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October 03, 2006

Still working my way through the titanic stack of review discs on my desk, so let’s not waste any time, and get right to the reviews…

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BCI/Eclipse, under their Ink & Paint label, have recently released BLACKSTAR – THE COMPLETE SERIES (1980-81), probably the last Filmation cartoon I remember actually getting up early to watch. I was into D&D then, and anything with a sword & sorcery theme caught my interest. Unfortunately, it aired in the same timeslot as Ruby-Spears’ superior THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN on another network, so unless THUNDARR was a repeat, I usually opted for the post-Apocalyptic barbarian over the sword-slinging astronaut, John Blackstar.

Loosely inspired by interplanetary romances like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” pulp stories, BLACKSTAR tells of an American astronaut, who, after passing through a black hole, finds himself stranded on the primitive planet Sagar. The planet is ruled by the evil, Darth Vader-esque Overlord, and opposed by a motley band of freedom fighters, including the sorceress Mara, shape-shifter Klone, and seven pink “trobbits.” John Blackstar somehow comes into possession of the Starsword, a mystic blade that can be combined with the Overlord’s Powersword to become the Powerstar – an ultimate weapon that the Overlord desperately covets.

Watching it today as a 40+ adult, I find that BLACKSTAR is actually somewhat better than I remembered. The animation still looks pretty slick and, oddly enough for a Filmation adventure show, uses very little, if any, rotoscoping. The character designs and background paintings are excellent, really selling the alien environment of planet Sagar. The scripts – mostly by animation and sci-fi veterans J. Michael Reeves (BATMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES) and Marc Scott Zicree (SLIDERS) – are fun and fast paced. I still hate the little pink “trobbits,” though, and prefer the episodes that play down their child-friendly antics.

BCI’s DVD full-frame transfers are excellent; the source material on BLACKSTAR looks much better than the prints used on their previous FLASH GORDON set, with bright colors and virtually no visible debris or damage. Extras include an informative booklet of liner notes, writer and producer commentaries on two episodes, on-screen interviews with many of the creators of the show, two image galleries, and “The Magic of Filmation” documentary.

If you’re nostalgic and want to revisit your childhood – or know kids who are into fantasy adventure – BLACKSTAR – THE COMPLETE SERIES is well worth picking up.

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Obviously intended to play off of Disney’s PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequel, comes Sony’s “Midnight Movies” double feature FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD/CAPTAIN PIRATE (1950/1952), two low budget Columbia “epics” starring Louis Hayward (THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK).

Based on the same Rafael Sabatini source novel as the Errol Flynn classic, FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD chronicles the adventures of Captain Peter Blood, a physician who is branded a traitor by the English Crown and sold into slavery. Escaping from his masters, he turns to piracy on the high seas with a crew of former slaves. Hayward makes a suitably dashing hero and pretty Patricia Medina is convincing as the love of his lawless life. Shot in black & white on the Columbia backlot, FORTUNES is nonetheless an exciting little swashbuckler, with enough swordplay, derring-do and tongue-in-cheek wit to make for an enjoyable Sunday afternoon viewing.

The sequel, CAPTAIN PIRATE, takes a place a few years after the first. Blood has retired from piracy and about to get married, when a pirate imposter starts committing terrible atrocities in his name. Blood quickly reforms his crew and sets sail again in an effort to clear his reputation. Made two years later in color, with Hayward and Medina reprising their roles, CAPTAIN PIRATE is not only a worthy sequel, but an entertaining, family-friendly adventure in its own right.

Packaged as part of the “Midnight Movies” line (although these are really more like Saturday Matinee flicks) Sony has presented these two films on individual single-sided discs, in clean, sharp 1.33:1 full-frame transfers, which appear to be the original screen ratios. There are no extras aside from the usual optional English, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish subtitles.

Two fun pirate films for one low price, in a high-quality (if no-frills) presentation. If it sounds like your cup of grog, how can you resist?

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As a follow-up to their first erotic DVD release, GWENDOLINE, Severin Films has brought to DVD another single-named softcore classic, FELICITY (1979).

This 1979 film, written and directed by John Lamond, chronicles the sexual awakening of a young Catholic schoolgirl as she spends an exotic and erotic summer in Hong Kong, experiencing all manner of sensual pleasures, including masturbation, voyeurism, bisexuality, and, eventually, romantic love.

Starring a lovely and luscious young Canadian actress named Glory Annen, FELICITY is a tasteful and well-made film, beautifully photographed and edited. The Hong Kong location footage is extraordinary, truly giving the film an exotic feel, and the sex scenes are all sensual and scalding hot. Annen’s performance is natural and unaffected, carrying the essentially plotless film effortlessly on the strength of her natural charm (and charms).

Severin’s region-free disc provides a crystal sharp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a Dolby Digital mono soundtrack. The film is presented uncut, with footage never before seen in the U.S. Extras include a better-than-average commentary track with writer/director Lamond and star Annen, the original theatrical trailer and a sexy still gallery.

If you’re looking for an erotic film that you can watch with your significant other, FELICITY is a good choice, with a sensitive yet sexually-charged storyline, an appealing heroine, and a minimum of sleaze. Highly recommended.

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Back in the early Seventies, the king of TV horror was Dan Curtis. His reign began with his successful gothic soap opera DARK SHADOWS, and was cemented with two TV movies starring Darren McGavin as reporter Carl Kolchak, THE NIGHT STALKER and the NIGHT STRANGLER. McGavin went on to reprise the role in a short-lived series without Curtis’ participation, and in response (it seems) Curtis attempted to launch another, similar franchise.

Anchor Bay is about to release on DVD – in fact, for the first time ever on video, as far as I can determine – Curtis’ 1973 TV movie, THE NORLISS TAPES.

This obvious pilot film starred Roy Thinnes (THE INVADERS, THE X-FILES) as David Norliss, a San Francisco investigative reporter working on a book debunking the supernatural. A year after taking the publisher’s advance, he calls his editor to tell him that he cannot write the book. A few days later, Norliss mysteriously disappears. When the editor shows up at Norliss’ home looking for him, he instead finds a pile of numbered cassette tapes. Playing the first one, he hears Norliss relate a terrifying story about his investigation of strange events in Carmel County involving a wealthy widow, her apparently undead spouse, a strange sculpture, and some bloodless corpses….

The movie plays out very much like Curtis’ NIGHT STALKER telefilms, with first-person narration by an investigator who is at first a skeptic, but soon caught up in unexplainable events. William F. Nolan’s teleplay follows the same structure and beats of Richard Matheson’s STALKER scripts, the minimalist musical score is again provided by Robert Cobert, and Curtis has even cast Claude Akins in a lawman role nearly identical to the one he played in the original Kolchak movie.

The biggest difference though, is that THE NORLISS TAPES is essentially humorless. Thinnes’ David Norliss is obviously a very serious, brooding sort of guy, where Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak was a wise-cracking wiseass with a lot of charm. This may have hurt the pilot’s chances of becoming a series back in the early Seventies. On the plus side, though, THE NORLISS TAPES co-stars the 1973-model Angie Dickinson (BIG BAD MAMA), and that’s a very good thing.

The DVD (which goes on sale today), is a bare-bones affair with a sharp, full-frame (the original aspect ratio) transfer, mono sound and a few trailers for other Anchor Bay/20th Century Fox horror titles. The transfer is solid and clean, and looks fine; the mono soundtrack is clear and strong.

While not quite as memorable as the NIGHT STALKER films, THE NORLISS TAPES does have a good, original story and an intriguing set-up. Too bad there was never a series or sequels. And since it rarely airs on TV anymore (outside occasional showings on Fox Movie Channel) it’s great to have it on DVD.

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Buena Vista recently sent me a copy of one of their latest teen horror flicks, STAY ALIVE (2006), and while it’s no classic, I found it entertaining.

The premise is that there’s this “underground” survival/horror video game, called – you guessed it – Stay Alive, and if you play it, you unleash the evil of the game story into the real world. Even worse – as the ad copy makes explicit – if you die in the game, you suffer the same fatal fate in reality, at the hands of the Blood Countess.

The nonsensical story incorporates (and takes great liberties with) the legend of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who, so obsessed with maintaining her youth and beauty, took to slaughtering female virgins and bathing in their blood. According to the film, the Countess apparently fled Europe for the American South, where she resumed her sanguinary beauty treatments at a local plantation. It is this plantation that is the setting for the video game.

The cast is made up of your usual group of attractive, young twenty-somethings. The only face that was familiar to me was Agent Cody Banks himself, Frankie Muniz, as one of the die-hard gamers who uncover the game’s sinister secret.

Sure, the dialogue is cheesy, the story logic lacking, and you don’t have to have seen as many horror movies as I have to figure out by the end of the first act which characters are going to die and which are going to survive, but it’s fairly well acted (as these kinds of flicks go) and the direction by William Brent Bell is basically competent and occasionally suspenseful.

STAY ALIVE is available in two different DVD editions – as a full-frame, PG-13 version which not only cuts out almost all of the (already minimal) gore and profanity, not to mention nearly half of the picture, and an unrated, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen version. Obviously, the unrated, widescreen edition is the preferable one. Bonus features include a filmmaker commentary with the director, a Visual Effects featurette and an interactive game that you can play with the disc menus and your remote control.

Not a great horror film by any stretch, but I found it entertaining, and will probably watch it again one of these days. You might find it worth a rental, if you’re feeling undemanding.

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Ida Lupino. Tom Skerrit. John Travolta. William Shatner. Eddie Albert. Ernest Bognine. Only one Seventies Satanism screamer can claim all of those worthies in its cast, and that’s the perennial drive-in and late night TV classic, THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975) – the only devil-worship shocker with real-life Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey as technical advisor!

Directed by Robert Fuest (THE ABOMINABLE DR. FIBES), RAIN is an entertaining, old-fashioned horror thriller, light on logic, but full of cool imagery and PG chills. Hollywood legend Lupino is the matriarch of a family that possesses a book coveted by a Satan-worshipping coven led by Borgnine. When Lupino, her eldest son (Shatner) and the book all go missing, little brother Tom Skerrit heads for a desert ghost town in search of them. There he finds a cult of robed, eyeless devil worshippers (including a very young Travolta) hanging out in a de-consecrated church and a big jug full of stolen souls. With the aid of college professor Eddie Albert, Skerrit attempts to free the souls and rescue his family from the cult.

It’s a lot of fun, if a bit tame by today’s standards. The desert settings are appropriately eerie, the visual and make-up effects are pretty good (especially for the time), and the ending still packs a punch. The performances range from good to outrageously over-the-top, which should be no surprise, considering the actors involved.

Previously released by VCI, THE DEVIL’S RAIN is getting a new lease on life from those wizards at Dark Sky Films with a new, much-improved edition hitting shelves on Halloween day. Boasting a superior 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from a 35mm vault print (the VCI version was non-anamorphic and a bit dark), and sharp 2.0 Dolby Mono soundtrack, Dark Sky’s new special edition includes an informative commentary track from director Fuest moderated by Marcus Hearne, the original theatrical trailer, vintage radio spots and newsreel footage of Anton Lavey conducting a Satanic wedding in the 60’s.

Once again, Dark Sky has proven that they’re one of the top cult film labels around by taking a previously-released horror title and making the earlier edition obsolete. If you’re a fan of RAIN or Seventies Satanic thrillers in general, you’ll want to pick this up. And if you own the VCI disc, you may seriously want to consider an upgrade.

Recommended.

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One of the great science fiction films of the atomic Fifties, THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955), has recently been re-released on the digital format by Universal Studios.

Directed by William Alland (aided by an uncredited Jack Arnold of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON fame), THIS ISLAND EARTH stars rugged Rex Reason and fetching Faith Domergue as nuclear scientists recruited into a secret research project by the mysterious (and mysteriously big-headed) Exeter (Jeff Morrow). Eventually the scientists discover that Exeter is an extraterrestrial (his HUGE cranium probably should have been a clue) desperate for new energy sources for his homeworld, and are swept away against their will on his flying saucer to the war-torn planet Metaluna.

Produced on a comparatively huge budget, THIS ISLAND EARTH was Universal’s answer to MGM’s lavish blockbuster FORBIDDEN PLANET, and the studio’s only Technicolor sci-fi extravaganza. Although the story moves a bit slowly by today’s standards, the special effects and scope of the film are still impressive.

The new Universal DVD is a bare-bones affair without a single extra feature and a static menu screen. The film is presented in 1.33:1 full-frame format, although, by most reports, the movie was intended to be matted for widescreen theatrical exhibition.

Previously released in the early days of the DVD format by Image Entertainment, universal’s new disc is a slight improvement, with a sharper, brighter transfer. Unfortunately the print used shows some minor age-related wear, some scratches, dust and debris. It’s not terrible, but one wishes that Universal had taken this important genre film back to the computer lab and give it a full-fledged restoration. Hell, I don’t even like the way the Art Department cropped the original poster art for the DVD cover – the design is off-balance and doesn’t even show the best parts of the art.

THIS ISLAND EARTH is a classic science fiction epic that still awaits a definitive release, but for now, this one will have to do. At least it’s inexpensive.

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From 1953 to 1969, author Don Glut (best known for the paperback novelization of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and a bunch of Gold Key comic books from the Seventies, like Dr. Spektor and Dagar) made amateur monster movies with his family’s 16mm movie camera. Of course, lots of kids made home movies, but what made Glut’s flicks different was that his efforts were frequently written up in issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and later, publications like Filmfax, Fangoria and Starlog (where I read about them years ago).

I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER (2006) is a documentary of Glut’s amateur filmmaking “career,” covering all 41 home, student and short films that he made during that above-mentioned 16-year span. From his earliest efforts, attempting to remake and sequelize classic Universal “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” films, to his later efforts as a film student using actual costumes and props from classic science fiction films and cliffhanger serials (courtesy of his friendship with superfan Bob Burns), Glut covers each short film in detail and shares many entertaining anecdotes about their making. Interspersed throughout the documentary are comments from Randal Kleiser (director of GREASE and Glut’s college roommate), Bob Burns, Famous Monsters editor Forrest J. Ackerman, Jim Harmon and even Glut’s mom!

The 2-disc special edition also includes all 41 of the films discussed in the documentary, each one accompanied by an audio commentary by Glut. There are also several behind-the-scenes bits, outtakes, and still galleries.

Cinema Epoch’s DVD presents the material in a full-frame transfer, which is quite nice overall, though Glut’s short films understandably vary in picture quality due to their age and amateur production. The packaging is slick and the material is fascinating. As a kid, I always wanted to make movies like these and never quite managed to make it happen. It’s a lot of fun to watch these now as an adult and admire the drive, talent and sheer strength of will that teenage Glut and his friends demonstrated in the making of these ambitious little motion pictures.

I loved I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER, and it’s highly recommended.

A lot more reviews are in the pipeline for the next several weeks, including a bunch of horror disc reviews in time for your Halloween movie marathon planning: THE BORIS KARLOFF COLLECTION, THE INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES, VOODOO MOON, THE LAST BROADCAST and more. I’ve also got a nice selection of drive-in action flicks, with THE SISTER STREET FIGHTER COLLECTION, 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA, GALAXINA and KILLPOINT, plus some sci-fi television with BATTLESTAR GALACTICA SEASON 2.5 and my final FARSCAPE and ANDROMEDA reviews!

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

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