Sunday, March 19, 2017

ÆNIGMA – BLU-RAY REVIEW

Following a flurry of activity in the early-to-mid-’80s, Lucio Fulci continued to endure – at least, to some extent – even as the once-prosperous, by-then-financially-floundering Italian film industry began to implode in on itself, with ever-dwindling budgets and fewer productions being made.  Produced in conjunction with Sutjeska Film (from the former Yugoslavia) and Ettore Spagnuolo’s A.M. Trading International, ÆNIGMA was an attempt (for what it’s worth!) at recreating some of Fulci’s earlier gory glory, but unfortunately, it’s a desperately derivative effort, which, if it hadn’t been directed by Fulci, would have surely been forgotten in no time at all.  Yet, as with their current spate of Italian Film Collection Blu-rays, 88 Films presents still another impressive release – even if it is minor Fulci, without a doubt – boasting vastly-improved picture quality, along with some solid extras.

A victim of a school prank gone horribly wrong, Kathy (Mijlijana Zirojevic’) lies in a coma at the nearby hospital as she plots her telepathic revenge on the many spoiled, entitled rich kids at St. Mary’s College, an affluent all-girls school.  Through the use of Eva Gordon (Lara Naszinski), the new arrival, Kathy uses her as a sort of conduit through whom to exact her own personal vendetta, but Dr. Anderson (Jared Martin), Kathy’s doctor, begins to notice parallels between the deaths at the school and Kathy’s sudden (quote) “violent emotions”, even though she is in a constant clearly comatose state.

The story (such that it is) was penned by Fulci in collaboration with Giorgio Mariuzzo – who also scripted Fulci’s much-beloved THE BEYOND (1981) – and is, most unfortunately, a feeble, unoriginal copy of those far better films, such as Brian De Palma’s CARRIE (1976) and Richard Franklin’s PATRICK (1978).  Of course, this particular plot derivation is fine in and of itself – for proof, check out Mario Landi’s similarly-plotted PATRICK STILL LIVES (1980), an unabashedly sleazy, gory take on the aforesaid Franklin film – but not only is ÆNIGMA decidedly ‘well past its sell-by date’, it’s also – much like the comatose Kathy herself – a lifelessly listless endeavour, which strives (however half-heartedly) to emulate Fulci’s past successes.  Taking further liberties from some of Dario Argento’s work – in particular SUSPIRIA (1977) – with its candy-coloured lighting scheme and all-girls boarding school setting, ÆNIGMA in addition borrows significantly from Argento’s admittedly silly PHENOMENA (1984), which also utilized some hoary telekinesis angles, which allowed its protagonist (played by Jennifer Connelly) to communicate with insects.


It’s now well-known that Fulci wasn’t in good health when he worked on both this and his troubled ZOMBI 3 (1988), and according to actor Jared Martin, as told to interviewer Dean Galanis in issue #19 of Steve Puchalski’s SHOCK CINEMA, he “got the feeling of a sadness about the man”; which arguably, permeates the entire production.  But despite the somewhat melancholic aura, like most of Fulci’s work from the period, he nevertheless succeeds in creating a few interesting scenes, but still, even these few-and-far-between highlights are derivative of other, better films.  In what is among the present one’s most memorable (but equally silly) set-pieces – itself an “homage” to the spider attack scene in Fulci’s aforementioned own THE BEYOND, involves a girl who is, quite literally, ‘slimed’ to death by voracious snails (!).  This sequence involving the “ghastly gastropods” is certainly a ‘unique’ one to be sure, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the ‘bite’ as was evidently intended.  However, in spite of ÆNIGMA’s utter unoriginality, the inherent premise still has limited potential to deliver some mindless fun, which it periodically does, but the film quickly runs out of ideas, even stooping so low and resorting to trashy daytime TV-style dramatics when Dr. Anderson and Eva begin an illicit affair while she is in the process of convalescing at a psychiatric clinic.  Even some of the more interesting ideas, such as the school’s creepy custodian – and Kathy’s mom – rapidly go nowhere despite their intrinsic ‘connection’, which is comically rendered (the focal point being a pair of superimposed glowing red eyes [guess whose!]).

Previously available on DVD as part of Image’s “Euroshock Collection”, this was a bare-bones affair for sure, and that edition wasn’t even 16x9 enhanced.  Like so many of Fulci’s films, due to his international fanbase, ÆNIGMA has also seen releases overseas on both DVD and Blu-ray since the VHS/Beta era, but none of them can compare to 88 Films’ superb Blu-ray; which, like Michele Massimo Tarantini’s MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (1985) and Joe D’Amato’s ABSURD (1981) and BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979), was also part of a highly successful Indiegogo funding campaign.  Restored in 2K from the original camera negative, Luigi Ciccarese’s efficient and colourful cinematography looks splendid here and, at the same time, the film’s new transfer successfully retains the original natural grain structure of the celluloid stock.  The LPCM 2.0 audio is also presented in both English and Italian. As an added bonus, newly-translated English subtitles are provided, which give the film a somewhat classier feel, although most viewers will undoubtedly prefer the Anglo dubbing track, featuring the voice talents of Pat Starke and Ted Rusoff, et cetera. 


The biggest extra is Aenigma: Fulci and the 80s (sic), a (quote) “feature length documentary looking at the twilight period of Lucio Fulci’s legendary career”, which features on-camera interviews with many of his collaborators of the time.  Interviews include: production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, composer Carlo Maria Cordio - who assures us of Fulci’s “musical competence” – and screenwriter / director Claudio Fragasso talks about Fulci’s (quote) “terrible experience in the Philippines” working on ZOMBI 3 and his admiration for Fulci’s DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972), which he considers his best film. Other interviews include actor Marco Di Stefano, assistant director Michele De Angelis and director Gianni Martucci who believed Fulci was a “slave to his condition” while author and writer Antonio Tentori thought of his working relationship with Fulci as a “surreal” experience.  Rounding out the doc are interviews with cinematographer Alessandro Grossi - he shot Fulci’s CAT IN THE BRAIN (a.k.a. NIGHTMARE CONCERT, 1990) – and director Antonio Bido who recalls Fulci’s appreciation of his late-entry action flick, BLUE TORNADO (1991) with warm nostalgia.  Other extras include an original trailer, the Italian opening and closing credit sequences and a reversible sleeve featuring uncensored artwork.  All campaign supporters also received a limited slipcover highlighting the original uncensored artwork.  

Most casual viewers will quickly dismiss ÆNIGMA as marginal Fulci – which it is – but to be fair, it does contain a few ‘unforgettable’ moments interspersed amongst the tedium.  Regardless of the film itself, 88 Films delivers another terrific Blu-ray, which most Fulci connoisseurs will not hesitate to pick up.  Order ÆNIGMA from DiabolikDVD or 88 Films directly. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

ABSURD - BLU-RAY REVIEW

It’s absurd! Completely absurd!” exclaims Dr. Kramer, as per the title.

Blatantly modeling it after John Carpenter’s exemplary and enormously successful stalk ’n’ slash flick HALLOWEEN (1978), it was inevitable that the Italians – in particular, Joe D’Amato (a.k.a. Aristide Massaccesi, here directing here under his less-commonly-used alternate pseudonym of “Peter Newton”), Italy’s self-proclaimed “cheater”/rip-off artist – would take a stab at it (no pun intended).  At first, this seems like a continuation of sorts to his earlier, far scrappier, ANTHROPOPHAGOUS (a.k.a. THE GRIM REAPER, 1980), which likewise starred George Eastman (a.k.a. Luigi Montefiori) as an imposing and seemingly indestructible boogeyman named Nikos Karamanlis.  He also plays the same Nikos character in ABSURD (1981), so it’s easy to make the connection to D’Amato’s earlier film, but ABSURD easily works on its own merits as a fairly energetic riff on all those slasher films of the time.  Released on Blu-ray as part of 88 Films’ ever-expanding ‘Italian Film Collection’, this is by far and away the best option currently available, both in terms of picture quality and extras.

Almost immediately, the film lives up to its title as Nikos (“the boogeyman”) literally runs into small-town U.S.A. as another man (Edmund Purdom), wearing a black trench coat – who is having a difficult time keeping up, and clutches his chest in obvious exhaustion – follows close behind.  During a scuffle, Nikos is graphically impaled atop of a steel fence and then stumbles into a nearby house, clutching at his guts while a young boy (Kasimir Berger) watches in understandable horror.  In diametric contrast to ANTHROPOPHAGOUS’ show-stopping finale (wherein Eastman gobbles on his own guts), for ABSURD he gets disembowelled right at the very start; a sly wink for those in-the-know.  Then, right in the very next scene, he’s seen in surgery, with the presiding doctors, including Dr. Kramer (dubbing specialist Ted Rusoff), marveling at his (quote) “recuperative powers” whilst they endlessly fumble around with his exposed innards.


Later that night, at the same house where Nikos made his grand entrance, Ian (Ian Danby) and his wife Carol (Hanja Kochansky) don’t seem very concerned following such a traumatic incident and, insensitively and irresponsibly enough, keep a dinner date at their neighbour’s house to (quote) “watch the game on television”, abandoning both their son Willie (the young lad from the beginning) and their bedridden daughter Katia (Katya Berger), who get left in care of their babysitter; a plot device which hews closely to the tried-and-tested HALLOWEEN template.  Naturally, much like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime, Nikos ends up back at the house and, after graphically killing-off a few unsuspecting incidental victims along the way and, during the film’s equally far-fetched finale, he encounters the highly unlikely ‘final girl’.

While the film does its darnedest to emulate any number of slasher pics you can name, it still doesn’t make a lick of sense; but then again, you might well have been expecting an ‘anything-goes’ type narrative well in advance, what with a title like ABSURD attached to it.  In one of the film’s stranger developments, that mysterious man from the opener actually turns out to be a Greek Orthodox priest (!), who serves God (quote) “with biochemistry more than with rites and ceremonies.” Clearly patterned after HALLOWEEN’s gun-toting psychiatrist Dr. Loomis, this unorthodox ‘man of God’ also totes a firearm, informing the local constabulary, led by Charles Borromel as Sgt. Engleman, how “there exists a reality that we do not see.”  Apparently, Nikos had escaped from some unknown laboratory, and the reason for his madness stems from the fact that his cells don’t regenerate properly, thus rendering him insane (!). This only further adds to the almost mythic-like quality of the unstoppable killer, an aspect which American slasher films began extensively toying with around the same time with the likes of FRIDAY THE 13TH’s Jason Voorhees et al. 

                                                                                                                                                                                            
As with ANTHROPOPHAGOUS before it, ABSURD was once again penned by Montefiori under his “John Cart” pseudonym. However, according to “The Absurd Files”, one of the many extras on 88 Films’ Blu, he’s not all that enamoured with the final product, equating it with an “average horror film”, albeit one that “works.”  It’s unsure whether Montefiori had also been intending to hide the film’s Italian origins, or if this was a decision made by D’Amato himself during filming, but it’s actually quite amusing to what lengths the film revels in its ‘Americanisms’, typically via dialogue involving American football (including such blatant name-drops as “It’s the Rams and the Steelers!”), but as the ‘adults’ gather to watch the game, they’re all eating pasta and surrounded by typical Mediterranean architecture and atmosphere.  At another point in the film, Sgt. Engleman reacts to the priest’s mention of kilometers (“Kilometers, huh?”) instead of the more customary term miles – this is (not!) “America”, after all! – in still another instance of its makers brazenly – if futilely – attempting to disguise the film’s true origins. 

Originally released in the U.S. on VHS circa 1985 by Wizard Video as MONSTER HUNTER, that version was, happily, uncut, although its muddy/murky full-screen image was certainly nothing to write home about.  Debuting on DVD stateside in 2009 courtesy of MYA Communications under its equally-apt French theatrical title of HORRIBLE, that widescreen (if non-anamorphic) edition utilized a slightly shorter Italian version of the film – including even a few VHS-sourced inserts – dubbed into English. However, once again, picture quality was, even for the time, woefully lacking.  Thanks to a highly successful Indiegogo campaign, which also saw the restoration of Lucio Fulci’s AENIGMA (1987), D’Amato’s BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979) and Michele Massimo Tarantini’s MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (1985), 88 Films have finally provided fans the definitive version of ABSURD with a brand new 2K restoration that was struck directly from the film’s original camera negative.

Presented in its original – and quite a bit longer – English version (94m), 88 Films’ Blu-ray is a handsome restoration whose clarity and sharpness far outdoes all previous releases, and which should please even the most demanding fans of the film.  Plus, as an added bonus, 88 Films have also included the shorter Italian version (88m), with optional English subtitles, and both its LPCM 2.0 mono audio tracks boast excellent sound.  Extras include the aforementioned “The Absurd Files” (14m20s), wherein Eastman discusses his thoughts on the film, the downfall of Filmirage (D’Amato’s little “Corman”-like film factory), plus the benefits of smaller productions.  It’s a pretty solid interview piece, even though he doesn’t have very many good things to say about ABSURD itself.  In the next interview, this one with Michele Soavi (17m47s), Soavi talks about how he got his start in the film business (he plays a bit-part as a biker in ABSURD), how D’Amato took him (quote) “under his wing”, as well as Soavi’s appreciation of D’Amato as the (quote) “quintessential man of cinema.”


Also on hand is an audio commentary from The Hysteria Continues (“the slasher-loving Podcast”), during which they discuss the film’s connection to HALLOWEEN; its interesting cast, which comprises some of Italy’s leading English dubbing artists, such as the aforementioned Rusoff and Danby, here working in front of the camera for a change; Giuseppe Ferrante’s sloppy-if-effective makeup effects; the inordinately long running time; some of their favourite slashers; as well as drawing parallels between the FRIDAY THE 13TH PART IV: THE FINAL CHAPTER’s ending and that of the present film.  It’s a fun, breezy commentary which most fans should enjoy.  As an added bonus, we get a 16-page booklet by Calum Waddell that outlines Britain’s so-called “Video Nasties” – a shit-list which included ABSURD – with a brief write-up on each of the 39 condemned titles; plus, as per their usual standards, 88 Films also provides reversible cover art highlighting the film’s original Italian poster art.  Lastly, for those who contributed to the campaign, the Blu-ray also comes complete with a nice glossy slipcover of the film’s original Video Nasty cover art.

Overall, this is another outstanding release from 88 Films, amounting to one of the more impressive restorations in their ongoing ‘Italian Film Collection’. It is most definitely worth picking up if gory Italian horror is your thing. Order ABSURD from DiabolikDVD here

* All screen grabs are taken directly from 88 Films' Blu-ray.

Friday, February 3, 2017

TRAILER TRAUMA 3: ’80s HORRORTHON BLU-RAY REVIEW

Blu-ray ad line: “The last word in trailer terror!”

Most recent trailer compilations tend to focus much of their attention on material from the ’60s or ’70s, which always featured trailers containing plenty of ballyhoo, but for TRAILER TRAUMA 3, those mad folks over at Garagehouse Pictures have zeroed-in on the ’80s instead, in what is, quite possibly, one of the lo-o-ongest trailer compilations ever put together: running at just under seven-and-a-half hours in length!  Spread over two Blu-rays, there are over 250 trailers in this colossal undertaking, so let’s take a look at the some of the highlights, of which there are plenty.

Beginning with 1980 and compiled chronologically, Lewis Teague’s giant animal attack film, ALLIGATOR, gets things rolling, and then it swiftly delves into the deeper recesses of Ken Russell’s ALTERED STATES.  Moving right along, we get the familiar if much-beloved Burt Young-narrated trailer for Jeffrey Bloom’s BLOOD BEACH (where is that Blu-ray?!), which is immediately followed by Ulli Lommel’s THE BOOGEYMAN and a couple of “Don’t” titles – Robert Hammer’s sleazy DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE (recently released by Vinegar Syndrome in a brand new 4K restoration) and Joseph Ellison’s unflinching DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE (“His suffering has ended! And ours is about to begin!”).  A rarely seen – and very cool – teaser for Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL, follows and then it’s off to the movies with Vernon Zimmerman’s FADE TO BLACK (“Eric Binford lives for the movies.  Sometimes, he kills for them too!”), which also desperately needs a new, updated disc release.  Then, John Carpenter’s THE FOG (“It is night. It is cold. It is coming!”) rolls into town, along with the now-almost-legendary ‘countdown’ trailer for Sean S. Cunningham’s game-changer FRIDAY THE 13TH, which is then followed by the U.S. trailer for Joe D’Amato’s THE GRIM REAPER (“A flash of steel! An unearthly shriek! An icy breath!”).  An effective trailer for Armand Mastroianni’s HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE – which also needs a Blu-ray – continues the focus on slasher films, a genre which is highly prevalent throughout the entire disc; but then, a beautifully-structured Spanish trailer for Dario Argento’s INFERNO pops out of nowhere to really mix things up.  More slashers continue with William Lustig’s MANIAC; Emmett Alston’s NEW YEAR’S EVIL; Paul Lynch’s PROM NIGHT and Denny Harris’ SILENT SCREAM, which are followed by a few monster-themed trailers for William Malone’s SCARED TO DEATH (“Thank God, it’s only a movie!”), Peter Foleg’s The UNSEEN (“For too long, it has been hiding!”) and Greydon Clark’s all-star alien monster-romp WITHOUT WARNING.

Continuing on with 1981, first we get a rare trailer for John Landis’ extraordinary AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and then James L. Conway’s subterranean creature feature THE BOOGENS scurries onto the screen.  As expected, after the financial success of FRIDAY THE 13TH, slasher films dominated theatre screens in ’81, and there’s plenty of continued representation here, with Tony Maylam’s THE BURNING, Jimmy Huston’s FINAL EXAM, Steve Miner’s superior FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (“The body count continues!”), Herb Freed’s GRADUATION DAY, J. Lee Thompson’s Canadian-lensed HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, Tom DeSimone’s HELL NIGHT, Jeff Lieberman’s slick JUST BEFORE DAWN, George Mihalka’s exceptional MY BLOODY VALENTINE, in a rare uncut trailer, no less; and Mickey Rose’s and Michael Ritchie’s slasher spoof STUDENT BODIES (“Helloooo, it’s me, the heavy breather from every horror film you’ve ever seen!”), which failed to materialize on Olive Films’ Blu-ray.  Of course, other highlights for 1981 include a terrific, Percy Rodriguez-narrated trailer for Wes Craven’s DEADLY BLESSING; Gary Sherman’s DEAD AND BURIED; the U.S. trailer for Lucio Fulci’s THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (“In this house, what you don’t know will hurt you!”) narrated by Brother Theodore; Howard R. Cohen’s monster spoof SATURDAY THE 14TH, and an outstanding trailer for David Cronenberg’s SCANNERS.

Disc two begins with 1982, and runs all the way through 1989 – again in chronological order.  Things start off with a memorable trailer for Jack Sholder’s ALONE IN THE DARK ([1982] “Anything can happen when you’re alone in the dark!”); Damiano Damiani’s superior sequel AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION (1982), Paul Schrader’s effective remake CAT PEOPLE (1982), and John Wintergate’s completely loopy BOARDING HOUSE ([1982], “In Horror Vision!  Forget 3-D and experience a new dimension in screen terror!”).  And speaking of 3-D, it too is well represented throughout the disc, with trailers for Steve Miner’s FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III 3-D (1982), Richard Fleischer’s less-than-stellar AMITYVILLE 3-D ([1983] “As the horror reaches out beyond the edge of the screen!”) and Joe Alves’ embarrassing JAWS 3-D (1983).  Of course, slasher fans still get plenty of treats, with Paul Lynch’s HUMONGOUS ([1982] “6 people stranded, hunted…”), Joe Giannone’s MADMAN (1982), Stephen Carpenter’s and Jeffrey Obrow’s PRANKS ([1982] a.k.a. THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD), J.S. Cardone’s THE SLAYER ([1982] “What you’re about to see may shock you!”), Amy Jones’ THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982), Richard Ciupka’s CURTAINS (1983), Andrew Davis’ THE FINAL TERROR (1983), Buddy Cooper’s gory THE MUTILATOR (1984) and Fred Walton’s rather-too-underappreciated spoof, APRIL FOOL’S DAY (1986).

Being an ’80s trailer compilation, many of the popular horror ‘franchises’ are also well-represented, including the rest of the FRIDAY THE 13TH films, from Joseph Zito’s FRIDAY THE 13TH PART IV: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984) all the way through to Rob Hedden’s execrable FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN (1989).  Other ‘franchises’ include the first four NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films; the entire ’80s HALLOWEEN output, from Rick Rosenthal’s HALLOWEEN II (1981) to Dominque Othenin-Girard’s HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1989), and all three POLTERGEIST films are just a few of the highlights.

As you would expect, there are also plenty of rarities that pop up, including a preview for Roger Christian’s THE SENDER (1982), which failed to appear on Olive Films’ Blu-ray; a wonderfully creepy trailer for Avery Crounse’s EYES OF FIRE ([1983] “The secret is sleeping in the trees.”), a cult favorite which still remains stubbornly unavailable on disc; then it’s back to the swamps of Arkansas for Charles B. Pierce’s woeful follow-up to THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972), BOGGY CREEK II: THE LEGEND CONTINUES… (1984); John N. Carter’s thoroughly zombieless  ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE ([1984] “Welcome to beautiful Zombie Island!”), and then an excellent prerelease trailer for Jim Wynorski’s KILLBOTS (1986), which was eventually recut and released as CHOPPING MALL.

Of course, attempting to watch this entire collection in one marathon sitting would be quite a very formidable task indeed, especially if you consider the wealth of information to be gleaned from the superb – and very entertaining – commentary tracks, which are recorded by various film personalities and historians.  For the record, 1980 contains a fast-paced, fact-filled commentary courtesy of Exhumed Films’ Dan Fraga, Harry Guerro and Jesse Nelson; 1981 is covered by Temple of Schlock’s Chris Poggiali, who also reveals a number of interesting factoids, including many of the film’s tie-in paperback novels; filmmaker Ted Geoghegan (of WE ARE STILL HERE [2015] fame) covers 1982, while Michael Gingold of Rue Morgue magazine and Tim Ferrante unveil more interesting tidbits for 1983 and 1984, respectively.  Grady Hendrix, author of MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM, provides plenty of laughs for his look at 1985, and this is, quite possibly, the liveliest track; horror artist Stephen Romano gives us his thoughts on 1986 and 1987, and even provided the disc’s striking cover art too; DJ Dan Buskirk and James Harris of Doc Terror finish things off with 1988 and 1989, respectively.  All of the audio commentaries are well-worth-listening-to, as each participant offers their various opinions and assorted bits of trivia with an enthusiasm that’s both highly contagious and extremely entertaining.  Other extras include trailers for Garagehouse Pictures’ first two TT discs, Paul Kyriazi’s NINJA BUSTERS (1984) and Zoltan G. Spencer’s THE SATANIST (1968), while the menu promises yet another tantalizing volume in the TT series – TRAILER TRAUMA IV: TELEVISION TRAUMA!!!


Mastered in 4K from original 35mm elements, most of the trailers have, as you’d expect, the usual scratches and some minor print damage here and there, but ALL of them look absolutely fantastic on Blu-ray, and it only makes one wish some of the actual films themselves that are previewed within this collection were available in HD.  As with their other must-have TRAILER TRAUMA discs, Garagehouse Pictures have outdone themselves yet again with this third instalment, so it goes without saying that this is another MUST-purchase!  Order it from DiabolikDVD today!  It’s essential.