Monday, October 13, 2014

Movie Reviews: DERANGED/MOTEL HELL



DERANGED / MOTEL HELL
1974/1980, MGM Home Entertainment, DD-2.0/SS/16:9/ LB/ST/CC/+, $14.95, 81m 25s/100m 54s, DVD-1 

By John Charles

Originally published in Video Watchdog #98

This “Midnite Movies” double bill pairs two “down home” hor­rors, each presented on its own side, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles, and no supple­ments other than a theatrical trailer. Originally released by American International Pictures, Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby’s DERANGED first appeared on video in 1994 through Moore Video. Tim Lucas reviewed that edition in Video Watchdog #18, remarking that “this morbid movie remains bearable by complimenting its oppressively sick atmosphere with notes of black humor and social commentary...which intermittently come together in chords of sadness and truth.” This VHS edition was authorized by the film’s producer, Tom Karr, and the print used for the trans­fer represented the directors’ original cut. The AIP release ver­sion, however, was missing the picture’s most graphic sequence. When MGM announced their DVD, fans were hoping that it, too, would be the full strength edition but, in a change from the norm for this label, MGM has opted for the tamer cut, which runs lm 10s shorter than the tape. This would indicate that the bit in question (which runs lm 15s and should appear at the 22:22 mark on the DVD) was likely eliminated prior to AIP’s purchase of the production. In it, psychotic mama’s boy Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom) uses a spoon to scoop out an eye (“There she comes now, real easy!”) from Miss Johnson’s de­cayed, severed head. He takes a hacksaw and slowly slices off the top of her skull, using the spoon to loosen and then remove her brain. Oddly, the “real easy” line has been moved to the point, about lm later, when Ezra is holding the woman’s flayed face in front of his own and speaking to his mother’s mummified corpse. In the Moore release, he says “All we got to do is stitch it on you.” The AIP version closes with a 5s copyright notice for that company and a “names have been changed” disclaimer, ac­counting for the slight discrep­ancy in running times. The loss of this scene is not crucial to the narrative, but it will disappoint those who have grown accus­tomed to the Moore version. In every other regard, how­ever, MGM’s anamorphic presen­tation comes out far ahead. The source material is in much bet­ter condition, as are colors, con­trasts, and detail levels. The digital mono sound is also cleaner and more satisfying. The 1.85:1 matting cuts off horizon­tal image visible in Moore’s 1.55:1 tape, and nothing of sig­nificance is added to the sides, but the DVD looks correctly bal­anced more often than not. 

Although it also looks like another AIP property, Kevin Connor’s MOTEL HELL was originally produced and distrib­uted by United Artists, a major studio that released compara­tively few horror films during the 1980s. While a seasoned exploi­tation company would have known how to properly sell this cheerfully ghoulish black com­edy, UA never really got behind the movie (save for the creation of a memorable poster and tagline) and it closed in most markets after only a week. Rail thin Vincent Smith (an ideally cast Rory Calhoun) and his obese sister Ida (PORKY’S’ Nancy Par­sons) are prototypical back coun­try eccentrics who run both the Motel Hello and a successful smoked meats business that trades on Vincent’s congenial down-home image and promise of 100% all-natural ingredients. One evening, while Vincent is hunting, he witnesses a motor­ cycle crash that claims the life of the middle-aged driver. The twenty-something female pas­senger, Terry (TIME WALKER’S Nina Axelrod) survives, however, and Vincent takes her home to recover. The confused, father-fixated girl soon falls for her elderly savior, much to the an­noyance of Bruce (GRAND THEFT AUTO’s Paul Linke), Vincent’s oafish little brother and the sheriff of the neighboring county. Neither he nor Terry is aware of Vincent and Ida’s clan­destine activities, which involve creating car accidents and “planting” the survivors in their “Secret Garden.” Each “degen­erate” victim’s vocal chords are slit and they are then buried up to their necks and force-fed. Once they have attained the desired weight, Vincent has the prime ingredient for his ever-popular sausages (as his bumpersticker slogan goes, “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters”). Recent acquisitions include a punk rock band called “Ivan and the Terribles” (whose ranks include a pre-CHEERS John Ratzenberger as the drummer), two hookers (PLAYBOY playmates Rosanne Katon and Monique St. Pierre), and a kinky couple (Dick Curtis and game show staple Elaine Joyce) whose love of bondage makes Vincent and Ida’s work that much easier. The virginal Vincent is proud of his efforts (“There’s too many people in the world and not enough food...This takes care of both problems at the same time”) but, when Terry accepts his proposal of marriage, Ida decides to elimi­nate her, and the siblings’ well-honed operation is soon in jeopardy. 

It is not clear why British di­rector Kevin Connor (FROM BE­YOND THE GRAVE, THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT) was cho­sen for this bucolic, intrinsically American black comedy. Per­haps it was thought that a for­eigner might be better able to impart the humor in the various Southern stereotypes and their (to him) alien ways. His direction is competent and moderately stylish, but the primary assets are Calhoun’s marvelously mannered turn and Robert & Steven-Charles Jaffe’s severed-tongue-in-cheek script. While the pair’s idea for “The Secret Garden” may have come from INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS’ infamous tagline “They Plant the Living and Har­vest the Dead,” it is far more likely that they recognized and decided to expanded upon the dark humor inherent in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE’S premise of crazy backwoods folk making a living in the meat business. In­terestingly, when it came time for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MAS­SACRE PART 2 (1986), screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson seems to have used MOTEL HELL as his jumping off point, turning the TCM family into caterers who select those with dramatically opposing lifestyles (in this case, obnoxious yuppies) as the grist for their grinder, and Jim Siedow’s “Cook” character into a beloved local celebrity. That film also offered a reprise of MOTEL’s climactic chainsaw duel, with the lawman “hero” (a very unappealing individual in both pictures) facing off against a masked opponent in the fam­ily abattoir. Both the satire and violence in TCM 2 are far more extreme, however, with Connor’s picture more akin to earlier bur­lesques like Bud Townsend’s TERROR HOUSE (1972; aka THE FOLKS AT RED WOLF INN) and Ivan Reitman’s CANNIBAL GIRLS (1973). MOTEL HELL improves upon both, however, and deserves the small but loyal cult it has ac­crued. Wolfman Jack appears briefly as a sleazy preacher, and the 1957 UA favorite THE MON­STER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD can be seen unspooling at a local drive-in. 

The old fullscreen videocas­sette and laserdisc incarnations of MOTEL HELL certainly looked like hell, with a very soft image, bleary colors, heavy grain, and poor detail. MGM’s new anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation suffers from some mild DVNR jitter and variable night sequences; how­ever, the remainder of the film looks far more balanced and stable, a very noticeable improve­ment. This was one of the earli­est low-budget horror films to be mixed in stereo (one of the poster taglines was “Enter the Secret Garden in Dolby Stereo”) and, while the rear channels are mostly quiet, there are some ex­cellent separations up front that add to the film’s lustre and entertainment value. Spanish and French (the latter in mono) tracks are also included. The humor intrinsic to the title (which arises from the flickering “o” on the establishment’s malfunctioning neon sign) does not really work in other languages, of course, but the Spanish moniker (Motel del infierno) is close. The French, meanwhile, went with Nuit de cauchemar, which redundantly translates as “Night of the Night­mare.” The disc was authored by Sunset Digital Studios.

[Both films have since been released separately on Blu-ray in improved special editions. I have a review of Arrow’s Region B disc of DERANGED coming up in a future issue of Video Watchdog and also previously looked at a German PAL DVD edition of the picture in VW #125. MOTEL HELL has been issued on Blu by both Arrow (Region B) and Scream Factory (Region A)]

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Video Grab Collection: Theatre Marquees in AMERICAN SEXUAL REVOLUTION

In the early days of hardcore pornography, one way to get around a possible obscenity bust was to present the explicit sexual acts in the context of a documentary. One such production was AMERICAN SEXUAL REVOLUTION (1971; available on DVD-R and as a download from Something Weird Video), which entertains mainly through its time capsule collage of vintage "tenderloin" theatre marquee footage. While the majority are from the Times Square/42nd Street area, there are a few shots from other cities as well. The film itself is forgettable, but if you love this stuff, you will be in seedy heaven. Here are a few of the many on display...






































Thursday, September 18, 2014

Movie Review: LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET



LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET
aka THE FUN HOUSE
1973/77, Barrel Entertainment, DD-2.0/MA/+, $34.95, 77m 25s, DVD-0

By John Charles
Originally published in Video Watchdog #94

Few films in the annals of horror have a history quite like this no-budget cult legend from writer/producer/director/star Roger Watkins. Shot MOS on 16mm as THE CUCKOO CLOCKS OF HELL for about $850, the picture was first cut together into a preliminary ver­sion running 175m. Watkins and the other actors dubbed-in their dialogue, and musical cues from the Ross-Gaffney post­ production studio were dropped in. The director then shortened the running time by an hour, in the hopes of getting the film screened at Cannes. However, a lawsuit filed by a person briefly associated with the production resulted in a three-year delay, after which time Watkins struck a deal with a company called Cin­ematic to finally get the movie into theaters. However, these individuals took Watkins’ origi­nal cut and chopped out an additional 38m, blowing up to 35mm only the footage they wanted and then (apparently) discarding the rest. Evidently feeling that the first half lacked sufficient shock value to hold viewers’ attention, the company added flash-forward gore shots from later in the picture over dialogue scenes in the opening reel. They also proceeded to shoddily re-dub all of the dialogue, utilizing other actors, and tacked on a “square up” voiceover during the final moments that re­moved any ambiguity about the villains’ fate. Greatly disheartened by these drastic changes (over which he had no say), Watkins washed his hands of the movie and ordered that his name not be used. For reasons unknown, Cinematic went one step further by creat­ing a cast and crew listing con­sisting entirely of fake names. Under the new handle THE FUN HOUSE, their truncated 77m version played regionally in the American South, doing respectable business. The dis­tributor then decided to cash in on Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT by appro­priating that picture’s infamous “ It’s Only a Movie” ad campaign and adopting the new title LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET, the name by which Watkins’ movie is best known today.

While a video release often helps to clear up an obscure movie’s history, this was not the case with Watkins’ film, which debuted on the format, circa 1982. The distributor, a short-lived outfit called Sun Video, proceeded to issue it under both the FUN HOUSE and LAST HOUSE monikers. If that were not confusing enough, some copies of each edition contained the “com­plete” 77m version of the pic­ture, while others were missing a 1m 31s gore sequence that was dropped from the theat­rical release to secure an “R” rating. Around the same time, the complete cut was issued in Canada as LAST HOUSE (the title quite obviously video burned onto a blue screen) by Marquis Video, in an oversized clamshell case that trumpeted the movie’s rejection by the Ontario Censor Board. Com­ing in the early days of home video, the Sun and Marquis tapes were duplicated in small numbers and never very widely stocked. As the picture’s cult cachet grew, bootleggers began offering dupes of these ver­sions. Pirates also started hawking an especially bad Venezuelan video release that was burdened by both Span­ish subtitles and an incorrect projection speed, the latter prompting claims of it being a “longer uncut version.” (Well, it was longer...) Cin­ematic had closed up shop by this point and the few 35mm prints that were struck began to disappear. Unable to locate the negative, Barrel Entertain­ment utilized what is appar­ently the last surviving 35mm print (belonging to Canadian collector Mitch Davis) for their transfer. A good amount of digital post-production was re­quired to correct the picture’s color (which had turned pink and red) and an attempt was made to heighten the clarity of the images and clean up some of the scratches and speckles. Colors are pale and wear is still very much evident but the transfer (which pre­sents the film in its original 1.33:1 ratio) is a noticeable improvement over previous video releases. In actuality, most champions of the film be­lieve that THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET (onscreen title) derives much of its effect from the fact that it is not pris­tine or even up to the techni­cal standards of your average low-budget release, looking little better than the horrific Super 8 movies created by the film’s antagonists.

Released after a one year stretch in the pen for drug deal­ing, small-time pimp/pom film­ maker Terry Hawkins (Watkins, billed as “Steven Morrison”) de­cides that is he ready to give the world “something that nobody ever dreamed of before.” He looks up his old buddy, Ken (Ken Fisher/“Dennis Crawford”), a slaughterhouse worker fired for committing bestiality, and cam­eraman Bill (Bill Schlageter/ “Lawrence Bornman”), detailing plans to make some weird mov­ies in a nearby abandoned building. For “actors,” they plan to use the Palmers (a pair of upper class deviants who stage S&M shows in their home), fey pom broker Steve Randall (Steve Sweet/“Alex Kregar”), and adult film actress Suzie Knowles (Suzie Neumeyer/ “Geraldine Saunders”). As a warm-up for the main attraction, Terry and his followers (who now also include two bored girls look­ing for new thrills) murder the building’s blind caretaker (film historian Paul M. Jensen/“Paul Phillips”), capturing his death on film. However, their first victim’s demise is almost a mercy killing compared to what awaits the others.

It is difficult to think of an­other American film quite like this. Produced completely out­side the system by a director who admits to speeding on crystal meth for most of the shoot, LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET operates free from the bonds of any moral, civic, or commercial responsibility. Where other films might pull back, cut away or, at the very least, introduce a posi­tive character, comment, image or humorous aside (however dark), this one simply keeps going down a macabre road with the single-minded determination of a lunatic trying to claw his way through a concrete wall. (The spell is broken only in the final seconds by the aforementioned voiceover.) Similarly, this is not a film with a “point” in the tradi­tional sense, unless one were to try and offer it up as a cinematic screed about the depths of de­pravity to which human beings are capable of descending. While we will probably never know whether Watkins intended to make some kind of statement in his original cut (although he is happy to discuss what has been lost, Watkins never really elabo­rates on this in interviews), the 77m fragment that survives teems with such unrelenting ug­liness, some viewers will dismiss the movie as lurid junk for mind­less gore fans (as was our reac­tion, upon first encountering it 20 years ago). All of the main characters here have done time or committed some act that mainstream society would find reprehensible (even the blind caretaker is characterized as someone who will happily sell out, if offered “a piece of ass” ) and the acts of horror and deg­radation committed here are dis­tinguished not only by their repugnancy but by sheer per­versity; in addition to the “tra­ditional” slit throat and a dismembering/disembowelment, a woman in blackface at a party is whipped by a hunch­back, Steve is forced to fellate a severed deer’s hoof, etc. Thankfully, amidst all of this overwhelming depravity and seediness is some genu­inely admirable craftsmanship.

Although LAST HOUSE was produced practically on the fly, the camerawork is not nearly as haphazard as one might expect. Several of the compositions are striking in their use of light and shapes, and Watkins’ decision to have the spotlights used by the “production” shining directly at the viewer during the kill­ings heightens the voyeuris­tic atmosphere. The masks worn by the killers (inspired by the director’s love for Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE) lend a surreal edge to the horror and, by starring in his own film as a maniacal director, Watkins also earns points for anticipating the re­cursive horror trend of that followed twenty years later (“I’m directing this fucking movie!”).

Barrel has really gone all-out here with a terrific double disc special edition that covers every aspect of the production, while also supplying some surprising bonuses. An audio commentary features Watkins and the ever- incorrigible Chas Balun (the evil brain behind DEEP RED and THE GORE SCORE) discussing the pic­ture and its history. Watkins (who turns out to be an intelligent, well-read man with streaks of narcissism and intensity that sur­face periodically) states from the get-go that he hates watching this version of the movie and may not have anything interesting to say about it. However, Balun quickly puts him at ease and the director clearly enjoys himself throughout much of the talk. In between wry quips (“It’s almost Kubrickian in its monolithic sim­plicity!”), Balun coaxes a num­ber of interesting anecdotes from Watkins about the hardships he endured during and after produc­tion. The latter also provides the real names of the participants and displays genuine pride for some of the set-ups, previously impossible to appreciate due to poor release prints and uncor­rected video transfers. The in­creased clarity also makes the gore more potent (as Balun notes, “this is far bloodier...and the blood is red, too!”). The di­rector (who apprenticed with Freddie Francis, Otto Preminger, and Nicholas Ray) also mentions that his cut opened with a great deal of genuine slaughterhouse footage (only one brief bit sur­vives in this edition) and that some of the Manson Family crimes were in the back of his mind when coming up with the story. It is an informative and entertaining track that does “deflate the myth” somewhat, but fans will find it gratifying nonetheless.

Also included on Disc 1 are the opening and closing title se­quences for THE FUN HOUSE (taken from the Sun Video re­lease), the theatrical trailer (which only runs 20s, consists entirely of footage from another of Watkins’ films, and looks suspi­ciously like an ancient off-air re­cording of a TV spot), and “They Dwell Beneath” (4m 51s), a mu­sic video for the dreadful heavy metal band, Necrophagia, that includes some clips from LAST HOUSE. An especially rare extra is a 1975 appearance by Watkins and Jensen on THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW (9m 40s). The latter was promoting his book BORIS KARLOFF AND HIS FILMS and gets the lion’s share of the spotlight here, but Watkins does speak about his plans for the picture, none of which came to pass, unfortunately (the bit ap­pears to have been recorded on an ancient U-Matic player, so it is in B&W and features frequent visual distortion but is likely all that still exists of the program). Watkins and Ken Fisher are heard in a radio interview (54m 36s) from February 1973. The program’s host is utterly clueless but the cocksure, not entirely coherent Watkins is amusingly outspoken, saying potentially li­belous things about Roman Polanski, Nicholas Ray, Dennis Hopper, and Jean-Luc Godard (“Sloppy, with a minimum of tal­ent”). He also calls EASY RIDER “a terrible film,” THE LAST MOVIE “one of the worst movies ever made,” and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD “pretty bad.” The equally headstrong Fisher, meanwhile, states that the rushes of their project are twenty times bet­ter than THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (“a piece of junk that’s making a fortune”). However, the pair do have some interesting observations about the films and audiences of the day and those who like the movie will find it worthwhile to struggle through the bad recording. Rounding out the disc is a photo gallery (which includes shots of Watkins with the likes of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing on the sets of THE SCARS OF DRACULA and THE CREEPING FLESH, plus posters and video box covers) and the existing 16mm outtakes from the film. Running 18m 46s, the si­lent footage is only moderately interesting but does serve to show how much better the movie looked before it was subjected to its sub-standard 35mm blow-up.

Normally, this bounty would be more than enough to consti­tute a “Special Edition” but there is still another entire disc of supplementary material to pe­ruse. Four films Watkins made (three in 8mm color and one in 16mm) are included, starting with MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which he shot in his parents’ basement at age ten. None are presented with the original au­dio, due to the impossibility of clearing the music used in them. The director does provide com­mentary over each (and is joined by Balun on BLACK SNOW) and we get a glimpse of some themes and images that would crop up in LAST HOUSE (a fifth short, AMPUTEE GRAND PRIX, had to be dropped at the last minute for legal reasons). “At Home With Terry Hawkins” is a collection of secretly recorded telephone calls (grouped into 40 chapters) Watkins made during the film­ing that detail the trials and tribu­lations he faced (everything from trying to secure locations to han­dling mundane inconveniences like a stalled car), how he dealt with his actors, etc. It is a unique document of the production that is worth the listen. 05-23-88 (27m 32s) is the surviving fragment of an aborted video documentary featuring the absolute worst camerawork you can imagine. Coming off of an ugly divorce and depressed by the fact that he has been forced to work primarily in the porn in­dustry, Watkins is not entirely able to hide his bitterness and sheepishly acknowledges the misogyny that creeps up in his work and his conversations here. Engaging and a bit macabre, he discusses everything from Carson McCullers (and visits her grave) to loneliness to death. Using your “up” arrow on the menu page for 05-23-88 reveals a finger print in the upper right hand corner. Clicking on it provides a look at Watkins and Balun recording the commentary, as well as the former having drinks with David Szulkin (author of WES CRAVEN’S LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT: THE MAKING OF A CULT CLASSIC) and others. Finally, tucked inside the double keep case (which features original cover art by Stephen R. Bissette) is an illustrated 34 page booklet in which HEADPRESS editor David Kerekes discusses his obses­sion with the film (which he was not entirely sure even really ex­isted at first) that eventually led him to travel 6000 miles to America and meet with Watkins in person. This is followed by interviews with the director, Ken Fisher, Ken Rouse (who plays the whip-cracking hunchback), Steve Sweet, and Paul M. Jensen that offer additional information and reminiscences. There is little repetition of the materials found on the discs, and the booklet—whose contents also appeared in HEADPRESS #23— is an excellent complement to a lovingly obsessive and highly satisfying release that is sure to increase the profile of a unique, unyielding movie.

[This went out of print with the demise of Barrel Entertainment. However, Vinegar Syndrome has announced a forthcoming Blu-ray/DVD release of the picture derived from a cleaner and more complete source and presumably boasting a similar bounty of extras]