Sunday, April 20, 2014

Movie Review: ED GEIN

ED GEIN
aka IN THE LIGHT OF THE MOON
2000, First Look Home Entertainment, HF/SS, $9.98, VHS
DD-2.0/SS/ST/+, $14.98, DVD-0, 88m 30s

By John Charles

Originally published in Video Watchdog #88

With the glut of serial killer films during the past decade, it was certain that someone would take another look at the Plainfield, Wisconsin handyman whose ghoulish deeds already influenced PSYCHO,THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, THREE ON A MEATHOOK, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and (most directly) DERANGED. Director Chuck Parella (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER 2: MASK OF SANITY) signals his intention to make this the most accurate depiction of Gein to date by opening the picture with battered B&W newsreel footage of actual townsfolk remarking on what a nice, normal man he seemed to be. The film's closing moments also offer a look at the real Gein leading lawmen around his farm, before being hustled back into a police car. ED GEIN does ultimately fulfil Parello's goal, though it is not without some cinematic license. The killer's preference for plump, middle-aged women is correctly depicted here, in contrast to the thirtysomething waitress and teenage clerk that Roberts Blossom's "Ezra Cobb" preyed upon in 1974's DERANGED. However, like that earlier production, the time frame has been considerably condensed: the two aforementioned victims actually met their fate a few years apart.

Steve Railsback (HELTER SKELTER) plays Gein (first shown peeking out of an open grave) in a low-key manner that works best when the actor imparts the awkward, socially retarded mannerisms of this deeply lonely, obtuse man. Carrie Snodgress appropriately plays to the back row as Gein's fire-and-brimstone harridan of a mother. However, the reedy actress is physically wrong for the part; Gein's victims reflected his mother's body size, making someone like Kathy Bates a better candidate. There are also overt references to cannibalism, which is about the only malfeasance Gein consistently denied having partaken. The movie was released stateside to theaters and video without a rating, though it is not clear why. While Railsback is shown briefly parading around in a skin mask and apron, and some mutilated corpses and body parts are also seen, the depiction of the actual murders is quite restrained, falling far short of the Gein-esque depravity on display in DAGON and HANNIBAL, both of which were awarded an "R."

However well intentioned, ED GEIN nonetheless emerges as one of the more pointless efforts this cycle has produced to date. Gein's atrocities have already been vividly depicted in so many other pictures that this one seems more akin to those politely unpleasant E! Channel schlockumentaries. Restraint and suggestion are two key approaches in the horror genre but, if that is the route chosen, a filmmaker must have more on his agenda than simply chronicling events. Parella's effort is a competently produced and performed work, but it offers no fresh insight into the psychology of its main character or the townspeople who unknowingly let him go about his depraved ways for almost a decade. It is a sad comment on society to note that the story of a man who robbed graves, defiled corpses, and decorated his home with human bone fails to make much of an impression in 2002. However, in the end, ED GEIN merely seems superfluous, an old story told one too many times and with too little panache.

The fullscreen transfer would benefit from 1.85:1 matting and looks slightly soft (likely by design), but is otherwise well-rendered. The stereo mix is not all that aggressive by horror standards, but it suits the tone of the production. A trailer and optional Spanish subtitles are included on the DVD but no guide to the 23 chapters is provided in the menu or on an insert. Those with multi-region players are directed to the far preferable UK release from Tartan Films (which produced the movie). That all-region PAL disc is16:9 and, in addition to a trailer, also offers deleted scenes and a booklet of production notes/interviews by Alan Jones.

[Whatever this film's shortcomings, it is preferable to 2007's ED GEIN: THE BUTCHER OF PLAINFIELD and Steve Railsback is a much better choice for the part than the miscast Kane Hodder]

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Movie Review: SPACE TRUCKERS

SPACE TRUCKERS
1996, Sterling #7205, DD/SS/MA/LB/C/+, $29.95, 96m 12s, DVD-A

By John Charles

Originally published in slightly different form in Video Watchdog #54

Stuart Gordon (RE-ANIMATOR, DOLLS) directed this amiable outing, possibly the first sci-fi/comedy/road movie. Space trucker John Canyon (Dennis Hopper) drops off his load of genetically engineered square pigs and picks up a new cargo of sex dolls, not knowing that he is actually hauling 5000 super-destructive bio-mechanical warriors that a power-mad corporation owner (Shane Rimmer) plans to use to conquer Earth. Captured by a gang of pirates, whose gruesomely disfigured leader (Charles Dance) is also the robots' creator, Canyon and his shipmates (Stephen Dorff and Debi Mazar) effect an escape when one of the BMWs gets loose and annihilates everyone in sight. However, there remains the question of what is to be done about the rest of the creatures and it becomes an even more pertinent issue when they start activating en masse.

Shot entirely in Ireland in 1995, SPACE TRUCKERS was released to European and Asian markets in 1997 and was scheduled to be handled in the US and Canada by Universal. However, a change in studio regime and squabbling amongst the backers (including an Irish meat processing plant owner, who invested because he liked the square pigs so much!) left the film without a home, until it premiered on HBO in 1999. With the exception of Dance, the cast is forgettable (Hopper and Dorff are so hemmed-in playing normal working stiffs, they barely even register) and the jokes rarely rise above the level of Dance's defective, pull-start mechanical sex organ. That said, the central concept is appealing, there are some inspired riffs on genre cliches, and the BMWs are genuinely creepy antagonists. As with Gordon's FORTRESS, impressive design work, quality second string effects, and good old-fashioned innovation make SPACE TRUCKERS look like it cost at least twice its comparatively modest $25 million budget. George Wendt, Vernon Wells, Barbara Crampton, and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon have supporting roles.

Aside from a lack of 16:9 enhancement and 5.1 audio, Sterling's "Millennium Series" dual layer DVD (authored by Rainmaker Digital Pictures) is every bit as thorough as the best major studio packages. The 2.33:1 presentation looks good for a 4:3 letterboxed presentation, if somewhat unstable at times, and the stereo mix is satisfying, though modest by current standards. By calling up one of the amusingly designed animated menus, the viewer can access a number of special features, including a made-for-video trailer (which ridiculously tries to sell the film as a straight thriller!), production notes, bios/filmographies, a reasonably good "Making Of...documentary (26m 30s), a trivia game (which utilizes clips from the film), and conceptual artwork photos (which can only be accessed through the game). There are two subtitle options: # 1 is Spanish, while #2 causes the film’s B&W storyboards to appear on the lower third of the screen (a nice touch). Gordon also provides an interesting commentary track (though he is hard to make out at times, as the film's soundtrack is a bit too loud in the background), covering such issues as his concern for scientific accuracy despite the loony premise, granting famous Japanese designer Hajime Sorayama's request that each of the BMWs have a penis (and indeed they do, though you have to look for them), the difficulty of finding 6' tall female dancers to play the robots, and his decision to use a Japanese stunt team even though nearly all of the characters are Caucasian. The entire script is also accessible when the disc is played on a DVD-ROM set-up.

On the downside, the chapter selection screen is a pain to navigate and, while the disc played without a hitch on our Sony 7000, friends who own the Pioneer DVL-909 deck report problems with some of the supplementary features. A Canadian DVD is available from Lion's Gate Films/Columbia Tristar with all of the same features.

[Lionsgate, as we know them now, later issued a no-frills fullscreen DVD of SPACE TRUCKERS, but I am not aware of there ever being a proper anamorphic one available in Region 1]

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Movie Review: THE WILD, WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD


THE WILD, WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD
1968, Something Weird Video, (HF/LB/+ VHS), (D/LB/+ DVD-R),
$20.00 ppd., 89m 58s

By John Charles

Originally published in Video Watchdog #97

An old exploitation axiom states that any movie with the word "wild" in the title is invariably anything but. So, a film with "wild, wild" in its handle would likely be a complete dog. Well, THE WILD, WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD is far from good but, like the cult favorite WILD WILD PLANET (1967), its sheer audacity makes this Italian/French/ German co-production memorable. MONDO MANSFIELD would have been an equally apt title for this trashy tribute to '60s chauvinism, as we follow the buxom starlet and her omnipresent Chihuahua to the world's weird, wonderful, wicked, and, well, wild hotspots, with all the particulars relayed via Jayne's breathlessly inane narration (provided by an uncredited Carolyn De Fonseca, whose voice will be very familiar to Italian cult movie fans). In Italy, zany Janey learns that pinching posteriors is the male national pastime ("Roma! There's no place like Roma!") and, during a trip to the colosseum, we are treated to footage from THE LOVES OF HERCULES, which starred Mansfield and then-husband Mickey Hargitay. The Cannes Film Festival beckons, so Jane takes a dip in the Marquis De Sade fountain and shakes her booty to Rocky Roberts and the Airdales. "I was fascinated by the thought of going to an island of nude people," so we next visit Levant and then rush off to Paris for everything from sun lamp treatment to a drag bar interlude to gay and straight prostitutes selling their wares in the streets ("Oh no, this is too much ... c'est Ia vie!"). Our gushing guide next decides to take private stripping lessons (supplemented by footage from PRIMITIVE LOVE) and sample some more of the Parisian night life (which, if the movie is to be believed, consists of nothing but carnal exhibitions of one kind or another). Back home in America, Jayne attends a "highly illegal" New York City transvestite beauty contest ('The losers retired to the ladies' room to cut their throats") before heading to Hollywood to experience the latest phenomenon: Topless everything!

Co-directed by Arthur Knight (author of Playboy's "Sex in Cinema" series and the standard movie text THE LIVELIEST ART), Joel Holt (narrator of the OLGA movies and director of KARATE: THE HAND OF DEATH, the first American martial arts movie), and Charles W. Broun, Jr. (who also co-executive produced with FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT funder David Puttnam!), this shamelessly tacky tour was shot in bits and pieces and relies on several Jayne-less bridging segments to develop some sense of cohesion and get the running time past the requisite 80 minute mark. Between the repetitive nature of the "sights" and Marcello Gigante's bouncy, endlessly recycled theme music, some viewers will zone out early on, despite an abundance of exposed skin, thanks to the many uninhibited Europeans who cross Mansfield's path. (We are also treated to Jayne in the buff, courtesy of clips from PROMISES, PROMISES and its corresponding PLAYBOY pictorial.) This is the rare mondo film that avoids the unpleasant aspects of the genre until things take a head-spinning 180° turn in the final reel, transforming the production into one of the most exploitive enterprises of its era. Mansfield's fatal car crash occurred while the movie was in post-production, so the producers added an epilogue that begins with graphic accident photos featuring her body and that of little Chu Chu. Hargitay and his two young sons then take us on a tour of their home, "The Pink Palace," with its heart-shaped swimming pool, tub, and fireplace. Even if one overlooks the fact that it follows on the heels of such a banal travelogue, this remarkably morbid closer vaults an already cynically assembled picture several notches higher in the realms of bad taste.

THE WILD, WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD has been out on several labels over the years, but SWV's transfer is the first we have seen to present it in widescreen. The opening credit sequence was done with a hard matte and footage from the anamorphic LOVES OF HERCULES was cropboxed within the spherical frame, so SWV chose to matte the entire presentation at 1.90:1. Compared to our old Matinee Classics VHS version, the top and bottom of the image are cropped for the majority of the running time and nothing of consequence is added to the sides. We're not sure if the movie was originally filmed in 16mm, unmatted 35mm or (most probably) a combination of various gauges, but as with virtually all documentaries, the image and colors vary. The presentation generally looks a bit soft and faded, and the 35mm source print has its share of scratches, speckles, and splices. However, the wear and mild deterioration never become greatly detrimental and the sound is okay. Supplements include trailers for SPREE (a documentary about the Las Vegas entertainment scene featuring Mansfield and Hargitay) and ECCO, plus a short about Frederick's of Hollywood excerpted from a full length feature we could not identify. 22 randomly placed chapters are included on the DVD-R (SP mode).

[Something Weird later released this on a pressed DVD with co-feature THE LABYRINTH OF SEX as part of its distribution deal with Image Entertainment]

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Serial Review: RAIDERS OF GHOST CITY

RAIDERS OF GHOST CITY
1944, VCI Entertainment #1742,
HF, $19.99, 226m 50s, VHS (2 tapes)

By John Charles

Originally published in Video Watchdog #84

As The Civil War draws to a close, there is a dramatic increase in the number of raids on Union gold shipments travelling from Oro Grande to Washington. Secret Service agent Steve Clark (B-western stalwart Dennis Moore) is dispatched to Oro Grande to investigate, believing that the wagon train robberies are the work of a small group of Confederate diehards under the command of Clay Randolph (Regis Toomey), one of his former classmates at West Point. In truth, Prussian spies Erich Von Rugen (Lionel Atwill) and Countess Elsa von Merck (Virginia Christine) are behind the thefts and have been taking much of the loot for themselves before it is shipped to General Lee's men in Virginia. Aided by two Wells Fargo representatives, detective Idaho Jones (Joe Sawyer) and agent Cathy Haines (VOODOO MAN's Wanda McKay), Clark encounters danger at Morel's watering hole, The Golden Eagle, and in the abandoned berg Ghost City, which is being used as a hideout by the greycoats. Lee's surrender forces a change in plans for Morel, who is being pressured by his superiors to obtain as much gold as possible so that Prussia can purchase Alaska, a handy base of operations for any future military action against Canada or America.

Over 13 chapters, directors Ray Taylor (THE RETURN OF CHANDU) and Lewis D. Collins (THE ADVENTURES OF SMILIN' JACK) keep things moving along at breakneck speed and deliver a few impressive setpieces, like a train crash, a runaway stagecoach, and a climactic Indian attack (old and new footage fairly well integrated). The other thrills are of the standard Western action variety, but are proficiently staged and the performances are more consistent than usual, though Atwill is actually a bit more restrained than one might like. This is not a groundbreaking chapterplay but a compulsively watchable one that still plays well when viewed in large blocks.

Derived from a 16mm Serials Incorporated re-issue print, the image is dupey and intermittently grainy, with weak contrasts. Night sequences are all but impenetrable and the brightness level inexplicably drops for a brief stretch in the latter half of Chapter Six. There are instances of vertical jitter, splices, and light scratches; the sound is passable, though the volume level fluctuates during the final installment. Overall, this is a watchable presentation, but far from definitive.

[VCI now also offers this on DVD, presumably from the same transfer]

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Movie Review: THE PROWLER (1981)

THE PROWLER
aka ROSEMARY'S KILLER
1981, Blue Underground, DD-2.0/MA/16:9/LB/+, $24.99, 88m 7s, DVD-0

Originally published in Video Watchdog #93

When HALLOWEEN scored big numbers in 1978, it didn't take long for the slasher doctrine to become written in stone. This Joseph Zito thriller, which arrived only three years later, already seemed tired and formula-bound to many viewers; it does have some points in its favor, however, and remains marginally better than many of the competing features from this time. The film opens with a 1945 prologue set at the Avalon Bay graduation dance. Three months after having sent her beau a "Dear John" letter, young Rosemary and her new boyfriend sneak off from the proceedings for a little necking at The Point. Not long after they start, a figure wearing army fatigues brutally kills the lovers with a pitchfork. The story picks up 35 years later amidst preparations for the first grad dance since the tragedy. Deputy Mark London (Christopher Goutman) has to hold down the fort when Sheriff Fraser (Farley Granger) decides to go on his annual fishing trip, in spite of the festivities and the fact that a murderous felon from a nearby town is still on the loose. A killer (sporting the same get-up as his predecessor) begins to prey upon the students and staff and almost manages to slay Mark's virginal girlfriend, Pam (Vicky Dawson). While the dance continues on, the two sleuth around trying to apprehend the attacker, who has also taken the time to violate Rosemary's grave.

Shot as THE GRADUATION, Zito's film revels in its cliches to such an extent that screenwriters Neal F. Barbera and Glenn Leopold (who previously worked together writing the English dialogue for Smurf cartoons!) must have structured their story using a slasher movie checklist. In addition to the obligatory chaste heroine, we have the usual victims-to-be (a promiscuous girl and her lecherous boyfriend, a dope smoking coed), predictable false scares (though one did admittedly make us jump regardless), characters wandering off alone for no sane reason, and a ridiculous final shock that suffers from a serious case of CARRIE envy. There are several possible suspects, but the killer's identity is never really in doubt and there is also one of the genre's most obvious red herrings in the form of Lawrence Tierney (as Rosemary's silent, wheelchair-bound father, who likes to peep at coeds). Aside from these debits, nothing about THE PROWLER is overtly bad. Zito is able to generate a moderate amount of tension during the stalk-and-slash sequences and the picture is competently performed by its young cast (all of whom soon disappeared from the business). The primary asset, however, is unquestionably the contribution of special effects makeup master Tom Savini, whose gory setpieces include a memorably nasty shower murder, a bayonet through the head, and a graphic shotgun blast, similar to one he staged for MANIAC a few months earlier. If you miss the days when such gags were performed onset, rather than staged with impersonal and aseptic CGI, Savini's work here will leave you impressed and suitably repulsed by their dramatic staging.



Released outside North America as ROSEMARY'S KILLER (the disc comes with an insert reproduction of the UK poster, which features a more interesting design than the bland American one-sheet), THE PROWLER sports a somewhat soft and hazy look that made the early '80s cassette releases from VCII and Astral Video seem to suffer from inept telecine work. Blue Underground's new 16:9 digital transfer both benefits and suffers from the technological advances made in recent years. Thanks to the added resolution, the 1.85:1 presentation often looks excessively grainy, but the detail is improved. Hues are sometimes on the light side and the aforementioned haze is still apparent (causing light sources to bloom noticeably), but these are part and parcel with the original photography. The night sequences are not always ideally lit, but usually look solid here. Richard Einhorn's score (a complete departure from his electronic SHOCK WAVES soundtrack but almost as effective) and the dialogue come across cleanly in the serviceable mono sound mix. After some unrated playdates, several cuts had to be made to secure an R-rating for the film's wider theatrical release, but the DVD presents the splashy homicidal set-pieces in their entirety (oddly, while Astral's release was bluntly cut in several spots, the full strength version ran a number of times on Canadian Pay-TV).

Zito and Savini (who later worked together again on FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER and the "one man army" films INVASION USA and RED SCORPION) can be heard on a lively and amusing commentary track. In between poking fun at the make-up maestro's somewhat defective memory, the director imparts a good amount of information about the shooting and the business side of the project (the producer turned down an offer from Avco Embassy and released it himself on a regional basis, fearing that Avco's advance money would be all he would ever see). Zito erroneously states that Granger has since passed away (the actor is quite alive and still working, having played a supporting role in 2002's THE NEXT BIG THING), but is a very personable speaker and candid about the movie's limitations. Savini has also provided 9m 32s worth of on-set video footage for the supplementary section, showing how several of the murder sequences were staged. An extensive poster and still guide offers more behind-the-scenes shots of Savini at work and a look at the UK and Japanese promo kits. A trailer is also included, but it apparently either lacked titles or bore the overseas handle as the PROWLER title card appears to be video generated.

(I originally wrote that review in 2003 and Blue Underground has since also issued THE PROWLER on Blu-ray. THE NEXT BIG THING turned out to be Farley Granger’s last movie; he died in 2011.)