Posts Tagged With: Stalk’n’Slash

Billy, Don’t Be A Weirdo… BLACK CHRISTMAS Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. 101 Films. 18.

God, Christmas arrives earlier every year, doesn’t it? Still, if you’re the kind of ghoul whose yuletide wish is to sit the family down in front of Bob Clark’s classic 1974 Canucksploiter (as, apparently, was standard procedure for the Presleys every December 25th at Graceland) then you’re gonna need five weeks or so to drop heavy hints to your nearest and dearest about slipping this one into your Xmas stocking. Maybe they won’t take your hints but never mind, worse things happen during the festive season…

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… for instance, to the occupants of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, allegedly somewhere in the USA (actually, Toronto). Initially assailed by obscene, ranting phone calls from some sex-case identifying himself as “Billy”, members of the feisty sisterhood (which includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and Lynne Griffin among its number) are soon being killed and their bodies arranged in the attic, where young William seems to be putting together some kind of black Nativity scene. Clark and writer Roy Moore pull every trick in the book to divert your attention towards Hussey’s intense concert pianist, abortion-resenting boyfriend as prime suspect, which probably tells you all you need to know about whether it’s him or not. John Saxon’s Police Lt and his (somewhat clueless) underlings take an eternity to work out that those phone-calls are actually coming from within the sorority house (difficult to believe, actually, that the ungodly racket Billy makes during his calls wouldn’t have already pinpointed his whereabouts), setting up a rattling false ending and memorably ambiguous creepy  coda…

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Horror and thriller buffs of a certain vintage and of a certain theoretical persuasion have had a lot of fun (haven’t we?) trying to nail the influence of Italian gialli on the lucrative American stalk’n’slash cycle. Of course there were other antecedents (as, indeed the giallo had its own roots in e.g. Germany’s Edgar Wallace adaptations) and we’re looking at one of them right here. It has even been suggested (a suggestion which gets repeated in the bonus materials on this disc) that John Carpenter conceived (or “borrowed” the concept for) his massively-influential-in-its-own-right Halloween (1978) as a sequel to Black Christmas…

Clark (whose earlier genre credits included Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, 1972 and Dead Of Night, 1974) might or might not have been aware of Bava and Argento’s contemporary stylish efforts… there are shots in Black Christmas which strongly suggest that he was (I won’t insult the reader by spelling out precisely which ones I’m talking about… they’re clear enough) although it’s possible that he and Argento were just cribbing stuff from the same Fritz Lang movies. Whether as a result of studying Argento or not, Clark introduced… always a contentious claim… well, he certainly put considerable impetus behind the use of sinuous P.O.V. shots in subsequent North American slasher movies. To this end he and his camera crew improvised a primitive Steadicam before Steadicam was even invented. Cinematic influences are seldom a one way street and it’s difficult to watch the establishing glimpses of Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery, wherein an external shot of a face at a window lap dissolves into a similar but not identical one, without concluding that Fulci has watched Black Christmas, or at least its closing moments.

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Clark incidentally inaugurated the trend (considerably less significant artistically than in marketing terms) here of tying these kill-by-numbers films into holiday set ups and special occasions (Halloween, Friday the 13th, St Valentine’s Day, et al… not to mention such inferior, albeit sometimes entertaining Xmas slay-rides as Carles E. Sellier Jr’s 1984 effort Silent Night, Deadly Night), also spawning a fertile filone of Sorority House Massacres while he was at it.

Horror and comedy (to invoke an adage so often restated that it’s become tantamount to cliché) are two sides of the same coin and it’s not hard to detect foreshadowings of Clark’s subsequent comic success with the likes of the Porky’s films in Black Christmas. Kidder’s drunken, potty-mouthed provocateur (who kids the dumbest cop in the picture that “fellatio” is a new telephone exchange) gives particularly good value for money but all of the major cast members (well, apart from the barely glimpsed Billy) contribute believable, believably imperfect and generally likeable characters. The female principals, in particular are strong-willed free spirits, polar opposites of their sketchy cinematic descendants in so many dreary “have sex and die” epics. The fact that you care for these people makes Black Christmas so much more than the bravura display of cinematic technique that it undoubtedly is. Clark is handsomely served throughout by his collaborators in front of and behind the camera, several of whom remember him with affection and admiration in the bonus materials assembled on this disc.

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Clark died with his son Ariel on 04/04/07, reportedly at the hands of an inebriated, uninsured driver, which just goes to prove the aforementioned Signor Fulci’s point that nothing a horror director can put on the screen is remotely as horrifying as the stuff that happens every day in real life.

101’s BD transfer of Clark’s finest hour is a bit grainy but that shouldn’t put you off this seminal and seriously chilling thriller. Like it says in the trailer: “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… IT’S ON TOO TIGHT!”

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It’s TORSO… Only More So! Sergio Martino’s Seminal Giallo / Slasher Crossover Epic On Shameless Blu-Ray

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

Sweeping the table of eyeless doll heads, you sit down and loosen your black-on-red (or is it red-on-black?) ‘kerchief. Ignoring the banging on the door of the room in which you’ve incarcerated the sexy art student, you peel the polythene wrapper from your copy of Shameless’s new Torso Blu-ray, take out the sleeve and reverse it because the alternative design is going to look so much better on your shelf, extract the disc, feed it into your BD player and settle back in anticipation…

19399797_561431237579683_1018641091339927587_n.jpgFaced with the problem of replacing talismanic female lead Edwige Fenech (who was probably knocking out a sexy comedy or two at the time) for 1973’s I Corpi Presentano Tracce Di Violenza Carnale (“The Corpses Bear Traces Of Carnal Violence”), Sergio Martino made a virtue of necessity by casting Derbyshire dolly bird Suzy Kendall, who had become something of a giallo icon herself since starring in Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). Here Martino and stalwart scripter Ernesto Gastaldi cut back on the frenetic over-plotting and globe-trotting of their previous collaborations to render their most Argentoesque effort yet… stylishly shot yet boiled down to its brutal, basic ingredients, this is something like the quintessential giallo. Distributed, retitled (as “Torso”)  and marginally recut by Joseph Brenner for the American grindhouse circuit, the film’s pared down focus on psychosexual violence twitched the death nerves of American film goers who were about to embrace Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

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Much has been made of the connection between gialli and the subsequent American slasher cycle… by reducing things to a simple-minded body count mechanism and concentrating on predominantly attractive, sexually active female victims, Torso probably deserves as much credit (if that’s the appropriate word) for this cultural exchange as Bava’s Bay Of Blood (1971), whose plot is more easily recognisable in the first couple of Friday The 13th movies.

After a kinky photo shoot involving doll mutilation (?!?) has played out under the titles, we are introduced to Kendall’s character Jane. She’s studying Renaissance Art at Perugia University, whose student body for the Academic Year 1973-4 seems to consist exclusively of refugees from America’s Next Top Model. Before they’ve learned to distinguish their Perugino from their pudende, however, the girls start getting strangled and carved up by a balaclava clad assassin. Cristina / Conchita Airoldi (as Carol) is offed in even more memorable style than she was in Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971).

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After a pot-fuelled heavy petting session with two hippies turns sour (as is so often the case), she wanders off into the foggy woods (like you invariably do on such occasions) and ends up strangled, stabbed and drowned in a muddy swamp. Sex and drugs, then killed in a forest? You couldn’t imagine a clearer template for the stalk’n’slash cycles “have sex and die!” rule, could you? Brenner astutely recognised the significance of this death scene, bumping it up in the running order so it played under the film’s titles, to the accompaniment of a howling fuzz guitar riff (imported from Bruno Nicolai’s score for the contemporary Leon Klimovsky flick, Night Of The Walking Dead.)

The only lead the police have is the killer’s preference for red and black scarves as strangulation aids. Martino manages a little in-joke by casting Ernesto Colli (one of the several assassins in Mrs Wardh) as the campus scarf vendor who attempts to blackmail the killer, only to be squashed under the latter’s car (after all, “death is the best keeper of secrets…”) Meanwhile sweet Danni (Tina Aumont), in best Bird With The Crystal Plumage style, is struggling to recall the half-glimpsed clue that’s tormenting her… did she see her obsessive wannabe boyfriend wearing a black-on-red patterned scarf or a red-on-black patterned scarf at the time of the first killing? Her uncle Nino is quite sure of one thing… that Danni and her sexy pals should try to take their minds off things by spending a weekend at his remote, cliff-side manner in the country. Uh-oh…

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The lecherous villagers are suitably impressed when all this tantalising totty rolls up. Sample comment: ” “Cor… look at all those knockers!” (Yeah Einstein, two per girl… though admittedly that might change when – to paraphrase the marketing for Shameless’s original DVD release – “the whores meet the saws!”) Katia (Angela Corvello) and Ursula (Carla Brait from Giulio Carnimeo’s Why These Strange Drops Of Blood On The Body Of Jennifer?, 1972) are having a hot and heavy lesbian fling so it’s no surprise when they go the way of all sinful flesh, where they’re sadly soon joined by the lovely Danni.

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Because Jane arrived separately and retired to bed early with a sprained ankle, the maniac is initially oblivious to her as she eaves-drops, horrified, on the sawing up of her pals into handily disposable portions of sexy student. The killer boasts an impressive array of cutting tools, but it’s not clear whether his armoury includes a strange vice (yuk, yuk!) Our anguished heroine impotently watches the townspeople below and tries to alert them to her predicament by reflecting the sun off a mirror, but no dice. All she manages to do is reveal her presence to the killer, after which she spends about half an hour playing hide and seek around the house’s ornate fittings and among the butchered remnants of her pals… a fetishistic expansion of one brief, tense scene in Bird With The Crystal Plumage where the killer lays siege to Kendall’s apartment… yep, she’s in a locked room and only a psychotic maniac has the key! All the windows are (in)conveniently barred against burglars… cue the “through the keyhole” shots that Martino so obviously loved in BWTCP and with which he litters all of his gialli.

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But who is the killer? No giallo epic would be complete without the expected massed ranks of suspects. Doctor Roberto (crime-slime mainstay Luc Meranda) spends a lot of time loitering menacingly for no apparent reason… art lecturer Professor Franz (John Richardson, who’s been gracing spaghetti exploitation flicks since Bava’s Black Sunday in 1960) seems unnecessarily obsessed with the correct way to depict the gory martyrdom of Saint Sebastian… brooding student Stefano (Roberto Bisacco) has been stalking Daniela and attempts to throttle a prostitute who laughs when he fails to rise to the occasion…

… even kindly Uncle Nino (Carlo Alighiero) is an incestuously inclined voyeur… and maybe we should be worrying about the peeping tom milkman (“Ernie”, by any chance?) who seems to have emigrated from the set of one of Martino’s “sexy comedies”. Just about all of these guys seem to sport one of those racy little red / black neckerchiefs, too. All is finally resolved with the mandatory ludicrous psychosexual revelation…

 – SPOILER ALERT! –

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 “… just stupid dolls of flesh and blood!’ howls the culprit (calm down, calm down!), flashing back to the unfortunate (and hilariously rendered) childhood incident in which his kid brother went arse over tit off a cliff after a game of doctor’s and nurses went horribly wrong.

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Incidentally, the final confrontation between the characters who turn out to be killer and hero respectively is a full-on punch-up that wouldn’t be out of place at kicking-out time in a Glasgow hostelry and very much suggests the influence of the contemporary kung fu craze. When I interviewed Martino he declared his “absolute favourite moment” from all his films to be “the sequence at the end of Torso, in which Suzy Kendall is locked in the room, being stalked by the killer. I think that I was very successful in generating a lot of suspense there” Not half, matey! Edwige Fenech… who needs her?

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So what have we learned from Sergio Martino’s Torso? That some crazy-as-batshit dude carved up a bunch of art students because he thought that women were dolls… but why did he think that the appropriate response to dolls was to carve them up in the first place? Hm… Sergio, is it too late for a Torso 2? I, for one, would certainly buy a ticket to see that.

Picture wise, it’s the old Blu-ray trade-off between enhancing the subtlety of (Giancarlo Ferrando’s) cinematography while exacerbating the grain in a film that’s almost 45 years old. I’m more inclined to believe that my tumbler of J&B is half full rather than half empty on this occasion, especially as a lot of effort has clearly been put into rectifying the print damage that has marred previous releases. This Shameless BD continues the incremental improvements to Torso that seem to have marked every successive edition… notes that the characters write to each (on paper and on one occasion across a mucky windshield) are now in English and the two surviving characters now exchange philosophical observations (in Italian, with English subtitles) as they walk off into the sunrise, as opposed to the Third Man style dumbshow of the Shameless DVD release.

Extra-wise you get “Dismembering Torso”, a new 23 minute interview with director Sergio Martino. He tells how his usual producer, big brother Luciano, rejected his idea for the film (which was based on a notorious real life case), ultimately produced by Carlo Ponti. We also learn that Sergio originally wanted to call it Red For Love, Black For Death (the scarves thing, right?) but the title became The Corpses Don’t Bear Traces Of Carnal Violence… until distributors insisted that they must bear precisely such traces, obliging Martino to go back and redub the police inspector’s briefing on this subject. He recalls that Torso was doing OK at box offices until Last Tango In Paris came out and slaughtered all the competition (pity they couldn’t call Bertolucci’s film “The Bumholes Bear Traces Of Butter”). Self-critical as ever, Martino observes that “some of the actors were a little wooden”. Well, there’s a good reason for that, Sergio…

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Above: another cracking couple of reinterpretations from beyondhorrordesign.blogpsot.com

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50 Shades Of Blu… THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH on Shameless BD

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

Much  has been made of the “sex killer” angle in gialli… possibly too much. The culprit in what we might as well, for the sake of argument, concede to be the first giallo proper (Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963), though more than a little unhinged, turns out to be murdering on account of very cool calculations about an inheritance. Similar considerations motivate the assassin(s) in Bava’s Blood And Black Lace (1964), no matter how “sexily” its several slayings are rendered for our delectation… indeed, it frequently seems in that film as though Bava is inviting the audience to get off on the couture slaughter more than the film’s hard-nosed killer(s) is / are actually doing.

It would be perverse to argue that eroticism plays no part in these films and their popular appeal. Certainly during those bonkbusting Carroll Baker vehicles churned out in Bava’s wake by producer Luciano Martino, e.g. Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body Of Deborah (1968) and Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet… So Perverse from the following year, the jaded jet-setting characters, when they aren’t swindling each other out of large sums of money, are clearly having more and better sex than you ever have… probably took some time out to embezzle money from your company’s pension fund too, the bastards!

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Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, which changed the whole giallo ball-game when it crossed over from domestic to international success in 1970, was the first Italian thriller to prioritise (if not the first to feature) the exploits of a sexually sadistic killer. Even then, Argento’s focussed as much (if not more) on the trauma that had warped this character’s psyche out of shape rather than the lip-smacking relish with which they went about their stabby antics. Consider, furthermore, the motivations of the murderers in Argento’s subsequent films. You might well be surprised at how very few of them are actually out-and-out “sex killers”. But I’m getting ahead of myself… this argument will be developed in a future posting about The Stendhal Syndrome (if I ever get round to writing it!)

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Where were we? Ah yes… early 1970 saw Luciano Martino planning The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh as another steamy chamber giallo vehicle for Carroll Baker, but entertaining doubts about the cost of rehiring the star and another director. He didn’t have to look far for a solution… kid brother Sergio was chomping at the bit to direct his sophomore feature and had established his qualifications with the likes of spagwest Arizona Colt Returns (1970), various mondo documentaries and by shooting additional material to bump up the running time on such films as Hans Schott-Schöbinger’s 1969 adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

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It was on the latter that Sergio discovered a breath-taking young starlet named Edwige Fenech, who promptly became a fixture in Luciano’s pictures, not to mention (jammy sod!) his bed. Add indefatigable screen writer Ernesto Gastaldi and all the ingredients (give or take some hunky love interest / potential killer for Edwige) were in place for a run of classic gialli, kicking off with the revamped, sexed-up Strange Vice, on which Sergio proved beyond dispute that he’d been paying attention during his stint as second unit director on Bava’s 1963 epic of sadomasochism beyond the grave, The Whip and the Body (1963).

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Meanwhile Gastaldi pounced enthusiastically on psychosexual hints made in Argento’s smash but borrowed its fetishistically clad fruit-cake only for that character (newbies beware, things could be about to get a bit spoilerish) to end up playing second banana to an insurance fraud conspiracy (“I told you, the best time to kill anyone is when a homicidal maniac is on the loose!” one conspirator tells another). Audacious stuff…. I mean, is there any cinematic precedent for a serial killer who is simultaneously the film’s principal red herring?

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TSVOMW’s opening intercuts a fatal razor attack on a prostitute with the arrival of the plane that is bringing the Wardhs to Vienna, greeted by a quotation from one of that city’s most famous sons, Sigmund Freud, concerning the potential killer inside all of us. Fenech plays the eponymous Julie Wardh (the “h” at end of her surname allegedly intended to forestall any libel proceedings from aggrieved real life Mrs Wards!), the neglected, bored wife of a workaholic diplomat (Alberto De Mendoza). She is simultaneously stimulated and troubled by salacious memories of her full-on sado-masochistic entanglement with brooding Jean (old Tartar cheek-bones himself, Ivan Rassimov). Their idea of fun, as revealed in sensuous slow motion flashbacks to the accompaniment of a Nora Orlandi theme that can only be described as sacramental, included him beating her in a muddy field (shades of Bunuel’s Belle De Jour, 1967) and – don’t try this at home, kiddies! – bonking her on a bed of broken glass. No wonder Julie is troubled by her cab driver’s stated desire for “perverts” to “get what they deserve”.

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Nor does the life of a neglected ambassador’s wife seem anything like as dull as we are expected to believe, including as it does wild embassy parties where drunken floozies rip each other’s dresses off, prior to one of them being bloodily dispatched in a Hitchcockian shower sequence (“Another girl slashed to death?” remarks Julie’s cynical friend Carol: “We should be grateful that he’s eliminating all the competition!”) Julie is horrified to discover Jean popping up among the ferrero rocher at one such bash but not sufficiently horrified to resist a) succumbing to his erotic menace and b) striking up yet another affair, with smoothie antipodean inheritance chaser George (George Hilton). When somebody starts blackmailing Mrs W about her various extra-marital liaisons, the worldly Carol (Cristina Airoldi) becomes convinced that Jean is playing his old head games with her, and agrees to meet him in a park on Fenech’s behalf… only to get sliced up a treat (I wonder how grateful she was for that!) La Dolce Vita has definitely soured and in mortal fear that Jean has lost it completely, Julie abandons her hubby and absconds to Spain with George. No prizes for guessing that there are several more twists to come…

Aside from her obvious facility for nude scenes (no shit, Sherlock!), Fenech deserves credit for a performance that gets us on the side of a protagonist who is, when you get right down to it, pretty selfish, shallow and unlikable… in many ways a 20th Century rendering of the Balzac character she played for Schott-Schöbinger.

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Martino confesses readily to the influence that Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955, above) exerted over TSVOMW (and what about Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, 1951?) but has waxed ambivalent about The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, to the extent of half-heartedly claiming, when he and fellow ‘B’ movie directors were being feted (at the behest of Quentin Tarantino) during the Venice Film Festival ten years ago, that his picture actually preceded the Argento biggie. In sharp contrast to Argento’s signature use of steadicam, his characteristic deployment of hand-held camera does convey a sense of urgency, plunging the viewer into the thick of the carnage and his restrained use of zoom underscores dramatic moments without descending into Franco-esque overuse. But there’s no doubt where those “through the keyhole” POV shots, which Martino would repeat through just about all of his subsequent gialli, came from. To be fair, Argento himself seems to have been influenced by the scene of Airoldi’s death in the park, restaging it pretty faithfully for Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971.) Martino’s diplomatic comment on this is that both scenes owe a lot to Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966.)

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Argento inarguably pinched one of TSVOMW’s central plot devices, by which calculating, opportunistic killers take advantage of a genuinely deranged individual’s murder rampage to deflect suspicion from themselves for Tenebrae (1982) though if anything, Argento tones it down because at any one time in Martino’s flick, there are no less than four killers operating with dovetailing motivations, no less than three of whom are out to get Fenech! Looks like Freud wasn’t just blowing cigar smoke up our asses with that opening quote…

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Shameless continue their drive to upgrade notable titles on their slate to Blu-ray. Having started a bit late in the game, they’ve avoided some of the pitfalls that bedevilled various early-adopting competitors, some of whose remasterings were looking distinctly variable in quality for a while there. It could be argued that Shameless have had less opportunity to cock one of these up because they’ve so far only done so few, but now that this aspect of their operation is picking up it looks like they’ve learned well from the mis-steps of others. Those having been made, DNR is currently considered less desirable than an “authentic” level of upfront graininess and if you can live with that, opportunities are now opening up to grasp hitherto unguessed-at cinematographic subtleties in some of your favourite films. Arrow’s recent(ish) Deep Red was a particular delight in this regard and the efforts of Emilio Foriscot and Florian Trenker are done similar justice here. No sound problems for audiophiles to have hissy fits over, either.

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Bonus materials comprise the Martino interview and Fenech profile from the previous Shameless release, plus a mini-doc in which most of the significant participants in TSVOMW have their say, the latter lifted from Italian label No Shame’s early DVD edition. Justin Harries’ “fact track” also reappears from that original Shameless release and alternates entry-level giallo observations with some interesting speculation about how the various men in Mrs Wardh’s tangled love life correspond to Freud’s tripartite model of the human mind. I used to get a lot of flack for bringing this kind of thing into the discussion of exploitation movies but in case that’s too high-brow for you, Harries also describes Martino’s film as Sex In The City with added murder.

Another home run from Shameless!

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Core Baby, That’s Really Free… THE ORCHARD END MURDER Reviewed

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The Perils Of Pauline…

BD/DVD Combi. Regions B/2. BFI. 18.

The latest release from BFI’s Flipside imprint (“which rescues weird and wonderful British films from obscurity and presents them in new high quality editions on DVD and Blu-ray”), Christian Marnham’s The Orchard End Murder (1980) garnered shedloads of Eady Levy money during the early ’80s on account of its outings as a program filler for the likes of Dead And Buried (originally) and A Nightmare On Elm Street (which is where I dimly remember catching it, or the last reel or so of it, first time out).

This 50 minute thriller, set in 1966 and allegedly based on a true case, follows the fatal misadventure of one Pauline Cox (Tracy Hyde) who gets bored watching her new boyfriend (Mark Hardy) playing cricket on an idyllic village green and wanders off into the lush Kent countryside in search of distraction, only to meet her end in that eponymous orchard. A real pippin in her summer dress, Una Stubbs hairdo and Mary Quant eye lashes, Pauline is quite scrumptious as she moves among the bowers, indeed she proves irresistibly a-peel-ing to the local sex killer (OK, enough of the apple gags already). We’re led to believe that’s this is going to be the creepy, hunchbacked local station master (prolific character actor Bill Wallis), who improbably lures her into his garden of unearthly gnomic delights for a cup of tea…

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… but it turns out to be his hulking, dim-witted side-kick Ewen (future Casualty stalwart Clive Mantle), with whom he’s got an “Of Mice and Men” kind of thing going on. Ewen doesn’t just tell Pauline about the rabbits, he bashes one to death on the table where she’s taking tea and promptly skins it. Initially repelled, Pauline – whom we’re clearly intended to view as “a bit of a goer” – rapidly warms to his muscular presence. Perhaps his rabbit casserole is off the menu but this girl might just be able to find room for his tongue in cider. She acquiesces to his initial advances only to pull away abruptly, announcing that she’s off to reunite with her boyfriend. Hell hath no fury like a dim-wit spurned and Pauline’s resistance crumbles when Ewen strangles her with one of her stockings before secreting the corpse under a pile of rejected apples (knowing how they feel, I guess)…

OK she dies (not far into the picture) but this revelation really isn’t much of a spoiler, given the film’s title. The balance of it concerns the exact nature of the relationship between Ewen and the station-master, also their farcical attempts to dispose of Paula’s body (interrupted by Ewen’s periodic retrievals of it so he can play house with his dead dream girl). Director Christian Marnham describes TOEM as a black comedy and I guess, if anything, I’d liken parts of it to some of the more eye-watering moments from Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972).

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Marnham benefits from a solid cast and some tremendous camera work (witness the impressive opening crane shot) from Pete Walker’s favoured cinematographer, Peter Jessop, beautifully rendered in the BFI’s characteristically spanky BD transfer. Praise is also due for Sam Sklair’s vaguely jazzy, occasionally Goblinesque OST.

By mining myth, fairytale and folklore (allusions range from the Garden of Eden to Little Red Riding Hood) Marnham parlays, from his humdrum albeit beautiful setting, a passion play of some considerable emotional power, unearthing the pagan processes that lurk beneath the pastoral platitudes of vicars consuming cucumber sandwiches on neatly manicured cricket greens. The film’s tacit condemnation of Cox’s free loving ways (consistent with the contemporary “have sex and die” ethos that then had people queueing around the block to see slasher movies) and the way she does seem to lead Ewen up the garden path before he cracks and kills her, plus the film’s apparent concern to elicit some sympathy from us for sex killers and necrophiles, all make for dodgy sexual politics more troubling than anything in Dead And Buried. In the event, the BBFC extracted a mere 2/3 of a second (!) from TOEM (Marnham remembers it being picketed by feminists, though) while Gary Sherman’s film went on to become, ludicrously, an offical “video nasty”. Go figure…

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Needless to say, this disc comes complete with an impressive set of extras. While TOEM was the first film appearance for both Mantle and (uncredited as a policeman) Rik Mayall, it was the last (whatever it says on IMDB) for David Wilkinson (as Mark Hardy’s piss-taking cricketing buddy). Now working in distribution, Wilkinson looks back on the vagaries of thespian fortunes during a 13 minute interview and admits “I fancied Tracy… we all did… but she wasn’t having any of it”. The still very desirable Ms Hyde gets a similar amount of time to ponder the ups and downs of the actor’s life (she was prematurely touted for stardom after taking the juvenile lead in Warris Hussein’s Melody aka S.W.A.L.K. in 1971). Hyde has nothing but good things to say about her experience on The Orchard End Murder, which she cites as a cautionary tale for young women.

Chris Marnham, who cuts (shall we say) quite a theatrical figure, talks interestingly for half an hour or so about The Orchard End Murder and although it failed to lift him out of the commercials milieu, he announces that he now has two feature projects ready to go. He also gives a brief introduction to his 1970 short (included as another of this disc’s extras), The Showman.

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Ah yes, The Showman… just when I’d convinced myself that the eager BFI beavers who turn up wacky bonus material for these Flipside releases could never top the rocking vicar and his chapter of Christian bikers in their release of Don Sharp’s Psychomania here comes The Showman, a profile of the astonishing Wally Shufflebottom and  his travelling Wild West Strip Tease Show… if that doesn’t sound like a rattling good night out to you, you’re probably reading the wrong blog here. Scantily clad go-go dancers shake their money makers enthusiastically to the tinny strains of Gary Glitter’s Rock And Roll while Wally (literally) drums up trade from the passing ’70s clad thrill-seeking reprobates. Mrs Shufflebottom (once a trapeze artiste but now clearly built for ticket booth duties rather than flying through the air) takes their money and we enter with them to witness further non-PC delights as Wally unleashes volleys of knives (some flaming, some not), axes and tomahawks around the dancing dolly birds’ semi-naked forms… that’s entertainment!

Commenting on the logistical difficulties of making this documentary milestone, Marnham reveals: “We blew just about every electrical supplier in the village of Billericay”… wow, talk about going above and beyond the call of duty!

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Serving God With Biochemistry Since 1981… ABSURD Arrives On Blu-Ray

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BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.

What can I possibly tell you about “Peter Newton” / Joe D’Amato’s Absurd that you don’t already know or can’t easily glean from Seduction Of The Gullible: The Curious History Of The UK’s “Video Nasty” Panic? OK, if you haven’t got a copy of that to hand (and if not, why not?!?) I’ll try to get you up to speed. On account of its Medusa VHS release, Absurd became alphabetically the first of the “nasties” and was also one of the last, in the sense that along with 38 other titles, it stayed on the DPP’s proscribed list until that throwback to The Spanish Inquisition was discontinued. Plotwise, it unfolds as equal parts Halloween remake and half-assed sort of sequel / sort of not, to D’Amato’s other “nasty” Anthropophagous Beast (1980), though it manages the improbable feat of being an even worse film than that. Luigi Montefiori’s monstrous dude boasts a much better complexion here than in Anthropophagous and doesn’t actually eat anybody (he even resists the urge to consume his own intestines when they spill out, yet again, at the start of this one) though he does hang Michele Soavi’s juvenile delinquent upside down from a tree, bake Annie Bell’s bonce in an oven and penetrate the heads of various other dudes with axes, black’n’deckers and bandsaws. All of this is on account of a genetic mutation (a scientifically induced one, it is darkly hinted) that has also, as (bad) luck would have it, rendered him virtually indestructible, as Father Edmund Purdom explains to the sceptical cops, their scepticism scarcely mitigated by the priest’s announcement that he serves God “with biochemistry rather than ritual.” Katya Berger, who spends most of the film screwed to some fiendish orthopedic device, ultimately rises from it (begging certain obvious questions that D’Amato clearly can’t be arsed answering) to prove that when it comes to challenging the alleged indestructibility of hulking home invaders, eye pokings and decapitation trump biochemistry every time!

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88’s Absurd Blu-ray represents the first legitimate UK release of this title – and its first appearance on disc in this country – since the “nasties” witch hunt receded. It’s uncut and looks better than it probably deserves, the graininess that plagues many such 2K upgrades of films from its era contained within acceptable parameters. You get a commentary track from The Hysteria Continues (Teenage Wasteland author and Richard Osman soundalike Justin Kerswell with his pals) which makes for reasonably diverting stuff, if not quite as amusing as their Pieces commentary (these guys are fast becoming the “go to” crew for Edmund Purdom movies!) Their audio track is slightly out of synch with the visuals, too, which gets a bit jarring when they’re talking about specific shots.

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In addition, you get the expected reversible sleeve options and a nifty little insert which contains amusing capsule reviews of the DPP’s least favourite 39 titles by Calum Waddell. Best of all are two interview feauturettes, each about a quarter of an hour long, with Montefiori (aka George Eastman) and Soavi, both looking significantly greyer than you probably remember them. Montefiori, who still presents an imposing physical presence, generates plenty of tantalising trivia for pasta paura buffs, including how he took on the Anthropophagous role because he was keen to visit Greece… only for all of his scenes to be shot in Rome… and how he was originally slated to direct Stagefright (1987) until he was distracted by problems with a restaurant he had just opened (!) and the project devolved to Soavi. Big George, who is endearingly modest and self-deprecating throughout, concedes that Soavi did a much better job than he could have hoped to. He also makes some fascinating and frank observations on the character and career (“He preferred staying in the lower league where he could have more control over everything”) of Joe D’Amato, whom he clearly loved dearly. He reiterates the story that D’Amato’s fatal heart attack was brought on by the disappearance of several cans of footage, a sad but also apposite ending to a life consumed by film. Soavi obviously worships the memory of D’Amato too, recalling his first impression of him as “a little man with a smirk and a cigarette… it was love at first sight!” Elsewhere in the interview, he celebrates D’Amato’s role as an incubator of young talent such as his and contends that “everything said about him is probably all true and all false… a very complex and incomprehensible person… for me, a genius… one of the greatest cinema masters of all time!” Perversely enough, after enduring another screening of Absurd, I’m inclined to agree!

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Simon Slays… Arrow’s Blockbusting 4K BD Edition of PIECES Reviewed

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BD / DVD / CD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 18.

Lucio Fulci always seemed a bit touchy on the question of possible influences on his films and so it proved when I interviewed him in 1994. He adopted a pained expression (like somebody had just stepped on his ski boot) when I invoked the spectre of H.P.Lovecraft and claimed he hadn’t even heard of Ambrose Bierce (let alone read An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge) until after he completed The Doors To Silence (1991.) Unpredictable as ever, Fulci (who, it transpired, was quite the Spanish horror film buff) then amazed me by volunteering the information that he had pinched the idea for The House By The Cemetery (1981) from Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s La Residencia / The House That Screamed (1970.)

Although arguably the ever popular (at least in the venerable Aurum Horror Encyclopedia) “body-in-pieces fantasy” has cinematic antecedents that go at least as far back as James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Serrador’s gothique girls school adventure hit the spot with its daring satire of Spain’s ossified fascist society, in which the sexually repressed son of an authoritarian headmistress finishes off several young ladies at her finishing school so that he can build himself an idealised “pure” woman.

When Generalissimo Francisco Franco died in 1975 and his appointed successor King Juan Carlos opted to become a constitutional monarch in a modern liberal democracy, things thawed pretty rapidly. In “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is!”, one of the many extras on this handsome package, The Pact director and Pieces lover Nicholas McCarthy identifies it as a film coming “at the ass end of the Spanish horror boom” which honours the Iberian tradition with its hommage to La Residencia and via such touches as the casting of tapas terror titan Jack Taylor. Late Phases director Adrian Garcia Bogliano, in the same featurette, notes that things had been buttoned down for so long in Spain that exploitation film makers made up for lost time by packing as much sex, violence and plain craziness into their films as the creaking plots would bear… and no film exemplifies this tendency more brazenly than Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces (1982.)

Somewhere in “Boston, 1942″(or a Madrid facsimile thereof) some four eyed little schmendrick is discovered labouring over a jigsaw of a naked Playboy playmate (which looks like it dates as far back as the early ’70s, tops) by his mom (May Heatherly, who bit that doctor’s tongue out in Cannibal Apocalypse.) Not knowing where all this is going to end (though masturbation would be a reasonable guess) she smashes a mirror (repeated in slow motion and shattervision, like she was in an Adam And The Ants video or something) before announcing that she’s going to bin said nudie jigsaw. Now The Beastie Boys wrote a rousing rap when their mom threw away their best porno mag, but this guy’s protest is rather more emphatic… he buries an axe in her head and starts sawing her into … Pieces!

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When the cops turn up he insists that “a big man… a big man” performed the murderous deed then scarpered and as forensic science wasn’t so hot in Boston, 1942, he gets away with it…

… “forty years later”…

… loose living, flash dancing bimbos at some Boston college are being carved up with a chainsaw by a black clad assassin. In broad daylight. At the same time, somebody is having another go at that jigsaw. Looks like Junior from the pre-titles sequence is replaying his primal scene… but who did he grow up to be?  Willard the burly gardener (Paul “Bluto” Smith) is strenuously touted for our consideration on account of his familiarity with a chainsaw and appetite for beating up cops trying to investigate the case, but c’mon… are we really expected to buy that the scrawny kid in the Quincy tank top grew up to be this ogre? Indeed, the Paul Smith interview included as another of the extras on this set is pointedly entitled The Reddest Herring.

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Other leading suspects include closet case anatomy professor Arthur Brown (!), played by Jack Taylor and the Dean of Studies (Edmund Purdom.) Curiously, Professor Chow the kung fu instructor (yep, the college has a kung fu instructor) played by Kin Lung Huang (*) is never in the frame, despite his penchant for wandering around the college at night, randomly picking fights with women he encounters (it’s a crazy world on this campus… then again, what do you expect when they employ an anatomy professor named Arthur Brown?)

The Dean is keen on a low-key investigation, which might seem like a tall order (what with these butchered co-eds turning up all over the place) until you consider the resources that Boston’s finest are prepared to commit to the case, i.e. Lt Bracken (Christopher George), his sidekick Sgt Holden (Frank Bana), and ex tennis pro May Riggs (George’s wife, Lynda Day), working undercover (sure thing, I mean who else would you send?) Bracken’s got the measure of the case, though – “We must catch the killer…” he advises Holden: “… that’s what it says in the rule book” (I bet he was the stand out candidate at police academy.) Smoothy student Kendall (Ian Sera) is initially a suspect but, having won the confidence of Lt Bracken (and with precious little alternative manpower available) he is soon seconded to the case. I think he’s supposed to be like Keith Gordon’s character in Dressed To Kill (1980) but in the event he’s way more irritating. Co-scripters Dick Randall and “John Shadow” seem to find him equally obnoxious, judging by the fate they’ve devised for him. First of all, after the killer has finally been unmasked, Kendall has to fight off his knife wielding attentions until Bracken turns up to shoot him in the head. While they’re congratulating themselves on that, the putrefying dream girl that the killer has been stitching together falls out of a cupboard and pins Kendall to the floor. Just as he’s recovering from that shock and joshing with the cops about it, in the mother of all Carrie quotations, the composite corpse reaches up and claws his balls off! I swear to Christ, I’m not making any of this shit up!

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The budget that the Boston PD allocated to the investigation of this case would seem to be significantly less than that afforded the FX crew on Pieces. Kudos to Basilio Cortijo for some of the stunning gore creations on display here (mostly centering, of course, on the after effects of chain saw attacks.) There’s stuff that Giannetto De Rossi wouldn’t turn his nose up at. Among all the silliness and non sequiturs, Simon also manages some suspenseful sequences and set pieces murders that look like they belong in an arty giallo rather than a run-of-the-mill American slasher effort. (**) The scene in which Isabel Luque’s nosey reporter is stabbed to death on a water-bed wouldn’t be out of place, if not quite in an Argento classic, than in a top-of-the-range Fulci effort, though better editing would have obscured the wobbliness of that rubber knife before it entered the girl’s skull and edited via her mouth, a la the pre-titles sequence of Fulci’s aforementioned House By The Cemetery.

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Bad chop suey strikes again…

People get snotty about Pieces in particular and JPS in general, while learned tomes get written about Jesus Franco. Now don’t get me wrong, people have a perfect right to enjoy the films of Jesus Franco and write learned tomes about them… I’ve read one or two of them and it proved a worthwhile investment of (rather a lot of) my time. But compare Pieces to e.g. its closest equivalent in the Franco canon – Bloody Moon (1981) – and really, there’s no contest.

I used to love the long-defunct magazine Continental Film Review (briefly recoined as Continental Film And Video Review before it disappeared forever from our newsagents’ shelves) for the way it would alternate analysis of the new Antonioni or Fellini offering with pages of stills from the likes of Danish Dentist On The Job and similarly, I do appreciate it when a label goes to town on a “mere” exploitation movie.

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Suffice to say, Arrow have done an astonishing job here. The 4K restoration of Pieces from its original negative looks just dandy, but video high fidelity probably isn’t a major reason why anyone would watch a movie like this. It’s the extras assembled here that make this release indispensible. People used to talk about “party tapes” but you could have your mates round for this set all weekend and still be discovering stuff long after all the snacks have been snacked on, drinks quaffed and the party favours have petered out. For starters, this is the ultimate “Musos edition” of Pieces with three (count ’em) score options and that’s before you even get onto the commentary track. I hope the original music by Librado Pastor is your favourite, because you also get that on a bonus CD. It’s not likely to keep Ennio Morricone off my deck for any length of time but I’m glad to have it. Thanks, Arrow.

That commentary track, courtesy of The Hysteria Continues (basically Justin Kerswell and his mates) is a real plus: skilfully moderated (it sounds like a couple of the participants are on some kind of conference call set up or maybe Skype), enthusiastic, entertaining, informative and insightful. I’m particularly grateful to Kerswell and co for clearing up an aspect of the film that has always mystified me, i.e. the bit where a certain “Virginia Palmer” (you’d think her family had suffered enough, considering what happened to Laura and everything) skateboards through a giant sheet of plate-glass in slow motion, apparently a propos of nothing. Turns out it was a propos of reminding jigsaw boy of his mother smashing that mirror, reactivating the killer inside him after years as a useful member of society, plying his trade as a… oops, nearly gave it away there! Sadly no explanation is offered (I’m sure they looked for one) as to why Professor Chow should launch an unprovoked flurry of kung fu kicks at Lynda Day (or why she forgives him so readily), over and above the clearly implausible one suggested in the (frequently piss-taking) English dub, i.e. “bad chop suey!” Just to clarify another bit of trivia they allude to, it’s true that the “John Shadow” who’s “credited” as co-writer of Pieces is NOT (as often rumoured) Joe D’Amato… the guilty party is actually Roberto Loyola, one of the many producers involved in the tangled saga of bringing Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974) to the screen.

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As if the guidance of The Hysteria Continues wasn’t immersive enough for you, you’re also treated to The 5.1 Vine Theater Experience…. a barker lures you (with lines like “Come and see tits getting sawn”… let’s face it, you’re never going to get that at the NFT) into the lobby of the eponymous LA theatre where you’ll have fun spotting trash film luminaries before taking your seat for a screening of Pieces, courtesy of Grindhouse Releasing. During that you’re able to enjoy the surround sound reactions of an up-for-it audience enthusiastically applauding every outbreak of nudity, guffawing at every last gobbet of gore and critiquing salient thespian missteps (Lynda Day’s “bastard… BASTARD… BASTARD!!!” predictably takes the cake!)

Not least among the bonuses offered on this set is the presence of two distinct versions of the feature, the US theatrical cut and Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche (“A Thousand Cries In The Night”), the slightly longer Spanish version. I must have the attention span of a goldfish or something but I never manage to work out what the extra stuff is in the longer cuts of these things. One thing I did learn from watching Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche, though, is the extent to which the American dubbers yocked things up by spicing up dialogue that was already pretty fruity to begin with (i.e. for once something gained a lot … of mainly trash … in translation), the “bad chop suey” crack being the most obvious example. The Spanish original also plays Stars And Stripes Forever over Suzy Billing’s murder but those who put the US release together obviously figured that such iconic American music shouldn’t accompany shots of a girl pissing herself and being dismembered by a chainsaw, so substituted the kind of jolly library music often played over sketches on The Benny Hill Show.

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The late JP Simon gets an hour-long interview / profile devoted to him and in a similarly lengthy interview with art director Gonzalo Gonzalo (so good they named him twice) we hear a lot of amusing stories about how resourceful the director was in stretching out his minimal budgets to maximum effect. A short audio Interview with producer Steve Minasian relates how everybody was shafted for their money by a fly-by-night distributor. Undeterred by this cautionary tale, JPS disciple Sergio Blasco relates on another featurette of his collaboration with the maestro on a sadly unrealised Pieces sequel.

Of course you get a trailer, image galleries and a reversible sleeve (featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach.) The collectors’ booklet apparently features new writing on the film by critic Michael Gingold… I’ll have to take Arrow’s word for that as I didn’t receive a copy of it.

Watching this set might not quite be “the most wonderful feeling in the world” (to paraphrase one of the most notorious lines of dialogue in Pieces) but in trash movie terms, it comes pretty close.

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You can always rely on beyondhorrordesign.blogspot.co.uk

(*) Kin Lung Huang  starred (as “Bruce Le”) in the likes of…Bruce’s Deadly Fingers (1976), My Name Called Bruce (1979) The True Game Of Death and Re-Enter The Dragon (both 1979)… and just in case the penny hasn’t dropped yet regarding his USP, The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980.)

(**) The producers of Pieces include Stephen Minasian (who put up money for Friday The 13th) and Dick Randall, who produced Ferdinando Merighi’s 1972 giallo The French Sex Murders… though on reflection, I’d be pushing it (over a fucking cliff!) to describe that one as “arty.”

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Boys & Ghouls Come Out To Play… WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? Reviewed

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DVD. R1.  Dark Sky / MPI. Unrated

Who Could Kill A Child? That’s the provocative question posed in the title of Narcisco Ibanez Serrador’s fabled 1976 Euroshocker… actually, that’s just one of the many  titles which has been attached to Serrador’s picture, and probably the most appropriate given that it’s a straight translation of the original Spanish title ¿Quién Puede Matar a un Niño?… others have included Would You Kill a Child?, Death is Child’s Play, Lucifer’s Curse, The Killer’s Playground, Trapped, Island Of The Damned and that old standby, Island Of Death …a rose by any other name would smell as sweet and Serrador mounts this hybrid of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Wolf Rilla’s Village Of The Damned (1960)  in impressive style, so very impressive that it would come to exert an obvious influence over such subsequent fare as Fritz Kiersch’s Children Of The Corn (1984).

No surprise really, as Serrador sprang from prestigious Spanish horror stock. His polymath father Narciso Ibáñez Menta acted, wrote, produced, directed and performed make up duties (no doubt he also had a hand in the catering) on a host of Spanish cinema and TV efforts, many of them in our favourite genre. Serrador himself served a similar apprenticeship in TV drama from the early ‘60s onwards before making his feature debut with the stunning, claustrophobic La Residencia aka The House That Screamed (1970).

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As if to prove that he wasn’t some kind of one-trick pony, Serrador unfolds the action of Who Could Kill A Child? in bright sunshine on a deserted holiday island… this one is possibly the ultimate in agoraphobic horror! Much of the credit for this must go to DP Jose Luis Arcane, who would later become the favoured cinematographer of Pedro Almodovar and Bigas Luna, and who gets his own bonus interview featurette on this disc. In fact Serrador (who comes across as a very agreeable chap on his own featurette here) derives maximum benefit from all of his collaborators, chiefly his leads Lewis Finder and Prunella Ransome as Tom And Evelyn, a young couple expecting their third child and discovering that their Spanish holiday heaven is rapidly descending into something altogether more hellish.

Finding the mainland resort of Benavis too over run by tourists for their liking, the protagonists take a boat to the sparsely populated island of Almanzora… sparse indeed, as there seem to be no adults around and the local children respond to Tom and Evelyn’s presence in distinctly surly manner. He speculates that the grown ups have all decampred to some shindig on the other side of the island, but a gradual accumulation of disquieting detail increasingly indicates that there is something very  wrong going on in Almanzora. When Evelyn does finally set eyes on an adult native of the island, it’s an old man who is promptly bludgeoned with his own walking stick by a young girl. Tom, goeing to investigate, witnesses the sequel – a macabre game of human piñata – and the penny drops that maybe he and his wife should have just settled for a weekend in Skegness. Desperately searching through the empty homes and shops for an explanation of what has happened, they uncover a wounded and traumatised guy (Antonio Iranzo) who’s been hiding out from the killer kids and gets Tom and Evelyn up to speed: a couple of nights previously all the island’s children had gone on a spontaneous rampage, gate crashing one house after another and murdering their adult inhabitants, in a spirit of infernal fiesta. His chilling story told, this guy makes the mistake of leaving with his young daughter, who mercilessly leads him into an ambush. This and most of the film’s other killings take place off screen, which only makes the climactic blood bath all the more horrifying when it does play out.

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Hotly pursued, Tom and Evelyn make several escape attempts but can’t shake off those murderous munchkins. This is genuinely involving stuff, as Serrador has taken the time to establish them as characters that we care about, ably assisted by the sympathetic performances of Fiander and Ransome. The director admits in his bonus featurette that he didn’t really get on particularly well with Finder, but the Australian actor is utterly believable as an urban sophisticate with macho pretentious, who flounders when faced with danger before steeling himself to the point where yes, he will indeed kill a child (mowing down dozens with a machine gun as an encore) when survival demands it. Ransome (sadly, no longer with us) is even better, radiating sweetness and vulnerability. Waldo de los Ríos’ OST plays its full part in ratcheting the tension en route to a the deeply downbeat denouement, as the final quarter hour or so  reverts to claustrophobic mode and shock succeeds shock without ever giving way to schlock… as a useful point of comparison and contrast, did you really give a toss about what happened to Tisa Farrow, Serena Grandi, Zora Kerowa and their travelling companions in Joe D’Amato’s similarly set up but woefully directed Anthropophagous Beast (1980)?

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This is crackingly efficient and effective horror movie making… the only points at which WCKAC wobbles slightly are those where it dwells on the nature of the killer kids’ condition and its transmission (some kind of “animal magnetism”, it is limply suggested). It would have been better to leave this to the imagination of the viewer, as Hitchcock had in The Birds. Anyway, the film’s harrowing full title sequence (omitted for years from previous releases, reinstated here in its entirety) supplies all the motivation that the nihilistic ninos of Almanzora could wish for, comprising a collage of news reel material detailing how children have always suffered the most when “mature” adults wage war on each other… the horrors of The Holocaust, Indo-Pakistani wars, Biafra, Korea, familiar images of Vietnamese innocents strafed by napalm… Serrador’s version of children turning on adults is grotesque and ultimately absurd but the message appears to be that the converse state of affairs is even more shocking and ridiculous, yet is repeated throughout history with numbing regularity. Interesting and ironic that this powerful prologue has been for so long prodcribed by political establishments that continue to condone the perpetration of such horrors in real life! It was only in 2011 that Who Can Kill A Child? got an uncut UK release, courtesy of the Eureka label.

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Incidentally, during the long period when this footage went unseen, the rumour mill was working over time with speculation on what it actually comprised. Various critics of a “liberal” persuasion convinced themselves that it contained material “equating” abortion with violence against children and declared this to be some kind of reactionary faux pas on the part of Serrador. Well, for starters it transpires that there is no such material. Now you mention it though, thanks for putting me right about any lingering suspicion I had that abortion was in some way “violent.” Obviously any foetuses concerned are gently coaxed out of their mothers’ wombs and sat down with a nice cup of tea…

Dark Sky present the film in a beautifully vibrant transfer, anamorphically faithful to its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. As a bonus you get those interview featurettes with Serrador and DP Alcaine (courtesy of the ubiquitous David Gregory) and a generous gallery of promotional materials.

Serrador, who on the strength of this and La Residencia could so obviously have been a contender, never (officially) directed another theatrical horror feature (nor one in any other genre). The consignment of his promising directorial career to the dusty bin of cinematic history was stipulated as a condition in the contract he signed with a TV company to exploit the lucrative game show concept that he had dreamed up… namely Un, Dos, Tres. And yes, that’s the same show franchised to ITV in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as 3-2-1. Now that’s really horrible…

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What Did You Axe Santa For? SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT Reviewed.

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“Silent Night Has Turned Into A Night Of Fear” (Roy Wood)

DVD. Region 2. Arrow. 18.

“What are we coming to, what sort of people are we… to make, or see, or seem to want a film like this? The sickest and filthiest film… Children’s terror used as entertainment, atrocious cruelty put on the screen for fun.”

Isabel Quigley’s review of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in The Spectator, 15.04.60.

Santaphobia aka Clausophobia, is an irrational fear of Father Christmas, closely associated with (deep breath) Christougenniatikophobia, an irrational fear of the festival itself, not to mention Pogonophobia, an irrational fear of beards (sufferers of which are living through particularly tough times right now, given that every hipster toss pot on the block is currently cultivating ridiculous chin foliage.)

Although it’s entirely possible that youthful viewings of Charles E. Sellier Jr’s Silent Night, Deadly Night (aka Slayride, 1984) could induce such phobias in nervous Nellies, there’s nothing irrational at all about its protagonist Billy’s fear of the guy in the big red duffel coat. When he was a kid (as portrayed by Jonathan Best), Billy and family spent one Xmas Eve visiting his senile grandpa (Will Hare) in a rest home for the viciously addled.

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While Dad and Mom (Tara Buckman from several subsequent soft core Joe D’Amato atrocities) were in the director’s office sorting out some paper work, the miserable old cunt snapped out of his catatonic state long enough to warn little Billy that Santa spends the night before Christmas looking for bad children to punish. Presumably Billy would have been able to laugh all this off as the demented ravings of a pyjama pants-pissing window licker, but for an unfortunate incident that befell the family on their way home and tended to reinforce Grampy’s downbeat interpretation of the Festive Period. A stick up man in a Santa suit, on the lam from a messy heist, flagged their car down, shot Dad in the head and cut Mom’s throat as she resisted being raped by him. Billy witnessed all of this from the ditch he was hiding in. From this point on, the regular recurrence of December 25th gives Billy considerably more to angst over than the issue of whether or not he’s going to get the latest Pokemon game in his sack.

Billy (now played by Danny Wagner) and kid brother Ricky (who was mercifully too young to register the massacre of his parents) are farmed out to St Mary’s Home For Orphaned Children, a Utah Orphanage run by nuns (I thought everyone in Utah was a Mormon?) whose Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) was obviously trained in the Eric Bristow school of PTSD counselling. She insists that Billy take part in Christmas celebrations like all the other kids (pity they didn’t put him in a home run by Jehovah’s Witnesses) despite the fact that it’s obviously freaking him out. When he demurs he gets tied to his bed and whupped. He’s also beaten after spying through the keyhole on a couple making out (gotta be loads of them in Utah’s Catholic orphanages, right?)  When forced to sit on Santa’s knee he responds by chinning Mr Claus and boy, does he gets a whuppin’ for that, during which his tormentor assures him that “Punishment is good”… just like Grampy used to say!  “You’ll see my methods work” Mother Superior assures Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick), though the latter has her doubts. She’s the only one in this joint, probably in the whole picture, who treats Billy with any sympathy or humanity…

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… possibly not with total understanding, though, as when Billy has grown up (in the hunky shape of Robert Brian Wilson) and it’s time for him to seek gainful employment, Sister Margaret secures him a job in Ira’s toys store (they’ve had to diversify a bit since the terrorism thing petered out.) Everything’s fine, Billy’s a model employee and even attracts the admiring attention of sexy colleague Pamela (Toni Nero) but then, sure as shit, the Christmas season rolls around…

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… and Billy is obliged (what were the odds on this?) to stand… er, sit in for the store’s no-show Santa. After a day of being wound up by foul children and unwisely plied with alcohol by his stupid boss, Billy is just about ready to blow. When he finds Pamela making out with a boorish co-worker in the stock room, our boy (still in full Santa drag) proceeds to slaughter everybody in the shop with box cutters, bow-and-arrow and an axe (precisely what some of these murderous implements were doing in a toy shop is something you’d have to ask script writers Paul Ciami and Michael Hickey.) Clutching that axe, Billy  heads into town to continues what he sees as his Santarly duties. Among those of whom he makes mincemeat is “a well-known Scream Queen” who’s been making out with a guy on a pool table… and that’s naughty. Dishing out poetic justice in the Christmas spirit, Billy impales her on the horns of a mounted reindeer head… deck the halls with Linnea Quigley!

One cute little Munchkin wisely insists, when challenged, that she’s been nice rather than naughty, thereby saving herself. Billy chops up everybody else he encounters, all the while screaming “punish… PUNISH!” Personal favourite? The town bully who’s imprudent enough to pilot his stolen sledge within axe-swinging distance of Billy and arrives at the bottom of his run significantly shorter than he was at the crest of it. Billy rocks up at The Orphanage to settle accounts with Mother Superior, only to be gunned down by the Sheriff. His axe falls at the feet of kid brother Ricky (Alex Burton), whose nutzoid stare and muttered “Naughty!” suggests, in that laziest of wrap-up clichés, that he will grow up to take on Billy’s murderous red and white-trimmed mantel. I’m reliably informed that he did in at least one of the film’s interminable sequels, but I can’t say that I’ve ever found myself so desperate for something to do that I’ve watched any of them.

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Christmas themed horror flicks were an established sub-genre well before Mr Sellier Jr turned his directorial hand to this monstrosity. 1972 yielded Theodore Gershuny’s Silent Night, Bloody Night and Freddie Francis’s portmanteau effort Tales From The Crypt, in one episode of which Joan Collins fell foul of a Santa-outfitted strangler. Bob Clark’s gialloesque Black Christmas (1974) is probably better than the rest of the X-cert Xmas epics put together. 1980 brought us another brace of the bloody things, Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil and To All A Goodnight, directed by David Hess (yes, that David Hess…) The real impetus for a flood of Satanic Santa sagas, though was when John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) took the laurel for biggest grossing independent movie of all time (an accolade it hung on to until surpassed by one of the dopier Elm Street Sequels) and Sean Cunningham’s Friday The 13th (1980) made a similar box office impact, at which point horror film producers left no significant calendar date untouched in their lust for filthy festive lucre. Christmas proved a particularly fertile furrow for them to plough, yay, even unto Charles Band’s immortal Gingerdead Man vs Evil Bong (2013.)

Silent Night, Deadly Night stands out from the pack, however, in terms of sheer tastelessness, insensitivity, misanthropy and mean spirit… its writers have contrived a series of life events for poor l’il Billy that rank right up there with the successive misfortunes suffered by any De Sade heroine and Sellier wallows every bit as gleefully in the catastrophic consequences of child abuse as Joseph Ellison does in his equally reprehensible Don’t Go In The House (1979), a title I promise / threaten to examine on this blog some time in 2017.

Given the general tackiness of the whole endeavour, one wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the various picketing, protests and press campaigns launched against SN,DN by various concerned citizens / parents, media morals watch committees and what have you were actually orchestrated by the film’s publicists.

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“31 bucks? Merry Fucking Christmas!!!”

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Shear Inconsistency… THE BURNING Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 18.

Though billed as “The most frightening of the maniac films”, Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981) is an identikit example of the “teen body count” sub-genre spawned by the respective successes of Halloween (1978) then Friday The 13th (1980)… a sub-genre on account of which I spent what felt like half of the early ’80s in darkened rooms, surrounded by enthusiastically squealing females (a feat which, sadly, I’ve never since managed to replicate.) Indeed, The Burning is so similar to the early Friday The 13th films that it could be considered the Never Say Never Again of that interminable franchise, where it not for the fact that Miramax founders the Weinstein brothers maintain they had the property in development even before Sean Cunningham’s original F13 (they must have been watching Mario Bava’s Twitch of The Death Nerve, too!)

Tom Savini, who masterminded the gory splatter FX in Cunningham’s film, took on the Burning gig in preference to working on Steve Miner’s Friday The 13th Part 2 because, he says, the latter film’s out-of-wack storyline and continuity put him off : “Especially the idea that Jason was alive in some lake for all that time.” Other jobs whose standards of kitchen sink realism Tom has deemed stringent enough for him to work on range from Dawn Of The Dead (1978) to the promised / threatened Nightmare City remake we’re all waiting for (with varying degrees of unenthusiasm.) On one of the bonuses materials for this release he goes so far as to call anyone who watches a Friday The 13th instalment from Part 2 onwards “stupid”, though what his participation in 1984’s F13: The Final Chapter (ha ha) says about his own IQ is a moot point. Suffice to say, I suspect that the paycheck he was offered for The Burning significantly exceeded that attached to F12 Part 2… which is fair enough.

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Back in the dark old days of “video nasty” bashing, though, the DPP also seems to have discerned some significant non-monetary differences between The Burning and Jason’s summer camp slaughterfests, Parts 1 and 2 of which only made his “Section 3” list (of titles considered fit for confiscation but with no confidence that they could be guaranteed an obscenity conviction in court) while The Burning earned the unwelcome accolade of fully fledged “nasty”. The BBFC had cut it for cinema release but for their video edition Thorn-EMI inadvertently restored several excised seconds, including the shots of finger-snippin’ goodness for which The Burning is best remembered. Caught red-handed, they recalled as many copies as possible and get out their own shears, re-stating the BBFC version but – horror of horrors – then managed to return many of the offending copies to shops by accident, obliging them to issue yet another recall notice. In the aftermath of all this. Thorn-EMI got serious jitters and started censoring their product left, right and centre, including Suspiria, a particularly brutal carve-up of Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch… and even Emmanuelle 2!

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The film’s remedial plot is best summarised with one of its early advertising shout lines:”A brutal horrific act made him kill and kill and kill!” Indeed. In the mandatory pre-titles sequence the waggish campers of Camp Blackfoot set out to scare obnoxious caretaker Cropsy (Lou David) with a worm-ridden skull containing a candle (readily available at all good stores). Unfortunately the gag results in Cropsy’s bed catching fire and he becomes a human torch, leaping hot-foot into Lake Blackfoot (where presumably he met Jason and picked up some tips on coming back to life and jumping out of lakes when everyone thinks the picture is over). Cropsy winds up in hospital, described by a sensitive orderly as “a fucking Big Mac, overdone.”

To no-one’s great surprise, “five years later” Cropsy is discharged with some sound advice: “I know you resent those kids, but try not to blame anyone”. After five years cooped up in intensive care a young Cropy monster’s thoughts turn to what you’d expect them to turn to, so he nips off to the local red light area for a quickie. Even a blowzy old whore gets a headache when she checks out Cropsy’s charred visage, and when he presses his suit she succumbs to a fit of bad acting, is stabbed with scissors by the enraged Cropsy and pushed out of her window. Realising his true murderous vocation, our boy relocates to the nearest Summer Camp, Camp Stonewater.

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There’s a veritable shoal of red herrings as we are introduced to the stereotypical campers… the girls agonise over the state of their relationships while porno mags and condoms are delivered to the boy’s hut; buttocks are peppered with buck-shot, and amid much masturbation wit the girls are referred to as “prime meat” (how true, how true); then there’s the camp wimp Alfred (Brian Backer), spying on girls in the shower, which is possibly intended as a Hitchcock hommage. Next up is the campfire sequence you’ll know off by heart if you ever saw Friday The 13th Part 2. Todd, the hunky camp counsellor (Brian Mathews) scares the new kids with the story of Cropsy, stalking the woods with a pair of shears (turns out to be a good guess!) “He’s out there watching… waiting. So don’t look… he’ll see you. Don’t breathe… he’ll hear you. Don’t move … YOU’RE DEAD!”

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… at which point some eejit jumps out of the bushes wearing a fright mask in a feeble attempt to scare the living daylights out of everybody. It’s not till the kids go on a canoe trip though that the brown stuff really starts hitting the fan. Cropsy interprets the “Have-sex-and-die” rule somewhat broadly, for the first victim backs out of sex in the creek before undergoing a DIY tracheotomy as she searches for her knickers, blood gurgling out over her breasts. The kids wake next morning to find that all the canoes are missing, so they improvise a raft and set off back to camp. One of the missing canoes drifts into view, but when they paddle over to it, up jumps Cropsy, brandishing shears. With a dazzling display of dexterous hand-speed he stabs heads, slashes throats, pierces breasts and (aptly enough) crops the fingers off a guy who raises his hands in a protective gesture. Yes, the bit that caused all the fuss… (see the charming little gif at the head of this review.)

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Back at Camp Stonewater the discovery of the wrecked raft – not to mention a floating arm and fingerless corpses popping up in people’s faces – leads to another outburst of hysterical over-acting and before you can say “Viva Vorhees”, copulating teens are slaughtered in their sleeping-bags and pinned to trees with shears through their throats. Surprising Cropsy in mid-slash, wimpy Alfred is pursued in P.O.V. Cropsy-vision through the woods to the hut where the socko-boffo climax will unfold. Todd charges to the rescue and is revealed via flashback to be one of the merry pranksters who set off this whole unlikely chain of events in the first place… well slap my face! Cropsy decides a spot of poetic justice is in order and goes after Todd with an oxy-acetylene burner, leaving the viewer to ponder certain questions, e.g, while in hospital, how had Cropsy kept tabs on Todd’s movements? Even more perplexing, how did Todd get a job as a camp counsellor when a mere five years earlier he had been responsible for broiling a camp caretaker? Stonewater’s HR policies could clearly do with a bit of tightening up…

Things are looking bad for Todd, but Alfred proves himself a man at the crucial moment, burying the shears in Cropsy’s back. He falls so readily that you lose several credibility points if you don’t guess that, as Alfred and Todd leave arm-in-arm, Cropsy will gamely rise for another go. An axe in the face makes his comeback a short one, and the boys set fire to him again for good measure. The film closes with a reprise of the fireside Jackanory scene… well clean my pants!

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One significant way in which The Burning does differ from the ongoing Friday The 13th saga is that it never spawned a Burning 2, 3, 4, 5, etc ad nauseum. I have no idea why this is, especially in view of the film’s blockbusting box office success in Japan. Maybe the Weinsteins just had bigger fish to fry…

When I first reviewed this film for my Seduction Of The Gullible tome I mentioned that two of its alumni went on to greater things, editor-turned-director Jack Sholder and actress Holly Hunter. Subsequently, having gotten hooked on Seinfeld, I would have added the wonderful Jason Alexander, who had a fine head of hair when he appeared as “Dave” in The Burning (he has one now, too, but it’s an obvious toupee.)

Because I’ve only received the DVD disc so far, I’m in no position to tell you how good The Burning will look on Blu-ray when Arrow’s combi release hits the shelves on December 19th, just in time to adorn your loved one’s Xmas stockings (and assuming you’re not a total Scrooge, why not shell out for the steelbox edition?) I haven’t seen the accompanying booklet, either, but the DVD obviously looks way better than that Thorn-EMI video and is crammed with extras. Amid the expected trailers and galleries there are interviews with Savini and Sholder, who concur that the producers pretty much froze Maylam out of the editing of his picture. Savini observes that The Burning endured censorship travails in the US, too and Sholder reveals that it was while working on this picture that he discovered the joy of eating Buffalo Wings. Lou David relives his finest thespian hour. There are no less than three commentary tracks (which I’ve yet to start wading through), with a) Maylam and Alan Jones, b) cast members Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski and c) The Hysteria Continues (your guess is as good as mine…)

Rick Wakeman is also interviewed about composing the film’s OST. He had already scored Maylam’s White Rock documentary (1977) and Maylam himself had previous Prog form, directing The Genesis Concert Movie in the same year (wonder what that was about?) If you’re into this kind of music and haven’t already done so, I would urge you to check out our sister blog at http://www.theozymandiasprogject.wordpress.com where a superannuated hippy named Ozzy Mandias will be found ruminating incessantly over The Music Of The Gods. It’s guaranteed to be more fun that having your fingers chopped off…

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Boys Keep Swinging… THE ZERO BOYS reviewed

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Blu-ray / DVD combi edition. Regions A&B / 1&2. Arrow. 18.

So, you’re Nico Mastorakis, right? Whadya mean: ” Wrong!”? I’m trying to make a rhetorical point here, just throw me a frickin’ bone, will ya? OK… so you’re Nico Mastorakis and you’ve perpetrated one of the scuzziest films since Thomas Edison cranked up his first camera (a certified “video nasty” into the bargain), 1976’s Island Of Death (also available from Arrow Video… and their release of 1990’s Hired To Kill is on the way)… so, having gained our astonished attention with that mean spirited melange of moral meltdown on Mykonos, what do you do next? You could co- write J. Lee Thompson’s The Greek Tycoon (1978), the story of a super rich Greek shipping magnate who absolutely ISN’T (our lawyers have asked us to point out) Aristotle Onassis. In terms of your own directorial career, you could try  Blind Date (1984), a tech-orientated thriller with Joseph Bottoms and Kirstie Alley… The Next One (also 1984) a time travelling rip of Nicholas Meyer’s superior Time After Time (1979)… and  Sky High (1985), in which holidaying students inadvertently fall foul of the CIA.

Oh, you already did all those? Then howzabout an action adventure yarn in which weekend warrior paintball dweebs celebrate a tournament victory by heading into the backwoods with their girlfriends (sure, I mean how else does anybody ever celebrate anything?) only to find themselves fighting for their lives against a bunch of drooling rural retards who take their hunting games very seriously indeed? That would be The Zero Boys (1986), now available again in one of those spanky blu-ray / DVD combi editions from Arrow.

The flick opens promisingly, with Mastorakis slowly revealing that the apparently genuine firefight in which Steve Larry (Daniel Hirsch), Larry (Tom Shell) and the eccentrically-coiffed Rip (Robbie Fowler lookalike Jared Moses) are caught up is only an innocuous recreational rally. Nice sub-De Palma touch there, Nico. Having creamed their chief competitor, a bozo (later revealed to be Jewish) in pantomime Nazi regalia, the ZB’s collect their prize – Jamie (Kelli Maroney) – and head for the boondocks with girlfriends in tow. Dunno about you, but I’m already losing count of the ways in which this movie is not PC, though admittedly there’s none of the incest / religious fanaticism / dwarf shagging / goat shagging / water sports and so on that made Island Of Death such fun for all the family. If that film was Mastorakis’ Last House On The Left, this is his The Hills Have Eyes…

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“Get your chest over here, babe… you’ve just won a holiday you’ll never forget!”

When they find an unlocked property in the woods the boys cheerfully billet themselves and their floozies in it, seemingly undeterred by the presence of a cabin strongly resembling one in Friday The 13th (for ’tis the very same one) although the dialogue reveals that they are familiar with Sean Cunningham’s 1980 body count biggie. There are plenty of other cinematic antecedents that they might have name-checked, going right back to Herschel Gordon Lewis and Russ Meyer’s mid-60s invocations of deep fried Deep Southern brutalism or indeed, Pichel and Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game / Hounds Of Zaroff (1932) if you want to get all RKO about it… and let’s not forget The Three Stooges. If the ZB’s names don’t set you thinking immediately of Curly, Larry and Mo, their OTT gurning when they discover a back garden full of human remains, a woman’s head in the freezer and a rumpus room in which snuff videos play on a continuous loop certainly will. Still, Three Stooges affinities never did the Evil Dead franchise any harm…

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Jamie initially kicks up a stink when she discovers a cache of semi automatic weapons next to the boys’ paintball guns (“You Nazi lunatics!”) but she changes her tune when she needs protecting from the posse of murderous redneck retards who are hunting them through the booby-trap infested woods. Rip bites the big one on the end of a crossbow bolt but it’s difficult to feel too bad about the exit of this character and his incessant irritating wise cracks.

The chief psycho goes unnamed but is played by one Joe Phelan… born Joe Estevez, this guy is (as you’re probably already aware) the kid brother of one Ramon Esteves, better known as Martin Sheen. Yep, he’s Charlie’s uncle. In all honesty, Joe’s not exactly the most extravagantly gifted of the Esteves / Sheen clan in thespian terms but he’s parlayed his genetic inheritance intro an incredibly prolific career that’s seen him making more screen appearances than Martin… more screen appearances than Donald fucking Pleasance… so respect is due. What he brings to this production is an unparalleled aptitude for looking like his big bro, the morning after a particularly murderous bender… staggering around with a machete, lopping away at foliage while wearing an M&S lambswool pullover and – his highlight – firing a harpoon gun at our heroes while he’s underwater. Unfortunately (for him) he’s not immune to the effects of a taser being dropped into the water he’s under and it looks like what’s left of the Zero Boys and their girls are going to make it home… until Mastorakis opts for the then-mandatory downbeat twist ending. It’s a bit half assed in execution, though (and was allegedly omitted from the American release) so I’d like to think that Steve and Larry survived and having (after a suitably respectful pause) recruited a new Zero Boy (“Shemp”?) are currently cleaning up and pulling chicks on the Paintball senior tour.

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Arrow’s BD transfer comes down on the “natural grain” side of the argument, as opposed to the DNR fudging that marred so many early releases in this format. Zero Boys emerges looking pretty good for a film of its vintage and low budget origins. You get a pretty generous allocation of bonus features, too. Ever conscious of leisure (like paintball, right?) and technological trends (his last completed feature was .com for Murder in 2002) Mastorakis offers here the first (unless anybody knows different) “selfie interview”, in which he (sort of) apologises for Island Of Death and basks in the vicarious glow of various proteges who went on to bigger things… Hans Zimmer, who provides TZB’s pulsing synth score, went on to do the same for any amount of box office hits and two of its minor production personnel, Marianne Maddalena and Frank Darabont, became, respectively, assistant to Wes Craven and director of The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, et al. Other interview extras comprise conversations with Zero girls Kelli Maroney and Nicole Rio. Maroney also provides an audio commentary, moderated by Chris Alexander. Of course there’s a trailer and stills gallery and the packaging includes the expected reversible sleeve (with a Graham Humphreys executed option) and glossy booklet, which includes an appraisal of the film by James Oliver.

So, you’re Nico Mastorakis and you’ve made The Zero Boys… good knockabout, numbskull DTV fun, emblematic of its era. 88 must be kicking themselves that they let Arrow get this one…

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“Actually, I think you’ll find that I’M Nico Mastorakis…”

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