Thursday, March 26, 2020

CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

“What I’d like to know is, what this is all about, this contagious cannibalism or whatever you call it?!” asks one of the many confused characters in “Anthony M. Dawson” / Antonio Margheriti’s CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980), an entertaining—albeit harebrained!—hybridization of Vietnam-themed war pictures and Italian cannibal gut-crunchers. Notwithstanding the film’s heavily-marketed horror tropes and extravagant bits of über-violence, Margheriti’s film is, first-and-foremost, a briskly-paced action flick, one that doesn’t even attempt to inject any real pertinent ‘social commentary’ on the lingering aftereffects of the war. In what might possibly have been lost in the transition from script to screen, the film even brushes-off the epidemic of cannibalism as the fault of some virulent strain of rabies, in-part caused by a (quote) “biological mutation due to a psychic alteration” (!?!?), which is about as vague and unconvincing an explanation as you can get. Nevertheless, Margheriti understands his target audience and provides them (i.e., us!) with plenty of no-frills action and memorably over-the-top violenza. So, in that respect, at least, it succeeds admirably.

Noteworthy for its oft-censored splatter scenes—executed with panache and pizzazz by Italo gore guru Gianetto De Rossi—CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE first became available in the U.S. and Canada via Vestron Video’s bowdlerized 1984 Beta / VHS videocassettes as INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS (“There are some things worse than death…”), which is just one of the film’s many alternate titles. Prior to Image Entertainment’s uncut, extras-laden 2002 DVD edition (as part of their pioneering Euroshock Collection), the best—and possibly only—way to appreciate the film during those days of analog antiquity was through Pack-In Video’s uncut Japanese VHS tape. But thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ substantial licensing deal with Studio Canal, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE finally gets a truly superb HD upgrade, and comes with a whole gutful of worthy extras to boot.    

Capt. Norman Hopper (John Saxon) is a decorated ’Nam vet who—no thanks to being left severely shell-shocked from combat duty (a condition that would nowadays be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD)—is suffering from a number of all-too-real nightmares, all of which involve Charlie Bukowski (“John Morghen” / Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and Tommy Thompson (Tony King), a pair of soldiers from his former unit who, after being cruelly starved whilst kept in captivity as POWs of the ’Cong, were forced to resort to cannibalism for sustenance. Presently about to get his first leave out of the (quote) “booby hatch”, Bukowski attempts to reconnect with his former captain, but Hopper is reluctant to meet him, as he too is beginning to feel the same inexplicable cannibalistic urges his former comrades-at-arms had experienced during the war; a fact which becomes readily apparent during one of the film’s more uncomfortable scenes, when his pubescent next door neighbours’ daughter Mary (“Cindy Hamilton” / Cinzia De Carolis) comes to visit him. Of course, Bukowski’s compulsion for human flesh inevitably gets the better of him when he takes a bite out of a girl at a movie theatre. This inappropriate ‘snack-attack’ not only causes the expected panic, but leads into a lengthy stand-off with the fuzz when he holes-up at a local flea market. At the behest of cantankerous Captain McCoy (Wallace Wilkinson), who is full of memorably tacky one-liners (e.g., “He’s gonna be singin’ through his asshole when I get through with him!”), Hopper tries to negotiate with Charlie. As he too succumbs to the ‘virus’, however, he eventually finds himself ‘reunited’ more than ever with his former unit, who cause further havoc for the local populace before escaping into the city sewers for a final bloody showdown… 

As with most Italian horror movies of the period, Margheriti and screenwriter “Jimmy Gould” / Dardano Sacchetti pinch ideas from a wide variety of filmic sources, including David Cronenberg’s far-more-apocalyptic RABID (1977) and George A. Romero’s hugely-influential DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). The grim fatalism of Richard Compton’s WELCOME HOME SOLDIER BOYS (1971) is also recalled, and, for the film’s typically-plagiaristic Italian marketing campaign, it was cheekily titled APOCALYPSE DOMANI (“Apocalypse Tomorrow”) in reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). Heavily reliant on its cast to inject any real substance into its half-baked scenario, the film’s headlining name, the ever-dependable John Saxon adds a great deal to the proceedings as the tormented Vietnam veteran trying to come to grips with his affliction. At the same time, the seasoned ‘tough guy’ actor delivers all the necessary machismo required by the part as well. In what also amounts to one of his stronger roles, fan favourite “John Morghen” goes way off the deep-end herein, allowing viewers to savour his always-entertaining oddball charisma, whereas Tony King (who went on to appear in Margheriti’s more faithful APOCALYPSE NOW rip-off THE LAST HUNTER [1980] alongside David Warbeck) provides plenty of abrasive shouting and grinning as the psychotic, shotgun-blasting Tommy. Also along for the ride is a newly-contaminated nurse (May Heatherly), a female cast inclusion which nicely completes the film’s obvious homage to DAWN OF THE DEAD

Shot in Atlanta, Georgia during the winter of 1980, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE tries its absolute darnedest to hide its Euro origins. Atypically for an Italian/Spanish co-production, much of it was shot using direct sound for all the film’s English-speaking actors, whereas a number of European bit players are either hiding behind anglicized pseudonyms or go completely uncredited. Far outweighing its apocalyptic ambitions, Margheriti nonetheless energizes things with a number of economic-but-enthusiastic action sequences, including the opening Vietnam-set skirmish and a rather intense, impressively-staged climax down in the sewers of Atlanta which also includes a bravura gory set-piece, which was extensively highlighted in much of the film’s promotional materials.

Here making its worldwide HD debut, CA comes to Blu-ray in a (quote) “brand new 4K restoration”, which is pin-sharp and quite stunning (barring some of the conspicuously mismatching stock footage used during the opening credits). While much of the film does have a somewhat nondescript ‘TV’-style look to it, Spanish DP Fernando Arribas nevertheless manages to convey some notable atmosphere, that is especially evident in the finale’s catacomb-like sewer system, which almost makes it seem like one of Margheriti’s earlier Gothic horror entries. The DTS-HD 2.0 master audio track on the whole also sounds excellent, but keen listeners will notice an uptick in audio fidelity during many of the film’s direct sound recordings, whereas Alessandro Blonksteiner’s wholly unique score, which blends plenty of enthusiastic saxophone and ’Seventies-style pseudo-funk into a heady mix, plays well in juxtaposition with the schizophrenic storyline. 


For Kino’s new Blu-ray, author and film historian Tim Lucas provides a brand-new audio commentary, which is full of his usual detail and insight into many of the film’s personnel, production, locations (including rural Manziana, Italy, which doubled for Vietnam [!!!]), and many of its very loose connections to its filmic sources, including a missed opportunity to make a closer, more coherent variation of Coppola’s legendary ’Nam film. He also discusses how script-scribe Sacchetti became involved in the film and his excitement to (quote) “conflagrate” genres, and in the case of said film, brought everything together in a (quote) “timely collision of impressive influences”, including the surprise ending, which resembles a certain Mario Bava classic. Of course, he also discusses Margheriti’s career at length and how well-liked he was by everyone involved.  It’s yet another excellent, well-researched commentary that not only comes highly-recommended, but is actually the highlight of Kino’s new Blu-ray. In Cannibal King (10m01s), the disc’s other newly-produced extra, actor Tony King discusses his career with an equal amount of nostalgia and delight at the opportunities that were presented to him from the very beginning via a small walk-on role in Jerry Schatzberg’s THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971), and his eventual migration to Rome later in the decade.  

For those of you of who own Image’s long-out-of-print Image DVD, there’s no need to fret, as Kino have thoughtfully included all of that disc’s extra features as well. For the record, these include the retrospective documentary Cannibal Apocalypse Redux (54m11s), featuring interviews with Margheriti, Saxon and Radice; a brief tour of the film’s Atlanta locations (6m40s), the alternate opening title sequence (taken from Vestron’s old VHS tape); the lively theatrical trailer (sourced from Venezuelan VHS, which includes burnt-in Spanish subtitles as SOBREVIVIENTES DEL APOCALYPSIS / “Survivors of the Apocalypse”), and a very cool Japanese teaser trailer. The disc also includes trailers for some of Kino’s other available horror films as well as reversible artwork, which also features some of CA’s rather deceptive, zombie-like artwork. Order it from DiabolikDVD or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

DANGEROUS CARGO - BLU-RAY REVIEW

A real obscurity even for the likes of a specialist label such as Mondo Macabro, Kostas Karagiannis’ sleazy little potboiler, DANGEROUS CARGO (1977)—for those who might have seen it prior to MM’s Blu-ray— is best-remembered for the creative casting of former Miss America (and at that time, aspiring actress) Deborah “Debbie” Shelton. Long before she became more widely-known for her role opposite Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing’s girlfriend Mandy Winger on the long-running TV series DALLAS (1978 – 1991), Shelton appeared in a trio of largely-forgotten Greek films from the mid-’Seventies, of which the nautical-themed DANGEROUS CARGO is, fittingly enough, the high watermark. Hitting all the right notes, director Karagiannis maintains great economy for this fast-paced—and exceedingly skeevy!—sexploitation opus, but it’s Shelton’s daring, no-holds-barred performance that really sets it apart from other like-minded films. 

Milto (Nikos Verkalis) is the new skipper of a cargo ship about to set sail for the Far East, but when his bosun is found murdered during a routine stopover in the U.S., Milto is assigned a new officer (Kostas Karagiorgis) who is pulling double-duty for a shady—and apparently very powerful—businessman (played by the film’s U.S./Greek producer James Paris, who surreptitiously ‘directs’ many of the film’s unexpected twists and turns). Unbeknownst to the captain, the ship’s cargo is illegally transporting a vast amount of weapons and nitroglycerin (hilariously emblazoned with a hand-drawn skull-and-crossbones logo!) bound for some sort of terrorist organization plotting to snuff-out some middle eastern oil wells. Amidst all this subterfuge, the captain has foolhardily brought along his wife (Shelton)—who is the sole woman aboard the ship, natch—and as it turns out, she also ‘just happens’ to be the former girlfriend of the vessel’s first mate, Avgeri (Giorgos Hristodoulou), who is likewise complicit in all the crew’s peddling of black market goods and knows full well that (quote) “death is hanging over their heads!”

Tensions run high throughout the picture (“Nitroglycerin is no joke!”) with its pulpy, film-noir inspired storyline, and in spite of the exceedingly low-budget (the single firearm smuggled onto the ship’s deck is obviously only a kids’ toy!), it zips briskly along even as it takes frequent pause to deliver a number of lengthy sex scenes around every ten minutes or so. Outside of a few establishing shots and some brief flashback sequences, the entire films takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the cargo ship, close quarters that further aggravates the mounting hostility of everyone onboard, resulting in the expected in-fighting. Miss Shelton is not only highly attractive, but she acquits herself supremely well while holding her own against a whole tubful of sex-starved males eager to get their grimy hands on her. Karagiorgis oozes all the necessary sleaze and venom as the film’s two-faced primary villain, who forces Debbie to become his plaything because he likes (quote) “Cats that scratch!” But she proves to be far more cunning when she sneakily manipulates the situation to her advantage, proving she may very well be the ‘dangerous cargo’ of the film’s title.

Never theatrically released outside of Greece, DANGEROUS CARGO comes to Blu-ray in a fine-looking transfer taken directly from the original negative, which retains the film’s original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and despite a preceding disclaimer about how the picture quality falls below MM’s usual standards, it all looks quite impressive given the film’s obvious obscurity; there is really nothing to complain about here at all. The Greek Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio also sounds sufficient enough, boasting clearly-audible dialogue and with Giorgos Theodosiadis’ easy-listening, lounge score sounding just fine. Optional English subtitles are also provided, of course. Extras are limited to MM’s always-fun promotional reel (11m10s), but the Limited Edition ‘Red Case’ (sadly, now out-of-print) also includes ‘Debbie’s Greek Adventure’, a 12-page booklet with writing from Pete Tombs, who not only details the film’s rather confusing history, but discusses many of the personnel involved, including Miss Shelton’s brief, but entirely memorable, sojourn into Greek exploitation cinema. Order the standard retail edition directly from Mondo Macabro or from DiabolikDVD.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

HIGH-BALLIN' - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Choice voiceover (by star Jerry Reed) from A.I.P.’s easygoing trailer: “Shift over to the fast-lane, brothers and sisters, and see this story of two throttle-jockeys who get into it up to their eyeballs, in HIGH-BALLIN’!”

Although produced hot on the heels of Hal Needham’s commercial super-smash SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) and co-starring Jerry Reed as yet another amiable hard-rollin’ truck driver, Peter Carter’s Canadian-lensed HIGH-BALLIN’ (1977) actually has more in common with Jonathan Kaplan’s WHITE LINE FEVER (1975), an earlier, pre-SMOKEY pedal-to-da-metal trucker flick starring Jan-Michael Vincent, which, like HIGH-BALLIN’, likewise played with the classical mythology of American westerns, albeit replacing horseflesh with big rigs. Co-produced by American International Pictures (AIP) at the tail-end of their rich cinematic history, this consistently-entertaining film has languished far too long in the video graveyard, so kudos to Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics imprint for giving it a brand-new HD overhaul.

In their bid to take control of every trucker in the area, King Caroll (Chris Wiggins) owner of the all-powerful trucking cartel King Caroll’s Cargo, orchestrates a series of rig hijackings to coerce and intimidate all the local drivers into joining his ever-expanding monopoly. One of the last remaining ‘independents’, “Iron” Duke Boykin (Jerry Reed), is at first propositioned far more cordially when he’s offered (quote) “good buck and security”, but when he and his long-time friend Rane (Peter Fonda), a drifter and former trucker himself, refuse to join, they become the targets of an attempted hijack during a routine transport job, which not only results in some impressive vehicular mayhem, but enrages King Caroll and his silent, even-more-unscrupulous partner Harvey (David Ferry) no end.

Much like George Stevens’ iconic western SHANE (1953), Peter Carter’s film also incorporates many of that film’s plot structure and themes while still maintaining plenty of gear-jammin’ trucker action and CB radio jargon. Essentially reprising Alan Ladd’s role as Shane (here renamed the soundalike “Rane”), Peter Fonda acquits himself well as the enigmatic drifter (it’s also alluded that he was a stuntman) who is first introduced riding into town on a motorcycle. Just like in any western, he promptly visits Duke at the local truck-stop greasy spoon (i.e., saloon) wherein he gets hassled by local shitkickers about his leather biker boots (“I’ve never seen anybody but fags wear boots like that!”). Rane quickly proves his mettle against the rowdies with a handy pair of tire-irons, however. Stubbornly holding-out as long as he can as an independent despite his colleagues being picked-off by King Caroll’s men like (quote) “flies”, Reed just about steals the show right out from under Fonda’s fancy boot-wearing feet in his reinterpretation of Van Heflin’s role as the put-upon rancher from the aforementioned Stevens film; in yet another similarity, even Duke’s son (Christopher Langevin), who is aptly nicknamed “Tanker” here, also has plenty of admiration for Rane (“I bet you go everywhere! I bet you’ve seen the whole world!”) just like little Joey (Brandon DeWilde) had been in complete awe of Alan Ladd’s iconic Shane characterIn an early role for Canadian actor David Ferry, he oozes all the appropriate slime from every pore as King Caroll’s ‘muscle’ and hired gun, and, fittingly enough, just like Jack Palance’s merciless gunfighter in SHANE, is also dressed in black, which properly – if heavy-handedly – accentuates the film’s darker side. Also along for the ride is ‘Pickup’ (Helen Shaver), an oddly-sketched wannabe trucker / groupie named after her decked-out GMC pickup camper, which even comes complete with a modified truck exhaust system. On more than one occasion, she comes to the rescue of either Rane and/or Duke, and, befitting the alternate implications of her CB handle, Pickup is also referred to as the (quote) “mobile beaver”. 

Although ostensibly taking place in the United States (at one point Duke is seen wearing a jacket emblazoned with a U.S. Mail emblem, and at another he off-handedly mentions transporting a shipment to Green Bay, Minnesota), the film’s Canadian origins are highly apparent here: including numerous lingering shots of Ontario license plates and views of Toronto’s most-famous landmark, the CN Tower, from the now-long-gone and since-heavily-redeveloped TO waterfront; further establishing the film’s Cancon (“Canadian content”), Canuck actors Harvey Atkin and Les Carlson also appear, as does a pre-fame Michael Ironside in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him bit part. Despite being nicely shot by prolific French-Canadian DP René Verzier, who had also honed his camera chops on such Canadian classics as David Cronenberg’s RABID (1977) and Peter Carter’s extraordinary RITUALS (1977), to name just a few, HIGH-BALLIN’ isn’t the prettiest film to look at, but Verzier’s cinematography really captures our bitterly cold and wet Ontario winters perfectly with its barren trees and slushy, snow-covered roads; you can just about feel the chill deep in your bones! 

Difficult to see for many years outside of its 1983 Vestron Video Beta / VHS videocassette release, HIGH-BALLIN’ easily rates a “big 10-4” on Kino’s new Blu-ray, which was taken from a (quote) “brand new 2K master” and far eclipses any version seen before it. Everything is far sharper and much better-balanced, with excellent detail throughout, even during many of the film’s darker scenes, which had been especially problematic on Vestron’s murky old VHS tape. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 also sounds clean and well-captured, especially during all of the film’s obligatory CB chatter, which includes all sorts of colourful handles (e.g., “Bruiser Cruiser” and “Spud Rancher”). Extras are limited to the film’s aforementioned theatrical trailer (2m56s), some radio spots (1m30s) plus trailers for some of Kino’s other titles, which feature either Peter Fonda, Jerry Reed, Helen Shaver or more 18-wheelers. Dare I say… “Keep on truckin’!

While it may lack the driving dynamism of WHITE LINE FEVER or SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, it’s all handled convincingly enough and never fails to entertain, plus it also features one of Jerry Reed’s funkiest, foot-stomping C&W theme songs. Recommended! Order it from DiabolikDVD.

Friday, February 14, 2020

ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

In what is easily one of the most misleadingly-marketed films in exploitation movie history, John N. Carter’s ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE (1983) conjures up all sorts of potentially exhilarating horror highlights in one’s mind, but for all of Troma’s colourful, tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, which promises such delights (!) as “Toe-Tapping Machete Head-Dances!” and “Glamourous Zombie-Style Cosmetic Surgery!” this rather insignificant and decidedly threadbare contribution to the ’Eighties horror craze never even comes close to living-up to its great title and equally-memorable poster art. In their attempt to bring a modicum of respect to the film’s lowly stature, Vinegar Syndrome have honoured it with a brand-new 2K transfer, which, at the very least, looks absolutely terrific on their new Blu-ray/DVD combo.  

Sandy (Rita Jenrette) and Joe (Ian McMillian), a young couple vacationing in the Caribbean, gather together with a number of other sightseers, including (quote) “ace photographer” Paul Morrison (David Broadnax, who was also one of the films’ co-writers), for a tour of the (quote) “fascinating island of San Marie.” Right upon their arrival, they witness a voodoo ritual where a moldy old corpse is revived with the help of an animal sacrifice (which, by the way, is the only time the film ever comes close to living up to its title). Although they quickly dismiss what they have seen as just an act, panic begins to set in among the group when a young newlywed couple and the tour’s bus driver go missing. In hopes of reaching a nearby house, the remaining tourists flee into the surrounding jungle, where they are picked-off one-by-one... 

Mildly diverting entertainment at best, ZIM is, if anything else, more akin to a modest, derivative slasher film, which even includes a gory beheading, an all-too-familiar Harry Manfredini score and a completely facile, head-scratching twist ending that makes you forget you’re even watching something titled ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE. Providing the film with the requisite amount of topless nudity, Jenrette, already familiar to most audience members at the time as the former wife of scandalized U.S. Congressman John Jenrette (he was indicted on a number of bribery charges in the highly-publicized Abscam sting) and as a two-time Playboy model, Jenrette’s big-screen debut barely registers among all the disappearing bodies and assumed identities. Generally uneventful, ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE is nothing more than a messily-scripted minor diversion which offers a few quick bursts of mindless violence, some nice location cinematography, but not much else. 

Continuing their ongoing exploration of the Troma vaults, VS’s Blu-ray/DVD combo features yet another first-class transfer, which not only restores ZIM’s proper 1.85:1 framing, but much of the film’s pictorial detail (including the colourful jungle foliage) that was previously obscured on Media Home Entertainment’s 1988 Beta / VHS videocassettes, and even on Troma’s own abysmal-quality DVD edition. While it’s far from an earth-shattering sound mix, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is also clean and crisp and perfectly accentuates the surrounding jungle locale. Unlike most of VS’s catalogue, extras this time around are limited to the film’s spirited theatrical trailer (2m40s, “Welcome to beautiful zombie island!”), a pair of TV spots (58s) and an enjoyable “Sizzle Reel” (13m51s) that was used to pitch the film to prospective buyers, and whose audio temp track includes most of Manfredini’s famous FRIDAY THE 13th cues. In what has now become customary, VS also offers reversible cover art, and for those that order directly from them, it also includes a spiffy Limited Edition slipcover designed by Earl Kessler, Jr. Order it from Vinegar Syndrome here.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Following his ambitious, languorously-paced and much-beloved zombie epic THE BEYOND (1981), director Lucio Fulci explored further Gothic horror trappings with his next effort, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981), which features a somewhat-more-comprehensible, straight-ahead narrative that simultaneously reemphasizes his interest in the supernatural; all in typically gory fashion, of course. In a stylish, meticulously-shot opening, the film’s mysterious, decrepit atmosphere is well-established when a young couple who, after making love, are viciously slaughtered by an off-screen assailant at the titular house. However, in what at first seemingly promises to be a typical slasher film (i.e., “teenagers murdered after having sex”), THBTC quickly—thankfully enough—becomes something altogether quite different.

In the hopes of continuing Dr. Peterson’s research on suicide, a former colleague who had committed suicide himself after first murdering his mistress, Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco), his wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl, here billed as Katherine MacColl) and their babyish son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) move from New York City to the fictional town of New Whitby, Boston. “Why does that girl keep telling me I shouldn’t go there?” is the warning given to Bob by Mae (Silvia Collatina), a little red-haired girl seen only by Bob. Not heeding her ominous warnings, Bob’s parents take up residence at the newly-christened Oak Mansion, which is better-known to the locals as (quote) “That Freudstein house!” As Norman’s ongoing research begins taking up more and more of his time, he becomes increasingly suspicious of the house itself, as well as its enigmatic former resident Dr. Freudstein (Giovanni De Nava), a 19th Century doctor whose experiments in cell regeneration evidently worked all-too-well…

In spite of THBTC’s fairly straightforward plot—which contains nods to both Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1978) and, to a lesser degree, Stuart Rosenberg’s THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979)—Fulci and prolific scriptwriter Dardano Sacchetti add a number of interesting ideas into the picture, the most significant of which revolves around Bob and Mae’s ambiguous relationship (apparently inspired by Henry James’ 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw). Like little Danny Torrence (Danny Lloyd) in THE SHINING, the kids are also more accepting of the unexplainable (“Parents neverlisten! They always do what they want!” remarks Bob with some anger), whereas—at the outset, anyway—the supposed grownups seem rather stupidly indifferent to everything going on around them. 

As with Fulci’s other horror films of the period, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is predictably gruesome, steeped-in melancholic morbidity and decay, a bleak atmosphere that is effectively conveyed by the title residence itself… which even comes complete with its own mausoleum. Every home should have one, don’t ya know! (Sinister foreshadowing alert…) A once-beautiful New England house, Oak Mansion has since fallen victim to the ravages of time with its dusty rooms, rotten wood and moldy walls, and, in spite of the seasonal weather outside, sinisterly-gnarled, barren trees and the forgotten cemetery surrounding it only add to the morbid, lifeless aura that veils the place like a funeral shroud. Although he rations-out his trademark gruesome carnage more frugally herein, viscerally speaking THBTC does contain some of the strongest scenes in Fulci’s entire oeuvre, including the claustrophobic, doom-laden final act with Dr. Freudstein himself: a decaying, marauding ghoul whose anguished, childlike cries provide an ironic counterpoint to his corpse-strewn basement ‘laboratory’. Despite his ghastly appearance and forlorn demeanour, the ‘good’ doctor’s need for human flesh is uncompromising and unstoppable; he is the perfect Fulci monster. 

THBTC has been readily available since the early days of home video, and Vestron Video’s 1984 Beta / VHS videocassettes contained Almi Pictures’ reworked U.S. theatrical version, which retained all the nasty gore but whose aspect ratio was heavily cropped, thus making a mockery of Sergio Salvati’s carefully-composed camerawork. It wasn’t until Daiei Video’s Japanese VHS and simultaneous LaserDisc release (incorrectly-labeled “THE HOUSE OUTSIDE CEMETERY”) that viewers were finally given a chance to see the original properly-formatted version. Anchor Bay eventually debuted this same version on North American DVD in 2001, in an edition which came as a real godsend for fans of the film. Since that time, THBTC has reappeared in countless releases around the world, including a couple of elaborate Blu-ray editions courtesy of Blue Underground and Arrow Video in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

In their ongoing dedication to remaster many of their key catalogue titles (including a number of Fulci’s, such as ZOMBIE [1979], THE NEW YORK RIPPER [1982] and MANHATTAN BABY [1982]), Blue Underground have truly gone above and beyond with their latest 4K restoration of this Italian horror classic. Spread out over two Blu-rays, BU’s new transfer was sourced from the film’s original camera negative, and it looks nothing short of spectacular. It’s colourful and extremely detailed; in fact, just about perfect in every way! The DTS-HD Master Audio also offers a choice of three options, including a nicely-balanced 5.1 track and 1.0 mono tracks in both English and Italian, all of which are clearly-rendered and sound excellent. Incidentally, the Italian track (that was also included on BU’s previous Blu) is likewise noticeably different, removing some of the clunkier dialogue to give the film an even classier and more atmospheric tone. Unfortunately, the English subtitles provided are notdirect translations of the Italian dialogue, but, given the many other positives, this is a minor quibble at best. French, Spanish and SDH subtitles are also included. 

The major extra included on disc one is a brand-new audio commentary from Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015) author Troy Howarth wherein, as per usual, he covers a vast amount of detail about the film itself and many of the personnel involved during this very fruitful period of Fulci’s career. In the wake of Roberto Curti’s essential book Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1980-1989, (McFarland & Company, 2019), and in what is perhaps the most fascinating aspect, he discusses many of the differences between the finished film and Sacchetti’s original—and vastly reworked—script, which is an interesting look into the creative process between Fulci and his frequent collaborator Sacchetti. Other topics discussed include Paolo Malco’s initial rather, uh ‘strained’ rapport with the feisty director, the (quote) “aesthetic unity of the crew” on this and Fulci’s other films of the period (with a particular emphasis on Salvati’s use of lighting and camerawork), as well as providing background on about every actor in the film, including many of the English-dubbing voice talent, whom Howarth praises as the (quote) “unknown soldiers of European Cult Cinema”, plus much, much more. As always, it makes for yet another engrossing, well-researched listen. Additional extras on disc one include the deleted ‘bat attack aftermath’ (which originally appeared on AB’s 2001 DVD as an Easter Egg), THBTC’s English-language export trailer (3m22s), its U.S. theatrical trailer (1m47s, “It was to be a getaway dream, but it’s becominga runaway nightmare!”) and a TV spot (30s), the latter two of which are narrated by the late, great Brother Theodore. Additionally, a pair of poster and still galleries (1m13s & 2m21s) are included, the second of which also appeared on AB’s earlier DVD.

The plethora of outstanding interview featurettes from BU’s prior BD (produced by Michael Felsher’s Red Shirt Pictures) are thankfully ported-over onto the second disc of this set, which for the record include Meet the Boyles (14m17s), with stars Malco and MacColl; Children of the Night (12m18s), with former juvenile players Frezza and Collatina, who now, the better part of 40 years on, are very much all-grown-up; Tales of Laura Gittleson (8m56s), with actress Dagmar Lassander; My Time with Terror (9m21s), with actor Carlo De Mejo; The Haunted House Story (14m07s), with Sacchetti, his wife and fellow collaborator Elisa Briganti; and To Build a Better Death Trap (21m32s), with Salvati, makeup effects artist Maurizio Trani, effects guru Gino De Rossi and actor De Nava. On top of this already extras-stacked set, BU have also included a trio of all-new extras, including House Quake (14m46s), containing an interview with co-writer Giorgio Mariuzzo, who professes that “Horror is something I make – not something that I watch!” and relates how he tended to focus more on plot and character personalities when collaborating on scripts with Sacchetti. Mariuzzo also shares some funny anecdotes in regards to Fulci, whom he believes had a sense of “emptiness” about him, which was typically reflected in his films. In a Q&A with the always-lively Catriona MacColl conducted at the Spaghetti Cinema Festival on May 10th, 2014 (29m37s), she discusses her time working on the trio of films she made with Fulci, some of the inherent challenges and her love/hate relationship with these seemingly undying films. Of course, no Fulci disc is complete without the inimitable contributions of Stephen Thrower, author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (FAB Press, 2018), who, in Calling Dr. Freudstein (19m34s), gives us another of his thorough examinations of the film. 

Licensed from Italy’s Beat Records, BU have also included Walter Rizzati’s and Alessandro Blonksteiner’s magnificent THBTC score as a separate soundtrack CD (31 tracks, 57m), as well as an 18-page liner notes booklet with writing from Michael Gingold and a slick-looking lenticular slipcover, all of which only further sweeten what is already an exhaustive and definitive presentation of this wonderful film. Order it from DiabolikDVD.   

Monday, January 27, 2020

STREET PEOPLE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

In an interview with Stacy Keach included on Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray disc, the film’s co-star describes Maurizio Lucidi’s STREET PEOPLE (1976) as (quote) “escapist entertainment”, which is most certainly an apt assessment of the film, whose main drawing card was—and still is—ex-Saint portrayer Roger Moore, who had, at that time, been enjoying newfound re-fame as the latest James Bond. Based on a story penned by no less than six writers, including Italian director Maurizio Lucidi and Randall Kleiser (future director of GREASE [1978] and THE BLUE LAGOON [1980]), the film also evokes interest thanks to co-screenwriter Ernest Tidyman, whose scripts for both William Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and Gordon Parks’ SHAFT (1971) really put him on the map as a bankable writer. Although STREET PEOPLE never reaches the heights of those two undisputed American classics, this predominantly-Italian production shot on location in and around the San Francisco bay area enjoyed a healthy presence on home video during the ’Eighties thanks to Vestron Video’s prolific VHS / Beta videocassettes, which, without fail, turned up in virtually every video rental outlet during that time.  

In what seems like an unlikely casting choice, Roger Moore stars as Ulysses, an English-educated Sicilian lawyer working for his uncle Don Salvatore “Sal” Francesco (Ivo Garrani), a powerful mob boss living in Frisco. In his attempt to do (quote) “something nice” for the workers of his fishing fleet, their padrone Don Francesco imports a massive, hand-carved wooden crucifix from his childhood church in Sicily. Welcomed into the U.S. by Bishop Francis “Frank” Lopetri (Ettore Manni), this seemingly altruistic tribute, unbeknownst to both Frank and Sal, proves to be an insidious Trojan horse when they discover that its hollow interior has been stuffed with over (quote) “one million dollars of dope” that has been secretly smuggled into the country by Luigi Nicoletta (Fausto Tozzi), Panos (Pietro Martellanza) and Fortunato (Romano Puppo). Frank is certain that Uncle Sal is responsible for this sacrilege against the Roman Catholic church, for which he has been appropriately vilified (“Filthy excuse of a man!”) and excommunicated, so, with the official blessing of the boss of bosses, Don Giuseppe Continenza (Ennio Balbo), the local criminal underworld attempt to clear his name (“I want the punk who pulled this on me!” remarks Sal). Of course, much like his secretive cinematic alter-ego (i.e., codename: 007), Moore as Ulysses also turns out to be working double-duty as the organization’s ‘man’ (hence the film’s original Italian shooting title, UOMO DEL’ORGANIZZAZIONE) and, with the help of his street-savvy racing car driver friend, Charlie (Stacy Keach), he is entrusted by Don Continenza to solve this betrayal...   

The film is generally well-made and well-acted, and both Anglo name-stars seem to be enjoying themselves throughout. Despite their woefully-underwritten roles, Moore’s and Keach’s onscreen camaraderie is undeniably palpable. While the former’s odd casting has raised plenty of contention, Moore actually fares pretty well, all things considered and, in a few scenes, he even gets to show off his upper crust British-accented Italian lingo. As Ulysses, Moore provides the film’s emotional core, as his character tries desperately to clear his uncle’s name, even if Frank does think otherwise, some of which is periodically portrayed in a Sergio Leone-styled wistful flashback, which also comes complete with a memorable Morricone-like score, courtesy of Luis Enríquez Bacalov. Here playing the hyper-animated, thrill-seeking Charlie, Stacy Keach’s hip performance as the self-styled go-getter is perhaps one of the film’s greatest assets. He plays the ideal counterpart to Moore’s suave-yet-determined counsellor, committing himself with all the proper assurance the part requires. Working on behalf of Ulysses, Charlie isn’t interested in family loyalties or potential mob feuds (“Screw the family! I’m in it for the money!”), and his reckless disposition serves Ulysses well as they try and get to the bottom of the mystery, even though it’s already been made clear who the ringleaders behind the dope smuggling really are.

In spite of the piecemeal storyline, the narrative is frequently enlivened by spurts of enthusiastic action, including a wholly-gratuitous smash-up when Charlie sees fit to test drive a souped-up Chevy Monte Carlo (“Hold on, baby! Daddy’s gonna take you on a cosmic ride!”) through the busy streets of San Francisco; later, during one of the film’s other action highpoints, Ulysses and Charlie are obliged to outmaneuver a pair of swerving tanker trucks in a lengthy, impressively-staged car (and truck!) chase. In keeping with the film’s Italo connections, a sizable portion also has Ulysses travel to Sicily in his initial attempts to expose the smugglers, a ‘working vacation’ which also sees him coming face-to-face with an Italian hitman (Salvatore Billa) and his customary lupara (a.k.a. ‘wolf-gun’ [a sawed-off shotgun traditionally used by Sicilian shepherds to keep wolves away from their flocks, but which could also serve, uh, anotherpurpose during feuds between local mafiosi!]).

Released in most overseas markets under its original English-language export title THE SICILIAN CROSS, this version ran approximately 10 minutes longer than American International Pictures’ U.S. release cut, which includes a slightly-extended opening credit sequence that establishes Sal and Frank’s ‘buddy-buddy’ dynamic, shows Ulysses fishing for information at a swanky stripclub (“Welcome to the palace of pain and pleasure!”) and also includes another extended scene with Salvatore and his girlfriend (Rosemarie Lindt), none of which add much to the finished film or make the rather threadbare story any more coherent. Outside of the U.S., this original cut was readily available on home video and, in 1987, it even secured a simultaneous VHS/Laserdisc release in Japan courtesy of Columbia Home Video.

Italian newspaper ad courtesy of Steve Fenton. La Stampa 05/76.
Although released on disc throughout most of Europe, STREET PEOPLE avoided DVD completely in North America and instead made its home video debut here via Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ 2019 Blu-ray. Containing the shorter 92-minute AIP cut, Kino’s disc touts a new 2K transfer, which not only features the film’s intended 1.85:1 framing, but looks suitably slick in 1080p, which brings out far greater detail during some of the more intricately-lit nighttime scenes in Sicily, as well as the interiors of various San Francisco strip-joints. The DTS-HD master audio 2.0 also sounds perfectly fine, giving prominence to the clamor of screeching tires, revving engines and smashing metal in all of the film’s elaborately-choreographed autobatic sequences. Kino’s disc also contains Stacy Keach – Back on the Streets (9m25s), the aforementioned interview in which the actor speaks enthusiastically about his experiences working on the film alongside his co-lead Moore, and despite the language barrier that existed on the set, he decribes Maurizio Lucidi as a (quote) “terrific director”. Keach also discusses the film’s infamous ‘test drive’ scene and how it was shot without any permits (!), also discussing how, during his time on Richard Fleischer’s THE NEW CENTURIONS (1973), he learned so much from ace stunt-driver Carey Loftin. The disc also includes trailers for some of Kino’s other Moore and Keach titles, including Basil Dearden’s THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF (1970), Peter Hunt’s GOLD (1974), Andrew V. McLaglen’s FOLKS (1980), Bryan Forbes’ THE NAKED FACE (1984) and Walter Hill’s THE LONG RIDERS (1980). Order it from DiabolikDVD.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

UNPOPPED CINEMA'S TOP 25 BEST DISCS OF 2019

Even though industry giant Samsung decided to halt the production of their 4K Blu-ray players in the U.S. earlier this year, this rather worrying bit of news hasn’t caused any number of dedicated independent Blu-ray companies to slow down even a little bit. Labels such as Arrow Video, Code Red, The Criterion Collection, Eureka Entertainment, Grindhouse Releasing, Kino Lorber, Mondo Macabro, Scorpion Releasing, Severin Films, Twilight Time and Vinegar Syndrome continue to supply home video connoisseurs with a seemingly endless array of lovingly-restored studio catalogue pictures, forgotten and/or previously-unreleased films, most of which are lavishly-packaged, and in many cases, instantly collectible.  In fact, 2019 has seen so much new stuff released that it’s nigh-on-impossible to even try keeping up with ’em all! It must be said, though, that, as much as I enjoy putting these lists together, this incredible—and seemingly ever-increasing—volume of output makes it increasingly difficult for me to compile a thorough list without leaving something out; which may confound, frustrate or even annoy some especially voracious film fans out there as they peruse and contemplate my selections. But that’s half the fun, isn’t it?! So without further ado, let’s take a look at the notable 2019 Blu-ray releases below (presented in the order of their respective release dates), which amount to a mere fraction of this year’s long list of highlights, all of which come highly recommended, of course.

MIKEY AND NICKY [1976] (Criterion Collection) – Despite the absence of director Elaine May in Criterion’s otherwise superb Blu-ray (she did, however, supervise the 4K transfer), this still remains a most welcome release of what is perhaps her best film. John Cassavetes stars as Nicky, a low-level hood who has become entangled in the theft of some money from a mob-controlled bank and, when he hears that his accomplice was recently killed, he calls on his friend Mikey (Peter Falk) to help him out. Meticulously-scripted, with astonishing performances from both Cassavetes and Falk, May’s film is both a gangster film and a comedy like no other. While not for everyone, if you can succumb to the film’s unique rhythm, you’re sure to be generously rewarded by this unheralded and criminally-underseen film, one which fully deserves to be part of the Criterion family.

ALL OF THE COLORS OF THE DARK [1972] (Severin Films) – Sergio Martino’s fascinating psychedelic giallo whodunit, starring the inimitable trifecta of Edwige Fenech, George Hilton and Ivan Rassimov, remains one of the pinnacles of the genre, and this wonderful release from Severin Films finally does the film proud. It features the best transfer to date, along with a number of worthwhile extras (including a thoroughly-researched audio commentary from Diabolique’s Kat Ellinger), but, in a thoughtful bit of comprehensiveness, Severin have also included both the film’s alternate U.S. release version of the film and Bruno Nicolai’s complete 29-track score as a standalone CD. And for you hardcore collectors out there, Severin’s Dual Slipcase Edition also includes Federico Caddeo’s feature-length documentary ALL THE COLORS OF GIALLO (2019), which is housed in a staggering, extras-filled 3-disc set that also includes Giallothon, a four-hour (!) giallo trailer compilation (with optional audio commentary by Kat Ellinger once again!) as well as Kriminal! an additional trailer compilation, this time devoted to German Krimi films (whose influence on the Italian thriller genre is undeniable). Finally, The Strange Sounds of Blood Stained Films is yet another soundtrack CD, this one featuring 20 cues from several famed composers, highlighting their work within the genre. Whichever edition you opt for, both are as prestigious as the film itself. Highly recommended!

THE POSSESSED [1965] (Arrow Video) – Much like his later and equally stunning gialli THE FIFTH CORD (1971) and the extraordinary FOOTPRINTS ON THE MOON (1975), Luigi Bazzoni’s directorial debut is another mesmerizing, beautifully-photographed effort, which looks totally picture-perfect on Arrow’s new disc. On the extras front, Tim Lucas provides another one of his comprehensive, must-listen audio commentaries, wherein he reveals everything from the film’s production to the real-life crimes that inspired it. The disc also includes a number of featurettes about the film itself, along with coverage of the talented and hugely-undervalued filmmaking brothers Luigi and Camillo Bazzoni. Read review.

SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT [1979] (Code Red) – Finally unearthed from the VHS graveyard, James L. Wilson’s ambitious regionally-produced horror anthology finally arrived on disc in grand style in an edition that not only featured a (quote) “brand new 2K scan of the original 16mm A/B roll camera negative”, but includes the never-before-seen 118m director’s cut as well! The results of this snazzy new transfer are quite spectacular, and this drastic improvement in picture quality will come as a real revelation to anyone accustomed to the murky old pan-and-scanned VHS tape. The vastly-improved image goes a looong way in helping viewers to better appreciate SOAWN’s eerie atmosphere, and improves on the somewhat troublesome day-for-night photography seen in previous versions. As an added bonus, the disc also comes with the truncated 91m theatrical version, which was taken from a suitably worn print and, by simple contrast, makes you better appreciate the truly excellent restoration work done by Code Red here. Read review

DETOUR [1945] (Criterion Collection) – Edgar G. Ulmer’s inspired bit of gritty low-budget noir filmmaking gains a lot of much-deserved extra respect via Criterion’s essential new Blu-ray. Utilizing prints from various different sources, Mike Pogorzelski and Heather Linville endured many hours of painstakingly complicated repair work, but their obsessive tenacity paid off handsomely with this incredible restoration. Criterion have also included a number of wonderful special features, including Edgar G. Ulmer: A Man Off-Screen, a feature-length documentary from 2004 about this legendary albeit woefully underappreciated director, who frequently worked wonders on lowest-of-the-low budgets. 

THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE [1971] (Mondo Macabro) – In spite of being one of the very first Euro horrors to attain a domestic DVD release way back in 1998 (courtesy of Redemption Films and Image Entertainment), Jean Brismée’s contemporaneously-set Gothic horror continued to be a public domain eyesore on digital disc for years thereafter, a fact which makes MM’s official Blu-ray debut all the more exciting and rewarding. Punctuated by André Goeffers’striking camerawork and Alessandro Alessandroni’s unforgettable music score, THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE is still best-remembered for Eurotrash cinema goddess Erika Blanc’s minimalistic if memorably sinister performance, for which the actress accomplishes so much with so little. It goes without saying that MM’s transfer improves mightily upon any and all previous versions but, besides the plentiful extras (including an entertaining audio commentary by Troy Howarth), MM have seen fit to include the film’s original French-language audio track with newly-translated English subtitles, which also makes for a far-more-satisfying viewing experience. Of course, MM’s initial Limited ‘Red Case’ Edition has since sold out, but the retail version contains the exact same extras (minus a 10-page liner notes booklet and some lobby card reproductions). Read review

BLOOD HUNGER: THE FILMS OF JOSÉ RAMÓN LARRAZ [1970 – 1978] (Arrow Video) – Spanish director José Ramón Larraz is likely best-known on these shores for his wild and excessively bloody lesbian vampire tour de force VAMPYRES (1974), but his lengthy filmography has revealed a number other mini-masterpieces, such as SYMPTOMS (1974) and his long-unseen WHIRLPOOL (1970), which has finally—and officially—resurfaced in this superb box set. The definitive highlight of Arrow’s set, WHIRLPOOL firmly established many of the director’s themes and obsessions, including bleak, oppressive atmosphere punctuated by some (for the time, at least) startlingly brutal moments of violence. Utilizing the film’s U.S. release version as prepared by Jerry Gross’ Cinemation Industries, Arrow’s transfer really brings out the film’s aesthetic qualities, and this comes as a real revelation to not only fans of Larraz’s work but to Euro horror buffs in general. Although VAMPYRES has been steadily available over the years through a number of different companies on many different formats, Arrow’s new 2K transfer easily ranks as the best of the bunch and, as with Blue Underground’s earlier U.S. Blu-ray, Arrow’s Blu also contains the complete uncut version. The last film in the set, THE COMING OF SIN (1978), is a rather hallucinatory, evocative bit of erotica, which too has finally been released in its complete uncut version here. It likewise boasts another stellar transfer, which does wonders with the film’s hazy, soft-focus photography. Handsomely-packaged over three discs, with far too many extras to mention individually, the set includes everything from audio commentaries c/o the likes of Tim Lucas, Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan to a wide variety of featurettes and on-camera interviews, plus a nicely-illustrated 80-page (!) book of writings from Tim Greaves and Vanity Celis. An incredible undertaking indeed, and absolutely essential!

FLESHPOT ON 42ND STREET [1973] (Vinegar Syndrome) – If one looks beyond his pitifully minuscule budgets, pioneering New York D.I.Y. filmmaker Andy Milligan did most certainly have a knack for bringing an undeniable angry energy to his seamy, pessimistic sub-cinematic worldviews, of which FLESHPOT is arguably one of his very best offerings. Unfolding amidst the forlorn squalor of a long-gone Times Square and featuring some wonderfully affecting performances from both Laura Cannon (using the pseudonym ‘Diana Lewis” here) and Milligan regular Neil Flanagan as a seen-and-done-it-all drag queen, this new 4K transfer taken from the film’s 16mm camera reversal is a real eye-opener, which brings to light a number of previously obscured details. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (although a 1.85:1 matted version is also included!), this new uncut edition additionally includes a couple of very brief scenes depicting explicit sex that were heretofore only ever talked about but never seen until now. As for extras, authors and film historians Samm Deighan, Heather Drain and Kat Ellinger provide a terrific joint audio commentary covering both the film itself Milligan’s and colourful career in general. As of this writing, the Limited Edition is still available at Vinegar Syndrome, and it ranks as one of the very finest releases in their entire, prolific catalogue. 

CUJO [1983] (Eureka Entertainment) – While the transfer has prompted complaints from some die-hard techies (it looks about on-par with Olive Films’ earlier 2013 release), everything here looks quite satisfactory and, while a new 2K or 4K scan would be most welcome, this is still the best-looking presentation of the film that is currently available. However, where Eureka’s 2-disc set really outdoes any previous release is in the extras department, which not only ports-over the Dog Days documentary from Lionsgate’s 2007 Blu-ray, but also includes an whole wealth of special features, including an audio commentary from film historian Lee Gambin (author of Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo), along with a number of lengthy on-camera interviews that include a 100-minute Q&A session with actress Dee Wallace c/o Melbourne, Australia’s film collective, Cinemaniacs. Limited to 4000 copies (which may have already sold out) and enclosed in a sturdy slipcase boasting original artwork courtesy of Graham Humphreys, the set in addition includes a 60-page book containing essays from Craig Ian Mann, Scott Harrison and Gambin once again. In spite of the somewhat dated transfer, this release nonetheless comes highly recommended for its expansive treasure trove of well-researched extra features alone. 

VIY [1967] (Severin Films) – Based on Nikolai Gogol’s supernatural short story The Vij (first published in 1835), which was also used as the basis for Mario Bava’s iconic Euro Gothic BLACK SUNDAY (1960)—as well as Oleg Stepchenko’s big-budget, CGI-filled Russian-Ukrainian-Czech remake / reimagining ВийVIY (a.k.a. FORBIDDEN KINGDOM [2014])—this extraordinary Russian horror fantasy was finally afforded a much-deserved Blu-ray release earlier this year, and the HD boost certainly does wonders for Alexandr Ptushko’s marvelous special effects sequences (without doubt, the climactic sequence—showcasing a garishly grotesque menagerie of otherworldly monstrosities—easily stands as one of the most fabulous and magical sequences to be found in all of international cinema!). The disc also includes Vij the Vampire, a terrific interview with director Richard Stanley, and From the Woods to the Cosmos, another fascinating interview with Russian film historian John Leman Riley, who goes over the history of Russian genre films. In addition, as with the previous Image/Ruscico DVD (circa the early 2000s), Severin have once again—most appreciatively indeed—included THE PORTRAIT (1915), THE QUEEN OF SPADES (1916) and SATAN EXULTANT (1917), three utterly fascinating Russian silent shorts, which are themselves quite unforgettable.  

AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT VOLUME TWO [1972 – 1977] (Arrow Video) – Three years since the release of Volume One, Stephen Thrower’s continued exploration of neglected and undiscovered American horror films totals another must-own box set. John Hayes’ DREAM NO EVIL (1972), Martin Goldman’s DARK AUGUST (1976) and Robert Voskanian’s THE CHILD (1977) are yet another trio of highly idiosyncratic examples of regional U.S. filmmaking, all of which are worthy of the praise they are given here. Although each film in this set is solid enough, it’s DARK AUGUST that turns out to be the real sleeper here. An impressively-mounted and highly atmospheric film in its own right, it is not only eerily compelling, but its air of underlying menace is entirely palpable. Loaded with informative audio commentaries, extra documentaries, cast/crew interviews and much, much more, this exhaustive set gets top marks all around, amounting to one of the very best releases of the year!  

DOUBLE FACE [1969] (Arrow Video) – Long unavailable in anything resembling a decent, coherent version (the film’s U.S. VHS transfer print was heavily edited), Riccardo Freda’s early giallo represents one of the very few early attempts to effectively bridge the gap between the atmospheric horror tropes of the Italian Gothic and the more modern sensibilities of the Italian thriller. Highlighted by Gábor Pogány’s appropriately moody photography and Nora Orlandi’s deliciously lush score, Freda’s film has never looked better than it does here on Arrow’s flawless Blu-ray, which not only reinstates the film back to its original luster, but finally features the uncut version as well. Arrow’s disc is also nicely complimented by an informative audio commentary courtesy of Tim Lucas, who most definitely knows a thing or two about Italian films, and he even discusses DOUBLE FACE’s connection to German Edgar Wallace Krimi genre (it was even marketed in Germany as such). A nicely-illustrated video essay charting the works of Freda and a couple of featurettes spotlighting the career of Nora Orlandi are also included.

THE NEW YORK RIPPER [1982] (Blue Underground) – A superb upgrade in every way, Lucio Fulci’s supremely nasty giallo gets quite the overhaul via BU’s new 3-disc Limited Edition Blu-ray set, which not only features a brand-new, startlingly crisp 4K transfer, but also an entire host of new special features, including an audio commentary by Splintered Visions author Troy Howarth and an on-camera interview with Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci author Stephen Thrower. As with some of their earlier Limited Edition sets, BU have also included Francesco De Masi’s wonderful, highly-engaging 29-track score as a bonus CD. On the packaging front, it also includes a nice 20-page booklet with writing from Travis Crawford, all of which is appropriately adorned with sleazy if striking cover art featuring all-new alternate artwork by famed Italian poster artist Enzo Sciotti. 

OPERA [1987] (Scorpion Releasing) – Arguably one of Dario Argento’s last great films, this lavishly-produced, 3-disc set features new 2K transfers of three separate cuts of the film, including a (quote) “2.35:1 Super 35, 1.78:1 and US Orion Pictures Cut”, all presented on separate discs. And if that weren’t enough, the first two editions also include English or Italian audio tracks with optional, newly-translated English subtitles. Extras begin with a pair of great audio commentaries from Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson and author Troy Howarth, then continue with a bevy of on-camera interviews from Dario Argento, composer Claudio Simonetti, special effects guru Sergio Stivaletti, as well as most of the film’s principal actors. Scorpion’s impressive presentation may well be THE final word on the film, whose confusing release history is finally put to rest with this must-own disc.

THE TOUGH ONES [1976] (Grindhouse Releasing) – One of the high watermarks of the entire genre, Grindhouse’s staggering 3-disc Deluxe Edition is likewise one of the most impressive Blu-ray releases of any Italocrime film. Featuring the ever-dependable Maurizio Merli and a scene-stealing performance from Tomas Milian, this set is as much of a celebration of Lenzi’s entire career as the film itself, which, outside of the numerous extras, also features a feature-length documentary on the man himself. Beautifully packaged, Grindhouse have also seen fit to include Franco Micalizzi’s dynamic, hugely-enjoyable score as a separate CD. Read review.

KLUTE [1971] (Criterion Collection) – From director Alan J. Pakula (who would go on to helm one of the greatest conspiracy thrillers, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN [1976]), Jane Fonda stars as Bree Daniels, a high-end New York City call-girl who gets mixed-up in a missing persons investigation, which private investigator John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired to solve in this understated and rather unsettling thriller. While expertly lensed by master DP Gordon Willis and chillingly scored by Michael Small, this remains Fonda’s show all the way thanks to her edgy, masterful performance. Beautifully-restored and scanned in 4K (as supervised by camera operator Michael Chapman), this is a most welcome release of a pivotal ’Seventies classic. 

CRUISING [1980] (Arrow Video) – Vilified during its initial theatrical release, William Friedkin’s controversial-yet-unforgettable film has steadily gained a quite rabid fan base over the years, but following Warner’s 2008 DVD, the film became controversial for an entirely different reason due to Friedkin’s notorious tinkering with it. The entire picture was reworked and given a blue hue over most of the proceedings, but, most notoriously of all, some odd—and highly distracting—digital effects were also sloppily added to the film, as good as ruining it in the process. Fortunately, Arrow’s new Blu-ray restores CRUISING back to its original form, and it now features a far more appropriate and naturalistic color scheme. At the same time, all those annoying digital effects have been removed as well. Also worth mentioning (since it too caused some controversy), this new 4K scan additionally features a slightly reworked, fittingly ominous title card which sets up the narrative more effectively without intruding on the film proper when it begins. So with that being said, this new presentation should be considered the definitive version of Friedkin’s film. Porting-over all the extra features from Warner’s DVD, Arrow have also included a brand-new audio commentary from Friedkin and critic Mark Kermode and, unlike Friedkin’s solo commentary from the earlier disc (also included here), Kermode gets him to reveal all sorts of interesting stories related to the film, which still remains one of the more compelling works in his entire canon. 

APOCALYPSE NOW [1979] (Lionsgate) – With more and more films making the jump to 4K UHD, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory, epic and beautifully stylized film is easily one of the more impressive UHD releases to hit the home video market. Spread over 2 UHD and 4 Blu-ray discs, Lionsgate’s gorgeously packaged set includes all three versions of the film (each taken from the same 4K restoration), all of which look immaculate with perfect colour saturation and superb detail. The almost ridiculously thorough extras (most of which are presented in 1080p and also include the essential documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse [1991]) only sweeten the deal. 

THE PREY [1980] (Arrow Video) – A true labour of love, Edwin S. Brown’s highly-distinctive slice ’n’ dicer gets plenty of first-class treatment thanks to Arrow Video (and in particular Arrow’s Ewan Cant) in this lovingly-put-together and beautifully-restored BD package. Spread out over two discs, no stone is left unturned in this exhaustive set, which not only includes three (!) separate audio commentaries, but the film’s long-unseen International Cut as well. While not for all tastes, this remains one of the best and most impressive restorations of the year, which comes as a real godsend for fans of the film. Read review.

TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN [1972] (Arrow Video) – Although marketed as a sexploitation picture, director Stanley H. Brasslof’s film transcends that genre and remains a surprisingly dark and melancholic look at a woman’s damaged psyche. Avoiding all the usual sex film pitfalls, Brasslof’s haunting, meditative approach to the material is infinitely more memorable, and its effect lingers long after the film has finished. A hidden gem among Something Weird Video’s long line of Harry Novak acquisitions released as a Special Edition DVD (for which it was paired-up with Ron Garcia’s sex-horror weirdie THE TOY BOX [1971]), Brasslof’s film comes to Blu-ray in an excellent 2K transfer taken from original film elements. Included in the package are a number of worthy special features that both explore the film and pay tribute to Brasslof’s unique filmography, beginning with an audio commentary from Diabolique’s Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain, an on-camera interview with Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower, plus a video essay from Alexandra Nicholas-Heller. Get it!

HAMMER VOLUME FOUR: FACES OF FEAR [1958 – 1968] (Indicator) – Even though the first three volumes of Indicator’s ongoing restorations of Hammer Films have been stellar to say the least, this fourth volume is the one everyone has been waiting for. Gathering together some of the studio’s best films, Indicator’s brand-new 4K scan of Terence Fisher’s THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) looks incredibly vibrant here with lush, colourful textures and stunning detail; it’s easily the best the film has ever looked, which goes a long way in further strengthening its already high pedigree. Difficult to see for years, Joseph Losey’s THE DAMNED (a.k.a. THESE ARE THE DAMNED, 1968), which is probably the true standout of this amazing box set, also looks spectacular here thanks to Indicator’s brand-new 2K scan. If you’ve seen the film before, you’ll know it as easily one of Hammer’s most thought-provoking and interesting offerings. Although both Terence Fisher’s THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960) and Seth Holt’s thriller TASTE OF FEAR (a.k.a. SCREAM OF FEAR, 1962) are only afforded (quote) “High Definition remasters”, both films look superb nonetheless, restoring a luster not seen in earlier presentations. As usual, Indicator have loaded each disc with a number of illuminating audio commentaries, alternate presentations, documentaries, booklets and so much more, making this yet another essential, must-own box set. And while you’re at it, if you don’t have any of Indicator’s other Hammer sets yet, then do yourself a (big) favour and pick those up too! 

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON [1981] (Arrow Video) – Previously released virtually countless times on home video, John Landis’ werewolf classic comes to Blu-ray once again in what can easily be labeled as its definitive release. Featuring an all-new 2019 restoration of the film taken from the original camera negative and a mind-boggling assortment of extra features, including Paul Davis’ feature-length documentary Beware the Moonand still another feature-length doc, Daniel Griffith’s Mark of the Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf. Housed in one of Arrow’s sturdy slipcases, this Limited Edition is remarkable indeed, so grab it before it disappears!

GODZILLA: THE SHOWA ERA FILMS, 1954 – 1975 (Criterion Collection) – Criterion have really gone all-out for this truly inspired undertaking—their 1000th release—a massive 8-disc set containing all fifteen of Toho’s Godzilla films from the so-called “Shōwa Era” (1954-1975), including everything from Ishirō Honda’s grim original (in two versions, no less!) up to his series swansong THE TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975). Including far too many extras to expound upon (including both the Japanese release version and the U.S. theatrical cut of Honda’s KING KONG VS. GODZILLA [1963]), plus some fascinating behind-the-scenes documentaries), this set will keep you entertained for weeks on end with its seemingly endless array of extra features. Stunningly designed with beautiful, eye-catching original artwork and housed within a giant over-sized book (which resembles a graphic novel or coffee-table book), this mammoth set singlehandedly proves that the market for physical media is still very much alive. 

MADIGAN [1968] (Kino Lorber Studio Classics) – Dan Madigan (Richard Widmark) and his partner Rocco (Harry Guardini) are a couple of NYC detectives who are on the lookout for Barney Benesch (Steve Inhat), an elusive, trigger-happy gangster, only to find themselves constantly at odds with the machinations of inter-departmental politics and bureaucracy. Another terrific effort from master filmmaker Don Siegel, MADIGAN reads very much like a transitional film, which treads the line between the studio pictures of the previous decade and the gritty realism of the ’Seventies cop dramas, which were right around the corner. Kino’s solid, studio-prepared transfer looks excellent, and the big highlight here is an audio commentary featuring Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson, who provide a consistently entertaining first-hand look back at the film, which helps you to appreciate it all the more.  

DRACULA [1979] (Scream Factory) – Scream Factory had an incredibly busy year, but this 2-disc Blu-ray of John Badham’s epic, lavish cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the highlight among their many riches. At long last, it contains the original ‘colour’ version of the film, which has been nearly impossible to see over the last few years. Of course, along with plenty of extra features, Badham’s preferred colour-drained, sepia version is also included, but in all honesty, you’ll never watch this version again, although it does serve as a good reminder of what a wrongheaded decision this unfortunate ‘aesthetic choice’ really was. 


HIGHLY HONOURABLE MENTIONS

ALICE, SWEET ALICE (Arrow Video), AMITYVILLE: THE CURSED COLLECTION (Vinegar Syndrome), ASSIGNMENT TERROR (Scorpion Releasing), ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS (Kino Lorber), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (Warner Archive), BEATRICE CENCI (88 Films), BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (Kino Lorber Studio Classics), THE BLOB (Scream Factory), BLUE VELVET (Criterion Collection), THE BRAIN (Scream Factory), A BUCKET OF BLOOD (Olive Films / Signature Series), THE BUSHWHACKER / THE RAVAGER (American Arcana), THE CANDY SNATCHERS (Vinegar Syndrome), THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER (Vinegar Syndrome), DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (Warner Archive), EMANUELLE IN AMERICA (Mondo Macabro), HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (Kino Lorber), THE FLY COLLECTION (Scream Factory), THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART 2 (Arrow Video), THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (Arrow Video), IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (Criterion Collection), INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS (Severin Films), THE KILLER OF DOLLS (Mondo Macabro), MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (Criterion Collection), THE MUMMY’S REVENGE (Scorpion Releasing), MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (Scream Factory), THE NIGHTCOMERS (Kino Lorber Studio Classics), NOTORIOUS (Criterion Collection), OLDBOY(Arrow Video), THE PASSING (Vinegar Syndrome), ROBOCOP (Arrow Video / Limited Edition), SECTA SINIESTRA (Vinegar Syndrome), SPOOKIES (Vinegar Syndrome), TWO EVIL EYES (Blue Underground), WARLOCK (Twilight Time), WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY (Severin Films), WHO SAW HER DIE? (Arrow Video), YEAR OF THE DRAGON (Warner Archive), and finally, let’s not forget about Scream Factory’s ongoing dedication to famed British studio Hammer Films, which saw them release an astonishing 18 films onto Blu-ray in 2019 alone!