Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Marquis de Sade's JUSTINE (1977) d. Chris Boger

Reviewed by Tim Hulsizer

The Marquis de Sade's JUSTINE, a/k/a "Cruel Passion," is an easy film for a man to watch but a hard film to like. The reason for the first half of that isn't difficult to pin down: half the scenes involve feminine nudity of the sort you just don't get anymore. Then-21-year-old Koo Stark's body was a sight to behold, and it's no wonder she ended up involved in a 1982 relationship with England's Prince Andrew. Add in the film's other physically gifted lasses and you're in for a fleshy treat. Yet prurient enjoyment will only get a film so far. Eventually the soul yearns for nourishment that no bared breast can provide.

The plot, according to one talented IMDB scribe named Ørnås, is thus: "JUSTINE is a nubile young virgin cast out of a French orphanage and thrust into a depraved world of prostitution, predatory lesbians, a fugitive murderess, bondage, branding, and one supremely sadistic monk. It's a twisted tale of strange desires, perverse pleasures and the ultimate corruption of innocence as told by the Marquis de Sade."

Clearly the movie has no lack of plot. However, while it has supple flesh and sadism to spare, JUSTINE suffers from its slavish devotion to de Sade's principles. He was a man who despised religion and took every opportunity to spit in its face, and he would gladly sacrifice reader enjoyment for his own perverse whims. I know that not every movie has a happy ending, but I feel the best 1970s softcore films were the ones that didn't punish the viewer for watching. JUSTINE does precisely that. Like de Sade's original work, there's scarcely a sympathetic character in the bunch, and even the likeable ones meet a grisly end.

Image and video hosting by TinyPicStill, I suppose it's silly to complain about a director being faithful to the original text of a book. Boger had a vision and brought it across onscreen ably. The sets, costumes, and performances are routinely enjoyable here despite any ugly aspects of the narrative. Salvation has done an excellent job on the DVD restoration and authoring, and the disc offers two interesting interviews with director Chris Boger and writer Ian Cullen. Also along for the digital ride are stills and a trailer for the film. The years haven't been kind to Ms. Stark (she had passport problems in the US in 2001, cancer robbed her of a breast in 2002, and 2008 found her evicted from her London flat) but we'll always have the 70s. JUSTINE represents Ms. Stark at her finest and shall always remain a highly watchable time capsule of her remarkable beauty.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II – 20th Anniversary Edition (1988) d. Tony Randel

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the toughest situations to be placed in is following up a successful act. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a club, seen a good opening act, an amazing middle act and then the closing act falls flat on their face trying to eclipse the successes of what came before. In the film world, it is very similar. Even if critics are trying to be fair and impartial, which doesn’t happen too often, most sequels start off life already placed squarely behind the “8 Ball” and while fan interest may provide a sequel with box office bounty, it isn’t too common for a sequel to garner critical acclaim. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II was the continuation of the surprisingly successful original HELLRAISER (1987) and while the late 1980s tends to be a time that is not well-remembered for outstanding horror titles, HELLRAISER II had several aspects that helped it to garner success. The producers were wise enough to strike while the iron was hot and keep the attention of fans eager for more stories of the Cotton family and their struggles with the Cenobites. In addition, HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is one of the rare sequels that exists where a concerted effort was made to fire on all the cylinders and make the story, imagery and effects all worthy of the original without going overboard and creating something that was more spectacle than cinema. Anchor Bay Entertainment has put out a 20th Anniversary Edition of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II where the rabid fan can revel in the film that was as good a follow-up as generally exists and can wallow in a blood bath of extras that makes this DVD a must have for those who prefer to be immersed in “Hellraiser” lore.

HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is the continuing story of Kirsty Cotton, the young woman who suffered so much and lost nearly everything in her dealings with Pinhead and the other Cenobites in HELLRAISER. Confined to a mental institution after her tribulations, Kirsty makes the acquaintance of Dr. Channard, who at first seems to be nothing more than an overly theatrical and grimly dedicated scientist with a sadistic streak. It becomes increasingly obvious that Dr. Channard has an unholy fascination with the Gateway to Hell and the promise that lies therein and he deviously uses the skills of a young, mute patient named Tiffany to unlock the Puzzle Box and open The Portal. Dr. Channard resurrects Kirsty’s nemesis Julia and the pattern of brutality and barbarity is reenacted. Kirsty must face her darkest fears, uncover mysteries of the past and the present and find a way to work with Tiffany, who has her own dark secrets, before an escape from the Labyrinth of Pain can be discovered.

At a time when horror films were rapidly degenerating into mindless exhibitions of special effects, gaudy makeup and props and had very little to do with story or quality acting, HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II has a little of everything to please most fans of the macabre. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II has a very patient story that effectively builds on the mythology of both the past film and Clive Barker’s rich story ideas, but eventually after a pair of obligatory rehashes for those who may not have seen the original, the sequel blazes its own trail. As the narrative progresses, suspense and a sense of menace are carefully developed, even as characters are introduced or reintroduced and grisly and ghastly incidents begin to multiply. What is most fascinating about this film is the visual dichotomy between the first and second halves of the movie. In the first half of the story, the film lacks “beauty” per se, as the atmosphere and imagery is dependent upon the contrast between the stark surroundings and the nightmarish appearance of Julia and her victims. It is the gory and shocking scenes rife with blood and other grisly sights that aid in elevating the aura of wickedness that is the backbone of the initial plot. It is only after the Cenobites are released that HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II changes dramatically. The imagery becomes sublime, complex, colorful and rich, conjuring an appalling form of beauty, all of which is tied tightly to a story that still revels in ghastliness but is also just as compelling for its symbolism and for all the questions it raises even as it tries to answer some of what came before. What emerges is a horror movie that has its feet firmly planted in some of the older traditions of storytelling and atmosphere development, but is also very much a product of its time and dependent on some cutting edge effects of the late 1980s. As a result of its efforts to blend past and “present”, HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II succeeds wonderfully, where so many sequels fail.

In addition to a fairly gripping story and some superbly effective imagery, HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II has some other strengths. Ashley Laurence dominates a cast that, while not terribly well known, most of the actors give steady, workmanlike and competent performances. Ms. Laurence however steals the show. Her intensity of facial expressions, emotional delivery of her lines and her eyes that just blaze with feeling are the center of the film and keep it grounded in “reality”. What that means is that Ashley’s performance as Kirsty pulls you into the tale and keeps you from disengaging no matter how outlandish the circumstances or how bizarre the effects. We relate to Kirsty, feel her pain and cheer for her no matter how bad things get. Between her “little girl lost” appeal and her puzzling mix of strength and vulnerability, Ashley Laurence makes Kirsty a character that is pretty unforgettable as horror franchises go, and that is rather impressive considering how forgettable the late 80s was for this genre. Blending beautifully with the sublime imagery and Ashley Laurence’s emotive portrayal is an evocative orchestral score that adds to the grandiose and even melodramatic nature of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II. The film score has an “old Hollywood” appeal while at the same time mining some of the style of other successful soundtracks like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or GHOSTBUSTERS. The 1980s was one of the better decades for the return of flamboyant movie music, and the score of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II fits it perfectly and helps to build that sense that you are watching more than just a sequel, you are watching the next chapter in an epic saga.

Not all is perfectly right with this film and disc, but it is mostly on target. As performances go, there is one acting effort that stands out as being pretty weak, and that is William Hope’s portrayal of Kyle. His woodenness and forced delivery of his lines came close to bringing some of the hard won mood to a screeching halt in the early stretches of the film. The 5.1 audio mix of this disc is also very inconsistent. It is almost always a given that any 5.1 mix is going to have the dialogue too low and the audio effects and music too high. In the case of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II that problem is very much exacerbated. It also doesn’t help that some of the dialogue has a hollow, almost tinny sound to it that may be the result of the new mix being laid over older stereo or mono tracks. Other than these problems, I found my experience with the feature film to be a real treat.

It isn’t often that I get to rave about a set of bonus features, but the extras on HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II are both deep and wonderful. In addition to an excellent audio commentary track featuring director Tony Randel, writer Peter Atkins and actress Ashley Laurence, there is a sizable poster and stills gallery and trailers/TV spots segment featuring four theatrical trailers and two TV Spots. There is also a 3 minute “on-set interview” with Clive Barker and a 4 ½ “on-set interview” with cast and crew members from HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II. Both of these were on the original DVD release and while very worthwhile, they suffer from video quality issues. There is also a 17 minute featurette from the original release called “Lost in the Labyrnith” that is a series of anecdotes/interviews/comments from cast and crew members. The visual quality of this is excellent and it is certainly worth your time. New to the 20th Anniversary Edition of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is a 22 minute featurette called “The Soul Patrol”, which is a series of interviews with Cenobite performers Simon Bamford, Nicholas Vince and Barbie Wilde which was excellent. This is followed by a fascinating 15 minute featurette called “Outside the Box” focusing on director Tony Randel and his recollections on his career before and during the time of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II. Next up is the 13 ½ minute featurette “The Doctor is in” centering upon actor Kenneth Cranham and his experience as Dr. Channard. All three of these featurettes are totally new to this DVD release. Finally, there is an 11 minute featurette with Doug Bradley (Pinhead), called “Under the Skin”, which is new to the U.S. 20th Anniversary Edition, but has been seen on earlier British releases, and is worth every minute. Finally, there was even a theatrical mini-poster on the inside of the case, which I found to be a charming addition and end to my delvings into this DVD. Such a treasure trove of “Hellraiser” goodies should be enough to delight even the most fanatical of disciples and I certainly found myself enjoying the extras to a degree that is not usual with me. This is probably about as good as DVD extras get on horror releases.

I don’t often rave about DVDs, and I even more infrequently rant about anything post-1980, for my bent tends to be towards older fare. One can’t be a snob, nor can one by prejudiced for it isn’t fair to those who have made a sincere effort to create something worthwhile. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is not only time well-spent as a feature film in and of itself, it has a set of bonus features that will provide you with a lengthy day of compelling HELLRAISER explorations. Fire up that DVD player, clear your schedule for the day, pull all the shades tight, damp the lights, watch the original film in its 20th Anniversary form first and then go for broke and do this one too. If you love the HELLRAISER universe and cast of characters, there aren’t many ways you can do better than this.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

THE WITCHING HOUR (2006) d. Francois Merlin

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Hey film fans, it’s that time again! It’s another opportunity to meet with the rest of the class of Film Language 101 where we learn profoundly important terminology and how it applies to making a motion picture. The last time we met, I taught you about the word appalling and applied that expression to a film that had many appalling characteristics. Today we are going to get double our pleasure and tackle two indispensable vocabulary terms in one lesson. First up is the word pointless, which means having no use, of no value, meaningless. Following right after that is the term monotonous, which means tedious, repeated over and over, boring. Does bringing up these two adjectives mean we are going to explore how to make a pointless and monotonous movie? You bet your life we are and I’ve got the perfect pointless and monotonous flick to explore. It’s called THE WITCHING HOUR and after carefully examining this cinematic sampling of soured sludge, you too will have attained the essential knowledge allowing you to make a pointless and monotonous film, if you dare.

THE WITCHING HOUR is the story of Ulrick and Alexandre Santoro (no relation to Santoro the Honduran Grappler), who are charged by their father to steal a priceless gem called the Eye of Sloveig. The Santoro brothers gather their friends/cohorts Nico, Sam and Michael and the five urban warriors take the fight to the House of Marcucci to wrest the jewel from this crime lord and exact a little vengeance at the same time. Unfortunately, their initially successful attempts bring them in contact with an unsuspected world of cannibals, zombies, succubae and the Demon Sloveig himself, whose eye IS the gemstone. Guns, knives, punches and kicks, as well as all many of human and demonic weapons are brought to bear in an orgy of blood to gain control of the stone and the Powers of Darkness that the Five Witches and Sloveig wish to direct.

THE WITCHING HOUR suffers from many problems right from the start and never relinquishes it hold on crappiness throughout the entirety of the film. To begin with, the general story seems promising, but it is exceedingly simplistic and to make the story pad out to feature length, everything about this flick is extended to the point that you think you are watching a Stretch Armstrong action figure being horrifically elongated while being heated over an open flame. When it is a dialogue scene, the plot comes to a screeching halt and useless verbiage spills onto the screen in torrents that inundate the viewer in verbal exercises of dreadful futility. Beyond being absolutely pointless most of the time, much of the dialogue is ridiculously obscene, as if the film maker wanted to see how much filthy language he could cram into a 106 minute motion picture, whether it made sense or not. To add to the pointlessness, most of the fight scenes, whether you are talking about martial arts, gunplay, knife work, chainsaw action or what not was overdone to the point where each scene got tiresome. Fights are not necessarily better if they are longer. It isn’t about how much punishment a human body can endure that creates tension and makes the story compelling, it is how much drama and conflict is created as a part of the narrative. Once again, most of the action didn’t seem to have a reason to exist other than to intensify the “action” element of the movie and throw punctuation marks of testosterone in between the muddy rivers of dialogue. To make matters worse, there were miserably long stretches of grotesquely dull gore scenes that made Lucio Fulci’s propensity for “probing the wound” look like a brief and jaunty romantic dalliance in a Walt Disney film. Entrails and blood are spread across the last two-thirds of the movie in ever increasing quantities but with no purpose beyond creating shock value. At least when you watched BLOOD FEAST, you knew that the gore scenes were all part of the Sacred Rites of Ishtar and served a plot purpose. So many of the gore scenes in THE WITCHING HOUR existed simply to raise the disgusting bar to the same level as the testosterone bar and be as “edgy” as possible, because being “edgy” means you are “cool”! In the end though, all the violence and gore just became horrendously monotonous and made THE WITCHING HOUR seem like it was 1006 minutes in length and not 106.

Had the action scenes and set pieces been of superior quality like so many of the modern Thai films made by or with Tony Jaa, I could have looked past the pointless and monotonous plot and may have enjoyed it for its choreography, but it was not to be. I didn’t like Jackie Chan’s GORGEOUS for many reasons, but I was able to appreciate the beauty of the fight scenes. Such was even more the case with the great Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao slugfest WHEELS ON MEALS, which really doesn’t have much of a story but is one of the greatest fight films of all time. THE WITCHING HOUR played more like a student film version of YAMAKASI, a film I hated for the way it was shot and edited. At least that train-wreck was well lit and used real film stock, whereas THE WITCHING HOUR is dark, grainy, shot on video, poorly focused and faux-avant garde in style so that it can be “edgy” and therefore “cool”. Every singly type of fight scene was shot like the camera had been strapped to a Tilt-a-Whirl that could pitch, roll and yaw at 750 miles per hour. Every possible angle which the camera lens could be utilized was exploited and then all the relentlessly scavenged clips were edited as rapidly as could be done so that no amount of visual pleasure from the fight scenes could be extracted, and remember, each scene is dark and grainy, making it even harder to see what the HELL was happening. When you can’t see or enjoy what is occurring AND each one of these scenes is egregiously too long, then the test of endurance becomes an exercise in pain management. The only interesting visual characteristics of THE WITCHING HOUR were that most of the scenes were filtered and/or treated in post production to be monochromatic. While many of these single color applications didn’t add much to the appeal for they were gray, brown or other dull shades, there were some icy blues, baleful greens and bright green/yellows that made for some compelling mood shifts at times. Later in the film when a “cauldron” was mentioned and that story element “developed” there were some moments of mixed media and animation coupled with even brighter jewel tones that also had an attractive quality. Had more of this kind of film making been attempted and some real atmosphere been developed, THE WITCHING HOUR could have really been “edgy” and therefore “cool”.

When you’ve got a film that has a pointless and monotonous story and visual imagery that only adds to how meaningless and dull a film is, the problems with THE WITCHING HOUR become absolutely metaphysical when you take into account that between the acting and the way the characters were written, no one is anything but plastic at best, but at worst the characters are miserable pustules of puerile putrescence. The family of cannibals may be the most infuriating collection of benighted souls ever created and then chained to a scene that was almost completely unwatchable and made infinitely more unpleasant by its pointlessness and monotonous nature. None of the principal five characters was anything more than a fighting and swearing machine and had little about them that was engaging. Even when humor was ham-handedly injected into the mix, it fell flat and no character was made to be more interesting or could be related to. What could have been an addition to the story that may have added complexity, mood, attitude and sex appeal were The Five Witches, but none of the them were anything more than vehicles for fight scenes, gore scenes and one reasonably interesting nude scene that was not nearly enough impressive pulchritude to turn around the plummeting gravity dung ball that was THE WITCHING HOUR. Finally, this film even had some audio issues that made it even quirkier than it should have been. It is a French film with English subtitles, the subs being truly English in nature that is done by Brits. This combination of English colloquialisms in word form juxtaposed with French language being spoken by the characters was awkward to say the least. In addition, there was some eclectic modern music laid down over the film that may have fit the tone of the movie better had it been a little less frenetically edited. One moment, a lighter and bouncier set of strains can be heard backing an action sequence, only to be replaced in a flash by the crunching chords of speed metal. This only strengthened the feeling that THE WITCHING HOUR was made by people who desperately needed sizable doses of psychotropic drugs but not only had their medications withheld, but they were given cane sugar laced with crystal meth instead.

Even the extras menu of THE WITCHING HOUR was plebeian at best. There was a small Stills Gallery that was actually its own menu option instead of actually being part of the bonus features. While small, the Stills Gallery was true to its name, for the images were “behind the scenes” or “promotional” in nature. There was a 19 minute “Deleted and Extended Scenes” segment which was problematic for the fact that the comments made by the “director” were not subtitled. Beyond that, why would I want to see anymore scenes that would add to the pointless and monotonous experience of this movie? I do not have nor do I try to cultivate a masochistic side, so enduring more of the imagery of THE WITCHING HOUR was clearly one of the braver actions of my life. Finally, there is the Redemption Films extras section with three trailers and a book teaser. I didn’t expect that the extras would save my viewing of THE WITCHING HOUR, but it certainly didn’t add anything to it either, engendering further reason to hate myself for having any dealings with this disc.

I hope that you have paid close attention during this extended section of Film Language 101 for it is to be hoped that the astute scholar will have gleaned enough wisdom from this lecture to avoid foisting upon the world another such offering that is so unrelentingly pointless and monotonous. Let us briefly review the main points of the lesson though so that the most essential cognitive growth can be retained. The plot of your motion picture must be cohesive and relevant; otherwise you will have a WITCHING HOUR disaster on your hands. You must film all of the sequences of your movie so that people can enjoy watching them or else you will be compared to THE WITCHING HOUR. Lastly, there must be quality acting and carefully scripted characters so that viewers feel connected to the story; otherwise the Curse of THE WITCHING HOUR will befall your creative efforts. There are few things worse than being pointless and monotonous and it is to be hoped that painstaking analysis of this monograph will make it so that no more films of this ilk will ever be made.

STONE (1974) d. Sandy Harbutt

Reviewed by Simon Oakland

After a member of the motorcycle club called "The Grave Diggers" witnesses a political assassination, the entire gang finds themselves on the hit list. At wit's end and with extreme reluctance, they allow an undercover cop to ride with them in the hopes that the killer or killers will be apprehended. Initially suspicious, over of the course of the film The Grave Diggers come to respect Stone as one of their own. Although the plotline of "outsider becomes accepted" is familiar and the fodder of many a mainstream Hollywood movie (consider KUNG FU PANDA, if you will), may I remind you that this is an early 70s Biker exploitation film. True to the form established by EASY RIDER some five years earlier, everything culminates in a typically downbeat, nihilistic fashion unbecoming of the usual disney movie.

If you're going to bother watching a biker flick you certainly can't do much better than STONE. I don't know if it's the Australian take on the genre or what, but I found this film to be extremely entertaining and enjoyable from start to finish. I'll confess that I really have no love for biker films. For every EASY RIDER there's about ten SIDEHACKERS, and even when the genre is crossed with horror like WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS the results are tedious at best. But STONE is well written, expertly photographed with, at times, amazing "psychedelic" visuals, and has a killer Rock 'n Roll soundtrack. I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone everywhere go buy this sucker this instant! To slightly paraphrase our good friend Wilford Brimley: "You'd be a fucking dickwad not to." If I have one negative comment to make about STONE it's about the character of Stone himself. As he is portrayed by Ken Shorter he's much too lackluster of a personality to warrant being the focus of the story. Still, there are plenty of other far more interesting secondary character's on hand to keep one's attention from drifting, such as director Sandy Harbutt himself as the leader of The Grave Diggers.

Severin offers STONE in two slightly different packages: There's the barebones edition with the only extra being a theatrical trailer, and a 2-Disc Special Edition with the nearly feature length documentary "Stone Forever" which features interviews with the cast and crew during the 25th Anniversary celibration of this certified Australian cult classic. If you love STONE then you'll love STONE FOREVER as well because it's just as entertaining as the main feature itself. Also included: The STONE Makeup Test, the Director's Slide Show, and "The Making of STONE", the original black and white documentary that was produced at the time of the original filming and which is continually referenced to in STONE FOREVER. If you are a STONE fan like I am now, then the 2 Disc Special Edition is the only way to go. Best release of the year!


Saturday, December 27, 2008

SLOB - FAST FOOD & HEAVY METAL - November Fire Recordings (2008)

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

A lot of interesting and creative fare finds its way onto my desk each week. While most of it takes the form of horror DVDs, we here at Saturday Fright Special’s Fangtastic Features are committed to not getting ourselves stuck in a rut and are eager to branch out on occasion into uncharted territory. It is for that reason that you’ve seen the occasional martial arts film, exploitation flick or even a “comedy” fall under your eyes as you read between the lines. Today, the foray will be one into another avenue of artistic expression altogether. This is our first review of a music CD from a California heavy metal band called SLOB. True to form, one of the reasons I was interested in doing this review is that FAST FOOD & HEAVY METAL is not your typical music disc, which means it will not be your characteristic listening experience, which is all to the good.

FAST FOOD & HEAVY METAL has nine tracks, four of them being songs and five of them are “dialogue” tracks, in essence audio skits. The four songs are all tied tightly to the topical content of the dialogue tracks and the entire CD takes the form of a narrative exploring the day in the life of the band leader of SLOB, Slobert Zombrowski. Exploring a diverse but clearly interconnected series of points like musical tastes and opinions, partying, relationships and contemplating inaction, FAST FOOD & HEAVY METAL weaves from one set of sounds to the next, taking you on a journey that is sophomoric, inane in the best sense of the term, a fairly slick and well-considered parody and is pretty tuneful all through the short but still memorable journey.

Being that FAST FOOD & HEAVY METAL has two sides to its personality, it is best to psycho-analyze this dual-minded specimen one fragment at a time. From a purely musical perspective, there is a lot to like about SLOB. There is an upbeat energy to each song that has none of the somber and depressing nature of too many “metal” bands of today. In fact, while it may not have been intentional, I found the intense but bright guitar chords and especially vigorous bit diverse set of rhythms mixed with the gravelly but good-natured vocals to be reminiscent of some of my favorite mid-80s punk bands like THE DICKIES and MURPHY’S LAW. The similarity with older punk was deepened when you notice the tendency to repeat chorus lines that was so very usual with older thrash bands, but SLOB’s strains are so much more tuneful than and in no way nerve-wracking as was old punk. As a result, you can get carried away by the energy of songs like “40 Hour Weekend” or relax to the slower and somewhat more mellow style of “That Rocker’s Dead”. “High as Fuck” has a wonderful sound all its own and my favorite musical track was “Drive Through Girl” for its mix of the highest quality song-smithing and sharp tongue-in-cheek humor.

The dialogue tracks are a little more inconsistent in their levels of creative quality. Some are openly funny and bring forth a clear chuckle like “Cat Door Dinner” (which is the best of the bunch for its acidity in tone but still very comedic approach) and “Tony Iommi’s Fingers”, while others like “Roach the Drummer” need just a bit more comic consideration. “Rape Puke” was the least enjoyable for its dependence on low-brow bodily humor. “A Day in the Life of Slob” is the intro track and serves a different but very effective purpose. What is impressive about these dialogue tracks is that they walk an exceedingly fine line of mockery of the drunken, slovenly lifestyle while at the same time venerating it to a degree. As a result, if you are looking for some humor that lacerates stoned-out bums, this may serve admirably while others may find comfort in what sounds akin to “like-mindedness”. What I found even more interesting about the dialogue tracks is that after subsequent listenings, the music and repartee blended sinuously into something reminiscent of an old radio drama with an updated feel and even more modernized tone. This was a surprise to me for it is rare that modern artists are able to effectively replicate anything from the past, but whether SLOB meant to or not really doesn’t matter, I enjoyed this CD on a very contemporary level and on a deeply nostalgic one as well.

For an independent production, there is a lot to praise about the audio and visual quality of this disc. I was impressed by the clarity of the audio elements of each song and that is high praise from a man with degenerative hearing loss. I could hear each instrument clearly and they melded into the whole of each musical track smoothly. Clearly, people with some sound mixing skill were at the helm. As to the packaging, I was impressed by the bright colors, fun and sometimes disturbing photos that help to differentiate this band from all the “pretty” and “pre-fabricated” mindlessness out there today that tries to masquerade as music. The front cover is unapologetic, the back cover looks like guys who care about music and couldn’t care less about “image” and the interior is filled with lyrics and information about the band and the project itself. As I read over and through this disc, it felt “real” and not the brainchild of some soulless marketing executive, one of the other reasons I pay my highest tribute by saying that I felt that FAST FOOD & HEAVY METAL has a strange and wonderful kinship with the hardcore bands of yore. No greater paean can be given.

There is so little about our life today that is able to bring us joy anymore. Too often, the news is filled with moronic machinations of megalomaniacs, television and film was crafted to be enjoyed by simpletons, three-year-olds or both and pop culture has such a disgustingly false and insincere veneer that I feel soiled and violated by the vast majority of any dealings I am forced to have with such Philistines. It was refreshing to feel like I had stepped into a small club, heard some fun songs that had an ironic but enjoyable sense of humor, got a kick out of the banter in between and came away feeling like I had escaped for a while from the weight of existence.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

KUNG FU KILLER (2007) d. Philip Spink

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Impressionism is the painting style that focuses on ever-changing and transient elements of light to create an image that does not evoke a powerful sense of reality. Rather, it is the aim of an impressionist painting to suggest ethereal themes and to be something a little bit different to each person who observes the canvas from different distances, angles and even times of the day. For many art lovers, impressionism is the very apex of artistic achievement, even though such paintings rarely tell a comprehensive story, unlike realism, Baroque or even Renaissance works. In film, having your motion picture compared to impressionism may seem on the surface to be a great compliment, but upon further reflection, there are problems associated with creating such an analogy. Most movies, especially one of the TV variety, needs to tell a cohesive story and have a comprehensible direction, and KUNG FU KILLER, despite having many strong qualities, needed to be more like the realism school of art rather than the impressionists.

KUNG FU KILLER is the story of White Crane, a westerner who grew up in the rural regions of China and during the lawless days of the 1920s, and who sees the Wudang Temple he was raised at destroyed by armed forces under the control of a warlord, gangster and drug trafficker named Khan. White Crane survives the slaughter at the temple and then goes in search of Khan in an effort to exact vengeance for his barbarity and unjust tyranny. Crane’s search leads him to Shanghai, where he makes the acquaintance of a nightclub owner named Bingo and his torch singer Jane Marshall. Crane uses his connections with his new found friends to get closer to Khan, where he discovers that Khan has concocted even more sinister plans for the future of China that are linked to Jane’s brother Peter and that will be tested on Crane’s former home. Crane must navigate waters of treachery and deceit to stop Khan’s plans and save the people that mean the most to him before they end up like his Wudang brethren.

Just like an impressionist painting where you’ll notice elements that are pleasing and others that seem pointless or don’t catch the eye, KUNG FU KILLER is replete with strengths and weaknesses. From the outset, where there are images that are deeply reminiscent of THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN and we are treated to scenes with the venerable Pei-pei Cheng, this film has a healthy interest in depicting the past and developing a sense of history. Throughout the movie, one of KUNG FU KILLER’s most endearing characteristics is the spectacular scenery of Shanghai cityscapes, the rural Chinese countryside (especially the gorgeous poppy fields), superb art deco interior décor in the clubs and wealthy rooms of Shanghai’s criminal elite and the lavish and stylish costumes of city folk. Added to this is a lovely film score, not always well employed, but still strongly evocative of better modern classics like HERO and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. All of this adds up to a remarkable aura and impressionistic feel of an Asian epic, which is startling when you consider this is a TV Movie. Just like an impressionist painting though, as you walk closer and start to look and little deeper, you see that the painting is not one contiguous image, but is rather a lot of little dots or strokes and that same lack of continuity that works so well on the canvas is a problem with this motion picture.

Even though there are many visual elements worth praising about KUNG FU KILLER, there are many others that are problematic. At best, the fight scenes were shot too close and edited too rapidly. Sometimes this was likely to have been done to mask the age of the 72-year-old David Carradine (White Crane) or the lack of skilled fighters like James Taenaka (Bingo) and Kay Tong Lim (Khan), who is no spring chicken himself. At worst, even though it was primarily a Chinese film crew working with an American director, the action, gunplay, military battle sequences and kung fu fight scenes were shot like DEATH RACE and suffered horribly from “shaky cam” disease coupled with needlessly rapid editing and “close-upitis”. As a result, a movie that could have looked fabulous and have reset the bar for how great a TV Movie can and should be produced fell lower than it should have at the test. I would have liked to have seen the TV version of this film for I imagine it was heavily cut down for content. For those looking for a bloody and gory set of fights and battles, KUNG FU KILLER is shockingly violent. There are eviscerations, amputations, beheadings and many a spout and spray of blood, adding a lot more color to an already colorful flick. Sadly, due to the filming techniques, what could have been incredibly exciting was too often hard to see clearly. This too adds an element of awkward impressionism to the film. It has been my experience that most Asian epics handle gory scenes with a degree of class and sometimes restraint. Even though KUNG FU KILLER tries to stimulate a sense of Eastern film making beauty, the bloodiness and grisly moments of shattered bones and shredded tendons felt distinctly Western in tone.

There are other traits of this cinematic painting that struggle with an impressionistic bent. The story feels more like an episodic plot in the first one-third, tries hard to gain a sense of direction, takes on a series of subplots and as a result becomes far to convoluted by the end. What emerged as a result were characters and their stories that were under developed as such they were not as satisfying as they could have or should have been. White Crane’s vengeance on Khan is shouldered aside at times for the secondary tales of Jane and her brother Peter, Bingo and his struggles with Shanghai criminal and political forces and even the tertiary stories of villagers Lang Han and his sidekick Wei. The impression that is created is one of profoundly crimson splashes of violence that dominate the film but don’t always add a lot to the story, blazing azure streaks of drama effected by stories like Crane and his past and present associations, and less intense dabs of pale yellow melodrama centered around circuitous story lines like Jane (Daryl Hannah) and Peter (Nic Rhind), whose story would seem to be essential but in the end doesn’t carry as much weight as it could. I found myself far more deeply drawn to the story of Lang Han (Osric Chau) and Wei (Rosalind Pho) and their fight to save their village and each other than I was the deeply contrived narrative of Jane and Peter. Many of the emotional attractions and attachments between characters felt forced at times, but that is likely to just as much a failing of the acting as it was of the screenplay and the directing.

There has been a little bit of buzz about the reunion of KILL BILL stars David Carradine and Daryl Hannah in this film, but just as we’ve seen in other parts of the movie, there are opposing forces and elements creating an impressionistic feel to KUNG FU KILLER. Despite age and a very busy schedule now that he is a “hot commodity” again, David Carradine plays his role well. He is calm, cool, charismatic and enigmatic in a lethal sort of way. It works to have an aged former student of the Kung Fu arts who has turned assassin and who is willing to do just about anything to achieve his end for the good of others. What doesn’t work is Daryl Hannah, both from a visual and performance standpoint. While not even 50 years old yet, there are times she looks far more “mature” than Mr. Carradine and she brings considerably less energy to a role that needed vibrancy. A laconic portrayal may work if you are playing a languorous blond beachgoer or suntanned surfer girl, but as a supposedly seductive and yet sadly sorrowful torch singer trapped on a chess board beyond her scope, her presence and performance seemed badly out of place. Normally, I am the first to vote for older adults to be cast in film roles so that the kid actors can go back to their high chairs to gain the time necessary to aid in their acquisition of experience and talent. In this case, a younger, sexier and far more vibrant actress may have worked better. Casting a young actress like Izabella Miko would have been a far more effective choice as her energy and intensity would have added a great deal more impact than the listless and less engaging Ms. Hannah produced. Then “Jane” could have been searching for her older brother in the shark-infested world of sin and have come under the protective wing of David Carradine’s character in such a way that an “uncle/niece” relationship could have been forged, just as a similar “uncle/nephew” air was thinly developed between White Crane and Lang Han. Such a course would have added depth to White Crane’s character, and made him even more compelling due to a mix of his appealing kindness and assassin’s brutality. Kay Tong Lim had a stately savagery to his look as Khan, but his performance many have been even more understated than Daryl Hannah’s and as a result he didn’t exude the kind of menace that was needed. For the rest of the cast, they seemed to be reasonably well placed. Some of the actor’s delivered their lines clearly and with passion, while others mumbled or slurred their way through their assignments. One thing that didn’t help was the audio mix of KUNG FU KILLER, which seemed to wrestle with the modern problem of blending dialogue, music, foley effects and other auditory attributes in such a way so that it all can be heard. When I am constantly manipulating the volume controls of my television as sound levels soar and plummet, I know that someone has dropped the ball when it comes to sound mixing or dvd authoring.

As has too often been the case with Genius Products/RHI TV discs, there is nothing to be had when it comes to a bonus features menu. There are three auto-play trailers that engage before the main menu and at least they are three interesting trailers I hadn’t seen before, unlike the ubiquitous “Maneater montage” that seemed to be a part of each and every Genius disc for a while. However, three auto-play trailers is NOT an extras menu. When you’ve got luminaries like David Carradine, Daryl Hannah and the very experienced Pei-pei Cheng in your cast, an interesting set of interviews should be a slam dunk. Even though the crew was Chinese and the director, producers and writers were not terribly well known, their recollections and anecdotes about working with the cast and shooting in some of the exotic Chinese locations that were used would have been a good choice. As I have said FAR TOO OFTEN, dvd extras create a sense of good faith with the consumer. KUNG FU KILLER is a better film than NATURE MORTE or SLASHERS, two very low budget films I have recently reviewed, but I salute both for having extras and I am deeply disappointed with KUNG FU KILLER for having none.

If KUNG FU KILLER had been like a Renoir or a Monet, I doubt if anyone connected would have minded the impressionist comparison, but that was not the case. When you walk through a doctor’s office, there are often times many quasi-impressionist paintings hanging on the walls, some of better quality and some that are not so finely executed. KUNG FU KILLER is a lot like those lesser known impressionist prints. It has some worthy components and leaves me feeling like I spent my time well when watching this film. In the end though, this is not a masterpiece, not even a painting that will engender interest among small museums or lesser known collectors. It is what is known as “an essay in the craft” as opposed to a “tour de force” and while KUNG FU KILLER may appeal to some, it just doesn’t have what it needs to really shine.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

NATURE MORTE (2006) d. Paul Burrows

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The story of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, is not terribly well remembered by most modern folk, but it is a very compelling myth none-the-less. To simultaneously face two directions and always be “coming and going” is a rather abstract and intriguing concept. For a mortal being, such a physical arrangement of one’s anatomy may have a lot of potential benefit. For a motion picture, the possibility of “being like Janus” is probably not a good thing at all. A film needs to have a clear direction and gather momentum as it tries to attain profundity. NATURE MORTE is a film that is truly the essence of a movie that evidenced Janus-like characteristics, and sadly this is to its detriment.

NATURE MORTE is the story of an American art critic and an undercover French policeman who combine their wits and skills to track down the perpetrator of a series of forgeries of the painter/serial killer John Stephenson. Stephenson had a history of capturing, torturing and killing beautiful women, and then painting the scenes of his barbarity, until his apparent suicide. Art Critic and Policeman follow their trail from Marseille to Thailand and then back to London, discovering along the way that another artist/murderer may have emerged from Stephenson’s ashes. Instead of just following leads, the duo is forced to descend into a world of lascivious and lurid behavior filled with intrigue and enticing evils that threaten everyone around them.

It always feels mean-spirited to tear apart elements of a film that so obviously wanted to go an artistic, eclectic and cutting-edge route, but honesty is an essential component in film critique. NATURE MORTE earns points for its efforts to blaze its own trail and be “nouveau”, but just like with the twin visages of Janus, for every positive trait in NATURE MORTE, there is a corresponding weakness, most commonly right within each category of analysis. For example, the plot of this movie seems to want to create a sense of dangerous intrigue, sinful salaciousness (the box art is foolishly licentious and it was a mistake to go with that image), exotic locales and cosmopolitan characters. All of this is laudable and keeps NATURE MORTE from being miserably pointless, but the pacing of the narrative is excruciatingly slow, the dialogue is overwhelmingly “talky” and tends to spend a lot of time contemplating cinematic inaction and a tone bordering on “self-important” deepening to “self-indulgent” develops and can not be shaken off. As a result, the plot does not achieve the needed velocity and dynamism to make this an exciting or at least atmospheric film, but there was a clear attempt to tell a story that had some flavor.

There was a visual dichotomy as well. There was a palpable attempt to create scenes that utilized different camera techniques, a contrasting color palette, a mix of shades and tints, as well as creative angles and unique post-production effects. In addition, locations were chosen carefully to augment the aura of exoticism, while some of the interior sets were intricate and elaborate in their décor, while the exterior sets often hinted at sophistication and affluence. There were splashes of color in some scenes meant to highlight people or objects while other scenes had brash, monochromatic schemes that left a powerful ocular impact. All of these seemingly impressive qualities were very nearly canceled out by all of the camera work being far too dark and gloomy. It is likely that the film maker wanted to create a “gothic”, “noire” or “alternative” appearance and he very nearly succeeded, but too much of anything is never good, and the unrelieved darkness wiped away crispness and clarity, making it outrageously difficult to observe what was happening. Add to this obscurity the desire to be “creative” in the use of the camera, and many scenes were nearly impossible to watch and enjoy. Once again, it is hard to castigate a director for a brave effort, but the soldier who charges an entrenched machine gun will be cut down summarily, and a courageous cinematic endeavor must be matched by consummate execution too.

Even from an auditory standpoint, NATURE MORTE is a mixed bag. The film score and incidental music were well chosen to fit the “feel” of the story and the appearance of the characters. There is an appealing and somewhat experimental feel to the accompanying music, just as nearly all the visual elements seem clearly to evoke the “art crowd” and “alternative lifestyle” segment of the population. However, it is always a good idea to have your characters portrayed by actors who can really act. A quality performance almost always leaves the impression that you were not looking at an actor but just witnessed the character as part of a tale. This is essential for getting a viewer to “suspend their disbelief”. Throughout most of NATURE MORTE I felt like I was watching actors working very hard to be actors and deliver their lines like actors. As a result, they never became the characters and I was never drawn irresistibly into their stories. Precious little chemistry was created by most of the male characters, although there was an undeniable sexual tension and electricity at times between some of the female characters. The wide mix of foreign accents in NATURE MORTE did help to mask some of the inexperience and/or lack of talent in the performers. A good French or British accent is not sovereign for all the ills of a mediocre or uninspired presentation, but it can often help to add a glaze of classiness that covers a few sins.

NATURE MORTE has a surprisingly deep extras menu that starts off with a sizable and highly stylized Stills Gallery. I must admit I felt like I had stepped into a modern art exhibit while moving through this segment and enjoyed the bright and brassy use of colors. The “Behind the Scenes” Stills Gallery is considerably smaller and not as gripping. There is a 31 minute “Deleted and Alternate Scenes” segment that comes with an introduction and commentary/discussion in between scenes. I enjoyed this segment more than much of the feature film for it gave me a look inside the creative and intellectual process, which is always a valuable journey for any film lover. A 5 ½ minute Blooper Reel is next, followed by the trailer, soundtrack information and the Redemption Films extras section with two trailers and a book teaser. While not all of the extras on NATURE MORTE are mind-bending or deeply illuminating, considering how common it is to see NOTHING on many discs today, I was pleased to see some effort went into the bonus features, and as is usual, I tend to think a little more highly of a film when there is something else to learn about it.

Just as the story of Janus shows us that there are two sides to everyone and more than one way to look at a situation, there are probably folks who will thoroughly enjoy NATURE MORTE. If you have an inventive bent, prefer eclectic fare and have an experimental side, this film may be for you. It is also likely that the younger set may enjoy some of the stylized approaches that are utilized, but I suspect the pacing may be a little too slow for the “text-message” set. NATURE MORTE may very well be the kind of film that a young and inexperienced director/writer like Paul Burrows can learn from and then come back and give us another creative offering that is also better contrived. Creativity, like a rose, must be carefully coaxed into delivering beauty and it is very often the case that time and patience must be exercised before something wonderful blossoms. While NATURE MORTE did not entirely work as a motion picture, it had its moments and with a little polishing and refining, possibly better things could be waiting in the wings from Mr. Paul Burrows.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS (2005) d. Sergio Blasco

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

As children, we are taught about the Glory of Everlasting Life and the Kingdom of God, the story often acting as a sort of motivational lesson for youngsters so they can work hard and be well-behaved in hopes of Eventual Reward. In a similar fashion, we are also warned about the horrors of Eternal Damnation in the fiery pits of Hell, which tends to have an even more powerful effect on the simplistic juvenile mind. No one wants to end up wallowing in lakes of acid and breathing in the sulfurous fumes of brimstone until Judgment Day. The problem is that we are not always told the truth that Hell comes in many forms, the most terrifying being endless boredom brought about by viewing miserably crafted and interminably pointless movies. Hell on Earth would certainly be watching BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS for a second time, for now that I’ve seen it once, I have a clear understanding of what the Underworld’s torments must surely be.

BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS is the story of rock star Toni Belcebu, junky/prostitutes Mani and Loli and camera technician Angel, all of whose paths cross during the machinations of The Devil as he finds new ways to corrupt and enslave humanity. Toni is approached by a seductive demon who offers him a chance to further his ambitions of being the greatest rock star in the world while simultaneously assisting The Beast in his malevolent aims. Mani is searching for her lost little sister, her path leading back to a life of debauchery and drugs within the dens of Belcebu, while Angel is hired to shoot film in Belcebu’s porn studios. He briefly feels a sense of concern for Mani as her life spins out of control once more. As Mani descends a stairway of doom the closer she gets to Belcebu, and Angel’s puritanical belief system is unseated by his association with sin unimaginable, plans are made to bring about Satan’s victory through a rite involving blood, sex and violence. Will The Devil triumph or will the police get there in time to stop him?

Writers of all types must call forth their many experiences to make their stories interesting and evocative, and it is one of the greatest challenges to make those memories/incidents relevant and comprehensible to whomever comes in contact with them, whether it is a film screenplay, a novel or drama. BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS fails miserably on this count despite the fact that much of the “story” of this flick must be torn straight from the history of Sergio Blasco, solo musician and guitarist fro Ozzie Osbourne. We get to see a great deal of the sleazy and underhanded workings of the business side of the music and “entertainment” industry. In addition, the drug use, sex and perversity of rock & roll are thoroughly on display as well. One would imagine that Mr. Blasco has probably seen it all and his willingness to tell that tale sounds rich fodder for a powerful narrative if these two ideas could be somehow grafted onto the primary conflict of Satanic Ascendancy, but therein lies the problem. The plot of BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS is horrifically disjointed, constantly bouncing back and forth between the dissolute life of Toni Belcebu, the depressing decline of Mani and the utterly meaningless tale of Angel and the tone sways drunkenly between self-important melodrama, self-indulgent debauchery, comedy and somber Satanism. While the film starts off with a seemingly clear direction and some early action that intensifies the pace, and it ends in an orgiastic explosion of blood, viscous fluids, gunfire and all manner of ghastliness, most of the rest of the story in between is horrendously “talky”, jarring in the way it is structured, often lacks cohesion and just becomes paralyzingly dull much of the time. Even though a fair amount of nudity and sexual depravity is interspersed throughout the film’s duration, no amount of naughtiness can energize such a tedious story. It also doesn’t help that too much emphasis is placed on drug use as a vehicle for spectacle and shock value. After a while, watching other people shoot up becomes monotonous and thoroughly uninteresting.

There is more bad news. BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS looks bad too. Whether it is the way it was shot, the quality of the film stock or how the disc was authored, BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS is dark, grainy and lacks sharpness. What is clearly the fault of the film maker is how poorly framed and composed most scenes are. We are frequently too far away, too close, looking at the backs of people’s heads or unable to see what is happening due to poor lighting. The vast majority of the cast appeared to be minimally competent and/or inexperienced actors who really didn’t have a lot to give to such a project. Sergio Blasco may be a talented musician, but directing a feature film is very different than what occurs on the set of a Music Video. One thing that kept me from ripping this disc from my player was the fact that BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS is a Spanish language film. Spanish is a fairly attractive tongue and listening to those sonorous sounds while reading subtitles helped to distract me at times from what appeared to be wooden performances. At times, the audio elements of BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS were also improved by some of the music layered over the story, but that happened far too infrequently and was probably avoided so as to keep this film from being nothing more than a vehicle for Blasco’s music. I may have liked it better if it had played more like an older 1980s vintage MTV short rather than roughly 90 minutes of chaotic and lackluster foolishness.

There is an “extras” menu on BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS but it was almost as inane as the film. There is a “Behind the Scenes” featurette, but it lacks English subtitles, so for anyone without strong Spanish-speaking skills, this will be of little value. There is the original trailer, which I had no interest in viewing after enduring the feature film. Just before the main feature, we are “treated” to an “introduction” by Lloyd Kaufman and two attractive tromettes, but typical of most things touched by Troma, it is long, tiresome and painfully lacking in any humorous content. More than anything, the “introduction” smacked of being the usual Troma marketing tactics luring the unwary into sampling its other titles. Finally there were SEVEN autoplay trailers that came up before the main menu, each of which had the long Troma header and was a thoroughly ghastly-looking Troma film I didn’t want to see. Points must be given to any disc that has a bonus features menu, but these “extras” made me feel like I had just received reindeer poop in my Christmas stocking instead of coal.

As we age, the fear of death drops away for many reasons. For me, it is the knowledge that I have done something positive with my days, have left a legacy and have helped people to some small degree. If this review keeps you from watching this DVD and warns you off of other Troma releases, I can die a happy man tomorrow, for I will have added a sizable line to my list of Life’s Good Deeds. Hopefully, such pains will earn my Eternal Reward and keep me from being punished in Hell by experiencing BELCEBU: DIABLOS LESBOS a second time.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP (2008) d. Robert Hiltzik

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Slipping on a banana peel and crashing to the floor in front of a clique of the prettiest and most popular girls in school, resulting in a series of malevolent glances and coquettish whispers can be said to be a very “bad” experience. Slipping on a banana peel while walking out of your favorite pub, after having a few beers with your pals and then knocking each and every one of your party into a snow bank is more of what we’d call a “good/bad” experience. Nobody likes slipping on a banana peel and taking a dive, but if the pratfall results in some good-natured laughter then the incident could be said to have been positive. Movies can be a lot like both examples. One of the worst cinematic train-wrecks I ever endured was my viewing of MASTER OF DISGUISE at one of my favorite drive-ins. It wasn’t funny, it was poorly acted, even more poorly scripted and I hated myself for not gouging my eyes out afterward. MASTER OF DISGUISE was the essence of a “bad” experience with nothing constructive coming out of that dreadful night. RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP is the quintessence of a “good/bad” experience. While it was not a finely crafted film with layers of intellectual complexity and profound artistic merit, I enjoyed myself, felt the time was spent in a worthwhile manner and was entertained. Even if a film isn’t very good, if you can walk away and say you had fun that is what the “good/bad” motion picture experience is all about.

RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP is the story of teenagers taking in the great outdoors at Camp Mamabe, where teasing and harassment are an art form. The very epicenter of persecution is Alan, an overweight, emotionally disturbed troublemaker whom no one can stand. Whether it is the cool kids like T.C., the pretty girls like Karen or the stoners like “Weed”, or even camp staffers like Randy, everyone takes pains to torment and heap abuse on Alan, especially because he brings it on himself with such gusto due to his obnoxious, loathsome and horrifically irritating behavior. Just as Alan approaches the breaking point, campers begin dying in the most grisly of fashions. Suspicion falls on Alan immediately and staffers, campers and law enforcement begin a race to find out if Alan is the killer before everyone at Camp Mamabe ends up a bloody corpse.

It is not always essential to watch the progenitor of any film “series” and while it may not be absolutely crucial to do so in this case, I would highly suggest it. The original SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) establishes the foundation of both the plot and the tone in such a way that if you haven’t seen the cult classic, you may not fully appreciate this modern updating of the tale to the full extent. Having set the stage with that comment, RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP has an aura all its own. The story is a weird admixture of awkward teen comedy, 80s slob comedy, outlandish horror spoof and slasher violence that makes it hard to really get a handle on in the beginning. Between the slightly disjointed narrative structure, the overacting of the young performers and the “take no prisoners” assault on any and all archetypes and stereotypes, it isn’t clear whether RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP is serious or silly, slick or stupendously bad. As the plot begins to come together and the pacing gains momentum, it becomes much more apparent that RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP is a reasonably smart film and is going for ludicrous laughs, lascivious grins and licentious shocks whenever and however it can. The over-the-top death scenes nicely connect it to the original film and are simultaneously reminiscent of the FINAL DESTINATION films at their very best. As each kill is executed, the bloodiness gets a little more gruesome while at the same time the humorous content is intensified. As a result, each act of the movie gets a little better and by the very end, you’ve passed over the weaknesses and are enjoying this movie for each and every strong point it evidences.

There are other qualities of RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP that are worthy of examination for an endless number of reasons. RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP has a very interesting cast combining talents and approaches that create a very convincing end result. There are uber-veterans like Vincent Pastore (Frank) and Isaac Hayes (Chef Charlie) who both lend an immediate sense of style and substance to a cast that is primarily inexperienced. In addition, there are less well-known but still seasoned actors like Brye Cooper (Randy) and Jackie Tohn (Linda) who know what they are doing and do it effectively. There are youngsters like Erin Broderick (Karen) and Christopher Shand (T.C.) who need more practice and experience to hone their craft, but despite their tendency to overact, they add feeling and energy to the film. Finally, there are the greatest intangibles Paul DeAngelo (Ronnie) and Michael Gibney (Alan) whose company makes RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP what it is. Paul DeAngelo was in the original, and while not a very skilled actor, his presence, preposterous physique and overdone delivery of his lines helps nudge RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP out of the realm of bad flick and into the domain of entertaining drivel. Michael Gibney’s performance is even more essential to the success of this movie. Any astute viewer must be caught up in the quandary of Alan’s character as you spend a great deal of time hating him for being the abhorrent pustule of quasi-humanity that he is, while simultaneously sympathizing with him for the torrent of cruelty and avalanche of abuse he must absorb. Michael Gibney plays his part so completely over the top that you can’t help but get a vibe of a demented cousin of The Little Rascals who escaped from a juvenile mental institution, but it works. I have always said it is better to overact than under perform. At least overacting lends a degree of sincere liveliness to a film like RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP, while under performing seems to suck the life out of a narrative and leave it cold, clammy and corpse-like. A horror film should have many corpses, but the plot and the performances of the cast that drive it should not be among the departed.

Finally, RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP may not be shot with the kind of artistic contemplation and creative flair that Dario Argento’s BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE or Mario Bava’s KILL BABY, KILL were filmed, but the camera work is competent and effective. None of the background scenes were heart-breakingly beautiful compositions ala Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN, but they didn’t have to be. You just had to feel like you were at camp. None of the action/scare scenes were shot like a classic era John Carpenter (e.g. THE FOG), but they didn’t have to be either. You just had to get into the feel of a silly slasher flick and go with the flow. None of the characters were shot with the kind of cinematic loving embrace of Jane Fonda in BARBARELLA, but that wasn’t necessary either. All we had to see is that Alan was a “tub of guts”, the teenage girls were surprisingly hot and busty in many cases, that the gore looked somewhat realistic as the blood ran in rivulets down people’s skin and that when some kind of weapon was used against a character, you knew what it was and how they were being butchered with it. Not long after we turned off RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP and moved on to the next film of the evening, we got an object lesson in how to NOT spend money when shooting a film. DEATH RACE (2008) is an example of what is wrong with the modern film making world. Despite having piles of cash, that was a damn-near unwatchable movie, Natalie Martinez being one of the only elements I was willing to endure just to catch a brief glimpse of her loveliness. If RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP can spend the few pennies it had available and make a flick I could see and enjoy, why did DEATH RACE flush a mountain of money down the hopper to make a movie that looked as if it had been filmed by high octane, jet-pack strapped Komodo Dragons in heat? If you know the answer to this query, let me know so I can solve the problem using the most potent weapons I can find.

In addition to being a feature I enjoyed, RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP has a shockingly deep extras menu that is very rewarding to those who enjoy this quirky pocket universe of cinema. At first, we were very surprised to see that there was no commentary track, but the reason became obvious once I plumbed the depths of the bonus features. There is a wonderful 30 minute “Behind the Scenes” mini-feature that is worth every moment of time spent. There are no less than fifteen segments in the “Interviews” section that may be the gold standard of this disc. There is a photo gallery that is comprised of real set photography and promo pictures, not irritating screen captures that are what make up most “galleries” today. There is a very bizarre RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP song of 3 minutes set over the cheesy-looking menu. It’s odd, but so is the film and for that reason it fits. Finally, at the head of the disc before the menus come up is one of the most disparate selections of trailers in their genre and tone that I can remember. Usually you get just horror trailers in front of a horror movie, but this time you really get the contents that are Magnet Films goulash, and that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it was a “good/bad” experience.

Sometimes I like a film because it fires on every cylinder possible and just blows me away with its superior qualities. Sometimes I leave happy due to some nostalgic element that is raised or a topic that I am fond of is broached. Sometimes I grin with pleasure when I go in with the lowest expectations possible and as a result I end up pleasantly surprised. RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP was a blend of the last two reasons for enjoying a film. I like horror movies and I like it when they don’t take themselves too seriously. I like it when I am expecting to be tipped headfirst into a cinematic manure pile and instead feel like I’ve walked though a field of startlingly pleasurable dandelions. Acres populous of yellow weed blossoms is no stroll through an English Rose Garden, but it is better than a trudge through piles of excrement, especially if that is what you were dreading, so I’ll take the dandelions and count my blessings. See SLEEPAWAY CAMP, and then see RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP, and make sure you do it with some like-minded friends. If you like your flicks absurd and off-center, you won’t be disappointed.

Monday, December 15, 2008

MOTHER OF TEARS (2007) d. Dario Argento

Reviewed by Rick Trottier and Mark Nelson

Once upon a time in the land of literature, series and especially trilogies became all the rage and dominated the fantasy and science fiction genre landscape. While their sway has become diminished to a small degree over the years, trilogies and their relations have gained a sizable dominion in the realm of motion pictures. What is especially interesting about that fact is that creating a cinematic series is not always an easy task. Unless you have the capital and control to order all things as you wish (George Lucas and his Star Wars prequel trilogy) or are riding the wave of popularity and must strike while the iron is hot (the Wachowski brothers and their Matrix trilogy), it is sometimes a challenge to return to a story you’ve started. Such was the case with director/writer/producer Dario Argento, who burst upon the film scene in the late 1960s with BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and then made a name for himself with subsequent giallos like CAT ‘O NINE TAILS and DEEP RED. By 1977, Dario Argento chose to leave the fertile cinematic soil of giallos and strike out into supernatural territory with his well-received and highly regarded SUSPIRIA. While not originally intended to be part of a trilogy, SUSPIRIA was the wellspring and first installment of what has now become The Three Mothers series of films. The second episode in the saga, INFERNO, followed in 1980, but after that Dario Argento turned to other projects throughout the 1980s, 1990s and well into the 2000s, leaving the trilogy incomplete. For those fans of The Three Mothers films, MOTHER OF TEARS (La Terza Madre) finally completes the circle and brings the story of Black Magic and Evil Incarnate to a close.

MOTHER OF TEARS is the story of Sarah Mandy, an employee of the Museum of Ancient Art in Rome, who stumbles into a supernatural incident involving artifacts extracted from an urn which had been recently exhumed from a Roman cemetery. The three statues, a knife and a tunic are the key to unleashing the power of The Mother of Tears, the third witch left on Earth from the original group including The Mother of Sighs and The Mother of Pain. Unknowingly, Sarah’s co-worker breaks the seal containing the Evil restrained within the urn, allowing the Mother of Tears to return. Her legendary cruelty and attraction are soon seen throughout the countryside as lawlessness, brutality and villainy erupts and then escalates. Sarah must come to grips with the insanity of what is happening all around her, an unresolved past filled with secrets and lies and the minions of the Mother of Tears who know that she holds the key to the final ascendancy of Evil on Earth.

Just as many of the lovers of the original Star Wars movies had problems with the updating of that story, so too is it likely that some of the devotees of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO may not entirely enjoy MOTHER OF TEARS, but there is actually a lot to like about this film. While MOTHER OF TEARS may not be bathed in candy-coated colors like the first two parts of the trilogy and it lacks the ethereally glamorous beauty and dreamlike music of its counterparts, it is still a very appealing film. Dario still has a penchant for finding location spots rich in fascinating architecture, dazzling exterior and interior décor and then filming them from exotic angles and in blazes of color and dappled shadow. All through MOTHER OF TEARS, an astute Argento fan can revel in the splendor of glorious Italian churches, palazzos, streets and cityscapes, while once indoors we are inundated with richly appointed corridors, staircases and chambers. While not splashing color with as much intensity as he once did, there are still plenty of hues and shades to delight the eye, including many that pay homage to the splendor of the female form, something that was not as common in earlier Argento films except TENEBRE and OPERA, but has become fairly common since SLEEPLESS and DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK. There was even a stretch when the legend of La Terza Madre was told that utilized animation that looked like medieval wood engravings. This use of mixed media helped to diverse the look of the film, something not used in the early segments of the trilogy. MOTHER OF TEARS is a delight to the eye, but visual intensity is not the only measure of a film’s success.

The story of MOTHER OF TEARS is a little uneven and it has its weaknesses, but there is much that can impress as well. The narrative takes its time and winds its way patiently through its 100 minute runtime, albeit a little inconsistently paced at times, but that is better than rushing the development of suspense, menace and atmosphere. All three of these essential components are in evidence and while not as dramatically stitched into the fabric of the film as they were in SUSPIRIA and to a lesser degree in INFERNO, they are there none-the-less. What is richly composed is the sense of supernatural malevolence that permeates the framework of Roman society and the bloodthirsty impact it has on the lives of the characters and those around them. Stippled throughout MOTHER OF TEARS is a liberal dose of gore, depravity and shocking violence. For those with a squeamish or delicate nature, it might be a good idea to shut your eyes when the slashing, stabbing and sinister celebrations start. Certainly this is no BLOODFEAST or CANNIBAL FEROX, and all of the gore/debauchery is done with Dario’s customary stylishness and sex appeal, but it is more intense than the usual Argento fare, but what one might expect from the crescendo of The Three Mothers story. In addition to the supernatural and sadistic elements, the plot of MOTHER OF TEARS is twined well with the mythos of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, referencing them appropriately and respectfully without overdoing it. There is even some fine “cat & mouse” suspense that is reminiscent of Dario’s earliest giallos. However, there are some plot devices that do not work as well and detract from the overall narrative integrity. The “witchy minions” of The Mother of Tears do not come across as threatening at all, rather they look as if they had just come out of a Godsmack concert and their cackling voices and punk harpy looks came across as silly rather than sinister. The plot line about Sarah’s mother made sense and was well used at times, but having a ghostly Daria Nicolodi doing her best to aid her daughter ala Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker was intensely foolish. Discovering mental and spiritual gifts woven into her heart and mind during their days together would have worked so much better. At least one story component helped to make up for the prior mentioned failings and that was the addition of an Evil Monkey. It is believed by some of us that a monkey will always make a film better, and watching this wicked primate calling his ghastly troops to battle warmed my simian-loving heart.

One of the greatest weaknesses of MOTHER OF TEARS is its very unpredictable levels of acting quality. While Adam James (Michael Pierce) and Cristian Solimeno (Detective Enzo Machi) were passable, and Valeria Cavalli (Marta Colussi) was actually the best of the bunch, most of the acting was overdone, poorly timed or wooden. Asia Argento (Sarah Mandy) may be a lovely woman with an impressive figure and a famous father who doesn’t seem to mind shooting his daughter naked, but her acting skills have never been her hallmark. When she is screaming for “Mommy” during one powerful scene, the emotional brakes are slammed to the floor and the subsequent impact of that scene is far less than it could have and should have been. It is difficult to tell whether the supremely sexy and sensual Moran Atias (Mater Lachrymarum aka the Mother of Tears) is the problem or the woman who did the voice-over dubbing or both, but her scenes were a true dichotomy as your eye was immediately drawn to her splendid figure so very well displayed, but the delivery of her lines left a lot to be desired. At least MOTHER OF TEARS had the presence of Udo Kier (Father Johannes) for a brief but deeply enjoyable spell. Udo Kier’s acting style may be reminiscent of Steve Railsback for its unbridled intensity and raw power and for some it may be a bit too much, but like a monkey he almost always makes a film better and such is the case here.

As has been typical of several recent Argento releases, there is a pretty deep and very rewarding bonus features menu on this disc. The first offering is a 33 minute “Making of The Mother of Tears” featurette, which is a mix of behind the scenes footage and interviews. It is very much worth your time, especially if you are a follower of Dario Argento’s work. Next is an 8 minute “Conversation with Dario Argento” which is not as in-depth but still of interest. Finally, there are the U.S. trailer and the Italian teaser, which on their own are not terribly fascinating but when contrasted and compared, they are very interesting. It is nice to see that Dario Argento discs still keep the fans in mind when they are released here in the United States.

During the dark days of the 1990s when Dario Argento’s films were not as strong as they had once been and his star seemed on the decline, the completion of The Three Mothers story seemed highly unlikely, if not an impossibility. While not the opus that was SUSPIRIA, MOTHER OF TEARS comes to us 30 years later after much water has flowed beneath Dario’s bridge. After the ending of his marriage, the growth of his daughter and the immense changes in Italian politics and culture and tastes in general and in film making in particular, no one is going to be able to top or even approach one of the seminal motion pictures of their lives. MOTHER OF TEARS may not be SUSPIRIA, but it may be a better film than INFERNO. While not looking as good, it probably has a better story and is equally if not better acted. MOTHER OF TEARS can take its rightful place on the shelf next to its two cinematic cam padres and while no film can please everyone, I for one am glad that the trilogy is finished and am not left hanging, wondering what path it might have taken.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

$LASHER$ (2001) d. Maurice Devereaux

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the most important maxims we learn as children is that things aren’t always as bad as we think they will be when a new and thoroughly unproven experience is placed before us. Well do I remember my first youthful exposure to a swordfish dinner. The “aroma” of the grilled meat was not in the least bit enticing, nor was the somewhat gray and oily-looking flesh visually tempting. After some very creative and devious coaxing from my parents, I took a very small bite and realized that the flavor was simply astounding. It wasn’t long before such fare became one of my regular requests for supper. I had learned a powerful lesson that prejudice could have stolen an enjoyable opportunity from me. Such can be the case with films. Many has been the time when I’ve walked into a movie theater or sat down to watch a DVD, fully expecting my time to be wasted in a monumental manner and dreading the “cinematic feast” set before me, only to realize that I was mistaken. SLASHERS is one of those viewing incidents where I will readily admit a deep apprehension going in but a surprising respect after emerging.

SLASHERS is the story of a Japanese game show of the same name, where six contestants vie with three maniacal killers for the prizes of being millions of dollars richer and having the chance to live to see another day. “Host” Miho Taguchi, dressed as a sexy Statue of Liberty, and her six “slasherette” cheerleaders replete with skull pom-poms, welcome a special American panel of contestants, all competing for a jackpot of $12 million. Before they can walk away with that pile of cash, they must enter the “Danger Zone” and kill or be killed by Dr. Ripper, Chainsaw Charlie and The Preacher Man. Meghan, Brenda, Rebecca, Devon, Rick and Michael must navigate a labyrinthine course of “themed” rooms and corridors, dodge tricks and traps, murderers and each other and somehow make it back to the live audience filming set to claim their prizes.

Unlike DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987), which was meant to be a movie about an insanely scripted TV Show, SLASHERS is crafted to feel as much like the actual taping of a “reality show” as possible. Shot on video and set on a series of stages that look as much like a carnival funhouse mixed with classic horror movie sets as possible, the entire feel and play of the film is surprisingly authentic. The host and her crew have a delightful cheesiness about them recalling Japanese shlock like Mini-Skirt Police. Since the contestants are not “actors” per se, their skill in delivering their lines makes them feel more like average folk put into a far from average situation. None of the actors are seasoned professionals, but they have enough talent and the direction was good enough to create energy that lasted throughout the picture. The contestants of the game show were assembled in such a way that has a distinct “Irwin Allen” casting approach, with the cross section of backgrounds, looks and motivations of the “contestants” helping to create some real dramatic chemistry, which is all to the good. That character interplay was essential, for the story was far more character and dialogue-driven than one would expect going into a film with the title, box cover and opening sequences that SLASHERS has.

SLASHERS’ story and action sequences coupled with its “TV Show” aura are deeply reminiscent of British 70s “shot on video” cheapies like SCREAMER (1974), which may have been low budget, but was still very entertaining. Unlike SCREAMER, which promised salaciousness but like most of its relatives of that time period rarely delivered, SLASHERS has an impressive mix of elements. There is character-spawned conflict akin to “Major Don West and Dr. Smith” skirmishes on Lost in Space, but there are also many gory scenes made better by the use of fairly well constructed props and effectively utilized makeup as opposed to CGI. Two of the three female contestants are rendered topless during their struggles with the Slashers, one of the girls gets her top torn off a second time, making it “twice as nice” as she is a buxom lass to boot. SLASHERS is one of the few super low-budget films that I’ve ever seen that tries to create some interesting visuals with sets, props and costumes, has actual stories for the characters and tries to interweave them into a degree of dynamic interplay, has an actual screenplay that evidences a structure and direction and then works hard at being a little scary, a little shocking and titillating, a little dramatic, a little sarcastic (politics, religion and societal mores are gently mocked at times) and even a little genuine, as the show ends with some “sponsorship” ads after the credit roll. Most “exploitation” flicks had all the right marketing but little of what it took to be a good film. Just ask Harry Novak, Dick Randall and Al Adamson about that. While not the AFRICAN QUEEN of horror films, SLASHERS is entertaining on a variety of levels and I did not expect that in the least. I expected something related to “torture porn” and instead got a depraved version of Truth or Consequences. My only criticism is that it could have been even a bit more debauched and gone for broke a bit more here and there.

SLASHERS has a startlingly sizable extras menu that includes a 12 minute “Making of SLASHERS” featurette which is a mix of behind the scenes footage, anecdotal moments and premiere footage. Next there is a 13 minute “Extra Gore and Japanese Scenes” segment which is really a series of extended or deleted scenes, but it is still quite interesting. There is a 4 minute, “Chainsaw Charlie interview”. I’ll say no more. Finally, there is a Stills Gallery and a series of Redemption USA trailers. For a slightly older, not too well known Canadian production, this is a relatively deep set of bonus features. The enjoyable nature of the film already warmed my heart, but to get a bag-load of extras in addition left me suitably impressed with this DVD.

As we get older, we supposedly get wiser, but we also get a bit calcified when it comes to our tastes and inclinations. The astute film-lover fights like a demon against this fossilization process for when petrification sets in, growth ends and decline begins and accelerates. SLASHERS reminded me that I can’t judge a book by its cover and that I need to be willing to give any movie a chance. My pal Mark and I have a standing rule that we call “the 20 minute test” when watching a film. Usually if a film still is swimming through the sludge after 20 minutes, it is time to take it out for it is nearly certain that it will NOT improve. The essence of that rule is “go in with an open mind” and let the film do its own talking. I am glad that I was disposed to apply that patience to SLASHERS for it proved the old saw that low-budget doesn’t always mean Bad.

Friday, December 12, 2008

IT! (1966) d. Herbert J. Leder & THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967) d. David Greene

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The 1960s are held up as a time when titanic changes in culture and society made it so that almost anything seemed possible. To a large extent that was true. Immense shifts in race relations and gender roles began to emerge. An amazing generation gap became crystallized. Rock & Roll left its infancy and transformed itself into the Music of America. Art and literature continued to challenge ethical and political stances, but did so in far more aggressive manner. What was even more interesting to the film buff was that you could see almost anything on the Big Screen during most of the 60s. Studios were still making all kinds of “standard fare” using tried and true formulas, but there were a lot of boundaries being pushed back and a lot of molds being smashed in the movie business. Warner Home Video has brought out a “Horror Double Feature” of IT! And THE SHUTTERED ROOM, both of which came out in the middle of the decade, when life was changing faster than any American could really grasp. This inspired double feature exhibits many reasons why it is worth your time to watch, not the least of which that these two films are an example of how disparate in style and substance two enjoyable, well-made films could be, made by the same company, both filmed in England, both starring recognizable actors and brought out within a short time of each other. While not cinematic Shangri-La, IT! And THE SHUTTERED ROOM are wonderfully emblematic of how diverse 1960s films even within the same genre could be.

IT! is the story of Arthur Pimm, a somewhat sniveling assistant curator of a London art museum, who stumbles upon a strange statue after a warehouse fire. Mr. Pimm soon realizes there is something very strange about the statue after a pair of mysterious deaths occurs in connection with it. Before long, Arthur discovers the secret of the statue and falls victim to the lure of ultimate power that it could bring him, even as his mind is subverted by an immature infatuation with his lovely co-worker Ellen Grove coupled with an unresolved Oedipal complex keeping him tied to his dead mother. Jealousy, ambition and unrequited feelings tip Arthur towards insanity forcing those around him to scramble as the powers of the statue are unleashed.

THE SHUTTERED ROOM is the story of Susannah Whately Kelton and her husband Mike Kelton, who return to the island of Dunwich where Susannah spent her early childhood. For mysterious reasons, Susannah was sent away from the Island by her Aunt Agatha and now fears but is also curiously attracted by the prospect of a return. The couple’s stay on Dunwich Island is marred by a loathsome group of rowdies led by Susannah’s cousin Ethan and by the growing sense of threat the longer she stays within the walls of the family millhouse, the secret of which has cast a pall over the Whately family and the Island for years.

IT! is the example in this double feature of a film written and created using very classic techniques and methods. Do not think for a second that such practices would render it “old hat” or dull in any way. IT! is a lot of fun as a tale and is great to look at along the way too. One of the film’s greatest strengths is a story that combines the wonderful old legend of The Golem with a slice of The Bates family dynamics from PSYCHO grafted onto a sinister version of the “Walter Mitty” persona and story. Such a hodge-podge might seem unwieldy, but it is one of the reasons IT! is so enjoyable and works so well. The story is patient, but gripping in its steady accretion of suspenseful pace and mood. It is a little complex as characters are woven in such a way as to be a bit less predictable, even as the story itself has a splendid inevitability to it. Added to the riveting narrative is a performance by Roddy McDowall that may be among his best in a long career of exemplary and memorable roles. Between the myriad of facial expressions, the effortless shifting of moods and tone as well as the intense yet delicate delivery of his lines, Mr. McDowall crafted a character that is at once despicable and conniving, but tragic and ineffably sad, one that you hope will find a way out of his predicament. The rest of the cast blend well with the central character and while somewhat overshadowed by Mr. McDowall, Jill Haworth, Paul Maxwell and a plethora of instantly recognizable English faces make IT! a very character-driven motion picture. Visually, IT! has a stateliness about it that makes it feel so very “Old England” even though it is set in modern times. Between the dignified, elegant and attractive interiors, fashions and décor, the magisterial feel of England’s cityscapes and countryside and the well-lit, very well shot, framed and composed scenes, this is a supremely watchable movie. It blends some “old school” monster-rama appeal and a thoroughly human tug that makes it hard to resist.

THE SHUTTERED ROOM is not quite as strong a film, but it may be more visceral is many ways. The strengths of this film are in its strange blend of very old-style Gothic elements successful spliced with the predominant avant-garde characteristics. The story is based on an H.P. Lovecraft tale of spooky houses and family curses, but right from the beginning there is an immediate effort to update the old Gothic tale. Instead of a castle in the French countryside, it is an old mill in “New England” where the story is set. Instead of lace-trimmed and brocade fashions worn by the leads, it is Gig Young and Carol Lynley in the trendiest New York threads of the mid-60s. Instead of a violin ensemble creating sinister strains, the soundtrack is decidedly jazzy and very experimental in its style. Instead of eerily lit stone hallways, THE SHUTTERED ROOM blends some remarkable photography that contrasts beautiful sylvan and idyllic natural scenery with dilapidated and scabrous abandoned or ramshackle interior and exterior sets. The camera work is a blend of quirky angles, stark close-ups and hand-held work with some interesting point-of-view compositions that go a long way to giving THE SHUTTERED ROOM its nouveau feel. Lovely and shapely Carol Lynley was never a blazing performer but she was well cast to portray and haunted damsel-in-distress and set alongside stoic and granite-chinned Gig Young, their pairing evokes some old Hollywood glamour even as their fashions whisper “hip”. It is Oliver Reed’s portrayal of Ethan that steals the show however. Mr. Reed was never one to back down from an offbeat role or unwilling to give a bizarre and somewhat over-the-top performance. His character adds more of a sense of menace to the film than does the primary story element of “The Whately Curse” and it is the dichotomy between the human and “supernatural” dramas in THE SHUTTERED ROOM that makes this a somewhat atypical horror tale. While the pacing of the film was occasionally uneven and the ending was a bit anti-climactic, and leaves the viewer a little at a loss for its lack of punch, THE SHUTTERED ROOM is still a worthwhile film experience.

Sadly, there is no bonus features menu on this disc. Being that both films are a hit older, neither was ever considered a major hit and/or a classic of the genre, and large percentage of both the casts and crews of each film has long since gone to their heavenly reward, it is not surprising that there was little to be unearthed. It might have been nice to see Warner Brothers sit Carol Lynley and Jill Haworth down for a short interview each about their experiences though. Since both actresses are still with us, and in their 60s, taking advantage of such an opportunity to capture some first-person account film history is always a good idea since time slips away from us all and once the chance is lost, the moment is gone forever beyond recall. Such a failing is never something we can forgive ourselves for.

IT! And THE SHUTTERED ROOM are very much like a classic Porterhouse steak served with an side of eclectic and inventive herbed and seasoned mashed sweet potatoes. On one hand you have something very tried and true that you know will go down smoothly. On the other hand, you’ve got an addition to your plate this is not typical but will likely be very rewarding even though it is a little different. Too often double feature combinations were commonly hitched together because of their similarities and the likelihood that if you like one, you know you’ll like the other. What I enjoyed most about my afternoon with IT! And THE SHUTTERED ROOM was the diversity of the entertainment, the disparity of my intellectual and emotional responses to two well-done films and the joy of knowing I spent a sizable amount of time in a manner that was thoroughly satisfying. I hope you will too.