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TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (1958) BLU-RAY REVIEW

July 30th, 2017

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Stars – Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot * Director – Joseph H. Lewis

* Released by Arrow Films *Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Terror in a Texas Town is a B movie western that has more than a few things going for it. Director Joseph H. Lewis had a knack for making cheap pictures look good and even great thanks to his visual style and affinity for offbeat and dark characters. He’s most well know for My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), the Incredible Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1995). But don’t forget that he is also the man who directed three Bowery Boys films back when they were called The East Side Kids as well as a few singing cowboy pictures. The plot of this one is pretty straight forward but with one very neat twist. The film opens with what looks to be a classic shoot out on Main Street. We see this mostly from the point of view of the bad guy. He’s egging on the other guy to make a move, to go for it. Only the good guy, Sterling Hayden doesn’t have a pistol to draw. He’s lifting up a damn whaling harpoon and getting ready to throw it. There’s an image you don’t see every day. The film will close with this same showdown only this time from Hayden’s point of view.

We’ve seen this set up many times before. Fat cat Sebastian Cabot is buying up all the land in this small little town because he knows there is oil there. If they do not sell he has his henchman run them off or shoot them. Nedrick Young is dressed all in black and plays his scenes like a third rate Humphrey Bogart impersonator. Nick wrote better than he acted. He did the screenplays for Jailhouse Rock, The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind. Sterling Hayden comes to two look for his father who has been gunned down by this henchman. Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo working under the name Ben Perry makes a big deal out of how frightened the townspeople are to stand up against Cabot. Similar to the refusal of Hollywood to stand up to Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts. He highlights the few who do with a real appreciation. A latino farmer and the Swedish Sterling Hayden are the first to buck the trend. At the very end the whole community rallies around him, they take to the streets and march against the crooked robber baron, albeit led by a man carrying a harpoon. His father was a whaler so using that particular device as a weapon for justice makes sense. His father was shot dead trying to fight with it but you know that Hayden will hit his mark. That shot of the bad guy impaled by a harpoon is pretty remarkable.

Lewis does a lot of interesting framing. He frequently puts something in the foreground, stages his action in the middle and then adds something else way in the background. This give a lot of depth and also just makes the shot more compelling. We even get to see his trademark wagon wheel in the foreground shot. Apparently some of his crew used to call him Wagon Wheel since he liked that bit so much. Those who have only seen his Film Noirs and urban work will now get the chance to see this bit. Sterling Hayden works well here. He even carries off the accent. He is stalwart and a man of justice. He stands tall. It’s what the part calls for and he fills it well. Sebastian Cabot is also a treat to watch. He fiddles with bowls of fruit as he manipulates the townspeople as easily as popping another grape in his mouth. This one is not in the same league as the big films Lewis is known for but it is done very well and offers up a bizarre twist on the  typical western. It wants to be a fun B picture and it absolutely is that.

Video – 1.85:1
Much of this film looks fantastic with strong contrast and good black levels. Three are sections though where the grain gets out of hand and others where an overall softness of image takes over. These are not at all the norm. It almost feels as if there were different sources in involved or a varying quality inherent in the one that was used. Still this look pretty darn good for this film. Easily the best I have ever seen it.

Audio – Mono 1.0 PCM with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is easy to follow. The score by Gerald Fried is interesting. He’ll often use a sparse acoustic guitar highlighted by a lone trumpet. It’s done in a classical style that recalls the score to Murder by Contract made the same year.

Extras – Introduction by Peter Stanfield, Visual Style featurette, Scene-select commentaries by Stanfield ,Theatrical trailer, Reversible sleeve art, Illustrated collector s booklet available in the first pressing only.

The Introduction by Peter Stanfield is more of a depreciation of Joseph Lewis. He starts right off by telling us that if we came to this film expecting the same quality as we found in Gun Crazy or The Big Combo then we will not get it. He tells us it simply will not work to consider Lewis an auteur of any kind. He makes his case framing Lewis as a director for hire , an artist without a theme. Then he goes on to give a pretty good account of many of the elements that Lewis brings to this film in a second featurette on his visual style. For me Stanfield was an odd choice. We generally look to an extra to enhance our appreciation of a film or aspects of it. On occasion some humor is welcome if called for. This guy doesn’t seem to enjoy films, especially this one. He’s a bit too academic and not the kind of guy I’d want to carry my harpoon into a gunfight.

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

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent for the film, not the extras

Movie – Good

THE HUNTING PARTY (1971) BLU-RAY REVIEW

July 30th, 2017

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Stars – Oliver Reed, Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen
Director – Don Medford * Released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

When this film came out the critics and many film goers raised holy Hell about it. There was a real uproar. Maybe it was the pent up shock and anger that had been held in. The shock caused by the considerable violence in films like Bonnie & Clyde and The Wild Bunch. There had never been violence in movies on this kind of graphic scale ever before. This was a new era and some people plainly did not like it one bit. Candice Bergen must have had a really tough time in 1971. She starred in Solder Blue which came out before this picture. The film ends with the wholesale slaughter and rape of a Cheyenne village. Cavalry swords are swung. Limbs are cut off at the knee and shoulder. It is a harrowing sequence. But somehow that film with its message and re-examination of justice in The American West got by with an outcry that was not as loud. The Hunting Party was vilified as  one mean son of a bitch with unlikable characters that had no business being seen in American movie theaters. Naturally all that uproar made me really want to see it. For some reason it’s been a tough one to track down.

The first starts with Hackman forcing himself on his wife, Candice Bergen. He appears impotent and full of rage. Hackman then sets off on a trip with a group of super rich businessman buddies on a private train. It is a very fancy rig complete with one car full of dolled up hookers. Hackman makes a special presentation gift to his friends of what he calls, ” a Sharps-Borchardt Model Creedmoor rifle” with a range of 800 yards. That night Hackman takes a lit cigar to one of the ladies on the train. A little while later Oliver Reed literally swoops Bergen up from in front of a school house and carries her off with his band of ragged outlaws. He protects her from being raped by one of his men and asks her to teach him to read. The two begin to form a bond. Though still a world class ruffian Reed treats her well. There is a scene that does not quite fit of them enjoying a jar of fresh succulent peaches under the cool shadow of a parked wagon. It is at first played for laughs then as a bit of sexual foreplay. There is tension in Reed’s gang but he holds them together as the bond between him and the kidnapped woman grows.

When Hackman learns of his wife’s abduction he becomes enraged. It’s not because he loves her but because someone has had the balls to steal from him. Instead of hunting buffalo with their new long rifles with telescopes he insists that his group hunt down the men who stole from him. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of their hunt is the fact that these dilatants who would normally not be able to even stand toe to toe with the men they are after are able to shoot at them from such a distance. The first encounter finds Hackmen’s group on a hill very far away from the other men. They use binoculars to spot them. They can pick them off at will with absolutely no danger of being hit. The bullets fly into their targets and explode out the other side. The back of a man’s head explodes taking a large piece of scalp with it. It’s a turkey shoot. Reed’s men can’t even see who is shooting at them. After several long distance encounters some of Hackman’s men back off. They just don’t have the stomach for it, killing men as opposed to buffalo. He carries on with one loyal friend. These guys are thoroughly reprehensible.

Don Medford is largely a TV director with tons of episodes to his name. He did the famous two part ending of The Fugitive which was a ratings bonanza and a taut well done ending to a popular series. His work here is fine. There is not a lot of dialogue. With the exception of the scene with the peaches this is a pretty unrelenting tough western. There are several recognizable stars such as L.Q. Jones (the Wild Bunch) , Simon Oakland (The Night Stalker) and G.D. Spradlin (Apocalypse Now) who all do typically great work. Though Hackman’s character is despicable the real danger here is the long rifle with the telescope. The Martini-Henry rifle is a descendant of the weapon used in the famous Battle of Rorke’s Drift depicted in the movie Zulu (1964). The Hunting Party may be too much a product of its time. There is a real air of distaste for the robber barons led by Hackman who throw their weight around. The violence, which is done very well, casts a pall over the whole film. It overshadows the budding romance between Reed and Bergen. Not top shelf and a bit too unusual for its own good The Hunting Party still has a lot to offer the hardcore western junkie or those who want to see what all the fuss was about.

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Video – 1.85:1
The picture looks good. The vistas and landscapes are rendered well. Almost every shot looks too hot, you can feel the unrelenting heat that bears down on the characters. The action takes place almost entirely outside in the daytime.

Audio – English DTS-HD MA 2 with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is easy to follow though there is not a whole lot of that. Music and effects sit well in the mix.

Extras – Interview with Actor Mitchell Ryan | Audio Commentary by Film Historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson | Trailers / The case features a reversible cover with the alternate poster art.

Actor Michael Ryan talks about being thrown off the film for being a drinking buddy with Oliver Reed and keeping him out too late. We hear that Reed insisted Ryan be brought back on the picture. Reed’s drinking was legendary, Ryan looks back on the lack of dialogue in the picture as a benefit as they were both wasted during much of the shoot.
While the anecdotes are funny, that kind of behavior had to have been frustrating to all the others on the shoot.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good

EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (*BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK (1972) BLU-RAY REVIEW

July 29th, 2017

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Stars – Woody Allen, Burt Reynolds, Gene Wilder, Tony Randall
Director – Woody Allen * Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

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

Who would make a movie out of a best selling book that answers questions about sex? Woody Allen turns this task into a series of naughty and often very funny sketches. Each part of the film is a question and answer opening with a written question and providing the answer in a film segment. There are seven chapters. Allen makes each one into an astute parody of a type of movie.

Do Aphrodisiacs Work? Features Allen as a court jester lusting after the queen (Lynn Redgrave). He has a special potion prepared that gets her good and hot only he gets foiled but a heavy duty chastity belt. It’s done in full medieval period costume with peppy Burt Bacharach style music moving things along. The second, What Is Sodomy?, finds Gene Wilder in love with a sheep. The third, Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching an Orgasm? is done as a racy Italian film with Allen seeking advice about his wife’s problems from a friend. They all dress in the height of that early seventies trendy Euro-fashion.  What’s so clever is that they all speak Italian as we read the subtitles. Another segment features Lou Jacobi as a man with a mustache who loves to dress up in women’s clothing. There is a science fiction movie parody complete with John Carradine as the mad scientist who has created a giant breast that runs amuck in the countryside. For the last one, What Happens During Ejaculation? we go inside the workings of the human body. Tony Randall (The Odd Couple) runs the mission control in the brain. He has to contend with getting all the body functions into proper alignment so their man can achieve his mission. Allen has a bit part in this one as one of the sperm with tiny tails. They all line up together like nervous astronauts

The jokes flow fast. They are high brow and low brow. The situations are often hysterical. As you watch you can’t help but see how well versed Allen is in recreating all these different film styles and tropes. He moves his camera differently in each one. It is clear that he really is a student of film grammar and that he is quite capable of making a more complicated type of movies than he has made thus far. Still his main goal here is humor and he hits the target more often than not. Allen plays three roles and a cameo so his fans who need to see him get plenty of him on camera. There are some fun celebrity appearances sprinkled throughout. For me this is Gene Wilder’s funniest bit, even outdoing his work with Mel Brooks. Without a doubt this is dated. It is very much from the time period when sketch comedy was prevalent on TV. Carol Burnett and Red Skelton had hugely popular shows that revolved completely around this type of comedy format. There are those that claim Woody Allen’s first films were his best. The time when he was really funny and in it purely for the laughs. That‘s not a fair assessment of his work however if you judge whether a comedy works or not by how much you laugh then this one works, for me. We don’t all find the same things funny or have the same sense of humor. Woody Allen is a filmmaker and a comedian. He shows off both skills here. Whoever came up wit the idea of putting Gene Wilder in a hotel room with a sheep, a sheep in black stockings and a garter belt mind you… Well that’s just inspired.

Video – 1,85:1
The film looks fine as presented here. Portions are on the soft side at times which was how it was made. It is a real kick to see how Allen gives each chapter its own look. The TV game show has all of the characteristics of over the air TV from back then.

Audio – DTS-HD 1.0 with subtitles offered in English SDH
Of course there are mandatory subtitles in the Italian film parody. You can hear all the English actors speaking Italian or at least saying the words.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track , Original trailer

Woody Allen is not known to add extras to his films. They stand on their own.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent

RE-ANIMATOR (1985) BLU-RAY REVIEW

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