Archive for December, 2011

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 »

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