Monday, December 4, 2017

SLAUGHTER HIGH - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Set within a dilapidated old high school, a class prank that went horribly wrong years earlier sets the impetus for SLAUGHTER HIGH (1986), a rather ludicrous if quite memorable slasher film which has arrived on Blu-ray in a brand-spankin’-new transfer as part of Lionsgate’s continuing Vestron Video Collector’s Series.

Mark Rantzen (Simon Scuddamore) is the school geek of Doddsville High (or as the U.S. ads proclaimed, “The Dork of Doddsville High”!) who is constantly teased and bullied by his classmates, including class clown Skip (Carmine Iannaccone) and the school’s most popular hottie Carol (Caroline Munro). However, when one of their pranks goes very wrong, Mark gets badly disfigured in a chemistry mishap, which - needless to say! - leaves him yearning for revenge in a big (and hopefully messy) way. As per the usual template for this sort of formulaic fare, years later, Skip, Carol and the rest of the so-called dork/geek’s wrongdoers are mysteriously invited to a school reunion at their now very-run-down old alma mater, where they are - no great surprise there! - ritualistically killed-off one-by-one.

A predominantly-British production with some fleeting American input courtesy of producer Steve Minasian - one of the silent partners behind Sean S. Cunningham’s historical benchmark for the slice’n’dice/jab’n’stab genre, FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) - SLAUGHTER HIGH was, like some of Minasian’s other films, such as PIECES (1982) and DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS (1984), co-produced by exploitationer extraordinaire, Dick Randall. Hoping to cash-in on the last remnants of the slasher boom (which, by 1986, was, for all intents and purposes, very much on its last legs), co-directors Dugdale, Ezra and Litten were hoping to inject something new into a by-then-tired-out genre with some creative—and decidedly vicious—killings and dark humour, while, at the same time, staying true to the film’s type. The killer, although his identity is obvious right from the get-go, wears a rather unnerving jester/clown mask, which provides some necessary extra punch to many of SH’s kill scenes and, in a nice touch, amps-up the tension in others with the faint sounds of jingling bells being heard emanating through the desolate hallways of the derelict learning institution. All the standard archetypes are present, but what sets this movie apart from the rest of the slasher pack are its inventive, over-the-top kills: including one poor guy who shotguns a beer only to realize the can is filled with some sort of green ooze; which, quite literally, makes his stomach explode! In yet another oddball—not to mention completely nonsensical—demise, a female victim takes a bath and is reduced to a bloody skeleton by corrosive-laced water which pours into the tub from the tap.

In an additional connection to FRIDAY THE 13TH, composer Harry Manfredini contributes a cut-and-paste score, consisting of numerous cues from his earlier, now-iconic compositions, but he also contributes a suitably awful yet wholly appropriate theme song (co-written by John Caribbi), which perfectly establishes SH’s silly tone; although, it must be said, the film does display quite the unabashed mean streak, one which is far more pronounced than is usually seen in your average psycho killer film. In this respect, it is rather akin to Danny Steinman’s FRIDAY THE 13TH PART V: A NEW BEGINNING (1985), one of the nastier endeavours to be found in the entire stalk’n’slash/cut’n’gut canon.

Originally titled APRIL FOOL’S DAY, a title which had to be nixed when Paramount’s FRIDAY THE 13TH producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. announced Fred Walton’s same-named slasher spoof that very same year of ’86, Vestron Pictures did release the present film theatrically. However, in all probability, most people likely caught this via Vestron Video’s Beta/VHS videocassette release, which was made available in both R-rated and unrated versions. The film first debuted on U.S. DVD in 2009 via Lionsgate and their ’80s ‘Lost Collection’, and even though it was uncut, it was derived from a less-than-impressive, tape-sourced master. This same edition later popped-up in a 4-Film Collection and an 8-Film Collection, both again from Lionsgate, and which also included numerous other Vestron Pictures releases. Working from the interpositive, Lionsgate’s latest release is obviously their most attractive presentation of SH yet, which has been remastered in 2K for the occasion. The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded Blu-ray is once again presented uncut, while the heightened HD resolution is a vast improvement over all versions that have gone before, exhibiting far more detail, solid black levels and fairly robust colours, latter of which especially come alive during the hallucinogenic, candy-coloured ending. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio option also sounds crisp and clear, with no noticeable issues whatsoever, especially given the limitations of the low-budget production, and for anyone that may need them, Lionsgate has once again provided English SDH subtitles.

The abundant extras begin with an affable audio commentary care of co-directors Dugdale and Litten, which is nicely moderated by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher. Working with Dick Randall, they were given the opportunity to direct this FRIDAY THE 13TH clone and were asked by both Randall and Minasian to create something that was (quote) “the same, but different”, and that much of the film was (quote) “driven by what they could afford.” They discuss many of the cast members who, outside of veteran scream queen Caroline Munro, were all in their mid-twenties while trying to portray high-schoolers, and that many of the actual U.S.-born-and-bred actors were criticized for their ‘unconvincing’ American accents (?!). Much of the film was also (quote) “very loose” in its conception. Many of the ideas for the killings were simply thought up when Dugdale and Litten (quote) “met-up in a pub and had a chat.” In a surprising revelation, they explain how they had no input whatsoever into the music, and that fully half the film’s budget was used to hire Manfredini. The pair also discuss SH’s main shooting location, an actual still-standing if disused Victorian asylum which doubled for Doddsville High, along with the ‘accidental’ full-frontal nudity from Scuddamore and his unfortunate and very sad suicide soon after completing SH (which, despite rumours, was not a result of appearing in the film). They go on to discuss plenty of other anecdotes, including the killer’s signature jester/clown mask, which was simply purchased at a costume shop and used as-is; Randall’s brief cameo in the film, which they insist was not intended as a caricature; that Caroline Munro’s Soho apartment in the film belonged to London strip club magnate Paul Raymond; and that the extended chase sequence which concludes the film was helped along by (quote) “Steadicam guru” John Ward. Both Dugdale and Litten prove to be excellent raconteurs, and they span the film’s ninety minutes with ease. In a second audio commentary, or rather audio interview (21m01s), Felsher talks with composer Manfredini about the unavailability of his music, and how the only track they could locate was a (quote) “Mono Music and Effects Track”, which is included following the interview. Manfredini also discusses his early career and film work, such as Sean S. Cunningham’s HERE COME THE TIGERS (1978) and the cultural impact of FRIDAY THE 13TH, which generated a lot of work for him. He also admits that he was initially attracted to SLAUGHTER HIGH simply for the money, as well as how the film’s ostensible if obviously non-U.S. setting (quote) “threw him for a loop.”

Other no less significant extras include Red Shirt Pictures’ Going to Pieces (18m29s), an interview with co-writer / co-director Mark Ezra wherein he discusses, among other things, his recollections of Dick Randall, who was (quote) “a very funny and interesting guy”, and the problems which arose from trying to shoot an American film in London. He also goes on to discuss co-directors Dugdale’s and Litten’s different responsibilities, and how they almost got ex-“Rat Pack” star Peter Lawford to play the coach. In Red Shirt Pictures’ My Days at Doddsville (14m35s), Caroline Munro discusses how she became involved in the production and the challenges and benefits of working with three directors; in particular Dugdale, whom she was dating at the time. She also talks about the locations used and the physical demands her role placed on her. In addition, the disc includes an extensive still, poster and promotional artwork gallery (6m55s), as well as the film’s quite graphic theatrical trailer (1m43s) and a couple of radio spots (1m50s).


Although it has been readily available over the years, SLAUGHTER HIGH has, thanks to Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series, finally arrived in what can easily be touted as THE definitive presentation of this fan favourite. Order it from Amazon or DiabolikDVD.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

REVENGE OF THE LIVING DEAD - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Poisoned milk, corporate espionage, naked girls, and the living dead are the principal elements that attempt to coalesce themselves into a cohesive, coherent narrative in Peter B. Harsone (a.k.a. Pierre B. Reinhard)’s REVENGE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1986), a completely bonkers zombie film, which, despite the subject matter, has more in common with a French skin-flick than with the unique filmic output of director Harsone’s countryman Jean Rollin (despite the fact that REVENGE seemingly took the odd rudimentary pointer from Rollin’s pseudo-zombie splatter fest THE GRAPES OF DEATH [1978]).

In the present film, when an employee at O.K.F., a powerful German-owned chemical company who have set up shop in a small French town, poisons the local milk supply, a trio of young women (including a bride-to-be) expire after drinking said poisoned moo-juice. But when the same company also dumps toxic waste at the local cemetery, these three girls rise from the grave to exact their ‘vengeance’ on those responsible for their deaths…

Although usually referred to as THE REVENGE OF THE LIVING DEAD GIRLS (a direct translation of the film’s French title), the film’s slightly shorter English-language export title is a blander, more generic title, although Harsone’s film itself is anything but. While principally marketed as a horror film, it showcases just as much – if not more – nudity as it does violence and gore. It begins much like some third-rate, clichéd porno, when a truck-driver transporting a shipment of milk picks-up a pig-tailed hitchhiker; who, as it turns out, is merely a diversionary tactic that enables a leather-clad motorcyclist to contaminate the milk with some mysterious toxin.  When the female decoy shortly sprains her ankle, the horny trucker takes full advantage of the situation (“Let’s make you comfortable. That’s what a doctor would do!”). In yet another scene, one of the resident old-timers spots two of the soon-to-be-zombified-girls and casually remarks, “I’ve never looked up their skirts, but they don’t look polluted to me!” Amidst all the subterfuge, deception and corruption at this aforesaid French branch of OKF, big boss man Jacques Alphan (Patrick Guillemin) is secretly blackmailed after his opportunistic secretary Brigitte (Anthea Wyler) videotapes him with an eager prostitute who is more than willing to (quote) “refine her technique” and is hilariously told to perform something called a (quote) “Cambodian wheelbarrow”! Needless to say, the film also features plenty of surprisingly nasty gore, which occurs with regular frequency and culminates with our undead trio having a lesbian tryst with one of their victims before viciously finishing her off with the pointy end of a sword.

Becoming increasingly concerned with all the dubious goings-on in France, O.K.F. headquarters decide to send Ingrid Schwartz (Cornelia Wilms) to investigate and hopefully try to squelch any potential scandals by locating the prostitute from the aforementioned covert video (“There must be 100,000 prostitutes in France!”). Instead she finds the dead rising from their graves (“They’re dead!” I’ve seen them leaving their tomb!”) and a company chemist whose putrescent hand has been infected by toxic sludge; which, in a bizarre and wholly unexpected twist, causes gory havoc with his very-pregnant wife. Further from-out-of-left-field, head-scratching twists ensue before the film’s finale, which definitely makes this minor zombie outing a tad bit more memorable than it has any right to be.

Never released on VHS in the U.S., REVENGE did find a video release on French-Canadian Beta/VHS cassette in Québec courtesy of Groupe Prolusion, who released it in a snazzy, oversized gate-fold box highlighting the three girls in both their human and zombie personas. Throughout the late ’80s and on into the early ’90s, the film was also a late-night staple on Super Écran, Canada’s erstwhile French-language premium Pay-TV service, where it played to no-doubt-astonished audiences.

Issued a number of times on German DVD, including a 2002 Hardbox Edition from X-rated Kult under the German translated title of DIE RACHE DER LEBENDEN TOTEN, the 2006 DVD from CMV-Laservision was a far-more pleasing edition, which presented the film with German, French and English audio options. This barely-letterboxed (1.50:1) disc also included the longer “erotic version”; German and French theatrical and video trailers; missing scenes; an alternate ending; plus trailers for some of the company’s other product. At around the same time, Neo Publishing in France also released the film on DVD, which included less extras, but an interesting on-camera interview (in French only) with writer Jean-Claude Roy (who penned the film as “John King”) and late SFX makeup artist Benoît Lestang. Meanwhile, stateside, Fred Olen Ray’s Retromedia outfit released the film under its aforementioned title, THE REVENGE OF THE LIVING DEAD GIRLS in a 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen version, which also included the alternate ending, a trailer and some solid production notes from Mirek Lipinski.

Earlier this year, Germany’s Wicked Vision was the first to release it on Blu-ray in a lavish, 3-disc set (including one Blu and a pair of DVDs), and although listed as Region B, it is in fact Region Free. Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio with much-improved picture quality, which is very sharp with solid detail and what appears to be, judging from all the naked flesh onscreen, quite accurate colours. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 also sounds clean and free of any distortion and, in an interesting bit of minutiae, this version includes Christopher Reid’s synth-driven “Phantasia” cue over the film’s opening credits, as opposed to the customary “Terror Shout” cue, which certainly set the tone for this very peculiar film. As a bonus, Wicked Vision have also included – in what seems to be its entirety – Reid’s full score (42m04s), consisting of 19 tracks. An audio commentary courtesy of Lars-Dreyer Winkelmann is also included, but it’s in German only.

As with the earlier German DVD edition, Wicked Vision have also included both the ‘erotic’ and ‘horror’ versions of the film, which run 81m54s and 77m11s, respectively. The main difference between the two versions are the former’s extended scenes of softcore nudity, and although the picture quality is superb on both versions, these extended scenes are presented in German with English subtitles; it’s a nice gesture on behalf on Wicked Vision to includes both versions, but the longer version is definitely the better option. Ported over from Neo Publishing’s DVD, the on-camera interview “Retour Sur la Revanche / Return to Revenge” (18m06s) with Roy and Lestang is also included, this time with English subtitles. In it, they discuss the beginnings of the project, which at that time, was (quote) “unusual in France” and a “fringe of the genre”; the start of their collaboration, which was initiated by Jean Rollin with whom Lestang worked on his THE LIVING DEAD GIRL (1982). They also talk about the Théâtre du Grand Guignol; Lestang’s SFX contributions, which in the end he wasn’t too happy about, and he jokingly condescends to Roy’s frugality. Further topics of discussion include casting, censorship and distribution. Other extras include numerous German and French trailers; the alternate ending, which isn’t really all that different; a brief censored scene, which only appeared on German videocassette; and a decent gallery of promotional artwork and lobby cards (2m30s) courtesy of Creepy Images’ Thorsten Benzel and Wicked Vision’s Daniel Pereé. All of this comes packaged in a thick Mediabook, which also includes a slick and well-illustrated, 24-page booklet with liner notes (in German only) from Lars-Dreyer Winkelman, Christian Kessler and Wicked Vision’s Matthias Paul.


While REVENGE is shameless trash indeed, there’s no denying that Wicked Vision’s attractively packaged Blu-ray is quite an impressive set, which goes far in proving that, despite the ongoing decline of physical media around the world, the niche home video market continues to thrive. Order it from Amazon Germany.