AV Maniacs formerly DVD maniacs

Archive for April, 2011

Buried Alive: DVD Review

Friday, April 29th, 2011

Directed by Gerard Kikoine; Written by Jake Chesi and Stuart Lee; Starring Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence, Karen Witter, John Carradine, Ginger Lynn Allen, Nia Long, William Butler, Arnold Vosloo

The Raven Croft Mental Facility is beset by a string of brutal murders committed by a maniac wearing a Ronald Reagan mask…

Doesn’t the above plot synopsis put you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe? Clearly producer Harry Alan Towers must have thought so, as Buried Alive is one of several low budget, South African-lensed schlock horrors based (ever-so-loosely!) on the master of horror’s writing. The half assed script combines juvenile delinquency, insanity, lesbianism, slasher movie tropes and softcore sex – all of which was almost certainly on Poe’s fevered mind when he was churning out short stories and poetry. Right? Well, anyway, the script also manages to work in nods to The Black Cat, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado, and assorted other works by Poe – but the end result, shall we say, falls short of the standard established by Roger Corman in his stylish series of Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price. 

The film was directed and edited by Jess Franco associate Gerard Kikoine, who served as an editor on some of the notorious filmmaker’s most outrageous features, including Lorna the Exorcist (1974). Kikoine clearly learned a thing or two film Franco, but his staging lacks the fevered intensity of Franco at his most inspired. Provided the viewer can get through all the half hearted groping and outrageous overacting, it’s not really that disagreeable a way of killing 90 minutes – but don’t expect much out of it, either. Kikoine piles on the bizarre camera angles and tries to establish a sense of menace and mystery – but the central mystery is much too predictable, and it all lumbers to a finale that one can see coming from a mile away. 

Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Magnificent Seven) is much too good for such a vehicle, but he doesn’t respond that way to the material. Indeed, Vaughn gives a commendably serious performance and helps to elevate the film a notch or two. The same can’t be said for his costars, however. The great Donald Pleasence (Halloween) was by no means the most subtle of performers – he was capable of true brilliance, of course, but very often his appearances in low budget horror films resulted in a healthy serving of ham. Nowhere is this more evident than in Buried Alive. Sporting a laughably phony toupee and a patently phony German accent, Pleasence overacts like mad – but at least he appears to be having a good time. John Carradine also puts in his final screen appearance in what amounts to a nonsensical cameo – he’s cast as Vaughn’s father (which seems a bit of a stretch in the looks department), and he really only appears briefly in a couple of dream sequences, ranting incoherently. Karen Witter makes for a dull, emotionally vapid heroine – her line readings are laughably stiff, and it’s ultimately impossible to care about what happens to her. Porn star Ginger Lynn (billed here as Ginger Allen) fares somewhat better as one of the catty and sexed up patients at the facility, but alas she doesn’t get a chance to show off her most beloved talents.

Shot in 1988 but released in 1990 (by which time Carradine was dead and buried; the film was dedicated to his memory), Buried Alive is by no means the worst of Towers’ cheapjack output – but neither is it among the best. As far as Poe adaptations go, it certainly can’t compare to such gems as Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1963) or Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), but fans of schlock horror should still have a good time with it. 

Video: Buried Alive makes its US (Region 0) DVD debut courtesy of the MGM Limited Edition Collection. The DVD-R/made on demand release looks very good on the whole, with good color reproduction and strong detail. Some edge enhancement is evident, but it never becomes a major distraction. Print damage is limited to some minor speckling. The print appears to be fully uncut.

Audio: The stereo soundtrack sounds acceptable, nothing more. The canned synth score has plenty of presence in the mix, and dialogue is clear and easy to discern. There are no English subtitles or captions.

Extras: Nothing – zip – nada…

Film: **½ out of *****
DVD: **½ out of *****

Daughters of Satan: DVD Review

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Directed by Hollingsworth Morse; Screenplay by John C. Higgins; Starring Tom Selleck, Barra Grant, Tani Guthrie, Paraluman, Vic Diaz

A bunch of crazy Filipino cultists get their kicks by sacrificing naked women, and Chris, the clueless reincarnation of their witch leader, is conflicted when she slowly realizes that James, her art expert husband, is her mortal enemy after he brings home a fateful painting depicting their centuries-old feud.

As you can tell from the bare plotline, 1972’s Daughters of Satan is one of the many, many films of the era which conflated witchcraft and devil worship together in some sort of soupy supernatural stew (see also: The Devil’s Rain, Horror Hotel, and about a hundred others).  However, this one was shot in the Philippines after the territory had been firmly established by Al Adamson, and most importantly, it stars Tom Selleck right after his ingénue stints in Myra Breckinridge and The Seven Minutes (and way before he shot to stardom as TV’s Magnum, P.I.).  Seeing him as a befuddled, hirsute American straight out of a ‘70s issue of Cosmopolitan with a taste for kinky paintings of witch torture is highly disorienting, to say the least, but he’s fairly appealing and has a believably sincere, affectionate relationship with his wife, played by TV actress Barra Grant, who’s just one of the several actresses to provide extensive topless nude scenes.

For reasons unknown, this film was helmed by another ‘70s TV name, Hollingsworth Morse, who only ventured to the big screen on very rare occasions like the 1970 Pufnstuf feature. The juxtaposition here of basic TV visual blocking and obligatory S&M scenes involving naked women being strung up and whipped causes a frequent sense of aesthetic whiplash, but if you’re seen more than a couple of Filipino exploitation titles like Mad Doctor of Blood Island, these violent shifts in tone should be par for the course. You’ll find technical gaffes galore here as well, with some iffy stunt work and some unintentionally hilarious moments involving the modern coven who don’t seem to have a very firm grasp on their agenda. Finally, Filipino trash cinema fans will nod in recognition at the presence of portly Vic Diaz, a reliable ham who also enlivened Equalizer 2000 and Savage Sisters.

For even more unknown reasons, Daughters of Satan was snagged for distribution by United Artists, who frequently paired it up with the equally nutty co-feature Superbeast (one of the more unlikely titles to pop up on MGM HD), which made it a sort of unofficial Vic Diaz double feature. When the library passed over to MGM, the company seemed embarrassed by titles like this and dumped it off to cheapo VHS companies like Interglobal to populate drug store video racks throughout the ‘80s to ride on the coattails of Magnum mania. When moviegoers’ passions for retro schlock became semi-acceptable, MGM proudly slapped its name once more on some of the ‘70s’ most wonderfully disreputable drive-in titles, this one included. It even ran uncut and widescreen on Turner Classic Movies, for crying out loud.

Though it never merited the full-on Midnite Movies treatment from MGM, Daughters of Satan makes for a pretty solid entry in their DVD-on-demand Limited Edition series, a competitor to Warner’s hugely successful DVD-R program. The transfer looks like it was probably done circa one of the earlier Midnite waves as it’s an anamorphic, interlaced version that looks like it was prepped for broadcast use. It’s obviously way, way better than the cruddy VHS versions lying around and superior to the 4:3 letterboxed version on TCM; unless some lunatic decides to revisit this one for Blu-Ray down the road (or, more likely, an MGM HD airing), this will do fine.

It’s a mono 1972 movie shot in the Philippines so, well, that’s exactly what you get. It sounds fine and clear for what it is, and for the record, the music score by Richard LaSalle (Diary of a Madman) is pretty effective.

Well, you get a nice adhesive label on the disc, and some chapter stops, and a main menu screen…  hey, it’s a burn-on-demand title, so whaddaya expect?

Film: ** ½ out of *****

DVD: *** out of *****

-Nathaniel Thompson

Queen of Blood: DVD Review

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Queen of Blood

Written and Directed by Curtis Harrington; Starring John Saxon, Basil Rathbone, Dennis Hopper, Judi Meredith, Florence Marly, and a lot of anonymous Russians.

Far off in the futuristic year of 1990, Earth’s space committee receives a distress signal from an alien presence crashed on nearby Mars. After a drawn-out decision-making and exploration process, the astronauts performing the rescue discover a green-skinned female alien who thrives on human blood, which they discover only after taking her back on board.

Cut-and-paste quickie films were all the rage among independent studios in the 1960s, and American International Pictures (and its frequent producing/directing abettor, Roger Corman, who exec produced here) could pull the trick off better than anyone. For example, take this film, a psychedelic mish mash of faded actors, upcoming New Hollywood stars, and FX footage culled from the 1963 Soviet film, Encounter in Space (Mechte navstrechu), with some additional lifts from 1962’s Nebo zovyot (which had already been thrown into the editing blender as Battle Beyond the Sun).  The director entrusted with tying all this together is the late Curtis Harrington, a flamboyant talent who cut his teeth on experimental films with the Kenneth Anger crowd and went on to helm a string of delightfully weird thrillers like Games and What’s the Matter with Helen? Here he compensates for the lack of budget by drenching the screen in wild, Christmas tree lighting that would make this the perfect co-feature with Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires from the year before (and with which it shares a similar menacing twist ending).

And then there’s that cast. You’ve got Basil Rathbone as the imperious doctor heading the expedition, John Saxon as the upstanding captain/audience identification figure, a boyish Dennis Hopper as a crew member who develops an odd bond with the titular queen, and weirdest of all, a tiny part for Famous Monsters editor Forrest J. Ackerman.  The queen herself is really something else, too; only billed as “?” in the film itself, Czech actress Florence Marley cuts an imposing figure with her Cool Whip hairdo, lime skin, and wicked smile; she was still recovering career-wise from being blacklisted (erroneously) during the dark Senator McCarthy days, and though she had an impressive TV roster of credits, she gave up acting within the next decade after her last film, Doctor Death: Seeker of Souls.

Also released as Planet of Blood, this film was blessed with a truly killer poster design and made the rounds in movie theaters for years on various AIP double bills, often paired with Blood Bath. For some reason it then dipped into complete obscurity during the first decade of the home video era, bypassing VHS entirely and only popping up on laserdisc from Image Entertainment on a fullscreen double bill with, natch, a weirdly rescored version of Planet of the Vampires. Further down the road it started popping up on cable with surprising regularity, inhabited time slots on Showtime’s schedule for what seemed like years on end. Finally it got a new overhaul by MGM for their HD channel, which is easily the best way to see it and leagues better than the theatrical prints left floating around.


If you can’t catch this one on MGM HD, then their manufacture-on-demand DVD is the best available option to view this one. It’s taken from the same master and looks very, very colorful, with lots of eye-popping reds and blues washing all over the screen. If you’re one to mix herbal recreation with your movie watching, this film could probably do some serious damage.  The anamorphic 1.85:1 framing looks accurate throughout, lopping off some needless headroom from the open matte version that occasionally gets TV play. The insert footage from the Soviet features looks much rougher, obviously, since it’s basically footage from a handy print that’s been spliced in and hacked down to fit a different aspect ratio.

Straight-up mono, just as originally intended. The dialogue sounds fine throughout, while the score just as much of a patchwork as the feature’s editing since it’s cobbled together from various pieces of AIP stock music, much of it by Ronald Stein.

Nope, no blood bag packaging or alternate credit sequences here; you just get the movie itself. It’s odd this one was never slated for an MGM Midnite Movies double feature, as it seems tailor made for that line.

FILM:  *** out of *****
DVD: *** out of *****

-Nathaniel Thompson

A Cold Wind in August: DVD Review

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Directed by Alexander Singer; Written by Burton Wohl; Starring Lola Albright, Scott Marlowe, Joe De Santis, Clark Gordon

In her New York apartment, a struggling stripper named Iris decides to seduce a neighbor teenage boy for kicks and unexpectedly finds herself becoming emotionally attached. When he realizes what she does for a living and starts to pull away, sparks fly.

Considered pretty hot stuff in 1961 and a longtime sleeper favorite of film critics lucky enough to catch a rare screening or TV airing, A Cold Wind in August is a tough film to pin down. Part theater school dramatics, part gritty New York slice of life, and part sleazy exploitation flick, it shouldn’t really work at all but instead comes off like gangbusters thanks to the central performance of Iris by Lola Albright, who first grabbed Hollywood’s attention with the Kirk Douglas vehicle Champion and became a mainstay of TV’s Peter Gunn.  She’s amazing here in a succession of demanding dramatic scenes, and even if her climactic Joe Sarno-style strip routine is so ridiculously tame it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in a Disney film, the implied intensity of her scenes with Scott Marlowe (an intense TV actor also seen in Thriller and the little-known 1994 Valley of the Dolls show) keeps this riveting even in the wake of far more explicit fare to come in the following years. Interestingly, Marlowe was actually 29 when this was made, but both actors manage to keep the basic concept convincing.

A Cold Wind in August (which, incidentally, features some really terrific opening credits) was the debut feature for director Alexander Singer, who mostly stuck to television after this apart from two really odd dramas, Psyche 59 and the insane Lana Turner soaper, Love Has Many Faces.  He shows a solid affinity for dramatic blocking and interesting camera angles here for the most part, though a handful of scenes tend to drift off into TV-safe medium shots a little too often for comfort. Perhaps if someone like Samuel Fuller had directed this and shot it full of the overripe theatrics which enlivened the later The Naked Kiss, this might have more of an enduring reputation. As it is, this is a small but worthwhile cult item still trying to find its full audience decades later.

Anyone trying to track this film down had their work cut out for them for the past three decades. A sole late-night screening on TNT in the early ’90s caused a bit of excitement among those who had only read about this film in various film journals, but that never led to any sort of official home video release anywhere in the world.  In 2010 it popped up out of nowhere on Turner Classic Movies in a new letterboxed transfer, and that appears to be the same source used for MGM’s on-demand DVD. The selling point here is that the disc is anamorphic, and the decision to keep the framing at 1.66:1 was a smart one given the tight framing of many shots. Image quality is very good overall despite interlacing (luckily there’s basically zero fast movement in the entire feature), though some of the darker scenes suffer from that certain murky quality that tends to plague some low-budget films from this period. For standard def though, it’s quite satisfying.

The original mono track isn’t anything to do cartwheels over, but it’s serviceable enough here. Gerald Freid’s jazzy, spare music score sounds just fine here.

Considering how many cultists this film still has, it’s too bad there’s nothing supplemental here at all. MGM should seriously consider the film’s relevance and niche following and revisit this at some point as a full-fledged mainstream disc release with some more context. In the meantime though, this is a great way to become acquainted with this unclassifiable and often overlooked little gem.

FILM: **** out of *****
DVD: *** out of *****

-Nathaniel Thompson