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July 18, 2006

Hey – I actually managed to find time to watch a couple MASTERS OF HORROR discs! I still have quite a few episodes of the series on my desk, and am looking forward to watching and reviewing them, but here’s my take on the ones I’ve seen so far…

Just in case you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about here – the big event for fright film fans in 2005 was the debut of an original Showtime anthology series created by filmmaker Mick Garris (SLEEPWALKERS) called MASTERS OF HORROR. The premise was simple: take a dozen or so of the most acclaimed directors of modern horror films and have them each direct a one-hour mini-feature, with no restrictions or network censorship. The resulting series was – as is probably inevitable with anthologies – something of a mixed bag.

Anchor Bay (their parent company, IDT Entertainment, co-produced the series) has chosen to release each episode separately rather than the whole bunch in a season set, which some consumers have expressed dissatisfaction with. But as the individual releases allow the company to really load down each disc with episode-specific bonus features, I really don’t see what those people are bitching about. Besides, this way, if there are episodes in the series you didn’t like, you don’t have to buy them.

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This past week, I watched probably the most controversial episode of the series, MASTERS OF HORROR: JOE DANTE – HOMECOMING (2005), from the director of THE HOWLING and GREMLINS. Not so much a horror film as a heavy-handed and one-sided political diatribe in zombie movie drag, one’s appreciation of the film depends entirely on what side of the political fence you stand on.

The plot is simple: on a cable TV talk show, one of the President’s top political advisors publicly wishes that all the soldiers who have died in the current Middle East conflict could come back to life, and tell America that they feel they’ve died in a just and righteous cause. A few days later, a shipment of G.I. corpses do indeed burst from their flag-draped coffins, but they’re not quite as supportive of the administration’s military policies as the President and his advisors might like! Before long, there’s hundreds of shambling “veterans” walking the streets, impossible to hide from the public and impossible to ignore. Oh, and it’s election time….

Technically, the hour-long movie is very well made. The zombie soldiers are effectively realized by KNB Effects, and cinematographer Attila Szalay shoots a slick-looking little feature on a tight schedule and budget, with some very imaginative set-ups and evocative lighting. The performances are exceptionally good, especially Dante regular Robert Picardo, who does a savage Karl Rove impression. The script by Sam Hamm (BATMAN) is sharp if one-sided, and Dante’s direction is, as usual, polished, well paced and fraught with in-jokes and homage (various gravestones in the film bear the names of other directors of “zombie” films, for example).

But it’s not much of a horror film. Sure it’s got zombies, but in the context of this particular story, they’re only a menace to the current administration. As Picardo’s character laments at one point, “Why don’t they eat a brain or tear somebody’s throat out…?”

If you happen to be of Hamm and Dante’s political persuasion, you’ll probably enjoy the satire. If you’re not, well, it’s just going to play silly or offensive. And, if you’re somewhere in the middle… well, there’s nothing really there for you at all.

HOMECOMING gets an utterly flawless presentation on DVD, with a razor sharp 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a crystal clear Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix. (A 2.0 Dolby stereo track is also included).

Anchor Bay has, as noted above, heavily loaded these discs with quality bonus material. HOMECOMING includes a very candid on-screen interview with director Dante, wherein he makes no bones about his intentions nor his political beliefs. He knows it’s not really a horror film, either, and that’s to his credit. There’s a career-retrospective featurette that includes interviews with various people who’ve worked with Dante -– including Kevin McCarthy, Dee Stone, Cory Feldman, Ricardo – and that was quite enjoyable. There are on-screen interview segments with HOMECOMING stars Jon Tenney, Thea Gill and Picardo, a behind-the-scenes montage, a featurette on the writing of the script, audio commentary by screenwriter Hamm, a Joe Dante text bio, and trailers for the rest of the MASTERS OF HORROR episodes.

My favorite feature was an excerpt from an 80’s public access cable show hosted by MASTERS creator Mick Garris, in which he interviewed Dante, Barbara Steele and Kevin McCarthy about the making of Dante’s early B-movie hit, PIRANHA!

Interestingly, Anchor bay has, for no reason I can discern, deviated from the standard MASTERS OF HORROR packaging with HOMECOMING, with a different front cover treatment and omitting Dante’s name from the spine. Curious.

Obviously, I can’t make a blanket recommendation for this DVD one way or the other. Whether or not you’d be interested in picking it up – even for a rental – depends on your own political beliefs. As for the disc itself, it’s an another excellent presentation from Anchor Bay.

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Fortunately, MASTERS OF HORROR: DON COSCARELLI – INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD (2005) is nowhere near as difficult to review.

Based on a short story by Joe Lansdale, Coscarelli’s (PHANTASM, BUBBA HO-TEP) entry was the first in the series to air, and is a remarkably atmospheric, gory and suspenseful 70’s styled thriller, and possibly the scariest thing he’s ever directed.

The plot is classically simple horror fare: When Ellen (attractive Bree Turner) survives a car accident on an isolated mountain road, she encounters a hulking man-monster called Moonface (John DeSantis, BLOODSUCKERS) who is intent on capturing, torturing and crucifying her. Using skills taught her by her obsessive, survivalist husband, Ellen refuses to be a victim, and fights back.

There’s a bit more to it than that, but to say more might give away some of the episode’s many surprises.

Beautifully shot, edited and acted – with a particularly great performance by Coscarelli’s PHANTASM “Tall Man,” Angus Scrimm – INCIDENT is a taut, troubling 51 minutes, and my favorite in the series so far.

As usual, Anchor Bay provides a pristine1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a robust Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix. (A 2.0 Dolby stereo track is also included). And also like usual, the disc is loaded with 3 hours or so of bonus features. There’s the usual slew of featurettes, with the requisite cast and director interviews, behind-the-scenes montage and career retrospective. There are two audio commentary tracks – one with Coscarelli and screenwriter Stephan Romano, the other with Coscarelli and author Joe Lansdale. The bonus material is rounded out with a still gallery, MASTERS OF HORROR trailers, a Don Coscarelli text bio, and a DVD-ROM screensaver.

Highly recommended.

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A new DVD label called Severin Films recently released on Region 1 disc one of my favorite late-night cable flicks of the Eighties – THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK YAK – in its original, uncut European form, as GWENDOLINE – UNRATED DIRECTOR’S CUT (1984)… and a welcome disc it is.

Based on a popular European comic strip, GWENDOLINE begins when our naïve, virginal heroine (Tawny Kitaen, WITCHBOARD) is smuggled into China in a wooden crate. Soon she meets up with her friend Beth (French cutie Zabou) and is rescued from salacious slavers by a square-jawed, rogue adventurer named Willard (Brent Huff, ARMED RESPONSE, 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA). Gwendoline’s searching for her missing father, who was last seen hunting for a rare butterfly in the Land of the Yik Yak, and she enlists the handsome soldier of fortune to help her. In the course of their dangerous quest, the intrepid trio encounters vicious pirates, fake crocodiles, giant snakes, and ravenous cannibals (among other traditional pulp story perils), before eventually coming to a lost city of whip-wielding amazon women – nearly all of them topless (and most of them bald)!

Let’s just end our synopsis there, for while the story continues on, with tricky death traps and sordid situations aplenty, it’s those topless amazons that make this movie the Late Show classic that it is. Outside of an ambitious porno or a vintage “nudist” flick – or maybe SHOWGIRLS – you’re unlikely to ever see more pairs of attractive bare breasts on display in a single movie than in the last quarter or so of GWENDOLINE. Additionally, the only things those amazons do wear is sexy, skimpy leather outfits straight out of a high-priced S&M boutique.

Directed by Euro-erotic filmmaker Just Jaeckin (EMMANUELLE, THE STORY OF O), GWENDOLINE is an entertaining mix of Saturday matinee high adventure, comedy and fetishistic erotic fantasy. And if that doesn’t pique your interest, then you’re reading the wrong column!

Severin Films’ DVD presents the movie in a flawless 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, with beautifully rendered colors and a crisp, clear image. Four audio options are included: 5.1 Stereo English and French and 2.0 Mono English and French. The 5.1 English is probably the preferable mix, as Kitaen and Huff delivered their lines in English, while the rest of the cast spoke their own native languages.

Obviously produced with the full cooperation of director Just Jaeckin, Severin Films’ uncut special edition includes a video interview and a full-length audio commentary with the notorious director. The interview covers Jaeckin’s introduction to the European comic strip and how he worked to bring it to the screen, while the audio commentary is more technical, covering all aspects of the making of the film, including the stunning set design, the challenges of the exotic locations, and working with the various cast members.

Other features include a very rare vintage audio interview with cartoonist John Willie (creator of the Gwendoline comic strip) conducted for the Kinsey Institute in 1962! In addition, there’s a still gallery made up of nude photos of Tawny Kitaen from the French magazine Lui, which were shot by Jaeckin to promote the film. The disc also includes both the American and European trailers. The American trailer sells the film as a low-rent Indiana Jones-styled flick, while the European trailer is more moody and emphasizes the erotic content and kinky imagery.

By the way, Severin also offers the R-rated American theatrical version on a separate disc. Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly what the differences are between the two versions, as it’s been years since I last watched the old American cut. Personally, I wish they’d included both in a two-disc set, just because I have fond memories of watching the U.S. version so many times on cable and VHS (I like the American poster art and title better, too).

Obviously, I love this film. After reading the description above, I’m pretty sure you’ll know whether it’s something you’d like or not, so if it sounds like your kind of escapism, pick it up. You won’t be disappointed.

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From BCI/Eclipse comes a completely different kind of escapism: Eiji Tsuburaya’s ULTRAMAN – SERIES ONE, VOLUME ONE (1966/67), featuring the earliest episodes of the fantastic sci-fi adventure/monster mash that has been a pop culture phenomenon in Japan for four decades, complete with a multitude of sequel series, feature films, and countless merchandising tie-ins. And it all started with these twenty fun-filled episodes.

Hayata (Susumu Kurobe), an officer of the international Science Patrol, is chasing a couple of UFOs when his jet is destroyed in a collision with one of the extraterrestrial spacecraft. As it turns out, the saucer is piloted by a friendly, silver and crimson alien from M78 Nebula who is in pursuit of Bemular, an evil, criminal monster. The alien from M78 Nebula saves the injured Hayata by transferring his own life force to the human and giving him a Beta Capsule -– a device that, when activated, will give Hayata the alien’s super powers (and appearance) and make him fifty feet tall.

Over the next 20 episodes, Hayata and the Science Patrol tirelessly battle a seemingly unending invasion of giant, alien monsters bent on the conquest or destruction of the Earth. Every episode follows the same basic formula: the Science Patrol is faced with a new monster that they simply cannot defeat with the weapons at their disposal. When all looks lost, Hayata becomes Ultraman and saves the day by wrestling the behemoth into submission.

ULTRAMAN was created by legendary Japanese special effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya at the height of the kajiu phenomenon in Japan. Tsuburaya had supervised and designed the effects shots for all of Toho’s original Godzilla films, and while ULTRAMAN had a budget vastly smaller than those widescreen kaiju epics, Tsuburaya’s crew shows the same ingenuity and attention to detail in ULTRAMAN’s countless effects scenes that they had demonstrated on the features. The episodes are all action-packed, with terrific, old school miniature effects and an endless parade of impressively insane monster suits (including, in one episode, a thinly disguised Godzilla!).

BCI presents ULTRAMAN SERIES ONE, VOLUME ONE in its original, 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. The transfer is quite good, with bright, vivid colors and only minimal print damage. Black levels are rock solid, and details are sharp throughout. There are no noticeable problems with compression, artifacts or edge enhancement. This set comes with Japanese and English audio tracks, presented in Dolby Digital mono. The Japanese language is preferable, as it is free of any hiss or distortion and dialogue is crisp and clear. The English dubbed track has some distinct background hiss and other occasional defects. Optional English subtitles have been included.

BCI/Eclipse’s extras include the U.S. opening credits and an extensive kajiu (Monster) encyclopedia detailing all the monsters that appear in the series. There’s also an interview with American voice actors Peter Fernandez, Corrine and Earl Hammond, the U.S. credits sequence with its catchy theme song, and a booklet with liner notes on Eiji Tsuburaya and the ULTRAMAN series, and an episode synopsis for all the episodes included with this set.

For kaiju fans, kids who enjoy TV shows like POWER RANGERS, or adults looking for unsophisticated, nostalgic entertainment, ULTRAMAN, SERIES ONE is highly recommended. And, conveniently enough, it streets today!

Next time, I’ll be taking a look at the DVD legacy of the late mystery author Mickey Spillane, who passed away this week at age 88. I knew Mickey slightly, having worked with him on a comic book project back in the Nineties, and I wanted to pay tribute to a man I greatly admire. We’ll be looking at some Stacy Keach Mike Hammer TV shows, a bunch of DVDs by Spillane admirer Max Allan Collins, and the Mick himself in his few starring movie roles. I hope you’ll make a point of checking it out next Tuesday.

Before I wrap up this column, I’d like to call your attention to the Special Contest going on over at the official DVD Late Show website. Courtesy of Buena Vista Home Video, I have five copies each of the latest instant exploitation classics from Executive Producer and drive-in demigod Roger Corman – ASPHALT WARS and SCORPIUS GIGANTUS, starring Jeff Fahey – to give away free to a handful of lucky DVD Late Show readers!

Go to the DVD Late Show site for contest details. Note: this is not a Quick-Stop sponsored contest. It’s strictly between you, Disney, and me baby! Also, every review I’ve written for this column is archived at www.dvdlateshow.com, now searchable both by publication date and by title. There’s bonus reviews by pals of mine, and a couple of other features, too. So why not head over when you’re finished here, enter the contest, and browse around for a while?

Comments about this column or DVD-related questions? Feel free to contact me at dvdlateshow@atomicpulp.com.

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