On November 13, 1974, at his residence of 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, NY, Ronald “Butch” DeFeo strode from room to room and methodically shotgunned his parents and four brothers and sisters to death in their beds. He later claimed during his trial that he was instructed to carry out these murders at the behest of disembodied voices. 13 months later, the Lutz family moved into the vacated house, only to flee 28 days later claiming to have been besieged by paranormal phenomena. The Lutz’s story was turned into Jay Anson’s “true-account” haunted house bestseller in 1977, which was subsequently adapted into a feature film in 1979. The film was critically savaged, but enormously successful with moviegoers, eventually grossing over $86 million. With the sequel-happy ’80s just around the corner, it was a no-brainer that follow-ups would ensue…and did they ever. As of this writing, there are 11 separate Amityville films, including the not-bad Ryan Reynolds/Susan George remake of 2005, the first three of which have been recently given the Blu-ray treatment by the superb folks at Shout! Factory.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The original screen version of Anson’s book has some moments of real fright and just as many of unmitigated silliness. Newlyweds James Brolin and Margot Kidder move their family to an upstate New York residence, whose idyllic exteriors belie a dark past of madness and murder. Visiting priest Rod Steiger receives the first indication that all is not well in a memorable early scene (spawning the famous “Get out!” tagline), and things head quickly downhill for the new homeowners. The biggest problem with Sandor Stern’s script is its lack of cumulative effect and its onslaught of weird happenings that are rarely addressed afterwards.
Plot holes abound as director Stuart Rosenberg strives for a roller-coaster ride, but for every inspired moment, there are dozens ripped off from other, better efforts. Things grow progressively hokier, and the unnecessary padding to justify Steiger’s presence doesn’t do the leaden pacing any favors. That said, the fever pitch finale is a winner even as it goes completely off the rails in terms of believable storytelling. For better or worse Lalo Schifrin’s sing-song, Oscar-nominated score (which occasionally borrows heavily from Bernard Herrmann) will probably stay in your head much longer than anything else.
Amityville II: The Possession (1982)
The second Amityville film is essentially a prequel, with screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace telling a fictionalized version of the DeFeo murders. Sonny Montelli (Jack Magner) becomes possessed by a malignant spirit due to the house being buried on a sacred Indian burial ground, a claim which parapsychologist Hans Holzer (upon whose book, Murder in Amityville, Wallace’s story is based) believes to be closer to the truth than the “portal to Hell” storyline introduced in the original. Here, the Montellis are presented as an already broken family; tyrannical Burt Young lords over his brood with fists and belt at the ready, while unhappy mom Rutanya Alda does her best to keep things from getting too out of control.
Director Damiano Damiani moves his camera to and fro, high and low with virtuosic agility, but the creepier moments are the quieter ones, such as when Sonny seduces his adorable younger sister, played by the adorable Diane Franklin. The first hour acts as preamble to the murders, and as they play out in brutal and startling fashion, the sequence packs quite a punch. The final act takes a wicked left turn into true supernatural fancy as tenacious priest James Olsen takes center stage, attempting to rid Sonny of the evil within. Damiani’s giddy melodrama is aided immeasurably by John Caglione’s special makeup effects and assorted demonic pyrotechnics.
Amityville 3D (aka Amityville III: The Demon) (1983)
Dino De Laurentiis, who also exec-produced Amityville II, saw an opportunity to capitalize on the revived 3D craze of the early 80s and cranked out this loopy follow-up to the events of the 1979 original. Tony Roberts, best known as a supporting ensemble player in Woody Allen early features, stars alongside Candy Clark as a couple of expose artists/journalists for “Reveal” magazine who make their living debunking the supernatural. So, it only makes sense that Roberts, recently divorced from shrill battle axe Tess Harper, wouldn’t be afraid to take up residence in the ol’ haunted Amityville house, right? As you might guess, Ol’ Shutter Eyes ain’t happy about this, unleashing all manner of mischief upon anyone who wanders by...in COMIN’ ATCHA ACTION!!! Glasses, pipes, Frisbees, frost and flies are all hurled at the camera with great gusto, but the camp factor outweighs the scares by 100 to 1.
The supporting cast also includes honey pie Lori Loughlin as Roberts’ daughter and fresh-faced Meg Ryan as her bosom buddy, the blonde providing the background of the DeFeo murders (apparently one-off screenwriter William Wales had enough of the Montelli nonsense) for those who missed the first two films. Robert Joy also has a decent part as a parapsychologist investigator. Veteran director Richard Fleischer (10 Rillington Place, Fantastic Voyage, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Compulsion) sleepwalks through the frights by serving up a truly ridiculous elevator run amuck, a wheezy bathroom-walls-closing-in, a blah séance, another frickin’ swarm o’ flies, etc.
There are a few bright moments, such as Clark’s automotive run-in with a truck carrying drain pipes, Harper’s stairwell encounter with a watery ghost, or the random Arctic blast attack, but it isn’t until the last reel that we get some enjoyably bonkers monster movie magic (courtesy of the revived portal to Hell) and an explosive crash boom bam psychokinetic snowstorm.
As you might have gathered, the Amityville films aren’t exactly the stuff of quality, but that hasn’t stopped Shout! Factory from pulling out every pretty bow in the basket to dress up these red-eyed pigs. Cataloguing the supplemental features is akin to rattling off an entire orphanage’s Christmas wish-list, but we’ll give it a whirl. (Avid Amityville fans be advised: Those who order their Amityville Horror Trilogy box set from ScreamfactoryDVD.com will receive the exclusive 18 x 24” poster featuring the new box cover artwork.)
For the 1979 original, the fun starts with the ported over 2004 MGM documentary, For God’s Sake Get Out, which features chats with Brolin, Kidder and other players. Everyone seems to be in great humor, even as the two stars reveal that life on the set wasn’t always so rosy due to their differing approaches to the craft. (Looking back, Brolin’s crazy Amityville hair and beard definitely deserved their own screen credit.) This is followed by “Haunted Melodies”, a new 9-minute Red Shirt Pictures featurette with composer Lalo Schifrin who performed scoring duties for the first two features before hanging the baton off to Howard Blake.
The original ghost hunter, Hans Holzer, provides an extremely informative audio commentary, discussing the DeFeo case in great detail although it’s clear that he thinks much of the Lutz account is invented, and then further embellished for Hollywood’s purposes. Holzer truly believes the story of an Indian chief’s spirit possessing the land, and makes a great distinction about it being the land that is haunted, not the house. (This is mentioned repeatedly.) Though there are a few moments of dead air, he provides a great deal of intriguing information regarding the paranormal...although he rarely comments on what is actually happening on screen. He also enjoys a few digressions, talking about his feelings about the afterlife, the “business of religion” and even plugging his literary C.V. His utter disgust and indignation, seeing it as disrespectful to the true story, toward the “fictions” presented during the film’s last 15 minutes (ostensibly the most enjoyable for horror fans) is pretty hilarious.
The second disc is where things really get cooking. My personal favorite of the three showcased features, it’s nice to see how much love is lavished upon this underrated effort (which also appears on Rue Morgue’s "200 Alternate Horror Films" list) by Michael Felsher and his Red Shirt cohorts. The always gracious and appreciative Tommy Lee Wallace lends his voice to “Adapting Amityville,” discussing how much he enjoyed working under the Laurentiis banner and how, as an aspiring director himself, he felt some discontent with Damiani’s approach to the material at the time of release but now quite enjoys the final result. “Family Matters” features a conversation with the still lovely and charming Diane Franklin, discussing the still-oogy incest sequence between herself and Magner, revealing that the actor generally kept himself at a distance from the rest of the group, preferring to stay in character. (By contrast, she says Burt Young was a dreamboat.)
Stalwart character actress Rutanya Alda has the best set stories in “A Mother’s Burden,” talking about how co-star James Olsen had the cast’s Mexico City hotels swapped after finding their original lodging nearly cracked in half by a recent earthquake, as well as the challenges of fight scenes with the enthusiastic Young or repeated takes of falling dead on a hard wooden floor. Genre vet Andrew Prine pops up for “Father Tom’s Memories,” but doesn’t have much to add to the conversation, which reflects his nearly incidental role in the film.
David Gregory of Severin Films also kicks in the engaging “Possession of Damiani,” an interview with the late director before his death in March of 2013. (We do see several of the same film clips pop up in the various featurettes, but it’s a small quibble.) There’s also a fun “Easter Egg,” a 90-second interview with Stephan Dupuis (co-Oscar winner for The Fly with Chris Walas, don’t ya know) talking about his work on the film under Caglione with a snazzy Charles Bronson portrait in the background.
Alexandra Holzer, daughter of Hans, is interviewed for a segment entitled “Continuing the Hunt,” talking about her experiences growing up at her father’s knee and her frustrations with the glut of ghost hunter television programs proliferating today. She’s quick to blame Hollywood’s proclivities for hiring men, but one only needs to listen to her alternate audio track (if you can get through it, that is) to realize that the answer as to why she hasn’t gotten her own show has less to do with her sex and much more to do with her lack of presence and insight. Her “commentary” consists primarily of dictating what we’re seeing onscreen (“Here’s the first paranormal experience the mother encounters...”) and calling out the “Hollywood” elements added by the filmmakers, which is pretty much everything. Wait, you mean Ronald DeFeo didn’t escape from prison and return to his house for a final showdown with a priest? He didn’t crack open to reveal a demon inside? The house didn’t explode in a fireball? Wow, thanks Alex. There’s nothing worthwhile learned here that we don’t get from Holzer Sr.’s track on the ’79 film, and to make matters worse, for some reason the audio engineers only give us her audio, which means that whenever she isn’t talking – which is a lot of the time – we can’t even hear the movie playing underneath. It’s easily the WORST audio commentary I’ve EVER heard, and I’m surprised that Shout! Factory didn’t just eat her session fee and find someone else. (Was Tommy Lee Wallace busy?) Avoid like the plague.
The main attraction for Amityville 3D is that it is now available for the first time with 3D Blu-ray capability, but since I’m currently lacking the requisite technology to properly show it off, I’ll have to postpone my thoughts on the matter until a later date. However, there’s a 10-minute interview, “A Chilly Reception,” with the still charming and gorgeous Candy Clark to make up the difference. The actress laughingly remembers being nearly paralyzed from the waist down for the first day of shooting due to leg cramps brought on by hiking the Teotihuacan pyramids in Mexico City, as well as the trials of having hot wax blown into her face and hair in order to look like she was getting the frosty demonic treatment. There are also original theatrical trailers for each of the films on their respective discs.
The Amityville Horror Trilogy will be released October 1, 2013 from Shout! Factory, just in time to kick off your Halloween season. Pre-order your copy HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine
Adam Chaplin: Violent Avenger (2011) d. De Santi, Emanuele (Italy)
Remember when the Italians were the masters of splatter? The ’80s heyday of Fulci, Argento, Lenzi and Deodato is long behind us, but there’s a new fellow in town named Emanuele De Santi who invites happy comparisons to these past masters of the red sauce. One catches a glimpse of the man’s work ethic in his chiseled abs and bulging biceps (he stars as well as writing and directing), but this is clearly no empty-headed Chippendale dancer. Santi unloads a double helping of stylish gore and gory style in his debut feature, a jaw-dropping (and jaw shattering) extravaganza that evokes an especially bloodsoaked manga, complete with stark, panel-ready imagery.
Through a deliciously nonlinear narrative, we learn the story of our titular protagonist: After merciless masked gangster Denny (Christian Riva) makes a gruesome example of Adam’s cash-strapped bride (Valeria Sannino), our hulking flaxen-haired hero invokes a croaking demon that takes up residence behind his right shoulder. The portal takes the shape of an inverted cross and has the messy habit of oozing copious amounts of hemoglobin whenever Adam gets riled...which is often. Tearing a bloody path through petty criminals, cops and goons alike, the demigod careens ever closer to his misshapen quarry, shattering flesh and bone on a grand scale.
It goes without saying that the flashy splatter moments (visual effects supervisor Giulio De Santi engaging practical effects sweetened by newfangled CGI technology that actually – believe it or not – resembles blood) are the highlights, and anyone who’s already seen the ultraviolent trailer has had a taste of the sanguinary goodness in store.
The violence reaches outlandish heights, with Adam’s fists cracking villains’ skulls in twain, limbs wrenched from their sockets, and cleavers used with lethal precision, cartoonish enough to evoke cheers but messy enough to tickle viewers’ gag reflexes.
It’s a gorehound’s (very) wet dream, the likes of which we haven’t seen in ages, and that gives us reason to rejoice. It might be too early to announce a new Italian Renaissance, but Santi at least represents a glimmer on the horizon.
Adam Chaplin: Violent Avenger is available for pre-order from Autonomy Pictures with a street date of October 8. You won't want to miss it.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine
Bunny Game, The (2010) d. Rehmeier, Adam (USA)
A down-on-her-luck prostitute’s (Rodleen Getsic) painful existence takes a serious left turn into hell when she is abducted by a psychotic trucker (Jeff F. Renfro) who chains her in the back of his 18-wheeler to do with as he pleases. It’s an 71-minute assault on the senses and the soul, one that packs moments of such incredible intensity and honesty into its opening act that I had already cleared a spot for it on my list of “most impressive releases of the year” before it had reached the 30-minute mark.
The slow unfolding of Getsic’s character’s day-to-day trials of finding her next john in order to score her next fix (she’s sporting a serious nose candy addiction) creates a sense of identification, but after we shift to the truck’s interior, we spend more time with the cipher that is Renfro and our emotional investment begins to flag. The monotony of abuse eventually dulls our sensibilities; much like the middle act of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, relentlessly dwelling on the victim’s discomfort only dissipates its power, inexorably lessening the impact.
Rehmeier, who conceived the story with Getsic (inspired partially by her own real life kidnapping), captures the nightmarish scenario in beautifully shot black and white, and it is his gorgeous cinematography, ferocious sound design and fearless cast’s committed performances which elevate Bunny Game above much of the artless no-budget cinema invading the market. It’s far from a perfect film, but it’s a brave, honest and uncompromising one, which carries a lot of weight with this particular Fool.
This is not a movie for everyone, or even the majority of horror enthusiasts – it kicks off with a full contact bout of graphic oral sex and goes into darker territory from there. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive feature debut for all involved, astonishingly bleak and bold.
In a just world, Getsic would be showered with accolades and statuettes from every critics’ circle and institution; it’s the rawest, most lived-in performance I’ve seen this year in or outside of the horror genre. The actress gives over completely to the role, suffering onscreen beatings and brandings, but keeps coming back for more. Her slow devolution from soul-crushed hooker to a crazed creature in the face of unending torture is breathtaking.
Renfro is equally compelling at first, all whiskey-voiced brute charm, but his antagonism grows more tiresome and performance-like as the clock ticks by; true, he’s putting on a show to terrorize his captive, but the face-making and taunting eventually loses some of its bite.
The Bunny Game is available from Autonomy Pictures, now three for three in 2013 with Chris Alexander’s moody vampire pic Blood for Irina and Emanuele de Santi’s jaw-dropping splatterpiece Adam Chaplin: Violent Avenger (also among my top picks for the year), and it’s great to see true independents being given their seat at the table. One is lucky to find one such example of visionary filmmaking – here we have a triptych, all under the same banner and within a few months of one another. I look forward to see what these champions of courageous cinema offer up next.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine
SEPTEMBER 26, 2013
I often joke to my superiors at BadassDigest that all I write are Halloween-related articles - between this site and theirs (plus my time at Bloody D) I've probably amassed enough for a small book on the series (and that's not counting my appearances in things like Halloween: The Inside Story). But the funny thing is, I've never actually reviewed the original Halloween in a serious manner - I did the April Fool's joke review a couple years back, and my running commentary take for the first batch of "October Extras" in 2007, but never once have I given it the proper review treatment (I may have even said I never would, now that I think about it).
But it's been a couple years since the film was last re-released on disc with new bonus features (for a movie that was made before the idea of "special editions", it sure has enough of them), and so here we are with a new release of the film from Anchor Bay for its 35th (!) anniversary. Sure, one could make the not-that-big-of-a-stretch joke that it's also the 35th release of the film from AB, and what I'm about to say isn't the first time you've heard it, but I stress - THIS is the edition you want to have in your collection. Throw the previous Blu-ray away if you own it, this one blows it out of the water with its new, Dean Cundey supervised transfer, and apart from the occasional defect (the shot of Loomis outside of the Myers house, right before discovering his own car across the street, is noticeably blurred), is the best home video presentation of the film yet. You know I've seen this movie a lot and scrutinize it more carefully than any other, so I assure you you can take my word for it.
The biggest improvement is the color timing, which was the source of much controversy and aggravation for a decade now. Beginning with the 2003 (25th anniversary!) release, a new transfer has always been used, one that was done WITHOUT Cundey and given a much brighter, "oranger" look. I know on paper that sounds fine and even appropriate (orange = Halloween, no?), but what it actually did was have the rather ironic side effect of making the film look exactly like the setting it was shot: spring in sunny Southern California. The orange tinted look on those wonderful daytime scenes and reduced blues for the nighttime scenes looked "great" to the untrained eye who wasn't considering the source material, but the flatter, colder look is what it's SUPPOSED to look like - it may be shot in California, but it's supposed to be Illinois on October 31st, when it is indeed cold and drab outside. Cundey and Carpenter weren't trying to make their film look "ugly" - they were trying to make it look REAL, and hide the Los Angeles-ness of the image (save for the occasional palm tree). If my memory serves, the last release to look correct was the 1999 one (which originally came with the TV cut on a second disc), which was anamorphic but not high def, obviously - so this is the first time we've gotten a release that resembles how wonderful the film looks on a proper 35mm print.
But detail is also improved over the previous Blu-ray; again, this is a movie I've pored over several times, and the new transfer was sharp and clear enough for me to make out new, completely superfluous things (like a fingerprint on the windshield in front of Laurie during the "I'd rather go out with Ben Tramer" scene, or a few more signs in the background that can now be read). Of course, no one buys a movie to look at the backgrounds, but if the new image is good enough for me to spot things I never noticed before despite 50+ viewings, then it's pretty obvious how great the actual IMPORTANT stuff looks. And again, with the proper color timing, it combines to make a spectacular image that you'd have to be a goon to look down upon (I've seen a few complaints that the new color is "wrong", it's sad).
Of course, a new transfer wouldn't be enough to get folks to shell out another 30 bucks when they probably all have at least two copies by now (I believe this is my 6th, and that's with me recently parting ways with one of my VHS copies), so Anchor Bay has put together some nice supplements to sweeten the deal. The most extensive is an hour-long documentary about Jamie Lee Curtis' first (and last, she says) appearance at a convention. Put together by Sean Clark for a Horrorhound convention, the goal was for her to make this one-time appearance and raise money for the Los Angeles Children's Hospital by donating some portion of the proceeds (the specifics aren't mentioned) from her autograph and photo op fees. Of course, at the time of the 25th anniversary release, this would have been a bit weird, since paying stars for their autograph or for a photo at these things was rather unusual (I know, because I've never paid for one in my life but I have several Fangorias and DVDs that would seem to suggest otherwise), but I guess that's just the reality now. Sad, but at least it was going to charity, and while the photo sessions seem pretty rushed, we see plenty of video footage of her engaging with the fans who had stuff for her to sign, even posing for a few candid shots and leading at least two renditions of "Happy Birthday" for fans who were celebrating more than just meeting Laurie Strode. It's a bit long overall, and poorly edited (Tom Atkins' appearance is completely left to our imagination) with a lot of unnecessary "reel change" type graphics thrown around (to show the passage of time I guess) and truly terrible titles, but it's great to see Ms. Curtis interacting with fans and being so candid (a shame only a snippet of her hour long Q&A is shown, as it's more exciting than seeing her sign the 406th Halloween poster).
The other big "get" is a new commentary by Carpenter and Curtis - this time recorded together, unlike the previous commentary (featuring Debra Hill as well) where the they were recorded separately. As you know, ANY Carpenter commentary is much more fun when he's bouncing off someone, and it's clear that the two still have great affection for each other. Plus, Carpenter doesn't exactly jump to talk about this movie much anymore (like me, he's pretty much talked out about it), but he's having fun reminiscing with Jamie and thus doesn't come across as a grump like he might in an interview or Q&A (though he seems to (rightfully) get a bit exasperated with Curtis' constant narration of the plot and fixation on the film's continuity errors). Of course, some of their comments mirror the ones they made on the last track, but it's vastly more interesting to hear them share such anecdotes and laugh about them, so it's not a big deal. And it's not "new" of course since she died in 2005, but there's a little piece on Debra Hill where she talks about the film and its locations (with some extra input from PJ Soles) that I've never seen before, so if I'm not mistaken it's "new" to an Anchor Bay DVD (UPDATE - I was mistaken - this featurette was on the 2003 Divimax DVD). The TV footage is also present; I guess we will have to wait for the 40th anniversary set (or some unceremonious one in between) for a Blu-ray version of the TV version in its entirety. An essay by Stef Hutchison is also packaged inside the digibook case, which will stick out on your shelf (OCD alert!) but is otherwise quite lovely.
And then the usual trailers and TV spots are there; they might be different than the last one, they might not - I honestly can't tell anymore. Someone on Twitter was bemoaning the lack of the old commentary track, and the various other retrospective pieces (and that behind the scenes material) that appeared on previous releases are also MIA. Anchor Bay seemingly has a real phobia of doing any sort of "ultimate" release with this film - every time around they seemingly create new stuff but port almost nothing over from the last one (unlike Scream Factory's "Everything you had and more!" approach). I don't particularly care about the old commentary since it's not like I listen to them multiple times anyway (in fact I think I HAVE listened to that one twice, so I almost assuredly won't be doing so again), but it would be nice to reclaim some shelf space as I'd like to have the other making of/retrospective material. But you can definitely ditch the 2007 Blu-ray if you have the 2003 Divimax DVD (of which it was basically a port), as it doesn't have anything else on it you won't have elsewhere beyond an incorrectly colored high def image.
(Heh. Still didn't review the movie itself.)
(What say you?
SEPTEMBER 23, 2013
During the Q&A for The Green Inferno, an audience member asked if the Peruvian government had given Eli Roth and his team any sort of grief over their portrayal in his newest film, and the filmmaker practically laughed. He then explained that their government doesn't care, that they understand that it's a fictional movie and that you'd basically have to be stupid to think it's a proper reflection of their country. It was a relief to hear, especially when you consider that Wrong Turn, a movie even more ridiculous than this one, caused some official from West Virginia to denounce the film at the time of its release, while assuring the rest of the world that folks wouldn't run afoul of mutant hillbillies when entering his state. It wasn't even shot there!
But it's a fair question, because Green Inferno is very much in line with films like Cannibal Holocaust and The Man From Deep River, both of which (and many others) the victim of much scrutiny and outrage - some of it even deserved. Those films have their fans (I enjoy most on my one viewing; I rarely have any desire to revisit them), but are largely considered to be trash thanks to some unfortunate storytelling decisions - i.e. a lot of rape and the on-screen murder of a few animals. Add in the usual approach to Italian genre filmmaking in that era (basically, rip off and top the guy who did it before you) and you can see why the sub-genre has been dormant for so long - who could possibly get away with such a thing in this day and age?
Eli Roth, of course. He's been MIA from the director's chair for far too long (six years, not counting the Hemlock Grove pilot), focusing mainly on acting and producing, and to his credit he didn't dip his toes in the shallow end for his comeback - he dove right in and has delivered what may be his most violent film yet. It's certainly got the biggest body count: our protagonists are a large group of activist college students who fly to the rain forest to prevent their destruction, only for their plane to crash (a horrific sequence that provides a few of the film's gory deaths) and to find themselves captives by a tribe of natives who look at a human being the same way we look at a cow or pig.
So in some ways it's directly in line with Roth's Hostel films - once again Americans go to another country and get killed by locals (you can even reduce it to "if you travel you will die" and include Cabin Fever in the group), and with the previously mentioned films (and the more extreme Cannibal Ferox) being an acknowledged influence, one could levy the complaint that there's no new ground being broken here. But that's not true - this film will be going out on just as many screens as his other movies, a luxury never afforded to Ruggero Deodato or Umberto Lenzi. This will be the gateway film for many audience members, and Roth is happy to introduce that subgenre to newcomers - the end credits even list the primary entries one should seek out in chronological order. I can honestly say this has to be a first - I don't see Scream or Hatchet's credits encouraging viewers to go back and see the original Halloween or Friday the 13th.
Also, it's the first I've seen that can be considered "fun". It can be grim at times, but there is thankfully no sexual violence of note (the head woman of the tribe checks to see if any of the girls are virgins, but it's not graphic and most certainly not misogynist in tone), and the local turtle population didn't have to worry about any of the actors chopping their heads off on camera. The cannibalism is in line with the others, but Roth's usual gonzo approach to kills (and the makeup FX by the similarly minded folks at KNB) keep it from being too unpleasant an affair, and there's even a damn poop joke to lift our spirits. Hell he even holds back at times; at least one major character's fate is left open ended, and another one is killed off-screen (with proof of her demise executed not unlike the "I never sliced anyone" bit in Rocky Horror Picture Show). I'm not saying "Bring the kids!" - this movie definitely earns its R rating* - but Roth clearly wants the audience to have a good time, something that is next to impossible for even a genre audience with something like Ferox.
This was a make or break film for Eli, as far as I am concerned at least. Hemlock was nearly unwatchable, as was his production of Last Exorcism II, and I wasn't overly thrilled with Aftershock (which showed at last year's FF). But this (and The Sacrament, which he also produced) has put him right back around the top of current genre heavyweights. And even better - he seems HUNGRY; I don't think we'll have to wait another six years for another film (though I was disappointed to hear he's working on a sequel to this already - I guess Thanksgiving is just never going to happen), and he is forming partnerships with other filmmakers like Nicholas Lopez and Aaron Burns (who was the 2nd unit director here and plays the film's most sympathetic character besides our heroine, the daring and lovely Lorenza Izzo) to keep those creative juices flowing. Welcome back, sir.
What say you?
*This was the R rated cut; not sure if there IS an unrated one but Eli claims that he had a very good experience with the MPAA on this one.
SEPTEMBER 23, 2013
I just got back from Austin's Fantastic Fest, where more than once I had the thought that some of the movies I saw seemed designed specifically just to play in Fantastic Fest, and thus felt soulless. So it was fitting that I came home to a reminder that Bloody Homecoming was hitting DVD today, as I thought it was next Tuesday and thus quickly put it in my player so I could get my review up on time - otherwise I would have waited until the weekend and I might not have appreciated the fact that while it's not exactly a classic, I never doubted for a second that its heart was in the right place.
By now there are about as many "throwback" slashers as there are the genuine, original ones such films are paying tribute to, and most suffer from the mistake of having their characters be intentionally terrible people and played by awful (or overly campy) actors. This approach baffles me; the thinking is seemingly "the actors in those movies were terrible! It's part of the joke!" but for every poor performance you may find in Friday the 13th or The Burning, you will find one that's also quite good - remember that a lot of these movies served as introductions for future megastars like Tom Hanks (He Knows You're Alone), as well as solid, working actors that continue to appear in small film roles and on TV with regular frequency, like Fisher Stevens in The Burning or The Dorm That Dripped Blood's Daphne Zuniga. The majority of Homecoming's actors may never reach that level (time will tell), and some are pretty bad, but there's no sense of irony to it - it's just a bunch of inexperienced kids doing their best, and for that I can give the acting a pass.
Otherwise, this is a pretty solid entry in that sub-sub-genre of slasher films that act as if Scream never happened and just go about the usual business as if competing with a dozen others in the glory days of 1981. Plus, unlike some other recent ones that seem to think their brand new killer is already an icon, the killer is refreshingly simple - he's got a fireman outfit with an air mask to conceal his face, sticks to basic weapons, and (thank Christ) remains silent until the reveal. Yes, it's a whodunit, and while the mystery isn't particularly interesting, it's not overly complicated either - it's basically just a combination of Prom Night and Friday the 13th's motivations (albeit without a family tie), with a touch of The Burning for good measure since the opening scene tragedy involves a fire (and it's possible that the killer is that thought-dead student seeking revenge).
But Prom Night is the clear influence - it's really just a better paced remake, since the second half is set at their homecoming (a queen is crowned!) and it comes down to (spoiler) "You killed someone and got away with it so now that it's a random number of years later I will have my revenge!". But it's also got another thing that made me happy - chase scenes! Specifically, chase scenes featuring girls who are not the heroine. I recently rewatched a couple of the Friday the 13ths and was reminded that their climaxes all went on for far too long; Jason (or Mrs. Voorhees) would make quick work of the rest of the folks and leave too much time in the 3rd act with only one victim (one we know won't get killed anyway). So it's fun to have such fare in the middle of the movie, especially in one like this where more than one person survives.
Finally, the practical gore is much appreciated. I'm guessing they couldn't afford CGI, and there aren't a lot of impact shots or heavy prosthetics, but seeing real red syrup pooling around a victim's feet a few yards away from dancing students (seems like a nod to I Know What You Did Last Summer) warmed my slasher heart, because so many soulless producers will explain that they didn't use practical gore because they wouldn't have time to clean it up. Thanks for budgeting in the time to do it right, Bloody Homecoming producers! It's actually got a respectable body count - 10 or 11 I think, right in line with the sort of films director Brian C. Weed and writer Jake Helgren were clearly influenced by, and on that note I tip my non-existent hat to whichever of the two came up with the name Annie Morgan, a combination of the character and actress name of the girl who was the first present day victim in Friday the 13th. THAT'S how you do an in-joke name, not with distracting silliness like "Sheriff Savini" or a pet named Jason. It'll just go over the heads of anyone but the hardcores that will appreciate it most, and at the same time, tells us that they're not shoving their "expertise" down our throats. Indeed, even with the aforementioned influences, the film doesn't have any overt references and has its own identity (though it bizarrely cribs its sad theme from Armageddon, of all movies), allowing me to forgive its flaws more easily.
That said, again, it's not great. It gets stuff right, but it might take a surplus of exposure to horribly shitty slashers to recognize it - if you've only seen the Fridays and what not, you might find this to be pretty unbearable. And I have to remind you that I'm a pretty easy sell for whodunit slashers, so temper those expectations - it's a serviceable slasher at best. However, I think these guys have the right approach, and if they want to apply what they've learned here on their next feature (Helgren is currently on post on another slasher that he directed himself), perhaps with a little more money and a couple of experienced actors, we can get something truly solid to enjoy. I look forward to seeing it either way.
What say you?
Prince of Darkness (1987) d. Carpenter, John (USA)
With a story centering on a 7-million-year old canister in the basement of a Los Angeles church, kept secret by the Catholics for millennia, this heady brew of quantum mechanics, Christianity, occult legend and science fiction transmissions from the future left critics and audiences puzzled and dissatisfied upon its release in 1987. Over the years, however, it has slowly gained traction among the horror faithful. While I’m still no card-carrying convert and I’ve yet to drink the “unsung classic” Kool-Aid, I’m more willing a couple decades later to give it the benefit of the doubt. Not sure if this says more about the movie or my ever-slipping quality standards, but where I used to find it poorly performed and irretrievably cheap and convoluted, I now find it slightly less offensive in all departments. Damnation by faint praise? Maybe, but it’s a decided step up from the vitriol I was doling out before.
Victor Wong and Donald Pleasance respectively star as a university physics professor and a priest who ally forces in order to contend with this ancient menace, one that might prove to be as old as the universe itself. Yes, Pleasance believes that this swirling cylindrical container – which resembles nothing so much as a green/black lava lamp – is somehow connected to the gateway to the underworld, with, as one character notes, “Ol’ Scratch knocking at the door.” Wong recruits his best and brightest students to try to figure out what the strange energy emitting from the canister and the equations found alongside it mean, but it isn’t long after all of them are assembled inside the church confines that Hell quite literally starts breaking loose.
The first of the film’s many problems is the inordinate lack of character development from the large ensemble. These hastily sketched ciphers have no relationship to one another, with the exception of fellow brainiacs Jameson Parker (Simon & Simon) and Lisa Blount (Dead & Buried), who manage to play hide the salami before the final showdown commences. (Parker’s mustache carries more weight than this thin romantic entanglement, which yields little in the long game.) The rest of the cast are superficially distinguishable from one another, mostly by race and gender. There’s also a small community of transfixed homeless people, led by rock star Alice Cooper, who do little but stand outside the establishment and glare balefully.
And no kidding: every time Dennis Dun – so enjoyable in Big Trouble in Little China – opens his wisecracking mouth, I want to hurl something at my flatscreen.
Next on the chopping block are the oodles of pseudo-religious and/or scientific gobbledegook spewed, (which Carpenter reveals on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray commentary track that even he doesn’t know what much of it means). Nothing is as profound or intelligent as it pretends to be, no matter how much quiet intensity Pleasance and Wong try to imbue it with; maybe this is why Carpenter elected to assume the alias of “Martin Quatermass” for his screenwriting credit. (More on that in a second.)
Which leaves us with only the horror to carry the day. Frights that consist primarily of cute radiologist Susan Blanchard, after being contaminated by the demonic lava lamp, turning into a human water pistol, shooting streams of nasty fluid into people’s mouths and thereby turning them into fellow zombies. The effects range from kinda clever (as in one character’s dispatch via a halved bicycle – a gag lifted directly from Cooper’s stage show) to the distractingly obvious (Blanchard’s lethal geyser clearly situated on the non-camera side of her face). There’s a neat little bit where one guy disintegrates into a pile of teeming beetles and another when one of our ladies develops a really nasty rash after being orally inseminated by the demon parfait. But these are the highlights, and they’re not really all that high.
I’ve heard people defend Prince of Darkness over the years by comparing it to the 80s Italian heyday of wackadoo illogic, but it lacks the zany energy and over-the-top splatter those films offer as compensation. Sure, there’s a dash of Lovecraft here and some Nigel Kneale there, but ultimately there’s little in the way of tension and even less of character identification. But, as I mentioned earlier, the movie does have its fans, and Shout! Factory has pulled out the stops in terms of delightful BR supplemental features.
There is the aforementioned audio commentary which the writer/director shares with Hollywood veteran Peter Jason (Dr. Leahy), the latter often asking the most banal of questions in order to keep the conversation going. Oddly enough, it is here (or perhaps in the “Sympathy for the Devil” interview segment with Carpenter) that we might expect to hear something about Carpenter’s use of a pseudonym, but no answers are forthcoming. In fact, if you didn’t already know that “MQ = JC,” you wouldn’t find out about it here unless you happen to find the “Easter Egg” featuring a 2012 Screamfest Q&A following the film's 25th anniversary screening, shot on Marc Pilvinsky’s iPhone.
Other Red Shirt Productions treasures include “Alice at the Apocalypse,” a conversation with Cooper about how he came to be involved in the project; “The Messenger” with visual f/x man turned actor Robert Grasmere, who helped create the problematic swirling vat of green/black liquid among other gags, including his own buggy demise in the church parking lot; “Hell on Earth” with composer Alan Howarth who collaborated with the director on the score – undeniably one of Carpenter’s finest; the alternate opening scene as shown on broadcast TV, a version which purportedly had many different changes, including the fact that the events shown might even be Parker’s character’s dream; and the original theatrical trailer.
The best of the bunch is a terrific segment of Sean Clark’s Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, which visits the shoot’s practical locations today (revealing that, among other things, the church’s interiors have now been converted in L.A.'s Henry David Hwang Theatre). Clark makes for an engaging host, and while he occasionally seems to be mocking the very feature he’s ostensibly paying tribute, it’s all done in good fun and high energy. The Sean-as-Jameson-in-bed sequence alone is worth the sticker price.
Prince of Darkness makes its Shout! Factory Blu-ray debut on September 24, 2013 and is available for pre-order HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine
SEPTEMBER 18, 2013
SOURCE: STREAMING (ONLINE SCREENER)
If you've ever watched a zombie movie where the outbreak is caused by some sort of faulty medicine or experiment gone wrong and wanted a prequel to it, The Facility (previously Guinea Pigs) should hit the spot. It's not a full blown horror movie, but the afflicted characters DO exhibit symptoms not unlike the "rage" zombies of 28 Days Later, and the confined space/dwindling cast motif certainly gives it a bit of a John Carpenter flair (it's even widescreen!), so it won't be totally out of place in Fangoria (or Horror Movie A Day!) - I just hope none of its distributors attempt to pass it off as a full blown zombie flick.
Taking place only over a day or so, the film depicts the (supposedly true) tragic events that occurred during the testing for a new drug, with the willing participants exhibiting strange behavior a few hours after their dose. For various reasons, the group is locked off in a wing of the facility where no one will be able to see that anything is wrong, and for security reasons they're all without cell phones or any other means to contact the outside world - it's a pretty basic but still effective way to isolate everyone in an otherwise fully functioning facility (unlike say, Halloween II - were there NO OTHER patients at this hospital with a staff of 5?). And the setup allows for a reason for folks to offer up a lot of personal info - they're all strangers and thus are sort of obligated to give their names, a bit about their jobs, etc. This sort of material is usually shoehorned into a narrative in a clumsy manner (if they bother at all) because the "group" usually knows each other and thus has no reason to say what they do for a living or whatever; in short, it makes the characterization stronger than the average modern horror flick.
It also allows for a varied group; most of them are 25-30, but there's an older guy who apparently makes his living being a paid guinea pig for such things, and a young girl in the Juno Temple mode. Their occasional fights are understandable being that they're all stuck together in a shitty situation (as opposed to lifelong friends who inexplicably turn on each other instantly at the first sign of danger), and watching friendships form is always more interesting to me than watching them dissolve. I particularly enjoyed the friendship between Alex Reid (Beth from The Descent) and Aneurin Barnard (the dude from Citadel), which gave the film more of an emotional center than I was expecting.
And that leads me to a sort of puzzling notion about the screenplay - it tells us exactly the order in which the patients will turn. As they were injected in a certain order, an hour (or whatever) apart, they begin to turn crazy in the same order, so once that's figured out (before the halfway point!) it loses a crucial element in such movies: the "Who will be next to go?" idea. It'd be like if at the top of Scream 2 someone said "OK, CeCe goes next, then Randy, then Haley, then Derek...". We're even told about who WON'T turn (as they were the "control" and thus got a placebo), deflating the suspense even further. Sure, there's still the possibility that they get killed by one of the crazed fellow patients, but it still seems to me like the movie would be more fun/suspenseful if there was a chance anyone could turn at any moment.
Otherwise, it's a pretty enjoyable, small-scale thriller. I liked just about everyone (the only one I didn't went out early), and I LOVED that it wasn't overly complicated - no nefarious mad scientists watching them from behind a monitor, no reveal that they were developing some sort of new bio-weapon or whatever - it remained grounded and focuses on the characters' basic plight of being stuck and suffering from a potentially fatal injection. Also (sort of spoiler) the ending has a gutpunch of a twist that reminded me of a recent medical-horror movie that I also quite enjoyed (one that was more of a drama than a thriller), though I can't reveal the title without giving too much away for both. I actually wish they dragged it out a bit more; it happens quick and then we get on-screen text to wrap it up in full - I'd rather see the surviving character(s) hear that information, just to twist the knife a bit more.
Speaking of the on-screen text, the movie starts by telling us that it takes place a couple years ago and a final card saying "this is what happened". This led me to believe that the movie might be a goddamned found footage exercise, which would have resulted in a very fast closing of the tab. Luckily, it wasn't the case, but the irony is that if it WAS this would be the rare movie to justify it. Being that they were undergoing tests, it would make some sense to have monitors up all over the place, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch for the doctor to give them all video cameras so they could keep a running journal or whatever. But nope! It's filmed like a real movie, and quite well I might add. First timer Ian Clark can rely on shaki-cam a bit much for my tastes, and some obnoxious hyper-editing during the more action-packed scenes (especially when a body is thrown through a window - there's something like 20 cuts in 5 seconds), but the widescreen images are often well blocked without much wasted space, something I see quite often by budding Carpenter wannabes. And it moves along nicely, drawing us into the situation and getting to know our heroes before all hell breaks loose.
The limited "horror" elements (i.e. kills) and emphasis on character in the first half might turn off the gorehounds, but otherwise I found this to be a refreshingly stripped down and suspenseful flick, the sort of thing I'd catch at a festival and would walk away happy that it wasn't the same old crap but also wasn't aiming too far beyond its means. Worth a look!
What say you?
SEPTEMBER 12, 2013
I'm sure I'm not the only one who saw Day Of The Dead at an early age and walked away a bit disappointed; the limited zombie action seemed a big step back from the epic Dawn of the Dead (and even Night), and none of the new protagonists were as memorable as Peter or Ben. But while the latter complaint is still valid, as an older, somewhat wiser man I've come to my senses - it may not be as "fun" as either of the other two, but Romero's themes, now much more clear than they were to 14 year old BC, are remarkably still relevant. It may not be the best one to put on during a late night horror movie marathon, but it's essential viewing all the same.
One thing that I definitely appreciate (and even did to some degree as a kid) is that it kind of blends Night and Dawn's strengths. As with Night, we have a group of people trapped in one location who are at odds with each other, bickering over stupid things instead of banding together to take care of the real threat (or at least, create a safer environment from it). And like Dawn, it boasts top-notch effects work - even though there isn't as much traditional action, the Doc Logan character and his experiments allow for plenty of disembodied heads and other marvels, and Romero makes up for the reduced zombie "cast" by making sure each and every kill is something that you remember. Interestingly, some of the ideas that he couldn't afford to use here (he had a choice; 7 million for a movie that had to be R, or 3.5 million for one that was unrated - he chose the latter) ended up in Land of the Dead, so you can retroactively include that one in the "it's got a bit of everything" idea.
But it's also the bleakest entry by far; some characters survive (more than Dawn, in fact), but at this point it's clear that the human race had lost the "war". As Logan explains, the numbers are something like 400,000 zombies for every 1 human, and the chances of finding some of those other folks appears to be quite slim. In the film's opening, which I always loved even as a kid, some survivors fly out to a big city 200 miles away to search for survivors, and find nothing but a few zombies - even their numbers are seemingly thinning (and the alligator roaming around is a nice touch). With the other films, it still seems like civilization is ongoing despite constant threat - now it just seems that all is lost. In another great scene, two of the characters try to convince heroine Sara to join their way of life, which is basically to hang out in their Winnebago (and delightfully "cute" little patio area) and pass the time reading old financial records, rather than risk their lives holding on to the idea that there's a chance to stop the zombie plague (or "train" the undead).
Also, like Knightriders, it's a bit of an autobiographical concept for Romero - the scientists are the stand-ins for the filmmaker, who wants to try new things and go about it his own way, with the military assholes taking place of producers who just want successful results. The film's reception just made this element incredibly ironic and sad - audiences seemed to side with the military, dismissing the film for not being Dawn, and looking down on Romero for not giving them what they wanted. Time has been kind to it (a bad remake and an atrocious "sequel" only helped), but you can't help but wonder how different things might be for the master if the film had performed better at the box office. He's only had three major theatrical releases since (Monkey Shines, The Dark Half, and Land of the Dead), but nothing ever hit the way his previous successes did, and he can't get anything off the ground anymore unless it has "Of The Dead" in its title. It was also trounced by Return of the Living Dead a few weeks later, as if his brand (and its "slow" zombies vs Return's faster model) was no longer the way to go. A shame, really.
However, like I said, its reputation has improved, and despite a pretty solid release in 2003 from Anchor Bay, Scream Factory has seen fit to put together a new special edition on Blu-Ray that carries over most of its bonus features. There's a fun commentary by Romero, Tom Savini, Lori Cardille, and production designer Cletus Anderson that packs in a ton of info and anecdotes; Savini will explain his FX, Romero will talk about the story, Cardille covers acting, and Anderson pipes in with info about the set and the mine where the film was shot. Sometimes they reminisce a bit too much about things that won't interest the average fan ("I remember I went to a play with you and your husband..."), and Savini more than once interrupts Romero to point out a bladder effect or something, but otherwise it's a great track and I'm glad they ported it over. They've also brought over Roger Avary's commentary, but I have better things to do with my time than listen to a guy who killed someone by drunk driving.
Most of the bonus features from the previous release's second disc are also on hand - I loved the goofy promotional video for the Wampam mine, which is still open and serves as a data storage facility nowadays. Savini has offered up some of his personal photos and on-set videos (similar to The Burning and his other films), which is fun to watch because it's seemingly unedited, which means you get to hear him occasionally be a complete dick to someone on his crew. And the usual trailers/stills material is all accounted for as well; the only thing of note that is "missing" is the original retrospective documentary, but in its place is one that runs over twice as long and features far more participants. Seriously, Red Shirt has really outdone themselves on this one - utilizing no less than five areas of production (New York, LA, Philly...) and assembling pretty much every living principal from the film for new interviews (the only omissions of note are Greg Nicotero, who was probably too busy with Walking Dead, and Jarlath Conroy), it runs almost as long as the film itself and covers pretty much everything you could ask them to; why the Dawn characters didn't appear (legal shit), the original script (which Romero seems to think, now, was inferior to the finished product), late actor Richard Liberti... you won't be left wanting, that's for sure. My only complaint is that there are no chapter breaks - it's 85 minutes long, so if you're like me and tend to doze off while watching things, getting back to where you left off requires a lot of fast forwarding, which is fine for a movie but kind of hard when it's just a bunch of talking heads and out of order film clips.
The only other new bonus feature is a look at the mines today, with insight from an employee who worked there now and is apparently about to retire. It's very similar to the usual Horror's Hallowed Grounds pieces by Sean Clark (right down to the shtick-y reenactments of key lines), but not as thorough as it's limited to just the mine - Clark would have found the opening city, the big fence where the zombies were converging, etc. It's also kind of "flat" - more than once it seemed like the host was merely greenscreened over a still shot of the location, so it's hard to see how much has changed since (it also lacks the usual accompanying film clips). As for the transfer, it's good, but perhaps a bit aggressive with the DNR than I'd like. Closeups are fine, but characters who were slightly out of focus in the background now look like clayfaces on occasion. Otherwise, it's pretty great; the color in particular is a big improvement to my eyes, especially during those red-tinted scenes in the tunnels during the climax. Savini's FX, unsurprisingly, hold up wonderfully with the improved definition, and the sound mix is also quite good. Overall I was pleased with the transfer; maybe not reference material, but solid all the same, and if you don't like grain you won't have anything to complain about anyway.
This is the first time Scream has redone a disc that already had a big blu-ray special edition, and that it's one from their sort of rival Anchor Bay excites me, as other recent titles (Q, the upcoming Witchboard) were originally released to disc from them as well (in rather slim or barebones editions). With the Bay seemingly more interested in releasing horrible Syfy movies and Weinstein/ Dimension fare these days, I wouldn't mind seeing Scream take over their other titles, bringing over the relevant extras and creating their own. Sure, we can't possibly need another Evil Dead or Halloween edition (ditto for their sequels), but maybe some of those Argento/Bava films that AB presumably still has control over? Or things like Fear No Evil? Nothing makes me sadder than seeing titles languish thanks to companies that want to hold onto their rights but not actually DO anything with them, so if they can play nice with a big title like this, maybe those little titles still have a shot at proper presentation.
What say you?
SEPTEMBER 13, 2013
Thanks, I assume, to various licensing issues, we've seen very few Hammer movies given proper blu-ray presentation here in the States - and even the ones that were announced took quite a while to get here. For example, Dracula: Prince Of Darkness was announced early in 2012 and released in the UK, with the original plan being to have it out in the US a few months after, but it's just hitting now - and the other titles they announced (such as Plague Of The Zombies, the first Hammer film I ever watched) are still without US release dates. Thankfully, if this set is any indication, it will indeed be worth the wait - and nothing greases the wheels like money, so I'm happy to say this is worth adding to your collection.
It's a bit odd to start what will hopefully be a series of releases with what is essentially part 3 of a franchise, but as explained on one of its bonus features, this Dracula is sort of the quintessential Hammer film, and thus it makes perfect sense. And lest anyone thinks they shouldn't start in the middle of the series, it starts off with a recap of how Drac got "killed" at the end of the first Dracula (he sat out part 2, Brides of Dracula), and I don't even think it's necessary - even in 1965 I'm sure audiences knew how these movies worked and thus wouldn't be confused as to where he was for the first 20-30 minutes.
Plus it's a pretty fun entry; as I mentioned in my review of the film, they might be working from a template of sorts, but if ain't broke why fix it? It's got the folks getting warned from going to the place that they're going to go anyway, the big castle, the horse-drawn carriage chase, the race to stop Dracula before the sun goes down... everything you'd want, plus Hammer's lavish sets and well-dressed ladies. But they do put some wrinkles into the formula; of course there are two potential "Brides", but since they're new characters (instead of Mina and Lucy) there's some suspense as to which one will become stake fodder and which one will be rescued in the finale. Also, there are TWO Renfield types to create a threat for when Drac's not around, and a team of monks instead of the usual investigators.
Also, there's no Van Helsing. Future Quatermass Andrew Keir fills in that role as Father Sandor, the head of the monks who assists hero Charles as they follow the path of their Dracula movie hero predecessors. But even though the change is minor, it's enough to give it some flavor; I only wish they spent more time with these folks instead of the more traditional elements, but as it had been 7-8 years since their first film, I can see why they wouldn't want to go too far off the beaten path with Lee's comeback to the role. It's a shame that they had to basically con Lee into appearing in the sequels (they'd pull on his heartstrings, basically, telling him that if he didn't do it he'd be putting a bunch of his hard-working friends out of a job), but anyone who puts in those painful red contact lenses sort of has the right to bitch about whatever he wants after the job has been done.
Speaking of the contacts, the shot where he has the red eyes and gnashes his teeth at the two girls is just one of many that kind of blew me away on this new transfer. Having only seen the film on a VHS tape, I spent most of my watching time just sort of fixating on details: the texture of a suit, the hairs in a beard, wallpaper... anything that would have just been a solid mush color on my previous viewing. There might be a touch more DNR than I'd like, and sometimes the color appears to be intensified a bit much making the actors look like George Hamilton, but nothing too problematic, and if you're watching a Hammer film you want vivid colors anyway, so whatever. It's a terrific looking picture, with a solid 2.0 audio mix to accompany it.
For bonus features, we get a brand new retrospective doc featuring a few of the surviving players (no Lee, sadly) and some Hammer historians to provide the backstory for the project, its place in the studio's history, etc. It kind of jumps from topic to topic, but considering that most of its makers are now dead I was surprised how thorough it was for a new piece, and it even includes a bit about the restoration process, which included a faithful recreation of the title cards. A separate piece offers some before/after comparisons of select shots from the movie, occasionally staying in split screen (old on the left, new on the right) so you can see how much better the film looks than it did on previous releases.
The other extras are ported over from other editions or older material; there's a 25 minute episode of a British TV show that honored certain icons - the episode devoted to Lee is presented here. Narrated by Oliver Reed, it's pretty short on biographical information, and despite being produced in 1990 it only includes films up to 1976's To The Devil A Daughter, so it's kind of pointless unless this is the first of his films you've ever seen. Then there's a commentary (recorded for the 1997 release) with Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, and Barbara Shelley, where the group (recorded together! Such a relief) enjoys revisiting the film, telling set stories and other anecdotes. It's a bit hard to tell the two women apart, and Matthews doesn't offer much, but it's a lot of fun to listen to them carry on, correct each others' faulty memories, and marvel at their youth. A trailer and some stills round things out, and if you're a good person and buying the disc instead of renting it, you'll get 5 collectible cards that resemble (smaller) lobby cards. Good deal.
I'd take out a small loan to have a boxed set of all the "A" Hammer titles (that is, their Dracula and Frankenstein series, and pretty much anything else with Cushing or Lee, plus the Quatermass films, Plague of the Zombies, etc.), but that's probably never going to happen. Hopefully whatever issues have caused the delays in getting the other titles released here will be smoothed out, and whoever owns the rights to the other titles either give them up to Studio Canal or does their best to match their efforts here for their own releases. At this time of year, these are the sort of movies I look forward to curling up on the couch with (now that I'm "free" of new entries to watch/write up), and I would very much like to have them presented as wonderfully as this.
What say you?