Friday, April 20, 2012

Blu-ray Review: THOU SHALT NOT KILL... EXCEPT (1985)

Blu-ray/DVD Combo
Label: Synapse Films
Region: All Regions
Duration: 83 minutes
Rating: Unrated
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (1.66:1)
Audio: English DTS-HD 2.0 Mono, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Director: Josh Becker
Cast: Sam Raimi, Ted Raimi, Scott Spiegel, Brian Schulz

Tagline: When Violence Demands Revenge

Synopsis: Vietnam, 1969. War is Hell. For Marine Sergeant Jack Stryker (Brian Schulz), however, Hell is just the beginning. Trapped outside a Viet Cong village, Stryker takes two bullets to the leg. Sent home from the war, he discovers his ex-girlfriend (Cheryl Hausen) has been kidnapped by a religious cult with a vicious Manson-like leader (played by The Evil Dead and Spider-Man trilogy director, Sam Raimi). Stryker teams up with some marine friends to form an assassination squad and annihilate the gang of crazed killers.

Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except (1985) is a pretty obscure mid-80' low-budget grinder that kicks off in right in the thick of 'Nam '69 where we meet the cigar chompin' Sgt. Jack Stryker (Brian Schulz) and his small band of Marines. With the assistance of some well-placed stock-footage 'Nam inserts the backwoods of Michigan are transformed into a 'Nam jungle, sorta. The visual trickery is not 100% successful but the effort on the part of the filmmakers is appreciated and quite a bit more successful than the plastic rat we catch a glimpse of. The small band of soldiers find themselves miserably outnumbered and are mowed down in a hail of bullets and explosions. It's full-on high energy excitement with lots of fiery explosions and gruesome violence which includes splattery gunshot wounds and a brutal punji trap through the chest. During the assault Sgt. Stryker takes two crippling gunshots to the leg ending his military career. In the ensuing weeks Stryker partially recovers from his injuries and is discharged from the military returning to his small town life in the States and to his rustic cabin in the woods where he eeks out a living with his dog "Whiskey". Picking up the pieces of his civilian life he starts to rekindle a romance with his high school sweetheart Sally (Cheryl Hansen), things are starting to look up for the Vet until Cheryl's kidnapped by a religious cult of bloodthirsty hippies lead by a maniacal nut played with delicious fervor by none other than director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spider-Man).

For me the highlight and star of this exploitation nugget would have to be Raimi as the truly bug-nuts insane cult leader who believes himself to be the rebirth of Jesus Christ. A delirious and obvious riff on Charles Manson - it's just amazing to watch and a ton of fun. He's chewing on the scenery in a way that just suits this lo-fi grinder to perfection, worth the price of admission on it's own.

Stryker is joined in his war on the blood cult by his military buddies; "Love Machine" (Timothy Patrick Quill, the blacksmith from Army of Darkness), Sgt. Jackson (Robert Rickman, a former Mr. T impersonator), Lt. Miller (John Manfredi, Real Steel) who just happen to arrive on scene to visit their  former Lt. and they're a fun bunch of guys. Before they arrive at the cabin they find themselves in the company of a trio of jail bait they pick-up outside a liquor store followed by some sleazy backseat shenanigans and then right into a biker bar where a full-on brawl  spills out to the back alleyway, it's fun stuff and is the perfect b-movie filler to pad out the film until they face off against the bloodthirsty hippies, surely it superfluous but it's entertaining.

The final showdown with the cult in the woods is pretty fantastic, an orgy of bloodletting and shotguns blasts with fun kills that are well-staged and executed with much spilled blood. Highlights include Stryker's beloved dog Whiskey skinned on a spit, some brutal shotgun blasts, impalement's and my personal favorite - death by lawn darts which is amazing!

Blu-ray: Synapse Films offers up Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except with an all-new 2K high-definition transfer from the original negative, painstaking restored and cleaned-up in the best possible way. This 16mm cult classic has never looked better and the restoration leaves the film's grain structure wonderfully intact, this is a grain-lovers paradise and a very fine example of how you restore a film without running it through the Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) wringer. Synapse are transfer pros and cinema devotees who fully appreciate the grain inherent in celluloid. The DTS-HD MA English and Dolby Digital English 2.0 Mono audio options are limited in their fidelity but sound pretty great with special mention to Joe LoDuca's great war-themed score, it's above and beyond what one might expect from a budget-strapped grinder.

Special features for this obscure cult classic are abundant beginning with my personal favorite feature, the original Super 8mm film Stryker's War, an early version of the film featuring none other than Mr. Big Chin himself Bruce Campbell (Army of Darkness) in the role of Jack Stryker, a role created for him but when the opportunity arose for director Josh Becker to film Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except he was unavailable to partake in the project. Definitely a loss for Campbell fans but fear not for we have this fine 8mm document. It's interesting to note that the filmmaker didn't stray to far from the 8mm original when scripting Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except.

Up next is Made In Michigan: The Making of Though Shalt Not Kill... Except (35:16) a mini-doc featuring interviews with director Josh Becker, producer (and director in his own right) Scott Spiegel, actors John Menfredi (Lt. Miller), Tim Quill (LCpl. Ttyler) , Robert Rickman (Sgt. Jackson), production assistant Brian Rae and Production manager David Goodman. Tons of tasty nuggets are discussed including the early super 8mm films, why Bruce Campbell did not return to reprise his role as Sgt. Stryker, the budget and the Joe LoDuca's fantastic score, which is pretty great. Whether your a newcomer to the film or a fan there's a ton to enjoy here.

We also have not one but two Audio Commentaries from director Josh Becker, actor Bruce Campbell and star Brian Schulz, Deleted Scenes, Alternate Title Sequence (1:19), a Theatrical Trailer and an on-camera Interview with Bruce Campbell (8:47) in his backyard discussing the filmmakers early 8mm films and the making of Stryker's War. As special features go this is perhaps above and beyond what this obscure title would demand but that's why I love Synapse; they love cult and exploitation cinema and if it's worth doing it's worth doing right and they do it right every time.
[Reversible Cover Art]
Special Features
•All-New High-Definition 2K Digital Restoration from the Original Negative
•The Original Super 8mm Short film, STRYKER’S WAR Short Film, starring Bruce Campbell! (48:16) 4:3
•Made in Michigan: The Making of THOU SHALT NOT KILL… EXCEPT - Featurette (31:56) 16:9
•Two Audio Commentaries Featuring Director Josh Becker, Bruce Campbell and Star Brian Schulz
•All-New Video Interview with Bruce Campbell (8:47) 16:9
•Deleted Scene with Optional Director’s Commentary (0:45) 16:9
•Alternate Title Sequence (1:19) 16:9
•Original Theatrical Trailer 16:9
•Reversible Cover Artwork

Verdict: Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except is a tasty nugget of amped-up mid-80's exploitation cinema that's a suitably gruesome and gritty affair well-stocked with moments of off-kilter humor pitting 'Nam vets against a bloodthirsty religious cult in the woods, it's just entertaining stuff. Obviously shot on a shoe-string budget but made with the same heart and lo-fi ingenuity we've seen from director Josh Becker's cohorts Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) and Scott Spiegel (Intruder), if you're a fan of either of those cult classics there's gonna be a ton to love with Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except. Great job from Synapse on the great special features and fantastic transfer which shouldn't be a surprise at all. 2.5 outta 5