Saturday, November 16, 2019

UNDERTAKER (2012) (Synapse Films Blu-ray Review)


Label: Synapse Films
Region Code: Region-FREE
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 65 Minutes
Audio: Japanese DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.78:1)
Director: Naoyoshi Kawamatsu
Cast: Tomoka Asano, Tatsumi Ishihara, Yoshito Kobashigawa

Indie Japanese zombie film Undertaker (2012) begins with a brief opening setting up the character of Ryouichi, a young boy caught up in an initial viral outbreak that is spreading throughout Japan turning people into flesh-eating infected. The young boy ends up alone after the opening events and winds up working as an apprentice of sorts for a heavy-set woman who turns out to be an "undertaker", which in someone hired by families to track down their infected loved one to kill them, offering a bit of closure to grieving families, bringing them a recognizable body part, usually the head, as proof that the deed has been done.  

The timeline moves ahead a few years and now a bit older Ryouichi is an undertaker on his own, tracking down the desired undead through the apocalyptic ruins of Japan, carrying with him a bad-ass modified shovel for a weapon. At just barely over an hour long the film is short on plot but delivers on some touching quieter moments that add poignancy to the proceedings, with some very cool and gruesome practical gore FX, some of which are truly stomach-churning. A personal highlight is a zombie found at the mall that's leaking some sort of viscous ocular 
fluid from it's destroyed eye-sockets, so gross.  

This indie film is a quiet sort of zombie movie, not a film that concerns itself the larger picture of a widespread apocalypse, it's a smaller story with only few living characters and not a lot of narrative meat on it's bone, but it's an interesting meditation on the undead that offers some  cool visual storytelling and some great looking zombies.  

Audio/Video: Undertaker (2012) arrives on region-free Blu-ray from synapse Films in 1080p HD framed in 1.78:1 widescreen. Not sure what the source here is but it looks to be digitally-sourced and not shot on film. It has an ugly desaturated color palette that renders it near monochromatic. Occasionally it looks a bit janky like there's a frame-rate issue or bit of digital conversion weirdness, it's not filmic looking to be sure, but I don't think this is a transfer issue but more a 2012 digital production issue. That aside the fine detail looks solid in close-ups, the desaturated colors look consistent and blacks are reasonably deep throughout for a very low-budget indie production from '12.   

Audio comes by way of Japanese language DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo with optional English subtitles. It's clean and well-balanced, while a lot of the film is eerily quiet there are moments when the stereo track springs to life. 

Extras include a nearly hour-long making of doc, a 4-min trailer, deleted scenes, an image gallery, and a 20-min short film about a haunting that looks like it was shot on a VHS camcorder, but that burgeoning talent shows through. 

The single-disc release comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a single-sided sleeve of artwork, not sure of this is a new illustration but it looks pretty cool.  

Special Features: 
- Farewell to the Precious: The Making of Undertaker (56 min) 
- On Your Back – Original Short Film (20 min) 
- Deleted Scenes (1 min) 
- Behind-the-Scenes Still Gallery (57 Images) 
- Trailer(4 min) 

Synapse Films are not an outfit known for releasing a ton of contemporary films, so when they do it's something notable. In the past they've offered up stuff like the French sci-fi horror film Resonances (2006), South of Heaven (2008), Worm (2013), all cool indie films, and now we have Undertaker (2012), another indie offering something unique, something cool, and something well-worth checking out. It's not polished or insanely gory, so it's not gonna be for all tastes, but it's a cool indie meditation on the zombie apocalypse. 


THE KILLER OF DOLLS (1974) (Mondo Macabro Blu-ray Review)


Label: Mondo Macabro
Region Code: Region-FREE
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 103 Minutes

Audio: Spanish DTS-HD MA Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Michael Skaife (Miguel Madrid)
Cast: David Rocha, Helga Liné, Inma de Santis, Elisenda Ribas Marina Ferri, Lupe Rocha


Set in France, but shot in Spain, the Spanish psychological-trauma arthouse thriller The Killer of Dolls (1974) concerns a young man named Paul (David Rocha, Night of the Werewolf) who lives with his father, the gardener on a lovely estate belonging to Countess Olivia (Helga Liné, The Mummy’s Revenge). Paul's just been thrown out of medical school at the start of the film because of his blood phobia, returning home he seems only to happy to stay in his room and cut apart the many dolls that are littering his room, performing make-believe surgeries on them, extracting their hearts. He makes a new friend in youngster Robert (Rafael 'Indio' González Jr.), a kid who also happens to love cutting apart dolls. As the youngster and Paul hang out it becomes clear that Paul is a very strange young man, even stranger than has already been established, stemming from psychological trauma dating back to the death of a sibling years earlier, with a very strange upbringing that recalled 80's slasher Sleepaway Camp (1983) and a mannequin motif that brought to mind elements of William Lustig's gritty psycho-thriller Maniac (1980). 


When Paul's parents leave for vacation they leave him in charge of the estate gardens, and Olivia the estate owner begins immediately comes around lusting after the young man, but so to does her lovely daughter Audrey (Inma de Santis, Devil's Exorcist), with the estate owner becoming a bit irate when Paul won't give in to her Mrs. Robinson styled seduction. It's weird stuff all around already, and then there's a voyeuristic 
masked-killer stalking the estate wearing a white porcelain mask who is murdering love-lorn visitors to the estate's botanical gardens.


Kudos to David Rocha for a wildly unhinged and off-kilter performance, he's so very strange and a bit flamboyant, his way of moving is overly-dramatic and oddball, I found myself fascinated by his quirky portrayal, though I could see his performance making or breaking the film for some, but it worked for me. 


The film certainly has a bit of a Spanish giallo feel to it, including a very cool score from Alfonso Santisteban (The Mummy's Revenge), but the identity of the killer here is never really in question, becoming more of a psychological study than a proper whodunit, but delivering the goods with a stylish and quirky production from director Miguel Madrid under the pseudonym Michael Skaife.


Audio/Video: The Killer of Dolls (1974) arrives on region-free Blu-ray from Mondo Macabro with a new 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative. There's a disclaimer warning of poor storage conditions for the elements over the years, plus the use of some standard-def inserts, but overall it's hard to complain about the viewing experience. Colors are impressive, blacks are decent and there's some nice grain presence throughout the presentation. 


Audio comes by way of an English DTS-HD MA 1.0 Mono with newly created optional English subtitles. It's fairly clean and sounds good, there are source limitations but it's a solid enough track. 
Extras include a pair of audio commentaries, the first with Kat Ellinger who does her usual bang-up job, getting into the voyeurism and psycho-sexuality of the film, and touching on how it borrows from the Italian giallo film. The second commentary comes from Robert Monell and Rod Barnett, I've only previewed it a bit this time around but it seemed solid. 


Actor David Rocha shows up for a 25-min interviews, discussing his self-predicted suicide, working with the director to fine-tune the psychology of his strange character,  the controversy surrounding his nudity, and how his sister and brother were also cast in the film. 

Dr Antonio Lázaro-Reboll, author of the book Spanish Horror Film, gets a tasty two-part interview that spans 49-min speaking about Spanish horror in general before focusing in on this very strange film. The disc is buttoned-up with an always entertaining 11-min MM trailer reel.

MM offer a great set of extras that that I found thoroughly interesting, not only do we get a cool history of Spanish horror from a scholar and a pair of commentaries, but we also get Rocha himself commenting on the film, and he is such a strange and unique presence in it that it makes the release. The single-disc release arrives on region-free Blu-ray from MM with a single-sided sleeve of artwork that I think is an original movie poster illustration.  

Special Features: 
- NEW Interview with actor David Rocha (25 min) 
- NEW Interview with Dr Antonio Lázaro-Reboll, author of the book Spanish Horror Film (49 min)
- NEW Audio commentary by Kat Ellinger
- NEW Audio commentary by Robert Monell and Rodney Barnett
- Mondo Macabro Trailer Reel (11 min) 


The Killer of Dolls (1974) is a gem of a Spanish psychological-horror entry with a fascinatingly weird performance from David Rocha, a strange doll motif, plus some nifty break-from-reality hallucinations that make this obscure film stand-out. If you're looking for Spanish horror beyond the films of Paul Naschy and Jess Franco, and you dig weird arthouse cinema of the psychologically 
fascinating variety, this off-kilter thriller should have plenty of appeal.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

WOMAN CHASING THE BUTTERFLY OF DEATH (1978) (Mondo Macabro Blu-ray Review)


Label: Mondo Macabro
Region Code: Region-FREE
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 117 Minutes
Audio: Korean DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.35:1) 
Director: Kim Ki-young
Cast: Kim Jeong-cheol, Kim Ja-ok, Kim Man

If you're looking for some serious head-trip foreign films I think the self-proclaimed "wild side of world cinema" distributor Mondo Macabro has a film you should look into, the surreal South Korean melodrama Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death (1978) from director Kim Ki-young (The Housemaid). Thi strange bit of weirdness opens with college student Young-gul (Jeong-cheol) on a butterfly-catching excursion at the park where he encounters a young woman who comments on the cruelty of killing butterflies. 

Nevertheless she offers him a glass of orange juice, but as soon as he drinks it she informs him that she's at the park for a planned suicide pact with her friend, but her partner-in-death failed to show so she has now chosen to poison him, so she will not die alone. Upon hearing this Young-gul flees screaming for help and is spared, with the poisoner succumbing to lethal elixir. 

Afterward Young-gul falls into a depression, contemplating suicide he attempts to hang himself inside his sad little apartment, but he is interrupted by the arrival of an antagonist bookseller who tells him of a book that will allow him to cheat death itself through willpower alone. The bookseller is relentless, verbally harassing the non-believing young man, encouraging him to try and kill him, which he eventually does, stabbing the salesman with a kitchen knife. True to his words the stubborn salesman refuses to die, laying on the floor of the apartment rotting away for what seems like days, all the while rambling on about the cheating death through sheer will. Young-gul attempts to bury the bookseller, when that doesn't work he burns his body, but even then his burned skeletal remains return to torment the young man with words before crumbling into dust. 

This bit of strangeness is only just the beginning of this wild South Korean tale, with Young-gul later exploring a cave with a friend when they unearth what appears to be an ancient skeleton. Young-gul takes the bones home in an attempt to restore them, hoping to find employment with a local archaeologist. Re-configuring the bones of the skeleton magically turns into a gorgeous woman who tells him of a thousand years-old curse that requires her to eat human liver or turn back into a pile of bones! The non-stop madness continues when Young-gul brings an automated cake-making machine home and makes love to the woman as the machine churns out a blizzard of tiny cakes that fall over their naked bodies. 

Yeah, this is a strange one for sure, lots of bizarre and surreal happenings continue with Young-gul working for the demented archaeologist, who is weirdly being sent skulls by a butterfly-themed serial killer. Young-gul also develops a relationship with the archaeologist morbid daughter who is revealed to be the woman who was supposed to have killed herself along with the first girl that poisoned him at the park, and she's still bent on a suicide pact with Young-gul being the most promising partner. 

The film is gorgeously shot but comes off a bit episodic, for at least an hour I was unsure of how these events were connected to each other, and at the end of the film I wasn't that much clearer on the subject other than it being a strange examination of death with a butterfly theme threaded through it. That said, the striking visuals and nightmarish lunacy of the film kept me absolutely fascinated and I was never bored. 

Audio/Video: Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death (1978) debuts on region-free Blu-ray from Mondo Macabro with a new 4K scan (or 2K scan according to the press release) of the original camera negative. Whatever the source they do good work with the restoration with what looks to have been a problematic source element. There are vertical lines, cigarette burns, scratches and other damage evident throughout, with the cinematography occasionally leaning soft at times, but looking nicely crisp in others which looks to be a stylistic choice. Overall though this is a solid presentation with warm colors and decent black levels, though the darker scenes do tend to be grainier.  

Audio is advertised as PCM on the wrap but what is actually on the disc is a Korean DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with optional English 
subtitles. Overall it's a solid track, but like the video presentation there are some baked-in source issues like hiss and minor distortion, but I did not find it ruinous to any degree, very minor stuff. 

Extras include an informative audio commentary from Kenneth Brosson and PauL Quin of the 'What's Korean Cinema?' Podcast, who offer insights into the meaning of the film, which I appreciated. There's also an hour's worth of interview with producer Jeong Jin_Woo, cinematographer Koo Jong-mo, and South Korean cinema expert Darcy Paquet who all speak about their collaborations with the director, and his place in South Korean film history, but for my money there's just not though time spent talking specifically about this supremely strange film, but it is an impressive array of extras for this obscure film.

This single-disc release comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a sleeve of artwork featuring a new illustration by artist Naomi Butterfield. The film was previously issued by Mondo Macabro as a Red Case Limited Edition with exclusive reversible cover featuring artwork by Mathieu St-Pierre in addition to the Butterfield illustration. The Red Case edition also contained a booklet featuring a brand new essay on the film by writer Kelley Dong that is not present with this standard edition.  

Special Features: 
- Interview with actress Lee-Hwa-si (11 min) 
- Two-Part Interview with producer Jeong Jin_Woo (29 min) 
- Interview with cinematographer Koo Jong-mo (6 min) 
- Interview with Darcy Paquet (15 min) 
- Audio Commentary by Kenneth Brosson &amp Paul Quin of the 'What's Korean Cinema?' Podcast
- Mondo Macabro Trailer Reel (14 min) 

Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death (1975) is a strange bit of South Korean melodrama with ample amount of head-scratching weirdness, surreal images and lunatic humor that kept it interesting even when the plot sort of lost me, and that's not a complaint, I still dig it. If you're into severely strange cinema like Hausu (1977) I think there's definitely a spot on your shelf waiting to be filled by this crazy flick.