Wednesday, April 20, 2016

THAT'S SEXPLOITATION - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Faced with the rather daunting task of compiling a (quote) “visual history of over 40 years of sexploitation cinema”, BASKET CASE (1982) and BRAIN DAMAGE (1988) director Frank Henenlotter – along with ‘The Mighty Monarch of Exploitation’, David F. Friedman (1923-2011) – have, thanks to the massive archives of Mike Vraney (1958-2014), the late producer/owner-operator of Something Weird Video (SWV), created one of the most thorough and definitive documentaries on this fascinating subject. 

The doc is hosted by both Friedman (from his home in Anniston, Alabama) and Henenlotter, who were long-time associates of Vraney and helped propel SWV into the company it is today. Just a couple of years prior to his death, Friedman was in poor health at the time his interview herein was shot, but, as always, his memory was still sharp as ever and, despite his health problems, nonetheless remained one of the finest raconteurs, which certainly helps as he guides us through this once-forgotten, at times outlandish – if incredibly diverse – genre from film history. 

Covering everything from silent films – including footage from WHY THE GIRLS WALK HOME (192?) and UNCLE SI AND THE SIRENS (192?) – and early talkies, Mr. Friedman charts the inception of the (quote) “very stupid and very rigid” Hays Code during this time, which was put into place by that morally-conscious organization, the Legion of Decency, which in effect helped in creating an entire market for (s)exploitation cinema, because the “sexploiteers” weren’t bound by any code.  Sex hygiene films, “Goona-Goona” films (featuring topless natives), “monkey sex” (Gorillas chasing topless natives), smokers (early stag films), Sinerama cuties (early loops that played in Arcades), burlesque; the colourful nudist camp films and nudie-cuties – which Henenlotter freely and gleefully admits are “the stupidest films on the planet” – are just some of the subgenres covered before things move onward into the (quote) “prime time” of sexploitation: the Sexy ’Sixties.  Nudies, roughies (“…more violence than sex, but the sex has got to be the raison d’être for the violence”), lesbian flicks, acid pictures and, finally, the death knell of the sexploitation era: the so-called “white-coaters”, the first hardcore “blue movies” disguised as “sex hygiene” films.

Even at 136 minutes, Henenlotter’s THAT’S SEXPLOITATION never even comes close to outstaying its welcome as it moves from one subgenre to another with ease and perfect clarity, and thankfully, both Friedman and Henenlotter not only add a ton of historical context, but at the same time, they never take the films they love too seriously, providing an amusing, enlightening and completely engrossing experience for both fans and newcomers alike.  The runtime is filled with tons of rather unbelievable anecdotes, including one about a feisty and bigoted city censor in Memphis, Tennessee who, at the time, was particularly incensed about racial integration in film – he actually censored the Little Rascals’ “Our Gang” due to Buckwheat! – which sort of led to the strangely-titled “Goona-Goona” pictures featuring topless natives only.  Other interesting tidbits include one about the cutting of various films due to the differing state censor boards, whose official jurisdictions varied, which resulted in a number of differently-edited/censored film prints circulating around the various regions, and in some cases, the actual shooting of two distinctly different versions, as is highlighted in TS by a fascinating scene-by-scene comparison of Eddie Kaye’s ESCORT GIRL (1943), featuring scenes from both the “cool” and “hot” version.  Later, Mr. Friedman also discusses Walter Bibo’s GARDEN OF EDEN (1954), the first nudist camp film, which ran into problems with the NY censor board.  After a prodigious court ruling where “nudity” in and of itself wasn’t deemed obscene, the floodgates opened, whereupon Times Square was inundated with nudist camp films. However, as for the new nudist genre’s poor pioneer Bibo, who spent all his time fighting in court, he ended up missing the boat himself, although, according to Friedman, “…he opened A LOT of doors!”  His recollections from the set of some of these rather innocuous films are also quite priceless, which he equates to, “a cold storage room of a meat-packing plant”, so they had to (quote), “salt the mines” and hire models to help make these films a little more digestible to the paying public.  Although always the consummate storyteller, Mr. Friedman really gets into his groove when discussing most of his films from the ’60s, a section which includes discussions about Stacey Walker (of A SMELL OF HONEY, A SWALLOW OF BRINE [1966] fame), Marsha Jordan, roughies (“The anti-nudie cuties”) and acid (LSD/psychedelia-themed) pictures.  He also discusses the formation of the Adult Film Association of America (AFAA) in 1968, which largely assisted distributors and filmmakers with their legal issues, sometimes providing them with readymade “kits” to help with their defense in court.

Of course, being a “visual history”, this doc is highlighted by an absolute treasure trove of film clips culled from the SWV archives, which includes the usual staples like Doris Wishman’s NUDE ON THE MOON (1961) and BLAZE STARR GOES NUDIST (1962), Lee Frost’s HOUSE ON BARE MOUNTAIN (1962) and The DEFILERS (1965), Jonathan Lucas’ TRADER HORNEE (1970, “This is a show for the broad-mined.  I know you all got broads on the mind!”), Michael Findlay’s FLESH trilogy, the OLGA films, a great selection from their massive collection of nudie cutie loops and many, many, many more goodies besides, which are best left as a surprise for both the uninitiated and the seasoned SWV collector.  As usual, the doc also incorporates loads of great footage depicting old theatres and great marquees, including some for many of the seedier Storefront Theaters that began to appear in the early ’70s.


Released theatrically in 2013, THAT’S SEXPLOITATION finally made its bow this year on both Blu-ray and 2-disc DVD courtesy of Severin, and considering the clips are of varying image quality due to the vintage source materials, it all looks pretty damn amazing.  Of course, the newly-shot footage is razor-sharp, and even though many of the film clips were sourced in SD, many of them are in HD as well, so the picture quality varies from clip to clip, but to be truly honest, it doesn’t matter one bit.  The biggest extra is a very relaxed but highly informative commentary from director Henenlotter and Mike Vraney’s wife Lisa Petrucci, who discuss all sorts of great tidbits, including Henenlotter’s first meeting with Vraney; the project’s genesis, which was begun by Friedman in 1973, but was later aborted; the pilfering of Movielab, which resulted in a number of amazing finds, including such SWV staples such as Emilio Vieyra’s The CURIOUS DR. HUMPP (1969), and lots more.  It’s a great listen (and watch).  Like many of the ‘official’ SWV DVDs from Image, Severin has also decked-out their release with over three-and-a-half hours of short films and condensed versions of stuff like Michael Findlay’s The SIN SYNDICATE (1965) and Joe Sarno’s MOONLIGHTING WIVES (1966).  The documentary’s official trailer rounds out the plethora of extras.  Exceptional in every way, THAT’S SEXPLOITATION comes highly recommended, and warrants many repeat viewings, especially via Severin’s handsome, extras-laden release.  Order it from Severin films here or from Amazon here and remember, “You’re all dirty!”

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

BURIAL GROUND - BLU-RAY REVIEW



Produced in the wake of George A. Romero’s worldwide smash hit, DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and Lucio Fulci’s equally popular Italian cash-in ZOMBIE (1979) – which were promoted in Italy as ZOMBI and ZOMBI 2, respectively – Andrea Bianchi’s BURIAL GROUND (a.k.a. The NIGHTS OF TERROR, 1980) was just one of many zombie flicks trying to capitalize on the sudden surge of all things zombie.  Other films, such as Bruno Mattei’s HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) – which even had the audacity to pilfer Goblin’s memorable DAWN score – Umberto Lenzi’s NIGHTMARE CITY (1980) and Marino Girolami’s unforgettable cannibal/zombie mishmash ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (a.k.a. DR. BUTCHER M.D., 1980) soon followed and, as enjoyable as they all are, nothing can match the sheer gusto and sleazy vibe of Bianchi’s low-budget zombie opus.

The set-up – such that it is – is pure porno trash:  A group of weekend vacationers gather together at a large villa, but unbeknownst to them, the resident Professor has discovered a secret about the ancient Etruscans (“It’s true!  It must be!  It must be!!!”), and for reasons unclear, they begin to emerge from their centuries-old graves to munch on the unsuspecting guests.
German lobbycard courtesy of The Ferguson Foundation.

Crass and undeniably silly, Bianchi’s film does not indulge in any sociopolitical messaging and simply exists for one purpose only: to show people getting slaughtered and eaten by crusty-faced zombies; and on that level, it succeeds very admirably.  Shot at the Villa Parisi, just north of Rome in Frascati, this was a popular location for many film crews, which producer Gabriele Crisanti utilized to full effect while helming a series of now infamous low-budget sleaze shockers, including Bianchi’s earlier MALABIMBA (1979), Mario Landi’s PATRICK VIVE ANCORA (1980) and Mario Bianchi’s SATAN’S BABY DOLL (1982).  Imposing and bleak, this once-prominent stately home looks about as decayed as the zombies are, which definitely adds to the rather foreboding atmosphere, and Bianchi doesn’t hesitate for a second to take full advantage of it either; the shuffling, maggot-infested zombies almost seem to be part of the villa’s crumbling façade.  As in Fulci’s ZOMBIE, the zombies themselves are also appropriately rotted and strewn with maggots, which also lends the film a particularly nasty charm as they delve into heaping piles of steaming viscera or, as during a couple of inventive moments, use a giant scythe and battering ram to get at their victims; they’re a resourceful bunch, which only adds to the grim, comic-book type approach to the entire proceedings.  Another aspect well worth mentioning is Berto Pisano’s pilfered score (it was originally used in Romain Gary’s KILL! [1971]), which perfectly encapsulates the delirious nature of this impoverished production as it alternates between breezy jazz cues and some truly bizarre, discursive, but energetic synth work; a CD release would be most welcome. 

Populated by an interesting cast of Italian B-movie veterans, which includes Karin Well, Gianluigi Chrizzi, Antonella Antinori, Roberto Caporali and the wonderful Maria Angela Giordano as Evelyn (dubbed by Carolyn De Fonseca), most of the cast isn’t given much to do except battle zombies and sputter an inordinate amount of preposterous dialogue, which most hardcore fans of the film can readily quote.  Scripted by the incredibly prolific Piero Regnoli, who is responsible for well over one-hundred writing credits (including Bianchi’s lovably sleazy MALABIMBA [1979]), his work here doesn’t bother even attempting to develop anything of any real substance, with one character simply exclaiming that “something terrible is going to happen!”  However, during a typically morbid set of circumstances interspersed among the zombie mayhem, Evelyn’s son Michael (the insanely creepy-looking Peter Bark) is part of an unexpected subplot, involving his rather questionable ‘feelings’ towards his mother, which culminates in one of the film’s more ridiculous, but utterly unforgettable moments.
Spanish pressbook courtesy of The Ferguson Foundation.

Long available on video since the days of VHS, BURIAL GROUND first appeared in the U.S. and Canada (beware of heavily-cut versions!) courtesy of Vestron Video in an overly dark transfer, which left much to the imagination in many of the film’s darker scenes.  Although available on European DVD during the format’s early days, BURIAL GROUND made its official debut on U.S. DVD in 2002 courtesy of Shriek Show, in what was for the time, an adequate 16x9 transfer (albeit interlaced) of the uncut version, which sported the film’s original export title The NIGHTS OF TERROR.  Extras included interviews with Maria Angela Giordano and the not-very enthusiastic Gabriele Crisanti, as well as the film’s trailer and a small 4-page booklet with liner notes from AV Maniacs’ Charles Avinger and European Trash Cinema editor Craig Ledbetter.  Then, in 2011, Shriek Show revisited the film on Blu-ray, which was definitely a step-up in quality, if certainly not what everyone was hoping for, but – in an even more frustrating turn of events – it appeared that this Blu-ray contained a slightly shorter version, trimming the ends of reels or certain shots altogether (excisions totaling some 1m45s), and even though the gore was all intact, it’s a fairly significant amount of footage, to be sure.  For a more detailed look at the genesis of this ‘new version’ and precisely what is missing, visit here.  Retaining all the extras from the DVD, the Blu-ray also contained a number of previously unseen deleted scenes (albeit presented with no sound), which were definitely a nice bonus, and sweetened the package just a little.  In 2013, German label Illusions Unlimited had their go at the film – complete with beautiful packaging housed in one of those slick mediabooks – but it turned out to be a port of the Shriek Show Blu-ray, containing the same extras, minus the deleted scenes.

As with some of their earlier Blu-ray releases in their ‘Italian Collection’, 88 Films have once again stepped up to the plate and delivered yet another solid Blu-ray package.  Remastered from the original 16mm camera negative, the film has never looked better, with natural grain and excellent detail, which will undoubtedly please every fan of the film; plus, it’s the longest version to be presented on video thus far, running 85m11s.  Extras include an audio commentary with Giallo Pages editor John Martin; a retrospective look at the career of director Andrea Bianchi from Mikel Coven, author of La Dolce Morte; the aforementioned deleted scenes, a trailer and a choice between watching the film in Italian with English subtitles or the customary English dub.  As an added bonus, 88 Films have also provided an alternate version sourced from a 35mm ‘Grindhouse’ U.S. print under the title BURIAL GROUND, which runs 84m21s; the shorter running time is due to the abbreviated credit sequence.  Reversible packaging, an insert card and a nicely-illustrated booklet with notes from Calum Waddell round-out the extras on this hotly-anticipated Blu-ray.  Later this year, Severin Films will also release their own version of this much-maligned guilty pleasure and, judging from their stellar track record, it will be interesting to see the differences. 88 Films’ disc is Region B-locked, and can be ordered from Amazon UK here.  Order yours today before there shall be the nights of terror!