Monday, March 10, 2014
aka FRIGHTMARE II, ONCE UPON A FRIGHTMARE
1974, Kino Lorber/Redemption Blu-ray, 86m 19s, Region A Only, $24.95
By John Charles
In 1957, Dorothy (Sheila Keith) and Edmund Yates (Rupert Davies) are convicted of six counts of murder and cannibalism, but spared the death penalty and sentenced to a mental institution. While it was Dorothy who committed the crimes, the weak-willed Edmund was deemed guilty of complicity, and the pair remain incarcerated for 15 years before being declared cured. Dorothy begins a new career as a Tarot card reader, but her hunger for human flesh remains, an appetite that Edmund and their daughter, Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), try to curb with weekly parcels of animal brains. Younger daughter Debbie (Kim Butcher) is a fledgling juvenile delinquent who is unaware of her parents and their notorious past, but knows that guardian Jackie is up to something. While Edmund works as a chauffeur, Dorothy secretly preys on human victims and in a misguided attempt to help, Jackie’s psychiatrist boyfriend (Paul Greenwood) only manages to make the situation worse.
Labelled “Nasty, foolish and morally repellant,” “Despicable,” “Horrendous,” and “A Moral Obscenity” by apoplectic British critics when this opened in that country during the 1974 Christmas season (!), FRIGHTMARE ranks amongst director Pete Walker’s most effective works. Well produced with a fair amount of style, the enterprise benefits principally from Keith’s wonderful performance. The middle-aged actress is both convincingly sympathetic and tormented when taking advantage of Edmund’s misguided devotion and disturbingly sadistic when taunting and dispatching her victims (the infamous American poster art shows a wild eyed Keith attacking with a power drill, though she actually only uses the weapon on people who are already dead). Although the gore and disregard for the institution of the family no doubt angered Conservative viewers, the screenplay by David McGillivray (who has an uncredited bit) also seems to share their inevitably corresponding attitude regarding the leniency the Yates receive from the justice system (which eventually allows them back out into the world to pick up where they left off) and the unruly youth of the day. Time has blunted its shocks somewhat (despite the movie's ghoulish reputation, there is more aftermath on display than actual savagery), but FRIGHTMARE remains grimly amusing and its final scene is amongst the most memorable in British horror. Watch for Andrew Sachs as the first victim, appearing briefly here a year before he went on to play the perpetually befuddled Manuel in FAWLTY TOWERS.
FRIGHTMARE was previously issued on domestic DVD by Image Entertainment in fullscreen from an old PAL converted master and again a few years later in an anamorphic rendering from Media Blasters. Redemption’s new 1080p 1.66:1 Blu-ray contains minor speckling throughout, but the image is sharp and colorful with very good detail; the mono audio sounds a bit strained on both ends at times, but is sufficient. Traditionalists will enjoy seeing the original BBFC “X” Certificate on the front of the presentation, but rest assured: the deletions James Ferman and company imposed on the film back in 1974 have since been restored.
Chief amongst the supplements is an audio commentary (originally recorded in 2004 for the Anchor Bay UK DVD release) featuring Walker and cinematographer Peter Jessop, moderated by Steve Chibnall, author of “Making Mischief: The Cult Films of Pete Walker.” Amongst other topics, the trio reveals that the working title was “Nightmare Farm,” and Walker also lays out some of McGillivray’s contributions to the storyline, a few of which still leave the director shaking his head. He also expresses his disdain for psychiatry and relates that a crime similarly horrible to those depicted in the movie occurred not long after the picture opened. The track is fairly satisfying, though two sections are inexplicably repeated, possibly a new editing measure as the commentary was recorded while the participants were viewing a PAL version that ran 25 frames-per-second. Walker is also featured in a more recent 12m interview in which he offers some fresh information. The director reveals how McGillivray first mentioned cannibalism to him for their next project, an idea that seemed completely unworkable but gradually took root, and how he recognizes FRIGHTMARE as “the primary cult film of my collection.” Walker expresses considerable admiration for the late Sheila Keith, who is gifted with her own 14m segment (also carried over from the Anchor Bay release). Otherwise absent from the supplements, McGillivray is among the commentators here, reminding us that the actress was not at all like the villainesses she portrayed for Walker, a sentiment backed up by the director, who seemed amazed by the way she could transform for him into an “evil, wicked sort of butch lady.” It is expressed that Keith could have earned considerable notoriety as a horror star, but no one other than Walker seemed willing to use her in these sorts of roles. The original theatrical trailer rounds out the package, along with spots for four other Walker titles offered by Redemption and Kino Lorber.
Sunday, March 2, 2014
Dagon-La secta del mar
"Dagon-Sect of the Sea"
2001, Lions Gate Entertainment, HF/SS, $69.99, VHS
DD-5. 1/MA/16:9/LB/ST/+, $24.99, DVD-1, 98m 4s
By John Charles
Originally published in slightly different form in Video Watchdog #88
After the success of RE-ANIMATOR in 1985, director Stuart Gordon and writer Dennis Paoli next planned to adapt H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth" for the big screen. However, the story's scale was too costly for Empire Pictures to undertake, so the project was shelved. Over a decade and a half later, they were finally able to proceed with the movie, which also incorporates elements from Lovecraft's first published story, the six-page "Dagon" (1917). While vacationing with another couple off the coast of Spain, nerdy dotcom millionaire Paul (Ezra Godden, who resembles a young Woody Allen) and Barbara (Raquel Merono) find themselves in peril when a freak storm scuttles their boat on a rock. Making their way to the coastal fishing village of lmboca, the pair are separated, and Paul finds himself besieged by the deformed, zombie-like locals. Encountering elderly alcoholic Ezequiel (Francisco Rabal, memorable in his final role), the region's last normal human, the American learns that the villagers rejected God and began worshipping an undersea deity called Dagon. Human sacrifices resulted and now, decades later, the people are mutating into octopus-like monsters. Paul's life is spared because he has a mysterious connection to the Imbocans' half-transformed High Priestess (Macarena Gomez), but Barbara has been chosen to bear Dagon's offspring.
One of several recent co-productions between producer Brian Yuzna's Fantastic Factory and the Spanish company Filmax International, DAGON benefits greatly from its "olde world" location work. The ancient town of Combarro and crumbling, water-logged interiors (mostly real locales with little in the way of art direction) provide an ideal back-drop for the Lovecraftian style of horror, which relies heavily on detailed depictions of sinister environments to generate an impenetrably ominous atmosphere. The effect is further heightened by a spare score and extensive use of handheld cameras, lending realism to the numerous sequences where Godden is being pursued by the gruesome townsfolk. Once the particulars are in place, Gordon moves the story along with his trademark swiftness, but never at the expense of the characters (who evolve nicely), and the marvelously perverse marriage of sex and death that featured so memorably in RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND also figures here. There is a very strong gore sequence that pushes the absolute limits of the "R" rating, but the picture never sells out its solid craftsmanship and absorbing concepts. Even the false shocks show more inspiration than usual, eliciting an appreciative smile, rather than serving as a reminder of how bereft of ideas most genre productions are nowadays.
The VHS version looks and sounds good, but the DVD is the way to go. The anamorphic 1.80:1 presentation boasts solid colors and satisfying contrasts. Much of the film is conceptually misty and the rain is non-stop, but Crest National's compression handles these sequences smoothly. The stereo mix features an impressive low end and is effectively enveloping when called for. English captions (which help one to comprehend portions of Rabal's heavily accented delivery) and Spanish subtitles are included. Supplements consist of a red tagged trailer, sections devoted to storyboards and production art (the latter featuring some wild creature designs that were evidently too elaborate to pull off), and two commentaries. On the first, Gordon and Paoli state that little more than the setting was changed from the original draft and they discuss where they strayed from Lovecraft's work. The pair also reveal that Imboca is actually Spanish for “in the mouth" and talk about the history of Dagon (an actual philistine god that was half-human, half-fish), mentioning how several aspects of this religion ended up being incorporated into Catholicism, which adds an extra wrinkle to the film's battle of religions. It is an illuminating discussion and the interplay between the two longtime friends keeps things moving along nicely. The other commentary track features Gordon and Godden (who is British and affects a perfect American accent in the film) and is a more off-the-cuff conversation consisting predominantly of production anecdotes. Godden sites Harold Lloyd as the influence for his character and reminisces about the incredibly wet and cold winter shooting conditions. The director provides further tales about accidents and weather-related hardships, as well as additional production details. Left clicking on the main menu page highlights the Lions Gate logo, allowing one to access trailers for CROCODILE 2: DEATH SWAMP and FRAILTY. There is an obvious layer change at 1:11:59. A Spanish subtitled VHS version is also available for $69.99. Onscreen title: H.P. LOVECRAFT’S DAGON.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
SECRET AGENT X-9
1937, VCI Entertainment, DD-2.0/+, $29.99, 239m 11s, DVD-0
SECRET AGENT X-9
1945, VCI Entertainment, DD-2.0/+, $29.99, 243m 15s, DVD-0
By John Charles
Originally published in Video Watchdog #105
The heroic G-Man created by Dashiell Hammett leapt from the comics to the big screen in two Universal serials. Both were out of circulation for quite some time and feared lost, but are now available on a pair of double disc DVD sets from VCI.
Ford Beebe and Clifford Smith's 1937 version finds Dexter, aka X-9 (Scott Kolk), assigned to nab notorious thief Victor Brenda, who has made off with the Belgravian crown jewels and is now up to further misdeeds in America. Brenda, whose identity is unknown even to his men (including Henry Brandon and Lon Chaney, Jr.), proves consistently allusive and has an ally in beautiful art shop employee Shara (FLASH GORDON's Jean Rogers)... or does he? A further thorn in Dexter's side is Baron Karsten (Monte Blue), a Belgravian official who is clearly up to no good and using his diplomatic immunity to skirt arrest. Fast-talking Kolk is persuasive, but Dexter is a frustratingly underwritten hero, a problem endemic to many chapterplays. One minute, he is making brilliant deductions; the next, he turns his back on some blatantly suspicious character and gets slugged, in order to keep the story moving along. Too much of the action in the first half revolves around a painting that constantly passes from one party to another and none of the cliffhangers are showstopping. That said, the production maintains an exhilarating pace that encourages one to watch several chapters in a single sitting and ranks among Universal's best efforts in the genre.
Transferred from 35mm fine grain materials, the image usually looks quite nice, with only minor imperfections and slight digital video noise reduction flaws apparent during the 12 chapters; the audio is fuzzy in spots, but generally fine. Extras consist of scrolling bios/filmographies for Kolk, Rogers, and Beebe, plus trailers for other serials offered by VCI.
The second serial finds the X-9 designation passed on to future movie and TV favorite, Lloyd Bridges. Dropping the crime theme of the original for a WWII espionage scenario, the action unfolds on Shadow Island, a neutral area off the coast of China under Japanese "protection." Impersonating a Gestapo agent, Phil Corrigan (Bridges) foils a series of German and Japanese plots to acquire a formula for synthetic aircraft fuel. Bridges is energetic and likable, and directors Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins keep the intrigue moving along at a good clip. The cliffhangers are unimaginative, however, and the 13 part production, one of Universal's final serials, is neither as polished or engrossing as its predecessor. The Asian caricatures are embarrassing (as the requisite Dragon Lady, Victoria Horne is the worst offender, sleepwalking through the proceedings with her eyes closed and muttering "Ah so" at regular intervals) but, thankfully, genuinely Asian actors Keye Luke (as a Chinese agent aiding Corrigan) and Benson Fong (as a Japanese scientist who accidentally discovers the valued formula) come off much better.
The fine grain materials are, again, in nice condition, but the transfer is overly dark, obscuring much detail during night sequences. The audio is a bit flat and hissy but always coherent. Max Allan Collins provides a commentary during the opening 31m, discussing how this was King Features' answer to the success of Dick Tracy, as well as other trivia about various comics and their creators. The talk is halting and disjointed, but worth the listen. Collins also conducts a telephone interview with Beau Bridges, but it consists mostly of generalities. Some trailers and bios are on offer, and the insert unfolds into an attractive lobby card reproduction.
Saturday, February 15, 2014
IT'S ALIVE!/YEAR 2889
1969/1967, Retromedia Entertainment, DD-2.0/+, $19.99,
79m 53s/79m 25s, DVD-1
By John Charles
Originally published in Video Watchdog #107
Two of the 16mm quickies made by Larry Buchanan/Azalea Pictures in Texas for American International Television have been paired on this double feature disc. Most Azaleas were remakes of AlP product from the '50s, which is not the case with IT'S ALIVE!, though some argue that the film is an uncredited adaptation of Richard Matheson’s story "Being." Buchanan regular Billy Thurman pulls double duty as the crazy owner of a rundown roadside zoo and the mysterious "dinosaur man" he keeps in a nearby cave. A bickering New York couple (Shirley Bonne and Corveth Ousterhouse) and a paleontologist (Tommy Kirk) fall into his clutches and will be the creature's next meal, unless a fellow captive (Annabelle Weenick, billed as Annabelle MacAdams) finds the courage to help them. The return of the ridiculous Gill Man suit from Buchanan's CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION renders the monster a pitiful menace and, true to form for the director, the pacing is sleep inducingly lethargic. However, the incredibly minimalist and peculiar ambience of the second half (which includes lengthy MOS sequences accompanied only by library cues) is strangely riveting and Thurman's sweaty, outlandish performance is amazing to behold. Not a good or even acceptable film, this remains the most worthwhile of the "Azalea Eight" and the one to choose first should you feel adventurous. Portions are predictably grainy but the source print is quite clean and the audio is okay. The edition distributed by MGM's TV arm looks and sounds better, but is less complete. A heavy blue negative scratch appears from 9:58 to 11:30, but this section is missing from the MGM version, revealing that the company decided to simply remove the footage, rather than bother restoring it. A similarly damaged shot later in the picture (42:40-42:50) is also excised in the MGM. To assert ownership of this public domain feature, Retromedia has added a new copyright notice and superimposed some additional smoke on to the explosion seen during the climax (1:18:06-1:18:12).
YEAR 2889 (better known by its onscreen title IN THE YEAR 2889) is a restaging of Roger Corman's DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1956) that forfeits the atmosphere of the earlier film and, title be damned, unfolds entirely in the 20th century. After a massive nuclear exchange, a handful of survivors (including Neil Fletcher in the Paul Birch role and actor/singer Paul Petersen as the geologist played previously by Richard Denning) struggle to survive in a remote valley. Uncertain as to whether they will succumb to starvation or radiation, they also face potential death at the hands of a prowling, flesh-eating mutant. Working with about half of the original's $65,000 budget, Buchanan's staging is more conventional and the drama less compelling, though the dialogue is often identical (original screenwriter Lou Rusoff is not credited). The monster, however, is much worse; Paul Blaisdell's three-eyed creature was not one of his best creations, but it remains far more effective than the Halloween masked menace here. Aside from unintentional chuckles (the foley for the Geiger counter is obviously someone crumpling a paper bag!), only Buchanan completists will find much of value here.
The presentation is identical to the version released in 2002 by Quality Special Products on a double feature disc with THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE. The source materials feature much more wear than IT'S ALIVE! and colors and contrasts are merely fair. MGM's syndicated TV version is far cleaner and features a level of clarity approaching 35mm. Also included: a 10m contemporary interview with Petersen, plus a photo gallery that includes the covers of some of his 45rpm singles and published novels.
Friday, February 7, 2014
BLOOD OF THE VIRGINS
Sangre de virgenes
1967, Mondo Macabro, DD-2.0/ ST/+, $19.99, 75m 20s, DVD-0
By John Charles
Originally published in slightly different form in Video Watchdog #110
Thanks to their release on DVD by Something Weird/Image, many cult movie aficionados have experienced the unique pleasures of Argentinean director Emilio Vieyra's THE CURIOUS DR. HUMPP and FEAST OF FLESH. Now, Mondo Macabro has unleashed his final effort in the genre, which was also Argentina's first vampire film. Although the mysterious and reclusive Gustavo (Ricardo Bauleo) is the one she truly loves, Ofelia (Susana Beltran) agrees to marry the man her parents favor. On their wedding night, Gustavo reveals himself to be a vampire and slaughters the unsuspecting groom. Ofelia is bitten and soon rises from her coffin as one of the undead. The film then jumps ahead several decades (though only the wardrobe seems to change much) as a group of six vacationing young people run out of gas and take refuge in a remote, deserted lodge. This abode is what Gustavo and Ofelia call home and, when girls are missing the next morning, the authorities are called in. However, it may be Ofelia (fed up with an immortal existence that she never wanted) who proves to be Gustavo's undoing.
For the majority of its running time, BLOOD OF THE VIRGINS resembles your average, unadventurous, mid-to-late '60s production, but introduces levels of eroticism and bloodletting all but unseen in the genre until Hammer productions like THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. An early montage of the protagonists frolicking in the snow could have come right out of an AIP picture like SKI PARTY...until a wandering hand hikes a skirt up to garter level and a topless girl go-go dances on a bar (with the camera peeking into areas that would cause Sam Arkoff to bite off his cigar). Additionally, Beltran is vampirized while topless and appears unclothed at other points as well (not surprisingly, Vieyra's prurience did not go over well with Argentina's military government and his film could not be screened in its homeland until 1974). Such eye-popping moments give the proceedings a definite novelty value that will appeal to those who enjoy South American variations on horror conventions, as well as genre completists who believe that they have seen it all. The film also offers some notable variations on vampire lore (sunlight has no effect on the creatures, but they can be harmed with a simple dagger) and Vieyra's use of seagulls to suggest the vampires in flight anticipates Jess Franco's FEMALE VAMPIRE (1973). While it definitely warrants a footnote in horror history and is well worth a look, most viewers will find BLOOD OF THE VIRGINS lacking in suspense and urgency (not to mention virgenes), and there is less evidence of the marvelously peculiar vision that made the aforementioned Vierya films so remarkable.
The standard ratio transfer features vivid hues and good contrasts, though the source materials are lightly speckled and wobble a little on occasion. Given the rarity of the feature, however, the presentation is more than adequate and the cinematography comes across well throughout. The post-synced Spanish audio (two-channel mono, not "stereo" as listed on the packaging) is scratchy but coherent; optional English subtitles are included. The DVD boasts a healthy supplementary section, starting off with an episode from Pete Tombs and Andy Starke's excellent MONDO MACABRO TV series. Argentinean exploitation movies are the subject and Vieyra talks about his horror films and 40-year career in the business. However, the most interesting portion is devoted to Latin American sex star Isabel Sarli, whose unwavering devotion to lover/director/leading man Armando Bo likely prevented her from attaining even greater fame. This otherwise thorough portrait fails to mention Sarli's disastrous 1996 comeback in La dama regresa (“The Lady Returns”), which sounds akin to Mae West's embarrassing appearances in MYRA BRECKINRIDGE and SEXTETTE. Also offered amongst the extras is a collection of trailers for nine Vieyra titles (including BLOOD OF THE VIRGINS), a stills gallery, and an informative essay by Tombs on the director and South American exploitation cinema. There is also a promo collage of clips from other Mondo Macabre titles.