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June 20, 2006

Welcome to the DVD Late Show. I’m your host, Christopher Mills, a struggling writer, compulsive DVD collector and fanatical film buff with a particular fondness for the imaginative, offbeat, obscure and unusual. For a little more than a year, I’ve been reviewing and previewing cult, genre and exploitation films on DVD – covering the gamut of cult classics, vintage sci-fi, foreign freakshows, sleazy sexploitation, Spaghetti Westerns, kaiju eiga, giallos, unusual animation, forgotten horrors, late night TV shows, and oddball action flicks – and I’m not going to stop now!

Originally, this particular column was going to be devoted exclusively to more of the horror DVDs that have been piling up on my To Be Viewed/Reviewed stack, but that was before I knew this was going to be the first DVD Late Show under the new Quick Stop Entertainment management/brand. It made sense, therefore, to instead review a wider variety of new and upcoming DVD titles to give newcomers a better idea of the scope of this column.

So, without further ado…the biggest Late Show yet!

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In the Sixties and Seventies, England’s Amicus Films produced a string of horror anthology films, using some of the top genre stars of the era and screenplays by such legendary horror scribes as Robert Bloch (PSYCHO, TORTURE GARDEN). ASYLUM (1972), directed by Hammer Films veteran Roy Ward Baker (SCARS OF DRACULA), is a particularly entertaining entry in the series.

A young psychiatrist (Robert Powell, THE ASPHYX) interviews four inmates in a mental asylum to try and determine which one was the former director of the institution before going mad. Is it the wronged wife (Barbara Parkins) whose affair ended in grisly murder? The poverty-stricken tailor (Barry Morse, SPACE: 1999) who was commissioned to make a suit out of an unusual glowing material for a mysterious client (horror legend Peter Cushing)? The schizophrenic beauty (Charlotte Rampling of ZARDOZ) who insists that her possibly imaginary friend (Britt Ekland, THE WICKER MAN) really killed her brother? Or the mad genius (Herbert Lom, Hammer’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) who builds homicidal toy robots with human heads?

Loaded with experienced horror performers, a dry wit and PG-rated gore and thrills, ASYLUM is a fun and rewarding trip back to the days when horror films had grown-up casts and clever scripts. Sure, the effects may be hokey by today’s standards, but that’s part of the nostalgic charm.

Previously issued some years ago by Image Entertainment on a bare bones disc with a soft, scratchy, incorrectly framed print, ASYLUM is about to be re-issued by Dark Sky Films in a vastly-superior edition. Featuring a new, improved transfer culled from original vault materials, and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, this shock cinema staple has never looked better, with strong, well-balanced colors and impressive detail.

Dark Sky has also seen fit to include a few choice extras, including a full-length, informative commentary track by director Baker and cameraman Neil Binney. There’s also a short featurette called “Inside the Fear Factory,” that chronicles the history of Amicus and includes interviews with some of the studio’s prime movers, including the late Max J. Rosenberg, the president of the company. Additionally, there are bios of the cast and crew, a still gallery, and trailers/TV spots for ASYLUM and Dark Sky’s other upcoming Amicus titles.

My only criticism of the release is that screenwriter Robert Bloch’s name is misspelled on the DVD sleeve as “Robert Black.” Considering Bloch’s status as one of the all-time great writers of horror fiction, the mistake is particularly unfortunate.

ASYLUM will be hitting the shelves on July 25. If you’re a fan of vintage horror, you’ll want to pick it up, and if you happen to own the earlier Image version – as I do – it’s definitely worth buying again in this new edition. It’s that much better.

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Regular readers of this column know that I dig those “Women In Prison” (WIP) flicks of the Seventies and early Eighties, the raunchier and more perverted the better. Well, I think I’ve just discovered the sleaziest WIP movie ever made. Oswaldo de Oliveira’s insane, utterly over-the-top BARE BEHIND BARS (a/k/a A PRISÃO, 1980) may very well be the ultimate in chicks ‘n chains cinema.

As usual, there’s no real plot to speak of, but all the usual elements of the WIP genre are present, and taken to the extreme. You’ve got beautiful naked convicts, the lusty lesbian warden, a perverted prison nurse, horny guards, full-body cavity searches, sapphic shower sex, rapes, torture, castrations, car chases and white slavery… but where in every other WIP flick they seem to stop just short of delivering the goods, BARE BEHIND BARS goes all the way, with copious bloodletting and hardcore sex scenes.

Yet, mixed in with all the carnality and carnage, there’s a definite and deliberate sense of the absurd. Obviously, while everybody involved was determined to leave no exploitation opportunity unfulfilled, there’s still the feeling that no one involved was taking it all that seriously. Pineapples are used as sex toys, a rubber dildo makes its way from cell to cell in amusing ways, and a man’s severed sex organ is tossed to a stray dog to get it to stop barking. No, really. And it’s funny.

Well, it made me laugh.

Blue Underground’s DVD of BARE BEHIND BARS presents the film in a surprisingly sharp and impressive 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer that belies the film’s 26-year age. Every decadent detail is crystal sharp and print damage is virtually non-existent The Brazilian import is dubbed into English and the movie is presented unrated, although BU has designed the packaging to include a huge “X” on the front cover. The only extra is a theatrical trailer, but I can’t complain. The movie is the real bonus here.

It’s not for prudes or the squeamish, but if you’re a fan of WIP films and feel that they never quite go far enough, BARE BEHIND BARS just might be what you’re looking for.

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THE BEAST MUST DIE, a 1972 offering from England’s Amicus Studios, has one of the coolest B-movie, genre-blending plots I’ve ever come across. Directed by Paul Annette, from a screenplay by Michael Winder, BEAST is based on a short story by famed SF writer James Blish.

Millionaire sportsman Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM) has bagged every sort of big game trophy there is… except one. He summons six of his acquaintances to his isolated (and heavily video monitored) country estate for the weekend. Over dinner, he announces that he’s come to the conclusion that one of his guests (which include the late greats, Peter Cushing and Charles Gray) is a werewolf, and come moonrise, he will hunt it down and kill it.

Thus, the stage is set for a movie that’s part Agatha Christie’s TEN LITTLE INDIANS and part THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. There’s also a touch of blaxploitation, and bit of Bond, with Newcliffe’s high-tech security gadgets and handy helicopter. Peter Cushing (CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, STAR WARS) spouts tons of inconsistent werewolf lore, Charles Gray (THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, ROCKY HORROR) looks annoyed, Lockhart overplays his part in an entertaining manner, and the rest of the cast dutifully subject themselves to one inconclusive “werewolf test” after another. Plot holes abound, and there’s some not-entirely-effective day-for-night photography, but there’s a nice fake-out twist near the end and the movie’s never dull.

And, did I mention the “Werewolf Break?” It’s a gimmick that would have made William Castle proud. About an hour and ten minutes into the movie, the narrative stops, and there’s a 30-second break where the viewer is encouraged to pick which of the possible suspects is the werewolf. Not as easy as you’d think, since the werewolf’s identity is so arbitrary that you’d think Kevin Williamson wrote the screenplay, but it’s a fun, nostalgic gag – even if the director hated it.

The werewolf in this film is portrayed by a large black dog with a fur stole tied around its neck, but it kinda works. The music by Douglas Gamley is very “early Seventies,” but it’s effective enough – actually, the whole movie is pretty effective if you approach it in the right frame of mind.

Previously issued by Image Entertainment in a bare-bones edition with a decidedly scratchy, battered print, Dark Sky’s forthcoming reissue is a marked improvement in all ways. Beginning with a new anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer from a nearly pristine vault print source, Dark Sky has delivered a great, fully packed disc. There’s a commentary track by director Annett, two featurettes – Annett’s tribute to Peter Cushing and the behind-the-scenes “Directing The Beast” – a still gallery, cast and crew bios and the same trailers and TV spots that are on the company’s ASYLUM disc.

Hitting stores on July 25, THE BEAST MUST DIE is a fun, if flawed, fright flick and I recommend it. As with ASYLUM, if you bought the earlier disc, you’ll want to upgrade.

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The long-awaited Michele Soavi classic CEMETERY MAN (a/k/a DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, 1994) finally makes its DVD debut, courtesy of Anchor Bay.

Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett, MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING) is a cemetery watchman who spends his nights waiting for the dead to rise from their graves so he can pop a cap in their heads and re-bury them. But after a graveside sexual encounter with a kinky widow (the gorgeous Anna Falchi, in three roles) ends badly, Francesco begins to reconsider his place in the world, and starts to wonder if it might just save time and effort to blow people’s brains out while they’re still alive.

Then, of course, there’s Francesco’s assistant, the obese and imbecilic Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro), who’s carrying on a love affair with the re-animated, decapitated head of the local mayor’s daughter…

Filled with darkly poetic imagery and macabre black humor, CEMETERY MAN is a genuine classic of Italian horror cinema, and a truly unique film experience. Based on a novel by European comic creator Tiziano Sclavi, director Michele Soavi (STAGE FRIGHT, THE CHURCH) has crafted possibly the most original horror film of the 1990’s.

Anchor Bay presents the film in a sharp, clean 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There’s been some online debate as to whether the aspect ratio on this edition is as Soavi intended, but the framing looks fine to me. The dubbed English track is presented in a clear Dolby Digital 5.1.

Anchor Bay has included a well-produced, new featurette called “Death is Beautiful,” which features interviews with director Soavi and star Anna Falchi, and some great behind-the-scenes info, a Michele Soavi text bio, and the original theatrical trailer (in Italian). There’s also a nice little 8-page booklet with liner notes by Michael Felsher.

For those who have been eagerly awaiting a Region 1 release of this important film, you’re definitely going to want to pick this up.

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Dark Sky Films have just unleashed another in their Drive-In Double Feature series upon the DVD collecting public with two Sixties color sci-fi oddities, CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS/WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS (1962/1965).

CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS is a surprisingly cerebral and cinematically inept sci-fi treatise on tolerance set some decades after a nuclear war, when mankind has created a race of blue-skinned ‘bots to help rebuild civilization. Disparagingly called “clickers,” the robots continue to evolve, becoming more human-like. But not everyone is happy about that. A fanatical group of humans called The Order of Flesh and Blood is dedicated to halting the ‘bots’ evolution and preserving human purity. One of its leaders, Cragis (Don Megowan, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US) is surprised to discover that his own sister is living “in rapport” with a “clicker,” and goes to confront her. But there are greater surprises in store for Cragis…

Wesley Barry’s direction is static, giving the film the feel of a stage play, with very little cutting and only a few (very long) scenes, made up almost entirely of dialogue. While thematically, the movie could be seen as a precursor to Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER, cinematically, it’s about on the level of an Ed Wood film. In fact, Dudley Manlove, one of the stars of Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, plays one of the chatty “clickers.”

As a side note for genre film buffs, the legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce, who decades earlier had created the original Frankenstein and Wolf Man make-ups for Universal, devised the bald, blue-skin look of the “clickers.” Sadly, CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS was one of the genius make-up maestro’s last credits.

The second feature (actually, the first on the menu but not on the packaging) is Antonio Margheriti’s (CASTLE OF BLOOD, TAKE A HARD RIDE) colorful space opera, WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS. One of four inter-related sci-fi potboilers Margheriti directed in the mid-Sixties, WAR tells the sometimes-exciting tale of the Earth space force’s battle with a rogue, living planet – which just happens to be on a collision course with Earth. Filled with delightfully cheesy miniature spaceships, space stations and model cities, not to mention square-jawed heroes and the Continental cuties they live love and fight for, WAR is a Fifties’ pulp magazine story come to vivid life. It’s a little talky at the beginning, but it pays off at the end, when our heroes land on and descend into the (literal) bowels of the wandering planet. Great fun, if you’re in the right mood.

This second volume in Dark Sky Films’ “Drive-In Double Feature” line offers both films in nearly pristine 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, absolutely rock-solid color transfers, with virtually no visible specks or scratches. WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS is dubbed into English and both films are presented in 2.0 Dolby mono. Dark Sky has the disc set up so you can watch the two films as one long drive-in program – complete with trailers and snack bar intermission promos – or individually. The packaging is great, too.

Now that MGM seems to have all but abandoned its line of Midnight Movie double features discs, Dark Sky has helped fill the void with their own high quality, classic cult double-feature line. CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS/WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS is a satisfying two-shot of drive-in nostalgia and highly recommended for vintage sci-fi fans.

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To tie in with Warner Bros. recent special edition of the 1967 World War II movie classic, THE DIRTY DOZEN, MGM has dug into its vaults and unearthed a couple of late Eighties TV-movie sequels and issued them as a double feature, THE DIRTY DOZEN: THE DEADLY MISSION/THE FATAL MISSION (1987/1988).

In THE DEADLY MISSION, Major Wright (Telly Savalas, replacing Lee Marvin, who originated the role in the theatrical feature and one previous TV sequel) must assemble a new 12-man team of military convicts for a suicide mission behind enemy lines. In this case, the target is a secret nerve gas factory and their orders are to blow it up and extract the scientists working there so the Nazis can’t try again. It’s pretty much a retread of the theatrical film, but Savalas makes an acceptable lead (he played one of the convicts in the 1967 original, so there’s at least a tenuous connection) and the new dozen includes such familiar faces as Randall “Tex” Cobb (RAISING ARIZONA), Gary Graham (TV’s ALIEN NATION), Bo Svenson (WALKING TALL PART 2) and a couple of Van Pattens. With authentic-looking Yugoslavian locations, fairly high production values, and solid direction by Lee H. Katzin, DEADLY MISSION is a better-than-average TV adventure movie.

Set near the end of the war, THE FATAL MISSION requires Maj. Wright (Savalas again) to assemble one last team of convict commandos to take out a trainload of Nazis on their way to the Middle East to establish a new base of power for the continuation of the Third Reich. The titular dozen this time includes Erik Estrada (DO OR DIE, CHiPs), John Matusak (ONE MAN FORCE), Ernie Hudson (GHOSTBUSTERS, CONGO), Jeff Conaway (GREASE, BABYLON 5), and – in a first for the franchise – Heather Thomas, the blonde bikini-clad babe from THE FALL GUY. The story, while following the established formula, is a bit different this time, with an enemy agent imbedded in the group and the presence of a woman on the team (Thomas is surprisingly good here). Katzin’s direction is once again efficient and briskly paced.

MGM’s two-disc package is bare bones but serviceable, with each movie on its own single-sided disc, presented in their original full screen TV aspect ratios. Sound is Dolby Digital stereo, and the movies are unrated. There are no extra features whatsoever.

If you’re a fan of the franchise, it might be worth picking up: you get two decent DIRTY DOZEN teleflicks at a low retail price. If you’re not a fan, well, you wouldn’t want to see them anyway, right?

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Another legendary B-movie finally makes its way to DVD thanks to those twisted geniuses at Dark Sky Films. In fact, for diehard fans of vintage drive-in cinema, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER (1965) is probably the most essential DVD release of the year.

Martians in a flying saucer keep blowing up America’s rockets because they think they’re hostile missiles. Confused, and determined to stop losing valuable flesh and blood astronauts, NASA sends a remarkably advanced (and certainly expensive) android named “Frank Saunders” (Robert Reilly) on their next space mission. The Martians shoot him down too, of course, causing his capsule to crash land in Puerto Rico. In one of those classic cosmic coincidences, the Martians land there too and hit the beach to round up bikini babes for breeding purposes. Frank, damaged in the crash, wanders the Puerto Rican landscape in a malfunctioning, murderous daze while his creator Dr. Steele (James Karen, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) searches for him from the back of a Vespa scooter. Eventually, all the above parties collide, and the space age Frankenstein (get it?) must go toe-to-toe with the Martians’ shaggy Space Monster (Bruce Glover – Crispin’s dad – who also plays one of the Martian crewmembers).

Padded with tons of stock footage – close to half the running time, by my estimate – and loaded with camp acting, shoddy sets, military surplus costumes and nearly non-existent production values, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER may well be the cheapest, most absurd, inane, inept and oddly enjoyable exploitation flick of the Sixties.

It’s pure, giddy fun, right up there with Ed Wood’s “classics.”

Dark Sky’s DVD is a delight, with a remarkable 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is amazingly sharp and clear (except for the extensive stock footage, which, understandably, varies considerably). Audio is clear Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. For extras, Dark Sky has included a 16-page booklet with liner notes by the film’s screenwriter, a still gallery, and the original theatrical trailer. Even the cover art is great, reminiscent of Sixties monster mags.

Highly recommended for aficionados of “bad” movies.

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I vaguely recall kinda liking the first UNDERWORLD flick a couple years ago (although that was probably just because I enjoyed looking at the fetching Kate Beckinsale in that skintight black rubber suit), so I was pleased when Sony’s UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (2005) showed up in my mailbox. (Woo-hoo! More Kate!) As it turned out, while it’s no classic, I found director Len Wiseman’s sequel to be a fairly entertaining flick.

For one thing, the plot is simpler. The protagonists of the first film – sexy fugitive Deathdealer (vampire) Selene (Kate Beckinsale, VAN HELSING) and Lycan (werewolf) hybrid Michael (Scott Speedman, FELICITY) – find themselves unwittingly embroiled in a quest by the world’s very first vampire – a bat-winged badass named Marcus (Tony Curran, FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX) – to revive his twin brother William, the world’s first werewolf, and unleash him on the world.

Beautifully shot and designed, UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION drops much of the over-complicated plotting and political underpinnings of the original film in favor of a straightforward monster mash. Personally, I approve. Beckinsale looks great in black latex and the creatures are extremely well designed. In fact, albino werewolf William is by far the coolest looking CGI lycanthrope I’ve yet seen in a film.

Sony’s DVD is a nice package, with a sterling 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a window-rattling Dolby 5.1 surround mix. They’ve also included a slew of informative featurettes, covering everything from the film’s stunt work and visual effects to sound design. Director Len Wiseman contributes a lively commentary, and there’s a music video by the band Atreyu (wasn’t that the kid in THE NEVER-ENDING STORY?).

For fans of the original film, Kate Beckinsale’s butt, or monster mayhem in general, UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION is a good bet for a weekend rental. I liked it.

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From director Jun Fukuda and special effects wiz Nakano Teruyoshi, the creators of several Seventies’ Godzilla epics, comes Toho Studios’ 1977 interstellar adventure, WAR IN SPACE (WAKUSEI DAISENSO).

Conceived by Toho Studios as a STAR WARS rip-off, the final film owes more to Gerry Anderson’s British television shows UFO and SPACE: 1999 and the Japanese studios’ own Sixties sci-fi thrillers like ATRAGON and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE than to George Lucas’ intergalactic epic.

In the (then-future) year of 1988, UFOs attack the Earth. While the invaders are devastating New York, Paris, Tokyo and the world’s other major cities, a team of scientists race to complete a space battleship called Ghoten. Once launched, the ship and its crew head for Venus, to counterattack the aliens. Along the way, the only female crewmember (Yuko Asano) is kidnapped by the green-skinned, Roman-helmeted alien leader and his horned wookie, UFOs engage in high-speed dogfights with the Earth fighters above the barren Venusian landscape, and space ships explode impressively.

The old school, handcrafted special effects work – finely detailed miniatures on mostly-invisible wires – is expertly executed and effective. The spaceships, in a decidedly Asian conceit, resemble sea-faring vessels, and the alien flagship is specifically modeled on ancient Roman sailing ship designs. The Ghoten features a huge drill bit (shades of ATRAGON!) and cool, giant revolvers that fire missiles and are also used to launch sleek, one-man fighters. The UFOs are original and unique. Made on a fraction of STAR WARS’ budget, WAR IN SPACE demonstrates that ingenuity and imagination can carry the day even when money’s tight.

Discotek Media’s DVD presents WAR IN SPACE for the first time on U.S. home video (I believe) with a brilliant 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, completely restored and remastered for this edition. Audio options include both the original Japanese language track and an English dub, presented in both the original mono and in a newly created 5.1 remix. The Japanese track is preferable, as it’s stronger and more robust. Discotek has also included a bevy of cool bonus features, including a fascinating video interview with special effects director Nakano Teruyoshi, the original theatrical trailer, an extensive still gallery, and an informative booklet that includes poster art, spaceship design sketches and informative liner notes.

(NOTE: Some of the first batch of WAR IN SPACE discs released had an encoding problem causing playback issues. Discotek is aware of the problem, and if you get one of the defective DVDs, they’ll replace it for you for free. Visit their website at www.diskotekmedia.com for more information.)

As a fan of outer space epics and Japanese fantasy films, I’ve been wanting to see this movie ever since I saw the poster art in a 1978 issue of Fantastic Films magazine. It took almost 30 years, but I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a terrific presentation of a great old-fashioned space opera, and I recommend it highly.

That’s it for this installment, the longest DVD Late Show yet. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. I’ll be back soon with more B-movie goodness, including a bunch of MASTERS OF HORROR discs from Anchor Bay.

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