Tucker & Dale VS. Evil

2010, US/Canada, Directed by Eli Craig

Colour, Running Time: 85 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, Region B, Sony; Image: 1080i 50fps 2.39:1, Audio: DTS HD MA

(Visit me over at the new Grim Cellar)

Starting off in what appears to be familiar territory, a bunch of ‘college kids’ (a couple of them incredibly pleasurable to look at) head off into backwoods America for the usual weekend of copulation, ostentatiousness, exposing of flesh, etc. They stop off for supplies at an isolated store where they come into contact with the local hillbillies - cue menacing gestures, threatening looks, and everything else they (and we) have seen in modern horror movies. But, the two ‘hillbillies’ who are staying in the same vicinity as the teens to fix up a dilapidated cabin are actually a couple of really nice guys, it transpiring quickly that everything they do, from rescuing one of the drowning college girls right through to simply existing, is misinterpreted by the prejudgemental kids as the actions of violent backwoods throwback murderers. The kids try to re-acquire their friend and get revenge on the two guys - their mishaps causing death after death amongst themselves.

Tucker & Dale VS. Evil takes many modern horror conventions and deliberately turns them on their heads, creating in its wake some hilarious situations that gave me the biggest laughs I’ve had from a film for months. It’s written in a fashion that suggests good understanding of both horror and comedy genres. The stupid, prejudiced kids inadvertently knock themselves off one by one in increasingly gory ways as they try to kill the hillbillies, who are actually a pair of really decent people who simply don’t fit into the snobbish cultures that most of us have found ourselves a part of. Obviously movies this funny can rarely sustain themselves for ninety minutes and that’s the case here, where the last half hour doesn’t work as well, but in the run up to it you get a superb and perceptively funny gorefest that is worth the price of purchase. There’s even a serious message in there that most of us could take heed of, in that the actions of others can easily be assumed to be unsavoury in nature when we don’t know the full facts for ourselves. This is slightly subverted by the very nature of the revelations towards the end but its relevance is present nonetheless. Not a million miles from the lofty ranks of Evil Dead II, Return of the Living Dead, and Braindead (Dead Alive to the Americans), it’s not too often we get a horror comedy this successful nowadays (more surprising as it’s Eli Craig’s feature length directorial debut) so buy it and have a fantastic time.

The Blu-ray comes with a clean and natural looking image sourced directly or indirectly from digitally shot material. It doesn’t start off well with an ugly aerial shot of the West Virginia backwoods but quickly proves to be an attractive transfer beyond that - considering this was shot digitally, its appearance is very film-like. The audio track is strong and enveloping. UK disc extras are sparse in the form of a featurette plus a few trailers and stills - disappointing in light of the fact that Magnolia released the film in the US with an audio commentary from the director and two of the main actors, plus more featurettes. Clearly Sony have little respect for UK fans. Not really acceptable, but the fact that the film is brilliant, as well as looking and sounding excellent, makes this a good pick-up that should have been better - it’s about half the price of the import for UK fans so it depends what’s important to you: price or extras.

Posted on 11th January 2012
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Phenomena

 1985, Italy, Directed by Dario Argento

Colour, Running Time: 115 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, Region B, Arrow; Image: 1080p 24fps 1.66:1, Audio: LPCM Stereo

(Review also over at the new Grim Cellar) Taking a side step away from the style of story mechanics that Argento is more accustomed to, Phenomena introduces elements of supernatural influence and fairy tales to what would otherwise have been the very conventional reiteration of a killer on the loose. Jennifer (Connelly) is a young girl moving into a boarding school in the vicinity of a recent horrific killing. She is the sensitive type, communicating psychically as she does with insects, sleep walking whilst vividly dreaming, and generally being at odds with the schoolmates who eventually ostracise her for her differences. Her friendship with the town’s resident entomologist (a Scottish Donald Pleasance…) leads Jennifer to use her connection with insects to get closer to the facts of the killing, thereby hopefully discovering who the killer is.

The film has a generally slow pace to it and killings, if you’re expecting this after viewing some of Argento’s other work, are infrequent but still violent and extravagantly staged. The details of the plot lack plausibility but I guess you wouldn’t expect too much else from the writers (i.e. Argento and Franco Ferrini) if you have already seen Demons, Opera, etc. The whole story is told carefully with various characters having relevance that leads indirectly to who the killer actually is. It is also peppered with foreshadowing specifics that hold weight further down the line (for example, the entomologist demonstrating to the chimp that a switchblade knife is dangerous). The finale goes a little overboard in its attempts to surprise the audience in my opinion but the journey arriving at that point is a satisfactory one. In particular for me are the sequences located in the mountainside - tangibly atmospheric and having a tendency to tingle the flesh. The opening seven minutes - in which a girl misses the bus and, not really knowing what to do, goes wandering off along the windy fields to her demise - is one of my favourite Argento sequences. Special mention must go to the soundtrack here (in part composed by Goblin), frequently embellishing the footage with a strong emotional core, although I don’t think the use of Iron Maiden’s Flash of the Blade is necessarily the best option here, despite being a fan of Maiden’s 80s material myself. Dario was caught up in the idea of utilising metal tracks with some of his 80s films, seemingly as a means to simply make them more culturally relevant rather than because it was best for the movie (Demons excluded). Having said that, Motörhead’s Locomotive (from the No Remorse album that followed the near breakdown of the band) truly kicks ass in any context. Phenomena feels a little different when considered alongside Argento’s other movies, but analysis and repeat viewings are kind to your opinion of this film - it’s a good experience, especially when one thinks about the disappointing output of the director from the late 90s onwards.

General opinion of the film was not helped by the fact that it was butchered at the hands of its distribution company for the original theatrical and video runs - half an hour (!) was removed before it was released at the time as Creepers (this was in turn then cut by a further 6 to 17 seconds for film/video respectively in the UK by the BBFC). The longer version has since been released a couple of times on DVD by Anchor Bay in the US, as well as by Medusa in Europe, and a substandard (but at least longer cut) Divid2000 disc appeared over here in the UK. Watching Phenomena in HD (the full version, now completely uncut) is particularly rewarding - the photography of the Swiss mountains is stunning and this is most notably apparent on Arrow’s Blu-ray. Thankfully Arrow have commandeered an exemplary transfer that looks natural, thoroughly stable, and very detailed throughout; quite beautiful to behold in fact. Where some viewers may not appreciate this is in the periodic macro shots of insects and maggots - if you’re interested in seeing the individual hairs of a fly’s mouth then it’s all here! And the cesspool that Jennifer falls into towards the end of the film has never been more repulsive than it is in this resolution - truly stomach churning. Audio is thoughtfully supplied in two tracks - English (with a few seconds of Italian/German where scenes weren’t entirely dubbed in English) and Italian, both uncompressed stereo. English subtitles are of course provided. The score sounds particularly powerful, whereas some of the dialogue varies in quality and often sound effects are clearly still living in the decade they were created - a faithful audio representation nonetheless. Also included is a 52 minute making-of documentary, a short interview with the highly talented Claudio Simonetti (co-founding member of Goblin), plus a 19 minute Q&A session with Sergio Stivaletti, who was involved with the special make-up effects on the film before embarking on a notable career that has involved him with a number of acknowledged productions over the years (note, he also recorded a brief introduction for this disc that plays before the film begins). Arrow also include a reversible disc-case sleeve granting you four front cover options, and a two-sided poster, all within a cardboard slipcase. This is a highly commendable package for a movie that’s better than it was once thought of.

Posted on 2nd January 2012
Under: Horror, Science Fiction | No Comments »

My Name is Bruce

2007, US, Directed by Bruce Campbell

Colour, Running Time: 84 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, Region B, Anchor Bay; Video: 1.78:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS HD MA

(Review also over at the new Grim Cellar) Bruce Campbell is a B movie loser whose career has been on a downward spiral now for several years (this is the plot of the film by the way, not a biographical summary!) and his current project, Cave Alien 2, shows now sign of turning things around. A few states away in the backwoods town of Goldlick, a group of foolish teenagers steal a relic from a Chinese cemetery, unleashing Samurai demon Guan, who predictably reaps bloody havoc on passers-by. Campbell’s biggest fan - one of the aforementioned teenagers - sees no other option but to kidnap the fading actor so that the once-chainsaw wielding superstar can put the ugly demon back in its grave. Of course, Campbell, once released from the teen’s car boot, initially thinks this is a birthday present set-up courtesy of his producer and heads off into battle, before making a sharp about-turn and heading with haste in the other direction when he realises what he’s really been brought up against.

Lots of ideas from writer Mark Verheiden (Timecop, The Mask) are thrown into the mix to create a self-referential satire of Bruce Campbell himself, the actor (and director/producer here) willfully playing along. The problem for me is that, while I think they could work if handled by a more appropriately skilled crew, the jokes largely fall flat. Campbell is portrayed as a pretty repulsive person and despite this factor eventually serving the purpose of outlining the character arc that he follows (i.e. he gradually realises what his faults are and makes amends to win the day), he’s probably not the kind of person most of the audience can (or would want to) identify with and therefore it’s hard to enjoy what’s going on around/to him. I personally think it would have worked better if he was a bummed out B movie actor, albeit a fairly nice guy (à la a Ben Stiller type of character) and someone who you would at least sympathise with. Looking around at the opinions of others online, it seems I’m not necessarily in the majority but for me this film became a chore to sit through - the worst kind of movie: a comedy that’s not funny - and I found myself actually getting a little irritated by Bruce; something that I’ve not experienced before watching any of his other movies. One of those movies that’s probably either going to work for you or it isn’t.

Anchor Bay’s UK Blu-ray Disc is similar to the stateside Image release, albeit without the comic book that was included in the case of the US version. The main extras are an audio commentary from Campbell, its inclusion to be expected given his tendency to provide them for the better films that he’s contributed his talents to in the past, plus an hour long making-of documentary. There are a few other bits that are barely worth looking at. Image quality of the film itself is average - at a glance it looks pretty good but there are a few very noticeable moments of macro blocking which are unacceptable in this day and age - it took me back to some of the early DVDs that I was picking up around 1998/9. The audio track is reasonably well handled. Anchor Bay have certainly not short-changed their audience in terms of extras (speaking of quantity at least), but the film leaves a lot to be desired I’m afraid.

Posted on 28th December 2011
Under: Horror, Other | No Comments »

Splinter

2008, US, Directed by Toby Wilkins

Colour, Running Time: 83 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, Region B, Icon; Video: 2.39:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: Dolby True HD

(Note, this review is also published at the new Grim Cellar) From the brain of London visual effects practitioner Toby Wilkins (who also directed Grudge 3) comes a creature feature with a minimal cast and limited locations – ideal for a small budget where you want to see it all up on screen in the form of monsters and gore. Vacationing couple Seth and Polly abandon their ideas of camping when their tent malfunctions and head off to find a motel. Stopping to aid a girl at the roadside they’re taken hostage by the spaced out druggie and her overly angered boyfriend. They pull in at a petrol station unawares that someone has been killed there by an organism that takes over a body by feeding on blood and propelling the adopted corpse towards anything else of similar nutrition. They’re soon trapped, the druggie girl is killed by the organism, and there seems to be few options to allow them escape from their claustrophobic environment.

The creature/organism thing is the film’s main selling point here, everything else being a by-the-numbers story of a group trapped in a small place by a supernatural monstrosity. Recreated with superb special effects it’s a truly horrific and morbid creation that the makers are bound to be proud of – the titular word referring to the many spikes that each overtaken body produces as the thing ‘metabolises’ via the consumption of blood and attempts to spread to others. The actors also do a fine service, despite being a little irritating at first. Those are the primary good points. What doesn’t work in the film’s favour, and a factor that increasingly infuriates me in contemporary film-making, is the apparently creative decision to use ‘shaky cam’. Handheld cameras were never meant to be like this (witness the beautiful camerawork of Kubrick’s The Shining), where so many shots are simply waving about randomly as if photographed by an epileptic with Parkinson’s disease. Watching on a large screen only amplifies this problem. A camera is generally there to allow the viewer to witness the story being told – a first person perspective utilised in the likes of Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield is another matter. As soon as the camerawork draws your attention to it, it takes you out of the film, and in this case it could have been a tense, frightening experience; instead I sat there gobsmacked most of the time at how insanely random many of the movements appeared to be. No skill, no composition, no thought. A real shame because they could have been on to a good little Thing-alike here (though I realise some reviewers have been less perturbed by the technique given the odd rave opinion). So what you have is effectively some great ideas and sound execution marred by deplorable camera work.

The UK Blu-ray looks tremendous (I believe it was shot using an Arriflex digital camera, which records at 4:3 and is then cropped to the desired ratio in post production, sort of like a digital version of Super 35). Colour is vibrant and attractive while detail (when the image isn’t waving around like a dying fish) is realistically high and consistently sharp. Similarly, the Dolby True-HD audio is very strong, with much happening at the rear (there is also an LPCM stereo track). In the package as bonus material you’ll find audio commentaries and a few featurettes, none of which are very long. A fantastic AV presentation with an average set of extras for a frustrating film that could have been more.

Posted on 20th December 2011
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Horror Express

1972, Spain/UK, Directed by Eugenio Martin

Colour, Running Time: 88 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray/DVD, Region B/1, Severin; Video: 1.66:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: Dolby Digital Mono

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) This is one of those movies you’re most likely to remember from late night television, and seems to have acquired a bit of cult respect over recent years - something that’s at odds with the lacklustre treatment it’s generally received on home video hitherto. The story of Horror Express (or Pánico en el Transiberiano as the director prefers to refer to it) goes that an anthropologist (Christopher Lee) and his team discover a frozen neanderthal in the Chinese mountainous regions once known as Manchuria and decide to cart the monstrous thing back to England. Picking up tickets for a long distance train journey (this is the early part of the twentieth century - no jets just yet) there are problems from the outset when an overly curious thief has his irises burned out while messing with the crate. Once aboard the train and trapped on the voyage it’s not long before anybody coming close to the crate experiences premature sight and coronary issues. The creature has somehow returned to life and flourishes by absorbing its victims’ usable brain matter through their eyes, thereby developing its own intellect and therefore chances of survival.

One of the likable aspects of the production is the infamous pairing of Peter Cushing and Lee in one of their best screen outings. They both have some great lines and their interactions in particular are frequently electric despite being simply dialogue based. Making an appearance also is Kojak’s Telly Savalas as an amusing fascist despot authority figure who boards the train mid journey with a group of aggressive cronies to investigate what’s going on. The train itself is a great cinematic success: ornately decorated throughout, the perpetually rocking death trap forms a prison for the clueless passengers as it hurtles onward. Imagine a groovy Agatha Christie mystery turned perversely on its head into significantly grimmer territory. Then there’s the creature, whose origins push the concept into science fiction realms (although the Paul Naschy lookalike priest who graces the train with his presence has alternative theories as to the driving force that’s causing the mayhem) - the exposition may present ideas that are dated and improbable nowadays but it’s imaginative stuff that at least gives you something to ponder over for a while. It all ends in pretty spectacular fashion and, despite initially writing the screenplay to take advantage of another film’s production, the multicultural crew would appear to have stumbled upon a concoction that’s left the world with a fairly original thrill ride for fans of older genre material. To top it all, the movie plays to a cool Ennio-Morricone-esque score that could easily have been spawned by a spaghetti western.

In the past the only worthwhile home video release of this film was Image’s Euroshock Collection DVD released around 2000, which presented the film in its correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio, albeit non-anamorphic, alongside separate effects/music audio track (something not present on Severin’s new release) and a few other minor snippets of extra material. I think every other DVD without question has been an insulting ‘public domain’ turd, generally with inferior full screen transfers of questionable picture quality, both here (UK) and in the States. Luckily Severin have rescued the movie from public domain hell and put out a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with a renovated transfer for a new era. Having read a few opinions here and there before buying this new set I was worried about the results - apparently a lower than average bitrate brought the HD image into mosquito-ridden life leaving us hungry fans with an improved but disappointing picture. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I found, after pointlessly looking for pixel-related flaws, that the new transfer is bold and very attractive to the eye. My subjective opinion is that Horror Express looks really good on Blu-ray. Maybe the bitrate could have been bumped up and compression issues reduced, however, I think the difference would have marginal and not particularly noticeable to most viewers. I sampled comparisons between the HD version and the DVD - both sourced from the same master and thus the best possible way to compare formats. The Blu-ray has greater contrast, superior colour fidelity, increased detail - an overall much better way to experience the film. English audio is about the same and limited by the technicalities of the period (the Spanish track is also included, albeit without subtitles - not a great loss given the fact that the English-speaking actors dubbed their own voices for the English track). Both discs also contain a 7 minute piece with Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, about 45 minutes in total with the director Martin and producer Bernard Gordon, and 8 minutes or so with the composer of the wonderful Euro score (John Cacavas, who went on to compose for the lamentable Satanic Rites of Dracula before embarking on a career in TV scoring). The best extra is an audio interview with Cushing, running about 80 minutes and playing on one of the film’s audio tracks, commentary-style (though this is not actually a commentary obviously). Some trailers round out the disc, one of note was the trailer for Nightmare Castle (the Barbara Steele gothic horror) - I’m sure this was of a HD source because it looks superb and whetted my appetite (the Severin DVD is already a decent release). Will this come out on Blu-ray I wonder? By the way I found a little Easter egg in the extras menu - press ‘left’ on the remote when you’re hovering over the second option from the top and the eyes of the character to the left light up. This leads you to a one minute piece where we revisit the real and still functioning train station that formed the setting of the opening sequence in the movie.

Despite reservations caused by marginally negative on-line opinion in some quarters, I’m particularly happy to finally own a copy of this film that does it justice. This may be the best we ever get for Horror Express, so don’t pass it up if you’re at all interested.

Posted on 13th December 2011
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Island of Lost Souls

1932, US, Directed by Erle C Kenton

Black & White, Running Time: 71 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RA, Criterion; Video: 1.33:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: LPCM Mono

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) This is the first of three adaptations of the H G Wells book, Island of Dr Moreau (the second being made in the 70s, and the third - probably not final - take being the condemned mid-90s production that Richard Stanley should have directed). Whilst reportedly not being a strict conversion of the material for screen (I haven’t personally read the book), it is nevertheless a powerful film for its time that retains a twisted quality that even some of today’s more open minded audiences may appreciate. The story introduces typical American hero Ed Parker, who is rescued from shipwreck but dumped again, after disagreements with the captain, with a group of odd people that inhabit an isolated island. There Parker discovers that vivisectionist experiments are being conducted to transform animals into humans, these creatures being ruled over by their creator and law-enforcer, Dr Moreau. Initially control is maintained, but soon things begin to get out of order, and the deformed inhabitants of the island gather mob-like to overthrow the crown.

Directed with a flair uncommon in the 30s by Erle C Kenton (whose other horrors include the not-so-impressive Ghost of Frankenstein, and the fun but similarly ill-fated double act that was to end Universal’s more serious monster movie run, House of Dracula/Frankenstein) Island of Lost Souls is striking in its portrayal of the doomed creatures that are forcibly brought out of their natural lifestyle to adopt human characteristics for no better reason other than to prove that it’s possible (and maybe to feed the god-complex of the Moreau character, who here resembles an amoral Dr Frankenstein). Bela Lugosi is amongst them, though not receiving a huge amount of screen time. The most notable hybrid, however, is played by Kathleen Burke - slinky, attractive, and meek, the moment that Parker realises the truth about her still sends a bit of a chill through the veins. What struck me about the spiralling chaos of the final act also was its similarity to that of 70s masterwork, Dawn of the Dead, as the creatures get more and more out of control, eventually taking over the ‘asylum’ as the human survivors make a desparate bid to escape.

I would have bought this from UK suppliers Eureka, but they are unfortunately choosing to release the film in standard definition only (at time of writing), and as matter of course these days I always buy Blu-ray when it’s available. Having said that it is likely that the Eureka will feature unique extras so it’ll be worth keeping an eye on when it arrives in 2012. Criterion’s Blu-ray 1.33:1 Black & White HD (1080p) transfer is comprised of a combination of 35mm nitrate positive (the original negative is unfortunately deemed gone forever) and 16mm print in order to ensure as much audio/video footage, including previously censored material, is present in what we see on the disc. Considering the conditions the film looks very good - soft on occasions, persistently grainy, often pretty detailed and exhibiting good contrast. There is noticeable hiss on the soundtrack periodically but I wouldn’t expect otherwise. I suspect that this could be the best this is ever going to look for home cinema, and would like to think it is comparable to original theatrical presentations. Criterion, as usual, have done their absolute best to preserve and restore a classic movie.

I haven’t had chance to sift through all of the extras yet, but for information they include segmented interviews with John Landis, Rick Baker, Bob Burns, David Skal, Richard Stanley, Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh (of ‘Devo’) - these latter pair also provide a short film for the disc. Also present is a commentary by Gregory Mank, original trailer to the movie, plus a fascinating stills gallery showing off close-up images of the ‘monsters’ along with publicity photos, etc. This is all supported by a lovely booklet giving us an essay on the film, plus details of chapters, cast and the technical side of the transfer. My favourite piece of all this stuff so far is the fifteen minute interview with Stanley, who wanted to and should have directed the 90s remake that Frankenheimer was evetually hired for. This man (who directed the mesmerising Dust Devil if you’re unfamiliar with the name) is always a joy to listen to - he comes across as highly educated, knowledgeable on a range of subjects, relentlessly enthusiastic, and is seemingly the beneficiary of a varied and enviable existence, even if he has had his share of tougher times. I could listen to this stuff for long periods of time. This is the sort of extra that most DVD/BD distributors can only aspire to.

It should be noted that this release is Region A only. The booklet and disc are packed in a translucent, standard-sized Blu-ray case adorned by attractive design work. Whilst I do wish that Criterion’s Blu-rays had more of a physical presence in the manner that some of their DVD releases did (e.g. Vampyr, Videodrome, etc), one cannot argue with the content. Island… proves itself to be among the elite of 30s horror, and at last there is a release that does it justice and is very difficult to fault.

Posted on 27th November 2011
Under: Horror | 8 Comments »

Burial Ground

1981, Italy, Directed by Andrea Bianchi

Colour, Running Time: 85 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, Region A, Shriek Show; Video: 1.66:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS Stereo

(Note, updated review also over at the new Grim Cellar) The movie you’re either going to have a great time with or loathe - Burial Ground (or Nights of Terror, or Zombie 3, etc) exists in its own microcosm and creates its own rules, despite being triggered by the whole zombie craze that was given birth by Dawn of the Dead towards the end of the seventies.  A group of weirdos head out to a mansion for weekend activities, a place where the owner has been toying with supernatural forces resulting in the rather large number of rotting corpses buried on the grounds returning to life before the opening credits have even got under way.  Before any of the females even have chance to become impregnated (seeing as most of them get down to making out at the first opportunity upon arrival) the onslaught begins and these ugly mothers (the corpses that is) are tearing just about anybody to shreds who lingers in their path for more than a minute or so (which the denizens of this world frequently do).  Thus the rest of the film is a desperate bid to cling on to dear life and escape for the gradually decreasing number of survivors.  What makes this film quite amazing is the sheer insanity of some of the goings-on - lightbulbs explode for no reason, bear traps seem to have been laid on the grounds without any apparent motivation, the dialogue is priceless (child to mother: “mamma, this cloth smells of death”), and there’s the boy, Michael, who looks like a forty year old man, and sounds like a forty year old man trying to be a boy - this chap has to be seen to be believed, particularly with his jealousy towards anyone offering his mother attention (i.e. new and unwanted step dad).  This jealousy leads to a rather bizarre incenstuous encounter that ends with his mom slapping Michael and him running off upset whilst crying, “but mamma, I’m your son!”…  It’s hilarious like few American comedies can match.  The monsters are UGLY, and these things have real maggots crawling over their heads.  They’re burned, shot, stabbed, but there is no end to their destruction of human life.  They even don tools to break into the house for their victims - smart creatures despite probably owning half rotted brains.  The music really boosts the appeal too - it’s in turns zany and melancholic.  This world may be funny at first, but it only leads along a path of gore and hell to utter doom.  Love it!

Having seen this a few times on VHS tape and a few more times on DVD, I was interested to witness how its Blu-ray incarnation turned out.  I ordered with some trepidation having read a few less than enthusiastic reviews online, so the first thing I did was flip out the Shriek Show DVD to compare shot-to-shot with the new Blu-ray from the same company.  At first glance the Blu-ray does look a little messy to be honest but comparison with the DVD reveals a better composition first and foremost - previously closer to 1.78:1 it is now framed at 1.66:1.  This is likely to be the accurate ratio as many Euro films were shot in this manner around the period and before.  The DVD is interlaced whereas the Blu-ray is progressive (at 24fps), reducing jagged edges.  Detail and contrast is improved by a small amount in the Blu-ray though grain is consequently also increased, quite a bit.  Also of note is the fact that the audio (DTS-HD stereo) is a little fuller on the Blu-ray disc, the DVD sounding a tad tinny after going back.  So whilst it doesn’t look great at first, direct checks between this and the DVD do reveal improvements, modest though they may be.  By around the half hour mark I was sold and glad I bought the hi-def option.  A/V-wise it will never hold up to anything with a decent budget that’s been scrubbed up for HD, or transfers of today’s often digitally shot movies, so don’t even think about that, but it is the best home cinema presentation of the movie to date (and possibly ever, depending on how closely it represents what’s on the original elements), and the DVD is rendered unwatchable after sitting through the HD version.

The other point to note is that Media Blasters (i.e. Shriek Show) have exhumed from somewhere a number of outtakes that I’m surprised even exist!  For someone who’s seen the movie around fifteen times this is quite fascinating material, depicting various further interactions between the characters and even a bit more undead mayhem.  This piece runs nearly ten minutes albeit without looped dialogue or sound effects - instead it simply plays against the movie’s music track.  Given that it’s in good condition (here in HD too) it’s a shame the footage is missing its intended audio because some of this would have slotted nicely back into the main feature for an ‘extended’ version.  My favourite segment is with Michael sitting in the back seat of the car that his mother is driving to the mansion, and clearly pi**ed that she and his new stepdad are having a nice time chatting.  There’s also an 11 minute interview section with actress Mariangela Giordano and producer Gabriele Cristani - pity nothing with director Andrea Bianchi could be found (the same man who bestowed ‘Strip Nude For Your Killer’ upon the world), but nice to have anyway.  A trailer and gallery pad out the disc further.  These and the interviews were present on the old US DVD but the outtakes have never been seen before.  Priceless stuff.

It may have taken some flak for a grainy presentation - this is not entirely unwarranted, but a direct look at the same footage on the DVD shows that this Blu-ray is a small-to-medium step up in every respect.  My suggestion - if you have the Vipco disc and like the film, upgrade; if you have the Shriek Show disc and love the movie, upgrade; or if you’ve never seen this before and have an interest in classic Italian zombie/horror cinema then buy the Blu-ray (the price is really fair anyway, and in some places cheaper than the old SS DVD).  The likes of this film will never be made again and for some of us who have ‘acquired’ the taste (and a very strange taste it is, admittedly), Burial Ground is an awesome experience.

Posted on 12th November 2011
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

Vacancy

2007, US, Directed by Nimród Antal

Colour, Running Time: 85 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Sony; Video: 2.39:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: LPCM 5.1

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) From the director of the recent Predators and Mark Smith, the writer of Joe Dante’s 3D terror flick The Hole, comes a fairly basic tale about a disenchanted couple - Amy and David Fox - whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Unable to get anybody to fix the unreliable vehicle so late at night they resort to staying at a Bates-style motel that should at least offer them respite from the night until they’re able to call upon a local mechanic the next day. At least that’s their plan. Firstly there seems to be something slightly offbeat about the motel owner, though perhaps this is the result of him living in backwoods America (hey, they’re all potential headcases and salivating homicidal loones in the movies anyway, right?). They then settle into their room to find it’s a pretty disgusting excuse for a hospitable environment that one must pay to retire to: dirty bed sheets, insects crawling about on the floor - reminds me of the hotel I accidentally booked in Copenhagen’s red light area once. Before they have chance to get back to arguing about their failing marriage there is heavy banging on the walls and doors. Understandably spooked David heads back to the owner to politely request a resolution to the noise problem, and things calm down for a while after the manager grabs his gun, suggesting to David that vagrants sometimes break in and cause a bit of trouble. Back in the room David finds a few VHS tapes (remember those, film-lovers?) and tries a couple out. Making a welcome change from the Gideon’s Bible, the tapes depict people being raped, tortured and murdered, a momentary distraction until David notices that the people were being put out of their misery in the very room the couple are now staying in - it clicks that these are not horror films but snuff recordings! Then the terror really starts - the room is attacked by one or more masked assailants and the couple can find no way of escape; it looks like they are scheduled to become the next in a line of unwitting snuff movie stars…

Vacancy

Utilising the capable talents of Kate Beckinsale (as ever, very comfortable to gaze at) and Luke Wilson as the stereotyped jaded couple (they lost their child, she holds them as a couple responsible, makes sarcastic comments every time he even breathes, etc) Vacancy can’t be accused of wasting much time, coming in at a much shorter than average running time. Of course, that is partly a consequence of there being very little story to pad the film out much beyond eighty minutes anyway, but as long as you go in without expectations of an epic there’s not much to be disappointed about. Direction is slick and the set is impressive - interiors and facias were built at Sony’s soundstages I understand, whereas the entire exterior set was recreated outdoors, the whole thing boasting an authentic appearance and being suitably grimy. Photographic approach is deliberately dark with harsh lighting and shadows for the most part - this might prove problematic for some home cinema set-ups and I did find the excessive darkness a little irritating on occasions, though I can certainly understand the intended purpose of creating an unnerving atmosphere. Considering it could have been tempting in today’s cinematic climate to focus on the torture/violence depicted in the videotapes, Antal and Smith avoided this by volition, offering only glimpses of torment and brutality while concentrating on the frenetic drama cooked up for the couple as they scramble for some kind of escape from their would-be killers. This is both a potential plus and minus for the film because, whilst it is refreshing to take an alternative route to the overly popular torture-porn subgenre, some may level the criticism that Vacancy is consequently anaemic by today’s standards. That’s not a problem in my eyes because the genre is awash with more visceral material should that be preferable. What we’re left with is a fast-paced chase horror/thriller that induces a little bit of an excited response as the couple’s situation looks like it could be an impossible problem.

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The Blu-ray disc presents a highly crisp image with very little grain to speak of - this is surprising because the film was reportedly shot in Super 35. Colours are especially bold but the aforementioned cinematography ensures blacks and darker areas are present in abundance - I had to perform some minor recalibration to make the image a little easier on the eyes. Nevertheless there are many shots that are good demonstrations of the format. Sound options come in the form of plain old Dolby Digital 5.1, or and uncompressed LPCM track which is better for those with capable amplifiers; both offer a thumping audio experience without any issues. Extras are a little under-resourced - the 20 minute featurette sheds a little bit of light on the background and shooting of the film, there are a couple of excised sequences, the snuff films as a separate piece, and a trailer from the third chapter of Sony’s more profitable franchise, Spider-Man. Overall I’d recommend the Blu-ray over the DVD, of course for it’s strong A/V presentation. The film itself has held up quite well over a couple of viewings for me, and has spewed forth a straight-to-disc prequel that sounds like it doesn’t reach heights of anything above average.

Posted on 9th January 2011
Under: Horror, Thriller | 2 Comments »

Good Will Hunting

1997, US, Directed by Gus Van Sant

Colour, Running Time: 121 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Buena Vista; Video: Letterbox 1.85:1, Audio: DD 5.0

Will Hunting is a 20 year old genius with a few problems. Having grown up through a troubled childhood, losing his parents and being maltreated by subsequent guardians, he’s now on a path to persistent criminality via delinquent behaviour. Working at the lower intellectual end of the vocational spectrum (janitorial jobs, etc) he demonstrates an apparent lack of interest in taking advantage of his mental faculties, but by evening is drawn to reading incessantly and filling his brain with seemingly limitless knowledge. He is also mathematically gifted, this bringing him to anonymously solve a competitive equation put forward by the professor of maths, Gerald Lambeau, at the institution where Will cleans floors. Once his identity is discovered by the award-winning academic, Lambeau rescues Will from serving time in prison by having the lad agree to see him once a week for maths tuition, in addition to seeing a therapist weekly. Will is not overly eager to bare his soul to some old psychologist so repeatedly wastes their time and insults them as a means of forcing them to quit consultations with him. Until Lambeau drafts in an old college friend that is - Sean Maguire, an intuitive, sensitive expert in the field of therapy who has taken a different academic route to his more distinguished buddy. Lambeau doesn’t entirely approve of Maguire’s approach but it gradually works its way through Will’s defences until the two become friends, and glimmering signs of the young rebel improving his wayward existence become apparent.

Good Will Hunting Soundtrack

Utilising quite a few ‘name’ actors - Matt Damon as Will, Robin Williams as Maguire, Ben Affleck as Will’s best friend, and Minnie Driver as the rogue’s love interest - this is a high quality offering of thought-provoking material. To an extent there is a certain degree of egotism on display (main actors Damon and Affleck wrote the story and script, with consultations courtesy of William Goldman) but it’s executed with a great deal of skill and awareness. Several scenes are difficult to watch, generally those where we and various characters come close to Will’s damaged past and essentially fragile state of mind, whereas others are a touch corny (for example, when Driver’s got her silly head on, or Affleck‘s portrayal of a minion), plus there’s a noticeable excess of verbal profanity on display (hey, I’m getting old, okay?!), however we are presented with a good portion of uplifting and inspirational scenes such as when Will and Maguire are progressing their friendship, Maguire is philosophically evaluating the nature of relationships (often with a touch of humour), or Will’s complex life is being explored with an air of optimism, etc. The dialogue exchanges between Damon and Williams, playing two deep men who are intelligent in different ways, are involving whilst stimulating plenty of thought. On a more technical level, the use of music - whether Danny Elfman’s score or various track clips such as Rafferty’s Baker Street - is mostly careful and considered in its selection and implementation. I found Escoffier’s cinematographic style to be consistently attractive on the eye, especially as many of the locations could be described as ‘a dump’; a personal favourite shot of mine occurs as Williams is talking by the riverside, his head surrounded by a contrasting and painterly array of exquisite greens. Gus Van Sant’s direction is calm and thoughtful as he allows viewers to ponder upon Will’s journey through self discovery and the realisation of his potential - not, perhaps, potential of the mind, but potential to connect successfully with others.

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This ancient Disney DVD reflects the aforementioned photography very well in terms of colour reproduction, but lacks fine detail (a symptom of the fact that it’s not been transferred anamorphically) - nevertheless it’s fairly pleasing to look at. Audio is quite nicely rendered, particularly during musical moments. A more recent Canadian Blu-ray Disc from Alliance Atlantis obviously improves the A/V qualities quite significantly. As it’s the festive season I’ve reluctantly avoided the tradition amongst lovers of the macabre of reviewing Black Christmas and taken a look back at a film that taps at the heart, occasionally makes one smile, and offers insight into a fictional life that we can strangely identify with, despite probably sharing few of the protagonist’s characteristics.

Posted on 25th December 2010
Under: Other | No Comments »

Spirits of the Dead

1968, France/Italy, Directed by Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, Roger Vadim

Colour, Running Time: 121 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Arrow; Video: 1.85:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: PCM Mono

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) Histoires Extraordinaire (or Spirits of the Dead as AIP re-titled it) is quite an unconventional anthology horror movie filmed in 1967, featuring three, almost experimental, adaptations of Poe stories from three well known European directors (Vadim, Malle, and Fellini respectively). They’re not particularly horrifying but there is an air of mystery about them, plus they’re particularly artistic explorations of Poe’s tales of the weird and supernatural. Episode 1, Metzengerstein, relates the fate of a hedonistic woman who becomes attracted to a man - her cousin - living in a nearby castle. When her invite to an evening of entertainment (and probable debauchery) is turned down she extracts revenge by burning down his stables (he’s a horse lover), unwittingly killing the object of her dissatisfaction in the process. After this she develops an unnatural fixation with a horse herself, something that will eventually seal her fate. Vadim’s story is sexy (featuring Jane Fonda in an array of rather amazing costumes) but somewhat wayward, disjointed and protracted. Poe’s poetic prose is reflected in the material developed for the screen to an extent, and would have benefited from some ruthless tightening (I’m guessing each director had a predetermined time slot to fill seeing as they all last around the forty minute mark).

Spirits of the Dead Arrow Blu ray

Episode 2, William Wilson, is an intriguing look at a sadistic man with an apparent doppelganger that appears whenever his cruel nature reaches excessive heights. Callous from childhood, Wilson appears to meet his match at a casino-environment when femme fatale Brigitte Bardot challenges him to a card game that lasts all night. When she runs out of money the final round claims her as his slave, but once again the mysterious double appears to put paid to his unethical plans, resulting in a duel to the death between them. Offering no real explanation to help us comprehend what/who the double is and where it/he came from, William Wilson captures a suitable air of mystery alongside its inherent moral commentary. Episode 3, Toby Dammit, skips time to a sort of twisted version of the modern era (à la A Clockwork Orange) whereby a perpetually inebriated celebrity reveals his antipathy towards the world, humankind, and - possibly subconsciously - himself. Following a series of escapades that result in him speeding through a surreal version of Rome in a Ferrari, he finally stumbles upon Satan, the image of whom he has endured prophetic visions of up until that point. Fellini’s final piece famously showcases Terence Stamp’s convincingly deranged performance as a lost, cynical drunk. The director’s approach to the material is exceedingly eccentric and artfully manifested, something which would probably be expected by followers of his work and offering a suitable contrast to the segments preceding it. People who have seen/reviewed Spirits of the Dead generally favour Toby Dammit over the first two parts. Personally I found something to appreciate in all of them, though …Dammit and …Wilson offered the most actual enjoyment. As a whole the film is different to the view of Poe’s material made famous by Roger Corman, though it was obviously picked up for American distribution by AIP because it was the same studio that produced Corman’s classics prior to that. AIP established a certain traditional sex & horror tone, common to the period, with the advertising campaign that I don’t feel is completely in line with how the film should be perceived. They also requested a cut of several minutes (re-instated here) and drafted in Vincent Price (star of the aforementioned Corman movies) to narrate over the opening and closing credits. Clearly they were pulling out stops to present the film as a continuation of their Poe cycle; thankfully it plays here in the manner intended by its makers and can therefore be appreciated in its purest form.

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An important film such as this is embellished with a superb transfer for the Arrow Blu-ray Disc - periodically grainy, often exhibiting fantastic clarity. There are a couple of audio language options for each segment and you may wish to flip between these depending on the tale (the first and third tales I believe work better in English due to the fact that the main characters are portrayed by English speaking actors who dubbed their own voices). The fact that Arrow has provided such an array of options is incredibly thoughtful and as a result this release blows the previous video/DVD/laserdisc editions away. The entire French language version is available as a separate entity (can be chosen from the brilliantly designed main menu) but the picture quality of this is not up the standard of the main presentation (though still probably better than DVD quality), plus it’s notable that the colour scheme is very different. The AIP commissioned Vincent Price voiceover is available as a short extra too. The main bonus is a 60 page booklet containing reprints of the three Poe stories that make up the film, plus two essays, one of which is the excellent Tim Lucas study of the film (originally from Video Watchdog in the late 90s). The presentation of this book is very professional and grants a great backdrop with which to understand the film. The Blu-ray Disc is encased in a thin Blu-ray case adorned with poster artwork on every side, and the book plus case are housed in a sturdy cardboard outer box making the whole package supremely attractive. Though the film does take more effort than your average genre outing, this is an essential buy for fans of historical horror and foreign cinema and Arrow are to be congratulated - hopefully Spirits of the Dead, along with their other releases this year, is a sign of things to come.

Posted on 21st November 2010
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Witchcraft

1964, UK, Directed by Don Sharp

B&W, Running Time: 80 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Fox; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: DD Mono

Happy H

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) In the name of Progress a building contractor has an ancient cemetery bulldozed to make way for a new complex, against the wishes of the Whitlock family whose ancestors are buried there. Wrapped up in the building project is Bill Lanier, the head of a family who has traditionally been at odds over the centuries with the Whitlocks. His involvement brings him into conflict with an ageing Morgan Whitlock, the main person who is vehemently opposed to the reuse/relocation of the graveyard despite nobody having been buried there for aeons. While this domestic bickering is going on, one of the upturned coffins on the building site is revealed to be open, and from it has emerged a long-dead woman - a subject of the aforementioned arguments and someone famed for her witchcraft practice back in darker ages, and the fact that she was buried alive for her crimes. Before long the contractor who had the Whitlocks’ cemetery plots ripped up in the first place is drowning in his own bath, then the old lady of the rival Lanier family inexplicably drives herself off the edge of a cliff - the resurrected witch would appear to be extracting sinister revenge using uncanny powers of mental projection and psychological manipulation.

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Don Sharp’s Witchcraft is comprised of a strong cast belting out their lines as if convinced by the proceedings, especially in the cases of Jack Hedley as main family man Bill Lanier and Lon Chaney as Morgan Whitlock. The latter, despite looking podgy and old, actually puts in a surprisingly aggressive performance that really grants his character an air of uncompromising intimidation. A sweet looking Diane Clare (from Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies) makes an appearance too as Morgan’s niece, someone who has forged a covert relationship with one of the Whitlocks adding an extra touch of complexity to the family feud. Sumptuously shot in Black & White this is a great example of the gothic chiller brought into the modern day (well, the sixties) mixing both worlds quite adeptly. At a glance resembling Barbara Steele in Black Sunday the witch who is accidentally returned from the grave is a creepy creation, one who wanders around quite mute but causing death in her wake, usually through some sort of mentally projected suggestion and/or the use of voodoo dolls. Her awakening is one of the film’s highlights: as Bill is surveying the damage during a nocturnal expedition to the graveyard he keeps thinking he can hear a sound coming from the upturned coffins, a quiet moaning in the dead of night - enough to make anybody jump in the car and rapidly exit I should imagine!

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Coupled with Devils of Darkness under the ‘Midnight Movies’ monicker (adopted by Fox following the acquisition of most of MGM‘s home video distribution rights in 2006), Witchcraft is the better of the two by some margin. The pacing is improved, acting uniformly more interesting, execution higher in atmosphere. The link between the two conceptually lies first and foremost in the portrayal of a group of devil-worshippers at the heart of each story. As a further and less obvious connection, it’s amusing to note that Leslie Nielson lookalike Victor Brooks plays an inspector in both films. In fact the actor seemed to be typecast as police authority figures but this clearly stems from his credible ability in such roles. The DVD transfer is very good as far as the video/audio quality is concerned, however I believe the image is cropped from a widescreen ratio (of 1.66:1) to fullscreen. This is unfortunate but it’s far from unwatchable. Nevertheless, the double bill has always been reasonably priced and for one spooky chiller coupled with a fairly average one it’s certainly not bad value.

Posted on 31st October 2010
Under: Horror | 3 Comments »

Devils of Darkness

1965, UK, Directed by Lance Comfort

Colour, Running Time: 88 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Fox; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD Mono

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) Prologue: we get a glimpse into the past of some foreign land where a vampire (parading by the name of Count Sinstre!) curses the local gypsy community with his malevolent presence. Choosing one of the more nubile specimens to be his bride (presumably this being nothing to do with the titillating dance she performed just moments prior) he swiftly drains the life from her, to the horror of her genuine newly acquired husband, before granting her shell with undead re-animation so that her now pitiful existence is entirely focussed on serving him from that point on. Jumping forward to the sixties, a few friends are enjoying either general tourism or potholing trips in a French village. Whilst tunnelling underground a couple of them discover two coffins, one of which is empty, the other revealing an emerging hand! Of course not only does the adventurer quickly disappear but also so does the female friend of Paul, one of the men staying at the hotel. In the place of his abducted friend, Paul finds a bat-shaped talisman lying on the floor, unbeknownst to him this being an important part of a ritual that the aforementioned vampire is soon to hold whilst accompanied by his growing posse of hexed followers. Back in England the sceptical Paul attempts to find out more about people who believe in supernatural forces such as witches and the like. What he doesn’t realise is that Sinsitre is also in town, looking for the stolen amulet as well as a little revenge to appease his discontent. Paul befriends an elegant and solipsistic woman at a party before even she is lured in by Sinistre’s hypnotic advances, though this time for sacrificial purposes…

Devils of Darkness

Decidedly anaemic in terms of sex and violence and living in the shadow of Hammer‘s output of the time, Devils of Darkness is a reasonably efficient albeit ploddingly paced take on the vampire theme, entwining ideas of what was then increasingly popular satanic worship practices. The film tends to (leisurely) explore fears of devil-worship through a desire (represented by the thoughts/actions of the main character) to find sense in a practice increasingly at odds with a scientifically propelled new world. William Sylvester makes a decent mark as said central character Paul, a man whose rational mind is thrown off course by the barrage of strangeness that comes his way - you may remember Sylvester for his prominent role as Dr Floyd in Kubrick’s 2001. On the other hand I can’t make up my mind whether the campy Frenchman Hubert Noël is an asset to the film as Sinistre. I get the impression the production team were taking Hammer’s lead by introducing hints of sex and bright red blood at various intervals - Paul’s new London girlfriend is quite a sleek and voluptuous thing, baring as much flesh as the producers dared (which is not that much, believe me), and it’s no wonder Sinstre’s wife gets a tad jealous when she sees his new ‘acquisition’! Making fine use of the Eastman process, this colourfully shot film (transferred well for DVD) is talky and lacklustre is many respects, but does adequately demonstrate a couple of the fears of the time with some thought. Perhaps a more lively approach could have embedded this slightly deeper into the annals of cinema history, although at the hands of tired director Lance Comfort this would never be - this film was the end of his cinematic career and pretty much the end of his life (he died just a year later).

Posted on 24th October 2010
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

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