two is Scarecrows (1988), an underrated quasi-slasher full of nasty kills, creepy moments and unanswered questions. Barely seen upon release, it hasn’t even attained much of a cult following… although that might (and should) change thanks to a new Blu-ray release from Scream Factory.

A squad of former military officers pulls off a daring robbery at Camp Pendleton, CA and gets away with over $3 million in payroll money. The group escaped by hijacking a plane, with the intention of getting down to Mexico. The film likely assumes most people aren’t familiar with the geography of California, because a plane ride from Pendleton to Mexico would take all of twenty minutes. Anyway, as the plane passes over a cornfield Bert (B.J. Turner) decides to rip off his fellow criminals, stunning them with a grenade and parachuting out of the aircraft after dropping the loot. Bert lands in the cornfield and makes his way to an old dilapidated farmhouse. Nobody is home; the place looks like it’s been empty for years. Bert continues on, searching for the money, while his former buddies land the plane and disembark, looking to put a little hurt on ol’ Bert.

Eventually Bert finds the cash, but his fortunes are short lived when the field’s resident scarecrow trio suddenly disappear from their perches and begin stalking him, as well as the men on his trail. Soon, however, the game between thieves must end because everyone has a much bigger problem – ruthless scarecrows are killing and gutting whoever they catch, turning them into new, bloody scarecrows with the same intentions: death and dismemberment.

Director William Wesley and his cohorts produced this film on a shoestring budget, although you wouldn’t know it judging by the final product. The standard script is taken up a few notches thanks to brooding atmosphere and some particularly gruesome FX work, courtesy of Norman Cabrera. Nothing about the robbery group is all that compelling – even the sub-drama of the hostage pilot and his strong-willed daughter is stock material. The three main scarecrows and the mystery of their existence are what carry the film. Wesley provides zero backstory on the scarecrows in the way of traditional exposition. Instead, he does it all through repetition and suggestion; things to which modern horror pictures are blind. Upon entering the farmhouse viewers are shown an old photograph of three men – maybe brothers, maybe not – standing by the cornfields. They are never named or shown in any way other than through the photo, a shot that is repeated frequently. There are also three scarecrows. Wesley, bless his logic, rightly assumed any viewer could surmise these men and these scarecrows are one in the same. But how? That’s the lingering question Wesley refuses to answer, and the film is stronger because of his denial.

On the topic of the scarecrows, FX artist Norman Cabrera, a former student of Rick Baker’s, brings the trio to life with exquisitely sinister results. Each one has a burlap sack covering its head that hides a skeletal, almost demonic visage. Being from a farm, their weaponry ranges from scythes to rakes to daggers… and they do not kill their victims quickly. Late in the film, one of the men remarks that their getaway was “too easy” and they died in the escape; where they are now is simply a version of Hell. Maybe that’s true, because these men (and one woman, can’t leave the ladies out of a good disemboweling) are killed slowly, torturously, before being split open and stuffed with straw and money. Cabrera’s FX work is bloody and realistic. Stunning practical effects work could be done on films with next to no budget if the talent was there, something that is a rarity these days because a no-budget film will just opt for cheap CGI instead of a tangible piece of artistry. Scarecrows is a perfect example of strong artistic achievement elevating a feature.

In addition to the great FX, Scarecrows also excels in creating a tense atmosphere full of dread and claustrophobia despite taking place in an open cornfield. Cinematographer Peter Deming also lensed Evil Dead II (1987), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Drag me to Hell (2009), proving he knows a thing or two about shooting beautiful pictures. Then there’s also composer Terry Plumeri’s score, which uses low-end instrumentation to sell a sense of danger and overall spookiness. So, while the characters and most of the acting may not be the strongest (not that anyone is outright bad), the remaining elements of the film are operating on a high enough level to make a real lasting impression. Scarecrows is one of the better “unseen” gems of the ‘80s and it deserves every bit of praise for delivering such tremendous quality on a miniscule budget.

Those familiar with MGM’s previous DVD will find Scream Factory’s 1.85:1 1080p image to be the natural HD progression of that image, meaning no additional work has been done to alter the picture. Again, despite a low budget the film looks like a more expensive picture, due in great part to the lighting and effective set design. Grain is moderate and looks natural. Black levels are a bit faded, not much of a big deal. Color use is minimal, with the palette full of darker, earthy hues, nothing vibrant. Close-ups show off some impressive fine details, like beads of sweat or pores. There doesn’t appear to be an issue with compression either. Overall, a very good effort that offers a closer approximation of the film print.

Viewers have the choice of an English DTS-HD MA surround sound track, either in 5.1 surround sound or 2.0 stereo. The 5.1 track has a wider range and sounds a little fuller, but then again the film was originally mixed in Ultra Stereo so you really won’t be missing much by selecting the 2.0 track. The rears hardly get much use anyway. Dialogue sounds clean and is easy to understand. A lot of the film relies on subtlety and the film’s sound design adds in a plethora of nighttime farm sounds to heighten the tension. Subtitles are included in English.

The first audio commentary features director William Wesley and producer Cami Winikoff. Moderated by Rob G, this track stays on a solid pace throughout, with Wesley and Winikoff recalling stories about shooting schedules, cocaine, airline crashes and influences. The second audio commentary has co-screenwriter Richard Jeffries, D.P. Peter Deming and composer Terry Plumeri. This is actually a series of interviews conducted by Michael Felsher that play over the film for the entire running time. This approach works fine because none of the participants has a role that would necessarily require scene-specific commentary.

“The Last Straw with Norman Cabrera” has the film’s FX artist talking about the vibe of the shoot, how he got started in the industry, working with Rick Baker and more.

“Cornfield Commando with Ted Vernon”. Vernon, who also produced the film, spends as much time talking about his life’s achievements as he does talking about the film. He’s one of those “larger than life” types.

A reel of original storyboards, a still gallery and the film’s trailer (all in HD) are also included.

Mad Max (1979) Blu-ray review

Long before Mel Gibson was one of the biggest actors in the world, and long before post-apocalyptic films featuring marauding gangs of lunatics were churned out by the dozen, there was Mad Max (1979). In writer/director George Miller’s seminal film, the world hadn’t quite gone to hell yet – that would be saved for the (arguably) best film in the series, Mad Max 2 (1981, a.k.a. The Road Warrior) – but the writing was seared onto the walls. Miller’s dystopian wasteland set a tone and visual palette that has seen more copies than a Xerox machine. And, really, where better to film such a sparse dust bowl future than the Australia of 1979? Half the country is one big desert already. What really gives Mad Max the power of longevity is the strong characterization, with each actor bringing a distinct flair to their respective roles. Additionally, there’s a real sense of danger here – anyone could be a victim at any moment, and even Max’s fate isn’t assured as he attempts to do his job amidst a maelstrom of violence.

Opening “a few years from now…” the film joins in on the hot pursuit of a wanted cop killer, known as the Nightrider (Vincent Gil), who so far has managed to successfully evade the Main Force Patrol (MFP) officers in tow. But he isn’t so lucky when Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) gets on his tail, ending with the Nightrider’s fiery death. An energy crisis has left much of the Outback low on fuel and sparsely populated, with motorcycle gangs patrolling the streets and terrorizing citizens. The MFP’s main directive is to keep the highways safe and stop the gangs by any means necessary. Their job is made very difficult, however, due to political red tape and crooked lawyers who lobby hard for their scummy clients. Max’s partner, Goose (Steve Bisley), loses his cool when a suspect he knows is guilty winds up being released due to a technicality. Later on, that same suspect, Johnny “the boy” Boyle (Tim Burns), is egged on by the gang’s leader, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), to horribly burn Goose while trapped in a wrecked car they helped demolish. Max is stricken with grief after seeing his partner’s wounds and quits the force. He’d rather spend his days traveling with his wife (Joanna Samuel) and new baby, enjoying the countryside. But when an unexpected run-in with Toecutter and his gang rips Max’s idyllic world right in two, the former MFP officer becomes focused on only one thing – brutal and swift revenge.

If there’s one aspect of Miller’s film that helped make it a massive success (other than Gibson’s laconic, magnetic performance), it’s the stunt work. Mad Max has fast cars, lots of ‘em, and more often than not they wind up in a crumpled heap on the hot asphalt. Adding to the impact of those stunts is the very clear indication that many did not go as planned, but since they had one shot in some instances however the stunt went is how it wound up in the film. When the Nightrider’s car collides with a petrol truck, it’s pretty obvious the car veered off course and didn’t hit the mark, which actually makes the stunt even scarier. And then there are also the numerous motorcycle stunts. During one such stunt, as seen in slo-mo, a wheel smacks the back of the stuntman’s helmet so hard you’d think he died on set. He didn’t, but he was definitely worse for the wear. Miller managed to outdo the stunts seen here when he made this film’s sequel, but for a first-time director this was some big stuff.

It would be interesting to see how today’s audiences – especially those who seem to need every detail of backstory explained ad nauseum - would react to Mad Max were it released today. Aside from the opening scrawl explaining the energy crisis, there’s very little history provided for the MFP, Max or the vicious gangs. I feel this only strengthens the film. Miller provides a solid framework within which these characters operate, and any reasonably sharp viewer should be able to fill in any gaps and make sense of how we’ve arrived at this situation. Just like Max, viewers are thrust into this savage land where danger lurks around every bend in the road. In particular, the Toecutter is an enigmatic force who controls his henchman with a firm grasp despite very little violence on his part. It makes you wonder what his story is. I mean, the guy is called “Toecutter” yet we never see him actually cutting off any toes. This sort of ambiguity would carry on through the series, and Miller always handles it perfectly. Here’s to hoping Max’s resurrection (albeit in a new form) is just as thrilling in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

There’s been a great deal of scuttlebutt on the web regarding Scream Factory’s 2.35:1 1080p image. Specifically, whether or not it’s any better than MGM’s previous Blu-ray edition, which was perfectly serviceable but far from perfect. As far as anyone knows the negative has been lost, meaning it would be difficult to improve upon what’s already been released. Unless you’re an obsessive about picture quality and go through a film frame-by-frame analyzing individual hairs and shrubs in the background, chances are you’ll find this edition to be on par with MGM’s release, if not a tad lesser. It does appear that some mild DNR has been applied, leaving skin tones looking occasionally waxy, and the grain structure is… odd; it’s not a visual eyesore but it doesn’t exactly look natural. Still, contrast is generally strong, with good color saturation and appreciable detail in many shots.

There are three tracks from which to choose here – Australian DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound or 2.0, as well as the infamous(ly bad) English DTS-HD MA 2.0 dub. The multi-channel Aussie option is your best bet, offering up a dynamic experience featuring great panning of effects and engine roars along with a decent low end during some of the more bombastic sequences. Dialogue has a bit of a reverb thing going on at times, though it never happens often enough to be a problem. Subtitles are included in English.

The audio commentary doesn’t feature the names you’d probably prefer to see – specifically, Miller and Gibson – but it does offer up a perspective from art director John Dowding, director of photography David Eggby, special effects artist Chris Murray and film historian Tim Ridge. Given the jobs of the men involved here, this track offers up a great perspective on the film’s production on a much more technical level. With so many people on the track, the energy remains high and talk stays lively and informative.

“New Interviews with Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel and Director of Photography David Eggby” (HD) runs for almost thirty minutes. Although nothing too revelatory comes out of these talks, it’s wonderful to hear Gibson speak about the role that launched his career. Mel is candid as ever, brimming with enthusiasm and seemingly stoked to be talking about this seminal film so many years later. Samuel has some great anecdotes about her casting, while Eggby discusses the film’s wild stunt work and dangerous environments.

“Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar” (SD) is a featurette that was included on the previous MGM special editions and covers Mel’s career, from his humble beginnings in Australia right up to his massive career in Hollywood. There’s a lot of gushing and glad-handing, with talk of what makes Mel different from other stars.

“Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon” (SD) is another carryover, obviously focusing on Miller’s film and how it set off a chain reaction of productions centering on post-apocalyptic/dystopian future films.

Two theatrical trailers are included, along with TV spots and a large still gallery, all in HD.

The Voices (2014) Blu-ray review

Ryan Reynolds’ career seems to be in a constant state of flux. To be fair, that’s the story for many actors, but Reynolds has yet to catch a big cinematic break despite nabbing roles in some high profile pictures. Unfortunately, those pictures were titles such as Green Lantern (2011) or X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). And the less anyone ever says about Blade: Trinity (2004) the better. So, whether because of his big budget bombs or not, Reynolds has been delving into the world of DTV and killing it – literally. He dabbled in playing a mentally unstable character before, with The Amityville Horror (2005) remake, but in The Voices (2014) he veers off into full-on serial killer territory. Think of it as if Patrick Bateman moved out of NYC, got a minimum wage job at a factory and adopted a couple of pets. Add in copious amounts of pitch black humor and the end result is something that’s likely to hit my top ten list once the year is through.

There isn’t a lot to worry about when you’re living in Milton. The quiet suburb is home to a bustling fixtures factory, where Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) is just another happy cog in the corporate wheel. He’s a bit socially awkward but always well-meaning and willing to help out. When he’s asked to assist with planning a little corporate picnic, Jerry agrees; at the meeting he finds himself fawning over Fiona (Gemma Arterton), a hot British import who works in finance. A shrink Jerry sees thinks getting out would be a good thing… assuming he’s still taking his court mandated meds. You are taking your meds, right Jerry? Jerry asks Fiona out, and she agrees in the sort of way that a person who isn’t really interested but can’t quickly think of a good reason to say “no” does. This goes over Jerry’s head and he ramps up his excitement. Their date doesn’t go as planned at all, but when the night is through Jerry still manages to find himself on top of Fiona… sticking a knife in her chest. Whoops. Once he does his best to clean up the mess he made, his two best friends – Bosco and Mr. Whiskers (both voiced by Reynolds), his dog and cat, respectively – discuss with Jerry the ramifications of his actions and whether or not he should get back on his meds or just continue killing people because it seems to be what he does best.

This is one of those films where it isn’t a novel story that sucks you in but, instead, it’s the idiosyncrasies of our lead character that wholly carries it. Reynolds’ Jerry is a weird man who does a lot of very horrible, gruesome things to his very personable co-workers (even Fiona isn’t a complete bitch), but it’s because Reynolds exudes a boyish charm, aided by being easy on the eyes (or so my girlfriend constantly tells me) and you’ve got a serial killer who, again, is not dissimilar to Patrick Bateman in that you can find him almost sympathetic despite his actions. Unlike Bateman, though, Jerry is supposed to be taking meds due to a childhood incident. When he’s off them, that’s when the film immediately thrusts viewers into the dark, decrepit world in which Jerry truly lives. But that place is no fun! Jerry prefers to exist in a fantasy land where everything is in its rightful place, but it’s only visible when he’s not sucking down his prescribed dosage; plus taking those pills means his two best friends – the dog and cat – are nothing more than regular house pets. Jerry’s continually unstable mental state keeps the film feeling fresh right up to the end because his behavior is so unpredictable. Even when you’re expecting him to perform certain actions, watching how Jerry surveys a scene and comes to his decisions based on such ill logic is wonderfully displayed.

The supporting characters serve little function aside from moving the plot along and putting Jerry where he needs to be. Still, credit is due to Anna Kendrick for playing a potential love interest for Jerry, although Jerry is completely clueless in regard to picking up on her obvious hints. There’s usually something a bit too twee about Kendrick for me, but she’s perfect here and a great fit for Jerry since she seems a bit “off”, too. Of course, the film still finds a way to showcase her singing abilities; at least it’s done fittingly.

Who could’ve guessed something this grim and full of gallows humor would come from the Academy Award-nominated director of the French-Iranian animated film Persepolis (2007)? You might’ve if you caught producer Adi Shankar’s name on the back cover, too. He might look like someone opened an Ed Hardy factory in India, yet his filmography shows that he makes bold, original films that usually operate outside the traditional studio chum. The Voices is a dark comedy on the level of John Waters’ Serial Mom (1994), only more gruesome and unsettling. Ryan Reynolds gives a performance that I’d call his best yet and it ends with a choreographed dance for Jesus that is the perfect capper on this off kilter picture.

There’s little fault to be found in the film’s 2.35:1 1080p picture. Lionsgate’s transfer is highly detailed and crisp, displaying a great sense of depth and featuring strong detailing. Contrast is excellent – black levels remain dark and never look hazy. Jerry’s world is always vibrant and bright, with lots of pastels and colorful hues. In contrast, when reality is shown the picture switches to showcase squalid conditions and disgusting living conditions, using darker hues and less lighting. Under all conditions the image holds up beautifully. A few scenes look a tad soft; that’s about the worst I can say.

The English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track is tremendously effective and engaging. Right from the start the level of immersion is apparent and impressive. Sound effects are well-balanced and separated nicely to allow for audible spacing. The rear speakers are continually aflutter, especially during the thunderstorm when lighting is cracking and thunder booms intensely. The disc also includes a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track. Subtitles are included in English, English SDH and Spanish.

The Voices: From Fridge to Frame” (HD) is more or less a typical EPK, just with a bit more information to go around. It doesn’t get too deep although there are interesting takeaways.

“VFX: The Making of Bosco and Mr. Whiskers” (HD) - The animals talk, their mouths move, and it was of the utmost importance that everything look seamless when shown on screen.

“VFX: Comparison Showreel” (HD) - Shot progressions are shown, from the in-camera image right up through once digital elements have been added.

“The Voices of Ryan Reynolds” (HD) - Reynolds makes some funny faces when voicing the film’s animals. Watch him do just that here.

A handful of deleted scenes (HD) are mostly little bits of exposition, with a lengthy scene that would’ve come near the end of the film where he “talks” to his dad.

Extended scenes (HD) add a bit more to Jerry’s job and his disastrous date with Fiona.

A reel of animatics (HD) shows off the film’s storyboards, with off-screen actors voicing the roles.

“Cast & Costume Sketch Gallery” (HD) shows off 18 images of the film’s characters and their looks.

From A Whisper To A Scream (1987) Blu-ray review

Director Jeff Burr has helmed a handful of dubious cinematic achievements in the world of horror – nearly all of them sequels to popular titles – but the only horror film he’s ever directed that he feels is his and his alone would be From a Whisper to a Scream (1987 – a.k.a. The Offspring), his second feature. Personally, I’ve long had an appreciation for Burr’s work and I find him to be a genuinely affable, enthusiastic personality who is brimming with wonderful stories and good ol’ boy charm. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) is still my favorite sequel in that series. But on that film, and others such as Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1993) and The Stepfather II (1989), Burr was hampered by studio executives, looming timelines and a near-total lack of creative input or control. The only time he’s enjoyed complete freedom on a horror picture was with From a Whisper to a Scream, a horror anthology that has aged quite well in addition to featuring one of the legendary Vincent Price’s final roles.

Oldfield, TN is a town with a rich history… of evil happenings. On the eve of a murderess’ execution, a local reporter (Susan Tyrell) pays a visit to the town’s historian, Julian White (Vincent Price), who happens to be the uncle of the newly-deceased woman. When pressed by the reporter about his niece’s history of violence, White seems apathetic and resigned. According to him, evil has had a foothold in Oldfield for a very long time and this is simply par for the course. He produces an old journal of tales long forgotten and schools the reporter on the town’s malevolent past.

The first tale, set in modern day, centers on Stanley Burnside (Clu Gulager), an awkward towhead living with his sister. Stanley is desperate for a woman, so he sets his sights high and asks out his boss, Grace (Megan McFarland), who for some reason agrees. After dinner, Stanley gets grabby in the car and, after being spurned, decides the best course of action would be to choke Grace to death. But he never got laid! No matter, once Grace’s funeral concludes Stanley brings some champagne to her coffin and drives in one final nail. But come nine months later he’s in for a shock.

Our second story goes back to the ‘50s, where Jesse (Terry Kiser), a small-time scoundrel, is hiding out from some gangsters he ripped off. Jesse makes a run for it but gets shot before managing to stumble into a rowboat and sail out into the swamp. He awakens in a ramshackle cabin, owned by a genial old black man (Harry Caesar) who nurses him back to health. When the man goes out to town, Jesse, being the scumbag he is, goes through the man’s belongings looking for loot. Instead he stumbles across a life-changing secret, one that he’s foolish enough to go after.

Next up, we travel further back to the ‘30s and visit a carnival, where glass eater Steven (Ron Brooks) performs with a sideshow of freaks. He’s in love with a local girl who has a mouthful of a name, Amarilliss (Didi Lanier), but the controlling owner of the carnival, Snakewoman (Rosalind Cash), refuses to allow him to leave. Steven and Amarilliss attempt to flee, but they both soon realize that Snakewoman’s voodoo powers can reach far beyond the borders of the circus tent.

Finally, the film goes way back to the Civil War, following a trio of men – led by Union Sgt. Gallen (Cameron Mitchell) – who come across a stronghold being commandeered by a group of children. At first they don’t take the children or their code of conduct seriously, but after witnessing what happens to those who disobey Gallen and his men (or, more appropriately, what’s left of them) beg for mercy.

I’ll admit to not being so hot on Burr’s film the first time I saw it. The pacing is deliberate and slow, which I suppose is apropos given the Southern setting, and the stories come across a bit half-baked and lacking succinctness. Upon second viewing, however, my opinion has changed. I found myself drawn into each of White’s tormented tales, appreciating how the film goes further back into the town’s legacy successively to establish a long pattern of weird, evil stuff. The stories are also unremittingly grim, stinging with final moments that barely give you enough time to mentally digest what’s just occurred before moving on to the next wicked tale. Burr and his co-writers each wrote distinct stories that are amazingly strong, given that none of them had ever worked on a feature before.

Additionally impressive is the cast that has been culled, anchored by Price and featuring a few other heavy hitters who were a bit past their prime but certainly added gravitas to what was a low-budget film by filmmakers who has no solid credentials – actors such as Cameron Mitchell, Clu Gulager, Lawrence Tierney and Harry Caesar. Nobody is phoning it in here, either; these guys took their roles seriously and the film is all the better for it. Ok, maybe Mitchell isn’t giving it his all but that’s also part of his twilight years-charm. Price may have later said he regretted taking his role, having grown tired of horror pictures, but his presence adds such prestige it can be seen as invaluable.

Burr and his cohorts may have been almost entirely green in the film industry, but they weren’t in over their heads making From a Whisper to a Scream. As one of the included documentaries shows, they had all been toiling away on Super 8 home movies for years, and this was simply the next logical step. Horror is often an “easy” introductory genre for those looking to break into feature filmmaking. Combining filmmaking know-how with twisted tales, peppered with taboo subjects few outside the European or exploitation market employed, this is a horror anthology that can stand tall among the big boys such as Creepshow (1982) or Tales from the Crypt (1972).

After making it past the opening optical credits, which experience some minor telecine judder, the film’s 1.85:1 1080p image stabilizes to show off a surprisingly strong 35mm picture. What’s most impressive about this transfer are the rich, stable black levels and consistent contrast. Film grain is very much apparent, and very thick, but it never looks clumpy or noisy. The print used here was kept in great shape, with only minor flecks appearing intermittently. To be honest, little imperfections such as those help maintain a filmic appearance, reminding viewers they’re watching a vintage 35mm print, albeit digitally. Bright and sunny daylight shots obviously enjoy the greatest exhibition of details and texture, while the darker shots (which are a majority of the film) do lack crispness and appear much softer. On the major plus side, the film’s practical effects are so awesome in that ‘80s a-step-or-two-above-homemade sort of way, and most manage to retain a level of quality in the jump to HD.

Despite the back cover’s claims, the audio here is not an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 track but, rather, an English LPCM uncompressed 2.0 offering. Does this matter much? It won’t for most. Personally, the most effective aspect to the sound was during the opening credits, when a beating heart quickens in pace as names appear. Jim Manzie’s score is great work because he had to compose distinct music for each of the time periods set within the film. His compositions perfectly complement every era. That aside, this is a fairly routine track featuring a good balance for the dialogue, modest separation and an adequate sound design. Subtitles are included in English.

“Return to Oldfield: The Making of From a Whisper to a Scream” (HD) is a documentary that runs for nearly two hours. Clocking in at almost twenty minutes longer than the film itself, this exhaustive piece uncovers every last bit of information known about all aspects of the film’s production, from start through finish. Burr and his childhood buddies turned fellow filmmakers talk about their respective roles on this film. Each has a lot to contribute, detailing how Burr’s idea to do a road movie somehow turned into a horror picture, the reasoning behind doing anthology, getting Burr’s brother involved to handle business affairs, securing Vincent Price (or almost not), shooting on short ends, and a crew mutiny that threatened the picture. This is easily one of the best making-of pieces Scream Factory has produced.

“A Decade Under the Influence” (HD) is another feature-length documentary, this one running for 1 hour and 17 minutes. Although a bit before my own time, this ode to Super 8 filmmaking still feels like childhood. Burr and his filmmaking friends recount the endless home videos they shot using the relatively inexpensive Super 8 cameras and film. There are lots of clips, in full HD, and they’re really awesome to watch. This is one of the cooler features to wind up on any Blu-ray.

Writer/director Jeff Burr delivers the first audio commentary. Those who have heard a Burr track before know he’s never at a loss for words and there’s so much information racing to come out of his mouth his excitement is palpable. He’s not as redundant as you might think given how much the documentary covers, so this is still worth listening to if you want to know it all.

Next up, writer/producer Darin Scott and writer C. Courtney Joyner are on hand for a track that is no less lively than Burr’s. After discussing actress Martine Beswick’s James Bond series past, these two delve deep into talk of topics ranging from using Roger Corman’s studios to who-knew-who-in-order-to-cast-who in the movie.

A plainly named “stills gallery” is actually a massive collection of every bit of ephemera related to the film, as introduced and commentated upon by Jeff Burr. There’s some really cool stuff in here.

A theatrical trailer is listed among the features yet selecting it yielded nothing but a blank screen. The TV spots, however, worked just fine.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Babadook (2014) Blu-ray review

One of the great joys of cinema is that unless a film is truly, irredeemably bad there’s always the chance that if you didn’t like it the first time around, maybe a second go will shift opinion. This was my experience with The Babadook (2014). It’s still the most overhyped film of last year by a considerable margin, and much of what’s been said about it comes across as hyperbole, but it is definitely not one of the worst films of last year… which is what I claimed when adding it to my Worst of 2014 list here on Dread Central. After taking into account all of the critical lauding and incredible praise (William Friedkin said he’s “never seen a more terrifying film”, not that he’s the foremost authority on horror), my initial viewing went poorly as the main child annoyed me to the point of near-insanity and the scares just never seemed to materialize. It seemed as though critics and audiences were so hungry for fresh, well-made horror that the first halfway decent picture to come along got hoisted up on everyone’s shoulders and paraded around town like the second coming.

So, it was with some trepidation that a second viewing came about when, like the titular character’s pop-up book, a review copy was left by my front door.

The story of The Babadook is that of grief, loss and trying to piece together a shattered life. Amelia (Essie Davis) is left to raise her behaviorally-challenged son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), after her husband dies while they are en route to the hospital when she goes into labor. Her feelings of loss have not subsided in the seven years since the accident. Samuel, meanwhile, has grown into a child of considerable annoyance. He’s boisterous, loud, petulant and very protective of his mother, although he has no concept of being on his best behavior so she can maintain an air of sanity. Amelia is worn down to a nub, ceasing to live a meaningful life and merely eking out a pitiful existence. Samuel’s behavior constantly pushes the boundaries of acceptability, and eventually his antics get him kicked out of school.

Amelia decides what she and Samuel needs is a brief respite; a few days to recharge, aided by an understanding doctor’s prescription for a sleep aid. One night, Samuel selects a bedtime book that Amelia doesn’t recognize – “Mister Babadook”. The pop-up book proves nightmarish, leaving Samuel in a crumpled heap of tears and Amelia totally disturbed. She tears the book up and tosses it away, but the next day it reappears on her doorstep taped back together and sporting a few new pages. The story warns of the Babadook’s call, that you can’t get rid of it, and some of the pop-ups are an effigy of Amelia performing horrible acts. Considering the fractured state of her mental faculties, Amelia finds herself allowing the Babadook into her head, threatening both her and Samuel’s lives.

The Babadook is horror at its most basic – a parent must protect their child from a monster trying to invade their home. It’s been told a thousand and one times, and this film doesn’t differ from the countless others by a whole lot. What sets The Babadook apart is a mostly-good script and an absolutely searing performance from Essie Davis. I suppose credit is also due to Noah Wiseman as her incorrigible, intolerable son Samuel. Maybe his performance is easier to digest if you’ve already got kids, but, man, he is so incredibly snotty. Even his accent and facial mannerisms made me want to hurl him through a wall. This kid excels at pushing people to the point of seriously considering how much jail time you’d get for “accidentally” kicking him off a cliff. But that’s exactly how Samuel has to act in order to get Amelia where the film needs her, and so for those reasons he deserves applause for nailing it.

Davis is revelatory as Amelia. After experiencing a major trauma (the loss of her husband), she has no time to grieve, thrust immediately into childcare. In the seven years since the accident, she has developed a dichotomous personality, one which seems to both love and loathe Samuel. He isn’t the root of her current psychosis, but he’s a driving force in exacerbating it. The emotional rollercoaster Davis takes viewers on is palpable. Her character has a defined arc and we bear witness to her most primal moments of catharsis. Her performance ranks among the best of 2014 in any category, not just horror.

Where The Babadook managed to lose me was in symbolism and scares, the latter of which might as well be non-existent unless you’re the sort who rarely watches horror and is scared by any loud noise. The scares here are of the same sort you’d find in every other haunting movie, no exceptions. As for the symbolism, well, let’s just say anyone well-versed in cinema should have no problem understanding where the Babadook comes from and what it all means. The script is practically ham-fisted in its delivery, offering up allegories which are simply too on-the-nose to be appreciated. There isn’t any subtlety.

Overhyped to its own detriment, The Babadook is definitely a commendable achievement nonetheless, especially as a debut feature. The only reason I’m hesitant to sings its praises after a reevaluation is because, as I’ve said before, the DTV market is hot right now. Really hot. And there are so many awesome horror films coming out of it that it isn’t possible to say The Babadook stands above the rest; it is, however, one of the better horror films of last year and while it wouldn’t have made my top five it shouldn’t have been in the bottom, either.

Framed at 2.35:1, the film’s 1080p picture is visually fantastic. The picture was shot using the Arri Alexa digital camera, allowing for a crystal clear image with razor sharpness and a complete lack of grain. Colors are accurate, with the palette veering toward shades of blue, black and grey. Black levels look inky and rich. Detail stays strong, even when the scene is in complete darkness. There’s really nothing worth complaining about here.

Everyone knows a good score and sound mix are essential to any horror film, and the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track used here is exemplary. The score, from composer Jed Kurzel, is ethereal and minimalist, punctuating only at precise moments. These scenes of serenity are interrupted by the booming presence of the Babadook, whose appearance is often preceded by big, loud knocks. They’re jolting, but it never feels like a cheap stinger. This is a strong, powerful present track that goes far in elevating the film’s effectiveness. A 2.0 stereo track is also included. Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.

Jennifer Kent’s short film Monster, which she has called “baby Babadook”, is included here. It’s very similar in story and tone to the feature film and is worth watching either before or after The Babadook.

A trio of deleted scenes are presented in HD, which are mostly extra bits with Samuel.

“Creating the Book with Illustrator Alex Juhasz” features the talented guy behind the creepy pop-up book talking about how he got hired for this project and then showing off the “master hero” prop used in the film.

“A Tour of the House Set” discusses how the production team wanted a “storybook quality” to the home, to match some of the film’s themes, and this piece shows off what it took to put Amelia and Samuel’s residence together.

“The Stunts: Jumping the Stairs” is a quick piece that shows the team setting up the shot where Samuel is pulled upstairs.

“Special Effects: The Stabbing Scene” shows off one of the film’s minor FX moments. They used a leg of lamb in place of Davis’ thigh. It looked delicious.

“Behind the Scenes” is simply some B-roll from the film’s set.

“Cast & Crew Interviews” is a series of talks with actors Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Hayley McElhinney, director Jennifer Kent, costume designer Heather Wallace, and producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere, running for just over an hour.

Two theatrical trailers are also included.

Scream Factory really steps up their game here by offering a very cool package for buyers of the special edition. A slick red slipcover is featured on initial pressings, with a flap on the front held by Velcro opening up to reveal a pop-up Babadook from right out of his signature book. It’s a great touch to nerd out on. The single disc itself is housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. The cover art is reversible.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Invaders From Mars (1986) Blu-ray review

The films of Tobe Hooper have long teetered on the precipice between compelling schlock and wasted opportunity – at least up until around 1986. He hasn’t made a worthwhile feature film in nearly thirty years. Setting aside The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – which is so perfect it’s like a fluke in his filmography – and Poltergeist (1982) – because… you know – the rest of his output during those twelve years is a mixed bag. Eaten Alive (1977) is a snoozy, campy creature feature. The Funhouse (1981) is arguably the second-best film Hooper has directed; it’s creepy and filled with menace. Post-Poltergeist, Hooper got set up with a plum deal over at Cannon Films, where mega-producer Menahem Golan signed him to a three-picture deal on the agreement that one of the films he made was a sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The first of that pact, Lifeforce (1985), is frustratingly mediocre given the story has such a killer concept. And the merits (or lack thereof) of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) have been widely debated in the years since its release. Despite doing a full turnaround from the original film, dropping the abject horror and veering the franchise into slapstick gallows humor territory, it’s refreshing to see a rare sequel which doesn’t hew so closely to its predecessor.

His second picture, Invaders from Mars (1986), is a remake of the 1953 sci-fi classic of the same name. The screenplay, co-written by Dan O’Bannon, is a faithfully reworked version of the original story written by John Tucker Battle. One night during a meteor shower, young David Gardner (Hunter Carson) sees a U.F.O. land in a field just over the hill from his house. He excitedly runs into his parent’s room to tell them what he’s witnessed, but his exclamation is written off as a plane or a meteorite. His dad, George (Timothy Bottoms), offers to go investigate in the morning. When David awakens, he heads downstairs where he’s met by his dad, who says there wasn’t anything to see over the hill. David’s curiosity only grows, however, when he sees a fresh bruise on the back of his father’s neck. George is also acting… strange, and eventually he goes missing for a day, prompting David’s mother (Laraine Newman) to call the cops. They decide to check for George over the hill. You can see where this is going. George has turned, the cops have turned, and now David’s mother has turned, too. It isn’t long before David isn’t sure who he can trust… unless he sees their neck first.

At school, David manages to befriend one of the few people to believe his story; the school’s nurse, Linda (Karen Black). He and Linda escape the clutches of turned citizens trying to bring them into the alien fold, eventually making their way to military headquarters and alerting the Marines. Led by Gen. Climet Wilson (James Karen), the soldiers set up base camp at David’s home and begin an all-out assault against the invader’s spaceship, which is buried deep under the ground just over the hill.

Hooper has described his Invaders from Mars as a “kid’s film”, and that seems appropriate given how much I enjoyed it as a kid. As an adult, however, the picture’s deficiencies become glaringly obvious. For starters, the direction is wholly bland and uninspired, like Hooper printed every first take and put little effort into bolstering the film with energy or tension or passion. Right from the start, this picture slogs along until the finale. The middle, in particular, is a vast wasteland of ennui galvanized only by the appearance of impressive FX work from masters Stan Winston and John Dykstra. Were it not for their contributions there would nothing to prevent this from being an all-out disaster. There’s no sense of wonder, no excitement of discovery.

It also doesn’t help that Hunter Carson is a terrible actor. Hollywood nepotism is the likely culprit here, as Carson is the son of writer L.M. Kit Carson and Karen Black, one of this film’s stars. Carson ranges from mediocre to terrible, sometimes within the same scene. The biggest issue is he never quite gets into character; every line he reads sounds like he’s acting, or trying to, leaving his dialogue cold and stilted. And he’s in just about every single scene.

The film’s saving grace is in the production design and creature effects. The subterranean alien ship is vast and labyrinthine, with dusty drilled-out walkways sporadically populated by ad hoc rooms set up for “turning” human subjects, weaponry and a command center where the leader resides. The tunnels have a wide berth to accommodate the bulky alien sentinels, who looks like meatballs with mouths. It’s an awkward design that perfectly fits the sci-fi mold of cheesy and creative. Once you learn the suits were operated by having a dwarf strapped to the back of a regular-sized person who was walking backward, it’s almost impossible not to imagine what’s going on inside whenever you watch them walk. The leader alien is rather phallic, with the head set upon a long, er, shaft that pushes out from behind an equally-genital-like opening. All of these aliens are completely impractical and ineffective from a world domination standpoint, but on film they look pretty cool. And, again, they’re the film’s highlight.

Invaders from Mars is exactly the kind of film I loved as a kid, so it’s disappointing that love doesn’t extend to my adult years. In more capable hands this might have been an ‘80s update of a ‘50s classic that nailed the tone, brought some tension and moved at a consistent clip to keep audiences invested. While Hooper’s vision is by no means a bad film, it’s simply a mediocre one that shows its age and constantly reminds viewers where things go wrong. Solid supporting roles filled by veterans like Black and Karen add necessary gravitas, but the task of carrying the film is placed upon Carson’s diminutive shoulders – and he buckles under the weight.

Previously issued by MGM on a muddy DVD in their now-defunct Midnight Movies line, Scream Factory brings Invaders from Mars to Blu-ray with a 2.35:1 1080p image that totally blows away that old release. Shot by cinematographer Daniel Pearl, the picture seen here is atmospheric and nicely captures a suitable ‘50s aesthetic in terms of shot composition and scope. Grain is much finer than on the DVD release, looking very filmic aside from a few interior shots where it spikes, becoming a bit noisy. Colors are bold and well-saturated, much more so than the DVD. Black levels are stable and dark. There is an inherent softness to the edges of the frame, due to the anamorphic shooting process, a minor problem that sometimes extends to the entire shot. Still, this is a major improvement over what came before and fans will be very pleased to see the film looking so sharp.

The original sound mix for the film was mono, and the last DVD has an Ultra Stereo track, but this new Blu-ray edition one-ups that with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track, as well as a 2.0 option, too. The multi-channel option is the clear winner, offering a fuller, robust listening experience. Composer Christopher Young’s score sounds like he’s channeling John Williams at times, lending Hooper’s pic an air of Spielberg to some degree. Wouldn’t be the first time… The track is clean and clear, free from hisses, and offers nicely separated effects across the front end. Rears don’t come into use much, if at all. Subtitles are available in English.

Director Tobe Hooper sits down for an audio commentary, wherein he slips into his casual Texas demeanor and languidly fields questions pertaining to his dealings with Menahem Golan, the genesis of the project, casting decisions and so forth. He comes off a bit spaced out at times, but his information and recollection are both sound.

“The Martians Are Coming! The Making of Invaders from Mars” runs for over 35 minutes. Hooper, FX creature man Alec Gillis and other members of the cast & crew were recently interviewed for this piece, looking back at the time spent on set. Gillis, in particular, has some amusing anecdotes regarding the creatures he helped operate. Featurettes like this are the Scream Factory supplemental bread & butter, and this one is just as good as any other.

“Production Illustrations Gallery from Artist William Stout” features glimpses of the art designed for the film, with the artist discussing how each piece fit into the film. There’s some really great stuff in here.

The film’s theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a collection of storyboards set to the film’s score, and a still gallery round out the extras.

Of note: the MGM Midnight Movies release contained two vintage featurettes on the making of the film, neither of which is included here. I watched both recently and, while a bit redundant, they’re worth fans’ time and feature some great behind-the-scenes footage. So if you are a bonus feature junkie, you’ll want to hang onto that old DVD.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Blacula (1972)/Scream Blacula Scream (1973) Blu-ray review

“Say, man, that is one strange dude… who is he?”

He’s Blacula.

In the early ‘70s, black cinema exploded onto screens across the nation when hits such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Shaft (1971) proved there was an audience hungry for urban drama focused on African Americans, offering a glimpse into their world. By the following year of 1972, the number of “blaxploitation” films increased more than fourfold, spawning a new genre and giving a voice to black filmmakers and actors who now had a platform with which to tell their stories. The movement may have only lasted a few years (by 1977 titles were trickling out), but blaxploitation left an indelible mark on cinema and bestowed upon audiences a handful of classic pictures.

One such enduring film is Blacula (1972), the first blaxploitation horror picture. Heavy cues are taken from past Dracula adaptations, but this entry is firmly rooted in African American culture due to the prevalence of jive-talkin’, tweed jackets and afros aplenty. Classically trained actor William H. Marshall stars as the title character, whose actual name is Mamuwalde, an African prince who, in 1780, travels to Transylvania on a diplomatic mission to put an end to the slave trade. There, he meets with Dracula (Charles Macaulay), who not only refuses to help Mamuwalde in his quest but also attacks him and his wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee). Mamuwalde fights back fiercely, but a bite from Dracula seals his fate and, in an ironic twist, sees him turned into a slave who now seeks blood to quench his undying thirst. He’s also rechristened “Blacula” by Dracula, a name which is oddly enough never again uttered during the film. Mamuwalde is sealed up in a coffin, inside a crypt, along his wife, Luva, who eventually dies by her man’s side.

Cut to nearly two centuries later and the contents of Dracula’s castle have been put up for auction, purchased by a couple of interior decorators who have plans for these antiques back home in Los Angeles. Upon arrival, however, Mamuwalde is awakened and quickly dispatches the couple. At the funeral service for one of the men, Mamuwalde inconspicuously watches the mourners, with Tina (Vonetta Williams) catching his eye as the apparent reincarnation of his beloved Luva. When he’s not busy feeding on the citizens of L.A., Mamuwalde is at his charming best, seductively romancing Tina, who is falling under his hypnotic spell. One of Tina’s acquaintances, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), however, has found bite marks consistent with vampire lore on the neck of a victim, and is convinced there may be one of the undead on the city streets. When Gordon digs up a recently deceased victim and is met by a pair of snarling fangs, his suspicions are confirmed. Working with the police, Gordon takes down a warehouse filled with blood suckers, while Mamuwalde and Tina attempt to flee together and preserve their love.

First and foremost, the onus of the film’s success rests squarely on the broad shoulders of William H. Marshall. The actor’s imposing physique belies his Shakespearean line delivery and effortless charm, bolstered by a smooth baritone voice that should have been cutting slow jam records, a la Barry White. Of interesting note is that Marshall wanted Mamuwalde to be more than just “Black Dracula”, going so far as to see his character’s name was changed from the generic “Andrew Brown” and given a backstory rich in African culture and focused on his attempt to stop slavery. His noble intentions give the film its ironic twist of fate. As with most vampires, Mamuwalde is typical in that he can be oozing seduction one minute, then lapping at an oozing neck like a monster the next. There’s a clear dichotomy to the character, because once he’s in full-on vamp mode his actions are feral and instinctual; the amiable man is left entirely. There’s only one oddity to his performance… The man has been sealed up in a casket since 1780, and when he awakens in present day Los Angeles there isn’t a single scene of his amazement at how the world has changed. A whole helluva lot happened in two centuries, so you’d think the man would show some sense of wonder.

Also atypical for a horror picture is the film’s score, courtesy of composer Gene Page, an arranger for such hit acts as The Four Tops, The Temptations and Barry White. There isn’t a lick of traditional horror movie motifs to be heard. Instead, the score is filled almost exclusively with music endemic to blaxploitation and black culture, giving Blacula a more soulful, funky edge than any other genre picture up to that point. The main theme could have come right out of Shaft, or been on a Brothers Johnson album.

From the Saul Bass-esque title credits right up through the surprisingly gallant, bittersweet ending Blacula has long cemented its status as one of the seminal cult classics of all-time. Even the title has been elevated to use as a colloquialism; any black guy who dresses as a vampire is automatically Blacula. This reminds me of The Simpsons (1989-present) episode where Dr. Hibbert, dressed as a vampire, is called Blacula and exclaims, “Oh, because I’m black and I’m Dracula, that makes me Blacula?” It’s in the cultural lexicon to stay. Complaints the film is amateurish, poorly acted, weak or unsatisfying were made by people who clearly don’t want to have fun with a movie.

Where there’s a hit, there’s usually a sequel, and Blacula got its follow-up just one year later in the form of Scream Blacula Scream (1973). Marshall returns as Mamuwalde, with Pam Grier (who was in the midst of a major hot streak) joining the cast as a potential love interest for the undead prince. Grier plays Lisa, the chosen successor of a late high voodoo priestess who opts for her over Willis (Richard Lawson), the priestess’ immature son. Upset at his dead mother’s decision, Willis acquires the bones of Mamuwalde in hopes that a voodoo ritual will bring the vampire back to life, whereupon he’ll have Mamuwalde do his bidding. The ritual works – but not as Willis intended. Mamuwalde isn’t controllable, and in another ironic series twist Willis winds up the unwitting servant to his conjured Prince of Darkness.

As Willis increases the vamp stable in his home through nightly feedings, Mamuwalde is a man about town, winding up at a party thrown by former detective Justin Carter (Richard Lawson). Justin is showing off his collection of rare African artifacts which, unbeknownst to him, were excavated from the region where Mamuwalde was once prince. Also at this party is Lisa, Justin’s girlfriend and the burgeoning voodoo priestess. She immediately takes a liking to Mamuwalde, who reciprocates because Lisa is incredibly foxy, and because her voodoo powers may be his ticket to lifting the curse which Dracula placed upon him centuries ago. Justin, meanwhile, works with some of his local police buddies to find who’s responsible for a string of murders in the area – murders committed by Mamuwalde, Willis and their growing brood. Things naturally come to a head in the third act, where Justin & co. storm Willis’ home and fight the vampiric residents, while Mamuwalde and Lisa attempt to lift his eternal burden.

Though not as good as the first film, Scream Blacula Scream is a surprisingly worthwhile follow-up that employs another trait common to a handful of blaxploitation films: voodoo. This approach helps differentiate the film enough that it doesn’t feel like a total rehash of events. Stylistically, many similarities are apparent including the opening titles, musical score (by a different composer) and overall aesthetics. Marshall once again plays Mamuwalde with a strong sense of dignity and class, and he flips it completely around when the fangs are bared. This time around Mamuwalde gets to show off a bit of his muscle. In one of the film’s best scenes, a couple of muggers try to get rough with the dark prince. Both quickly learn this was a mistake. And finally, for the first time in the series Mamuwalde actually refers to himself as Blacula, although his declaration doesn’t come until the film is nearly over. It’s funny that he’s christened Blacula at the opening of the first film, yet the name is never heard again until there are around seven minutes left in the sequel.

Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream are both highly entertaining slices of vintage cinema, featuring much of what makes blaxploitation films so damn enjoyable. William H. Marshall adds more gravitas than anyone who hasn’t seen these films would expect, delivering a powerful nuanced performance that, frankly, could have carried into another film or two. All hail Scream Factory for putting together a solid double feature for fans of these funky bloodsuckers.

The 1.85:1 1080p images for both Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream are very similar, with each getting a major upgrade over previous DVD editions thanks to some spiffy HD transfers made at MGM. Each print is immaculate, with extremely few hints of dirt or debris. Detail is highly apparent in every scene, with little background elements enjoying increased clarity. Colors look sharp and well-saturated, and black levels remains mostly stable throughout – a few shot here and there look hazy, nothing terrible. Grain is left in place, giving both films the proper aged ‘70s aesthetic.

Each film features an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track, both of which are clear, clean and free from any hisses or pops. The sound design on these films is hardly dynamic, with a minimum level of separation among different elements. Dialogue sounds a bit low during a couple scenes where location sound was clearly used, though the majority of the tracks present it balanced among effects and music. The musical numbers and source tracks used on the soundtrack sound full and have presence. Subtitles are included in English.

Blacula features a commentary with author/film historian/filmmaker David F. Walker. This guy is prepared, excited and immediately begins rattling off once the picture gets underway, joking that most listeners probably have no clue who he is but he’ll explain why he’s here in a bit. He does, and he also delivers a lot of background information on the film’s production and actors.

Scream Blacula Scream star Richard Lawson provides an interview, running for just over 13 minutes. The actor describes how he didn’t even get the part he eventually wound up playing. He’s also apparently very skilled at reading a light meter based solely on how hot it feels on his skin.

Both films also feature a photo gallery and trailer among their respective bonus features.

Exterminators Of The Year 3000 (1983) Blu-ray review

Italian cinema has triumphed in many ways throughout the history of motion pictures, bestowing upon audiences celebrated directors, an entire subgenre of horror (giallo), timeless composers (e.g. Ennio Morricone) and unquestionably classic films. Yet, dubious as it may be, the country’s most notorious cinema comes in the form of cash-grab in-name-only sequels and blatant rip-offs of any acclaimed hit to make waves. If a Western/Horror/Shark film enjoyed any level of success in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you can be sure the Italians found a way to produce half a dozen illegitimate sequels, virtually all of which are a faint shadow of the original work. They’re also guilty of cannibalizing their own successes, as evidenced by the fact Django (1966) has more “sequels” than the James Bond series (1962-present) has films.

After George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) and The Road Warrior (1981) proved to be sizeable hits, it wasn’t long before a slew of Italian imitations hit the scene. Don’t get me wrong here – just because these films are taken whole cloth from other, often better productions doesn’t mean many aren’t awesome(ly bad) in their own special way. 1990: Bronx Warriors (1982) kicks all sorts of scorched-earth ass, so who cares if you can see pedestrians and traffic off in the distance of “post-apocalyptic New York”? The plots of these films were generally identical most of the time anyway: a fairly benevolent group of people needs some resource, while another group of less friendly people wants to prevent them from obtaining it. Fights ensue. But where Exterminators of the Year 3000 (1983) slightly differs is that it might as well be a remake of The Road Warrior, with only a few minor substitutions made to distinguish it in any way. It’s like watching a student film version of Miller’s masterpiece – all the elements are present, just on a much lesser scale.

Nuclear war has ravaged Earth, leaving it a scorched, barren wasteland by the year 3000. A small encampment of remaining humans lives underground in a cave, where they use retro-future methods to grow lettuce and seemingly little else. Unfortunately, water is a scarcity now (gas probably is, too, but one problem at a time) and these people desperately need it if they are to survive any longer. One brave man volunteered to retrieve some, but he never returned and everyone figures he’s dead. In his stead another man, known as “Alien” (Robert Iannucci), offers to take up the task. He won’t be going alone. Tommy (Luca Venantini), the 10-year-old son of the guy who disappeared on his water run, wants to tag along. Tommy soon learns the dusty plains they must travel are no place for a young boy. Savages are everywhere, led by the murderous Crazy Bull (Fernando Bilbao), who has a grudge against Alien. A tough woman (and Alien’s ex), Trash (Alicia Moro), and a wily old man, Papillon (Luciano Pigozzi), join Alien and Tommy on their quest for water and aid in the fight against Crazy Bull and his stable of brutal warriors.

This movie is strictly for those who like their cheese thick. As easy as it would be to pick this film apart like a sundried carcass, the fact of the matter is it’s actually got a lot of flat-out ridiculous elements that work because they show sparks of creativity and passion. Alien uses a pair of bolas that can cut a man in two. Tommy, who we learn halfway through the film has a bionic arm, has that arm repaired and improved giving him the ability to throw a rock through someone’s head like it was made of butter. The water cache our heroes are searching for is guarded by a squad of deranged welders. An obvious miniature set explodes with all the ferocity of a Roman candle. If you’re going to make a picture and the budget is limited, this is how you do it – maximize the shit out of every dollar. Most of Exterminators of the Year 3000 is utterly forgettable, but the producers wisely included a handful of scenes that are memorable enough to give it some lasting credit. Not much, but enough to keep viewers from falling asleep or checking their social media feeds. The opening car chase, which is a fantastic example of stunt driving, looks like something right out of a Stephen J. Cannell television production.

It’s likely anyone buying this latest Blu-ray release from Scream Factory - which was almost a double feature with Cruel Jaws (1995) until that was proven to be a rights nightmare, as it uses unauthorized footage from at least four other shark movies - knows what they’re getting into, so if you’re reading this review because you love all of those scrappy Italian nuclear wasteland films and want to know if this one is worth your time, the answer is… sure. It fits right into that wheelhouse.

Much like the film itself, Exterminators of the Year 3000 arrives on Blu-ray with a 1.85:1 1080p picture that is gritty and rough around the edges. To be fair, technically the presentation is about as good as it’s going to get, plus this also marks the first time the film has been released on home video in its proper aspect ratio. Code Red had released a DVD edition in 2010 that was full frame, so enough said there. This hi-def release features a marginal uptick in quality over standard resolution, with only extreme closeups worthy of any sort of praise. In general, it’s a soft focus feature with accurately rendered colors, unspectacular details and a sunbaked color palette. In darkness, detail is completely swallowed; thankfully, very few scenes take place in such conditions. Fans will likely be happy enough just having the film in widescreen.

Once again, on a technical level there’s not much fault to be found within the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono audio track. Every trait of the sound mix, for better or worse, is cleanly carried over here. In the bonus features it’s made clear that the languages spoken on set were English, Italian and Spanish, and their vocalization wasn’t always done when cameras stopped rolling. Therefore, the entire film had to be dubbed. So expect lots of tin can dialogue, “Look out, it’s Godzilla!” lip synching and a near total lack of any presence whatsoever. Composer Detto Mariano gets a modicum of credit for crafting a catchy low-fi synth motif, but it gets so overused you’d think it was all he wrote. Subtitles are included in English.

If you’re able to withstand the moderation by Code Red’s Bill Olsen, then this audio commentary with actor Robert Iannucci may be worth a listen. Iannucci has many clear recollections from the set, speaking about the different nationalities participating in the production, eating snakes, the stunt work and so forth. Personally, Olsen is just a little too deprecating and hyper for my tastes, and his mania sours otherwise decent commentary tracks. Just my two cents.

“Boogie Down with the Alien: Interview with Robert Iannucci” runs for a little over 17 minutes. This footage looks rather old and is presented undated. The actor sits down to discuss his involvement with the project from casting to production and its legacy. Some info is redundant here if you’ve heard the commentary track.

The film’s trailer and a couple of TV spots are also included.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

New Year's Evil (1980) Blu-ray review

While Joe Six Pack might wait until Halloween to bust out the scary stuff, horror fans only have one time of year they watch fright films: all the time. Not that it ever gets old, but a sporadic way to break up the monotony is through holiday horrors. Odds are pretty good that if a film is set on a major holiday it’ll be getting a yearly viewing from most diehards… even if it’s terrible. This explains how Uncle Sam (1996) winds up in my player every July 4th. Thankfully, New Year’s Evil (1980) is not terrible, even if it is a fairly run-of-the-mill slasher. The film comes across slightly smarter than expected because it incorporates the normal festivities of New Year’s Eve into the plot, turning moments typically of celebration into fear. It also gets another bonus point for a third act reveal that is unexpected (if not a tad cliché) assuming you haven’t checked the cast list on IMDb and ruined it for yourself – which is exactly what I did.

It’s New Year’s Eve! And all the cool kids are celebrating at a taping of Hollywood Hotline, a punk rock & new wave show hosted by Diane “Blaze” Sullivan (Roz Kelly). The show is hosting a late-night countdown, with bands playing on stage and a dozen people standing by to take phone call requests. Diane gets a call from a “fan” who calls himself “Evil” and states that he will murder someone each time the clock strikes midnight in a different time zone, with her to be the final victim. Diane’s security team puts the building on lockdown and keeps her and her son, Derek (Grant Cramer), secured. Meanwhile, victims begin to arrive one per hour as the first stroke of midnight brings with it a nurse’s death. Evil records his crimes and call the show after the deed is done, playing back his promises. It isn’t long before the trail of bodies leads directly to Diane’s dressing room.

This was a fun movie, even for a first time viewer like me who has seen a hundred slashers. Is it original? Absolutely not, but it is very entertaining in a “14-year-old staying up late to watch USA’s “Up All Night” kind of way”. Having the killer strike at midnight works perfectly as a plot device, and it seems like such a natural choice to play up the film’s holiday ties. Perhaps one of the best aspects to the production is the decision to reveal the killer early on. I always find this a creepier approach than the boilerplate “hide in the shadows for 85 minutes” killers in the majority of slasher films. This guy is fairly debonair, too; think of Ted Bundy and you’re on the right track. Even better, he’s got a streak of John “Hannibal” Smith (leader of The A-Team (1983-1987), as played by George Peppard) in him because he shows up at each victim’s location wearing extremely convincing outfits. His third act skirmish with a biker gang (!) is so preposterous and deliciously B-grade cinema. Don’t forget, folks, this is a Cannon Films production – always expect the outrageous and then some.

If there’s one thing to remember the film by, however, it’s the title song; a damn catchy one, too. New Year’s Evil, as performed by Roxanne Seeman and Eduardo del Barrio, spent four days blaring the opening lines in my head before I could get it out. It plays on the Blu-ray’s menu, it opens the film and it may be used one other time; I’m not sure. It’s one of those infectious tunes that are impossible to shake. With all these vinyl companies putting out obscure soundtracks these days, someone please get this on a 7”.

New Year’s Evil is a perfectly decent slasher movie while also being highly enjoyable to watch for the sheer ridiculousness of it all – making it the ideal choice to pop on with a group of wasted friends on its namesake holiday. Or, perhaps, by yourself, Smirnoff Ice in hand, lamenting another year gone by with no social life to show for it. Either way you’re destined for Fun City.

This is the Blu-ray debut for New Year’s Evil, having previously been issued on a burn-on-demand DVD from MGM. The film’s 1.78:1 1080p image appears to have been faithfully reproduced, for better or worse. This is not a good looking film by any means, but it’s about as cleaned up as it needs to be. The print sourced from MGM is in good shape, with the only real anomaly showing up in the form of a yellow vertical line appearing 1/3 of the way across the screen for three shots. It’s a very minor defect. Line work in the shadows tends to fade into a murky mess, and black levels get pretty noisy when it’s really dark. That’s all the bad stuff. On a positive note, closeups reveal nice little details in faces and clothing textures. Colors are nicely saturated. Other than some grain spikes during night scenes, the majority of the appearance is very filmic.

The English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track has exactly one issue with it, a high-pitched ringing that occurs for around ten seconds at approximately 30 minutes into the movie. That aside, this is a typically competent audible offering from Scream Factory. Dialogue is balanced and discernible, songs have a moderate presence and sound effects are given good weight. There could be a bit more oomph to the sourced music, especially that theme song, but this gets the job done just fine. Subtitles are included in English.

The film’s audio commentary features writer & director Emmett Alston, and it’s a bit on the dry side. Code Red’s Bill Olsen is on hand to moderate the proceedings, which delve into typical production speak about location shooting, budgetary concerns, how Alston got hooked up with Cannon, etc. It’s a subdued affair that even serious fans of the film may find boring.

“The Making of New Year’s Evil” is a behind-the-scenes piece that runs for nearly 40 minutes. This is yet another in a series of winning behind-the-scenes pieces from Scream Factory, featuring interviews with many cast & crew members who offer up all sorts of interesting anecdotes and reminisce fondly on their time making the movie. Stick around through the brief credits for a fun scene at the end.

The film’s theatrical trailer is included in HD.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Phantom of the Opera: The Motion Picture (1989) Blu-ray review

Confession time: I have never liked theater. The scant few shows I have attended – one of which was a performance of “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Pantages – were well executed and marginally exciting, but there has never been a single time where I felt the urge to take in a show. This apathetic view has extended to cinematic adaptations of musicals, too, although there are unquestionably great films filled with songs. The purpose of this preface is to explain why I’d never watched The Phantom of the Opera: The Motion Picture (1989), despite being acutely aware of it since childhood. As a young horror fan, who wouldn’t have been drawn in by that cover art? It sold the movie as “Freddy: The Musical”, after all, complete with “Freddy” in bold letters on the cover and Englund’s partially-obscured visage looking an awful lot like his signature character. I must’ve passed it a thousand times on the video shelf as a kid and always had the same thought, “Nope, not interested in a musical.”

Oh, what a youthful fool. First off, it isn’t really much of a musical at all. The Phantom’s compositions are obviously a main component of the film, but it isn’t like characters break out into song every time they have a monologue to deliver. And it’s good music, too. Misha Segal’s score has been singled out as one of the film’s strengths, deservedly so. Secondly, this is absolutely a horror movie. If Englund’s presence didn’t make that evident, the choice of Dwight H. Little (he of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) fame) as director and the use of Kevin Yagher and John Carl Buechler for FX work should make it crystal clear – a great deal of blood will be spilled.

Opening in present day New York City (check out that Tower Records!), Christine (Jill Schoelen) is an opera singer who wants to find something unique to sing for her upcoming audition. She and her friend Meg (Molly Shannon, in her film debut) discover a piece written by Erik Destler, a composer who they learn may have been responsible for a spate of murders in 19th century London. No matter, it’s a great song. Christine sings the piece at her audition, but before she finishes a sandbag crashes down from overhead and knocks her out. She awakens in 1881 London as an operatic understudy to La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence), a diva headlining “Faust”. Visions of Erik Destler begin to plague Christine, in which he tells her that only she can sing Carlotta’s parts as they should be performed. An “unfortunate accident” prevents Carlotta from going on that night, and Christine receives a standing ovation after stepping in for her.

The parallels between “Faust” and Destler’s life are then revealed, as it is shown that Destler made a deal with the Devil to ensure his music would be eternal. The catch? His face would be permanently disfigured, allowing people to love him only for his music. He’s also given superhuman strength and is seemingly immortal, so maybe not such a bad deal after all? Destler’s obsession with Christine continues to mount, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake and culminating in an attack on his underground lair in hopes of finally stopping him. Post-attack, we’re whisked back to present day New York City where Christine is waking up from her audition accident to a familiar face…

Jill Schoelen mentions in the bonus features that the film’s failure at the box office was likely due to the fact most horror fans didn’t want to see a musical any more than musical fans wanted to see a horror movie. She’s right there; many horror/comedies fail at the box office for the same reason – genre confusion and disinterest. The stage version may be most closely associated with the title, but this film version hews more to Gaston Leroux’s source novel. The only major change is of locale, from Paris to London, a decision made to give the picture a more “Hammer Studios” aesthetic. Well, that and the signature chandelier scene, which was dropped because Menahem Golan ran out of money. Golan’s name alone should have clued genre fans in to what to expect; the man built a solid career with Cannon Pictures and its hyper-violent films.

One could easily view this film as “Freddy of the Opera” thanks to Destler’s crispy-fried features being brought to life by Kevin Yagher, who handled makeup duties on three A Nightmare on Elm St. films as well as Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-1989). For most of the film Destler hides under a mask made up of the skin from his victims’ faces (he’s skilled at flaying), something he stiches onto himself periodically. When that is removed, however, he looks like Freddy Krueger with extra skin. How could he not?

It’s a shame the planned The Phantom of New York City never came together because this film ends on a sequel-setting note that could have been a worthwhile continuance. I could kick my younger self for not giving this a shot and renting it all those years ago. Thanks to strong FX work, particularly nasty kills and solid performances from horror notables, The Phantom of the Opera is an elegantly vicious retelling of a well-trodden tale. If there’s any downside here, it’s that an unrated cut couldn’t be put together. Apparently much of the gore wound up on the cutting room floor (like, you know, every horror film made around this time) and it would’ve been great to see that FX reinstated. Still, what survives is certainly worth horror fans’ time.

I don’t mind sounding like a broken record in saying Scream Factory has once again delivered a faithful, albeit unspectacular, picture for a catalog release. Maybe not all of their titles get the 2K or 4K treatment, but on the other side of the coin at least they never employ DNR or aggressive new color timing to their releases either. Phantom sports a 1.85:1 1080p image that was sourced from a clean print, free of major defects, dirt and noise. Colors are nicely saturated, especially reds. Grain is moderate and filmic, though it does spike a bit when the scene is in total darkness. As a testament to the FX work, most of the latex skin holds up rather well under the intense scrutiny of HD.

Viewers are given the option of an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track or a 2.0 stereo track. Truthfully, to my ears the stereo track appeared more focused and full, while the surround track spreads itself out too thin, resulting in a weak presence and less impact. The film was mixed in Ultra Stereo, making the loss of any rear speaker effects is negligible. Dialogue sounds a bit more present in the 2.0 track as well. The film’s songs carry a decent weight, filling out the front-end assembly nicely. Subtitles are included in English.

The audio commentary track features director Dwight H. Little and star Robert Englund. These two have a great rapport, covering every necessary base including location shooting, relationships with the other actors, the picture’s tone & look and so forth. Definitely recommended if you enjoyed the film.

“Behind the Mask: The Making of The Phantom of the Opera” is a great behind-the-scenes piece that runs for just under forty minutes. Many of the film’s principals – Little, Englund, Schoelen, etc. – are on hand to discuss the film. Scream Factory has a knack for pumping out these highly informative, in-depth pieces on making a film; just about every one they’ve produced has been a perfect complement to its corresponding movie. There’s a lot of history behind this production and the anecdotes fly left & right.

The film’s theatrical trailer, TV spot, two radio spots and a still gallery round out the extra features.