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!

Monday, December 16, 2019

WHO SAW HER DIE? - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Perhaps best-remembered for its casting of former one-time-only James Bond star George Lazenby and its noticeable parallels to Nicholas Roeg’s subsequent masterwork DON’T LOOK NOW (1973), Aldo Lado’s memorable giallo WHO SAW HER DIE?(1972) also adheres to the template set out by Dario Argento’s trailblazing THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970). What it also accomplishes is a harmonious sense of balance between the genre’s usual stylistic—at times excessive—touches (best-exemplified here by Ennio Morricone’s haunting choral score), while including a roster of compelling, authentically-delineated characters of a kind rarely seen in the more formulaic commercial cinema of this sort. While it’s safe to say that the aforementioned Roeg film remains without equal, WHO SAW HER DIE? definitely has far more on his mind than being a mere copycat giallo, so however you choose to categorize it, Lado’s gripping, deeply-affecting film still stands as one of the more indelible entries said genre has to offer. 


While Roberta (juvenile actress Nicoletta Elmi, who has long since become an Italo-horror icon) is visiting her father Franco (Lazenby), a sculptor living in Venice, she captures the attention of an old woman (dressed in a deathly-funereal black dress, and a matching black-veiled hat to boot), who begins systematically stalking her among the decaying canals and eerie backstreets of “The Floating City”, and when the opportunity presents itself, Roberta is brutally murdered. In the aftermath of his daughter’s death, and feeling guilty about having left her alone in the park in order that he might spend some time with his girlfriend Gabriella (Rosemarie Lindt), Franco becomes determined to solve their daughter’s mysterious murder, while her mother, his estranged wife Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg), newly-arrived from London, becomes increasingly concerned about Franco’s obsessive resolve. No thanks to the ineffectual police force (here represented by Inspector De Donati [Sandro Grinfa]), Franco begins to uncover plenty of dirty secrets among his intelligentsia friends, including the murder of another young girl, which had occurred four years earlier in Megève, France…

Saddled with a rather nondescript—at least for a giallo!—title, WHO SAW HER DIE? is competently executed across the boards, with director Lado and his editors Angelo Curi and Jutta Brandsteadter acquitting themselves particularly well, and in some scenes the latter pair’s interesting cutting prefigures that in Roeg’s film. Probably best-known on these shores for his work on Damiano Damiani’s superb horror shocker AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION (1982), DP Franco Di Giacomo’s impressive camerawork also effectively captures the wintery Venetian locations with some striking, verging-on-Neorealist visuals and, despite being known as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Venice appears claustrophobically oppressive here, even downright menacing at times. As Troy Howarth points out in his informative audio commentary, many of these filmmakers and craftsman were (quote) “way overqualified” when it came to working in the more commercial arena of the Italian film industry, and Di Giacomo’s work here is no exception. 

Outside of WSHD?’s arresting imagery and well-timed, consistent pacing, what really sets the film apart are a number engaging, first-rate performances. Here playing the assertive Franco Serpieri, Lazenby is wonderful as the grieving father who must simultaneously deal with the inevitable (and entirely understandable) feelings of grief, guilt and anger he feels over the murder of his daughter. But it’s in the film’s first—highly crucial—act where both Lazenby and his junior co-star Nicoletta Elmi truly shine, as they expertly and effortlessly convey a genuine love and affection for one another with their playful father-and-daughter interaction. This dynamic remains the film’s driving force, skillfully establishing—and providing greater resonance to—not only the tragedy that unfolds, but also emphasizing the underlying theme of corrupted innocence which is further exacerbated by a number of pointed innuendos involving characters’ sordid predilections (i.e., pedophilia) and even political impunity.  

WSHD? looks absolutely gorgeous on Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray, which features a brand-new 2K restoration from the 35mm camera negative. From the film’s snow-covered opening at a ski resort in France to the moodily-lit, fog-enshrouded alleys of Venice, every detail of Di Giacomo’s 2-perf Techniscope framing comes through looking crystal-clear. As with some of their earlier Italo-horror releases, Arrow have once again presented the film in both its Italian and English incarnations with alternate titles and credits, both of which also feature clean, uncompressed mono 1.0 LPCM audio, that really does wonders for Morricone’s unique and at times unsettling score. Unfortunately, Lazenby did not perform his own voice-dubbing, and although he is dubbed coherently enough by American actor Michael Forest, the Italian version (which includes new, properly-translated subtitles) remains the preferable option. 

Italian soggetto courtesy of Peter Jilmstad.
Additionally, further complementing the first-rate transfer, Arrow have included an ample of amount of valuable extras, which get underway with an audio commentary from author and film historian Troy Howarth who, this time around, thoroughly discusses the history and longevity of the giallo, and how it was such commercially-minded genre films that kept the Italian film industry (quote) “afloat”. He also examines the film itself in great detail, including some of the initial casting choices, many of WSHD?’s themes (e.g., “The concept of the older generation corrupting and destroying the young…”), Lazenby’s controversial decision to leave the James Bond franchise after only a single film, as well as discussing the present film’s principal cast and crew members. An engaging listen to be sure, and an excellent primer to help one better understand the Italian film industry and just how prolific it once was all those years ago. 

Insightful and sharp as a whip, Aldo Lado has plenty to say in I Saw Her Die (56m55s), an in-depth interview wherein he specifically discusses WSHD? (including plenty of anecdotal recollections) and his career in general, including his time working as an assistant director on Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST (1970) and his longstanding working relationship with famed composer Ennio Morricone. In Nicoletta, Child of Darkness (27m26s)—one of the disc’s highlights—former child actress Nicoletta Elmi recalls her many experiences working on such noteworthy productions as Dario Argento’s DEEP RED (1975), her starring role in Massimo Dallamano’s THE NIGHT CHILD (1977), and even though she doesn’t have too many memories about the present title, she does speak most fondly about Lazenby. Next up, writer-director Francesco Barilli recalls the many trials and tribulations of his own (quote) “messy film career” in Once Upon a Time, in Venice… (31m29s), during which he is seen shrugging his shoulders at the memory of working with unimaginative, frugal producers who simply didn’t share his artistic vision, although he praises Aldo Lado for delivering a very true-to-script film. And lastly, author and film critic Michael MacKenzie also offers up his views on WHO SAW HER DIE? as well as Aldo Lado’s (quote) “healthy” filmography in Giallo in Venice (26m17s). English and Italian trailers and a brief image gallery (1m40s) are also included. As with most of Arrow’s fine releases, the disc is nicely adorned with reversible artwork, featuring both new art from Haunt Love on one side and WSHD?’s original Italian poster on the other. In addition, as per the company’s usual marketing strategy, the first pressing includes a 35-page booklet of liner notes containing a couple of excellent essays from Rachael Nisbet and Troy Howarth. 

Technically assured and emotionally powerful, Aldo Lado’s superior giallo should not be missed—even more-so on Arrow Video’s flawless transfer and extras-packed Blu-ray! Order it from DiabolikDVD.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

KILLER CROCODILE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Belatedly following in the footsteps of fellow Italian director Sergio Martino’s enjoyably ambitious THE GREAT ALLIGATOR (1979), which was shot in the jungles of Sri Lanka ten years earlier, producer / director Fabrizio De Angelis travelled to the tropical island of Santo Domingo to helm his very own giant monster movie, KILLER CROCODILE (1989), this time featuring another semiaquatic reptilian: a crocodile. And while we’re on the subject of giant crocodilian killers here, it’s difficult not to mention Sompote Sands’ Thai-produced CROCODILE (1979), for which, in Dick Randall’s extensively reworked U.S. version, an atomic explosion—’50s creature feature-style!—was included at the outset to help account for the croc’s inordinate size. 

Directing under his usual anglicized pseudonym of “Larry Ludman”, De Angelis was, first and foremost, a successful, cost-efficient producer (he produced most of Lucio Fulci’s gore-soaked films from the early ’Eighties), who began his directorial career with the Rambo-inspired rip-off, THUNDER (1983) and its two sequels, all three of which enjoyed healthy domestic home video exposure via Trans World Entertainment Betamax / VHS videocassettes. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, KILLER CROCODILE has remained stubbornly unavailable for years, but thanks to Severin Films, this entertaining ‘nature-strikes-back’ flick finally makes its official North American debut on digital disc.

Audaciously stealing the entire template from Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975), if bringing a distinctively ’Eighties flavour to the proceedings with its toxic waste scenario, KILLER CROCODILE follows a group of ecology students led by Kevin (Richard Anthony Crenna, son of late American actor Richard Crenna [1926–2003]) who, in an unnamed tropical country in the Caribbean, quickly discover that someone has been irresponsibly dumping barrels of radioactive waste into one of the area’s many rivers. In a fitting nod to Godzilla, arguably the greatest movie monster of all time, which was also spawned by nuclear fallout, one of the environmentalists equates this hazardous waste to “Leftovers from Hiroshima!” After one of their party inexplicably goes missing, only to later turn up horribly mauled (making for a nice shock-scare), the gang head into town to see the Judge (token American name actor Van Johnson), who advises them to (quote) “keep away from that swamp!” In the one of the film’s many JAWS-inspired moments, in order to avoid a panic locally, the coroner is coerced into falsifying his findings by blaming the death on a (quote) “boat prop.” Eventually, the town’s venerable croc-hunter Joe (Enio Girolami [1935–2013]) vows to kill the actual perpetrator—a gigantic (quote, as per the title) “killer crocodile”, natch!—while Kevin, ordinarily ever the pacifist, has a sudden change of heart and decides that this (quote) “beast from hell” must die!  

Granted, the film may be highly-derivative, but it is never dull. De Angelis really makes the most of his meagre budget, and KC’s greatest production value—as you might understandably be expecting—is unquestionably Giannetto De Rossi’s full-scale animatronic croc mock-up. While better-known for his splattery makeup effects on many of Fulci’s latter-day shock/gore films, such as ZOMBIE (1979), De Rossi does an admirable job given the poor working conditions he was afforded in Santo Domingo (as heard elsewhere on one of this disc’s many extra features). Even though it’s clunky, De Rossi’s fiberglass reptilian ravager never ceases to entertain with its relentless dubbed-on roaring (!) and cavernous mouth bloodily chomping-down on its human victims. As with most of these ‘last gasp’ Italo-horrors, many of the characters aren’t given much to do and likewise fall victim to the weak script they have to work from, with only Crenna and Italian actor Pietro Genuardi showing any real enthusiasm towards the material. Veteran Italian actor “Thomas Moore” a.k.a. Enio Girolami (the late big brother of Enzo G. Castellari) also does his darnedest to imitate Robert Shaw’s cantankerous shark-hunting sea salt Quint from JAWS. And, speaking of Spielberg’s film yet again, Riz Ortolani’s John Williams-influenced score keeps things moving along efficiently in spite of its highly-imitative nature. 

Scanned in 2K from the original negative, Severin’s new disc looks mighty fine indeed, accentuating the lush jungle foliage and bloody croc attacks very nicely and, unlike the French double-DVD set from Neo Publishing (that included both KILLER CROCODILE and its 1990 sequel KC II), which was slightly squeezed to an incorrect 1.66 aspect ratio, Severin’s disc also reinstates the film’s proper 1.85:1 framing, thus increasing the pictorial data on either side of the frame. Severin’s disc contains both English and Italian DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio tracks, both of which sound very good given the inherent limitations of the film’s original recordings. Unfortunately—and quite surprisingly—though, no English subtitles have been included for the Italian track. Most viewers will likely prefer to go with the English audio anyway, which not only features Van Johnson’s familiar real voice, but also those of a number of voice talent veterans (such as Pat Starke and Frank Von Kuegelgen) as well. English closed captions for hearing-impaired are also included.

Along with Federico Caddeo’s Freak-O-Rama Productions, Severin Films produced a number of admirable special extras for this release, beginning with In the Jaws of the Crocodile (13m47s), an on-camera interview with Giannetto De Rossi wherein he talks about Fabrizio De Angelis and how he viewed making films as a (quote) “business opportunity” and nothing more, which meant he always kept costs low on all his productions. Apparently, the input of De Rossi’s F/X shop on the present film was especially feeble, with only (quote) “a few trainees” on set to assist him. De Rossi can also barely keep a straight face when he speaks about KILLER CROCODILE 2 (1990), his rather bland directorial debut, which he calls the (quote) “least-professional project” of his life and freely admits he is a (quote) “terrible director.” In The Fearless Crocodile Hunter (23m23s), Pietro Genuardi speaks with great candour about his three months on location in Santo Domingo and how De Angelis was (quote) “full of character… a bulldozer”; while, in Of Crocodiles and Men (14m34s), yet another on-camera interview, his co-star Richard Anthony Crenna, talks about his first leading role and how, as a first-timer, intimidated he felt on-set. In the final interview, DP “Frederick Hail” / Frederico Del Zoppo talks about the brass tacks of low-budget filmmaking, especially when allotted such little money and limited time constraints. He also refers to director De Angelis as a “cobra”, who was quiet but (quote) “knew when to use the stick against us.” And finally, the film’s spoiler-laden trailer (3m08s) is also included, which first-time-viewers might want to watch after the movie rather than before it! 

As with Neo Publishing’s aforementioned double-disc set, Severin Films also offer both films in a 2-disc Limited Edition (allocated to a healthy 4000 copies) set, which houses the film’s sequel (also scanned in 2K!) on a separate Blu-ray. In spite of this much-appreciated gesture, however, KC II itself is inferior in every way. It spends waaaaay too much time detailing the efforts of a multinational conglomerate nefariously scheming to build a Caribbean vacation resort, while a pesky reporter (Debra Karr) arrives to investigate possible radioactive fallout in the area, only to discover not only a conspiracy of cover-ups but also that—once again—a giant croc is terrorizing the local river system. While exceedingly slow on the uptake, the film does at least feature a number of hilarious, laugh-out-loud attack scenes, which will certainly go far in appeasing more tolerant viewers. For the most part, though, this soggy sequel possesses little-to-none of the first film’s trashy verve, and is, at best, only sporadically entertaining. In what turns out to be a tribute disc of sorts to De Rossi, Severin have also seen fit to include Naomi Holwill’s feature-length documentary, The Prince of Plasma: The Giannetto De Rossi Story (82m), which focuses on the life and career of this celebrated—and highly prolific—makeup effects guru, making for one of the true highlights of this entire set. A short deleted scene from KILLER CROCODILE 2 (4m13s) plus the film’s equally-spoiler-laden trailer (2m44s) are also included. In addition, the Limited Edition includes a colourful slipcover, which, in keeping with the film’s blatantly copycat nature, includes slightly-reworked artwork from the U.S. one-sheet poster for Sands’ aforementioned CROCODILE.  

In spite of KILLER CROCODILE’s many obvious imperfections, it nevertheless remains an engrossing and wholly satisfying film and, what with the crisp new transfers and all the plentiful extra features, Severin Films have provided Italo-horror fans with plenty of reasons to grab themselves this 2-disc Limited Edition! Order it from Severin Films here or as part of the Severin Films August Bundle

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

THE PREY - BLU-RAY REVIEW

A well-made, low-budget slasher film, Edwin S. Brown’s THE PREY (1980) hasn’t been available on home video since its domestic 1985 Betamax / VHS videocassette from Thorn/EMI, and, since then it has quietly disappeared into slasher movie oblivion. Thanks to Arrow Video (and above all Ewan Cant, one of Arrow’s acquisition gurus, whose unflappable determination made this release a reality), this neglected and highly-distinctive woodland slice ’n’ dicer has made its worldwide Blu-ray debut in grand fashion with this extraordinary Limited Edition 2-disc set.  

Produced in 1980, but not released until 1983, THE PREY’s rudimentary premise handily prefigures many of the key slasher films of its decade, and while it may be lacking in visceral punch, the film does possess a markedly different tone, one that is similar to that in Jeff Lieberman’s unsettling slasher / survivalist film JUST BEFORE DAWN (1980). Amidst the Keen Wild National Park, a number of disappearances have been occurring in Northpoint, one of the park’s least-explored areas, which back in 1948 had been the site of a devastating forest fire that left a number of nomadic gypsies (quote) “burnt to a crisp.” As dictated by the genre’s well-worn machinations, three young couples set out for Northpoint for a weekend of hiking and climbing, but, unbeknownst to them, hidden among the scenic surroundings teeming with fauna, a predator of a very different kind begins stalking the group…

While exceedingly straightforward in their basic set-up, the filmmakers most certainly do take a more novel approach to the proceedings, a fact which is most obvious in the inclusion of abundant wildlife footage that is liberally interspersed throughout the narrative (including some striking macrophotography of numerous insects). According to Ewan Cant’s and Amanda Reyes’ excellent audio commentary, which accompanies the theatrical version of the film, these scenes have been a (quote) “sticking point” for many viewers. But, as the commentators also point out, the concept for THE PREY did originally come about during a (quote) “cultural moment with the environment”. Indeed, the film does take an active, respectful stance towards the natural ecosystem seen in the film, successfully making the very wilderness milieu itself into a character in its own right, and this unique ‘ecocentric’ perspective remains just as prescient today as it was forty years ago. In what would become a virtually obligatory staple ingredient of many an out-in-the-bush slasher film from the period, the campfire scene (“Are you ready? I wanna tell you a curious story…”) is here juxtaposed with the campers preparing and eating their dinner while, simultaneously, indigenous carnivorous Animalia hunt and devour their prey; all the while, heard coming from off-screen are a series of overlapping campsite conversations (including a retelling of W.W. Jacobs’ classic short horror story, The Monkey’s Paw [Dodd Mead, 1902]). Not unlike some lower-budgeted Robert Altman film, this wonderfully mesmerizing sequence not only stresses the primal ‘survival-of-the-fittest / only-the-strong-survive’ hierarchical behaviours to be found in both Man and Beast, but also illustrates their (i.e., our) innate predatory nature, instinctive behavioural traits which are further underscored by numerous shots shown from the killer’s point-of-view as he stealthily stalks his own prey (…humans, natch!).  

For the most part, THE PREY is languorously—and eerily—paced, with convincing imagery of the region’s various animal life providing the necessary otherworldly atmosphere. When Gail (Gayle Gannes), the most urbanite of the hikers, suddenly starts blaring her portable radio while preparing for bed, Greg (Philip Wenckus), her somewhat-too-submissive boyfriend, politely remarks, “Come on, Gail. Turn it off! Let’s listen to the woods [instead]”. This is a rather witty, humorous touch on the filmmaker’s part, since it was Gail who, earlier in the film, had thought (quote) “Something was out there!” Although thinly-sketched, as per the usual formula, much of the narrative strives to humanize and help us to identify with the characters, and the (quote) “likeable” cast commit themselves sincerely to the material, the noteworthy standouts being Debbie Thureson and Lori Lethin (the latter later seen in Ed Hunt’s BLOODY BIRTHDAY [1981], yet another unique slash-’em-up). As largely laconic, lovingly benign Forest Ranger Mark O’Brien, Jackson Bostwick (who is probably best-remembered as Captain Marvel in the short-lived TV series, SHAZAM! [1974 – 1975]) features in some of the film’s more memorably eccentric scenes, one of which involves an extended joke about “wide-mouthed frogs” (!), but Ranger O’Brien is nevertheless fully cognizant of the potential dangers of venturing out to the Northpoint (“Not too many go up there!”). Also worth mentioning is Jackie Coogan (a former Hollywood child star whose career dated back to cinema’s silent era who later became re-familiar to many as Uncle Fester on THE ADDAMS FAMILY [1964-1966]), who here appears in a cameo / bit part as Lester Tile (his final film), O’Brien’s boss at the Ranger Station, who vividly recollects the horrific aftermath of the (quote) “worst mother fire in history!” 

A true labour of love, Arrow Video’s new 2K restoration, which was scanned from the original camera negative, looks spectacular on their new Limited Edition Blu-ray, especially when compared to Thorn/EMI’s faded and muddy ol’ videocassette. Revealing all sorts of previously-unseen details (e.g., look closely for a man burning alive in the film’s opening forest fire, a detail which was completely obscured on Thorn’s ancient analog tape!), Arrow’s highly-attractive new transfer is a real godsend for fans of the film, which finally enables viewers to better appreciate the early makeup F/X work by John Carl Buechler (GHOULS [1984], TROLL [1986], etc.), as well as better showcasing the crisp cinematography of João Fernandes, a prolific and talented DP, who also lent his considerable talents to such films of interest as Armand Weston’s THE NESTING (1981), Joseph Zito’s THE PROWLER (1981 [another iconic slasher]) and Gerard Damiano’s horror-tinged “porno chic” effort, MEMORIES WITHIN MISS AGGIE (1974). The LPCM 1.0 audio also sounds quite robust and well-balanced, oscillating nicely between Don Peake’s sometimes piercing score and the film’s sometimes quietly hypnotic wildlife footage, which allows you to both look at and “listen to the woods.”

As with Arrow Video’s previous extras-packed Blu-ray releases (also produced and coordinated by Cant) of other lesser-seen slasher films, such as John Grissmer’s BLOOD RAGE (1987) and J.S. Cardone’s THE SLAYER (1982), THE PREY is also chock-full of extras which would put most other video labels to shame. As mentioned earlier, extras begin with an easygoing, fact-filled audio commentary from Ewan Cant and Are You inthe House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999 (Headpress, 2017) author Amanda Reyes. Since Cant managed to obtain its original shooting script, the two discuss much of the film’s original shooting dates and its magnificent Idyllwild locations; also themes of (quote) “urbanoia”; the significance of The Monkey’s Paw story; the alternate International Cut featuring the ‘gypsy flashback’ (more on that later); the film’s connection to the many eco-horror films of the ’Seventies; other (quote) “crispy killer” movies; plus many of the THE PREY’s cast and crew members are just a few of the discussions stuffed into a swift 80 minutes.       

Acting very much like audio commentaries themselves, the disc also contains a pair of separate audio interviews with director Edwin Brown (57m39s) and his wife Summer Brown (74m05s), the film’s producer and co-writer, both of which are conducted once again by Ewan Cant. In the first, director Brown discusses many of his early gigs, including his stint as writer-producer on Gregory Goodell’s HUMAN EXPERIMENTS (1979); his working relationship with João Fernandes (“He had a great eye!”); his candid admission to adding some extra insert shots of insects to pad-out THE PREY, a decision which he deems (quote) “legitimate” in this instance, since their inclusion logically corresponds with one of the film’s main themes; his collaboration with Summer, who helped put his script into more (quote) “comprehensible verbiage”; and, last but by no means least, we have producer Joe Steinman, who may have been involved in the alternate cut involving the (quote) “gypsies, the fire and all that bullshit!” In the second lengthy interview, Summer Brown talks about the origins of the film inspired by the (quote) “incredible success of HALLOWEEN” (1978); her embarrassment about the unnecessary gypsy flashback version; as well as the finished product’s distribution woes. And on yet another separate audio track, audience reactions were recorded from the film’s restoration premiere at this year’s Texas Frightmare Weekend convention.

A number of on-camera interviews also accompany the disc, including Gypsies, Camps and Screams (27m01s), with Debbie Thureson; Babe in the Woods (13m45s), with Lori Lethin; Gayle on Gail (11m49s), with Gayle Gannes Rosenthal; The Wide-Mouthed Frog and Other Stories (18m20s), with Jackson Bostwick; and Call of the Wild (7m13s), with Carel Struycken, who played the towering so-called “Monster”. Everyone discusses most of their early acting stints, including plenty of television work and commercials (even including some vintage clips from Ms. Thureson’s own TV commercial work) and in addition discussing the (quote) “easy and comfortable” atmosphere on set. Most everyone also discusses the spectacular locations of Idyllwild and how much of the dialogue was at times (quote) “improvisational”, and which, according to Ms. Gannes, “…all felt very natural.” And speaking of Gayle, be sure to check out Gayle’s Original Sweet ’n’ Sassy Barbecue Sauce! Other extras on the first disc include In Search of The Prey (13m58s), a fun visit to the Idyllwild locations with Debbie Thureson, Ewan Cant and cinematographer Jim Kunz, who even re-enact some of the film’s more notable scenes, and lastly, there’s a Q&A session involving Lethin and Bostwick during which Struycken also turns up, in footage shot following a screening at the above-cited Texas Frightmare Weekend. A VHS-sourced trailer (1m24s) finishes off the extensive extras.

Limited to 3000 copies, the second Blu-ray contains the now-legendary International Cut (95m37s), featuring the incredibly obtrusive gypsy flashback, which stops the film dead in its tracks and quite frankly sticks out like a sore thumb. Unfolding during the film’s aforementioned campfire scene, this nearly 20-minute sequence was shot well after the fact (by different filmmakers, no less, and without the Browns’ knowledge). It even features a number of softcore sex scenes with adult film stars of the era, including John Leslie and Eric Edwards, who are heard to utter such typically inane skinflick talk as, “Think of the last time he gave you a gentle touch.” Regardless of how one may feel about this alternate version, it’s a fascinating (and much-appreciated) extra just the same, which was likewise (quote) “scanned in 2K resolution.” In an even-more-confusing state of affairs, both cuts of the film each contained footage that was unique to one another, so a Composite “Fan” Cut (102m34s) utilizing footage from both the U.S. Theatrical and International Cut was also meticulously constructed. In a fortuitous circumstance, Severin Films’ David Gregory also succeeded in locating a reel of rare outtakes (45m48s), which helps to set the record straight regarding THE PREY’s once-confusing production history. 

As usual, Arrow’s packaging is absolutely superb, featuring reversible cover art of the film’s original U.S. one-sheet poster, as well as all-new artwork care of Justin Osbourn anda slipcover featuring the film’s U.K. video artwork too. A 27-page booklet includes essays by Ewan Cant on the film’s previously nebulous production history, and there’s a terrific—verrrry detailed!—look into the laborious patchwork reconstruction of those alternate cuts by OCN Labs’ and Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin. To top it all off, Arrow have even included a replica of a Day Use Permit for the Keen Wilderness shooting location. A very nice touch, indeed! Stunningly restored and lovingly put together, this BD package easily ranks right up there among Arrow Video’s finest, most surprising releases of the year. Order it from DiabolikDVD.