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Archive for April, 2013

Jacob (2013) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Stars: Grace Powell, Dylan Horne, Krystn Caldwell, Larry Wade Carrell, Michael Biehn
Director: Larry Wade Carrell
Writer: Larry Wade Carrell
Released by Horizon Movies

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Jacob is a very low budget Independent film made in Texas with plenty of love to spare. It’s clear from the very start that Larry Wade Carrell can’t wait to tell you his story of this twisted family and what happened to them in the late seventies in a small isolated Texas town. Larry wrote and directed Jacob. He also plays two brothers in the film. He does a very nice job and at every point you can feel his passion for the material. Sometimes you can also feel his elbow digging into your ribs and almost hear him whisper, “Wait till you see this part. You’re gonna love it!” The vast majority of the film uses good old practical effects delivered with old school enthusiasm. If you like horror films, particularly those that recall the seventies you’ll have a very good time with Larry Wade Carrell and his film, Jacob.

The first thing we see is a little kid being dared to go inside the local creepy house. Before he can get close enough to touch the door an older officer of the law escorts him away. The old age make up on him looks like it is straight out of that old Famous Monsters Dick Smith make-up issue and that is so nice. The officer sends the kid on his way and a creepy flashback begins that tells us about the evil that seems to breathe out of the house. A young couple inherits the house and the poor husband tries so hard to fix it up before he goes insane. Michael Biehn (Aliens, Terminator) plays the small role investing the character with just the right touch of naive innocence before he turns violent. He comes to a bad end leaving his wife to care for their young daughter and disturbed son by herself. Krystn Caldwell goes from bad to worse settling down with an abusive white trash husband. He beats her up. At one point he barges in to her job at the diner to shake her down for any cash so he can buy beer at the local bar. Carrell takes his time with this section of the film establishing a very sordid life for these characters.

The son has grown up to be a huge hulk of a man. For a long while we just look over his mountainous shoulder as his sister played wonderfully by Grace Powell shows that she is the only one who can control him. Larry Horne as Jacob easily recalls Lenny from Of Mice and Men while Sissy is charged with the role of her brother’s keeper.All of these people are wallowing in poverty, dirt and despair. This is a sleazy, disgusting and decrepit life they lead. Krystn Caldwell makes the abused wife’s harrowing ordeal very real. Then the story takes this desolate family out of the frying pan and into the fire as the movie gears shifts into a full on horror film. We’re easily in Texas Chainsaw territory here not that there are any chainsaws to be seen. When Jacob has to enact revenge for the heinous things that have been done to the only person in the world he cared about he doesn’t need any tools. He is the kind of killer that simply rips your arm off and beats you with it. There is plenty of mayhem and bloodshed to satisfy fans of the genre. Carrell gets the atmosphere right. The film is played straight and looks quite good for what must have been as pretty small amount.

The only time when I felt pulled out of the mood of the film was early on when we meet an older man on a porch. His voice was definitely familiar and took just a moment before I realized it was James Hampton, the bugler from F Troop. After his brief scene it’s back to the horrific proceedings. Director Carrell has a background working in haunted house attractions. Both his experience and love for that atmospheric spook show are apparent here. As an actor he plays both of the cop brothers Otis and Billy. Otis the drunken stepfather is very abusive and comes off a right bastard in some disturbing scenes with his wife, Krystn Caldwell. The other brother is a goofball and gives some needed comic relief. Jacob is a low budget success for writer/director/actor Carrell and his crew. The affection for the genre and several films in particular is openly worn in plain view.

Video – 2.35:1
The film goes from a bright sunshine day outdoors to some dingy interiors in a flashback. Everything is handled well. It is a workmanlike effort that gets the job done nicely though there is the occasional creepy shot like the one with Jacob carrying Sissy in his arms outside at night that is very nicely composed and lit. There is a little too much tweaking of the color in the flashback scene though that’s more a matter of taste.

Audio: DTS-HD 5.1 and DTS-HD 2.0 both in English. All dialogue is audible and easily understood.

Extras – Commentary with director and DP, Actors commentary, Deleted/extended scenes, Comic Con Q &A, screen tests and a making of featurette. Carrell and his crew come off well.

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

Movie – Good

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Major Dundee (1965) Blu-Ray Review

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Stars – Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, James Coburn, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Senta Berger
Director – Sam Peckinpah
Released by – Twilight Time
Limited Edition of 3,000
Available at screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

While everyone knows Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra and a few other name above the title film directors, one man came along who merged the critic’s admiration, grabbed the auteur director’s crown and yet in perfect keeping with the rebellious sixties was an absolute son of a bitch. Like the turbulent times he rose to recognition in Sam Peckinpah fought with authority figures at every chance. If he wasn’t having trouble on a film, he’d make some. He was the Hunter Thompson of the film world. Sam was capable of great things but just as capable of squandering his talent and behaving like a maverick horse just looking to break free, biting the had that feeds him kicking his way out of the stable. Legend has it he was absolute Hell on wheels to work with yet he had an extremely loyal group of actors he worked with time and time again. Were they just able to keep up with him at the drinking table or were they getting closer to some kind of work that would define them for all time. He embraced the theme of the shrinking horizon and twilight years of the old West. The true rugged heroes had no place left to roam. Their melancholy death throes were poetry to him, a swan song to be embraced down to the very last whiskey soaked breath.

With Major Dundee it’s the first time that Sam really puts on the big britches and says look at me, look at this damn movie I made! For the first time he had a huge crew that all needed instruction and direction. Previously he had made the excellent Ride the High Country (1962) which paid homage to the fading Western with former stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. This time out though he had a real big star in Charlton Heston. Had he bitten off more than he could chew? Yeah he did but he was gonna choke on it before he’d admit it. As a film Major Dundee has many faults but is still enjoyable. Viewed as the one that led to the cinematic masterpiece, The Wild Bunch (1969) it’s like drinking out of the bottle right before the lightning was put in it.

Some scenes are like dress rehearsals for The Wild Bunch. Many of the actors feel like they are trying on their parts, trying to find that mix of dusty authenticity and bravado that would please Sam to no end. They had to be cold blooded killers but also capable of a deep camaraderie and loyalty. He asked a lot. Sure Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and L.Q. Jones would be in the gang. James Coburn would come along later. But the other guys he desperately needed to round up were photographer Lucien Ballard and editor Lou Lombardo who were essential to Sam being able to finally realize the vision he was trying to focus on. He had the fire in his belly and throughout Major Dundee you can feel him reaching for it, but unable to even know just where to grasp. To be fair Sam carried plenty of his own demons to get in his way.

When we first meet Major Dundee he is out to make a name for himself. An Apache raid has just slaughtered an entire fort full of soldiers and citizens. The only ones spared are a few boys who they have abducted to raise as warriors of their own. Dundee wants to bring the boys back, punish the rogue Apache and win his tarnished reputation back in the process. He’s got his own agenda that will be played out regardless of the safety of his men. Being set during the civil war, he has to augment his squad of Union cavalry with Confederate prisoners and assorted ruffians. Dundee is very much like the bull headed arrogant commanding officer played by Henry Fonda in Ft. Apache (1948). The film is a real Mulligan stew of characters. Richard Harris is in command of the Confederates. He promises loyalty to the Major until the subject of their hunt is captured or killed and not a moment longer. Clearly they have a past history as do many in the film but we don’t get much detail on that. James Coburn is a one-armed scout who brings Indians with him that no one trusts. Heston’s Dundee follows a meandering trail after Sierra Charriba the Apache. There are many sequences that feel almost like dress rehearsals for similar sections that would show up in The Wild Bunch. Many are very good ideas but most are undeveloped and don’t quite knit together that well with the rest of the film

We see a lot of familiar sections like the children playing just outside of town as the bad guys ride in and men giving their word as an act of honor. The whole visit to the Mexican village presages a similar section of The Wild Bunch. While the women provide a manly distraction it is the way we see the brutish killers charmed by the innocence of the kids they play with that resonates deeper. Peckinpah even stage that same parade of the troops as they pass out of the village, being serenaded and waved to. There is a good deal of bloodshed, quite a lot for 1965. However it’s the moments of gracefulness that try to balance the uneven pace of the film. The whole section with Senta Berger that Heston and Harris compete for never really fits in. It feels like it was lifted out of a John Wayne picture but has none of the trappings that sing to Peckinpah. It rings false. There is a narration that is spackled over the script holes to try to patch things up. Though so many of the characters are compelling the story telling that moves them is off. There is a huge emphasis in crossing the river and bleeding into it that never becomes clear. Harry Julian Fink who later wrote the screenplay for Dirty Harry wrote the first version. Sam seems to be trying to wrestle some kind of epic out of it and it never works. The writing is simply not there, yet Peckinpah was a very good writer. The stories of the troubled production are legend. Peckinpah apparently fired crew members left and right. Just like the Union and Confederate soldiers that try to get along on screen, Sam struggled to get some kind of cohesion in the filmmaking team. When one reads the various biographies it is clear that Sam more than held up his end of the bargain in creating a chaotic work environment.

 

However if you believe that Sam Peckinpah was a very talented director, one who was capable of creating masterpieces this extended cut lets us get closer to what he tried to do. Much of what made him the admired cult director who proudly wore that auteur mantle is evident in this film. He is playing with many of the riffs and motifs that would show up so much better in many other films. However looking at the production from a studio’s point of view must have been maddening. Major Dundee is a damn expensive jam session without a hit single. The theatrical cut that the studio tried to wrestle a straight ahead narrative out of the footage with never holds together. The promise of realizing Sam’s vision in the extended cut never materializes either. It is really not clear if Sam Peckinpah had that vision at all. You can look at Dundee like a big stew and pick out the parts you like or just take it as a half baked whole. Some would look at this and agree that this guy should never set foot on a film shoot again. Others will see the promise in the work. Either way Sam Peckpinaph seems to gamble with his immense talent. When he was on a roll he was amazing, sublime. It is disappointing to see what a misstep he would take after such sure footing on Ride the High Country. Still very few captured the passing of the American West like he did. Very few would embrace the wounded heroes so well and strike that graceful balance between being an out and out bastard and a trusted friend. To borrow a quote from one of Sam’s scripts, “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” Major Dundee is not great. It never could be, but it’ll do.

Video 2.35:1

Disc one hold the Extended Cut of 139 minutes. Disc two presents the original release cut at 122 minutes. All colors are represented very well in both cases. Earth tones, facial tones and the various background vistas all look fine. Black levels are strong. The variety of military costumes and local Mexican outfits are accurate. None pop out but retain a legitimate filmic quality for the way this was originally photographed. Grain is appropriately present as it should be. This is a first class presentation however it should be said that the lensing by Sam Leavitt does not realize the grandeur that Peckinpah seems to call out for in his vision. Lucien Ballard’s work on Ride the High Country before this one and The Wild Bunch and many other Peckinpah films after have a much more assured look to them. Ballard and Peckinpah seemed so simpatico with the way they saw the movies together. They would alternate that dusty naturalistic look with some beautiful compositions. The people who worked with Sam that could find the grace under the bravado brought out the best in him.

Audio
5.1 DTS-HD in English. Subtitles offered in English SDH. The extended version features the score by Christopher Caliendo while the original theatrical release has the more heavy handed score by Daniele Amfitheatriof. All dialogue is clear throughout and each soundtrack gets a nice strong presentation. It suits the comparison between the two cuts that they each have their own musical score. Taking a look at almost any sequence in each version reveals a very distinct difference in approach. The general feeling is that Caliendo has a more supportive hand for the material. Regardless of which you prefer it affords a fun opportunity to compare them and is a nice treat for aficionados of movie soundtracks.

Extras
Isolated Score for both the Christopher Caliendo and the Amfitheatriof versions on their respective discs. Commentary with film historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle with the extended version on disc one. 2005 Re-Release trailer and the original trailer. Silent extended scene outtakes, Exhibitor promo reel, incomplete deleted knife fight scene with James Coburn.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Good/ Excellent

The Mooring (2012) DVD Review

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Stars: Hallie Todd, Thomas Wilson Brown, Karli Blalock
Director: Glenn Withrow
Released by Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Reviewed by Richard J. Doyle

Nancy (Hallie Todd) runs wilderness retreats for young girls who have problems with technology.  In her latest group, one girl is a cyber-bully, one caused a serious car accident by texting while driving, and others just can’t put down their smart phones or stay off Facebook.  She takes them on a houseboat for a week.  They not only have to learn to do without technology, but they are forced to interact with new people face to face.

On the very first day of the excursion, the boat develops engine trouble.  Nancy moors it on the riverbank and she and the girls camp on shore overnight.  Shortly after they build their campsite, another boat pulls up to shore.  They can hear a couple fiercely arguing, and when one of them comments on the noise, they get a very threatening reply.

In the morning, a woman (Brooklyn Tate) comes off the boat and apologizes for the previous night’s events.  All seems well, and the boat goes on its way.  Nancy decides to take the houseboat to a mechanic she knows up river.  She leaves the girls with her assistant (Katie Simpson) and heads off.  After a while, the other boat returns and things take a turn for the worse.  Nancy is dead and the girls have to fight for their lives.

“The Mooring” is an interesting project.  It is directed by veteran actor Glenn Withrow, best known for roles in “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish”, and co-written with his wife, the film’s star Todd, and his daughter Ivy Withrow.  The cast of young actresses are all students at Hallie Todd Studios, a school for acting for film and television.

I was expecting a cheap slasher film and was pleasantly surprised by a film that’s more of a survival horror in the tradition of “Deliverance”.  It’s surprisingly stylish at times for such a gritty film.  A nighttime attack on the houseboat set to David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” particularly stands out.  The young cast acquit themselves marvelously, all managing to define distinct characters even while having to spend a large part of the film running and screaming.  Thomas Wilson Brown is also remarkably effective in an almost wordless performance as the film’s heavy.

In the end, what’s most enjoyable about the film is that is effectively builds suspense by keeping you guessing.  Important characters die at unexpected moments, leaving you generally unsettled.  I look forward to whatever future projects this family has planned.

Video – 1.78:1 This is a really good looking film for a first feature, and the DVD presents it handsomely.

Audio – English Dolby Digital 5.1 track with subtitles offered in English or Spanish.

Extras – The DVD includes a  Making Of feature.

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

DVD – Good

Movie – Good

The House That Dripped Blood (1971) DVD Review

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Stars: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Denholm Elliott
Director: Peter Duffell
Released by Hen’s Tooth Video

Reviewed by Richard J. Doyle

A notable horror film actor Paul Henderson (John Pertwee) has gone missing and Scotland Yard sends Detective Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) down from London to assist with the local police’s investigation.  Sergeant Martin (John Malcolm) of the local constabulary believes that the problem is the house Henderson was renting.  He explains to Inspector Holloway that every one of the previous tenants has met a sticky end, relating each of their stories in turn.

Charles and Alice Hillyer (Denholm Elliott and Joanna Dunham) rented the house so that Charles, an author of horror fiction, could work on his new novel in peace and isolation.  Charles becomes worried when he starts seeing visions of Dominic (Tom Adams), the maniacal strangler from his novel, around the house.  Alice sees nothing.  The harder Charles works on the novel, the more frequently he sees Dominic, and the more erratic and dangerous Charles’ behavior becomes.

Phillip Grayson (Peter Cushing) intends to spend his retirement in the house, reading, listening to music and relaxing.  One day while walking in the nearby village, he comes upon a wax museum.  He is very distressed to find that a particular dummy in the museum bears a striking resemblance to a woman from his past.  When his close friend Neville (Joss Ackland) pays a visit, he also encounters the dummy.  Soon the two of them become dangerously obsessed with the wax figure.

Widower John Reid (Christopher Lee) moves into the house with his young daughter Jane (Chloe Franks).  He hires Ann Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter) as a private teacher for Jane, who is not allowed to leave the house to attend school.  In fact, as Ann discovers, Jane is not allowed to do most of the things a normal child is allowed to do.  Ann is increasingly distressed by the way John treats his daughter and starts to rebel, until she learns that Jane is indeed no normal child.

Finally, Sergeant Martin tells Henderson’s story.  Henderson had been working on a low budget vampire film.  The sets and costumes are so shoddy that Henderson felt the need to seek out his own costume, a vampire cape from a mysterious local shop.  The cape turns out to have some amazing effects that put Henderson in direct conflict with his co-star Carla Lynde (Ingrid Pitt).  Holloway is skeptical and goes to the house to investigate … discovering first hand what became of Henderson.

The 3rd horror anthology film produced by Amicus Productions was scripted by “Psycho”-scribe Robert Bloch, adapted from his own short stories.  As is often the case with anthology films, the stories are a mixed bag.  The opening story with Elliott has multiple twists that keep you guessing, and many will like the Pertwee segment, although the humour in it wasn’t really my taste.  The Cushing segment is the weakest of the lot, and Lee’s segment while enjoyable, is also utterly predictable.  The wrap-around story is really pretty tenuous as well … a pretty naked ploy to tie together a series of obviously unrelated stories

These kinds of weaknesses are endemic to the horror anthology genre though and are really part of what makes it endearing.  Some of the stories are always weak, but they’re short and there’s another story right after them.  The larger story that ties them together is often even weaker, but all it really has to do is get you from one story into the next one.  In my mind, horror is at it’s best in short, pithy stories like these and a good horror anthology is a joy.  With this film’s superb cast, it can’t help but be worth a viewing.

Video – 1.85:1 The picture on this reissue is quite good … as good as one could want from a DVD of a film of this vintage.

Audio – English Stereo with optional English subtitles.

Extras – The DVD has no extras.

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

DVD – Fair

Movie – Excellent