Saturday, December 30, 2017

UNPOPPED CINEMA'S TOP 20 BEST DISCS OF 2017

Although facing tough competition from VOD (Video-On-Demand) and numerous online streaming sites such as Netflix, physical media (i.e. DVD and Blu-ray) has, in terms of sales at most brick-and-mortar stores at least, slowed considerably over the years, but this has resulted in most online retailers, and many of the Blu-ray companies themselves, offering more and more interesting titles, many times in Limited and/or Special Editions, some of which sell-out within mere days after being released. Of course, it would be great if the major studios would release more of their own back catalogues, although from a purely business standpoint, it really doesn’t make much sense. But thanks to resourceful companies like AGFA, Arrow Video, Blue Underground, Camera Obscura, Code Red, The Criterion Collection, Dorado Films, Garagehouse Pictures, Indicator, Kino Lorber, Mondo Macabro, Scorpion Releasing, Scream Factory, Severin Films, Subkultur, Synapse Films, and Vinegar Syndrome, these small-but-dedicated labels have happily – and very successfully – filled the void by licensing all sorts of previously unseen or barely-released films. Some prime examples include Arrow Video’s stunning restoration of J.S. Cardone’s THE SLAYER (1982) or, thanks to Olive Films, long-forgotten oddities such as Terence Young’s THE KLANSMAN (1974) are finally turning up, which has, until now, remained buried in the Paramount vaults.  It’s inevitable that the marketplace will change once again at some point in the future, but for now, the wealth of material that continues to get released truly boggles the mind. The titles listed below are but a mere fraction of the highlights, all of which, of course, come highly recommended.

HIS GIRL FRIDAY [1940] (Criterion Collection) – A true American classic celebrated for its rip-roaring dialogue and for Howard Hawks’ stroke of genius by casting a woman (the unequaled Rosalind Russell) as a female reporter at odds with Cary Grant’s Walter Burns. Criterion’s very impressive 2-disc Blu-ray contains an amazing array of extras, including Lewis Milestone’s THE FRONT PAGE (1931), which was also adapted from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play of the same name. As good as Milestone’s film is, you’ll quickly realize what a maverick Hawks was for his inspired bit of casting. The newspaper-styled liner notes booklet is also a very clever touch.

THE NEW CENTURIONS [1972] (Indicator) – Sometimes referred to as (quote) “the force’s poet laureate”, former cop Joseph Wambaugh adapted this to the screen from his own novel, which details the life of a cop as seen through the eyes of rookie Roy (Stacy Keach) and a grizzled, seen-it-all veteran named Andy Klivinsky (George C. Scott). On the surface, it’s typical of most cop flicks, but what really sets this film apart is Wambaugh’s authentic dialogue and details of life on the force, which is beautifully grounded by Keach and Scott’s remarkable performances. Debuting on Blu-ray, Indicator’s Dual Format DVD combo is a great-looking transfer, which perfectly shows-off Ralph Woolsey’s scope photography and Boris Leven’s realistic production design. The accompanying thick (23-page) booklet is also a very welcome bonus.

SAINT JACK [1979] (Scorpion Releasing) – Following AT LONG LAST LOVE (1975) and NICKELODEON (1976), a pair of big-budget flops, Peter Bogdanovich decided to try something very different when he helmed this magnificent character study, which stars Ben Gazzara as Jack Flowers, a pimp in ’70s Singapore who aspires to opening his own brothel. While this was difficult to see for years in anything resembling a decent version, Scorpion went back to the original negatives and created an all-new HD Master, which looks spot-on. And to top it all off, numerous extras are also included, comprising two audio commentaries from Bogdanovich and film historian Ben Slater. Essential!

CATHY’S CURSE [1976] (Severin Films) – Long-relegated to overflowing VHS bargain bins and ubiquitous, cheaply-produced DVD collections, Eddy Matalon’s CATHY’S CURSE was given a whole new lease on life with Severin’s superb, eye-opening new transfer. Infinitely more enjoyable than ever before in this new incarnation, the film still remains a loopy mess, but Severin have also included plenty of interesting extras, including interviews with French director Matalon, as well as the film’s child star Randi Allen and her mother Joyce Allen. As an extra-special bonus, Severin have also included both the superior 91m director’s cut and the more familiar 82m U.S. cut. A terrific restoration indeed. Read review.

INQUISITION [1976] (Mondo Macabro / Red Case Edition) – Thanks to a number of Blu-ray companies, 2017 was, without a doubt, the year of Paul Naschy. The first, and one of the best Naschy releases of the year was this film, his directorial debut, set in 16th century France. Naschy stars as Bernard De Fossey, an inquisitor sent to a small town to try and stamp-out heresy, however, his own personal demons and uncontrollable secret lusts soon begin to surface from within him... This superb release features a pristine new HD transfer taken from the film’s original negative and also incorporates a number of revelatory bonuses to help viewers better appreciate this wonderful if brutal film. Read review.

BLOODY FRIDAY [1972] (Subkultur Entertainment) – A true labour of love from the folks at Subkultur, Rolf Olsen’s nasty/sleazy crime flick was taken from then-current headlines, and is further boosted by Raimond Harmstorf’s no-hold-barred and completely non-PC performance. Released in a number of previous video editions both in the U.S. and Germany, the U.S. 2-disc Limited Collector’s Edition (as distributed by Mondo Macabro) contains no less than three (!) different cuts of the film, plus a substantial number of extras, including Sadi Kantürk’s exhaustive documentary A Cold Day, which runs almost two hours in length and interviews just about every still-living person associated with the film! A pair of audio commentaries, very detailed restoration documentaries, location tours and a number of trailers are also included, just for good measure, making this a truly outstanding release in every way! Read review.

CRY OF A PROSTITUTE [1974] (Code Red) – Long-unavailable in anything approximating a decent, English-friendly version, Andrea Bianchi’s uncompromisingly mean-spirited crime-meller finally arrived on Blu-ray courtesy of Code Red in a very pleasing new transfer of the uncut version. In a scenario that incorporates many a spaghetti western motif (including inevitable riffs on Leone/Eastwood’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS [1964]), Henry Silva plays Tony Anniante, a lone hitman who plays-off a pair of feuding mob families against each other, while the whole film is liberally suffused with plenty of scuzzily unforgettable action highlights. Directed with assured control and style by Bianchi, this can easily be regarded as his best film. Read review.

EXPLOSIVE EUROCRIME DOUBLE FEATURE (Dorado Films) – Following their first foray into the Blu-ray market with a Jess Franco Double Feature, Dorado Films decided to next tackle the world of Eurocrime with this stupendous set, featuring both Marino Girolami’s SPECIAL COP IN ACTION (1976) and Mario Caiano’s WEAPONS OF DEATH (1977), top-tier poliziotteschi both, which were long-overdue for a proper release. Dorado’s very Limited Edition also contains a bonus DVD of Alberto De Martino’s THE COUNSELLOR (1973), a very cool mini-replica of the WOD Italian pressbook, plus a couple of booklets featuring writings by genre go-to guy Roberto Curti, author of the must-have reference volume Italian Crime Filmography 1968-1980 (McFarland, 2013). Highly recommended! Read review.

DEATH LINE [1972] (Blue Underground) – Having been previously released by MGM as a no-frills DVD, Blue Underground recently went back to the original uncensored camera negative and made a new 2K scan of this outstanding film, and the results are extraordinary: it has never looked better! Blue Underground’s Dual Format Blu-ray / DVD combo also includes a wealth of new extras, including a lively audio commentary with director Gary Sherman, producer Paul Maslansky and assistant director Lewis More O’Ferrell. Other extras include numerous – very entertaining – featurettes, British and U.S. trailers (under A.I.P.’s re-titling RAW MEAT) and an excellent booklet with writing from Michael Gingold. A terrific disc all around!

BEYOND THE DARKNESS [1979] (Severin Films) – In 2011, Shriek Show released a heavily-compromised Blu-ray of this popular Joe D’Amato film, which was, quite frankly, a complete waste of the format’s capabilities. Luckily, Severin Films subsequently acquired the film, which is now in far better hands, and it shows. Easily one of D’Amato’s best films, Severin’s Blu-ray looks just about perfect, and it puts any other release of BTD to shame. Naturally, the good folks at Severin have also loaded their edition with a whole bucketful of special features, including Joe D’Amato: The Horror Experience, an almost 70m doc about the film’s director, as well as throwing in the original Cinevox soundtrack CD (featuring one of Goblin’s best scores) as an added bonus. A definitive, must-have Blu-ray to be sure. Read review.

THE SLAYER [1982] (Arrow Video) – Formerly a VHS staple, this atmospheric horror film pretty much got bypassed during the DVD craze, save for a couple of dodgy releases, which looked like nothing more than sub-par VHS rips themselves. Working with the original camera negative, Arrow Video commissioned a new 4K scan, and the results are spectacular, to say the least. It’s stunning work, which is further bolstered by some wonderful special features, including numerous audio commentaries, a thorough documentary on the film from Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher, location footage, and tons more. This is one of the finest restorations of the year and one of Arrow’s most surprising releases. Read review.

TWO FEMALE SPIES IN FLOWERED PANTIES [1980] (Severin Films) – Never before made officially available on U.S. or Canadian shores in any form, this hilariously odd and at times vicious ‘spy’ adventure is Jess Franco at his most unpredictable. Definitely not one for the casual Franco viewer, Severin Films have nonetheless packed their Blu-ray with oodles of goodies to try and sway potential newbies into entering Franco’s web of sleaze and espionage. Beginning with a typically rambunctious interview with Franco himself, this is followed by a rare interview with Franco’s long-time composer and collaborator Daniel White; a lengthy chat with Franco expert Stephen Thrower, as well as the film’s awkwardly-narrated – if unforgettable – Anglo export theatrical trailer. Severin goes on to further sweeten the deal with the inclusion of a bonus DVD (included with the first 3000 units only) of Franco’s alternate Spanish cut of the film, OPALO DE FUEGO (a.k.a. Merchants of Sex).

FANGO BOLLENTE [1975] (Camera Obscura) – Released as part of CO’s long-running “Italian Genre Cinema Collection”, Vittorio Salerno’s once difficult-to-see and socially-significant Italocrime film has really been given the red-carpet treatment. Joe Dallesandro stars as Ovidio, who, along with two pals, terrorizes the city while a grizzled old detective (played by the director’s big brother Enrico Maria Salerno, a true icon of Italocrime cinema) is determined to bring them down. Also known as THE SAVAGE THREE, this still highly-prescient film looks fantastic on CO’s Blu-ray and, as usual, they have has also provided a very informative commentary, as well as a couple of lengthy on-camera interviews with director Salerno and actor Dallesandro. Read review.

DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING [1972] (Arrow Video) – Making its North American Blu-ray debut, Lucio Fulci’s unique – and in many people’s opinions, best – film has never looked better than it does here, despite the many trials and tribulations involved in its restoration process. A giallo film of the highest order that very nearly transcends the genre by mixing-in plentiful social/religious commentary into its controversial storyline.  As usual, Arrow Video include a number of terrific extras, including a feature-length audio commentary from Fulci expert Troy Howarth.

RAWHEAD REX [1986] (Kino Lorber Studio Classics) – Adapted from a short story taken from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Volume 3 (1985), George Pavlou’s film was met with much scorn (especially from Barker himself) upon its initial release in ’86, and despite lots of enthusiastic press (including an incredible cover for Fangoria #61), the film died a quick death at the time. While flawed, RAWHEAD REX finally received a second chance courtesy of the busy folks at Kino Lorber in an impeccable new transfer and fully-stocked Blu-ray, which definitely sheds plenty of new light on this solid, no-nonsense creature feature.

THE THING [1982] (Arrow Video UK) – Following Scream Factory’s superb 2-disc Blu-ray from last year, Arrow Video decided to release their own Limited Edition of John Carpenter’s classic film, but while Scream Factory’s disc has plenty of interesting and different extras, Arrow Video’s new 4K restoration from the original camera negative (Scream’s 2K scan was taken from the Interpositive) is a total stunner, and the real star of the show here. Plus, Arrow have also produced some interesting new extras, including Who Goes There? In Search of The Thing from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures and 1982: One Amazing Summer (again from Ballyhoo), which covers some of the incredible genre films released that summer. An excellent, fully-illustrated booklet is also included, as are eight Collector’s Postcards, all of which come beautifully-packaged in yet another of Arrow’s impressive hardboxes. Between last year’s impressive release from Scream Factory and Arrow’s Limited Edition, fans of Carpenter’s enduringly popular film have much to be thankful for.

BLOODBEAT [1983] (Vinegar Syndrome) – Long-forgotten, this one-of-a-kind supernatural slasher flick from French director Fabrice Zaphiratos – who shot the film out in the wilds of rural Wisconsin, of all places – has, believe it or not, shown up on Blu-ray in a Limited Edition release no less! Zigzagging wildly between telekinesis and samurai killers (etc.), and boasting a wonderfully cheap synth score and much regional non-acting, BLOODBEAT somehow manages to coalesce into an unforgettable viewing experience. Restored from the original camera negative in 4K, VS have also decked-out their LE with a number of extras, which are every bit as interesting as the feature itself.

PAUL NASCHY COLLECTION II (Scream Factory) – 2017 also saw the release of the first Paul Naschy Collection from Scream Factory, which also housed five Naschy films in glorious HD and, although it’s a marvelous set, all the titles were previously released on DVD via BCI/Eclipse back in 2007/2008. With Volume Two however, Scream have issued a number of previously-unreleased or otherwise poorly-released titles (well, at least here in the U.S.) onto the Blu-ray format for the first time. These include Javier Aguirre’s gruesome HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE (1972), Leon Klimovsky’s Italian-lensed Spanish giallo A DRAGONFLY FOR EACH CORPSE (1973) and his take on Gilles De Rais, THE DEVIL’S POSSESSED (1974); Juan Bosch’s EXORCIST rip-off, EXORCISM (1974), which did receive a quite excellent DVD from BCI back in 2008; and finally, M.I. Bonns’ long sought-after THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI (1975), which might perhaps be better-known to some as NIGHT OF THE HOWLING BEAST (its 1977 stateside theatrical release title from Sam Sherman’s Independent-International Pictures). This new set features a couple of highly-informative commentaries courtesy of Rod Barnett and Troy Guinn from NaschyCast, and author Troy Howarth (who has a career-spanning book on Naschy in the works via Wildside/Kronos [“WK”] Books as we speak). A wonderfully-written booklet from Naschy expert Mirek Lipinski is also included.

TRAILER TRAUMA PART 4: TELEVISION TRAUMA (Garagehouse Pictures) – Following their incredible 2-disc TRAILER TRAUMA PART 3: ’80s HORROR-THON release, Garagehouse Pictures have decided to celebrate the long-forgotten TV spots of yesteryear. Combining a whopping 269 tele-spots, this ambitious compilation moves along briskly and is, quite possibly, the fastest three hours you’ll spend in front of your TV. A perfect – and once again, indispensable – follow-up to TT3. Read review.

SUSPIRIA [1977] (Synapse Films) – Thanks to the meticulous restoration from the perfectionists at Synapse Films, this eagerly-anticipated Blu-ray of Dario Argento’s masterpiece can very easily be regarded as the definitive release. Argento’s already stunning film looks absolutely gorgeous here. Supplemented by an incredible array of extras, including the soundtrack CD and housed in a beautiful Steelbook, Synapse’s new 40th Anniversary 4K restoration is a real knockout! If you’re going to buy one Blu-ray this year, this should be it!

Needless to say, it would be remiss of me not to mention the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA)’s exciting new line of Something Weird Video titles on Blu-ray, Film Movement Classics’ impressive Joe Sarno Retrospect Series and Vinegar Syndrome’s Sexploitation Signature Series, all of which triumphantly celebrate early sexploitation and/or horror efforts.

AMERICAN GENRE FILM ARCHIVE (AGFA) – They burst onto the scene earlier this year with Tom Hanson’s THE ZODIAC KILLER (1971), a nutty, zero-budget take on the Zodiac murders that has a far more interesting back story than anything occurring in its running time, and which is also nicely-detailed on AGFA’s Blu-ray. In addition, they’ve also included Dave A. Adams’ bizarre, almost incomprehensible, ANOTHER SON OF SAM (1977), which, like the main feature, has also been scanned in 2K! Then, later in ’17, they issued William Morgan’s Ed Wood-scripted girl-gang classic THE VIOLENT YEARS (1956), which included another great Frank Henenlotter audio commentary with Wood biographer Rudolph Grey, as well as Boris Petroff’s public domain mainstay ANATOMY OF A PSYCHO (1961), mastered in 2K, no less (!), but then AGFA and SWV really blew people’s minds when they unleashed BAT PUSSY (197?) onto an unsuspecting public, an almost inconceivable bit of sleazy hokum, which is also regarded to be one of the first ‘porn parodies’ and amounts to one of the more (ahem) unforgettable ‘films’ you may see this year! And yeah, there’s even an audio commentary from Lisa Petrucci and Tim Lewis from SWV; a cool gallery of ‘crime-smut’ trailers, as well as yet another mysteriously-made quickie, ROBOT LOVE SLAVES (1971). Mutha***kin’ incredible!

FILM MOVEMENT CLASSICS – In what promises to be an ongoing collection of releases dedicated to the works of one-of-a-kind director Joe Sarno, Film Movement has, thus far, released two volumes in this their ambitious series. Volume One features a new 2K transfer of Sarno’s gothic horror tale VAMPIRE ECSTASY (a.k.a. THE DEVIL’S PLAYTHING, 1973), which was paired-up with Anthony Farrar’s Sarno-scripted SIN YOU SINNERS (1963). VAMPIRE ECSTASY producer Chris Nebe provides an informative audio commentary, while other extras include interviews, trailers and a nicely-produced booklet of liner notes with writing from Tim Lucas, who offers some insightful thoughts on the films. Volume Two includes ALL THE SINS OF SODOM (1968) and VIBRATIONS (1968), two of Sarno’s best-realized films, which, as with Volume One, are also supplemented by some wonderful extras, including an archival interview with Sarno, an audio commentary with Sarno’s wife Peggy Steffens-Sarno and Tim Lucas.

VINEGAR SYNDROME – Kick-starting their Sexploitation Signature Series with one of Joe Sarno’s more alluring and distinctive films, 1966’s RED ROSES OF PASSION, VS’ 2K transfer from the original negative is absolutely stunning, and although extras are sparse (a video interview with Sarno historian Michael Bowen is included, however), the impeccable, near-perfect transfer more than makes for up for it. Volume 2 included Bernard Hirschenson’s THE PICK-UP (1973), a Crown International-distributed title, which has been restored to its original cut. Entitled PAZUZU, the film is most certainly ripe for rediscovery, but the real kicker in this set is the inclusion of Jerald Intrator’s ORGY AT LIL’S PLACE (1963), a William Mishkin-produced sexploitation film co-produced and photographed by Hirschenson. With Volume 3, Vinegar Syndrome delved into the world of Andy Milligan with SEEDS (1968), which can now be regarded as one of his best films, especially in this new-and-heretofore-unseen director’s cut, which comes as a true revelation. Presented as a double feature, the disc also includes Milligan’s debut film, VAPORS (1965), which, like SEEDS, has also been scanned in 4K(!). Featuring a shit-ton of extras, the set also includes the more familiar sexploitation version SEEDS OF SIN. These are three amazing releases in what promises to be one hell of a series!
 
HIGHLY-HONOURABLE MENTIONS:


ABSURD (88 Films), AMUCK! (Camera Obscura), ANTHROPOPHAGOUS (88 Films / Remastered 2nd Edition), THE APARTMENT (Arrow Academy / Limited Edition), THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (Arrow Video / Limited Edition), BLACKENSTEIN (Severin Films), THE BLOOD-SPATTERED BRIDE (Mondo Macabro), BRAIN DAMAGE (Arrow Video), THE CLIMBER (Arrow Video), DAY OF THE JACKAL (Arrow Video UK), DEMON WIND (Vinegar Syndrome), THE DEVIL’S HONEY (Severin Films), DRACULA, PRISONER OF FRANKENSTEIN (Al!ve), DRIVE-IN MASSACRE (Severin Films), FRANKENSTEIN ’80 (’84 Entertainment), GEORGE A. ROMERO: BETWEEN NIGHT AND DAWN (Arrow Video); HACK-O-LANTERN (Massacre Video / Limited Edition), HAMMER VOLUME ONE: FEAR WARNING! (Indicator), HOUSE: THE COLLECTION (Arrow Video UK / Limited Edition), JESS FRANCO TRIPLE BILL (Mondo Macabro), THE KLANSMAN (Olive Films), MICKEY ROSE (Indicator), MILDRED PIERCE (Criterion Collection), ONE DARK NIGHT (Code Red), THE PHANTASM COLLECTION (Well Go), THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (Criterion Collection), RE-ANIMATOR (Arrow Video / Limited Edition), RUMBLE FISH (Criterion Collection), THE SINBAD TRILOGY (Indicator), THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (Blue Underground / Limited Edition), SUSPICIOUS DEATH OF A MINOR (Arrow Video), SWEET BABY CHARLIE (a.k.a. THE SADIST, Code Red), TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (Arrow Academy), THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (Kino Lorber Studio Classics), THE UNHOLY (Vestron Video Collector’s Series), WEB OF THE SPIDER (Garagehouse Pictures), THE WANDERERS (Kino Lorber Studio Classics), WHO’LL STOP THE RAIN (Twilight Time), A WOMAN’S TORMENT (Vinegar Syndrome) and THE YAKUZA (Warner Archive Collection).

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