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9/25/07

Welcome back to the Late Show. The last couple of installments skewed a bit heavily toward major studio releases, so I thought it was time to get back to the real “popcorn cinema” and devote a column to a batch of recent and upcoming “B” movie DVDs.

With that in mind, I’ve dug a Corman drive-in classic, an offbeat kaiju flick, a couple of European sexploitation “shockers,” and some brand new, ultra low budget exploitation movies out of the review stack. Let’s check ‘em out, shall we?

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At the height of his popularity as “Richie Cunningham” on HAPPY DAYS, actor Ron Howard was offered a part in a Roger Corman-produced, country car chase movie. Now, Corman says he didn’t actually expect the red-haired TV icon to accept, but Howard agreed to do the flick – if Corman promised him an opportunity to direct another. The resulting film, EAT MY DUST (1976), went on to become one of the biggest drive-in hits of the era, and one of the highest grossing films released by Corman’s original New World company.

The plot – if I may dignify it with such a term – is simple: to impress a shallow, speed freak blonde in itty-bitty hotpants (soap opera mainstay Christopher Norris, AIRPORT 1975), Hoover Niebold (Howard), the son of the local sheriff (veteran character actor Warren J. Kemmerling, GODZILLA 1985), steals a stock car and takes her on a reckless joyride across rural Puckerbush County. Soon, his father and a bunch of deputies – as well as a posse of drunken racecar drivers – are on the kids’ tail, resulting in plenty of high-speed pursuits, car crashes and other blatant traffic violations.

With, ironically, pedestrian script & direction by Corman vet Charles B. Griffith, EAT MY DUST is pretty thin, nonsensical stuff. But I’ll give it this: it keeps moving, is never boring, and the ending is rather perfect. That said, Howard’s follow-up for Corman, GRAND THEFT AUTO, is a much better movie.

An aside: something I find interesting, since it’s from a producer known more for imitation than innovation, is that EAT MY DUST actually predates, by a year or so, the whole SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT/DUKES OF HAZZARD phenomenon of the late Seventies. Hmmm.

Buena Vista’s new “Supercharged Edition” sports a decent, if unremarkable, 1.33:1 full frame transfer and Dolby stereo sound. The meager extras include an introduction by producer Roger Corman, the original theatrical trailer, and a retrospective documentary, “How to Crash on a Dime,” which features on-camera interviews with lead actress Norris, as well as he film’s stunt coordinator and film editor. Unfortunately, as on the GRAND THEFT AUTO disc, there’s no participation by Howard himself.

It’s not a classic, but it’s a fun example of 70’s drive-in fare. For fans of the car chase genre, EAT MY DUST is worth checking out.

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When an evil corporation (What? Another one?) illegally dumps some biogenetic toxic waste into a small rural lake, it isn’t long before ravenous mutant fishmen rise from its murky depths to slaughter the local population of beer-swilling, inbred rednecks.

That’s the high concept of Pop Cinema’s CREATURE FROM THE HILLBILLY LAGOON (2007), one of the latest releases in their Shock-O-Rama exploitation/horror line.

Directed by Richard Griffin, HILLBILLY LAGOON is a hilariously bad, cartoonish horror comedy with a silly script, terrible, campy acting by a strictly amateurish cast, and goofy gore effects. On the other hand, it’s surprisingly entertaining, rather well shot, the music’s pretty good, and the creature suits aren’t bad, either. I even like the art on the DVD cover. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of those so-bad-it’s-kinda-good flicks, in a TOXIC AVENGER sort of way.

Pop Cinema’s DVD offers up the shot-on-digital video feature with a very respectable 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The disc includes a commentary track by director Griffin, a Behind the Scenes featurette, some deleted scenes, and the usual Shock-O-Rama Trailer Vault.

Definitely worth a rental for schlock-oholics.

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I’ve written before about my admiration and appreciation for low-budget filmmaker and effects maestro Brett Piper (SHOCK-O-RAMA, SCREAMING DEAD), so I was excited when his latest film for Pop Cinema’s Shock-O-Rama label, BACTERIUM (2007), showed up in my mailbox. Needless to say, I had the disc out of its shrinkwrap and spinning in my Sony within minutes.

A group of young paintball players stumble across a seemingly abandoned mansion. Investigating, they find a deranged scientist conducting experiments in the basement. Realizing that this isn’t a good thing, they decide to bail, only to find the building surrounded by armed soldiers who will not let them leave. Turns out that the doc is on the run from the government with a virulent bioweapon, and they’re trapped with him and the rapidly reproducing and growing flesh-eating organism. The question then becomes: can they escape – without becoming infected themselves – before the government takes decisive action to contain the bacterial threat?

With better-than-average production values and acting for a shot-on-video production, the PG-13 rated BACTERIUM is a nifty little 50’s styled sci-fi thriller, reminiscent of British films like THE CREEPING UNKNOWN and FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, with a bit of THE BLOB thrown in for good measure. A definite highlight is Piper’s handcrafted “bacterium” effects, which appear to combine stop-motion and puppetry with detailed miniature sets.

The Pop Cinema DVD presents the digital video feature in a nice, crisp 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The limited extras include a short, but informative “Making Of” featurette, a commentary track by Piper and producer Michael Raso, and a slew of Shock-O-Rama trailers.

Considering the budget and limited resources, BACTERIUM really delivers the old school sci-fi shivers, and may be Piper’s best film to date. Imaginative, witty, and remarkably well made, BACTERIUM is enthusiastically recommended for fans of indie horror and sci-fi.

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Another mutated single-cell life form causes havoc in Inshiro Honda’s (GOJIRA) kaiju spoof, SPACE AMOEBA (GEZORA, GANIME, KAMEBA: KESSEN! NANKAI NO DAIKAIJÛ, 1970), the last non-Godzilla film from the man who pretty much defined the genre.

An alien organism catches a ride on a space probe returning to Earth, which crashes into the Pacific near a small, tropical island inhabited only by a few native fisherman and a group of entrepreneurs planning a tourist resort. Unfortunately for them, the organism soon causes three local sea creatures – a cuttlefish, a turtle and a shrimp – to mutate into giant monsters… and they’re hungry.

The film is a colorful, fast-paced kaiju fantasy that is, in many ways, an affectionate satire of the studio’s successful and popular GODZILLA series and Toho’s other kaiju klassics. In fact, while SPACE AMOEBA eschews the usual model city smashing and mass armies of model tanks, it offers the viewer an enjoyable tropical romp with some truly inspired monster designs, marvelous vintage effects, plenty of action, and lots of intentional humor.

The recent DVD from Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock presents the film (originally released to America as YOG, MONSTER FROM SPACE) in a beautiful, almost flawless 2.35 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The movie’s been given a new 5.1 Surround mix, and includes both English and Japanese dialogue tracks. There’s a commentary by producer Fumio Tanaka, a documentary on the three real-world sea animals that Toho reimagined as giant monsters for the film, and two original Japanese theatrical trailers.

For fans of Japanese giant monster films looking for something a bit different, SPACE AMOEBA is highly recommended.

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Dark Sky Films is about to unleash a new, Director’s Cut edition, of Jack Hill’s seminal horror comedy, SPIDER BABY (1968), and as a fan of the film, I’m thrilled.

The twisted story centers on the remaining members of the Merrye family – Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), Virginia (Jill Banner) and Ralph (Sid Haig, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS) – three adult “children” who suffer from a rare genetic disease which causes them to mentally regress as they age. Under the guardianship of chauffeur Bruno (screen icon Lon Chaney Jr., THE WOLF MAN), the Merrye “children” live in the isolated family mansion, away from the outside world. This is necessary because their condition instills in them a childishly cruel bloodlust. When a pair of distant relatives and their lawyer show up with designs on the family estate, an evening of horror and madness begins.

Shot under the title CANNIBAL ORGY: OR THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD, director Hill’s (FOXY BROWN, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) is a sublime black comedy that pays affectionate homage to classic horror films while foreshadowing the psychotic killer-styled terror that would soon come into vogue. Deftly mixing humor and horror, with charming performances by Chaney, the late Jill Banner and the rest of the cast, SPIDER BABY is somehow genuinely creepy and disturbing, yet a lot of fun to watch.

Previously issued some years ago by Image Entertainment, this version restores some previously deleted footage and sports a brand-new, hi-def transfer from the original 35mm negative, along with a number of new bonus features. The beautiful black & white photography of Alfred Taylor is well served by the new 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, as is Ronald Stein’s bouncy-but-eerie score by the Dolby Digital mono tracks. None of the Image extras are included (which included a Hill commentary and cast reunion), but Dark Sky has assembled a fine batch of new material for this release. There’s a new commentary by Hill and actor Sid Haig, a retrospective documentary featuring pretty much all the surviving cast and major crewmembers, a short featurette focusing on composer Ronald Stein, a new visit to the “Merrye House” location, a still gallery, the CANNIBAL ORGY alternate opening credits, and an extended scene.

SPIDER BABY is one of the great cult films, and Dark Sky has given it a definitive release. If you own the Image disc, you may want to hang onto it for the old extras, but this new edition is a must-buy.

Highly and enthusiastically recommended.

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It seems like there have been a fair number of films and TV shows lately with “seeing the future/past” gimmicks, and the latest one to come across my desk is the Nicholas Cage vehicle, NEXT (2007).

Cage plays a small-time Vegas “psychic” and magician who actually can see the future – his own future, anyway, and then only two minutes ahead. This allows him to make a killing at the gaming tables, and inadvertently brings him to the attention of FBI agent Ferris (Julianne Moore, HANNIBAL), who wants his help in defusing a terrorist plot. But Cage only wants to pursue his destiny with his dream girl (Jessica Biel, BLADE TRINITY), and goes on the run.

NEXT isn’t a genre classic, but it’s certainly a decent enough 90 minutes of undemanding entertainment, with good performances, exciting action scenes and a fairly involving storyline. The ending may annoy some viewers, but I thought it gave the flick a nice, TWILIGHT ZONE sort of denouement.

Paramount’s DVD presents NEXT in a solid 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, all pretty standard for a brand new release. Not a lot of extras – a couple of featurettes and some trailers – but the movie isn’t really demanding a full-fledged “special edition,” anyway.

An unremarkable but entertaining mainstream thriller with a sci-fi flavor; recommended for a weekend rental.

DVD LATE SHOW CAPSULE REVIEWS!

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CHEECH & CHONG’S UP IN SMOKE (1978). I’m about as boringly straight as a guy can be, but I can still get a chuckle or two out of stoner comedies, especially when they star Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. In this, their first feature film, the boys smoke a dogshit doobie, try to score pot off a psychotic Vietnam vet (Tom Skerritt, THE DEVIL’S RAIN), are conned into smuggling a van made of marijuana (!) into the U.S. from Mexico, are pursued by a hard-nosed cop (Stacy Keach, MIKE HAMMER), and win a battle of the bands. Paramount’s new special edition is loaded with features, beginning with a very solid anamorphic widescreen transfer and a new Dolby 5.1 Surround sound mix. The disc also includes a commentary track by Cheech Marin and director Lou Adler, a handful of deleted scenes, a retrospective documentary, an animated music video, and vintage advertising (which shows that Paramount’s PR department had no idea at all how to sell this picture back in ’78!). For fans, this is definitely worth picking up.

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WELCOME TO THE GRINDHOUSE DOUBLE FEATURE: DRAGON PRINCESS/KARATE WARRIORS (1976). Two classic Sonny Chiba (STREET FIGHTER, KILL BILL) martial arts exploitation films from the swingin’ Seventies are presented as a “grindhouse” double feature, complete with appropriate trailers and other theater programming. In DRAGON PRINCESS, Chiba is defeated in personal combat by a rival and blinded in one eye. in shame, he leaves Tokyo and heads to New York City, where he trains his young daughter (Etsuko Shihomi, a/k/a Sue Shiomi, SISTER STREET FIGHTER) in the killing arts, so that she may someday avenge his honor. KARATE WARRIORS is a contemporary (1976), urban remake of YOJIMBO, with Chiba playing two gangs against each other in order to wipe them both out. Great stuff. BCI has given both films decent 2.35:1 anamorphic transfers, that show some age and wear, but are far better than any previous U.S. home video release. Viva Chiba!

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THE COMPLETE UNDERDOG ULTIMATE COLLECTION Vols. 1-3 (1964). Forget the recent lameass theatrical film, this is the real deal. Classic Media’s digitally remastered 18 episodes of the original UNDERDOG cartoon, and packed them onto three awesome collector’s discs. The full-frame transfers have been cleaned up a bit from previous home video releases, although these 40-year old toons still show some age-related wear and have somewhat faded colors. But who cares? The witty, clever scripts, top-notch voice acting and attractive – if limited – animation still provide plenty of smart entertainment for kids and nostalgic adults. In addition, the discs include various bonus features – trivia quizes, sing-alongs, storyboards, etc. Good stuff, and worth picking up for cartoon fans.

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FACE/OFF: SPECIAL COLLECTOR’S EDITION (1997). His recent films may be kinda unmemorable, but I don’t care; John Woo (HARD BOILED, THE KILLER) is still my favorite living action director. This sci-fi cops & robbers thriller, starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, is, despite a ludicrous central premise, probably Woo’s last good film to date, and the best he’s made in Hollywood. Stylish direction, top-notch action sequences with human stuntwork, solid acting, and a script that leavens the outrageous storyline about a cop and a terrorist who switch faces and identities with heaping helpings of sentiment and heart, combine to make an enjoyable, fast-paced, cinematic experience. Paramount’s new 2-disc Collector’s Edition offers a sterling 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and both Dolby 5.1 and 6.1 DTS sound, commentary tracks by Woo and the film’s screenwriters, 7 deleted scenes and an alternate ending, an exhaustive “Making of Documentary,” and a John Woo biography. I like this movie a lot, and if you do, too, this new edition is highly recommended.

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SCHOOLGIRL REPORT Vol. 1 & 2 (1970-71). These two German sexploitation gems pretend to be serious documentaries about the “terrifying” sexual liberation of 70’s Teutonic teenyboppers, with authoritative narration, woman-on-the-street interviews and elaborate “re-enactments” that just coincidentally display copious amounts of attractive, nubile Euro-flesh in highly eroticized situations. Of course, the films warn that all this unbridled, uninhibited behavior leads inevitably to grim retribution – a teenager seduces a school bus driver and is expelled; another bunch of female students seduce their hirsute science teacher only to have him commit suicide; a virgin’s first sexual experience results in pregnancy – you know, just like in real life. Impulse Pictures presents these first two installments of the long-running series, directed by Ernst Hofbauer, in their original German, with English subtitles. The 1.66:1 anamorphic transfers are a bit worn and faded, but are presented uncut. There are no extras. For collectors of vintage sexploitation, these campy, softcore “classics” are worth checking out.

Thanks for spending some time with me today. Next time, I hope to have a few “Midnite Movie” reviews, as well as looks at FROM BEYOND, THE LOST WORLD, VANESSA, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, THE INTRUDER (with William Shatner!), UNHOLY and more.

For older Late Show columns (adding up to well over 200 reviews!), visit the recently 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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