Sunday, October 30, 2016


In the spirit of Halloween, let’s take a look at Retromedia Entertainment’s JACK-O AND FRIENDS – The STEVE LATSHAW COLLECTION, which contains JACK-O (1995 – identified as JACKO LANTERN in the opening credits), a very low-budget if lively production about a resurrected demon sporting a giant jack-o’-lantern for a head.  Produced by Fred Olen Ray for his American Independent production company, JACK-O is the main attraction on this limited, 2-disc triple feature DVD, which also contains Latshaw’s earlier DARK UNIVERSE (1993) and BIOHAZARD: THE ALIEN FORCE (a.k.a. BIOHAZARD 2, 1994), a sequel of sorts to Ray’s BIOHAZARD (1983).  While deceased at the time of filming, both John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell appear in JACK-O, thanks to the resourcefulness of Ray, who had unused footage of both late actors at his disposal.  Utilizing true exploitation chutzpa, Latshaw and screenwriters Ray, Brad Linaweaver and Patrick Moran incorporated most of this footage into the main feature. 

Unfolding in the fictional town of Oakmoor, an old warlock (Carradine) was put to death by Arthur Kelly (Mike Connor) and the local townsfolk, but, before dying, he unleashed Jack-O, a demonic killer known as “The Pumpkin Man,” to exact revenge on his killers.  Having been destroyed by Kelly, the pumpkin man lay dormant for decades, until three drunken teens – who all appear to be well into their twenties, as per the usual norm – desecrate the grave on Halloween night, thus setting Jack-O free.  Not only does Jack-O wreak havoc in the quiet suburban town of Oakmoor, he also seeks vengeance on Kelly’s ancestors; in particular Sean Kelly (Ryan Latshaw), an unassuming child who has recently been plagued by various nightmares involving the pumpkin-headed horror.

In spite of the very low-budget, JACK-O is one of the better direct-to-video films produced during the mid-’Nineties.  Obviously not to be taken seriously, JACK-O does – possibly inadvertently – capture the spirit and fun of the Halloween season and, as silly as the titular scythe-wielding demon is, his bulbous pumpkin head – with glowing orange eyes and an evil grin – is eerily effective at times.  Populated with the usual rather stiff actors, it must be said that Latshaw’s son Ryan actually manages to portray a meek-mannered, bullied kid rather well… but perhaps he wasn’t just acting!  As the obligatory babysitter, veteran scream queen Linnea Quigley performs her ‘duties’ with solid professionalism, including doing a lengthy and totally gratuitous shower scene, which was most likely expected of her.  Much like he did in Robert Worms III’s direct-to-video compilation TERROR ON TAPE (1983), Cameron Mitchell plays Dr. Cadaver, a horror host showing something called “THE COVEN”, featuring original footage of Brinke Stevens as a witch, which doesn’t propel the story forward any, but does add to the Halloween spirit of it all.  At times overly convoluted with a host of peripheral characters, JACK-O is a surprisingly entertaining bit of innocuous silliness that delivers all the requisite exploitation staples.  

Isolated to the first disc, JACK-O is loaded with special features, including a solid commentary from both Latshaw and producer Fred Olen Ray, who offer some great anecdotes about filming low-budget films, and, in a few instances, things even get a little heated when they seem to be taking opposing sides regarding the gratuitous nudity and its placement within the film; it’s a good, lively listen.  Other extras include a fairly in-depth “making-of” featurette, which includes loads of behind-the-scenes footage.  A trailer for the film finishes things off.

Yet another direct-to-video release, BIOHAZARD: THE ALIEN FORCE, opens the second disc and, according to Latshaw, this actually played theatrically in South Korea, where its “name”-star, Christopher Mitchum, is (was?) big box-office. Much like Ray’s original BIOHAZARD, this is yet another monster-on-the-loose film, which – even when compared to Ray’s cheapo 35mm original – was done dirt-cheap.  Triton Industries has, through the use of combined human DNA from a number of donors, developed a slimy humanoid creature that is viciously offing folks in and around central Florida.  An ex-employee at Triton named Mike (Steve Zurk), along with a feisty reporter (Susan Fronsoe), are trying to get to the bottom on the rash of killings, but, further complicating matters, a laconic hitman named Quint (Tom Ferguson) is attempting to destroy any evidence related to Triton at the behest of Brady (Christopher Mitchum), the company’s ruthless CEO.

Lionsgate's 2005 DVD release.
Originally conceived as a simplistic creature feature along the lines of Stephen Traxler’s SLITHIS (1977), director Latshaw seemed intent on doing something different with BIOHAZARD: THE ALIEN FORCE, and the film quickly morphed into an overly ambitious action film, which does move at an entertaining enough clip, with plenty of poverty row action scenes, some of which were even spliced-in from F.O. Ray’s The TOMB (1986), but don’t necessarily mesh well with the other footage. Designed by John Carl Buechler, the titular so-called “alien force” (a silly retitle, since it’s not extraterrestrial in nature), is an effective man-in-a-suit monster, which looks like a cross between the creature in William Malone’s SCARED TO DEATH (1980) and Don Dohler’s rubbery, inexpressive NIGHTBEAST (1982) baddie; which isn’t a bad thing per se, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before.  Although BIOHAZARD: THE ALIEN FORCE does have some inventive touches – for instance, the creature seeking out its DNA donors – it’s really up to the cast to inject any real substance.  TV character actor Steve Zurk plays the usual ‘hero’ with the necessary but stereotypically gruff self-confidence. As the resourceful reporter, Susan Fronsoe interacts well with Zurk, and, in typical exploitation fashion, she even gets topless during a rather amusing post-coital bedroom scene.  In another gratuitous scene, the ‘well-proportioned’ Katherine Culliver – as one of the DNA donors – is interrupted while making love and sculpting (!?), both at the same time!  Pioneering Florida filmmaker William Grefé also gets a cameo discussing “jellyfish monsters” and the “death curse of Tartu”, which does register as a little forced, but it’ll make most “in-the-know” viewers smile just the same. 

Featuring yet another relaxed but enjoyable audio commentary with Latshaw and Ray, they freely admit to “smokin’, drinkin’ and eatin’ pizza,” and encourage viewers to do likewise while watching the movie.  As usual, both men have plenty of stories revolving around their economical resourcefulness to tell – such as how they utilized shots of explosions from Disney’s ‘Miami Vice Stunt Show’ in their film, thus adding significant production values to it.  This commentary makes for another solid and entertaining listen.

Retromedia's 2001 DVD release.
Taking cues from Val Guest’s The QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955) and Robert Day’s FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959), the second film on disc 2 is about an astronaut (Steve Barkett) who returns to Earth as a giant alien after becoming infected by strange orange spores from outer space.  Upon crash-landing out in the Florida everglades, the alien begins stalking and picking-off a search crew while the extraterrestrial spores begin taking-over the entire swamp. 

The is easily the most threadbare of Latshaw’s films in this collection, so it’s nice to see the improvements he made with each successive film.  Featuring endless scenes of talking heads – where no one really says anything of any importance – and aimless wandering through the everglades, the film is all exposition, and even the monster is kinda ineffective and ho-hum; a typically inexpressive and immobile, H.R. Giger-inspired alien.  As is customary, DARK UNIVERSE does provide the usual exploitation staples, including nudity, some gore, and, in one particularly hilarious (and certainly original) scene, an infected armadillo attacks an amorous couple right in mid-coitus!    

DU features yet another audio commentary with Latshaw and Ray, which is far more interesting than the movie itself, with the usual anecdotes and interesting tidbits of info and trivia, such as how the monster was reused in Ray’s and Jim Wynorski’s threadbare DINOSAUR ISLAND (1994).  Other extras on disc 2 include trailers for both BIOHAZARD 2 and DARK UNIVERSE, a blooper reel for BIOHAZARD 2 (7m34s) and footage from GATOR BABES (7m20s [“that jungle is full of big, mean, pissed-off Amazon women!”]), plus a trailer for said mock movie, which was used in Ray’s BIKINI DRIVE-IN (1995).

Totaling a nice, inexpensive triple feature, Retromedia’s JACK-O & FRIENDS is an undemanding night’s entertainment, which is well worth picking up for the commentaries alone, especially for a mere twenty bucks.  Currently available on Amazon here, grab this limited edition DVD before it sells out and starts commanding exorbitant prices online!   

Monday, October 24, 2016


Often dismissed and much-maligned, even by hardcore Fulci aficionados, Lucio Fulci’s MANHATTAN BABY (1982) is undoubtedly one of his lesser efforts from the time period, which encompassed some of his most popular, gore-drenched efforts, such as The BEYOND (1981) and The HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981).  Produced at the tail-end of his working relationship with producer Fabrizio De Angelis and writer Dardano Sacchetti, it’s easy to see why it didn’t – and still doesn’t – resonate with most audiences, what with its hackneyed hodgepodge of ideas that seemingly go nowhere.  Much like the works of Jess Franco, however, if viewed in context within Fulci’s body of work of that time, it all begins to make sense a little more, and, for more forgiving fans, it can be enjoyed as a strange if entertaining blip in the maestro’s career.

While in Egypt on an archeological dig, George Hacker (Christopher Connelly) becomes intrigued by an unexplored and possibly cursed tomb while his wife Emily (Martha Taylor / a.k.a. Laura Lenzi) and their young daughter Susie (Brigitta Boccoli) take in the sights.  Susie is approached by a mysterious woman, who gives her a strange, eye-shaped amulet with a blue gem in its centre.  At the same time, while George is exploring the mysterious tomb, he gets blinded by an intense blue light.  Upon returning to New York, Susie is soon taken-over by some sort of malefic force, which also opens a portal to other dimensions allowing her brother Tommy (Giovanni Frezza) and their babysitter Jamie Lee (Cinzia De Ponti) to venture between ‘time and space’, an inexplicable phenomenon which results in sand from the banks of the Nile and – much more threateningly – even Egyptian black scorpions manifesting right in their bedroom.  As Susie’s paranormal condition continues to worsen, George and Emily are contacted by an antiques dealer named Adrian Marcato (Laurence Welles / a.k.a. Cosimo Cinieri), who may be able to help the family.

Swiping elements from a host of previous films, including Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), William Friedkin’s The EXORCIST (1973), and, to a lesser degree, Mike Newell’s The AWAKENING (1980), Fulci’s MANHATTAN BABY definitely takes a somewhat different approach, with less gore and an even-more-prevalent ‘metaphysical’ angle.  But, outside of the minimal gore, the film still contains a number of similarities to many of his more beloved films.  A slender plot, disjointed cutting and random weirdness – the bird attack scene comes readily to mind – highlight most of Fulci’s films from the period, and although much of it doesn’t come together as well as it did in some of his other, more popular films, MANHATTAN BABY still manages to be strangely endearing in that ‘fever dream’ kind of way.  Highlighted by some excellent location work in Egypt – which was apparently tacked-on as an afterthought to give it a more international flavour – and also in New York, the open vistas of the Sahara provide definite contrast to some of the more claustrophobic settings of Fulci’s earlier films, giving it a much more expansive look and feel, much like Friedkin did with The EXORCIST. Perfectly complimenting the visuals is Fabio Frizzi’s magnificent score, which he recalls as a very enjoyable experience composing due to his fascination with Egyptology, and although parts of the film reuse snippets of music from both ZOMBIE (1979) and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), it’s easily the best aspect of this seemingly troubled production, as well as one of Frizzi’s most accomplished works. 

Periodically frequenting Italian screens at that time, American actor Christopher Connelly is rather too bland as the lead, and is given very little to do other than simply look concerned/worried, and although Laura Lenzi is no Catriona MacColl acting-wise, her physical resemblance to MacColl is at times oddly similar.  As usual, Fulci gets the most out of his child actors and, much like the aforementioned The HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, most of the action unfolds around them. However, Giovanni Frezza is once again badly-dubbed and, at one memorable and hilarious point, he calls his sister a “lousy lesbian” after a game of softball.

No matter how negatively MANHATTAN BABY is generally regarded, Blue Underground’s newest Blu-ray is a truly incredible package for sure, which not only sports a new 2K transfer of the film, but also a whole wealth of extras, most of which revolve around composer and frequent Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi.  The first, and most significant extra, “Fulci and I”, is an hour-long interview with Frizzi conducted in his studio as he and his band rehearse in preparation for one of their concerts.  It’s a career-spanning interview, which predominantly focuses on his work with Fulci, his admiration for the man and their working relationship, beginning with his days as one of the members of the prolific Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera trio – which also included Franco Bixio and Vince Tempera – who scored some of Fulci’s earlier films, like The FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975) and The PSYCHIC (1977).  In “Manhattan Baby Suite”, a sort of deleted scene from the Frizzi interview, a “live studio performance” is performed before the cameras.  Shorter (yet no less significant) interviews with actor Cosimo Cinieri and makeup effects guru Maurizio Trani are also included, and ported over from the earlier (circa 2001) Anchor Bay DVD, writer Dardano Sacchetti is also interviewed, wherein he discusses his dissatisfaction with the end result, along with his original unused concepts for the film.

In yet another interview, Stephen Thrower, author of “Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci”, also offers his thoughts, freely admitting to the film’s many problematic issues, although he still finds things about it to appreciate, including some of Frizzi’s musical contributions to the film, which he also considers to be some of his strongest work ever.  As a special bonus (similar to some of Blue Underground’s recent Blu-ray upgrades), they have also included the entire 12-track soundtrack CD previously issued by Italy’s Beat Records in 2011.  This is indeed a fabulous and highly welcome extra!  Last of all, Troy Howarth, author of “Splintered Visions: The Films of Lucio Fulci” contributes an excellent, thorough essay entitled “Lucio Fulci’s Egyptian Curse”, which is nicely illustrated in an 18-page booklet.  A trailer and an extensive photo and poster gallery finish off the extras.  A DVD of the film containing the exact same extras is also included.

While the film itself isn’t one of Fulci’s strongest undertakings, the same can’t be said about Blue Underground’s astounding Blu-ray, which alone is reason enough to pick up MANHATTAN BABY, and its pristine presentation may well encourage more people to give it another look (and a fairer shake), in spite of its many flaws.  Order it from Amazon or DiabolikDVD.