Saturday, August 19, 2017

THE ZODIAC KILLER (1971) (AGFA Blu-ray Review)


Label: AGF/Something weird Video
Region Code: Region-FREE

Rating: Unrated
Duration: 86 Minutes
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 

Video: 1080p HD Full Frame (1.33:1)
Director: Tom Hanson
Cast: Hal Reed, Bob Jones, Ray Lynch, Tom Pittman, Mary Darrington, Frank Sanabek, Ed Quigley, Bertha Dahl, Dion Marinkovich, Doodles Weaver, Gloria Gunn, Richard Styles

Synopsis: Directed by Tom Hanson, who had previously owned a chain of Pizza Man restaurants, THE ZODIAC KILLER was made to capture the real-life Zodiac Killer. That plan didn't work. Instead, we got the most outrageous and compelling "tabloid horror" vortex in the history of planet Earth. And beyond. During theatrical screenings, Hanson constructed in-theater "traps" to lure the killer from hiding. These included the use of an ice cream freezer filled with rent-a-cops and a raffle with a motorcycle as a prize. You won't get insight like this by watching a David Fincher movie. But you will get it while watching THE ZODIAC KILLER.

Director Tom Hanson made this 16mm slice of true crime sleaze in '71 when the real-life Zodiac killer was still on a murder spree in and around San Francisco, which is bizarre, the movie is said to have been made as his attempt to capture the Zodiac, and it opens with a disclaimer from the very real San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, who describes the movie as a public service, which I think is a nice exploitative touch. I really think the making-of story of this film might be more interesting than the film itself, but that's not to say I don't love this slice of true-crime tabloid terror, because I had a blast with it.  

The film opens with the titular psychopath committing s few heinous crimes, we begin with a taxi driver being shot at point blank range through his open car window, then an assailant wearing a fake nose and glasses knifes a teen girl to death on the sidewalk of a suburban street, her blood trickling through the cracks of the sidewalk to form the circle and cross  symbol of the Zodiac Killer! . We're then introduced two our two main characters, a hard-drinking truck driver named Grover (Bob Jones) and a frustrated postal worker named Jerry (Hal Reed). Both men are angry, frustrated weirdies in their own right, with Grover being a misogynistic divorcee who at night puts on a ridiculous wig and frequents the bars, picking up the ladies and pretending to be a big shot. Jerry is more quiet, he tends to his rabbits at home, at one point becoming rattled by the death of one his furry friends. He is further tormented by a woman on his route who thinks he does a lousy job at delivering the mail, he's also friends with an old perv (Doodles Weaver, The Birds) in the neighborhood who reinforces his hatred of women, telling Jerry he likes his woman plump, juicy and dumb! Jerry has some serious daddy issues, too, which we get more of  late in the film, he yearns for his father's affection and approval, while visiting his father in the loony bin. The movie sets these guys up as the possible zodiac killers, but which one could it be? The safe money is always on the frustrated postal worker, but I'll let you figure it out, and there's a plot twist mid-way that caught me off guard and that makes it pretty clear who it is. 

The movie is tonally strange, it has a weird regional movie sort of feel about it in that it's goofy, but it also has some harrowing murder scenes, a few of which are based on the then very current and real murders the zodiac, some bare an uncanny resemblance to the scenes we saw decades later in David Fincher's phenomenal take on the material in Zodiac (2007). The two most effective kills are the real life murder of a couple parked on a lover's lane and another pair caught necking on a blanket near the edge of a lake, these are done very realistic and they are executed surprisingly well, they gave me the chills. Other kills are a bit more over-the-top and corny, a pair of them involve the Zodiac happening upon older women with car issues stranded on the side of the road. He bashes one old broad over the head with a spare tire, the other he murders by slamming the hood of her car on her repeatedly. When the Zodiac's not busy killing folks he's hanging out at the beach freaking out a young couple and rescuing a cat from a tree at the park, or calling the police and newspapers to go off on one of his diatribes, and then there's the bizarre worshipping evil at an altar stuff, the "zodiac supreme" to his "children" about a new cycle of life, the slaves he will take into the afterlife, and building pyramids... weird stuff. 

Yeah, it's a weird and wild stuff one all around, the mix of true crime details mixed with wacky made-up stuff makes this one a strange watch, but it's hard to deny that a few of these scenes are actually quite harrowing, it feels gritty in Last House on the Left (1972)sort of way, though this movie came first. The Zodiac Killer (1971) has a few keen moments that dread filled terror, but then you have the weird, slightly inept, regional film making tonal shifts, but that's what makes this such a strange and entertaining watch. 

Audio/Video: This crazy true-crime slice of exploitation arrives on Blu-ray/DVD combo from a wonderful team-up between AGFA (The American Genre Film Archive) and Something Weird Video. It arrives in the original full frame (1.33:1) aspect ratio in 1080p HD, derived from a fresh 4K scan of the only known surviving theatrical print, blown up from the original 16mm. The movie has the patina of a well-worn grindhouse print, loaded with grain that's inherent to the 16mm film, it's faded, there's damage to frames and all that good stuff, but it looks natural in all it's faded glory and was never less than watchable. Audio on the disc comes by way of an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with optional English subtitles. It's not pristine audio but it suits the video component nicely with some hiss and pops along the way, there are some anomalies along the way going back to the low-budget source material, but it's relatively clean, though crisp is not a word I would use to describe it, notably the movie has some cool jazzy freak-out moments that make for a great backdrop to the weirdness. 

Onto the extras we get a new audio commentary with director Tom Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick moderated by Joseph A. Ziemba and Sebastian del Castillo from AGFA, it begins with AGFA guys giving a nice tribute to Something Weird Video and the late Mike Vraney before being joined by Hanson and Nedwick who give a fine recounting of making the film, and a bizarre story about screenings of the movie which were set-up to capture the Zodiac Killer who was still active at the time, including a strange story about perhaps meeting the dreaded killer during one of those screenings! Not sure if I believe it, but they sure do, and it makes for an fun commentary.  

There's also a three minute on-camera interview with Hanson and Nedwick, a brief but entertaining piece with the two discussing Hanson's pizza business, how he broke into movie making, and setting up the screenings to capture the Zodiac killer. There's also a selection of true-crime 70's trailers from the AGFA archive, these include Carnival of Blood, The Manson Massacre, The Other Side of Madness, Three On A Meat Hook and The Toolbox Murders, all in HD, all well-worn and lightly tattered. 

Reversible Artwork
The last of the video extras is the full length second feature, Another Son of Sam (1977) in 1080p HD widescreen (1.85:1), a 2K scan derived from a 35mm print, like The Zodiac Killer it has the grindhouse patina, well-worn and cheaply shot, but it looks pretty decent all things considered. The film itself is not great, it has nothing to do with the Son of Sam NYC killings, but instead is about a guy who escapes from the loony bin and embarks on a murder spree. The release also contains a DVD with the same feature and extras.   

This release comes housed in a clear Blu-ray keepcase with a sleeve of reversible artwork, plus a 14-page booklet containing an interview with director Tom Hanson conducted by Chris Poggiali of Temple of Schlock. The booklet also contains images from the film, notes about the transfer, and information about both AGFA and Something Weird Video. 

Special Features:
Audio Commentary with director Tom Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick moderated by Joseph A. Ziemba and Sebastian del Castillo from AGFA 
- Interview with director Tom Hanson and actor Manny Nedwick (4 min) HD
- Tabloid-horror trailers from the AGFA archive! Carnival of Blood (1970)(2 min) HD, The Manson Massacre (1971)(2 min) HD, The Other Side of Madness (1971)(2 min) HD, Three On A Meathook (1972)(1 min) HD, The Toolbox Murders (1978)(2 min) HD,
- Liner notes and director Tom Hanson interview by Chris Poggiali of TEMPLE OF SCHLOCK!
- Reversible cover art!
- Bonus Movie: ANOTHER SON OF SAM (1977)(72 min) HD, New 2K scan from a 35mm theatrical print!

I'm a huge fan of what the obscure and cult-cinema archivist at AGFA have been doing with their first two releases, right out of the gate, rescuing these weird slabs of oddball cinema from disintegration, presenting them with their natural, well-worn patinas intact in HD. These guys are truly doing the cult cinema Lord's work, and God bless em for it. It was revealed by Joseph Ziemba and Bret Berg from AGFA on a recent episode of the Shock Waves podcast what the next few releases from AGFA will be. We can expect more team-ups with Something Weird Video, beginning with Bat Pussy (1973) on October 17th, Ed Wood's The Violent Years (1956) in November, and in January 2018 comes The Sword and the Claw (1975) (aka Lion Man), then later in 2018 AGFA and Bleeding Skull are teaming up for a series of Blu-ray releases! Lovers of 70's cinema weirdness, true crime exploitation and oddball regional strangeness need this sort of culty awesomeness in their collection.