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Archive for August, 2011

John Carpenter’s The Ward: Blu Ray Review

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

The Ward (2010)

by Troy Howarth

Directed by John Carpenter; Screenplay by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen; Starring Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Jared Harris, D.R. Anderson, Mika Boorem

A young woman (Amber Heard), suffering from amnesia, finds herself trapped in a mental institution; things go from bad to worse when it becomes apparent that a bloodthirsty supernatural apparition is roaming the halls at night…

Following the release of Ghosts of Mars (2001), John Carpenter went into semi-retirement. The filmmaker had long bemoaned his frustration over dealing with studio politics and having come to the conclusion that the benefits were outweighed by the hassles, he elected to step away from the viewfinder. He was lured back into the fold by Mick Garris, who snagged him to direct an episode per season of Masters of Horror; the two short films allowed Carpenter full creative control and, most importantly, offered brief shooting schedules that wouldn’t prove too taxing. The films were received with mixed results (then again, hasn’t this been true of most Carpenter films, including ones now regarded as classics?) but the experience was favorable enough to get the director thinking about returning to the fold with a new feature film. The Ward offered similar incentives compared to the Masters of Horror gig, and inevitably it, too, has been received with mixed results.

As a film, The Ward is enjoyable enough and offers ample evidence of Carpenter’s old school sense of craftsmanship. It’s slick, well shot and offers up a few nicely timed scares, but it suffers from a crippling problem. Quite simply, the storyline is a little too similar to that of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, which was memorably adapted as a Martin Scorsese film released in 2010. The similarity to the story can’t be blamed on Carpenter – both pictures were shot in 2009, and there’s no way the filmmaker could have seen it ahead of time – but screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen were more than likely inspired by Lehane’s example on some level. That is not to say that The Ward is a slavish ripoff of Lehane’s book – it certainly isn’t that – but the similarities are strong enough to take some of the steam out of some of film’s would-be surprises – and there’s frankly no way a mid-tier Carpenter offering can hold much of a candle to Scorsese at the peak of his form.

The other issue is simply one of expectation. After so long out of commission, Carpenter’s latest outing has been met with a high degree of expectation. That he elected to return with a well crafted, but basically modest, thriller sets the deck against him – The Ward doesn’t bring much new to the table, nor does it show the director moving in bold new directions. It is recognizably a Carpenter picture, and a pretty good one at that, but it doesn’t reach new heights or erase the bad taste of something like Ghosts of Mars from the viewers collective memory. The end result will inevitably continue online criticism of the director’s continuing decline, but taken on its own terms it offers some stylishly executed chills without degenerating into a sadistic free-for-all typified by the current run of torture porn-horror films.

The cast is headed by the beautiful Amber Heard (Drive Angry 3D), who does a very credible job as the heroine. Heard conveys great strength and character, and she makes for a likable protagonist. The script is a bit sketchy on characterization, but The Ward is relatively rare among new horror films in offering protagonists worth caring about – we may not be treated to a full blown psychological profile, but they function like real human beings and it’s easy to become emotionally invested in their predicament. In a way, The Ward is similar to The Thing in Carpenter’s filmography – a group of people (all men in The Thing, mostly women here) trapped in an isolated locale, paranoia on the rise, as a shadowy force threatens to obliterate them, one by one.  Mamie Gummer (daughter of screen legend Meryl Streep), Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, and Lyndsy Fonseca all fill their respective roles with great effectiveness, and if they all seem a little too glamorous for the setting… well, don’t be too quick to nitpick. 

The Ward is not top shelf Carpenter, but it’s still a worthwhile picture. The score by Mark Kittell is decent, but one finds onesself wishing that the director had provided one of his signature synth scores. If nothing else, The Ward comes off like a step in the right direction – if Carpenter finishes out his career making low scale but accomplished little films such as this, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Arc Entertainment’s Blu Ray release of The Ward looks superb. The 2.35/16×9/1080p transfer offers a colorful, nicely detailed image. Blacks are rich and deep, which is especially welcome given the creepy atmosphere Carpenter works hard to sustain in the nighttime sequences. There are no mastering defects to report.

The 5.1 soundtrack has a lot of punch. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand throughout, even when it’s delivered in hushed tones, and the score and sound effects have real power, as well.

The disc is a little light on the extras, but it does offer a good commentary track by Carpenter and costar Jared Harris. Carpenter speaks in his usual frank, laconic, no-BS style – explaining his reasoning for returning to the fold with such a small film after a long hiatus, detailing the production problems that occurred, and generally seeming pretty upbeat about being back behind the camera again. Harris makes for an interesting co-narrator, speaking with genuine affection about the experience and his love of Carpenter’s films in general. A theatrical trailer is also included.

Film: *** out of *****

Blu Ray: **** out of *****

The Stuntman DVD Review

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey
Director: Richard Rush
Severin release 2011

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The Stuntman achieved cult status and won hordes of movie lover fans from the moment it opened in 1980. It grabs you from the start with a wink and a sly grin that is irresistible. Steve Railsback (Manson) is on the run. The cops are after him. He gets a good lead and just when he thinks he is safe a 1920s car runs him off a bridge and crashes into the water below. But it is a scene from a movie. The cops close in. In a moment of quick thinking the director Eli Cross passes Railback off as the driver thus avoiding any investigation into the drowning death of the driver that would hold up his film. He also makes Railsback indebted to him for getting the cops off his tail. Eli collects that debt by making him the new stuntman on the picture.

This is filmmaking as performance art. From that very first scene we notice the large crowd that is watching them shoot the movie as if the making of the movie is the performance rather then the film that they are shooting. We are privy to little in-jokes that the crew plays on the director. Everyone is putting on a show for everyone else. Railsback is taken with and begins to fall for the leading lady, Barbara Hershey. But she may already be involved with someone else and be playing his heart to get him to do the big stunts in this WWI war picture. There are layers to every scene. Sometimes director Richard Rush has actual veils and fine curtains that pull back to give us yet another reveal, a chance to guess again who is playing who. So many scenes end with one character or another almost asking us as the audience if we can keep a secret? It is so much fun to be in on the joke. But who is exploiting whom? We are constantly left deliciously off balance. It gets seductively reassuring as we are so caught up the land of movie magic. There are some spectacular stunts here. It is refreshing to see them done, knowing this film was made before CGI was even an option.

Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of the director won him an Oscar nomination and remains as important a performance in his career as Lawrence of Arabia. Having worked with so many great directors and reportedly drawing inspiration from David Lean who directed him in Lawrence, O’Toole is completely spot on as Eli. He nails two traits of the superstar director persona. First that he is the ego-driven supreme leader who alone possesses the artistic vision that will make this picture one for the ages. Secondly that he is so charismatic that his actors and crew will do anything to please him. To be sure, he will exploit that manipulating everyone in his path to get his picture done. Steve Railback is terrific just oozing that same manic energy that captivated the world when he played Charles Manson in the TV movie, Helter Skelter. That’s the role that got him this part and became his instant career highlight. Alex Rocco (Godfather), as the police chief and Alan Garfield as the writer are killer in supporting roles. The script has so many little details to please movie buffs, too. Sharon Farrell plays Denise the hairdresser who gives Railback the make over that hides him so well. She wears a T-shirt that says, Denise gives great hair, which is a nod to the old joke, Edith Head gives great wardrobe. The movie making on the set, the camera set ups and the high jinks that the crew pull in the hotel are played with a heightened reality that looks like so much fun. If you stop to analyze it, it is way too much fantasy, but then nothing may be real here at all.

Eli Cross is constantly descending from the heavens on a film crane inviting you up with him. The film’s logo was a gorgeous painting of O’Toole as a naked devil riding a film dolly. He’s got horns and wings. The tag line was, “If God could do the things that we can do, he’d be a happy man . . .” The film did not do as well as expected despite a good launch by Fox but was an instant favorite with film industry folks and movie fans. The phrase reflexive cinema describes films made about the movie business. Cynical exposes like Sunset Boulevard, musical romps like Singing In The Rain and Hearts of the West with Jeff Bridges don’t quite seem cut of the same cloth. I suspect that anyone who really loves movies would be instantly taken with this, however I can see it being perhaps too clever for some.

The music by Dominic Frontiere (The Outer Limits) has a whimsical quality that was a little too tongue in cheek for my taste. I suppose it serves to nudge those in the ribs that don’t get it, that there is a good deal of farce going on here. The main theme fits well enough but it’s an odd choice to keep things so light and lively all the time that it sounds like a TV show. That’s what Frontiere did mostly though. He also wrote a tune for Dusty Springfield to sing that feels like a poor attempt to impersonate Burt Bacharach, or was that the assignment from the director, to be like Burt and fool people? The layers and levels of duplicity are everywhere here. It is worth noting that the financing for the film in the end came from Melvin Simon. The shopping mall king actually executive produced several films around that time including My Bodyguard, Love at First Bite and the popular Porky’s films.

Richard Rush’s career arc, before the Stuntman, went from cheap flicks to cheap biker flicks (Savage Seven) to cheap hippie flicks (Psych Out) and then to two very accomplished ones – Getting Straight and Freebie and The Bean. I’ve always been a fan of the former with Elliot Gould as a frustrated student-teacher trying to get his masters during a campus revolution. It was a tough road to get this one made and the extras give you plenty of detail on that. You can feel that in the film itself. Never sure whether he is being used and plumped for the ultimate last death defying stunt that will be his demise, Railsback’s character moves as if each stunt may be his last. There is something about Rush’s work here that also carries that giddy fear that this may also be his last hurrah. He truly makes the most of it. This is a first class A level film with enough pretensions and reach for the moon moments to carry any filmmaker into their own sunset happily ever after.

“Do you not know that King Kong the first was just three foot six inches tall? He only came up to Faye Wray’s belly button! If God could do the tricks that we can do he’d be a happy man!”

Video – The enhanced 1.85:1 film looks very grainy and is very satisfying. At first the outdoor close-ups looks great and the wider compositions seem to suffer unduly from the comparison. However after a few short scenes the colors, hue and feel of the film stock look terrific. Detail is clear where is should be and cloudy, hazy where it is meant to be. The transfer looks like film, as it should. No deceptions here. Well done.

Audio – With the screen listed default DTS (though my amp read it as regular Dolby 5.1) you really have to give some gas to the amp to get the sound levels up to an acceptable level. The music mostly sits in the rear channels while the dialogue and f/x are up front. It doesn’t really blend together. When the music swells you feel like the orchestra is sitting behind you. Not that you have to turn around and tell the brass section to stop talking when they are not playing. I suspect the original track has been upgraded and while individual sounds are always clear the enhancing of the original mix feels too forced, unnatural. The Dolby two channel choice is a much more faithful representation of the original theatrical experience. English subtitles are offered.

Extras – The first disc contains a commentary track packed with seven speakers, a few deleted scenes and an odd interview with a very overdressed later day Peter O’Toole. He’s still got that marvelous voice but the content is not quite on the mark. The second disc offers up a featurette with Alex Rocco and Steve Railsback. We learn they became good friends on the shoot. There is also another short one with Barbara Hershey recalling her role in the film. To be honest neither of these did anything to enhance my appreciation for the film, in fact they border on taking away from it. All three appear to be acting. There is a fascinating piece that director Rush narrates on his career path from drive in fare to his shot with the major studios. Then we get a full on two hour trip through the mind of Mr. Rush in, The Sinister Saga of Making ‘The Stunt Man. He is charming, clever and entertaining though you begin to realize that the man never really worked much after The Stuntman, save for a few titles. It is a bit too self-aggrandizing. Having sat through quite a bit of Richard Rush material, I find that I liked my perception of who Richard Rush was much better that who he actually presents himself as in these features and documentary. Somehow that fits the man who so endearingly pulled the wool over my eyes in the wonderful experience that watching The Stuntman is.

How Tall Was King Kong?

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic

DVD – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Cannibal Holocaust Coming To Blu Ray

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

In some news sure to make the day of fans of Italian horror – and of ‘extreme cinema’ in general – Ruggero Deodato’s landmark cult favorite is coming to blu ray… read more below:


Bloody Birthday: DVD Review

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Bloody Birthday (1981)

by Troy Howarth

Directed by Ed Hunt; Screenplay by Ed Hunt and Barry Pearson; Starring Lori Leithin, Elizabeth Hoy, K.C. Martel, Billy Jayne, Julie Brown, Susan Strasberg, Jose Ferrer, Michael Dudikoff

Three children are born during a solar eclipse; they grow into cold-blooded psychopaths who go on a murdering rampage…

Produced during the height of the slasher craze, Bloody Birthday is actually something of a cheat.  It’s not really a slasher film, per se, and as far as blood and guts go, it’s pretty much PG-level stuff.  The film does manage to cram in plenty of sleaze, however, so it’s not all about coy suggestion.  The central concept puts the film closer to the likes of The Bad Seed or even The Omen than to Friday the 13th or Halloween, but part of the problem is one of identity – it simply can’t seem to make up its mind about exactly what kind of film it wants to be.  Another huge problem is one of tone – on the one hand it plays out as slightly tongue in cheek and pardoic, but on the other it seems to be gunning to be taken seriously.  These problems certainly create a handicap, but there are other bones of contention that keep Bloody Birthday from being much more than a forgettable B movie.

The cast includes Susan Strasberg and Oscar-winner Jose Ferrer, both of whom put in brief appearances for a quick paycheck.  Neither Strasberg nor Ferrer get much of a chance to register, with the latter in particular being squandered in a colorless supporting role.  The heavy thesping therefore falls on the younger members of the cast.  Lori Leithin does an acceptable job as the usual virtuous heroine – the so-called ‘last girl standing’ – but she lacks the presence and inate likability of, say, Jamie Lee Curtis.  The killer kids are played by Elizabeth Hoy, Billy Jacoby, and Andy Freeman.  Hoy comes off the best of the three, but the film is hobbled by the usual problem that dogs pictures such as this: quite simply, the kids aren’t intimidating enough.  The sight of Leithin putting up a struggle against one of these spoiled brats, for example, just defies credibility.  Julie Brown, who would later go on to DJ on the MTV network (where she had to adopt the moniker West Coast Julie Brown in order to differentiate her from the better known Downtown Julie Brown; confusing, no?), contributes some memorably gratuitous nude scenes, but doesn’t make much of an impression in terms of her acting; her nude scenes are most welcome, regardless, for helping to breathe a little bit of oomph into the proceedings.

Co-writer/director Ed Hunt must take the lion’s share of the blame.  Hunt’s direction is very much of the ‘lock the camera down and get as much coverage in a day as possible’ variety.  There’s very little creativity on display, which should come as no surprise given that his previous credits included the bargain basement sci-fi disaster Starship Invasions (1977), featuring a suitably embarassed-looking Robert Vaughn and Christopher Lee.  The film plods along at a sluggish pace, and even at 85 minutes it seems to go on for an eternity.  The shocks are telegraphed and clumsily staged, to boot.  Recommended only for 80s horror completists of the most diehard variety.


Severin cannot be faulted for their new release of Bloody Birthday.  The film has been remastered in HD and looks as good as one could realistically expect.  The 1.66/16×9 transfer is sharp and colorful.  Print quality is excellent, with only some minor speckling, and mastering is pretty much impeccable.


The mono soundtrack seems a little weak compared to the picture.  The music comes through well enough, but dialogue seems a little muffled at times – and there are no captioning or subtitle options to fall back on.  Beyond that, the track is in decent shape, with no background hiss or popping to report.


Extras include an audio interview with director Hunt, a featurette length interview with Lori Lethin, a featurette called A Brief History of Slasher Films, and trailers for other Severin releases -including the upcoming release of Horror Express.  Hunt isn’t the most engaging of interviewees, but Lethin comes off well in her segment.  The slasher doc also manages to pack a lot of relevant info into a relatively brief time frame.

Film: *1/2 out of *****

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