Saturday, August 19, 2017

MY CHAUFFEUR - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Synonymous with horror and exploitation movie fare, the American-based production company, Crown International Pictures scored a sizable hit with David Beaird’s MY CHAUFFEUR (1985), an amiable comedy showcasing the talents of that spunky ’80s darling, Deborah Foreman.  Although previously released countless times on a variety of different formats, this popular film has finally been given its proper due care of Vinegar Syndrome’s all-new and totally awesome dual-format Blu-ray! 

When Casey Meadows (Foreman) is clandestinely hired by corporate magnate Mr. Witherspoon (E.G. Marshall) to work at Brentwood Limousine Limited (one of his many business ventures), she is immediately met with hostility from the stuffy, male-dominated pool of other drivers, who, along with their boss, Mr. McBride (Howard Hesseman), are eager to get rid of her (“We are not interested in change!”).  This they try and engineer by setting her up with some of their most bothersome clients, and trouble soon follows.  Casey has to deal with an unruly British rock star (Leland Crooke), a conman and an Arab sheik (Penn & Teller, respectively, making their mutual screen debut), as well as an overworked, by-the-book businessman (Sam Jones), who turns out to be Mr. Witherspoon’s son, Battle, who eventually becomes smitten with Casey and her quirky charms.

Episodic in structure, MY CHAUFFEUR was originally envisioned by Crown as yet another formulaic sex comedy, but director Beaird decided to take it in another, less-exploitable direction by fashioning it into an updated version of a Golden Age of Hollywood ‘screwball comedy’ (such as Howard Hawks’ BRINGING UP BABY [1938]), with its rip-roaring dialogue and Foreman’s strong female character.  In one of the disc’s audio commentaries, director Beaird discusses Foreman’s use of the Meisner technique, and how the (quote) “pace can be slow”, but he wanted a faster tempo, so he had his leading lady watch some old Carole Lombard movies (including perhaps Gregory La Cava’s MY MAN GODFREY [1936]?) in order that Foreman might try to replicate some of Lombard’s energetic screen presence, which she does admirably.   

As with her earlier breakout role in Martha Coolidge’s VALLEY GIRL (1983), Foreman is a joy to watch from beginning to end, helped along by a terrific supporting cast which also includes Sean McClory (distinguished Irish-born character actor from such diverse films as John Ford’s THE QUIET MAN [1952] and Gordon Douglas’ THEM! [1954]) as Mr. Witherspoon’s personal driver, O’Brien, who is the only one willing to give the new girl a chance, unlike his stodgy, unwavering co-workers.  Playing the aptly-named Battle, then-recent ex-Flash Gordon Sam J. Jones also plays well alongside Foreman’s lighthearted, innocent charm, and their blossoming romance even reveals some inherent class struggles, a well-explored character arc which harkens all the way back to Frank Capra’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), co-starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and an angle which was also explored in other such ’80s mainstream fare such as the aforementioned VALLEY GIRL and, more memorably still, in Paul Brickman’s far edgier RISKY BUSINESS (1983).

As with some of Vinegar Syndrome’s other Crown International acquisitions, MY CHAUFFEUR comes to Blu-ray and DVD scanned in 2K from the original 35mm camera negative and, as expected, it looks downright sumptuous, boasting accurate colours and with nary an imperfection anywhere in sight.  On the Blu, the DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono audio also sounds spot-on, with much of the fast-paced dialogue coming through with crystal clarity; amounting to a nice bonus, VS have also included Paul Hertzog’s diverse score as an isolated soundtrack option.

Extras are plentiful. They begin with a wonderful on-camera interview with Deborah Foreman, the “Valley Girl” herself (15m59s).  In this featurette directed by Elijah Drenner, Foreman discusses both her days as a Maybelline girl as well as how she got her start in the motion picture biz.  She also speaks warmly of director David Beaird, even though the entire production had a (quote) “crazy schedule,” during which they would shoot up to 12-to-15 pages of script a day!  She also (quote) “can’t say enough kind things about Sam Jones,” and cites MY CHAUFFEUR as one of her favourite film roles.  The other big extras include two separate audio commentaries, beginning with Beaird and actor Leland Crooke, which is nicely moderated by Drenner.  After helming the (quote) “materialistic, childish” sex romp, THE PARTY ANIMAL (1984), Beaird was approached by Crown to direct yet another of their trademark sex comedies along the lines of George Bowers’ MY TUTOR (1983), only to instead opt to fashion an updated ’30s-style love story with (quote) “old-time banter and old-time screen tricks.” Beaird also discusses trying to hit a (quote) “sweet spot” in terms of theatricality and goes on to reminisce about some of his theatre work during his formative days in Chicago.  He also discusses how he (quote) “had a back-end” on the film, but never saw a dime of profit from it, something which is confirmed by Foreman when she alleges that Crown (quote) “lied about the numbers.”  For the second audio commentary, production assistant Jeff McKay casually chats about his time working on the film, which also includes plentiful factoids/trivia relating to the production, the cast and many of the Los Angeles locations.

Other extras include the film’s original theatrical trailer, numerous TV spots and some nice candid behind-the-scenes photos (courtesy of McKay) taken during the film’s shoot.  Reversible cover artwork includes the film’s original artwork, as well as a striking new rendering by illustrator Derek Gabryszak.  As per some of their other recent Blu-ray releases, VS also include a Limited Edition slipcover edition (1500 only), which is available directly from VS. 

Disarmingly charming and most engaging indeed, by virtue of its association with Crown International Pictures, MY CHAUFFEUR usually gets lumped-in with all those innocuous lowbrow sexcoms from the ’80s, but in actuality, it’s a much smarter – and far more memorable – film thanks to Deborah Foreman’s confident performance and director David Beaird’s commitment to trying something different… and yes, just as expected, VS’ first-class presentation allows you to appreciate everything that much more.  Highly recommended!  Order it from Vinegar Syndrome or DiabolikDVD.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

MATINEE IDOL - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Written and produced by the distinguished and highly-resourceful David F. Friedman, Henri Pachard’s MATINEE IDOL (1984) arrived considerably later than many of Friedman’s mostly-memorable run of sexploitation films from the ’60s and early ’70s, and despite his dogged persistence to avoid working in hardcore films (“It just wasn’t any fun”), Friedman still retained much the of same playful mindset here as he did in many of his earlier, strictly softcore films.  One of the only four hardcore titles produced by Friedman, MATINEE IDOL is considered by some to be the best of the lot, which is all the better since it’s now been made available as a pristine new Dual Format Blu-ray from those indefatigable individuals at Vinegar Syndrome.

At Sensational International Pictures, producers Bernard Kuntz ([!] David F. Friedman) and Harvey Cox ([!!] Elmer Fox) find themselves in a bit of a conundrum when their two biggest stars, Lance Hardy (John Leslie) and Linda Hand (Jesie St. James) wind up continually squabbling with one another, which eventually causes production of their latest ‘sextravaganza’, entitled Matinee Idol, to grind to a screeching halt.  Linda subsequently befriends her pool-boy, Bud Cochran (Herschel Savage) in hopes of grooming him as her potential new co-star, while Kuntz and Cox (!!!) become smitten with wannabe starlet Daisy Cheney (Angel), after she answers an open casting-call by the producers in hopes of replacing the increasingly unmanageable Linda.  But when the unfinished Matinee Idol’s proposed distributors demand a ‘Hardy Hand picture’ in order to recoup their monetary outlay, Lance and Linda may have to set aside their differences and finish the delayed skin-flick just the same; a professional move which might quite possibly rekindle their badly-frayed relationship in the process.

This is very much a comedy, and Friedman’s lighthearted script – which is loaded with his usual innuendos and (quote) “well-known puns” – takes a fond, nostalgic look at Tinseltown, even as it’s viewed through the ’80s skin-biz; and in that respect, it’s much like an updated version of Richard Kanter’s STARLET (1969), which he also produced.  In a nice touch for those ‘in-the-know,’ posters for much of his earlier work – such as SPACE THING and THAR SHE BLOWS (both 1968) – adorn the walls of S.I.P.’s head office, which also functions as their casting office (“It ain’t easy, but somebody’s gotta do it!”).


Veteran adult stars Jesie St. James and John Leslie are both excellent as the quarrelling couple, and at times, as they clash with one another, their behavior emulates those of their equivalents in the zany screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s; while, typical of the genre, Angel and Herschel Savage have a few surprises of their own in store for them.  As expected, Friedman essentially plays himself – or rather, more accurately, a broad caricature of himself – as the cigar-chomping co-owner of S.I.P., and Elmer Fox is the more-cynical of the two business partners, who firmly believes his actors have (quote) “got their brains between their legs!”  In what are essentially extended cameos, Colleen Brennen (a.k.a. former softcore star, Sharon Kelly) appears as Linda’s rambunctious friend, eager to sample her new man, Bud, whereas Kay Parker, as S.I.P.’s secretary, has a stab at Lance’s lance right atop the desk in Kuntz’ office. 

Scanned in 2K from the original camera negative, Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray is, without question, a terrific transfer of an already good-looking film and, to be honest, there are no real issues to speak of.  The DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono audio also sounds very good, coming through just fine both in the many fast-paced dialogue scenes and during the – ahem – sexual shenanigans.  Extras are sparse, but the real treat here is an archival audio interview with Friedman conducted by Casey Scott via telephone, which more or less doubles as an audio commentary that lasts the entire length of the feature film! Anyone who’s ever listened to any of the articulate and animated Friedman’s previous interviews and/or commentaries knows full well what a raconteur he is, and this epic interview is no exception.  He begins by discussing the uneasy, game-changing transition from softcore to hardcore product and (quote) “the end of a very nice little business,” even though he had no real moral objections to the shift.  He also talks about the formation of the Adult Film Association of America in 1968 at a Hotel in Kansas City, which also included the owner of Distribpix, Arthur Morowitz and genre director Donn Davis, among others.  Of course, Friedman also has many stories about a number of people in the business, including directors Chris Warfield, John Hayes and producer Dan Cady.  In addition, the legendary sexploitation producer reveals that it was Bill Castleman (his line producer and credited director [as William Allen Castleman] on such Friedman-produced flicks as his sleazy rock-musicians-and-groupies potboiler BUMMER! [1973] and his violent ‘Indian revenge’ actioner JOHNNY FIRECLOUD [1975]) who helped convince him to edge his way into making films that weren’t (quote) “any fun”, at least to Friedman. Fans of his work, on the other hand, may be of a distinctly different opinion!  An original, teaser-type trailer finishes off the extras.


Though produced in the ’80s, at the tail-end of the “porno chic” era, MATINEE IDOL appropriately enough, patterns itself along the lines of Friedman’s heydays in the business and, as such, is a sufficiently engaging film – one which now, more than ever, can be fully appreciated thanks to Vinegar Syndrome’s highly-welcome Blu-ray.  Order it directly from Vinegar Syndrome or DiabolikDVD.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

BEYOND THE DARKNESS - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Following a string of highly successful – and at times controversial – BLACK EMANUELLE films starring his muse-of-sorts, the Indonesian-born Laura Gemser, director Aristide Massaccesi (better known to most who know him as ‘Joe D’Amato’) helmed BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979), an unflinching, taboo-breaking horror film; which, along with Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1979, a.k.a. ZOMBI 2), helped pave the way for the gory excesses of the Italian film industry during the early ’80s.  Taking into account the number of releases that D’Amato’s film has received over the years on a number of different formats, including both DVD and Blu-ray, Severin has once again stepped up to the slab to deliver the definitive package of this oft-seen, but memorably effective horror film.
  
Frank (Kieran Canter), a reclusive taxidermist, has just lost his fiancée Anna (Cinzia Monreale) to a mysterious illness which was triggered by a voodoo curse (!) brought into effect by his psychotic housekeeper Iris (Franca Stoppi), who obsessively seeks his attentions/affections.  Devastated, Frank secretly injects his recently-deceased girlfriend with a preservative agent during the funeral, which eventually allows him to dig her up and, during a particularly unsettling sequence, put his skills to use.  However, as nutty as Iris is, she remains steadfastly opposed to Frank’s continued post-mortem companionship with Anna, but has no qualms about helping the ghoulish Frank dispose of the various unfortunate women who cross paths with him.


BEYOND THE DARKNESS is sick, twisted stuff, for sure – which, considering D’Amato’s prolifically sleazy filmography, is surely some sort of recommendation to fans of his work – but what sets this film apart from some of his earlier, almost playfully-sleazy scenarios such as EMANUELLE AND THE LASTCANNIBALS (1977), is the general unrelenting sense of unease he generates here.  Derived from a screenplay by Ottavio Fabbri and loosely based on Giacomo “Mino” Guerrini’s morbid B&W 1966 gothic thriller, THE THIRD EYE (which was itself a variation of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO [1960]), BTD is also shrouded in death, decay and unhealthy sexual inclinations, but in this case with an unflinching, nothing left-to-the-imagination approach taken towards the material.  In one of the film’s many ‘highlights’, the embalming procedure depicted is particularly macabre, dwelling not only on the excessive gore (the film’s raison d’être), but also on the degenerate Frank’s obsessive desire, which truly knows no bounds.  Iris’ equally abnormal if conflicting sexual obsession is well juxtaposed against this morbid scenario and, likewise, she’ll stop at nothing to earn Frank’s affection even as she rigorously – and with chillingly casual callousness – dismembers a victim’s corpse then disposes of it in a homemade acid bath.  As gruesome as BTD is, it stands head-and-shoulders above most of D’Amato’s work in terms of basic quality, and outside of their work on both Dario Argento’s DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA (1977), it’s also helped along by one of Goblin’s most memorable scores, parts of which were later re-used in both Luigi Cozzi’s CONTAMINATION (1980) and Bruno Mattei’s THE OTHER HELL (1980).

Retitled BURIED ALIVE for its scant U.S. theatrical screenings courtesy of Aquarius Releasing way back when, BEYOND THE DARKNESS had its biggest exposure in the U.S. (and here in Canada) via Thriller Video’s VHS cassettes (also under the title BURIED ALIVE) where it endured as a favourite among gorehounds for years.  In the ensuing years, numerous DVD editions appeared around the world, but most of them were either drab-looking transfers, or were incomplete or improperly-framed.  Earlier this year, U.K. outfit 88 Films took their stab at it, and despite being (quote) “restored in 2K from the original camera negative”, the picture quality still left a lot to be desired, its image suffused with a perplexing green/yellow hue throughout the entire runtime of the movie.  However, 88’s edition did contain both uncompressed English and Italian audio options with (quote) “newly translated English subtitles”, which was a nice bonus along with a number of relevant extras.


Fortunately, with their latest Blu-ray, Severin have once again come through and provided the best presentation to date.  Their 1080p HD transfer is properly framed at 1.66:1, but unlike the 88 Films transfer, it’s a considerable improvement, boasting a much more robust colour scheme (which only makes all the blood and gore pop off the screen that much more than before!), and BTD finally looks the way it most likely should.  The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio sounds perfect (all the better to truly appreciate Goblin’s wonderful score!), but in contrast to 88’s disc, the Italian audio is in Dolby Digital 2.0 and only includes SDH English subtitles; but frankly, the English dub-track is preferable anyways, as we get to hear the voice-dubbing talents of both Ted Rusoff and Carolyn De Fonseca in action.  Extras are quite significant, beginning with Roger Fratter’s admirable documentary “Joe D’Amato: The Horror Experience” (68m21s), which was also included on Media Blasters’ 2-disc DVD of ANTHROPOPHAGOUS (1980) under the title Joe D’Amato: Totally Uncut 2 (the first part was included on MB’s 2-disc set of D’Amato’s nunsploitation shocker, IMAGES IN A CONVENT [1979]).  This appears to be a revised/updated edition of the doc (it’s copyrighted 2016), which is essentially a career-spanning interview about many of the title subject’s horror films, and also includes interviews with George Eastman (a.k.a. Luigi Montefiori), Donald (r.n. Donal) O’Brien and Al Cliver (a.k.a. Pier Luigi Conti).  In it, some of the topics Massaccesi discusses include: DEATH SMILES AT MURDER (1973), which he remains very fond of; his many porn/horror hybrids, such as THE EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980); the aforementioned ANTHROPOPHAGOUS (1980), ABSURD (1981) and CALIGULA THE UNTOLD STORY (1982); his association with producer Eduard Sarlui; and many of the titles produced by Filmirage (D’Amato’s ’80s production company), such as Fabrizio Laurenti’s WITCHERY (1989) and Claudio Fragasso’s similarly-titled BEYOND DARKNESS (1990).  It’s a highly informative and sincere doc which is always worth a revisit. 

In “The Omega Woman”, a 2015 interview with the late Franca Stoppi, she talks about working on the film in-between her ‘legit’ work in the theater (“I had nothing to do the whole summer…”) and how she began a relationship with her co-star Canter.  She also reveals that it was D’Amato/Massaccesi’s express intent to (quote) “make a movie which will make people puke”, and in addition she relates the dangers involved in filming the film’s final scene.  In “Sick Love” (8m47s), an interview with Cinzia Monreale, she talks genially about Massaccesi and how he (quote) “knew how to make everything work”, and despite all the blood and gore on screen, it was (quote) “fun for us”.  She also admits that Canter (quote) “courted me a little”.  In the short, but most welcome “Goblin Reborn” (4m17s) featurette, the legendary prog-rock group (including two of its original members) performs a live rendition of the Buio Omega title theme.  In the final extra, the very comprehensive “Locations Revisited” (20m05s), Martin Nechvatal takes a look at the many locations in Brixen / Bressanone (a predominantly German-speaking Italian town located north of Bolzano), comparing how they look today with how they did at the time the film was shot.  The extras are capped-off nicely with the original Ted Rusoff-narrated English-language export trailer (e.g., “Ladies and gentleman, if you are easily frightened, we advise you not to watch this film!”).  Last, but certainly not least, the first 2500 copies of the Blu-ray contain the entire soundtrack CD, which, incidentally, is the full 24-track remastered edition as opposed to Cinevox’s original 15-track release from 1997. 

Pathologically drenched in grue and various socially unacceptable perversions, it’s highly doubtful that a better edition of BEYOND THE DARKNESS will – or ever even can – surface, thanks to Severin’s fully-loaded and magnificent-looking Blu-ray. 


Severin is currently offering BEYOND THE DARKNESS as both a standalone DVD or 2-disc Blu-ray or as part of their lavish Necro Bundle, which even includes an impressive, full-size reprint of the U.S. one-sheet poster!  The Blu-ray is also available at DiabolikDVD.