Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Robocop - Criterion Edition (1987)

Paul Verhoeven is an enigma to me. His Hollywood films seem to vary between Sci-Fi satire (Starship Troopers, Total Recall) and baffling smut (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) with his early artistic Dutch films (Spetters, Soldier Of Orange) remaining some of his best. He's obviously a very smart director, and even his worst films have interesting ideas within them, but you really never know what you're going to get. Verhoeven's arrival to mainstream films came in 1987 with the blockbuster Sci-Fi action film Robocop, and the filmmakers satiric interests (and love of extreme violence) were already well defined.

Robocop is that most rare category of action film: one that works on multiple levels. On one hand audiences ate up the tale of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a clean cut cop in near-future Detroit, who is brutally murdered by criminals before having his corpse turned into a cyborg devoted to stopping crime. There's enough explosions and fantastical elements to catch the imagination of the most braindead movie-goer. On the other hand with its ridiculous commercials, relentlessly cheery newscasters, and comically ruthless businessmen right out of Wall Street Verhoeven has also created a satire of living in the 80s, as well as a scary prognostication of where the world has found itself in 2008. Even the design of ED-209 (the constantly misfiring prototype security robot) is based on a style over substance ethos.

While I think uneven acting sinks some of Starship Troopers, the ensemble cast in Robocop aquit themselves admirably. Peter Weller is bland as Alex Murphy, but spends most of the film in the extensive make-up and suit that make up Robocop and provides a necessarily sympathetic action hero. Nancy Allen is fine as his partner, but it's the baddies which really make the film memorable. While i'm always a bit put off by Ronny Cox's dialogue reading, it's Kurtwood Smith (well known as Red from That 70's Show) who demolishes the competition as the brutal Clarence Boddicker. His psychotic, gleeful demeanour ("Can you fly, Bobby?") is a stand-out in 80s action films. Boddicker's gang manage to indivudalize themselves as well with cheerfully twisted portrayals.

Being a Verhoeven film, violence is a given and Robocop certainly has its share. Originally given an X-rating by the MPAA, here Criterion presents the original uncut version of the film, including about two minutes of extra (almost exclusively violent) footage. The first dramatic difference comes in the boardroom scene where ED-209 is introduced. Originally, the haywire ED-209 shoots an employee several times, but in the uncut version the bullets almost tear the poor guy apart, leaving him a riddled, bloody mess. The other scene is Muphy's death scene, where an already extreme scene is taken completely over the edge as Murphy's arm is blown off with a shotgun before Boddicker casually puts a bullet through his brain. Rob Bottin's amazing FX work are given their due in this added footage.

Speaking of FX, this film being before the common use of computer effects and compositing means that we get a rather mixed bag (though, one that was well ahead of its time in 1987). Bottin's physical FX work still looks amazing (particularly the memorable full body toxic waste melt during the film's climax), but Phil Tippett's (who brought the AT-ATs to life in Star Wars) stop-motion effects on ED-209 have unfortunately not aged as well. It's still amazing to watch, and the work to bring it to life deserves much credit, but it mostly provides a nostalgic thrill.

The film is presented in Verhoeven's preferred 1.66:1, though was originally filmed in a 1.85:1 ratio. The image quality is decent, but features considerable grain in some scenes. Criterion has come up with some wonderful worthy extras including a fascinating article about the films effects work that is augmented with clips, photos and production artwork. It's quite long but provides the viewer with some necessary insight into the awesome amount of work that went into making this film. There are also trailers (teaser and full length), storyboard comparisons, and an entertaining commentary featuring Verhoeven, co-writer Edward Neumeier, executive producer Jon Davison, and RoboCop expert Paul M. Sammon.

Visceral, violent entertainment which transcends what, in another director's hands, could have been a very limited concept. Robocop remains a triumphant, superior action film.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Prisoner - Set 1 (1967)

Where am I?
In the Village.
What do you want?
We want information.
Whose side are you on?
That would be telling. We want information... information... information.
You won't get it.
By hook or by crook, we will.
Who are you?
The new Number 2.
Who is Number 1?
You are Number 6.
I am not a number, I am a free man.

The first set of The Prisoner released by A&E covers the episodes "Arrival", "Free For All", "Dance Of The Dead" and a workprint version of the episode "The Chimes Of Big Ben". I've been terribly negligent about diving into this series, which is something I particularly regret after getting this small taste of it.

The original run order of The Prisoner is up to debate, so A&E released the episodes in the order that apparently is most accepted by fans (which itself is worthy of debate), though it hardly matters since besides the first and last episodes of the show, each can be watched standalone.

For those unfamiliar with the concept (which has been parodied and lampooned endlessly, notably on The Simpsons), The Prisoner concerns an unnamed secret agent (Patrick McGoohan) who, after resigning, finds himself gassed while packing his things and awakens in an idyllic (though fascistic) setting where the inhabitants are referred only by numbers. Number 6 (as he is now called) spends the series fighting against the constantly changing "Number 2" who are after the secret of why he quit his post, while he also attempts to find a way off the island and avoid "rover", the giant balloon guard which patrols the village.

An obvious precursor to surreal series such as Lost and Twin Peaks, The Prisoner holds up amazingly well because of the (surprisingly) high production values, as well as the high caliber of writing and acting on display. McGoohan had a great deal of influence on the creative direction of the show (and, in fact, wrote several episodes under pseudonyms) which pays off well in longevity, while the central theme of a single man fighting for freedom and individuality in a setting stressing assimilation can't help but still appeal.

There is still much camp humor on display as well. "Rover" is both ridiculous in design, but surprisingly threatening in practice as we get a close-up of the victims face pressing against it's skin when caught. The futuristic technology is strictly out of the late 60s/early 70s sci-fi mold with stark, monochromatic coloring and rounded edges.

Here are the four episodes available on these discs:

1) "Arrival" - The first episode features Number 6 waking up disoriented in The Village and meeting its inhabitants. After getting a tour by Number 2 (Guy Doleman), he attempts to escape and is attacked by "rover", which lands him in the hospital. While hospitalized, 6 discovers that a former acquaintance named Cobb is also in the hospital. After some questioning, Number 6 discovers Cobb has jumped to his death. At Cobb's funeral, 6 runs into Cobb's lover who reveals that Cobb and herself were going to make an escape attempt. She gives him an electropass to get past Rover and into a helicopter. After taking off, 6 soon discovers that Number 2 (now George Baker) was in control all along, and forces him to land. The episode ends with Number 6 back in the village, and with the audience discovering that Cobb is still alive and was an acquaintance of Number 2 all along.

This episode provides a fine introduction to the main characters of the series, as well as the constant double-crossing and surrealism that would become its trademark.

2) "The Chimes Of Big Ben" (Workprint) - A workprint version of an episode sometimes aired second in sequence when the series is shown in reruns. The film and audio quality of this episode is quite poor, though a remastered proper version is available on the second set of the series.

The new Number 2 (Leo McKern, who is magnificent) introduces Number 6 to a new arrival, who is almost killed after an escape attempt. Number 6 suspects she is a Village spy, but volunteers to become more involved with life in The Village if it will prevent her being tortured for information. This involves taking part in an art competition in the Village (in a wonderful touch, all the pieces besides Number 6's are different representations of Number 2), which Number 6 wins and purchases a tapestry with his winnings. The tapestry is used as a sail for his piece, actually a boat which is to be used to escape the island. The ending is fantastically disheartening as Number 6 believes he has escaped to London before discovering that his old office is actually just a recreation which exits back to The Village.

3) "Free For All" - My favorite episode of the four, where Number 6 runs for the position of Number 2 (in this episode played by Eric Portman. Promised an opportunity to meet Number 1 if he prevails, Number 6 ends up winning the election but is drugged and beaten after reaching the control room. The episode ends with 6's female foreign assistant taking the post of Number 2, revealing herself to speak perfect English.

This episode was written by McGoohan and is filled with some hilarious political satire, as well as another desperate climax with Number 6 frantically yelling over the loudspeakers that the villagers are free to go, before he finds himself back where he started with a new Number 2.

4) "Dance Of The Dead" - Number 6 discovers a radio on the body of a dead man he finds floating in the sea. Attempting to use the body as a way to send a message back to civilization, 6 is discovered and is put on trial during a yearly carnival where the inhabitants of the village dress in elaborate costumes. Found guilty, Number 6 is sentenced to death.

Likely my least favorite of the four episodes, but still has a wonderful conclusion with the entire village running after 6 in an attempt to tear him apart.

There are 17 issues in the full series of The Prisoner, though McGoohan originally envisioned the series as being considerably shorter. There has been much talk in recent years of bringing back the series, possibly envisioned as a Dr. Who-like relaunch. I can only hope that if such a re-imagining does take place that they can maintain the quality of the episodes in the original series as shown in this collection. Their work is certainly cut out for them.

The episodes are shown in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, and the episodes (outside of "The Chimes Of Big Ben") look magnificent. Certainly better than those PBS airings I remember from my childhood. A&E have included some very minor supplements for the discs, including trailers for each episode, photo galleries and a few trivia questions. Such an involved series with such devoted fans could certainly use a bit more supplementary material.

An absolute wonder that remains fresh and thought-provoking, The Prisoner deserves its reputation as some of the best serialized television ever aired.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Movie Cornucopia - Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), Evil Dead II (1987), City Of Violence (2006)

Just a few short, random thoughts on films i've seen recently:

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) - I like to think of Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank, and High Fidelity as a thematic trilogy of John Cusack films examining the nature of relationships (and the choices one makes within them). Of the three films, this is the weakest but still a tremendous amount of fun and (as always) has a killer soundtrack. The fight with Benny Urquidez is a magnificent piece of choreography, and the darker tone fits the film really well. Nice supporting performances from Alan Arkin and Dan Aykroyd, and Minnie Driver is perfectly ok.

Evil Dead II (1987)
- Still the most fun that a person can have watching a film. Watching it a few days ago in preparation of seeing Evil Dead: The Musical it really stuck out to me how influential it was in developing my love for films and the process of film-making. The ragged edges in some of the effects and performances just add to the pleasure, and the pace is manic to the point of leaving the audience breathless. The pleasures of watching Bruce Campbell be driven insane by a disembodied hand and a psychotically laughing moose head is something I hope I never grow out of.

City Of Violence (2006)
- More of a drama with some big action set pieces than a straight martial arts movie, City Of Violence doesn't really distinguish itself outside of a Warriors-inspired brawl that never reaches the nuttiness (or pace) of the source. Performances are good, and some of the action (particularly in the final scene) is definitely impressive, but it simply doesn't do enough to separate itself. Worth a rental, but don't expect a classic. The two-disc DVD set is certainly packed, however.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Biohazard: The Alien Force (1995)

Making the most of a low budget is what separates the decent schlockmeister from the hundreds of pitiful straight-to-video/DVD dreck that exists out there.

Biohazard: The Alien Force comes straight from the Fred Olen Ray (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers)/Jim Wynorski (Dinosaur Island) school of film making (in fact, the two directors produce this flick, and it's based on an Olen Ray script): Put everything you have on the screen, and throw in some softcore T&A and a few explosions to keep people from nodding off. It's been a pretty successful ethos for those two directors, but director Steve Latshaw has some difficulty keeping things moving in this film. It starts off with enough goofy action and rubber aliens to give some hope to the discriminating connoisseur of bad movies, but things slow considerably after the first half hour.

The plot revolves around Mike Reardon (Steve Zurk, looking (and acting) like a football player), the ex head of security for Triton Industries, a genetics company who are working on developing an invincible BIO-creature from the DNA of their employees. With the help of a reporter (Susan Fronsoe) and a former Triton researcher, Reardon has to track down the names from the DNA donor list before the creature (or Quint, the psychotic current head of security) catches up with them.

For the discriminating fan of awfulness, Biohazard has enough moments of hilarity to make it worth a watch. The actors are uniformly bland and/or awful and there are more than a few awkward moments and flubbed lines. Most of the budget was likely poured into the main creature's suit, and it looks slightly better than most Kamen Rider/Mighty Morphin Power Rangers villains.

They manage to fit in a gratuitous sex scene or two, and things come to an explosive conclusion with the President of Triton (played by Christoper Mitchum, the son of the legendary Robert Mitchum.. who at least seems like he's having fun) gets taken down in his helicopter by a handgun wielding Mike Reardon. The helicopter explosion (which also manages to squash Quint) is just terrible looking, but after some of the effects already witnessed, it's par for the course.

The DVD is presented full frame, which is likely the original shooting ratio. The image quality is pretty shoddy with a lot of grain visible during the night scenes, and the audio is adequate but nothing more. The only extra is the film's trailer, which appropriately makes the thing look a lot more interesting than it actually is.

More slasher than sci-fi (in fact, despite the title there's nothing "alien" on display here), this is all well trodden territory. Best left to the late night cable TV showings it was always destined for. Delivers what you would expect, but doesn't rise above.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Black Sheep (2006)

Splatstick (the combination of excessive gore and comedy) really peaked with Peter Jackson's Braindead in 1992, years before he reached mainstream success with The Lord Of The Rings series. That film (as well as Bad Taste, his first film) integrated violence into traditional horror situations with such reckless abandon that the viewer can't help but laugh at the madness. Even Jackson described the film as 'A slapstick comedy with blood and guts instead of custard pies.' Using WETA Workshop's (who worked on King Kong and The Lord Of The Rings) expertise, Jonathan King's Black Sheep is a tribute to Jackson's New Zealand films and tries to exploit the same mixture of humour and extreme violence (with a touch of eco-horror for good measure).

Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister) returns to the farm where he grew up in an attempt to overcome his fear of sheep, as well as to be bought out of the farm by his brother Angus (Peter Feeney) who has been using the farm for genetic experiments. After two environmentalists attempt to bring back samples as proof of the illegal doings, one is bitten by the mutation and soon the entire farmland is crawling with blood crazed killer sheep. It's up to Henry, his friend Tucker, and Experience (Danielle Mason, one of the environmentalists) to stop Angus and the array of mutant bloodthirsty livestock.

The plot certainly can support its share of fun, with the echoes of unassuming creatures turning their wraith against man, such as in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (or Night Of The Lepus!), as well as the always amusing visage of people running away from the generally docile title creatures.

Director Jonathan King has definite love for the genre, and the New Zealand scenery on display looks absolutely amazing. The film also builds nicely throughout until things really let loose in the final act. Unfortunately, unlike the best examples of splatstick, you never really end up developing much sympathy for the characters in danger which cuts significantly into any tension being built. To the cast's credit, they don't spend their time winking at the camera or taking things less than seriously (even in a scene where Henry smashes a bottle of Mint Sauce over the head of an attacking were-sheep, who recoils like it was hit with holy water), but a little more time on their relationships wouldn't have gone to waste.

The effects are the star of the show, and they certainty don't disappoint. Particularly in a massacre scene where bodies are torn to bits and blood flows in ridiculous amounts. This outrageous violence is where the film comes closest to the mad excess of Jackson's films. Also impressive is the human/sheep hybrid make-up that's on display in the later parts of the film, as well as some obvious tributes to An American Werewolf in London.

The film is shown in it's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has a magnificent transfer which highlights the landscapes on display. Extras include a commentary provided by director King and star Meister which provides a little detail on the difficulties and joys of working on the film, though makes the mistake of holding back possibly interesting details in the fear of "spoiling" the film (a pet peeve of mine, as no sensible person would listen to the commentary before seeing the movie). There's also a wonderful half-hour making of that focuses strongly on the effects work on the film.

Also included are some cut scenes (with commentary), a rather lame blooper reel, a quick gag shot for the DVD, and the film's trailer.

A cut above most horror comedies, and featuring surprisingly high production values, Black Sheep is worth a rental for a number of inspired scenes. Don't expect to cower in fear (though you might retch in disgust), but in the end it's certainly not baaa-ad.

Beyond Re-Animator (2003)

I remember very well the first time I saw Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator. I had been digging for it for years, and eventually tracked myself down the R-rated VHS version, and after watching I couldn't help but wonder what all the fuss was about. Sure, it was definitely fun. The production values and acting were a step above normal horror fare. But, why was it constantly mentioned in the same breath as horror comedy classics like Evil Dead II or Peter Jackson's Braindead?

In reality, what I saw was a neutered version of the original film. The R-rated VHS version was considerably longer (surprisingly) than the unrated cut, but was missing much of what made the film so special, which I discovered years later after seeing the film on DVD. Brian Yuzna (who also directed Bride Of Re-Animator, the second film) has finally (after 13(!) years) brought the franchise back to the "screen", but has unfortunately neutered the creation of a lot of what made it so enjoyable.

The plot certainly catches the imagination. Herbert West is arrested after one of his experiments with re-animation leads to the death of a young woman. Years later, the brother of the woman, Howard Phillips (Jason Barry) now a doctor, comes to work at the prison where West is staying and brings with him some re-animator fluid and a wish to work with him. West has developed a way to repair the damage to the brain that comes through the reviving process, and eventually the extended cast (including a nosy female reporter filling out the Barbara Crampton role and a sadistic warden) all get a taste of it.

Let's start with the good. Jeffrey Combs is amazing, as always, as Herbert West. His understanding of the mannerisms of the character is flawless, and the film misses him whenever he is not on screen. The FX, mostly mechanical and make-up, are plenty of fun, and it's nice to see Screaming Mad George get to let loose on a few creations. The production values are also quite high, and Brian Yuzna's assured direction keeps up the necessary maniacal pace. At the very least, it feels like a Re-animator film.

However, the high production values came at a price. The film was made in Spain (Yuzna's home country) and while this allows the filmmakers to stretch the budget, it also leads to some awful dubbing for some of the actors. The film is supposed to take place in the U.S., but it's hardly convincing even in the confines of a prison. In the commentary, Yuzna mentions that some of the films violence was toned down in an attempt to reach a wider audience, and this sense of restraint is hard not to notice throughout the film. It seems constantly on the edge of breaking out into something special, but never quite gets there.

Still, it's many notches above average horror fare, and doesn't embarrass the franchise. It just could have been so much more. For an idea, just take a look at the proposed House Of Re-Animator film.

The film is shown in it's original 1.66:1 ratio and looks quite good, despite some noise in the particularly dark scenes. The extras include a very interesting (though a tad over complimentary) commentary from Yuzna, and a short making of. There's also a music video, which is mindblowingly awful.

Jesus christ. What's that?

Fans of Re-animator should take a look, but I can only hope the series gets a more suitable ending. Still, it's hard to dislike a film which has a rat battle a re-animated penis.

The Astro-Zombies (1968)

With just a touch of my burning hand
I send my astro zombies to rape the land
Prime directive, exterminate
The whole human race
- "Astro Zombies" by The Misfits

The song "Astro Zombies" by The (Danzig-era) Misfits was inspired (at least in some way) by this 1968 low-budget horror(?) film directed by esteemed schlockmeister Ted V. Mikels (The Corpse Grinders, Blood Orgy Of The She-Devils, The Doll Squad).

In all reality, that's the best thing to come from the existence of this movie.

Actually, that might be slightly unfair. I'll admit that the opening credits (featuring clips of wind up robots) actually came off as quite interesting, and the plot (involving mad-science brain transplants and the like) didn't turn me off. Throw in the ubiquitous John Carradine and the top heavy Tura Satana (from Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) and there was definitely the stench of potential in the air. Unfortunately, things go a bit Pete Tong just minutes in, as endless scenes of driving and car radios and John Carradine playing with science equipment start to lull the viewer into some rather intense boredom. Even some painted up topless dancing (with the director playing the bongos, no less) isn't enough to break the monotony. Though, it doesn't hurt.

I'll try to break down the plot quickly. Dr. DeMarco (Carradine) is fired from the space program after working on a way to send information directly into the brains of deep space astronauts from scientists and other experts. Sort of like The Matrix, except more awful. So, he goes crazy (natch) and starts working on living patients (with the help of his trusty hunchback), getting both the FBI (investigating a series of mutilations performed by a renegade astro-zombie) and dirty Commie Satana (who is looking to sell the doc's secrets) on his trail.

The whole thing turns surprisingly bloody in the last five minutes as the astro-zombie goes apeshit and chops off a guy's head. He's brought down by the doctor who flicks off his power with his last bit of strength before dying, and as his newly revived astro-zombie electrocutes ol' Satana. That's what they get for tampering in God's domain.

The (sorta) zombies certainly look unique, with their sport jackets and dime-store skull masks. And they are solar powered(!), which becomes evident in my favorite scene in the film, where one of the creatures runs off while holding a flashlight to his forehead after losing his battery pack in a scuffle. It could certainly have used a few more scenes of ridiculousness.

If nothing else, Image has done a wonderful job sticking this piece o' crap onto DVD. I had a beat up VHS copy of the film, and it was almost unwatchable. Here the movie is shown in its original 1.85:1 ratio, and while the print isn't perfect, it's likely the best the film has looked since it was originally shown. And possibly even better. Similarly, the sound is clear and audible.

The only extra is the film's trailer, and boy howdy is the quality bad. Not to mention it includes almost every worthwhile moment from the film. If you do get suckered into watching this thing (and, it's called The Astro-Zombies, so I can understand how you could), you might want to avoid checking it out. Or, heck.. watch it and save yourself the ninety minutes.

Needs more zombie.

Andre The Butcher (Dead Meat) (2005)

It's difficult to criticize a movie for being crude, amateurish and shot on digital video when you yourself make films that are crude, amateurish and shot on digital video. However, Andre The Butcher (aka Dead Meat) is simply unpleasant in its badness. There's a sleaze factor on display that makes the viewer feel like they are only a step away from the whole thing turning into a porno (or, even worse, a snuff) film.

That feeling is certainly enhanced by the appearance of "The Hedghog" Ron Jeremy as the killer (decked out in a welding mask and apron to help hide the fact that half the time it's actually one of several body doubles). His sole responsibility in the film is to stand around and be violent, while occasionally doing something disgusting like eat his own scabs, but none of this can really distract from the fact that you're watching Ron fucking Jeremy. It's rather distracting.

The plot as it is involves a cheerleading squad that has an accident on the road (resulting from some unfortunate BJ action) and has to take refuge in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. While half the group wanders for help, the remaining two dyke out for a bit before being interrupted by two escaped convicts. A local sheriff and a sassy black officer round out the cast, who are mostly disposed of in grisly ways.

I hesitate to call this a "stalk and slash" film, since there really isn't any stalking on display. The horror sections of the film have almost no tension, and the violence (which is alternately impressive and pathetic) is used as a replacement for any sense of action. The film is meant to be a comedy, but the humor is intermittent and is sub-sub Scary Movie levels. The direction is pedestrian, though the choice to film almost the entire thing in bright daylight certainly doesn't help in building suspense.

The acting is a mixed bag, with the only acceptable performance coming from Maury Sterling as one of the escaped prisoners. His storyline is ridiculous, but unlike the rest of the leads he's obviously a trained actor. The only recognizable face is Terry Mross, who played the asshole football coach in Dazed And Confused. This isn't one to stick on the acting resume.

The film is presented in it's original 1.78:1 ratio, and the video quality is standard for shot on DV material, meaning cheapish but consistent. The DVD features a few trailers, and a surprisingly uninformative commentary with the participants drinking throughout. This worked on Cannibal: The Musical, and nothing else.

I'd recommend missing out on this one. Unless you're a giant Ron Jeremy fan. And, if so, may God have mercy on your soul.

The Deadly Spawn (1983)

My first experience with The Deadly Spawn (aka Return Of The Aliens: The Deadly Spawn) was on a horror compilation tape called Terror On Tape, which featured a collection of gory scenes from films like Two Thousand Maniacs, City Of The Walking Dead, Scalps, Blood Feast and the like. While it looked like fun, the film never really approached my radar screen even as a gore-obsessed teenager.

Which is a shame, since the film is a worthwhile exercise in low budget shock film making. It owes it's debt to the sci-fi films of the 50s (particularly The Blob and Invaders From Mars), but adds some very impressive special FX (courtesy of John Dods) to bring things up to date. With a budget that was in the range of $25,000, the creatures themselves really are something original, with piranha-like teeth jutting out of the phallic snake bodies. They make the most of what they had, and put it directly on the screen.

The film takes place almost entirely in a single house, with the crash-landed alien creatures taking root in the basement and making quick work of the parents of the protagonists, before rapidly spreading (and growing!). A monster obsessed kid ends up being the hero, as he uses his knowledge of special FX to take care of the head creature in a climactic confrontation in the attic.

The film is not without it's flaws. The acting is generally poor, and it's sometimes a little too nasty for it's own good. I appreciate the grue as much as anyone, but it sometimes borders on unpleasant. While the creature work is great for the budget, it's also uneven and there are a few shots which don't exactly convince. The rocky production history is also evident in the inconsistency of style on display.

It's hard to fault the recent Synapse DVD, however. Shown in it's original full-frame presentation, the transfer is absolutely astounding when considering the quality of previous home video presentations. There's also a generous amount of extras, including a jovial commentary by Tim Sullivan, Douglas McKeown, actor Charles Hildebrandt, John Dods and executive producer Tim Hildebrandt where the group remembers fondly (and with surprising detail) their experiences on the film. The second commentary by producer/writer Ted A. Bohus is a bit more sedate, but goes into detail about some of the flubs and production problems that occurred during (and after) the making of the film. Both are worthwhile, and provide necessary insight into low-budget film making.

The disc also includes a theatrical trailer, a wonderful collection of photos, a fun comic book prologue, an alternate opening to the film, audition footage, and a terrifically goofy visit with John Dods. After experiencing everything it has to offer, it's hard not to gain a new appreciation for the passion that the creators brought to the table. This is as complete a package as a fan could ever hope for.

A surprisingly nasty nostalgic horror film gets a reverential and insightful treatment. Worthwhile for fans of 80s horror, and particularly throwback monster films like The Thing, Tremors, Slither and The Blob.

Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha (1999)

There have been dozens of Japanese Yakuza films released over the years and, frankly, the central story in Takashi Miike's Dead Or Alive isn't giving the educated viewer anything they haven't seen numerous times before. A gang leader (Riki Takeuchi) clashing with a reluctantly corrupt cop (Sho Aikawa), while both weave in and out through confrontations with the criminal element could describe any number of films. However, the pedestrian plot is turned on it's ear because of the director's bizarre sensibilities.

Any review of this film is required to mention the ten minute segments that bookend the story. Needless to say, this film packs more insanity in it's opening than most do in their entire running times. The rapid montage/music video that kicks things off is a mind-bender, full of sex and violence, and setting the tone for what is to come. It's loud, confusing, bloody, and literally starts like a punk rock song, with the two leads counting off "One two three four".

The film that follows might take some viewers by surprise as it's a very deliberately paced cop/criminal tale in the vein of Takeshi Kitano's films. However, it shouldn't surprise anyone that there are flashes of Miike's trademark madness, particularly in a scene where Jojima (Aikawa) meets up with a contact who is desperately trying to keep a dog under control (and aroused) while filming a bestiality video. There's also a revolting scene that involves a kiddie pool that is best not described.

However, it's the final ten minutes that will stick with most viewers. Curious folks can check it out on youtube, but I recommend (as Miike does in the extras) watching the film as a whole since the rules (and all logic) are thrown out the window as the two icons finally have their confrontation.

The DVD from Kino video is presented in it's original 1.85:1 ratio, but the image quality leaves a lot to be desired. Dark scenes lose a lot of detail, though the source materials may simply reflect the film's low budget. The extras are certainly a nice surprise and include a too-short interview with the director, trailers for Dead Or Alive, and a selection of trailers for various other Kino releases.

This isn't Miike's masterwork, but as an early example of him using his kinetic style to overcome a fairly pedestrian story it's essential. You might feel compelled to reach for the fast-forward button in the middle section, but stick with it. The ending defeinitely rewards a patient viewer.

Hanzo The Razor - Who's Got the Gold? (1974)

The third (and final) film in the Hanzo The Razor series is interesting in just how formulaic it is. Similar to the Zatoichi films, certain elements of the Hanzo series repeat themselves in each film; Devil Fire & Viper being admonished by Hanzo and threatened to be returned to prison, a corrupt government official, Hanzo torturing himself, Hanzo having sex with a woman who later becomes infatuated with him, Hanzo's gadget-filled house, Magohei 'Snake' Ohnishi (Hanzo's superior officer) being embarrassed consistently by Hanzo's disrespect. At this point, the series had begun to resemble a television series with exploitative elements.

And, in fact, this is the easiest to tolerate of the three films in terms of content. Admittedly, the fight scenes are still bloody and brutal, but the regular penis torture and rape scene are gotten out of the way before the title card, and one of the central themes is the inability of Japan to cope with the industrialism (and, particularly, weaponry) of the west. It certainly doesn't delve very deep into what could be a very interesting topic, but the attempt is at least admirable.

However, it also has some of the strangest elements in the series. The film begins with Hanzo's two servants fishing along a riverbank, before being frightened by the appearance of a female ghost. Hanzo's reaction?

"I want to make love to a ghost once."

Oh, that wacky Hanzo! The ghost ends up being a fake, and a way to scare people away from discovering the theft of gold from the treasury, the beginning of (once again) massive corruption from the elders in the village.

The plot meanders a bit, and certain plot elements don't seem to lead anywhere. It's also the shortest film at the series, not even reaching 90 minutes. Still, some novelty still remains at the bloodshed on display, and Hanzo remains an interesting, if reprehensible, character.

It's the exchanges between Hanzo and "Snake" Magobei that really work for me, however. Kô Nishimura steals all of his scenes as he suffers a complete meltdown every time Hanzo refuses to obey an order or show respect to a political figure. The humor here is a lot more effective than the broad slapstick shown in scenes with Hanzo's servants.

The DVD once again features the original 2.40:1 aspect ratio with a beautiful print. There are a few translation issues as always, but the subtitles are easy to understand. Trailers for the three Hanzo films are the only special features.

I would consider this the least of the three Hanzo films, with The Snare being the most entertaining and well structured of the series.

Mildly recommended for fans of sleaze, Samurai films or Shintaro Katsu. Everyone else should show caution. That last picture really says it all.

Hanzo The Razor - The Snare (1973)

The second entry in the Hanzo The Razor series follows the pattern of the first film quite closely. Samurai cop (played by the amazing Shinatro Katsu) is a dick to all authority figures, rapes his female suspects into submission, and then shows himself to be the biggest bad-ass in feudal Japan. The Snare decides to dig deeper into exploitive elements as Hanzo takes on an underground abortion clinic, female slavery (and BDSM) ring, and a gang of murdering thieves.

Oh, and he's once again pouring hot water on his penis, beating it with a rod, and making sweet love to a bag of rice to prepare himself for his "interrogations".

The Snare is superior to Sword Of Justice in that it spends less time setting up Hanzo as a supercop, and more time on him killing Ronins and yelling at his superiors (particularly Magobei Onishi, who steals his scenes as Hanzo's impossibly corrupt superior officer who is constantly flaking out about his attitude).

Still, despite the entertaining plot and high production values, it's still difficult to get over Hanzo's torture methods, and the rather sickening way that the women bend to his every whim after being sexually dominated by him. It's certainly reflective of the time it was made, and certainly a response to the sexist attitudes prevalent from James Bond to Dirty Harry, but the sexual elements of this film certainly trump the original.

For those who can look past the sexual exploitation (which, I admit, can be difficult to do), there's still a lot to enjoy here. Katsu's ornery performance is a true 180 from his famous Zatoichi role, and the swordplay on display is well choreographed and appropriately bloody. Hanzo's booby trapped house is a highlight of the films, as spears and arrows embed themselves in would-be trespassers.

I'll admit I went into this series expecting something a little closer to the Lone Wolf and Cub films, which despite the high production values and source material share few similarities in content. However, it is a very strong example of Japanese exploitation with elements of the Pink Film style that was still popular in Japanese cinema at the time.

The DVD features the original 2.40:1 aspect ratio and the print is nearly flawless. Subtitles are, with a couple of exceptions, clear and well translated. Once again, the only features on the disc are trailers for the three Hanzo films.

Recommended for fans of Japanese exploitation.

Hanzo The Razor - Sword Of Justice (1972)

Samurai cinema of the 1970s took an odd twist, as it left behind the epic sweep of Kurosawa and instead embraced the trappings of American exploitation films to create comic book hybrids. This is best exhibited in the six-part Lone Wolf & Cub series of films which decorate a traditional lone-Samurai tale with geysers of blood and smatterings of sex.

Based on the manga by Kazuo Koike, those films were produced by Shintaro Katsu, best known for starring in the twenty six Zatoichi films (and TV series). In fact, it was Katsu's brother Tomisaburo Wakayama who starred in the Lone Wolf & Cub series of films.

Also by Koike was the manga Hanzo The Razor, and Katsu went on to star in three films based on the property.

The strongest influence on the style and attitude of the Hanzo films are rogue cop films like Dirty Harry and Shaft, though Hanzo has an interesting.. um.. twist. Early in the film, we witness Hanzo pouring hot water on his member before beating it with a rod, and then proceeding to.. have sex with a sack of rice. In fact, Hanzo is really into torturing himself so he can understand the pain of those he interrogates, but has discovered that the best results come instead from intense pleasure. You may see where this is going.

Yes. Hanzo coerces information out of his (female) prisoners by having sex with them, often aided by his fancy sex net that he hangs over his prone body while he spins the victim onto himself. After going through this, the women find Hanzo to be irresistible and always help him in his plans.

Absolutely mindboggling lack of morality aside, Sword Of Justice is a very well made film. Using the comic book violence of Lone Wolf & Cub, along with James Bond-like gadgets (Hanzo's house is filled with traps to stop intruders) pays off, and the funky soundtrack works despite the feudal Japan setting. Katsu is a charismatic performer, though it's quite the shock to see him as a rapist anti-hero after seeing the good natured masseuse of the Zatoichi films.

The plot is quite straight forward, and resolves itself rather early as this is a showcase for the star. People speak of him (and his penis) in hushed tones throughout.

The DVD contains only the trailers for three films as extra features, though attention must be paid to the astounding image quality on this disc. Despite damage to the source materials (which is exhibited before the film starts), the actual print is sharp and colorful, with subtitles clear and easy to read.

Certainly not as vital as the Lone Wolf & Cub films, and closer in the vein of Lady Snowblood (also based on a Koike manga and produced by Katsu's production company), but an entertaining film if you can get over Hanzo's virility.

Worth seeing. If only to laugh in disbelief.

Adam West's Tales From Beyond (2004)

So. Adam West's Tales From Beyond. Or, more accurately, just Tales From Beyond. I suppose something should have seemed amiss by the very fact that they are using the fame of Adam (fucking) West as their main selling point. I mean.. i've seen Zombie Nightmare. I know what the man brings to the table. It's not pretty.

And, in all reality Adam West (from now on referred to only as Batman) is only in the film for the wraparound segments, as a creepy bookseller in the cleanest "spooky" bookstore ever. Wraparound segments in anthology horror films are almost always total shit, since they have to come up with some sort of introduction to each segment and then end with some sort of awful twist. Just like this one! Though, I did enjoy the wraparound in that Tales From The Darkside movie. Or maybe I didn't. Anyway, I think Christian Slater is in that movie.

Not this one, though.

So, Batman is a creepy old guy and he introduces a young couple who are shopping for a rare book for a friend. And each book is a TALE from BEYOND.

The first is about.. something. Basically a guy and his wife are having issues, and she might need therapy. Or, maybe she doesn't. And, the guy is having weird sub-sub-David Lynch dreams of creepy stuff, including seeing a sign marked "Abernathy" on the door.

But, it turns out that the GUY is crazy! And Abarnathy is an insane asylum. Wow. This segment felt like there were three scenes missing that would have made any of it make sense. Not interesting, and not scary, and the lead actor can only speak in monotone (and this isn't his last appearance in this thing).

The second segment is much more traditionally Twilight Zone-ish. A watch salesman (foreshadowing!) stops into a diner where people from different time periods in history all meet to chat about.. bullshit. He gets upset that they aren't sharing information that could prevent suffering, and eventually freaks out and runs out of the diner. But, the twist is that.. um.. he's in the middle of the desert. And there's a broken clock on the ground. And the diner isn't actually there. There ARE lots of tire tracks on the ground, though, so I guess he can't be that far from civilization.

The third segment is like that Adam Sandler movie Click, except even worse. Some random guy has a magic remote that can fast forward or rewind the.. uh.. universe. He finds out about his own death on the evening news, and then goes to where his body was found with a friend of his to stop the murder from taking place. Sure, that's a good idea.

The twist is that.. he ends up running into himself and dies somehow. The friend destroys the magic remote and gets him out of there, but main dude calls his friend up a week later saying that he has a magic remote that controls the universe. And history repeats, or it doesn't. The segment ends there.

I should mention that whenever we go back to the couple at the bookstore, they are responding as if what they are reading is the greatest thing ever scratched onto paper. It's all rather sickening.

The fourth (and final) segment is a period piece focusing on a boxer, but notable mostly for having one of the worst Irish accents i've ever heard. It's basically The Karate Kid except Mr. Miyagi is the ghost of the young boxer's father. And, yes, that's the twist. This segment has more than two locations, which is all I can say for it.

It ends with Batman trapping the couple in a couple of the books he's selling. That creepy guy was evil all along!

All of the segments are competently directed, though as bland as unsalted butter. Everything feels very DV, and if someone told me this was originally a porno film with all the sex (and anything else interesting) cut out I wouldn't be too surprised. The acting is pitiful (and performed mostly by the four directors), and the Special FX is mostly non-existent.

The DVD has trailers and scene selection. Trailer you say?

Batman couldn't save this film.