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Archive for September, 2013

Prince of Darkness (1987)Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Stars: Donald Pleasence, Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper
Director: John Carpenter
Released by Shout / Scream Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

John Carpenter’s works as a film director seems to fall into two distinct halves. Early on he won vast acclaim for Halloween (1978); a low budget horror film that was a huge hit becoming a major influence on the slasher genre. He embraced the studio system scoring with several others including The Fog (1980). He made several films with Kurt Russell starting with Elvis which became the highest rated TV movie ever when it initially aired in 1979. Escape from New York (1981) was one of his most popular films introducing the world to Snake Plisken (Russell). The Thing (1982) was a remarkable achievement in special effects. Carpenter delivered a taught thriller reworking the 1951 classic into a hair-raising tale of paranoia. Unfortunately the effects proved too gross and unsettling for the mass audience and the film on initial release was deemed a failure. The Thing has since gone on to be regarded as one of his best gaining a cult status courtesy in later years to VHS and DVD. Following that film he helmed an adaptation of Stephen King’s Popular Novel Christine (1983) and pleased audiences with Starman (1984) staring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen. The success of Christine and Starman prevent it from being as simple as classing his work as the films made before The Thing and after, but the distinction holds. This it not to say that Carpenter has not made wonderful pictures since but they have been smaller in nature and less frequent.

Prince of Darkness was part of a deal that allowed him to work apart from the pressures of studio interference. He was able to get back to a type of filmmaking that let him get involved in every aspect of the process. He’d have complete artistic control. The budget was significantly lower alleviating some of the financial burden. The film opens very slowly as we see a popular university professor begin to assemble a team to investigate strange doings in the basement of an abandoned church in Los Angeles. We see derelicts and homeless folks wander the street. Several stare off in the distance. Leaves blow and collections of insects gather. It’s unnerving but still a quiet fire. Victor Wong (Big Trouble in Little China) explains aspects of physics in his classroom to a coterie of elite students. He invites them to spend the weekend on this assignment. There will be extra credit but he gives of a sense of trepidation about the adventure. We see the students talk about this.

Jameson Parker (Simon and Simon) makes a play for another student, Lisa Blount but again there is a palpable feeling that keeps their affections from letting loose. The outside of the church is decaying and distressed. However when we first get inside there are people moving in. The students set up make shift beds. We see several hard core computer types and scientists setting up their equipment. Tons of bulky old style computers get lined up. All manner of testing devices are fired up. They are filling the place with a modern mad scientist’s toys. Carpenter lets the pace quicken as the worker types swirl around us. He settles though on a girl, with a post graduate degree in ancient languages. She’s got this huge leather bound tome. She is typing into a computer, with that thunk-thunk sound those keyboards used to make. The letters march across the screen in that outdated fashion. She is taken aback by the words. The professor is also concerned, even worried. The day turns to night and we see pizza boxes, scattered coffee cups and soda cans littering the place. The scientists and computer experts who must do these tests all the time begin to notice things. Their chatter is way beyond our understanding but again there is that palpable sense of fear creeping in. This is easily the best part of the film. The increasing dread that slowly begins to permeate every scene and every person is measured and doled out beautifully.

The trouble, for me starts when they encounter the source of that dread. We’ve got a team of post graduate students with a few ringers ready to do metaphysical battle. Donald Pleasence is on hand from the start as a frightened priest so it’s clear that science and faith will do battle with Satan. The trouble is that there is no monster. There is a tall lava lamp full of glowing green fluid in the basement. People get taken over by the green presence and do bad things. Several times a force attempts to cross over through a mirror like window. It looks very much like something trying to break in from another dimension, only it never does. We never really get anything to focus that built up sense of impending doom on. There is one shot that is a wonderful tease. The tease does not manifest in a creepy enough tension. It never gets under your skin. The steadily built up feeling of fear that Carpenter constructed so well seems to settle for saving of the world from an apocalypse. Odd to say but that’s just not as satisfying as we were led to expect. That’s just my take. The build up is the best for me. That first half or so is pure cinematic creepiness.

Carpenter has had a very loyal following. When you look at his films, it’s clear that he is a student and lover of classic movies. The influence of Howard Hawks is apparent and that’s a wonderful thing. In interviewers for Ghosts of Mars (2001) he has come across as a bit defeated and concerned that modern movie audiences today no longer seem to want the kind of films he likes to make. In the new interview on this disc he says audiences today want bebop. He’s comparing that frenzied jazz style to the rapid editing and fast pace that is preferred today. It’s a clever and accurate comment. The films from his later period when afforded such a nice presentation as this are a welcome chance to be revisited.

Video – 2.35:1 This is an exemplary transfer. Colors are all strong. Detail is crisp. Black levels are nice and deep. The effects shots look strong. Whether you are seeing this one for the first time of giving it a revisit it looks stunning.

 

Audio – DTS 2.0 and 5.1 in English, subtitles are offered in English. It is always a treat to hear one of Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s scores. The track on this one sounds fine. All dialogue is clear, effects tracks get respect and the overall mix feels comfortable.

 

Extras – There are two new interviews on this edition. John Carpenter goes through the germination for the idea of the film. He recounts the deal that allowed him control over the project and some good production details. He explains how they used mercury to get that shimmering water like effect that people have to reach through. Alice Cooper practically gushes at how much fun it was to play one of the homeless zombie-like ones. They both are fine interviews, though interrupted by clips from the film we just saw too much. The packaging has a reversible cover giving you a choice of displaying the original poster art. It is also very much appreciated that there are no eco-holes cut into the sides of the package. That’s been a terrible trend I am glad to see that Shout factory has not embraced.

 

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

 

Movie – Good

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Adam Chaplin: DVD Review

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Adam Chaplin (2011)

by Troy Howarth

Directed by Emanuelle De Santi

Starring Emanuelle De Santi, Valeria Sannino, Paolo Luciani

Adam Chaplin (Emanuelle De Santi) becomes obsessed with bloodlust when his beloved wife (Valeria Sannino) is brutally murdered by a local crime lord (Paolo Luciani)….

  

Many horror films are accused of having a fetishistic, even pornographic fascination with sadism and bloodletting.  In his heyday as the so-called “godfather of gore,” the late Lucio Fulci was frequently accused of delivering films which appealed to the basest desires of audience members.  In addition to offering sequences of graphic bloodletting, however, Fulci was also a good storyteller who knew how to make a well crafted, entertaining film.  Works like New York Ripper (1982) retain a nasty edge, for sure, but it can be argued that they have a sense of craftsmanship to go along with the sadism.  Would that the same could be said for Adam Chaplin, a nauseating and ultimately quite ridiculous homage to the gory Italian horrors of the 80s crossed with the equally splattery excesses of the Japanese anime.

  

The film opens with bloodshed – blood shoots, it splatters, it sprays across objects with all the fetishistic glee of a well placed money shot in a porn film.  The film proceeds from one ugly, repetitious sequence after the other, and virtually every scene ends – or begins – with more bloodshed.  The effect is deadening within the first five minutes – a great pity, as there’s still another hour and twenty minutes to go.  Viewers who truly don’t require anything but constant bloodletting will likely find this to be quite “bad ass,” but those who also have a yen for old fashioned qualities such as characterization and plot will likely be checking their watches on a regular basis.

  

The film is a vanity project of sorts for writer/director/star Emanuelle De Santi.  De Santi’s portrayal of the title character is as blank as it is obnoxious.  De Santi clearly took great pains to prepare for the role, but he comes off looking like a particularly lame hair metal musician with a steroid habit.  He never allows one to understand the character or what really makes him tick.  Sure, the film pays lip service to the old chestnut of the loner avenging the death of his wife, but so little attention is given to their relationship that one is simply supposed to take it on faith that his passion for her has driven him to such extreme acts of sadistic violence.  De Santi’s performance is dull and listless, no matter how many times her makes his best “Hulk smash” face and beats the living tar out of his supporting cast members.

  

Unfortunately, De Santi the director is every bit as uninspired as De Santi the actor.  The film is tiresomely burdened with a dreary visual aesthetic – lots of murky shadows, half light and an overwhelming blue tint.  If the objective was to create a dreary futuristic look, it’s successful on that level – but it makes for a dreary viewing experience.  The digital photography and copious makeup effects are professionally done, but it’s all too overwhelming and repetitious to be effective.  The end result is depressing rather than enjoyable, and no amount of splatter in the world can make up for that.  Italian genre junkies may want to see it for the sake of completion, but others would do well to avoid this one.

Video:

Adam Chaplin makes its NTSC DVD bow courtesy of Autonomy Pictures.  The 1.78/16×9 transfer looks as good as the photography will allow.  Black levels are appropriately deep, and the dreary color scheme  is accurately rendered; the plentiful bursts of red stand out very well indeed.  Detail is sharp and the print appears to be fully uncut.

Audio:

The Italian soundtrack is in excellent shape.  Music and sound effects have plenty of presence – there’s a whole lot of “wet” sound effects work due to the splatter factor, and it’s very well served in the mix.  Removable English subtitles are included.

Extras:

Extras include some puff PR-style featurettes, all running in the area of 2 minutes a piece, covering everything from the film’s anime influence to De Santis’ work out regimen…

Film: * out of *****

Video: *** out of *****

Audio: **** out of *****

Extras: ** out of *****

The Black Waters of Echo’s Pond Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Stars: Danielle Harris, Robert Patrick, James Duvall, Mircea Monroe
Director: Gabriel Bologna
Released by Anchor Bay Films

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

If you see enough horror films at some point you begin to develop a taste for schlock. That doesn’t mean that you can no longer tell the difference between the really good stuff and the just plain bad. It just means that along the way to embracing the low budget gems, the poverty row sleepers and the weird ones that have a certain cult appeal your palate expands. There is good schlock and there is bad schlock, however there’s a comfort level that these kinds of films find with you. Along with your staples of cinematic entertainment you crave a little schlock on the side. We also know that in order to find the really good ones that live well off the beaten path, you’ve just got to be prepared to wash down some of these for your own good.

The Black Waters of Echo Park only has about three people in it that can act. However it’s shot well and the creepy island location works nicely. The story has been tagged as a cross between Jumanji and Evil Dead. That’s a very apt description. A group of twenty-something kids meet up on a deserted island that has been in the family of one of them for years. There are rumors about an evil spirit that has preyed upon previous visitors through the years. There’s even a prologue, just like The Exorcist, that shows an archeological expedition discovering an ancient game that awakens the evil spirit of the god, Pan. The young couples plan a holiday on the island getaway but soon discover that Rick, the kid no one likes anymore because of something he did in his past has crashed the party.

Once they discover the game hidden away in the woodwork and start playing it becomes a chilling game of truth or dare. They answer questions from cards and as they gaze into the pool in the middle of the board. They see what they want to see – dark fantasies of desire and illicit sex. There’s a lot of teasing and were it not for one single gratuitous shower scene and the copious violence that starts after the halfway mark you’d think you were watching something on the SYFY Channel. As the kids act out their fantasies and reveal their inner hostilities things get very bloody. The gross out violence as the kids get dispatched earns the R rating. Farm tools, chainsaws and firearms all get shared around and used with reckless abandon. It’s pretty formulaic and most of you will guess who dies and almost in what order.

James Duvall as the bad boy of the bunch that no one really likes does a nice job with the part making himself appealing despite his reputation. He’s articulate and willing to get up and do things. That’s a necessary trait in these kinds of films. It’s also a classic case of the underdog prevailing. We’ve seen it all, but that’s fine here. Robert Patrick from Terminator 2 plays the caretaker of the island. He’s got a great bit where he catches one of the kids tossing a cigarette on the dock. He calmly informs him that they are so far from any kind of fire department that a simple fire would burn the whole place down before help would arrive. He tells him if he does that again and threatens to burn down his island, he’ll shoot him. Patrick plays it very low key and tough.

This was made in 2009 but waited until now to surface. You know why. Still it’s just the kind of film that would look great on the bottom row of VHS horrors in your local store back in the day. How bad can it be? Not that bad, you’ll enjoy it. It’s a fun rental or a good appetizer before the main feature.

 

Video – 1.78:1 The film looks fine. The dark interiors still reveal plenty of detail.

 

Audio – Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, subtitles offered in English SDH and Spanish The track has its share of effective music cues and effects. Dialogue is clear at all times.

 

Extras – Alternate opening. This version of the opening reveals perhaps a bit too much and changes to pace of the film.

 

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

 

Movie – Fair

Blu-Ray – Excellent

How To Seduce A Virgin: DVD Review

Saturday, September 28th, 2013

How To Seduce A Virgin (1973)

by Troy Howarth

 

Directed by Jess Franco

Starring Alice Arno, Robert Woods, Tania Busselier, Lina Romay, Howard Vernon, Alfred Bailou

A debauched couple (Alice Arno and Robert Woods) set their sight on a beautiful virgin (Tania Busselier) and set about trying to corrupt her…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The English title may suggest a variation on a UK sex comedy, but this very grim offering from the infamous Jess Franco is anything but light and airy.  Originally titled Plaisir a Trois, the film offers a collection of vile, depraved characters doing vile, depraved things to each other.  The story, written by the gifted Alain Petit, is a variation on Philosophy in the Boudoir by the Marquis De Sade – a story which any Franco fan will recognize as a major influence on the director’s body of work.  Having already “officially” adapted the story for 1969′s Eugenie, The Story of Her Journey into Perversion, Franco here offers up a looser interpretation – but one which arguably captures the chilly spirit of De Sade better in the long run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The film was produced during an unusually hectic period in Franco’s career.  Following the death of his beloved star Soledad Miranda, Franco threw himself into an ultra hectic work schedule, cranking out film after film – and sometimes failing to complete the odd project along the way.  1973 would see him starting as many as 14 pictures – “only” 11 of which were ultimately completed.  Given the ridiculous speed with which these films were made, one would be forgiven for assuming that they must have been pretty poorly done.  On the whole, however, he produced some of his most original and striking films during this flurry of activity – and this most certainly includes How To Seduce A Virgin.  Its relative obscurity among his major works can be explained by the fact that, until now, it has been unavailable – officially, at least – in an English-friendly edition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to revisiting some of the director’s favored themes, it also offers up a small ensemble of some of his favorite performers.  The antiheroes are played by Robert Woods and Alice Arno, both of whom are at their very best here.  Woods, a veteran of many Spaghetti westerns, came off rather bland in Countess Perverse, also shot in 1973, but he is effortlessly convincing as the depraved and duplicitous sadist.  Arno, a stunning beauty who got her start with Franco in a small role in Eugenie De Sade (1970), has one of her best roles here.  She is by turns seductive and chilling, even garnering a little bit of pathos here and there.  Franco’s future muse, Lina Romay, makes her first substantial appearance in one of his films as a seemingly mentally regressive sex slave who communicates in whimpers.  Romay would go on to provide Franco’s work with a raw sexuality, but she is equally effective in this comparatively “soft” context.  The great Howard Vernon plays the family’s dutiful retainer, while lovely Tania Busselier is effective as the young innocent who gets caught up in all the depravity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The film is done in the same freewheeling style one associates with Franco’s work, especially during this period.  That the story is coherent is a testament to the contribution of Petit, but it also taps into the improvisational, rough edged, vaguely confessional nature of the director’s other mature work.  Like so many of Franco’s films, it’s loaded with long sequences which may seem tedious to some, but which exude an almost hypnotic quality over those who are not immune to the charms of his work.  A fine example of this is the extended striptease performed by Arno, which harkens back to similar sequences in Vampyros Lesbos (1970) and other Franco titles.  It’s a long, drawn out scene – but the staging and rhythm are truly spellbinding.  Like so many key Franco titles, How To Seduce A Virgin is less about plot than it is mood – but those who are in tune with what that entails are bound to find this singularly entrancing.

Video:

How To Seduce A Virgin makes its DVD debut courtesy of the fine folks at Mondo Macabro.  Like their previous Franco releases, this offers up a pristine restoration of a formerly very hard to find title.  The full frame transfer is derived from a fully uncut source print which is in excellent condition.  Colors are accurately reproduced, detail is extremely strong, and there are no distracting authoring flaws on display.

Audio:

The French soundtrack is presented in its original mono.  The film was apparently never dubbed into English, so there is no English option.  The track is in good shape, with no major hiss or distortion, and the removable English subtitles are clear and easy to read.

Extras:

Extras include production notes, talent bios, and on camera interviews with author Stephen Thrower (whose upcoming book on Franco is due in 2014) and screenwriter Alain Petit.  Both interviews provide invaluable insight into Franco’s mindset and methodology, and help to place this film in context in his imposing body of work.

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

Video: **** out of *****

Audio: *** out of *****

Extras: **** out of *****