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7/18/07

Welcome back to the Late Show. This time around, we’ve got looks at a lot of cult TV shows, both old and new, plus a bunch of B-movie reviews and another handful of capsule reviews as I work steadily to reduce the tottering stack of DVDs on my desk to a safer height. After all, if those things fell over on me now, it might be weeks before they could extricate my corpse.

You know what’s great about this gig? It’s picking up something I’m sent to review and looking at the box art and thinking that it looks like crap or just isn’t my “thing,” but upon viewing finding that I really enjoyed it. It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, but I’ve had a few good experiences along that line in the last few weeks.

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The first of these was the Starz Media (formerly Anchor Bay) direct-to-DVD horror flick DEVIL’S DEN (2006). From the uninspired packaging and rote synopsis on the back, this looked like just another SciFi Channel hack job, with a derivative premise and some familiar faces in the cast just to make it saleable.

Well, I was half-right. The plot definitely is derivative, borrowing heavily from Richard Wenk’s 1986 favorite VAMP and Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino’s FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN. And there’s some familiar faces filling out the cast.

Witness: two young slacker types are on their way back from Mexico with a suitcase of alleged “Spanish Fly.” They stop at an isolated tittie bar to try out the product, and discover that the strippers are all monsters when one of the guys is killed. The remaining slacker (Devon Sawa, IDLE HANDS) then teams up with a gun-toting hottie (Kelly Hu, X2) and a samurai sword-slinging monster hunter (Ken Foree, DAWN OF THE DEAD, FROM BEYOND) to battle the bodacious but bloodthirsty bitches.

Seen it before. But…

Here’s where I was wrong. It’s no hack job. Director Andrew Dunt and writer Mitch Gould weren’t content to just go through the paces. No, they chose to add some style, some wit, some depth of character to their chosen flick formula and shake up the recipe a bit. It’s still an oatmeal cookie, but it’s a really tasty oatmeal cookie.

Everyone in the main cast does an outstanding job. Sawa’s character starts out as a complete asshole, and slowly transforms into… well, still an asshole, but a likable one. Ken Foree’s still busting monster skulls… but he’s getting’ older, and his character is, too. Kelly Hu is not only gorgeous, but she handles the action scenes with sublime grace and convincing athleticism. Not only that, but she manages to give her comic book character a lot of depth and sympathy.

In fact, everyone involved in this seems to have put in just a little extra effort. Certainly more than they needed to on a film like this. The direction is taut and tense, the writing is witty and wry, the cinematography is excellent and the stuntwork top-notch. The monster make-ups and gore effects are completely professional and state of the art and deliver the requisite grue.

Starz presents DEVIL’S DEN in a rock-solid 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio, with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. There’s a fun and informative behind-the-scenes documentary, an interesting and engaging audio commentary track, an amusing blooper reel, and a photo gallery. There’s also the film’s screenplay on DVD-ROM, and trailers for additional Starz/Anchor Bay horror titles.

DEVIL’S DEN isn’t a classic. But there’s a lot of talent on display and it’s a lot of fun. Check it out, and see if you don’t agree.

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Another pleasant surprise was EUREKA – THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (2006) from Universal Home Video.

I’d seen the promos, but I had no real interest in this SciFi Channel Original series. I knew nothing about it except that it was about a secret town of scientific geniuses… and that didn’t intrigue me in the least. But I was sent the first Season of twelve episodes, and figured I’d at least check out the Pilot. Well, my wife watched it with me, and we were soon hooked.

U.S. Marshall Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) and his delinquent teenage daughter inadvertently stumble upon the northwestern community of Eureka after a car accident. While waiting for their car to be repaired, Carter finds himself helping the local authorities deal with a series of strange events, which are soon revealed to be a scientific experiment gone awry. Carter then learns that Eureka is the home of the world’s top minds, all working under the protection of the U.S. government to push the limits of technological advancement. Proving his worth to the authorities through solid detective work, he is promptly reassigned to be the town’s new sheriff.

A great ensemble cast and a light touch gives this NORTHERN EXPOSURE/X-FILES hybrid a broad appeal, with an eccentric but likeable bunch of townspeople (including MAX HEADROOM’s Matt Frewer, T2’s Joe Morton and Debrah Farentino of EARTH 2), a few dark mysteries and conspiracies, and a smart, sharp sense of humor.

Universal’s 3-disc set is packed into an eco-friendly recycled package and contains all 12 episodes from the first season in crystal sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. The disc includes over 10 hours of bonus features, most of which are commentaries and/or podcasts. There are some deleted scenes, and a couple of funny mock infomercials for “Made in Eureka” products.

EUREKA is a clever mix of sci-fi, drama and comedy, and I’m eagerly looking forward to season 2 on DVD (I guess it’s currently airing on SciFi).

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And, also in the category of “better than I expected,” comes the animated movie STAN LEE PRESENTS: THE CONDOR (2006), written by comics vet Marv Wolfman and directed by Steven Gordon, based on a concept by Stan “The Man” Lee.

This animated film tells the origin story of a young Latino superhero called The Condor, alias Tony Valdez (Wilmer Valderrama, THAT 70’S SHOW). After his scientist parents are murdered by their evil business partner and his legs crippled, Tony uses their experimental cybernetic technology and becomes a superhero with a high-tech skateboard.

Not a lot of originality in the story, but the animation by Film Roman (the studio behind the same company’s HELLBOY ANIMATED features) is solid TV fare, while the script by comics pro Wolfman deftly fleshes out the characters and sets things up with some style. Voice work is competent, and the overall result is a pleasant – if predictable – superhero adventure.

Starz Home Entertainment gives THE CONDOR a rock-solid 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, with a robust Dolby 5.1 Surround sound track. Both English and Spanish 2.0 tracks are also provided. Extras include a corny on-screen intro by Lee, a behind-the-scenes featurette, a couple of art galleries and a DVD game.

A decent superhero cartoon with an appealing hero, THE CONDOR is worth a rental for comic book animation fans.

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Perhaps not the best entry in the long-running Godzilla series from Japan’s Toho Studios, INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER (GODZILLA Vs. MONSTER ZERO, KAIJÛ DAISENSO, 1965) is, nonetheless, my personal favorite.

In this kaiju classic, two astronauts – American Glenn (Nick Adams, DIE MONSTER DIE) and Fuji (Akira Takarada) are sent to investigate a newly discovered planet near Jupiter. Upon their arrival, they discover that the natives are under constant siege by the space monster, Ghidorah. But the aliens of Planet X have a plan: they’d like to “borrow” Godzilla and Rodan from Earth, and use them to ward off the three-headed space dragon. Glad to get rid of the titanic terrors, Earth’s governments agree… but can the aliens be trusted?

A fun mix of 60’s space opera and giant monster mayhem, ASTRO-MONSTER is a colorful, fun and exciting creature feature. Nick Adams is great as the randy, hotheaded American astronaut, while series regular Kumi Mizuno makes an extremely fetching alien. Former menaces Godzilla and Rodan have completely morphed into heroic creatures by this film, firmly on the side of Earth and humanity. The FX scenes are well crafted, with the 3-way monster battle on Planet X particularly memorable, if too brief.

Classic Media/Genius Entertainment’s new DVD edition features both the Japanese and slightly altered American (GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO) versions of the film in their proper 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratios. The Japanese version includes English subtitles. Extra features include an audio commentary by author Stuart Galbraith IV, an image gallery, poster gallery and the original Japanese trailer.

You know how much I like these movies, and Classic Media’s special editions are first rate. Highly recommended.

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Jeffrey Combs gives a tour de force performance as Edgar Allan Poe for frequent collaborator Stuart Gordon (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, CASTLE FREAK) as the acclaimed horror director takes his second stab (after 1991’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) at the works of the tortured American author, with MASTERS OF HORROR: THE BLACK CAT (2007).

Working again with frequent writing partner Dennis Paoli, Gordon has deftly combined elements of Poe’s own real life with the events of the famous short story. The result is a nightmarish descent into madness. I don’t want to give a synopsis here: to do so would betray some of the short film’s best surprises, but I will say that even with the liberties taken, it may be the most faithful adaptation of the Poe classic ever committed to film.

Atmospherically shot by Jon Joffin, THE BLACK CAT has the look and feel of a Val Lewton 40’s B&W horror classic (specifically, THE BODY SNATCHER), with the only vivid color being the red of blood. And there’s plenty of that, as Gordon gleefully indulges his flair for gore. The make-up job on Combs is excellent; the likeness to Poe is amazing. Performances are excellent across the board, with Elyse Levesque’s sensitive and moving portrayal of Virginia Poe being of special note.

THE BLACK CAT comes to DVD in a perfect 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, with Dolby 5.1 Surround sound. As usual, Starz/Anchor Bay has provided a plethora of bonus material, including a couple of “Making Of” featurettes, a great commentary track by Gordon and Combs, a photo gallery, and trailers for other MASTERS OF HORROR titles.

As a fan of Stuart Gordon’s work in the genre, I loved it. Recommended.

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Universal’s new release of THE INCREDIBLE HULK – THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (1978-79) lives up to the quality of the first volume, with the entire sophomore season of the popular series on five discs.

As Season Two kicks off, Dr. David Banner meets and marries a terminally ill scientist, and continues to wander the country, helping people in need and searching for a cure, while managing to “Hulk-out” at least twice a show.

Comic book fans can be pretty unforgiving about media adaptations of their favorite characters, and this show often takes a lot of heat for the changes made to the character and his milieu. But for the budget, and considering the realities of network television in 70’s, I think producer Kenneth Johnson made absolutely the right choices in developing the show. His FUGITIVE meets JECKYLL & HYDE approach not only allowed him to do some decent adult drama (usually) but get some serious mileage out of the fantasy elements, too.

Generally smart scripting (there’s only a couple of clunkers in the bunch) and the rock-steady presence of Bill Bixby as the sympathetic and believable Banner, made THE INCREDIBLE HULK one of the best fantasy shows of its era.

Season Two presents all 22 episodes in decent full-frame transfers. Colors are good, and there’s relatively little wear or damage evident in the source prints. This volume includes an introduction by producer Kenneth Johnson, and a Johnson commentary track over the season premiere episode, “Married.” The set also includes a bonus episode from Season Three.

Recommended.

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Another Seventies superhero show, Filmations THE SECRETS OF ISIS (1975) has also just come to DVD courtesy of BCI.

The star of one of Saturday morning’s first live-action adventure shows, the lovely Isis (sultry Joanna Cameron) fought crime and saved lives every week, usually managing to teach a nice moral lesson, too. With the occasional assistance of SHAZAM’s Captain Marvel, the bookish high school chemistry teacher with the powers of an ancient Egyptian goddess gave prime time’s Wonder Woman a run for her money as TV’s sexiest super heroine for two seasons. (And for my money, Isis wins.)

BCI’s new DVD set includes all 22 episodes of the classic kid’s show, in full-frame transfers. Unfortunately, as the show was shot on cheap 16mm stock, usually outdoors, the source material looks very faded, grainy and washed out. It’s still watchable, but don’t go expecting reference quality transfers from this 30-year-old low budget program. As with the label’s other Filmation releases, there’s plenty of great bonus materials. There’s almost 2 hours of on-camera interviews with the producers crew, and cast of the show (excluding Cameron, unfortunately), isolated music and FX tracks on selected episodes, a commentary on episode 15, Three extensive still galleries, scripts on DVD-ROM, and a complete episode of the animated series FREEDOM FORCE, which also featured the Isis character. There is also the usual slew of BCI/Filmation trailers.

Another childhood favorite comes to disc courtesy of BCI, and since Joanna Cameron was one of my first celebrity crushes, I’m grateful to have the series on DVD today.

DVD LATE SHOW CAPSULE REVIEWS!

In my continuing efforts to catch up with the notable discs that piled up during the last few months, here’s some more “Capsule Reviews” of DVDs that are long overdue for some Late Show attention:

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THE SEXUAL STORY OF O (1984). One of Jess Franco’s more coherent productions, this erotic epic actually has no connection to the famous “Story of O” (novel or film), but was deceptively re-titled by the distributors. Lovely Alicia Príncipe is seduced into a swinging three-way by an adventurous couple, and it’s all fun and games until they introduce their young conquest to a decadent older couple who are into S&M. Then, things take a nasty turn. Not much of a plot, but Príncipe is beautiful, and so is much of the photography. Severin Films presents this minor Spanish sexploitation effort with a sparkling, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and English subtitles. There’s also a new interview with the prolific Franco, who seems rather proud of this one.

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COOL McCOOL: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1966). Created by BATMAN creator Bob Kane, the crudely animated adventures of superspy Cool McCool mix GET SMART antics with BATMAN-styled villains in 20 incredibly stupid episodes. Even for the presumably less sophisticated kids of the Sixties, this stuff is insultingly bad. The villains (Hurricane Harry, the Owl, The Rattler, et al) are lame, the animation is terrible, and the vaunted voice work by Chuck McCann and others is pedestrian at best. Nonetheless, BCI’s Ink & Paint label presents the entire series on 3 discs, with solid full-frame transfers of slightly worn and faded source prints. As is usual with BCI, there’s a whole bunch of extras including audio commentaries, an interview and episode intros by the aforementioned McCann, A music video, and previews of other, better, Ink & Paint releases.

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WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE – THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (1959-60). The first season of this classic Western show, starring the young and intense Steve McQueen (BULLITT), was released three or four years ago by New Line Home Video, who then abandoned the series. Fortunately for fans, BCI has now picked up the license. The Season 2 set is packaged to complement the first one, with similar graphics and art direction. The only difference is that the four discs are packaged in slim cases this time around. The transfers look on a par with the earlier set, with a solid, B&W full-frame image. Only one extra this time: a featurette called “The Women of WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE.” A great show, with expertly written 30-minute dramas, very well acted. Highly recommended.

For older Late Show columns (adding up to well over 200 reviews!), visit the newly updated-and-revamped DVD Late Show website and archive. For additional pop culture musings, occasional DVD previews and lots of shameless self-promotion, you might try checking out my blog.

Comments, DVD questions, review requests and offers of money can be sent to: dvdlateshow@atomicpulp.com

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