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Archive for July, 2017

RE-ANIMATOR (1985) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

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Stars – Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton
Director – Stuart Gordon * Released by Arrow Films
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Re-Animator holds a special place in the hearts of horror and cult movie lovers. Born from the pen of H.P. Lovecraft’s story Herbert West -Reanimator which originally appeared in a pulp magazine in the 1920s there are elements of Frankenstein (1931) and other classic horror films to be found. But don’t expect any kind of reverence here. The film is brilliant in its way over the top execution of special effects. Blood flows freely and gets all over everything. Everything! Director Stuart Gordon worked in theater. This was his first film. He’s got a great cast. Since most of them came from theater they came prepared. There were rehearsals. People knew their lines and characters well. And yet there is something so incredibly subversive and almost giddy in the way the film transcends all expectations. Gordon combines these performances with bloodshed and dark humor to deliver one of the most fun horror films to come along in a long time. When it came out in 1985 people were taken aback. It quickly gained a large cult following. It’s the kind of film that if someone opened a door to find you watching they’d exclaim, “ OMG! What are you watching? And why !?!?!?” That‘s one definition of a cult film.

Two medical students attend Miskatonic University in New England. Dr. Herbert West arrives with a very shady past and a supply of his newly invented serum that glows a phosphorescent green. He starts by bringing back roommate Dean Cain’s cat back from the dead. Soon they are reviving cadavers in the morgue. The locations look very realistic though a bit on the cheap side, as they should be. Dr. West and  Dr. Cain who is dating the Dean’s daughter Megan get on the wrong side of the teaching professor / neurosurgeon Dr. Hill. What they do to him is one of the most outrageous bits. He gets decapitated with his head put in a pan just like in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962). Only this time his body is able to carry the head around. What he does to the lovely Barbara Crampton as Megan is the source of a visual pun that rivals the best dirty joke you heard. Without a doubt there is a bit of the sex crazed fourteen year old mind running loose in the script. The whole film though grounded in the classic horror mythos delights in shattering conventions. As soon as it hit home video the unrated version became the one to see.

Jeffrey Combs is a delight to watch. He plays Dr. West as totally committed to his cause with a generous dollop of perversion. It as if the torch he carries was handed to him by  Ernest Thesiger who was Doctor Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). These guys really push the envelope of what a mad doctor is capable of. Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton are the convincingly normal lovers trying to survive this ordeal. In the longer cut, the Integral version, David Gale as Dr. Hill gets these very old school close ups when he puts the whammy on people to hypnotize them. Director Stuart Gordon moves so easily from old school conventions to his Avant Guarde approach. He mixes them seamlessly. The whole film, either version, flows along just fine. This is one of the most fun and diabolical good times to be had with a horror film. Re-Animator comes highly recommended. If you think you’ll be offended by bloodshed, nudity , mutilation, and perverted sex scenes well put on a big bib because you will be served all of that here in big portions. I’ll leave you with one of Herbert West’s immortal lines delivered when he talks to Dr. Hill’s head, carried in the hands of his headless body.

Herbert West: I must say, Dr. Hill, I’m VERY disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed.
You’re not even a second-rate scientist!  Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow.

Video – 1.85:1
Both version looks terrific here. Colors are bold and even robust in some scenes. Detail is sharp when called for. Dr. West’s phosphorescent green serum pops nicely in the syringes. The morgue and some of the basement scenes have a realistic grimy dank quality to them. This is a definite upgrade from the DVD. I don’t have the previous Blu-Ray for a comparison.

Audio – Original Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 Audio, with subtitles offered in English SDH
Sound is nice and powerful. All dialogue is easy to follow. Richard Band’s score booms out nicely over the credits. He has a nice extra where he goes into detail about his obvious re-imagining of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score.

Extras – Two disc version with both the Integral Version at 105 minutes.
Unrated version at 94 min with commentary with director Stuart Gordon /Commentary with producer Brian Yuzna, actors Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott, and Robert Sampson / Re-Animator Resurrectus documentary on the making of the film, featuring extensive interviews with cast and crew Interview with director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna / Interview with writer Dennis Paoli / Interview with composer Richard Band /Music Discussion with composer Richard Band / Interview with former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone / Barbara Crampton In Conversation the Re-Animator star sits down with journalist Alan Jones for this career-spanning discussion / Deleted and Extended Scenes Trailer & TV Spots /A Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema brand new featurette looking at the many various cinematic incarnations of writer H.P. Lovecraft s work/ Stuart Gordon Featurette on his days in theater.

This looks to have ported over every meaningful extras from the previous editions.  The new walk through of all of the movie adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work is quite fun. They even cover the TV appearances including Pickman’s Model from Night Gallery. Director Stuart Gordon gives an excellent overview of his years working in theater. He worked with Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue), Joe Montenga (Criminal Minds) and David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross). He makes the bold comment that theater is what separates the men from the boys in terms of directing. He’s an articulate and bright man. One can readily see how he uses his extensive background in theatre in the way he works with actors.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Classic

SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW / DRUNKEN MASTER (1978) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

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Stars – Jackie Chan, Shih Tien, Huang Cheng Li, Yuen Hsiao Tieng,
Director – Yuen Wo Ping * Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 Units
Available at Screenarchives.com and Twilighttimemovies.com

Were it not for these two films we might never have seen the Jackie Chan we know so well today. Here is where he found his style and was able to start connecting with an audience. Chan was able to let go of the more structured and stifling heroic type of characters that dominated so much of the period Kung-Fu films made in Hong Kong. His natural sense of humor and boisterousness came through in the way he appeared on screen. The action and fight scenes also show a different attitude. Together with Yuen Wo Ping they had so much more fun with these scenes. Ric Meyers notes in his commentary that Chan sought to differentiate himself from the superstar Bruce Lee. When Lee would hit the wall and go – pow, I would go – ow! The use of found objects for improvised weapons was another way to open these sequences up. Anyone can pick up a sword but who would fight with a bench, a broom, tea cups, saucers, chop sticks or a washcloth.  His character was appreciated as much for his outrageous shenanigans as he was for his combat. To me the breakneck style of filmmaking in Hong Kong then had much in common with the unbridled shoot it on the fly way they worked in America in the silent days. In later years a large part of Chan’s signature style seemed to grow from the stunt work of comedians like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. To put it simply Jackie Chan was a funny guy. He was able to combine that innate often slapstick style of humor with his athleticism to realize his own persona. These two films are the first ones where that persona emerges. After these came out he was well on his way to becoming the superstar we all know.

Both films have a similar storyline and practically the exact same cast. In Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow Jackie plays a man who scrubs the floors in a prestigious Kung-Fu school. A rival style is making mince meat of the students. Jackie finds a wandering Sifu (teacher) who has been thrown out on the street because he can’t pay his rent. He becomes Jackie’s teacher and subjects him to copious forms of abuse. The classic learning sequence that was so much an integral part of films like this was played for laughs. Chan would perform arduous and amazing feats but rather elicit admiration from the audience, they would crack up at his suffering. Hong Kong films when they are cooking really work the crowd. They play to the rowdy seats in the balcony as well as anyone else in the theater. You can almost feel Jackie reaching out to connect with everyone. He is working it hard and so wants you to like the picture. Coming from The Peking Opera to films  his approach is remarkably similar to the comedians who came from Vaudeville performances to the silent movies.

At the school the buffoonish master delights in stepping in a tray full of flour and making footprints all over the floor for Jackie to clean up. It is demeaning and punishing. Once Chan begins his training we see this marvelous bit where he takes two washcloths and artfully slips them under the feet of this guy before he can put his foot down. It’s a combination of Kung-Fu, dance and slapstick. You appreciate the skill but crack up at the way Jackie does this. Further the underdog gets even in a unique and unexpected way that wins us over. Jackie beats the bad guy at the end using a new style he made up combining the antics of a cat he saw fighting a snake. Drunken Master tells the same story but adds two elements. The first is that Jackie plays a young Wong Fe Hung. Fe Hung is a popular folk hero. There are tons of movies made about him. Jackie’s comedic interpretation of him let him reach for a larger audience. The second elements is Drunken Kung-Fu. Just about every style has the ability to perform in a drunken manner. It is funny to see but also contains a very real lesson about loosening up and becoming more fluid. So while that training can help a student realize a more relaxed level it also is a great untapped bit to have fun with on the screen. The more Jackie drinks the better he fights. It is worth noting that he is taking concepts from legitimate fighting styles that everyone will recognize and having fun with them. Does that overstep any bounds? Is that at all disrespectful? Not the way he does it. It is endearing and the more you know the funnier it is. This man really knows how to play to a crowd.

Drunken Master is the better of the two but both are a whole lot of fun. The prowess and the promise that Jackie Chan shows here is considerable. These are highly recommended.

Video – 2.35:1
Years back I used to go to Chinatown in NYC and look through all the stores in search of decent VHS copies of these films. Since Hong Kong prior to 1987 was still a British colony the films were supposed to and almost always did have English subtitles. This made them very accessible to fans who could not understand Mandarin or Cantonese. Some of the tapes had horrendous quality. There was a tiny store uptown off Eight Avenue called The 43rdStreet Chamber that had a huge selection of these films. Every once in a while when I asked about the quality of  one the man behind the counter would beam and say it looks like ice! So beautiful. Collecting back them was a real adventure. Suggestions and recommendations at stores like that allowed you to keep up with the vast amount of flicks that were made in Hong Kong. I never ever would have believe back then that I would hold in my hands copies that looked as good as these. The aspect ratio is correct. Colors are clear and bold. Nothing is washed out. Black levels are fine and do not descend into a murky miasma at the edges. These, to me are stunning looking.

Audio – Cantonese, Mandarin and English 1.0 DTS HD with subtitles offered in English SDH
These films were all shot MOS (without sound) and dubbed later so the sound is always a bit on the wonky side. Most fans have grown to appreciate that unusual quality. While many first encountered these films in English dubs of varying quality it is a good experience to hear them at least dubbed in their own language. You’ll get to recognize many of the voices if you watch too many of these. The subtitles are not 100% accurate but since the vast majority of information comes across visually it is not egregious.
“NOTE: In sections of the Cantonese and Mandarin audio tracks where the original dialogue is missing on Drunken Master, an English dub will play”

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track, Drunken Master Audio Commentary with Film Historians Ric Meyers and Jeff Yang.

Rick Meyers is a huge fountain of information. He will stop Jeff Yang in mid sentence to point out the film background of any number of people who enter the frame. He gives a very nice appreciation for the film putting it into the context of the time. Meyers and Yang also give us a strong sense of the culture the film came out off. There is a great deal of good information here. Their demeanor wavers back and forth from a respected film historian to an over eager friend sitting next to you who just won’t stop going on about the movie. I’ve read Meyers’ movie review column in Inside Kung-Fu, heard any number of commentaries from him and always find him to be a friendly source of solid information. He is clearly nuts about theses films. For a lot of us he is preaching to the choir. Tell it, brother !

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Classic

George A. Romero – February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017

Monday, July 17th, 2017

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An incredible director who leaves an indelible mark on the genre and all of filmmaking.

He was also a genuinely nice guy. Thanks for the inspiration for for scaring the crap out of me on more than one occasion.

RIP. Long live the king

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SHALAKO (1968) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

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Stars – Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot, Stephen Boyd, Woody Strode, Honor Blackman
Director – Edward Dmytryx * Released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

What is with this obsession to have a theme song in westerns? We heard Do Not Forsake Me over the credits and throughout High Noon (1952). There‘s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) sung by Gene Pitney. Then there is Chisum (1970) another John Wayne film with Merle Haggard asking in a gravely voice if Chisum can still keep going on. And what about that chorus of singing in Navajo Joe (1966) with Burt Reynolds? The Sons of The Pioneers ask What makes a man wander and Ride Away in The Searchers (1956). The Wild Bunch (1969) didn’t have any songs about Pike Bishop, they just rode in and started shooting. In this one we get to hear another chorus singing against a huge string section letting us know that , “Love came to Shalako”. That’s not really a complaint. But as someone who loves westerns there just seems to be an inordinate amount of theme songs going around. Some good, some bad but way more than necessary.

Thanks to the James Bond films Sean Connery had tremendous appeal at the box office. There was definitely a search for other vehicles for him to star in. The Hill made right after Goldfinger with Sidney Lumet directing was an exceptional picture but not real popular. A Fine Madness made after Thunderball was just kind of weird. The trailer shows Connery playing the part of a mad poet who seems to be punching a series of women in every scene. Shalako followed You Only Live Twice and is a much better fit for him. Here he plays a former cavalry man who keeps to himself. He spots a party of rich European dilatants who are hunting in Apache territory. Countess Brigitte Bardot has gone off with only one man for protection. The man is ruthlessly stacked out on a spear and left to die. Shalako rescues the Countess. Surrounded by the Apaches they give their word that they will leave. Once back at camp the pompous aristocrats refuse to be run off by a bunch of savages.

The rest of the film is a series of power shifts from the cowboys hired to escort the hunting party led by Stephen Boyd (Ben-Hur) to the rich hunters and finally to Shalako the only one who can hope to save them. Prior to the real fighting the script builds up the Apaches as a band of very fierce fighters. This is something that The Stalking Moon released the same year also did well. The action scenes were staged by Bond stuntman Bob Simmons. His work is very assured and exciting. There is an extended scene where one of the women is tossed around and taunted as her clothes are ripped off. It’s an unsettling sequence that serves to place the attackers in a frightful light. In an interesting twist of character one of the elite hunters leads the party up a mountain to evade the coming onslaught. The party has to climb ropes and work their way up the treacherous mountain. The sight of someone dangling from a rope as they swing helplessly over the rocks below is a clever change of pace.

Sean Connery is a terrific lead. He is always commanding and cool. He rides well and is believable as a western hero. A brief bit of text at the beginning explaining how Europeans came to America then helps defray any qualms about his accent. Honor Blackman who appeared in Goldfinger with Connery plays against type as a distasteful manipulative bitch. Early on you know her character won’t make it through the picture. Woody Strode (The Professionals) who is always good to have on hand in any western winds up with the part of the leader of the marauding Apache. A bit of research reveals that the bulk of his party were made up of Gypsies local to the shooting location in Spain.  Shalako remains a decent western and one of the films that helped Connery to break away from the James Bond secret agent casting trap.

Video – 2.35:1
As the credits play it looks like we are going to be in for a rough ride. Titles get a trim off the top and sides. They are fair at best. However once the film proper starts with an exterior sunlit close up of Stephen Body things look a whole lot better. The bulk of the close ups and medium shots outside look good. Colors are fine and detail is okay. However some of the long distance shots appear soft and washed out. Landscapes which normally are striking in these films get a generally poor showing. Once in awhile we’ll see a beautiful looking wide shot but not all the time. Though the transfer may be fine the original elements offer up an inconsistent image. It is always watchable but often feels lacking.

Audio – DTS with subtitles offered in English
Dialogue is clear enough and easy to follow. There is a real plethora of accents flying about here.

Extras – Commentary by Alex Cox, Trailers

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

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Good