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10/12/07

This is the best time of the year for fans of offbeat and bizarre cinema. This is the season when the studios unearth the cult horror and other exploitation stuff from their vaults, and dress it up nice for the Halloween consumers. As a fan of these kinds of flicks, I couldn’t be happier, but as a collector, I do wish they’d spread these cool genre releases out over the course of the year; it’d be considerably easier on the wallet.

There’s a lot to cover this time around, so let’s get right to the reviews, shall we?

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When Stuart Gordon made his directorial debut with 1985‘s RE-ANIMATOR, he hit it out of the park with one of the smartest, most rewarding horror films of the Eighties. Some people forget, though, that his follow up was damned near as good, if not better. Now, after a long wait, MGM Home Video has finally unleashed FROM BEYOND: UNRATED DIRECTOR’S CUT (1986), a fully re-mastered and restored version of the 80’s horror masterpiece.

Two scientists create a machine that enables them, by stimulation of the pineal gland, to perceive a parallel reality populated by grotesque, monstrous beings. When their first experiment apparently leads to the death of one of them, a beautiful psychiatrist (Barbara Crampton, RE-ANIMATOR) and a police officer (Ken Foree, the original DAWN OF THE DEAD) escort the survivor (Jeffrey Combs, RE-ANIMATOR) back to the isolated laboratory to re-create the experiment and prove that he did not murder his colleague.

Loosely based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, and filled with fantastic, pre-CGI “practical” effects, plenty of gore and slime, kinky sex and sheer, unbridled depravity, FROM BEYOND was pretty heady stuff for ’86, and suffered heavily at the hands of the MPAA, who demanded multiple trims before they’d grant it an “R” rating. MGM Home Video, in association with the Monsters HD channel, has restored the film to director Gordon’s original version, and given the whole movie a digital clean-up and restoration. It looks fabulous.

MGM’s new “Unrated Director’s Cut” has been given a sterling 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (previous home video versions were presented in open-matte full-frame, which spoiled a number of the effects), and a booming Dolby Surround mix. In addition, they’ve provided an entertaining and informative commentary by Gordon and key cast members, several retrospective featurettes, a storyboard comparison, and more.

With a talented cast that understands the genre, a unique visual look, and sharp direction by Stuart Gordon, FROM BEYOND stands as one of the most ambitious and original horror films of its era, and still has the power to shock and surprise today. MGM’s new DVD is a solid package and is very welcome.

Highly recommended.

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After a couple of years’ drought, while switching from distributor to distributor, MGM has finally – and gloriously – resurrected their marvelous Midnite Movies line of cult films. Among this new wave of rare and offbeat genre titles comes director Bert I. Gordon’s (AMAZING COLLOSAL MAN, EMPIRE OF THE ANTS) 1976 drive-in favorite, FOOD OF THE GODS (1976).

On a visit to an isolated Canadian island community, a football pro (Marjoe Gortner of STARCRASH and BOBBI JO AND THE OUTLAW) finds himself trapped in the farmhouse of elderly Mrs. Skinner (film legend Ida Lupino, HIGH SIERRA) with several others, surrounded by various giant critters, including man-sized, voracious rats.

The cast is the film’s strongest aspect. Ex-child evangelist Gortner makes a decent enough hero, Lupino manages to bring some gravitas to her stock role, former Mike Hammer Ralph Meeker (KISS ME DEADLY) makes a convincing corporate asshole, pretty Pamela Franklin (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) is, well, pretty, and Joe Dante favorite Belinda Belaski (PIRANHA, THE HOWLING) is quite good in her role as an unmarried mom-to-be.

Unabashedly goofy, FOOD OF THE GODS is the type of exploitation film that not only requests a willing suspension of disbelief, but begs for it. The wholly illogical plot, sketchy (if well-cast) characters and sub-par (even for 1976) special effects can only be enjoyed if you shut down all your critical faculties and just go with it. If you can accomplish that, you might have some fun.

The MGM/Fox Midnite Movies DVD features a strong, 1.85 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a clear mono soundtrack. There are no bonus features, and the menu – as on all of these newest MM releases – is uninspired and dull.

Recommended for fans only, or those nostalgic for Seventies-styled drive-in schlock.

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After hitting box office gold with 1958’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, based on the Jules Verne adventure novel of the same name, 20th Century Fox was eager to repeat that film’s success with another big-screen dinosaur epic. Wanting it in theaters quickly, they turned to notoriously efficient producer-director Irwin Allen (VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE POSIEDON ADVENTURE), who chose another classic novel to adapt. The resulting film, THE LOST WORLD (1960), based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, was a Cinemascope and Technicolor (expensive processes reserved for the studios’ most important films) epic with an all-star cast, and did big business when released.

Crotchety Professor Challenger (Claude Rains, THE INVISIBLE MAN) leads an expedition comprised, in part, of a big game hunter (Michael Rennie, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), a hot redhead in skintight pink Capri pants (Jill St. John, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) a reporter (David Hedison, THE FLY), a couple of Latin stereotypes and a poodle, to an isolated plateau deep in the Amazon jungle. There, above unscalable cliffs, savage dinosaurs (photographically enlarged lizards) and other prehistoric life forms survive to the present day (or at least, to 1960). Before long, the explorers run afoul of some cave-dwelling natives, and must find a way off the plateau before it is destroyed by volcanic eruptions.

A lavish, all-star big-budget epic, with impressive sets and A-list production values, THE LOST WORLD, is, ultimately, a silly Saturday afternoon matinee adventure with big lizards. That producer/director Allen was too cheap and in too much of a hurry to consider using stop-motion animation for the dinosaurs critically damages the film – even the kids in the audience are likely to snicker when the esteemed paleontologist Challenger identifies a komodo dragon as a “brontosaur” or oversized iguana as a “Tyrannosaurus Rex!”

Still, if you’re in the right mood, the fast pace, colorful characters and solid – if unchallenging – acting add up to a pretty fun 96 minutes.

Fox’s 2-disc special edition presents THE LOST WORLD in a crystal sharp, brilliantly colorful 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that preserves the aspect ratio of the original Cinemascope presentation. The film has been given a Dolby 4.0 surround mix for this disc, along with the original stereo mix. Extra features include a vintage promotional featurette, newsreel footage of the film’s 1960 premiere, the original trailer, a still gallery, and scans of the Dell comic book.

Disc 2 includes the original, 1925 silent version of THE LOST WORLD, presented in full-frame format with color tinting. This copy of the film – though not as complete as the version released by Image Entertainment a few years ago – features still-remarkable stop-motion dinosaurs by KING KONG effects genius Willis O’Brien, and looks very decent for its age. Several minutes of animation outtakes are also included.

Recommended for dinosaur film completists and cult movie buffs only.

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Also hitting shelves right around now are two good-natured vintage teen comedy romps from Crown International that probably should have been packaged as one of BCI’s “Starlight Drive-In” double bills. Instead, they’ve been released as WELCOME TO THE GRINDHOUSE DOUBLE FEATURE: THE BEACH GIRLS/COACH (1982/1978). Oh well, regardless of the format, they’re still worth checking out.

1982’s THE BEACH GIRLS is a charmingly lowbrow time killer packed with bare-breasted young beauties, cheap jokes, and consequence-free sexual hijinks. The plot, such as it is, revolves around three sexy young college students spending the Summer at a Southern California beach house belonging to one of the girls’ uncle. They immediately begin partying, and the remainder of the flick is pretty much non-stop sex and drug (marijuna) humor. Yet, THE BEACH GIRLS has a pleasant innocence about it, and is an enjoyable relic of a time when movies were often just about escapist fun.

The second feature on the disc, 1978‘s COACH, stars Cathy Lee Crosby as a former Olympic running champion who lands a job as the coach of a boy’s high school basketball team. Over the flick’s 91 minutes, she overcomes the sexist prejudices of the school board and her team, begins an affair with one of the teenaged players (Michael Biehn, THE TERMINATOR), and leads her charges to victory in the state championship. Utterly predictable but unpretentious, COACH is undemanding entertainment from a simpler era.

Both movies are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and look great, considering their age. COACH looks a little soft, but it may have been shot that way. Sound appears to be simple stereo. On COACH, the dialogue is frequently muffled or echo-y, which suggests that it was recorded on-set and not cleaned up. It’s always understandable, though.

BCI’s disc allows you to watch the movies individually, or as a “Grindhouse Experience” double feature. This includes trailers for other Crown International comedies, including THE VAN, JOCKS, MALIBU BEACH and MY TUTOR.

Fun flix. Cheap DVD. You could do worse.

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Heavy metal rock music got a bad rap back in the late Eighties, with parents groups and TV religious leaders loudly denouncing the music of several high profile bands as “Satanic.” There was a fear that heavy metal would corrupt the impressionable minds of teenagers, brainwashing them with subversive lyrics and subliminal messages of evil. 1988’s BLACK ROSES plays off that paranoia with its very dated, somewhat goofy tale of rock & roll horror.

A heavy metal rock band with a few successful studio albums goes on tour, and makes its first stop in a small town, where it’ll play the local high school auditorium for three nights. After the first show, the kids start acting up, and the local English teacher (soap opera vet John Martin) starts getting suspicious. Turns out he has a right to be alarmed, as the band’s music turns kids into demons! Can the teacher save his students from the infernal influence of the Black Roses and their charismatic front man, Damien (Sal Viviano)?

With rubbery monsters, gratuitous boobage, some fairly decent music and an early role by THE SOPRANOS’ Vincent Pastore (who is eaten by a stereo) and Lou Ferrigno’s wife, Carla, BLACK ROSES was director John Fasano’s slightly more polished follow-up to his notorious ROCK ‘N ROLL NIGHTMARE of the previous year (also available from Synapse Films). Very much a product of its era, and clearly made on the cheap, it’s still fairly entertaining as long as you don’t take it seriously.

The DVD from Synapse Films features a decent 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer mastered from the original camera negative in high-def. It still shows its age though, with a slightly soft image and a few specks here and there. The Dolby Stereo mix is adequate, but unspectacular. The best bonus feature is a very entertaining commentary track by director Fasano, writer Cindy Sorrell, actress Carla Ferrigno, and Fasano’s kids (the daughter makes the best comments). Also included are some trailers and audition tapes.

Back in the VHS days, this one sported a flashy, 3-D embossed box, and that is still probably the most memorable thing about BLACK ROSES. But every movie is somebody’s favorite, especially in the horror genre. So if you’re a fan of this one, the DVD is a very respectable presentation, and worth picking up.

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One of the most personal films B-movie mogul Roger Corman ever made (and the only one not to turn a profit theatrically), THE INTRUDER (1962), comes to DVD in a new edition courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment. An intense, disturbing civil rights drama, with a surprisingly powerful performance by a pre-STAR TREK William Shatner, THE INTRUDER still has the ability to provoke strong emotions, forty years after it was made.

Shatner plays Adam Cramer, a charming, charismatic, racist agitator who comes to a small Southern town to incite the white population to violently oppose court-ordered school integration. Soon though, he finds that his efforts have been too successful, and things begin to get out of hand.

An excellent script by frequent TWILIGHT ZONE scribe Charles Beaumont (based on his novel), naturalistic direction by Corman, and a sly, astonishing performance by Shatner, result in a memorable, uncomfortable look at a turbulent time in our cultural history. THE INTRUDER is a remarkable film.

As usual with Buena Vista’s handling of the Roger Corman titles, the presentation is nothing to write home about. THE INTRUDER is presented in an unmatted, 1.33:1 full-frame transfer, sourced from a hazy, scratchy print. There are even a few jumps here and there from missing frames. The mono soundtrack is a bit fuzzy, but is understandable. Although labeled as a “Special Edition,” extras are the absolute minimal, consisting of a single, short featurette, “Remembering THE INTRUDER,” featuring interviews with Corman and Shatner, both of whom are obviously very proud of the film.

Despite the mediocre technical presentation, THE INTRUDER is a minor classic of independent filmmaking, and is recommended.

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I was already in my 20’s when the original craze hit. I never watched the cartoon and never played with or collected the toys, so I had no real axe to grind with (or much interest in, frankly) Michael Bay’s big-budget, live-action version of TRANSFORMERS (2007). And I’m not a fan of most of Bay’s features, either (except for THE ROCK), finding them mostly just flash-bang and shallow, so if anything, my expectations when the advance screener showed up in my mail were on the low side.

Well, I liked it. It may not be a great movie, but everything considered, it was a lot more enjoyable than it had any right to be.

Teenager Sam Witwicky (appealing “everyman” Shia LaBeof, HOLES) buys a beat-up, used, yellow and black Camaro, which is eventually revealed to be the morphing alien “Autobot” Bumblebee. Before long, Sam and his new girlfriend Mikaela (sexy Megan Fox) find themselves embroiled in a conflict between the friendly Autobots (who change into cars & trucks) and their enemies, the evil, warlike Decepticons (who change into war machines like tanks and fighter jets). Both groups of bots are searching for a powerful artifact known as the Allspark, which crashed to Earth in the distant past and is now in the hands of a secret government agency.

Now, a couple things about this film impressed me. First, writers Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (MI:III, STAR TREK) managed to make me interested in both the human characters and the ridiculously named robots. Second, the CGI effects were damn near flawless, which really helped me buy into these automatons as actual characters. I was also impressed at how unabashedly corny the filmmakers allowed themselves to be. It really worked for this particular film.

Paramount’s 2-disc special edition sports a flawless 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and deafening 5.1 Dolby Surround sound. There are a whole crapload of featurettes, covering almost every imaginable aspect of the making of the film and the history of the franchise, trailers, and various Easter Eggs.

If you’re a fan of the film or the Transformers in general, this is the edition to buy. If you know nothing of the franchise (as I did) you might want to rent it when it hits shelves next week. It’s a loud, fast-paced entertainment with a surprising amount of heart. Recommended.

DVD LATE SHOW CAPSULE REVIEWS!

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JERICHO – THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (2006-07). A riveting post apocalyptic soap opera set in tiny Jericho, Kansas in the aftermath of a series of nuclear attacks by terrorists, JERICHO unfairly suffered in the ratings due to a crappy timeslot opposite AMERICAN IDOL. But if you missed it on television, as I did (ummm… I wasn’t watching IDOL, I just missed it), you now have a chance to catch up with one of last season’s finest dramas on DVD. With a talented cast led by Skeet Ulrich (SCREAM), taut, emotional scripts and gritty, suspenseful direction, this underrated series is addictive and rewarding.

Paramount’s DVD set includes all 22 episodes of the first series in anamorphic widescreen and Dolby 5.1. Surround Sound. Extras include a “Making Of” doc, a “What If” featurette, many deleted scenes, and several episode commentaries by cast and crew. Highly recommended.

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SPLATTER BEACH (2007). Hitting streets this week is this shot-on-video surf schlock-o-rama starring Erin Brown (better known as “Misty Mundae”) and Erika Smith. Rampaging fishmen attack a beachside music festival; horror and hilarity ensue. The beach looks cold, the gore effects are really fake, the acting is terrible, and the direction by the Polonia Brothers (SPLATTER FARM) isn’t much better. The 2-disc unrated edition includes a commentary by the directors and cast member Ken Van Sant, a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a soundtrack CD. Not one of Pop Cinema’s finer efforts, unfortunately, released as part of their “Camp Motion Pictures” label.

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FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER “POWER COSMIC EDITION” (2007). The plucky underachiever of Marvel Comics movie franchises returns with a second installment that, as seems to be the case with these series, is an improvement over the first. Unfortunately, two of the titular four are still hideously miscast, the horribly ill-conceived version of Victor Von Doom returns, and the direction by Tim Story is still purely by-the-numbers. That said, I’ve read worse FF adventures in the comics over the years, and the film’s portrayal of the noble space sentinel, the Silver Surfer, is pretty damned cool.

Fox has given the film a nice 2-disc deluxe edition right out of the gate (instead of waiting a year or so like with the first film), with a crystal sharp 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (there’s a full-frame version on the flip side), and 5.1 Surround sound mix on disc 1. There are also two commentary tracks, by director Story and other crewmembers. Disc two includes a bunch of extended/deleted scenes, a slew of “Making Of” featurettes, several still galleries, trailers, and a cool doc discussing the comic book origins of the Surfer.

You already know if you want to buy the movie, most likely, and if you’re a fan, this is a great DVD package and worth picking up. Otherwise, rent it.

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ELIOT NESS: AN UNTOUCHABLE LIFE (2007). This feature-length one-man show chronicling the life of the famous Prohibition lawman is essentially a videotaped stage performance (with three sets), written and directed by mystery novelist and independent filmmaker Max Allan Collins (MOMMY). Actor Michael Cornelison gives a tour de force performance as an aging Ness reminiscing about his life and triumphs as a law enforcement officer, and Collins’ well-written script/monologue (Collins has penned a number of historical mystery novels about Ness) is both fascinating and compelling. VCI gives the production a solid 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a crisp Dolby stereo audio track. Extras include the short film that was used to raise financing for the feature, excerpts from live performances of the play, commentary by Cornelison and Collins, a bonus short film, “An Inconsequential Matter” (also directed by Collins and starring Cornelison), a deleted scene, and trailers for other VCI releases.

An interesting and involving performance makes a unique viewing experience. Definitely worth checking out.

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KNOCKED UP – EXTENDED & UNRATED
(2007). From the creators of 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and television’s FREAKS AND GEEKS, comes a surprisingly grown-up comedy about, well, growing up. Judd Apatow regular Seth Rogen plays a slacker who, after a drunken encounter with sexy Katherine Heigl, finds himself about to become a father. So, despite having nothing in common, the couple tries to forge a relationship and deal with their situation. Funny and heartfelt, KNOCKED UP is a great modern comedy. Universal’s 2-disc “Unprotected” Edition features an extended, unrated cut of the film in anamorphic widescreen and Dolby 5.1, nearly three hours of extras including tons of bloopers and deleted scenes, video diaries, and featurettes. If you dug 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, or smart comedies in general, you’ll enjoy this. Recommended.

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VINTAGE EROTICA ANNO 1960. As with previous volumes (ANNO 1920, 1930, 1940, & 1950) from Cult Epics, this is a fascinating collection of silent, black & white stag loops from Europe, this time shot during the swingin’ Sixties. This volume includes twelve erotic shorts of varying picture quality, though most look pretty bad, suffering from serious age-related damage and inferior film stock. The Cult Epics presentation is 1.33:1 full-frame, and they’ve provided a generic “psychedelic” score. There’s also a Sixties-era gallery of nudes. It’s more of a historical artifact than porn, although the material is definitely hardcore. Recommended for scholarly smut collectors only.

DVD LATE SHOW NEWS!

I was going to review VCI’s new special edition of director Bob Clark’s (PORKY’S, DEATHDREAM) zombie thriller, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972), this week, and warn that the version on the disc was edited and not in the best of shape. However, other reviewers got to it first, and VCI, to their credit, has admitted that they made a mistake and announced an immediate recall of the flawed disc. Citing internal miscommunication resulting in the wrong master being used, VCI intends to have the disc redone and will replace consumers’ copies with the corrected version.

Visit VCI’s website for more information.


NEXT TIME:
A “monster” of a Halloween column, with a bunch more Midnite Movies (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, YONGARY, THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES, BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, VAULT OF HORROR), THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD COLLECTOR’S EDITION, ALLIGATOR, THE FLY COLLECTION 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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