Wednesday, October 29, 2008

BLACK MAGIC RITES (1973) d. Renato Polselli

Reviewed by
Tracy Hook

I've seen this film numerous times before, but I think it was called something else. . . oh yeah, The Reincarnation of Isabel. Personally, I prefer that title to Black Magic Rites which is a bit generic. Oh!

Black Magic Rites is a strange and confusing story of a party gone wrong. People disappear, have dirty fantasies, fall down the stars, and meet up with Satanists. The Satanists look more like they're going to a slumber party than a black mass. These pajama-clad Devil worshippers pop up all over the film and as we see they control all the mishaps, mayhem and reincarnation. Whippings, shacklings to ladders(!?) and gropings (lotsa and lots of gropings). It reminded me of this street in York, England nicknamed Grope Alley in the victorian Age. Everything was squeezed there, by the time people left they felt like a roll of Charmin. I bet by the time the actress attended the wrap party for Black Magic Rites they did as well.

The film, I have to admit, took about four viewings to figure out what was going on. I formed a theory that it was created for the "sober-impaired". I'm not endorsing illegal drug use or underage drinking by any means, (I can't, I'm legally bound by Saturday Fright Special Inc.) but possibly the director was under the influence of psychadelics. Black Magic Rites was shot in 1972 after all. And on that note, there's lots of Free Love with a hairy, borderline, mentally retarded man for comic relief no less. Oh and don't forget, girl on girl action, vampire on girl action, satanic groppings, a creepy Donald Pleasance look alike, orgasms while falling, and even more groping. All this is accompaned by a haunting soundtrack of a woman pretending to be a ghost, or is she having an orgasm? Probably, both. I don't know the whole thing confuses me, but that's why I enjoyed this film.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

DEVIL HUNTER (1980) d. Jesus Franco

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

In addition to the myriad of concerns like casting, locations and sets, scripts, direction and schedules that occur before and during the shooting and production of a film, properly marketing a motion picture requires an enormous amount of thought and careful consideration. Choose wisely and you’ve got a huge success on your hands like HALLOWEEN (1978). A poorly marketed film like MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973) can slip into obscurity, leaving hardly a ripple, even though that film was atmospheric and well shot. Exploitation film makers have a somewhat easier time marketing their fare. If they are able to mine a trend or find a kink that has broad appeal, it is likely that their widely cast net will pull in a fair number of viewers who may not always get hooked by the usual kinds of tricks, but who stay for the duration because there was something to tickle their fancy. DEVIL HUNTER (aka SEXO CANIBAL) was made during the height of the “cannibal film craze” and it tried to ride the coat tails of that strange trend despite not being a true cannibal film and having a lot more in common with other forms of earlier and contemporary horror and exploitation cinema. It is precisely because it is related to a wider variety of theatrical genres that it is infinitesimally a cut above the average “cannibal” flick and will delight anyone who likes their movies lurid.

DEVIL HUNTER is the story of model/actress Laura Crawford who gets kidnapped by a gang of thugs while preparing for a new film to be in the tropics. The kidnappers take Laura into the jungle and demand a sizable ransom. Little do they know that they share their leafy and sylvan getaway with a tribe that lives in fear of a flesh-loving god-monster with bulging, bloodshot eyes to whom they must offer sacrifice in the form of nubile young women, naked and bound. It is while Laura is enduring a series of tortures and rape at the hands of her abductors and while the miscreants are bargaining with Peter Weston, a soldier of fortune sent to rescue Laura that she falls into the hands of the “cannibal deity”. Peter must race against time and battle greedy ruffians in an attempt to save Laura from being the prettiest morsel on a bloodthirsty demon’s menu.

One of the most intriguing qualities of DEVIL HUNTER is that for every strength it evidences, there is a corresponding weakness, and as a result it is not a bad film, it just isn’t as good as it could have been had it been made with a lot more money or with any real talent. Despite those apparent drawbacks, one of the first positives that an astute viewer notices is that this is not a typical “cannibal” film. The “native tribes” are not cannibals and live to serve the flesh-hungry creature they fear. The cannibal deity itself is just as much a monster like so many others that have haunted the pages of horror cinema screenplays, he just happens to be a naked black man living in a tropical region and devouring the tissues and organs of any beautiful girl offered to him. As the movie progressed and I realized that I wouldn’t be regularly bathed in “cannibal film” gross-outs, I started liking DEVIL HUNTER a little more. What this film does have in abundance is nudity, both female and male, but it is overwhelmingly just as much a skin-tastic exploitation film with overtones of soft-core as it is horror cinema/a cannibal flick. Right from the start and keeping it up all the way to the end, there are topless girls, bottomless girls, stark naked girls, nude girls being fondled, half-stripped girls being raped, bare-ass girls having sex and defrocked girls being menaced by all manner of baddies in scene after scene. Whether it’s bondage, bush shots, breast shots, butt shots, simulated sex and/or rape or just pretty girls posing for the camera, this is the most pulchritudinous movie I’ve seen in some time and it is DEVIL HUNTER’S exploitation roots that help it to be more than “just a cannibal” flick. In addition to this salacious strong point, DEVIL HUNTER is well cast for strictly appearance sakes. The natives look like African tribesman or at least some very primitive Mediterranean islanders gone feral. Too many of the cannibal films often looked like the producers had combed the malls in Rome or Madrid and found whatever primordial idiots were available for shooting. In addition, the kidnappers are a motley and bizarre looking and acting cast of creeps. All of the women are seductive, svelte, sexy and lovely of face and figure. Even the “he-man” of the film has a distinctly “American” look, even though he is actually an Italian actor. Added to the casting of people who at least “looked” authentic are some simple but genuine-looking sets and surprisingly authentic looking costumes. Jess Franco chose well when he shot most of the locations around Alicante, Spain for the mix of tropical vegetation, sunbathed beaches and dusty hillsides clad in low growing bushes resembling African plateaus helped to give this film an aura of verisimilitude. With a soundtrack that very gently aped some of the more contemporary Gothic Euro-horror of the 1970s, incidental music rife with the jungle beat of tribal drums and foley effects that added a subtle creepiness to several scenes, DEVIL HUNTER really did look and feel like a disastrous foray into the darkest heart of the cannibal god’s domain. Why is it that it is only a marginal thumbs’ up? It all comes down to the missing elements of money and talent.

Despite the cast “looking and dressing” the part, DEVIL HUNTER suffered from a surfeit of poor acting and just as bad dubbing. Even though I was listening to terrible English dubbed lines (which briefly cut out at the 1:13:00 mark when characters could be heard in all their Spanish glory for a few minutes), I could easily tell that Jess Franco had played by his usual rules of getting “actors” whom he could easily “direct” and who had little or no experience and/or talent, and it showed. The actors weren’t the only ones short on skill. The camera work of DEVIL HUNTER was plebeian at best. There were painfully tight close-ups when there didn’t need to be and even more plentiful inexplicable wide shots pulled so far back from the characters and/or action that little could be really seen. Usually I complain about foolishly overdone tight shots so poorly composed that I can see the grains in the nose hairs of the cast, but in this case so many shots were done from such a great distance that I often forgot I was watching Al Clive and thought it was Franco Nero and wondered what the hell he was doing in a Jess Franco film. In addition to the inconsistent camera work, the direction was not some of Franco’s best either. Whether it was done to pad out the running time or a failed attempt in building atmosphere, there were MANY scenes and shots that were held just a little too long. Since the holds were not egregiously lengthy, I am inclined to believe that Mr. Franco was trying to fabricate sexual tension by holding tight shots on actresses’ downy triangles of love or he was trying to create a sense of menace by holding on the bulging eyes of the monster. In the end, these efforts did not succeed for this film’s sense of atmosphere comes and goes just like another characteristic that was lacking in aptitude, story writing. The plot general premise is a good one, blending gangsters, girls and god-monsters in the sunny tropics, but the story pace and intensity often lagged. To DEVIL HUNTER’S credit, there were some occasionally erotic scenes, some reasonably grisly blood & guts and a few suspenseful segments, but too often, the narrative rambled like a cannibal whose bloodlust has been sated by such a big meal that he weaves like an overloaded tractor trailer. In the end, it was the typical bane of true exploitation that the nuts and bolts did not live up to the creative scheme, which was often the case when you look back at American shlock-meisters like Dave Friedman, Harry Novak and Al Adamson. Exploitation kings often had good ideas, but in their frenzy to make a buck by clenching the purse strings with a fist tighter than King Kong, something is going to end up shoddy, and it was usually the acting, writing and/or intangibles.

As with their other recent release BLOODY MOON, Severin Films created a somewhat thin but highly informative and entertaining bonus features menu composed of the theatrical trailer and a 16 ½ minute interview with Jess Franco called “Sexo Canibal”. Mr. Franco reminisces about the production of the film and the weaknesses of some of the crew members. Far more interesting are his recollections of the cast members and their impact on the motion picture and the industry itself. One of the things that makes Jess Franco’s remembrances so much more enjoyable than the average Euro-sleaze icon is his penchant for naughty language that he somehow is able to keep from sounding foul and instead comes across as an irascible old man just being frank and a little playful. Credit must be given to Severin Films for their willingness to always include a little trinket on their discs that often turns out to be more like a small treasure.

DEVIL HUNTER is not the sleaziest film ever made, neither is it the most violent nor the most absurd, but it is entertaining on a level that one usually doesn’t want to admit. It has a tendency to pander to the brutish side of the male consciousness and as a result allows us to channel our inner caveman. For some reason, we like to see primitive behavior blazoned across our home theater screens and we enjoy watching barbarity juxtaposed with helpless civilized personages. I must admit that I will take this low brow form of fun over the sophomoric bodily humor comedies and/or mean-spirited torture porn of today. There is something tongue-in-cheek about Jess Franco’s DEVIL HUNTER that puts it light years ahead of putrescence like SAW and its ilk. I like my meat cooked rare as well. Maybe there is something of a cannibal in me too.

Monday, October 27, 2008

BLOODY MOON (1981) d. Jesus Franco

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the great benefits about becoming famous is that once you’ve left a lasting impression on the minds of the public, you never have to worry about your legacy. In the film world, the images created by the director speak for themselves and while the faces of some of the famous and infamous may not be familiar, their canon of works is thoroughly memorable. Some film makers have left legacies that immediately conjure a sense of superior quality and style like Alfred Hitchcock or Robert Altman. Other film makers initiate an instantaneous gag reflex and send the movie-lover running for the alka-seltzer like Dick Randall or Harry Novak. Then there are those film makers whose legacy is more complex and challenging due to their penchant for inconsistency or failed promise like Lucio Fulci or Herschell Gordon Lewis. Jesus “Jess” Franco falls into the latter category. With nearly 200 credits as a director, Jess Franco has made some very stylish and visually interesting movies and he has created a lot of drek as well. With titles notched into his directorial belt like THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z, VAMPYROS LESBOS and NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER among many others, Jess Franco has left a lasting legacy of motion pictures that are filled to the brim with titillation and torture, nudity and nastiness, gorgeous girls and gore and he is still at it. BLOODY MOON (aka DIE SAGE DES TODES) is an example of one of Mr. Franco’s lesser known efforts that evidences much of his usual style and a typical lack of substance.

BLOODY MOON is the story of brother and sister Miguel and Manuela, who live and work at their aunt’s exclusive International Youth-Club Boarding School of Languages. A new class of students has just arrived and while the days are partly spent in uncovering the intricacies of the Spanish tongue, most of the hours of light and shadow are passed in pursuing hedonism, whether it’s bedroom, the pool or the disco club. Unknown to the nubile young lovelies of the school, a maniac is on the loose and one girl after another is ending up dead. One of the students, a girl named Angela, witnesses the death of her friend and her fruitless attempt to get people to realize that something sinister is transpiring drives her to the brink of madness. By the end, licentious plots and devious double crossings are just part of the cat & mouse game between players on a warped chess board filled with debauchery and avarice.

If you are not terribly picky about the sophistication and cohesiveness of the plot of a film or are looking for a movie rich with atmosphere, you very well may find yourself liking BLOODY MOON, for there are some strengths worth mentioning. While not the most stunning visual experience I’ve ever encountered, the attractively shot Spanish coastal exteriors of the resort town of Alicante are quite impressive as are some of the interior scenes where small accent shots of stained glass doors in student bungalows add splashes of color and pizzazz. Nearly all the scenes are either crisply colorful during the daylight hours or darkly dismal at night but still quite comprehensible when the moon rides the sky. BLOODY MOON is also a feast for the eyes if you are interested in seeing stylishly sexy, beautiful young women paraded about in trendy early 80s fashions that highlight their trim figures and youthful curves. While there isn’t as much nudity as was more common to Franco’s films in the 1970s, there is still enough skin to satisfy the pulchritude connoisseur and get the salacious meter into a warmer zone. Coupled with Severin Films’ excellent transfer, BLOODY MOON is enjoyable ocular entertainment and has the capacity for being reasonable horror flick, if you don’t expect too much.

Where BLOODY MOON stumbles is in its story and in its inability to find its subgenre and really mine the vein that it needed to follow. BLOODY MOON can’t seem to decide if it is a giallo laced with sleazy exploitation scenes reminiscent of Dario Argento’s TENEBRE or whether it is a slasher film that ramps up its misogyny ala the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise. By blurring the line between the two genres and constantly swerving off into the territory of a quasi-psychological thriller with its roots firmly in the disco-flick craze, BLOODY MOON’S story tends to meander and its pace is inconsistent. Worse still for the serious horror maven is the fact that while the killing scenes are creatively constructed and replete with plenty of gore, there are long stretches where the body count just doesn’t rise. This wouldn’t be a problem if the narrative was layered in densely applied coats of atmosphere and dramatic imagery, but it isn’t. If you aren’t going to liberally sprinkle murders and mutilations throughout your horror film, you’ve got to flood the screen with mood, but BLOODY MOON lacks that essential element. As a result, the well done death sequences could have and should have been a little more prevalent, nudging this film more clearly into the slasher camp, but sadly that didn’t happen. A brave attempt was made to create a mystery and to wind convolutions like gossamer threads about the plot, but the threadbare tapestry was predictable and forced. In the end, the story of BLOODY MOON wasn’t boring or bad, it just wasn’t scintillating or surreal and as a result it came across as a little pedestrian.

What turned out to be the gem of this DVD is the thin but still rewarding extras menu. In addition to the theatrical trailer, there is a 19 minute interview with director Jess Franco called “Franco Moon” which is not only very informative, but it is quite entertaining as well. Never a smoothy, Mr. Franco has become somewhat of a satyr in his senior years, but his recollections of the lies and struggles he had with the producers of BLOODY MOON lay bare the cynical and self-serving heart of the “suits” behind films then, and who are still just as ubiquitous in the motion picture industry today. Franco’s ribald style and grizzled, debauched looks make this one of the more enjoyable interviews I’ve seen in the many that Severin Films have included on their numerous discs. One of the many reasons I look forward to cracking open a Severin disc is that even when, as in this case, I am not blown away by the film, I come away knowing a little more about cinematic history and get a chance to hear from “the horse’s mouth” the reminiscences of cast and crew members who were there. Such an effort at preserving the past must always be profusely lauded.

Mythical masters of the Silver Screen become lasting legends for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s their consummate professionalism like Billy Wilder or sometimes its their mix of mastery and madness like Elia Kazan. Sometimes they have interesting extra-curricular activities like Carlo Ponti and his relationship with Sophia Loren or sometimes it’s because their artistry is so cutting edge and bizarre we can’t totally fathom all the creative corridors branching off of one another, like the works of Stanley Kubrick. There are many people who hold up Jess Franco’s works as a director as the quintessential example of Euro-sleaze and sexploitation cinema from a time that has now passed. Others consider him a shameless self-promoter and cinematic “gun-for-hire” who would take just about any script and run with it. Whatever side of the fence you sit on, it isn’t possible to deny the fact that Jess Franco has left an impression that will not fade anytime soon. BLOODY MOON may not be the best illustration of his work, but it has some visually compelling features and a bizarrely jarring soundtrack and if you feel like taking a ride on a train that is uncertain of where it is going to end up, this journey is for you.

STRAIT JACKET (2008) d. Shinji Ushiro

Reviewed by Tim Hulsizer

Plot (from the disc packaging): In a world where sorcery and science co-exist, the power of magic comes with a price: Humans who do not take proper precautions are transformed into horrific demons. Those who destroy these demons – and run the highest risk of all – are tactical sorcerers known as ‘Strait Jackets’. But when terrorists unleash a plague of demonic carnage, the Sorcery Management Bureau must enlist unlicensed assassin Leiot Steinberg to stop the slaughter. Even if this rogue killer and a mysterious young girl can end the outbreak, will they be able to face their own dark secrets?

Review: An enjoyable "film" written Ichiro Sakaki who wrote the novel they turned into the "Scrapped Princess" TV series, STRAIT JACKET is actually a series of 3 separate OVAs edited together into a feature length tale. Since they all tell parts of the same storyline, this edit makes perfect sense and Manga has done an excellent job making the transitions seamless.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you the plot and characters are completely unique. Steinberg is the classic anime archetype of the dark, trenchcoat-wearing antihero with a troubled past who does his job incredibly well but refuses to join the establishment and follow their rules. Think along the lines of Vampire Hunter D and you're most of the way there.

However, this adherence to genre mores proved incidental to a very entertaining storyline and I quickly found myself engrossed in the characters' backstories and the intricate details of this world, a place in which the streets are all cobblestone and the houses are quaint, European-style cottages while the vehicles and firepower are decidedly modern in their style.

In order to battle the demons that take over human beings when magic-powered machines go wrong, Steinberg and his fellow enforcers don elaborate armored suits with a finite number of magic charges built into the front of them. Each spell they cast is fired from their weapon and uses a certain number of these magic charges, depending on what they cast.

The details of how magic crept into society are discussed in vague terms but they don't get into the details of how they power everyday machinery. This actually worked for me, as it drew me in and made me hope for more at the end of the tale. The characters' nonchalant regard for magic seemed plausible; after all, how many average people really know the intimate details of what a microwave is doing when it reheats our pizza? We take these things for granted as long as they work.

You may be asking, "Is that vagueness indicative of a stylized anime that lacks a lot of depth?" The answer is yes. If I have one quibble with STRAIT JACKET, it's that I wish they'd said more about Leiot's troubles and the stories behind secondary characters. Still, I liked the world they've created and would jump at the chance to see more.

This very entertaining anime moves along nicely and offers plenty of cool demon carnage and gore for the horror fans while telling a decent human story to boot. I wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone who enjoys a serious, action-oriented anime without sailor suit schoolgirls or giggly love triangles.

76 minutes, Manga Entertainment, released 2008. SRP $19.97. UPC # 0-1313-850759-4. Format: 1.85 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.

Subbing/Dubbing: I watched this subtitled and found it very readable in terms of both script and font. I don't generally watch dubs so I can't give a personal opinion, but general concensus on the internet seems to be that Manga have pulled off a very good dubbing job here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL (2008) d. Chuck Patton

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Animated features sure have changed a lot over the years. I was introduced to “anime” long before it was ever called that, when I saw Speed Racer at the time it hit U.S. television in the 1960s. It was an exciting alternative to The Flinstones, Yogi Bear and Underdog, all of which were enjoyable in their own fashion, but “Japanimation” offered intensity and realism that was unique in that era. By the time I was a teenager and was watching Battle of the Planets (aka Gatchman in Japan) in the 1970s, my thirst for science fiction and animated adventure was unquenchable. By the early 1980s when I had reached young adulthood, Starblazers and Force Five helped to sate my desire for action and incredible technology and far-fetched worlds of the cosmos. The one characteristic that united these disparate experiences was that “anime” never lost its innocence and all-ages appeal, but that was to change. Since the 1990s and the full-scale assault of video game-based anime, all of what made Japanimation of bygone days seems to have disappeared. Modern anime is harsh, gloomy and incredibly violent and lacks the charm that it once exhibited. DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL is nothing like the cartoons of my youth, but it tries very hard to create a mix of cerebral science fiction and the bloodthirsty nature of horror cinema and has a degree of success doing it.

DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL is the story of the “Planet Cracking” starship Ishimura and its doomed voyage to planet Aegis in the 7Cygnus System. Upon reaching Aegis and its mining colony, the Ishimura discovers that a sizable number of suicides and homicides have occurred on the planet and an ancient and enigmatic artifact is believed to somehow be to blame. Death reaches out its skeletal claws and grasps the Ishimura and before long crew members are dying horribly and then return as horrendously disfigured monstrosities, animated by an alien life form that needs human bodies. It is up to Ishimura’s fiery security chief to raise the alarm and stop the resistless tide of mindless savagery before all humanity falls prey to this scourge.

DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL is an attractively animated film in many ways. The backgrounds and visual supporting details are quite impressive and lend an atmospheric aura and a darkly ominous appeal to each and every scene. I found most of the scenes far easier to visually comprehend and appreciate than the vast majority of modern “live-action” horror films. What I liked less was the highly stylized animation of the characters with their angular features, elongated limbs and awkward look. For a long time now, that trend of animating humans has been intensifying so that someday, animated people just won’t look like people anymore. It is nothing new, Derek Wildstar and Nova of Stablazers were stylized to a great degree, but there was a cartoon-ish quality to their look that left their human imagery intact. Modern anime tends to overdo stylizing to the point where I find the characters unappealing physically and this makes it hard to identify with them. What helped were the excellent voice-overs done by the actors of DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL. The emotionally delivered lines, even when they were far too heavily laced with profanity, aided in pulling me into the story even against my will.

DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL has a very good premise and the story elements are dependent and derived from some illustrious predecessors. The idea of a ship reaching a doomed planet and trying to carry back something deadly, all the while keeping most of the crew uninformed or poorly informed is straight out of ALIEN. Add to that plot components about absolutely appalling alien life forms trying to take over crew members (Star Trek the Original Series-Operation Annihilate), and turning them into zombie-like creatures (LIFEFORCE) as well as chewing them up in the bloodiest of ways (Space 1999-Dragon’s Domain) and you have a tale that has a lot to attract and entertain those who like science fiction and horror. Having said all this, I found the narrative choppy for a wide variety of reasons. First, it felt like I had stepped into a story that was already part way through its rising action. This is probably due to the fact that the writers likely assume that the majority of the viewers of this DVD are probably fans of the video game and have some history with it. In addition, the story seemed to sway back and forth between trying to tell a good yarn about horrors stalking defenseless people, religious artifacts and the madness spread by alien infection of the mind and soul, but on the flip side endless images of carnage that was as gory as anything I’ve seen. I wanted more complex narrative, character development and carefully crafted mood, but I fear I am barking up the wrong tree. The 74 minute runtime of a film based on a video/computer is likely to be supremely short on fully formed story lines and long on adrenaline-raising action, and that is what DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL is about. In the end it is too bad for I liked this DVD after a fashion and may have liked it even more had it not been marketed to another crowd. I suppose it is understandable though, for I am fairly certain that there are fewer of those folks of my advancing age likely to purchase this disc and probably quite a few youngsters who will. They are the ones who the film makers are trying to satisfy, and my disdain for their tastes is probably no different from those adults who derided my love of Speed Racer 40 years ago.

DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL has a reasonably sizable bonus features menu. In addition to four auto-play trailers that precede the main menu, the extras section contains an “isolated soundtrack”, one deleted scene called “Graverobbers”, a photo gallery called “The Art of Dead Space” which was quite intriguing and trailers for both the movie and the game. I would have welcomed a bit more from this disc and would have liked to have heard from the director, writers and producers about their inspirations for the story and the imagery. While this was not the finest bit of animated film I’ve ever seen, it kept my attention and engaged my mind and emotions to a lesser degree. That is a lot more than I can say about a plethora of theatrical and big-budget DVD releases. A few interviews with the crew or a “making of” would have possibly lured me deeper into this unfamiliar camp and made me think even more of it.

As each year passes and I take a larger number of steps down the path of being an oldster who has less and less connection to the interests of today’s youth, I realize that my experience is no different than all the older and younger people spanning an endless expanse of generations. Just as those folks who grew up worshipping radio dramas and looked askance at “TV-loving” youth, so too did those who appreciated live performances at The Music Hall show scorn for the admirers of that “wireless Marconi device”. I enjoyed DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL to a degree and had I been 15 or 16 I would probably be raving about it. I would probably have played the video game and have a profound understanding of the related stories of many other games. Instead, I look at this film through the eyes of a man who has watched cartoons, horror films, science fiction and action flicks and their TV Show cousins for more than forty years and even though time may be passing me by, I am wise enough to know something that has some value and appeal even when it isn’t really for my generation. I wonder what the young people who love games like Dead Space will say about entertainment in 30 or 40 years.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT (1979) d. George Mendeluk & DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987) d. Mark Pirro

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the most powerful combinations throughout theatrical history is the pairing of a serious actor or comedian with an absolutely ridiculous sidekick. Whether it was Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, this formula of melding the straight-faced and the supremely silly has worked time and again, even when you pair up a movie double feature. Usually when films were paired for the drive-in or the low-budget metropolitan cinema, movies tended to be of similar style, genre and vintage, but that wasn’t always the case. I remember seeing TOM SAWYER (1973) paired with TRUE GRIT (1969) at the drive-in as a youth, and while the historical theme of the two flicks was somewhat similar, I have never seen a double feature that had such a different intended audience or tone for that matter, until now. BCI Eclipse has brought together an unlikely double bill by coupling THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT (1979) and DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987) and despite the diametrically opposed nature of both features, this pairing somehow works.

THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT is the story of U.S. President Adam Scott, who is abducted at a seemingly well-scripted rally in Toronto by a radical Argentinean revolutionary named Roberto Assante. Secret Service agent Jerry O’Connor must work with Canadian agents and troublesome colleagues within his own government to save the president’s life and keep from embarrassing the country by bowing to the demands of the kidnappers. Before the end, loyalties are tested, double-crosses are discovered and tough decisions must be made to make the crisis come out right.

THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT is a film that doesn’t feel like it was made in 1979 despite a narrative that has its feet founded in headlines of the times and the mix of highly recognizable cast members who were either at the end of their careers or were seeing a resurgence in their popularity. In spite of a violent and bloody prologue, most of this film’s pacing and action is somewhat leisurely, but not in a manner that detracts from the overall quality of the viewing experience. It just feels like this film would have fit right in if it was made 20 or 30 years earlier. It is patient and depends on a series of dramatic but not terribly surprising plot twists and melodrama that derives from character interplay. The action is fairly subdued, as are the performances of the actors. When one considers that the cast of William Shatner (Jerry O’Connor), Hal Holbrook (President Adam Scott), Van Johnson (Vice-President Ethan Richards) and Ava Gardner (Beth Richards) made careers for themselves by having a penchant for overacting, their understated acting was a great surprise, especially that of Mr. Shatner. When coupled with the grey and rainy Canadian skies, the steady of unspectacular camera work and the workman-like method of the story-telling, THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT resembles a TV Movie more than it does a theatrical release. In the end, it is an enjoyable film if you enjoy a story that depends more on a gently paced story than wild thrills and intense action. It also has some comforting and familiar faces that are or were always worth the price of admission. Although none of the principals gave stellar performances, actors like Hal Holbrook add immediate legitimacy to a film and any viewer is always on the edge of their seat just waiting for William Shatner to bust out in a fit of righteous indignation or ferociously karate-chop a bad guy in his own inimitable manner. Sadly, the latter does not occur, but you do get to see Mr. Shatner help remove a truck engine in an effort to save the day, and that kind of thing makes THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT worth your time.

What is a weakness of THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT is some of its visual elements. The print transfer was a bit grainy at times and there may have been some authoring issues with the DVD for there was a jerkiness to some of the action sequences in the film. Fortunately, the sound levels were consistent and the audio was clear. This gives the viewer the chance to revel in one of the strangest qualities of the film, its score, incidental music and sound effects. For a movie that has far more in common with older thrillers like THE IPCRESS FILE and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, the film score was a mix of very classical dramatic scoring and modern songs from some very out of the ordinary albums. In addition, some of the incidental music sounded very “avant-garde” at times and when combined with the bizarre sound effects used at intervals throughout the movie, the result was a film that looked somewhat old-fashioned but didn’t sound it at all. Whether this was good thing or a bad thing will depend on individual viewers’ tastes, but I found it enjoyable in a quirky way and chalked it up to the nature of late 1970s film-making which always seemed to be trying something new to keep from being predictable.

On the subject of being unpredictable, let us now talk about the silly foil to the serious THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, its cinematic double feature sidekick, DEATHROW GAMESHOW. DEATHROW GAMESHOW is the story of the “Live or Die” Game show hosted by shlock-meister Chuck Toedan. Chuck’s ratings juggernaut is designed to entertain the masses while giving condemned convicts a chance to extricate themselves from the chopping block, provide their family with a little extra cash after their demise or at least give the audience a few laughs before they take their final bow. However, Chuck runs afoul of the mob after frying a crime boss a humiliating manner. It is up to Chuck and his unwilling accomplice, TV critic Gloria Sternvirgin to keep their heads about them even as thugs are trying the put in a bullet in them during the broadcast.

Despite being a bad movie, there is something appealing about DEATHROW GAMESHOW. Possibly it is the fact that it is one ludicrous scene of unsubtle mockery, blasphemous imagery and slapstick buffoonery after another. While the fusillade of foolishness does wear a little thin by the end, you have to admire a film that pulls out all the stops and goes for broke in a manner that would be considered thoroughly “politically incorrect” today. Any film that has a scene where a clearly Cro-Magnon convict is given the choice between savaging a succulent turkey to satisfy his saliva-flecked lips or ravishing a red-dressed Game Show assistant, and who eventually chooses to copulate with the turkey and does so for several ensuing scenes, it is hard not to think highly of such a ribald and brave little shlock comedy. The camera work is very typical of what you might have seen on TV back in the late 1980s on Married with Children, so while it was unspectacular, it was certainly viewable and there is some fine pulchritude at times too. The acting was pretty poor for the most part, but most of the cast of DEATHROW GAMESHOW were nobodies then and had years ahead in which to “hone their craft” as it were. A dubious “strength” of this film was its wonderfully tacky 1980s fashions and hairstyles at the very apex of that decade’s days of excess. While many people spit on and scoff at that strange time in our country’s past, and I know that it was one of the uglier phases of our cultural development, take it from someone who was a an adult when this film came out, there is something horrifyingly nostalgic about the teased curls, “Miami Vice” shirts and slacks and high-cut thong girls’ underwear of that time that brings a tear back to my eye. Whether it is from the pangs of lost youth or even sharper pains brought on by a pretty ridiculous flick, it isn’t really clear.

DEATHROW GAMESHOW does not suffer from some of the visual issues that THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, but it has its own problems. The transfer is still a bit grainy at times, but even worse are the inconsistent audio levels. I didn’t have to turn up the volume repeatedly, but I did have to adjust every now and then. Such shouldn’t be the case. Part of the problem could have been a sound-mixing issue with the original film, for background sounds didn’t seem to be a problem at times, while dialogue was a bit tinny and low.

One of the sadder realities of this disc is a total lack of an extras menu. In the case of THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, most of the cast is probably either uninterested in revisiting a film that has disappeared into the mists of the past or have gone to their reward, but the director George Mendeluk is still out there and working and an interview with him recounting his experiences working with some of the luminaries of that film would have been a very worthwhile addition to this DVD. The same can be said of DEATHROW GAMESHOW. While not as historically compelling as THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, all of the cast and crew are still making films, and a look back at their days on the set of this booby prize would have probably been a hoot. Since the bottom has dropped out of our nation’s economy, it more important than ever that the consumer feels like he is getting a “bang for his buck”. An empty bonus features menu is not the way to instill a feeling of having spent your money well. Even if it was just an interview with director Mark Pirro and a look through his eyes at his film DEATHROW GAMESHOW, and nothing added that was related to THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT, it still would have left that incalculably important feeling of “grocer goodwill”.

When you sit down to a double feature, it is often the case that people want a pairing that offers them a double helping of similarly themed goodness. Sometimes though, you just want your viewing experience to be a little eclectic and throw you the proverbial curveball. The double feature DVD of THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT and DEATHROW GAMESHOW isn’t a curveball, it is a true screwball, as if thrown by the great Fernando Valenzuela. The pitch starts out looking like any old fastball, but it goes in an entirely unforeseen direction and leaves you with a look on your face like you’ve just seen a ghost without its sheet. If you want your Saturday afternoon home theater experience to be a little out of the ordinary, this disc is for you.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

FINAL EXAM (1981) d. Jimmy Huston

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When any motion picture gains a degree of commercial success, there is usually a rush to cash in on the resultant buzz and within a few months a multitude of facsimiles can be seen on the cinematic horizon. Whether it was the sword and sandal flicks of the 1950s that sought to imitate epics like BEN-HUR, the biker films of the 1960s that aped EASY RIDER or the demon-spawn movies of the 1970s that tried to replicate ROSEMARY’S BABY, copycats are part of the theatrical landscape. Following hard on the heels of the triumphs of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13th in the late 1970s came a proliferation of slasher films of every imaginable type. Some were serious, while some were silly. Some were stylish, but others were slapdash. After nearly a decade of slasher-rama at the box office, by the end of the 1980s some of the momentum had died away, but not after movie-goers were bathed in arterial spray. FINAL EXAM is one of the many slasher clones from the height of that era. It is a film that borrows heavily from a variety of sources, but unlike its more illustrious predecessors, it is lacking in the most important elements a movie needs to be notable, and as a result it is more of a forgettable example of an amazingly enduring genre.

FINAL EXAM is the story of several coeds living a semi-educational but mostly fun-filled life at Lanier College during the end of Spring term finals. Young women like Courtney, Lisa and Janet as well as young men like Mark, “Wildman” and “Radish” split time between studying, hazing, partying and infantile hi-jinks, but little do they know that their halcyon days of youth are about to be interrupted. A knife-wielding killer slips onto campus and before anyone is aware, he begins thinning out the student body population. As the body count rises and jocks and geeks alike end up as carving practice, the remaining students are forced to explore the realities of “real life” in the most authentic of class room situations.

FINAL EXAM is a very inconsistent film that was clearly made with precious little money, less talent and not a great deal of skill or experience, but in the end it isn’t a total disaster. One of the strangest components of the movie is its story. From the opening scenes and introductory musical strains, it is grotesquely apparent that any viewer will be getting a rehash of some of the aura and concepts of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13th but it isn’t long before you realize it will come without any of the psychology and creative writing of the antecedents. For a film set on a college campus and a story about students, FINAL EXAM is a great deal less intelligent than the dumbest of dunces and in many cases it will leave most savvy viewers saying “huhhnnn?” For instance, there is no motivation or back story behind the killer, who must be a proponent of random acts of murder mixed with chaos theory, for he arrives to do his bloody deeds without reason or purpose other than senseless savagery. Most of the first two-thirds of the flick is spent developing a sense of campus life and the characters, but this is done in such an overly patient manner and with so very little action that much of that early stretch is as sleepy as an accounting pop quiz. We see nerds and frat boys, coaches and cuties and the viewer is bathed in the balm of student life. At first, I was pleased to see all the character development, something that is generally lacking from most modern films, but through the last acts of the story, all that character development went to waste as one character after another was put to the sword with their personas unfinished and their reasons for existence unclear. If it was the aim of writer/director Jimmy Huston to create an existentialist slasher film where no one reaches any form of actualization and the education of young people is made to be truly meaningless, he succeeded brilliantly. I just found it pointless.

The story had other strange qualities too. It often veered back and forth between “suspenseful” and showing qualities reminiscent of the “slob comedy”. In fact, it felt like a fair portion of the inspiration of this film was not just FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN, but ANIMAL HOUSE too with its obtuse drunks and jocks. This uncertainness about what kind of film FINAL EXAM wanted to be not only adversely affected the pace but also the tone. Every time I felt like we were finally going to move in the direction of a gripping slasher film, lightheartedness often times bordering on absurdity was injected back into the story, and the film lost momentum and focus. For every moment where some small smidgeon of “atmosphere” is stitched into this gaudy tapestry that are bad puns and obvious caricatures created that made the balance of the narrative feel like it wanted to be a slasher spoof, but that interesting idea was made void when FINAL EXAM became all slasher flick by the end. It was during the last 30% of the motion picture that a true sense of purpose emerged and the flick developed a head of steam. In the last act though, it became evident that the killer was no one of any consequence and the laboriously crafted energy was brought to a screeching halt when there was no true pay off.

There were other problems with the nuts and bolts of FINAL EXAM too. The acting was very irregular, with stiffs like Mark and Radish alternating with hams and buffoons like Janet and “Wildman”. The lovely Deanna Robbins who played Lisa gave a reasonably strong performance and Courtney, played by Cecile Bagdadi, could scream with the best of them. Overall though, the vast majority of the cast was clearly inexperienced and lacking in talent and the effect on the film was obvious. The casting of the film was another headscratcher, for there was a mix of northern and southern accents that left a feeling similar to putting on your shirt backwards. Even though Lanier College was supposed to be set in North Carolina and a college campus is usually a place with cosmopolitan mix of young people from all over, when one actor’s lines were delivered with a California flair while another sported a Deep South drawl, it was a little disconcerting. From a technical standpoint, FINAL EXAM had other issues too. The camera work was capably done but was uninspired at best. Most of the death scenes were shot on some interesting sets, but there was little mood developed and not a lot of creativity to the murder moments. For a film made during the height of late 70s and early 80s excesses of gore and nudity, this film was surprisingly restrained. Most of the killing scenes were not terribly explicit, nor were they very bloody. There was only one brief nude scene very late in the film when usually that kind of fare is waning rather than waxing. It almost seemed like FINAL EXAM was trying to ape its slasher film contemporaries but also recall some of the more genteel nature of past efforts like DEMENTIA 13 and PSYCHO. In the end, that only deepened the feeling of inconsistency.

There were even more technical issues with FINAL EXAM. Whether it is a problem with the original print or troubles with the transfer process, at the beginning of the film, the audio was very low and muddy and sometimes a little hollow sounding. There were stretches where I had to turn the volume up to 100% just to hear some of the dialogue. Past the half way point, I needed to turn the volume down as the sound became crisper and clearer. The visual clarity followed the same pattern. During parts of the first half of the film, there was a distinct graininess to scenes, but that dissipated as time passed. What was well done and it was probably entirely accidental was that a microcosm of that lost and unlamented time of the late 1970s and early 1980s was captured forever on film. Between the fashions, the music, the hairstyles and the flavor of the dialogue, FINAL EXAM serves wonderfully as a cinematic time capsule of a slasher clone, slasher spoof and school days/slob comedy. While better examples can probably be found of each and every genre, to have them all wrapped up in this somewhat passable movie makes it almost tempting to recommend, but not quite.

FINAL EXAM has a small but interesting extras menu. In addition to a worthwhile audio commentary with actors Joel S. Rice, Cecile Bagdadi and Sherry Willis-Burch, there are three cast interviews with the same actors totaling about 15 minutes. There are also five trailers of films from roughly the same vintage, including the FINAL EXAM trailer. While this is not “The Treasure of Montezuma” when it comes to special features, it is a fairly strong showing for a film that has not attained iconic status, is not a cult classic or even registers on most people’s movie radar anymore. Credit must be given to BCI Eclipse/Navarre for putting in the effort necessary to track down three cast members and spend some time with them.

FINAL EXAM will not likely take a prominent place on most people’s horror shelf, nor will it restructure the shape of slasher cinema past and present. However, for those who are collectors of the slasher genre and feel that need to complete their "crazed killer canon", FINAL EXAM should probably be added. It isn’t all that original or creative, but it is part of motion picture history and maintaining collections for the purpose of preservation and passing along something for posterity must be done by someone. God knows there is little today worth preserving unstained and at least this film was made with sincerity and good intentions. At least it felt that way.

Monday, October 6, 2008

THE VIRGIN WITCH (1972) d. Ray Austin

Reviewed by Tracy Hook

THE VIRGIN WITCH engages us with the story of two beautiful sisters, Betty and Christina who are starting their adult lives. They are both somewhat naive about sexuality and sexual behavior. This will all change by the end of the film of course, or we would have a pretty tame story to observe. The film explores the loss of sexual innocence and the emotional changes a woman has after that loss. The film uses witchcraft symbolism to represent this issue or the director wanted to make a skin flick. Take your pick.

Christina finds an "advert", as the British say, for a modeling agency that is quite famous. Christina in her naive excitement applies for the job and enters a new world full of expectations. (Mainly the expectation of showing her bare breasts at verbal command). Christina is ready and willing to enter this world of sexuality and, as we see later, of witchcraft, but Betty on the other hand is reluctant throughout the film to follow Christina's lead.

Christina meets Sybil Waite, the modeling agent and aging lesbian. Sybil is impressed in several ways with Christina and invites her for a working weekend to the English countryside: a place called Wytch World. Very subtle! Christina brings Betty, her sister for company, but encounters other company like the sexy senior doctor, Peter the pervert photographer, and the nameless maid. At Wytch World, Christina falls into a downward spiral of witchcraft, sex, and nude photography in the forest. Betty, on the other hand is a reluctant virgin who runs away at the mere thought of penetration. In one scene, Betty runs away from an "old age pensioner" with his hunting rifle exposed. (I'm not implying anything he really did have a rifle.) Betty is scared of the look in the geezer's eye who obviously has one thing on his mind. The scene is comical and others are as well with their not so subtle references to the Bible and Fairy Tales. (Read the book of Genesis and Snow White before watching this film).

The film explores the societies views on female sexuality. It seems according to THE VIRGIN WITCH, there's two paths to go: become an evil slut or run away like a scared bunny rabbit at the mere sight of an erection. Betty keeps running until she falls literally face down. The film also explores the aging process of women. Sybil who is older than the girls, perhaps 40ish, is shown as a wicked witch who is jealous of Christina's beauty. But Sybil wants to possess and control her. Sybil is a reminder of the wicked stepmother witch in Snow White. There is some wonderful imagery of Sybil's photograph which is similar to the infamous mirror, mirror on the wall.

THE VIRGIN WITCH was my first experience with a true explotation film from Britian. I've seen most of the Hammer and Amicus films which are pretty tame for the over thirteen set. The Hammer films in my mind were very British: polite, but a little bit cheeky at times. They show a little cleavage but THE VIRGIN WITCH shows the whole thing.

The film has a continental European feel. Plenty of nudity, lack of sexual inhibitions and lots of people staring at each other with penetrating eyes. The Euro feel is reinforced by the obvious influence from Mario Bava. Beautiful bright colors are used during the magical scenes that is reminiscent of Bava. The ceremonial mask used is also very similar to the mask in BLACK SUNDAY and Anne Michelle looks very much like a young Barbara Steele ( beautiful.... I hate them both!)

I recomend this film for the over thirteen set. If you love nudity, you'll see plenty, but not full frontal...sorry boys. (Put away your hunting rifles). If you also love sweet revenge and watching skinny old men dance naked before the ceremonial fires of the Sabbat then you will love THE VIRGIN WITCH.

Redemption has hypnotized me once again. They have always done a superb job at restoring films that have to be restored. These films are part of film history. How could anyone live without a film like NUDE FOR SATAN in their collection? Buy that and THE VIRGIN WITCH now.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

ICONS OF HORROR 3: HAMMER FILMS (2008) r. Sony Pictures

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

For those movie-lovers who are enamored with vintage horror flicks, few names have more cachet than Hammer Films. Begun in 1934, by the 1950s, Hammer was producing a series of films based on the Universal monster franchises of the 1930s and 1940s that brought immediate commercial success and notoriety to the British-based company. By the 1960s, the “Hammer formula” was in full swing and motion pictures about Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolfman, as well as all kinds of other legendary monsters were being churned out. Hammer was a diverse studio though, and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy as well as mythological tales and mysteries were also produced during the company’s noontide. By the mid-1970s, film tastes and low-budget competition brought about an eventual decline that led to an end in production of films in 1979. By the mid-1980s, even Hammer's television series had faded away. What Hammer can claim that only a few other studios can also say is that they left an indelible impression on the minds of horror mavens everywhere. Sony Pictures has collected four of Hammer’s lesser known classics released by Columbia Pictures in the early 1960s; THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960), CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1964), THE GORGON (1964) and SCREAM OF FEAR (1961). While not as well known as films like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), DRACULA (1958) and THE MUMMY (1959), this outstanding collection is every bit the equal of Hammer’s best creations in both style and substance.

Packaged in a two-disc set, there is a superb symmetry to the arrangement of these four films. On disc 1 can be found THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL and CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, both of which have a lot in common and complement each other well. On disc 2 reside THE GORGON and SCREAM OF FEAR, which are also sisters in style to a surprising degree. THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Paul Massie (Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde), Dawn Addams (Kitty Jekyll) and Christopher Lee (Paul Allen) is the age-old story of scientific researcher Dr. Jekyll, who is on a quest to unlock the secrets of mankind’s darker behaviors and control them. He knowingly unleashes a sinister force upon 1874 London in the form of Edward Hyde and then battles to manage and eventually subdue this fiend, all at the cost of those around him. CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, directed by Michael Carreras and starring Terence Morgan (Adam Beauchamp), Ronald Howard (Dr. John Bray), Fred Clark (Mr. Alexander King), Jeanne Roland (Annette Dubois) and Jack Gwillim (Sir Giles Dalrymple) is the story of the Dalrymple expedition, which returns from Egypt in 1900 with the mummy and treasures of Prince Ra, the son of Ramses VIII. When the sarcophagus is opened, an ancient curse is initiated and all those involved with the expedition come under its shadow. THE GORGON, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing (Dr. Namarov), Christopher Lee (Professor Meister), Barbara Shelley (Carla Hoffman) and Richard Pasco (Paul Heitz) is the story of the town of Vandorf, Germany in 1910 and its proximity to the cursed Castle Borski. A terror inhabits the castle in the form of Megara, one of the three Gorgon sisters, who turns anyone to stone who gazes upon her face. Horrifying and inexplicable deaths bring learned men from Berlin and Leipzig to battle this monster and put an end to the fear she has spread over the town. Finally, SCREAM OF FEAR, directed by Seth Holt and starring Susan Strasberg (Penny), Ann Todd (Jane), Ronald Lewis (Bob) and Christopher Lee (Dr. Gerard) is the a modern story of young Penny Appleby, a physically and psychologically damaged woman who returns home to the Cote D’Azur after ten years to become enmeshed in sinister schemes and maniacal machinations designed to unseat the last pillars of her sanity. Penny is forced to turn from threat to threat, never knowing whom she can trust until the final acts of violence are visited upon her.

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL and CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB are an outstanding pairing, for these two films are the most visually stunning. Both films depend on sumptuous sets and costuming, both are replete with lavish props, d├ęcor and background paintings as well as mesmerizing colors painstakingly dappled and stippled throughout every scene. If any films were to ever topple Mario Bava’s works from the pedestal of “most colorfully and imaginatively lit” it would be this duo. From the start, both THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL and CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB are a feast for the eyes and the banquet of spectacular imagery never dissipates. Whether it is the grandiose interior sets, the gorgeous actresses bedecked in all manner of extravagant fashions or the camera work that does all it can to maximize the sheer beauty of each scene’s composition, the end result are two films that are equally stylish and immediately call to mind the word voluptuous. In the case of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, there is a curious contrast between the hedonistic world Mr. Hyde lives in, exemplified by the almost garish color scheme of each set, and the sedate and almost morose universe of Dr. Jekyll, still replete with interesting images, but not evidencing the same intense palette. When it is CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, the grandeur of the filmmaking canvas is meant to recall both the splendor of ancient Egypt and Edwardian High Society, but done in such a manner as to be as magnificent and as opulent as possible.

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL and CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB are not all style over substance and both movies benefit from being superbly cast, very well acted and both stories have enjoyable twists woven into their well-traveled tales. Instead of going the usual route of making him a monster, in THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, it is Dr. Jekyll who is the outcast and the physically unappealing character. In contrast, Mr. Hyde is urbane and amiable, but with a streak of savagery and sadism that are the faults that bring about his eventual demise. In CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB, instead of the tired story of the millennia-spanning love of the priest for a unattainable princess, it is a bloody and brutal brotherly rivalry that is the core of the curse cast on all who have dealings with Prince Ra. In addition, both films’ narratives nicely intertwine love triangles, double-crossings and dirty dealings as well as avarice and lust. THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL is possibly the most salacious mainstream film I have ever seen to come out of the early 1960s and is a parade of sins and a whirlpool of vices strung across the screen in as lurid a fashion as gypsy veils. CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is not as spicy, but it is just as violent and incorporates just as many human frailties, making it an equally compelling joy ride, all packaged in the customarily delightful manner of Hammer cinema that had all the appeal of MGM films at their gaudy height in the 1940s and 50s.

While still visually engaging in their own fashion, THE GORGON and SCREAM OF FEAR are not about spectacle and splendor, these films are about atmosphere and mood. THE GORGON is a tale of misty forests, menacing castles and malevolent spirits, all creating misery in a little town that has a modicum of mendacity about it. Whether it’s cobwebby corridors, ghostly graveyards or rambling ruins, THE GORGON is dependant upon developing a feeling of suspense that causes this motion picture to border upon the genre of mystery more than it does horror, but when coupled with elements of mythology, a potent combination is birthed. Even though THE GORGON is a color motion picture, brightness and brilliance are not the focus. Every time the full moon rides the sky and terror stalks the night, the effort expended to create the visual outcome is meant to feel ominous and deeply threatening. SCREAM OF FEAR, the only black & white film in this collection, has a similar feel. However, instead of developing its sense of suspense and threat via the use of mythological monsters, this movie is all about the frightening pathways of the mind in its dealings with trust and deception, baleful plots and sadistic schemes as well as familial bonds broken by bad intentions. SCREAM OF FEAR has many of the same classical architectural qualities as does THE GORGON, but just like that film, they are window dressing and meant only to intensify the billowing moodiness of the plot.

Both films are just as well cast and well acted as THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL and CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB. While THE GORGON has the “Old World” dignity and charisma of the combined talents of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, SCREAM OF FEAR has Susan Strasberg’s enigmatic glamour and innocent sex appeal. All through THE GORGON, we are treated the consummate Cushing and Lee tag-team assault of supremely genteel and aristocratically commanding acting that holds an audience spellbound with its power. There was a chemistry those two gentlemen shared in their many films together that has been rarely equaled. In direct contrast, Susan Strasberg’s softly modulated yet highly charged emotional impact of her facial expressions and astonishingly intense but girlish voice carry the weight of many performances in SCREAM OF FEAR. If you want to bask in films that are a little more cerebral and are the kind of movies you want to watch late at night with the lights off and a thin blade of moonlight peaking through the curtains, these will fit the bill admirably.

Finally, what makes all this enjoyment possible is an outstanding visual and audio transfer by Sony Pictures. These films have probably not looked this good since their release. All four films are crisp, clean and bright looking and the sound is absolutely impeccable. To see four such films preserved in a state where they will likely never look too much better than this is an absolute boon for the “Hammer-loving” horror hound. Sadly, the extras menu of this two-disc set is a little thin, but it for understandable reasons. You can delight in the original theatrical trailers of all four films and gape at the fact that they are in pristine condition. It is often the case that while the feature film will receive the best possible transfer for a special dvd release, usually the trailers are in bad shape and tend to look pretty bad as a result. In this case, these four Hammer trailers may never have looked this good, for certainly trailers took a lot of abuse in their rounds from theater to theater and to see these theatrical trailers look this impressive makes up for some of lack of other bonus features. When one considers that most of the cast and crew of these films have since gone to their reward, not having any updated interviews or short features is understandable. What few luminaries are still with us live far away “across the pond” and may have failing memories or health. Just having these lesser known gems look so spectacular is enough for once.

There are a large number of collector’s editions and multi-disc packs that amass some pretty impressive compilations of films. This is one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences I have had in some time. To be able to glory in films that are well written, superbly shot, expertly cast, charismatically performed and splendidly preserved restores some of my faith in humanity. If all of life’s experience could be so unstained and peerless, nirvana could possibly be attained on these poor mortal shores. Don’t pass up the chance to get this set. Support projects like this one so that others will come forth. You won’t be sorry.