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Archive for February, 2014

Beneath Blu-Ray Review

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

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Stars: Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Mark Margolis
Director: Larry Fessenden

Released by Scream Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Larry Fessenden has made a series of intriguing films with Habit (1995), The Wendigo (2001) and The Last Winter (2006). He’s got a very dark sensibility and a penchant for darkly lit scenes, too. None of these films ultimately succeed yet they have an artful sense about them. He seems attracted to the more broken sides of humanity that serve to drag everyone down. Fessenden often presents nature as a very malevolent presence. He took the classic Algernon Blackwood short story, The Wendigo about a ghost like creature in the woods to some very twisted and creepy places. Even though there is lots of dank desperation in his stories he exhibits a real fondness and familiarity with the horror genre. He has clearly seen lots of the films that horror fans hold dear. There are references to classics as well as modern motion pictures in all his work. With Beneath he has made his most accessible film to date. For a start most of it takes place outside on a lake in the bright sunlight. The camerawork is very professional this time out with everything easily visible. Colors are strong. The whole production has the most professional feel of anything he has done thus far. It’s a great looking film with solid photography throughout.

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The film begins with Johnny getting ready for a day trip. He’s got a picture on his wall of some Loch Ness type monster that he took. He meets several friends at the lakeside and they begin to carry a rowboat into the water. An older man fixing the motor for his small boat tells Johnny he is okay because he has respect for the lake but this friends show no respect. Again there is this theme of nature wronged and vengeance hanging in the air. The group of six set out for a small island to celebrate the end of high school. About halfway there two decide to take a quick dip in the lake which makes Johnny exceedingly nervous. What does he know? In very short order someone’s arm dangling in the water gets chomped and it becomes clear there is a very big fish in the lake that is after them. It circles the boat. We see the huge shape slithering just beneath the surface.

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Fassenden uses a simple recipe for this picture. Take a group of people and put them in a tightly closed environment. Introduce a threat, turn up the heat and watch them boil. Soon they will begin to turn on each other We’ve seen this in several Twilight Zone episodes to great effect. People were jammed together in The Night of the Living Dead, The Cube and many others. This is not to say that it’s a bad device at all. The twist this time out is that none of the people trapped are all that nice. In fact we’d just as soon see them all get eaten by the monstrous fish. What makes this work, at least for me is that we get to see that turn, that ratcheting up of their most base character instincts. When it becomes apparent that these five teenagers are indeed trapped in the middle of the lake and held hostage there by the killer fish, Zeke speaks up. He’s the one with the camera that is always filming everyone. He is much more than a first class nerd as we soon find out. He suggests that one of them has to volunteer to go into the water to act as bait so the others can survive. Someone has to distract the fish so the rest of them can paddle to safety. Then without missing a beat, the asking for a volunteer becomes a process of selecting someone. Some offer up reasons why they should live. They talk about the contributions they will make. The rest of them don’t even bother with that but instead go right for the kill. They nominate who they think should go in the water. More than the hungry fish with the big teeth circling the boat, the kids in the boat are more horrifying. The tag line for the film is, “They are only friends on the surface” That’s a clever pun and an accurate statement.

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There is more than enough of the huge prehistoric looking fish circling the boat and buzzing by just under the surface to keep the tension up. We also see its dorsal fin slicing through the lake’s glass-like sheen. Fassenden is not afraid to give us plenty of good looks at the monster either. We see the rows of long teeth, the detailed scaly skin and those huge eyes. This is a practical monster not some CGI bit of digital magic. The crew hauled this thing into the water and put it through its paces. It moves pretty well. They get major points for that.

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Many acting classes feature an improvisational game called lifeboat. A few people go in an imaginary boat but there is not enough food and water for everyone. They have to figure out what to do. The actors in Beneath all do a good job of showing their baser sides. Everyone is out for themselves. The big push the weak. One of the girls tries to manipulate the guys. High school jealousies are trotted out like trump cards and played for dramatic effect. While all this psychodrama is happening, the fish keeps going at the kids and reducing their number. Survival tactics are tried. Some are imaginative while others are just desperation. The pressure mounts and the numbers dwindle. There may be a little suspension of disbelief required but if you’re willing to stick you foot in the water you’ll have a good time with it.

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Video – 1.78:1 The vast majority of the film takes place in broad daylight in a small rowboat on a lake. Everything is brightly lit and easy to follow. Detail is strong. Colors are presented well. The sheen on the water looks very nice, even pretty at times. You can make out the texture on the big fish’s scales.
Audio – DTS in English with subtitles offered in English.. All dialogue is clear and understandable throughout. Music and effects are woven seamlessly into the track. The soundtrack has a very professional balance to it. There are time when the surrounds kick in with ambient shadings.

Extras – Commentary with director Larry Fessenden and sound designer Graham Reznick, Beneath Beneath a making of featurette, Outtakes, webisodes: What the Zeke, What’s in Black Lake, Fessenden on Jaws, Trailer. The making of featurette mostly lets us see the crew at work without a lot of congratulatory chit chat. We watch them haul this huge fish model into the water and try to get it going. It is amusing from a production standpoint. They certainly have an easier time with their model in a calm lake than the shark named Bruce from Jaws that comes to mind.

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent

Movie – Good

Slumber Party Massacre (1981) Blu-Ray Review

Friday, February 21st, 2014

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Stars: Michele Michaels, Robin Stille, Michael Villela, Andre Honore
Director: Amy Jones

Released by Scream Factory

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The word on this film is that director Amy Jones only chose to shoot this script by feminist author Rita Mae Brown (Rubyfruit Jungle) so she could break into directing. She lets us know in no uncertain terms that when people were perplexed why a woman would stoop to doing an exploitation film that they did not get that it was intended as a comedy. She expresses these thoughts in an interview included in the extras. Frankly that just doesn’t sit well. First off there is nothing inherently wrong with exploitation films whether they are horror or any other genre. Secondly aside from one or two instances the film is simply not a comedy. It is not funny. It is a very formula driven slasher film. Ms. Brown went on to write Beethoven movies about an overbearing yet adorable St. Bernard Dog. There is nothing wrong with writing cutesy family films about dogs either. Some people like them.

The storyline centers around a group of girls at a high school. The very clickish group plays on the basketball team and resents the new transfer student who happens to be a great player. They arrange to have a small party at one of the girl’s houses whose parents are away. The shunned new student lives right nearby and has to spend the night with her younger sister. The girls bring over beer and pot, Mauie-Wowie. There are two boys who crash the party. The other character is an escaped serial killer who has butchered a repair woman and stolen her van with tools. He spends the rest of the film hunting down the girls with a cordless drill with a super long bit. He drills into them and is also able to slash away as if it were a chainsaw. Early on when he has a girl cornered at the school a flyer stapled to a bulletin board proclaims,” Emergency Drill Procedures”. That was clever.

There is an extended shower sequence at the school with several of the girl’s basketball team players. However it lingers pretty long on one lady’s backside. It’s an odd decision that calls too much attention to itself. Perhaps it was meant to poke fun at the prurient T & A quotient in these kinds of films. The rest of the film has very little nudity. There are plenty of gorey kills with the drill. The bloodshed level is quite high. There is no real reason given for the man’s reign of terror. You know which girls will survive and who will save the day by killing the creep at the end. Slumber Party Massacre does not deliver much in the way of suspense. There are a few jump scares to get us ready before the mayhem begins in earnest. The dialogue between the girls does not feel all that real or entertaining. The characters are poorly drawn. The script just moves along ticking off the genre requirements.

The ad campaign for the film had an incredible looking movie poster that was reproduced in ads in newspapers everywhere the film played. That image definitely drove ticket sales very well. That same image adorned VHS boxes and served to make it a popular pick up at video stores for years. The film is not bad. It gives us a group of kids who get killed one by one just like you’d expect by looking at the box cover. It just does not have any real sense of style or commitment. Most of Roger Corman’s New World Films exude a sense of fun and embrace the elements of whatever genre is at hand with relish. When Barbara Peters directed Humanoids From The Deep for Roger Corman at New World film she made a cracker jack low budget horror film that is lots of fun. That sense of fun is what is missing here. There is another joke about a girl running after the killer with a circular saw connected to a long extension cord that runs out. Slumber Party massacre ran out of enthusiasm for me far too early on. There is no formula for creating a good B movie. There are plenty of bad ones, good ones and those that just chug along playing out their running time. Slumber Party Massacre may have had some good intentions and clever aspirations but what is left on the screen for us to see falls short.

 
Video – 1.78:1 the film looks fine here with plenty of clarity and strong colors.

 
Audio – DTS track in mono English. All dialogue is clear and understandable throughout.

Extras – New interview with Rigg Kennedy (who was the next door neighbor – not a big part), Commentary with the director and two actors, Sleepless Nights a making of featuette, trailer

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Fair

Bloodlust (1961) DVD Review

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

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Stars: Robert Reed, Wilton Graff, June Kennedy, Betty Scott
Director: Ralph Brooke

Released by Film Chest

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This is just the kind of picture that used to show up at all hours on local TV stations in the 1960s and 1970s. As the credits rolled I noticed, Cinematography by Richard E. Cunha. The very same Cunha that had directed Frankenstein’s Daughter, Giant from the Unknown and She Demons, all in 1958. This is a finer blend of schlock. The story is basically a variation on The Most Dangerous Game, which has seen quite a few remakes and re-imaginings. My favorite beside the 1932 original film is Run for The Sun with Richard Widmark 1956. The main reason this film lingers in anyone’s memory now is that Robert Reed had a big role in it a few years before becoming the famous TV dad on The Brady Bunch. Mystery Science Theater also had a go at it in the mid nineties.

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Two teenage couples out pleasure boating go ashore to the nearest island while the boat captain is passed out. They find a very erudite and hospitable host in Dr Balleau played with extra scoops of relish by Wilton Graff. Before long his wife and lover confide in the teenagers that the good doctor plans to hunt them down as he has done with all the previous guests. It turns out that the boat’s skipper has been ferrying escaped convicts over the island as prey for quite a while. The teens weren’t supposed to go there – oops. A couple of things elevate Dr. Balleau from the usual mad island doctor. One he hunts with a crossbow. And more interestingly he likes to stuff his prey after they have been shot. In a groovy underground grotto he has various tableaus set up with former victims. Except for one, who later shows up drowned and on display in a fish tank like the Governor in The Walking Dead liked to do.

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The hunt at the end is played well with plenty of island traps. The film even has its share of gross out kills that very pretty daring for the time. One of the girls knows from Judo which is fun to watch. Bloodlust goes by in a very breezy 68 minutes. It’s a quick bit of fun and very likeable if you go in for fifties low budget horror thrillers.

Video – 1.33:1 B/W
Film Chest touts this as an HD restoration from original 35mm film elements. Despite some thin vertical lines that appear from time to time this is an excellent transfer. The lines while keeping it from being pristine really do not hamper the overall strong presentation. There is lots of good detail. None of the shots have that public domain softness. Oddly it is presented in 1.33:1 or 4:3 as the DVD describes it. Films made at that time, 1959, were almost assuredly presented in a wider format like 1.85:1 to set them apart from the TV shows. Nothing appears to be missing though.
Audio -
The dialogue is always clear and easy to understand. Music and effects are fit in well enough, too.

Extras –
You want extras, too? Not with this one.

DVD – Good

Movie – Fair (and more if you like this kind of film)

Zulu (1964) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

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Stars: Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, James Booth, Nigel Green, Jack Hawkins
Director: Cy Enfield
Released by Twilight Time

Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Zulu is a magnificent film. It stands as one of the best historical war epics ever made, bar none. There were many aspects that contributed to its success. In January 1879 the British Empire suffered what has been classed as its most embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana. To say that the arrogant and misinformed British army grossly underestimated the local Zulu warriors would be a gross understatement. Zulu opens with a slow tracking shot of that battlefield littered with the bodies of uniformed soldiers. Richard Burton solemnly recounts the brief history of the battle. At the end we see a warrior grasp a rifle and hold it over his head. John Barry’s thunderous score booms out with kettle drums and brass. Suffice to say we have a good measure of the threat of the Zulu nation and its warriors. Director Cy Enfield and historical writer John Prebble have constructed a marvelous narrative of the events at Rorke’s Drift that follow. Actor Stanley Baker worked with Enfield before on the testosterone fueled film, Hell Drivers (1957). Enfield’s last film before Zulu was a favorite of Ray Harryhausen fans, Mysterious Island (1961). Baker was a tough and gritty actor known for starring roles in Hell is a City (1960) and A Prize of Arms (1962). He gained international notoriety in The Guns of Navarone (1961). He wanted to make this film badly, the first of eight films he produced.

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For the first hour of the film the tension ratchets up, slowly mounting as assuredly as a finely crafted suspense film. Rorke’s Drift is a very small outpost. Stanley Baker leads the few men there in building a bridge. Michael Caine in his first major role is introduced as something of an aristocratic dilitant who is more concerned with “bagging” a leopard than commanding his men. He has a cape and a dandy looking feather duster that he uses to wipe off his clothes. Baker has taken over his men while he was out hunting resulting in just a bit of tension between them. The clash is handled very directly and politely setting the tone for the rest of the film. We see a preacher and his daughter foolishly believing that he has made the leader of the Zulu one of his flock. Jack Hawkins is very good in the role of the delusional missionary though he is soon on is way. The film has an almost rhythmic pause as a local hunter / guide grabs a stick and draws in the dirt as he explains the basic Zulu battle strategy that involves the horns of the buffalo closing in on the prey. We see the impeccable disciple on the British detachment best exemplified by the Colour Sergeant. Nigel Green stands tall with huge muttonchop sideburns; always in complete control of himself. It is clear that this tribe that has decimated the much larger contingent earlier is on their way to Rorke’s Drift. For the first half of the film no matter what happens that imposing doom is always in the air.

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As the soldiers are assembled around the outpost by Baker to make a stand, we get a real feel for the men. Many belong to a vocal choir that excels at singing rousing hymns and songs. One man is concerned with a stray calf there. Then back in the infirmary there is the malingering trouble maker Hook. James Booth brings Hookie vividly to life as a self interested thief who tries to con every man he sees. They are all onto him though. The dynamic between Baker and Caine is textured with little secrets about them seeping out. At one point when Caine reveals the legacy of top officers in his family. Baker thinks he is doing this to impress him. Caine’s Bromhead honestly answers, almost under his breath that he wishes he was just a “ranker” out there with the rest of them without the responsibility of command. He feels trapped by his legacy just as the men are trapped by the Zulu. There is a working class versus upper class thread that gets tugged but never overdone. We constantly hear phrases like, “There’s a good lad, At the Double and Old Boy”. The dialogue is written very well bringing the audience right into the ranks of the men.

 

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At about an hour in the first half of the film subsides to the pending attack. Caine’s Bromhead remarks about a sound that reminds him of a train rumbling in the distance. The warriors are beating their assegai spears against their large shields to create this enveloping whomping sound. They shout and cry out and punctuate with this thunderous beating. Then we see them. They stretch across the horizon line a far as you can see. It looks spectacular. This is what epic means in a movie. Over 4,000 Zulu versus roughly one hundred British soldiers. Those aren’t odds. That is a massacre.

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The second half of the film is a series of strategically planned attacks by the Zulu on the small outpost. A few leaders stand way atop a ridge using shouts and waving theirs spears to direct the vast columns of warriors. As they mount the attacks Baker, Caine and the local hunter try to figure out the moves. For a moment it is a brilliant came of chess between Baker’s engineering skills and the Zulu’s probes at their defense. Woven between and even during these attacks is the examination of what allows these soldiers to carry on. What holds them up inside? When the chips are down who stands up. They all do, every last one of them. A soldier hobbles out of the infirmary balancing on his crutch and a rifle alternately swinging both at his attackers. When one young lad begins to crumble the Colour Sergeant has him fasten up his uniform better. It’s not about the buttons but the pride and the tremendous strength that he instills in them from that. Nigel Green as the Sergeant is indeed the backbone of the film. His every move personifies a stalwart sense of calm and tremendous dignity. He really should have won a best supporting Oscar for this role. He wasn’t even nominated. Later on when there is an eerie quiet before an attack, the Zulus begin to chant. Thousands of voices raise together. Rather than be cowed in the least by this Baker orders Private Owen the Welsh leader of the company choir to sing back at them. The very idea of a military company having a choir full of baritones and tenors seemed absolutely useless up to that point, a stupid vanity. Yet now it is a powerful weapon. The rest of the beleaguered outfit join in. It is a moving sequence beautifully edited by John Jympson. The sense of honor that is communicated in this film is so palpable and integral to what makes it work so well.

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The siege at the infirmary is fantastic. Back in 1964 bloodshed was not the event it is now on screen with exploding squibs or CGI gun shot wounds. We see little to none of the effects of the gunshots wounds. Warriors grab their chests and fall. Yet some of the close quarters encounters with the soldiers’ bayonets versus the Zulu’s assegai spears get dollops of bright red blood on bodies and dripping down the weapons. Surely that was the more fierce attack. When Baker organizes the men in two rows with the front row firing then squatting to reload as the one behind fires the precision is awesome. Bodies fall before them in piles, stacking one over the other. Caine also has one of these lines of human machine guns. The editing cuts between then as they shout,” first line-fire” and “rear line-fire”. Jympson trims his cuts till we just alternate between their faces as they yell, “fire”.  Very effective.

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In 1979 Zulu Dawn was made, also written by Cy Enfield. It is a prequel telling the story of the Battle of Isandlwana whose bloody battlefields are seen at the opening of Zulu. Another very strong echo of Zulu can be found in1966 at the ending of Cornel Wilde’s powerful film set in Africa, The Naked Prey. Zulu stands as one of the greatest action, battle movies ever made. It transcends the genre letting us stand beside these men as they face insurmountable odds. They find something inside themselves that lets them carry on. Zulu is thrilling, moving and magnificent. It’s the epitome of what motion pictures are all about.

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Video – 2.35:1
The vast majority of the film takes place outside in the daytime under bright sunlight. The vibrant red of the British uniforms stands out in the arid African country. They can be spotted from miles away. The Zulu blend into the underbrush with their loincloths and straw like leggings. Details are strong. You can see the texture in the tunics. Black levels are fine with no crush at all. This is a stunning looking transfer. A previous British Blu-Ray exists with more features. Both are exemplary treatments visually. I compared them and was hard pressed to pick a winner. Twilight Time’s appears to be a bit brighter, which works well for the film.

Audio – DTS 2.0 and 1.0 tracks in English. Subtitles offered in English.SDH.
John Barry’s score sounds fantastic in either format. The 2.0 has the edge. If you like Barry and the way he brings out the muscle and brashness of an orchestra you’ll love this score. He’ll forever be known as the James Bond man and that is clearly evident in his style. The anthemic chords in this score really bolster the soldier’s heroic effort. He’s also got this threatening refrain that he uses to announce the Zulu warriors. It’s full of heavy metal brass sections and powerful kettle drums, tympanis and a pounding that seems to come from the earth’s core. Barry mixes majestic and bombastic beautifully. There is very good separation here, too. All dialogue is clear. The accents are strong but always understandable.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score. Commentary with Film Historians Lem Dobbs and Twilight Time’s Nick Redman, Original trailer. The commentary is full of good information about the production and background on the event’s actual history.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent