Thursday, April 19, 2018

BLUE VENGEANCE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

In the midst of the ’80s VHS boom, enterprising filmmakers and distributors were taking full advantage of the insatiable appetite of the home video rental market, which allowed them to produce and successfully promote a sizeable quantity of low-budget, straight-to-video product. Blending elements of horror and police procedural, J. Christian Ingvordsen’s BLUE VENGEANCE (1989) was produced at the tail-end of this period, and at the time, it kind of slipped through the cracks and remained unreleased in North America. However, thanks to Vinegar Syndrome’s new Blu-ray, which houses a brand-new 4K restoration, undiscriminating cinephiles should get a real kick out of this belated-if-not-entirely-forgotten blast from the past. 

Otherwise known as the “Mirror Man” killer, Mark Trex (John Wiener) escapes from the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in upstate New York. Making his way to New York City, he hopes to track down members of his favourite rock band, Warriors of the Inferno, whose out-there lyrics fueled his passion for death and murder as a youngster. Having parted ways some years before, most of the band’s ex-members have since moved on to ‘regular’ jobs. Trex seeks sworn oaths from these ex-band members that they haven’t (quote) “betrayed” him, but they usually shrug him off (“You know the lyrics to that shit song?”) before succumbing to his brutal, schizophrenic mind. Meanwhile, disgraced cop Mickey McCardle (director Ingvordsen, acting under the alias of “John Christian”) is haunted by the controversial murder of his ex-partner (Buzzy Danenfelser) at the hands of Trex some ten years earlier, and despite resistance from his superiors, he vows to stop Trex’s murder spree, no matter what the cost…

First seen as a scruffy, delusional self-talking psychotic, Wiener really plays Trex to the hilt. In the film’s opening moments, he even manages to engineer an audacious escape from prison by first hanging himself, then, in a supreme bit of self-confidence, is eventually resuscitated by the prison doctor, which leads into a bloody mess at the prison’s infirmary. In an interesting – and at first bewildering – bit of juxtaposition, Trex’s near-death experience is depicted as a subconscious battle between himself and some sort of sword-wielding, “Conan”-inspired barbarian in a mask (there is a reason for this, but not what you may think!), which only further substantiates the skewed state of Trex’s inner workings. Meanwhile, Ingvordsen as put-upon Detective McCardle, who may or may not have been partly responsible for his partner’s death, is convinced that Trex is responsible for a recent rash of brutal murders, even though his prime suspect had cunningly staged his own death (cue a previously-shot insert of a pickup truck exploding) after escaping from prison. Although at times each portraying their characters appropriately over-the-top, if coming from different ends of the moral spectrum, both Ingvordsen and Wiener manage to bring an earnestness to their rather thinly-written roles which is a testament to their dedication and belief in the project. Ingvordsen also has the good fortune to star alongside Garland Hunter, who plays a spunky, no-nonsense punkette named Tiffany, whom he first meets at NYC’s now-legendary punk venue CBGBs, which is only one of many (quote) “pre-Disneyfied” locations used in the film, including Times Square. 

Although released in the U.K. and Europe on VHS courtesy of RCA/Columbia Pictures, and later on DVD via Shock Video in the Netherlands, Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray/DVD combo is really the only way to go. Scanned and restored in 2K from (quote) “the original 35mm camera negative”, VS’s Blu is a real eye-opener, and it looks absolutely first-rate, with a perfectly-defined picture and a nice amount of natural film grain, which finally allows Michael Spiller’s photography to get some of the recognition it deserves. The DTS-HD MA mono audio sounds particularly full and robust, and doesn’t present any issues whatsoever. In short, VS’s restoration is quite outstanding.

Naturally, VS have also packed their release with a number of illuminating extra features, which shed plenty of light on the film itself, as well as the New York independent film scene. Starting-off with an audio commentary featuring director/star Ingvordsen, which is moderated by ex-Fangoria editor Michael Gingold, they discuss the (quote) “last great gasp of independent cinema” and guerilla filmmaking at the time; Ingvordsen’s time working as a key grip with Larry Cohen on such films as THE STUFF (1985); the re-development of NYC; the colourful locations, including the aforementioned CBGB’s and their graffiti-strewn bathrooms; the very uncharacteristic final battle in the film; plus his and John Wiener’s love for John Milius’ CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1981), elements of which they manage to put into their film in a decidedly bizarre albeit fascinating way. Actor John Wiener flies solo in the second audio commentary, and he actually fills the running time with plenty of similar facts and anecdotes, including the film’s genesis as a horror film about (quote) “people who eat people’s hearts”; his friend’s band Nevermore (seen playing live at CBGB’s in the film); his research on the film itself, which led him to some (quote) “creepy website” in Germany and the film’s German title ZWANG ZUM TÖTEN (trans: “Compulsion to Kill”); and BV’s many (quote) “great locations”. 

In the documentary Making Blue Vengeance (19m26s), Ingvordsen (as well as writer/actor Danny Kuchuck and assistant director Matthew Howe) discuss the high demand for product at the time, his desire to produce a (quote) “NYC cop drama”, his love for NY cop films from the ’70s in general, and how his distributor at the time wanted a horror title instead. He also talks very highly of Larry Cohen and the (quote) “art of the sneak”, his amazing ability to get some truly incredible shots without utilizing a permit, something which Ingvordsen himself also does quite admirably in BV. Next up is On Blue Vengeance (13m28s), an on-camera conversation between Ingvordsen and Gingold, which covers similar territory, but also touches on his association with Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment; some of his earlier projects and his (quote) “big ambitions [with BV], despite the low-budget”. In a surprise extra, VS have also included Danny Kuchuck’s THE FIRST MAN (1996), a previously-unreleased, feature-length film starring Lesley Ann Warren, Heather Graham, Ted Raimi, Lisa Zane and Paul Ben-Victor. Although not entirely successful, this unusual sci-fi film with arthouse pretensions is an interesting inclusion just the same, but it’s easy to see why it has remained unseen for so long. As per VS’ usual standards, the disc also features reversible cover art featuring both original artwork designed by Derek Gabryszak, as well as artwork from the film’s German video release. The first 1000 copies also include a thick slipcover featuring Gabryszak’s eye-catching art. 

On the surface, BLUE VENGEANCE may appear to be just another low-rent action film, but between the spirited self-confidence of everyone involved and many of the film’s quirkier moments, the film distinguishes itself from the norm and is definitely worth checking-out, especially via Vinegar Syndrome’s impressive new Blu-ray. Order it directly from Vinegar Syndrome or DiabolikDVD.

Friday, April 13, 2018

EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS - BLU-RAY REVIEW

The hilarious and patently false opening blurb: “This is a true story as reported by Jennifer O’Sullivan.”

Produced the same year as Ruggero Deodato’s JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (a.k.a. The LAST CANNIBAL WORLD, 1977), with this outing the prolific Joe D’Amato decided to meld his successful Emanuelle films, starring his muse Laura Gemser, with the then-burgeoning cannibal films.  Of course, this wouldn't be the last time that D’Amato merged sex and horror into a potpourri of sleazy thrills: in 1980, he directed The EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD, a fusion of hardcore sex and zombie gore, and also, that very same year, he directed the notorious if undisputedly awful PORNO HOLOCAUST, which pretty much plumbed the nadir of both genres. Despite its own innate stupidity, EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS remains an enjoyable bit of at times mean-spirited trash, especially for fans of either D’Amato’s Emanuelle films or the Italian Cannibal genre, so, if you’re gonna check it out or need to own it in your collection, Severin’s newest Blu-ray is easily the best way to go.

A patient at an NYC Psychiatric Hospital takes a nasty bite out of a nurse’s breast; an incident which hard-working ‘on-the-scene’ photo journalist Emanuelle (Laura Gemser) happens to snap a photograph of with her conveniently-hidden camera, which is housed inside a children’s doll. Later that night, Emanuelle sneaks into the room of the bitten woman – who, by the way, is confined to a straitjacket – and (ahem) ‘eases her tensions’ (so to speak!) in a way that only Emanuelle could. Upon snapping a few more gratuitous photos of the half-naked bite victim just for extra ‘coverage’, she then reports back to her editor. After looking over the photos for what seems like ages, they finally happen to notice a (quote) “strange tattoo above her pubic region”… where else?! Immediately sensing a hot story (“The last cannibals! What a scoop!” exclaims her overzealous editor), Emanuelle is put in contact with Mark Lester [!] (Gabriele Tinti), a curator at the Natural History Museum, who goes on to educate her about various cannibal rites across the globe via some scratchy B&W movie footage, also revealing that it’s the Yapiakas from the Amazon she is seeking.  Of course, as per the usual standards of the genre, Emanuelle also jumps into bed with Mark as the film crosscuts them rolling around in the sheets with their journey to the Amazon (“Amazonia is a land that lives by its own rules”).  

Upon their arrival, they meet Wilkes (Geoffrey Copleston), who organizes their journey into the jungle to meet Father Morales, the only outsider who has ever had any contact with the elusive Yapiakas tribe.  Also along for the ride are Wilkes’ daughter Isabelle (Monika Zanchi, co-star of Giuseppe Vari’s sinful nunsploitationer SISTER EMANUELLE [1977], also starring Gemser), who will be their guide for the trip, and Sister Angela (Annamarie Clementi), one of the nuns working at Morales’ mission (yes indeed, nunsploitation rears its unholy head in this one too!).  During their trek, they also come across Donald and Maggie Mackenzie (Italo-based Irish actor Donal[d] O’Brien and Spanish actress “Susan Scott” a.k.a. Nieves Navarro), a bickering dysfunctional couple whose deceitful and uncooperative relations are the least of the expedition’s problems when the cannibals strike.

D’Amato’s rather juvenile exercise is a far-cry from some of Italy’s other, harder-hitting and rather unpleasant jungle horrors, and is largely more typical of morally simplistic earlier jungle adventures like William Witney’s JUNGLE GIRL (1944), a 15-part Republic serial, albeit with plentiful ’70s-style sex and gore, that D’Amato delivers at predictably regular intervals, and which certainly keeps things from ever getting too dull.  After appearing together in both EMANUELLE IN BANGKOK (1976) and the infamous EMANUELLE IN AMERICA (1977), both real-life partners Gemser and Tinti go through their usual paces while managing to keep straight faces throughout all the silliness.  In one of the film’s more blatant tip-offs to all those Italian ‘jungle girl’ adventures like Roberto Infascelli’s LUANA (1968) or Guido Malatesta’s SAMOA (1968) and TARZANA THE WILD GIRL (1969), D’Amato has our intrepid reporter getting it on with Isabelle as they casually wash each other’s more intimate areas in a jungle river, this while a curious chimpanzee rummages through their clothes while trying to smoke a cigarette (?!).  Nico Fidenco’s enthusiastic easy-listening music definitely makes all the absurdity more digestible, and it is undoubtedly one of the film’s most appealing aspects; incidentally, much of this music was later reused in the original European edit of Marino Girolami’s ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (a.k.a. DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D., 1980).  Another definite bonus here is the casting of Donal(d) O’Brien, a frequent D’Amato collaborator who was such a memorable presence as the badass mercenary leader in D’Amato’s own African-set war actioner TOUGH TO KILL (1979) and who herein adds a convincingly nasty edge to the almost playful and highly naïve narrative.  When asked why he’s trekking through the Amazon, his character reveals he is a hunter and that (quote) “if my game happens to be a human being, I don’t mind.”  Suffering from impotence, he also has to endure his wife’s infidelities with his native guide (Percy Hogan) amidst the jungle fauna.  

Shot at Italian National Parks in and around Lazio, doubling for the Amazon (!?), not surprisingly none of the locations are all that convincing, but D’Amato nonetheless gives the film a handsome look – he was also its DP – despite his limited budget.  Many of the gore effects are also quite phony-looking, highlighting lots of rubbery latex as well as one laughable optical effect; Sister Angela’s demise, however, is actually quite gruesome, and one of the strongest scenes in the film.  

Available during the VHS boom on Twilight Video under its notorious U.S. release title of TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM, this was released on DVD in 2003 courtesy of Shriek Show, whose edition featured a solid transfer (enhanced for 16x9) that was highlighted by quite robust colours and solid detail for an SD release.  This long out-of-print DVD included a generous stills gallery, a theatrical trailer, plus trailers for some of Shriek Show’s other titles.  As part of their “Italian Collection”, 88 Films’ Region B Blu-ray was the first out of the gate ever to present the film in full HD, and although it isn’t of sufficiently stunning quality to be used as demo material, the 1080p disc nevertheless looked quite satisfactory, and was noticeably sharper than the Shriek Show release; but that’s about it, as it left plenty of room for improvement.  The LPCM 2.0 Master Audio tracks also sound relatively fine, but unlike on earlier releases, 88 Films also provides an Italian language track with optional English subtitles. The original theatrical trailer and the film’s Italian opening and closing credits are the only extras related to the film, but the disc also includes trailers for some of 88 Films’ other product. A postcard insert with alternate art and a reversible sleeve round-out the extras.  

Less than a year later, Severin Films debuted the film on North American Blu-ray in yet another of their superlative packages, featuring a crisp new transfer and an excellent assortment of extras. Scanned in 2K from (quote) “original vault elements”, Severin’s new disc is far more detailed than any previous release, featuring a healthy amount of proper film grain, and while it does feature some imperfections that were inherent in the original source material, the clarity and depth of picture is superb. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 is also offered in both English and Italian and both sound clear and free of distortion despite the rather wonky dubbing on the English track. Happily, Severin have also included properly-translated English subtitles for the Italian track, which doesn’t have nearly the same unintentionally comedic feel of the more well-known English-dubbed version. Closed captions are also included.

The copious extras begin with The World of Nico Fidenco (27m04s), a career-spanning interview with the film’s music composer, who collaborated with Joe D’Amato a number of times. Initially studying to become a director at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografica, this ambition was cut short when Fidenco had to do his mandatory military service, but upon his return, he started singing and playing guitar instead. This led to him singing the title song “What a Sky / Su ne cielo” in Francesco Maselli’s SILVER SPOON SET (1960), which subsequently launched his musical career. Through further (quote) “coincidences”, this fortuitous event also initiated a prolific career composing film music, beginning with his sparse if highly-memorable score for Giovanni Grimaldi’s spaghetti western IN A COLT’S SHADOW (1966). Additionally, Fidenco goes on to speak of his long working relationship with D’Amato and his ability to make (quote) “three movies with the budget of one”; a piece of advice he took from famed composer Henry Mancini to (quote) “make one theme (or two, if necessary) that will be remembered” (which is most certainly the case with this film’s catchy score!); and finally touches on working with Gemser, Tinti, director Marino Girolami, and how his life is a (quote) “never-ending surprise”. Solid stuff, indeed! In Nocturno’s A Nun Among the Cannibals (22m53s), Annamarie Clementi talks about how she got into the business through her friend and agent Pino Pellegrino and how her life at that point was much akin to a (quote) “spin-dryer”; she also discusses her nasty demise in the film under review and found it (quote) “amusing”, but was less amused when she found herself covered in smelly offal on the set while shooting the scene. Next up, in Doctor O’Brien (18m47s), Donal(d) O’Brien discusses his early years at the Dublin Gate Theatre; his breakthrough on John Frankenheimer’s THE TRAIN (1964) – in which he memorably portrayed a stubborn Nazi NCO opposite the film’s protagonist Burt Lancaster – and his migration to Italy where he (quote) “fell in love with Italy and its people”; he also goes on to call D’Amato’s nasty-nun shocker IMAGES IN A CONVENT(1979) a (quote) “semi-masterpiece”! In From Switzerland to the Mato Grosso (18m40s), Monika Zanchi talks of her turbulent lifestyle before she was ‘discovered’, which led to a brief film career that began with Pasquale Festa Campanile’s crimeslime road movie HITCH-HIKE (1977) and the aforementioned SISTER EMANUELLE; she also speaks warmly of maverick director Alberto Cavallone as (quote) “the most-human, the most-creative” director she ever worked with. The featurettes conclude with I Am Your Black Queen (11m25s), a reedited audio interview with the Indonesian-born Laura Gemser (full name Laurette Marcia Gemser), which originally appeared on Blue Underground’s DVD of Joe D’Amato’s EMANUELLE IN AMERICA (1976). In it, she talks about making a living in Belgium while modelling, as well as her first foray into film with Pier Ludovico Pavoni’s FREE LOVE (1974) and eventually appearing in Adalberto “Bitto” Albertini’s BLACK EMANUELLE (1976); she also talks about getting naked on film and how she found her many lesbian encounters (quote) “embarrassing”, also citing director D’Amato as a (quote) “born comedic actor”; and, in a funny anecdote, she talks of her infamous snake dance from BLACK COBRA (1976), co-starring a seriously slumming Jack Palance, and how she ended-up getting covered in snake-piss as a result! Things finish off with the film’s theatrical trailer. 

In a nice gesture, the first 3000 copies of this Blu also include a soundtrack CD of Fidenco’s memorable score, which runs 59m04 and houses a grand total of 31 tracks. To top it all off, Severin have also seen fit to include reversible cover art, as well as a very colourful – and naughty! – slipcover depicting the film’s German poster art. For those wishing to splurge, it’s also available as part of “The Laura Gemser Deluxe Bundle”, but whichever edition you choose, this colourfully outrageous jungle romp still remains one of Joe D’Amato’s most consistently entertaining pictures, which Severin Films have finally provided fans in the nicest-looking edition to date. Pre-order it from Severin, DiabolikDVD, or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video.

Friday, April 6, 2018

OFFERINGS - BLU-RAY REVIEW

By 1989, traditional stalk ’n’ slash films were definitely well past their prime. However, despite it then very much being the genre’s ‘petering-out’ period, an intrepid group of Oklahoma filmmakers opted to not only have another stab (pun intended!) at this once-thriving genre, but at the same time blatantly emulate John Carpenter’s prototypical trailblazer HALLOWEEN(1978), albeit with a decidedly different kind of twist.  In spite of its exceedingly derivative nature, Christopher Reynolds’ OFFERINGS(1989) remained a bit of a fan favourite during the VHS era and, thanks to Dark Force Entertainment, it’s now available on Blu-ray (!) to stupefy an entirely new generation of slasher film freaks.

The story, such that it is, is simplistic to the point of pure plagiarism: A young boy named John (Josh Coffman), is continually harassed by the other kids for his strange behaviour, and no one but his only true friend Gretchen (Kerri Bechthold) stands up for him; not even his craggy old mother, who, at one point, even contemptuously flicks cigarette ash onto his scrambled eggs! Following a threatening bit of peer pressure from the neighbourhood kids, John falls down a well, and winds up being left in a coma due to it. Ten years later, the now-adult John (Richard A. Buswell) escapes from the nearby asylum to seek revenge on those who had bullied him so mercilessly, in the process also attempting to win back the affections of Gretchen (now played as a young adult by Leigh Bowman) by imparting some truly unique ‘offerings’ upon her.

Like many of these low-end slasher films (of which, of course, there are plenty), OFFERINGS possesses a similarly imitative style, and while dramatically sluggish and lacking even a hint of anything resembling suspense, it does offer plenty of (un)intentional laughs and a few unique surprises. The rudimentary framework gathers together the requisite group of teenagers (well, um, twentysomethings) for a sleepover at Gretchen’s house, where, much to their understandable surprise, they discover a severed human earon her front doorstep: this being one of John’s first ‘offerings’. Sheriff Chism (G. Michael Smith) is introduced soon after, uttering one of the film’s more cringe-inducing – if priceless – lines of dialogue, “What’s all this I hear about an ear?” Then, in yet another of the film’s wackier developments, a mysteriously-delivered and suspiciously-topped pizza from earlier in the night is also taken in as evidence by the worrisome Sheriff (“That don’t look like sausageto me!”), who knows all-too-well about John’s predilection for cannibalism (!). Amongst other things, OFFERINGSalso includes a doom ’n’ gloom psychiatrist (Jerry Brewer) who follows John back to town in the hopes of stopping him; unlike Donald Pleasence’s Sam Loomis character from HALLOWEEN, however, he’s given virtually nothingto do in a role which is woefully underwritten, but in keeping with some of the film’s other ‘surprises’, he confronts John in a most unusual way. As expected, the film goes on to replicate HALLOWEEN’s third-act stalking sequence (replete with an almost identical piano-driven synth score to boot) without generating any of that other film’s flair or excitement whatsoever and ending with an endlessly drawn-out – and needlessly silly – slow-motion sequence. Regardless of its completely unoriginal structure, OFFERINGSstill possesses enough quirky touches scattered here and there throughout its derivative narrative to make it worthwhile; touches which, for the benefit of those who haven’t seen it, shan’t be revealed here.

First released in 1989 on VHS videocassette in the U.S. via Southgate Entertainment, OFFERINGS eventually made it onto DVD in 2003 through Madacy Entertainment (one of the better cheapo domestic labels from the early 2000s) in a full-screen transfer which, much like the VHS, stayed a little too much on the dark side. Released in association with Kino Lorber, Dark Force Entertainment has decided to revisit this regionally-shot, late-entry slasher on Blu-ray in what is by far and away its finest-looking presentation. A nicely-detailed picture and strong colours (unlike in previous releases, the blue gel lighting finally looks far more accurate and nowhere near as smeary as before) highlight most of this disc, although a few scenes do feature some brief speckling, which may very well be inherent in the film’s original materials themselves, but it’s nothing to get too overly concerned about. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio also sounds clear and free of any distortion whatsoever, which is especially nice for such an economically-produced film whose technical aspects were far from state-of-the-art then, and are even less-so now. Unfortunately, other than the film’s original trailer and a handful of trailers for some of Dark Force’s upcoming horror releases, no extras are included, but this still remains a solid-enough release for anyone wishing to see – or own– every ’80s slasher film ever made, while most casual viewers should still be suitably entertained by its audacious copycat nature and oddball surprises. Order it from DiabolikDVD, or, for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video.