Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blu-ray Review: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Label: Arrow Video
Region: Region FREE
Rating: 18 Certificate
Duration: 96 mins
Video: 1080p 2:1 16x9
Audio: Italian and English LPCM mono audio
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno
Tagline: A stunning portrait in psycho-terror!

Film: Sam (Tony Musante) is an American writer living in in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, Thunderball). He witnesses the stabbing of Monica
(Eva Renz) an art gallery proprietor by a mysterious black gloved stranger in a trench coat. He attempts to enter the gallery to assist the woman but finds himself hopelessly trapped between two mechanical glass doors and can only watch as the assailant escapes. Sam stares on as the wounded woman crawls towards the glass doors but is completely helplessly to do anything. Eventually he gets the attention of a passerby who alerts the police to the situation and woman is saved. While not a suspect in the knifing Sam's passport is confiscated by the police who want to keep their material witness from returning to the United States. Sam is haunted by the notion that he witnessed something important that night at the gallery but it does not present itself to him right away. The something seen but unnoticed is a trope Argento would again revisit with Deep Red (1975) wherein a composer witness a murder and is haunted by what he cannot recall. Several other Argento trademarks emerge as the film plays out in a very Hitchcockian way. Sam (the everyman) is drawn deeper and deeper into the dark labyrinth of murder as he sleuths the crime which endangers both himself and his girlfriend. The threats begins with creepy whispered phone calls and ends with what would become another Argento trademark, the deeply twisted shocker finale, and let me just say that this one hold up wonderfully.  

Dario Argento was already a successful screenwriter (Sergio Leon'e Once Upon a Time in the West) at the time he directed his first feature film and he came outta the gate with the skill of a director steeped in cinema from birth. This psycho-shocker has some eye-popping visuals thanks to Argento's keen eye for stylistic horror. Argento borrowed the killer's signature attire straight outta Mario Bava's twisted classic (and early giallo) Blood and Black Lace (1964) and threw in some Hitchcockian lensing over a seductive murder mystery and  went on to establish the giallo as a world wide phenomena. Adding to the film's appeal is cinematographer Vittoro Storaro's razor sharp camerawork. Storaro would later go onto lens Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), Ladyhawke (1985) and Spielberg's The Last Emperor (1987). Let's not forget Franco Fraticelli's editing which breathes life into this visual feast with eerie moments and pulse pounding tension. With the film's visual pieces in place there's a tasty score from none other than Ennio Morricone laid over top like the buttery caramel drizzle of a Caramel Machiatto. The legendary master of the filmscore has nearly 500 scores to his credit and is widely regarded for his work on Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns but let's not forget some sweet work on John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) and Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Pardiso (1988) two of my all time favorite films. While Goblin and Argento are intrinsically linked on't forget that Morricone is the composer for Argento's first three films including Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Cat O' Nine Tails (1971). A fun fact is that parts of Morricone's score for this film we're used in both Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007) and Sam Raimi's shocker Drag Me to Hell (2009). 

Blu-ray: This is a divisive release stemming from the Arrow Video using cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's preferred Univisium aspect ratio of 2:1 which is not the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Univisium is a proposed universal film format created by Storaro (in '98)to unify all future aspect ratios as a happy medium between 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. Personally I am not opposed to this in theory but when Storaro goes back and rewrites cinematic history by reframing original aspect ratio's like we've seen with Apocalypse Now and even Criterion's The Last Emperor I find it quite puzzling. Having seen this film a number of times in it's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio the 2:1 framing leaps right out at you. There is significant loss of image derived from Storaro's cropping of the image, predominantly from the left side of the image (see the below screen shot). Storaro's also supervised a new color timing of the film resulting in an image that appears colder in temperature and is quite a departure from Argento's warmer presentation. It's a fine looking print with nice film grain structure intact regardless of Storaro's interference. I would like to know what Argento has to say about the 2:1 Univisium reframing. Argento gives praise to Storaro in an interview on the disc, and rightfully so, but the 2:1 aspect ratio is not a topic discussed anywhere in the supplemental materials. If any of the Mausoleum's astute readers are aware of any interviews or statements from Argento in this regard please send me in the right direction.

Audio option include both English and Italian language LPMC mono tracks with optional English and Italian subtitles. For the purpose of this review I watched the dubbed English version which sounded great. Switching back and forth a few time I would offer that the dubbed audio track offers better dialogue and score clarity. As foreign dubs go the syncing is pretty great and fares better than a lot of Argento's other films. Praise be to Arrow for including the original mono audio but I would have loved to hear a 5.1 mix just to flesh out the Ennio Morricone score but that's just being nitpicky on my part.

An example of Storaro's reframing in effect. Not only
recolored black and white from it's original color image but
the image loses quite a bit of information from the
left edge including the camera viewfinder marks.
Say what you want about the Storaro's 2:1 aspect ratio you cannot deny Arrow's supremacy in the realm of supplemental materials and packaging. They have been very kind to Mr. Argento this past year with a number of fine releases and more on the way. We begin with a commentary track with Argento know-it-alls Alan Jones and Kim Newman which is ported over from the Blue Underground release. It's a shame that Arrow couldn't secure the rights to the Blue Underground  print of the film, just saying. Next up is 'A Crystal Classic: Luigi Cozzi Remembers Dario’s Bloody Bird' in which Argento friend and filmmaker Cozzi recalls the film's success, Argento's early screenwriting credits and the filmmakers editing style. The most fascinating feature is 'Sergio Martino: The Genesis of the Giallo' where the director of the amazing Torso (1973) school's us with a 30 minute history of Italian giallo cinema with focus on the impact of Argento's directorial debut, the collapse of the Italian cinema and working with Italian masters Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci and his own influences as a filmmaker; Clouzot and Hitchcock. This is the kind of stuff that you sit and watch with pen and paper in hand, a giallo wet dream intercut with tantalizing vintage giallo posters. Finishing of the special features is 'The Italian Hitchcock: Dario Argento Remembers The Bird With the Crystal Plumage',  a 15 minute featurette intercut with film clips featuring Argento discussing the film, meeting Hitchcock and the influence of Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni on his style. As usual Arrow in association with High Rising Productions come through with some essential supplemental materials that only serve to enhance your viewing of this classic film and may be enough to make you turn a blind eye to Storaro's reframing.

Special Features and Packaging Extras:
- Brand new High Definition restoration of the film from the original negative presented in Director of Photography, Vittorio Storaro’s original 2:1 Univisium aspect ratio (1080p)
- Audio Commentary with Argento experts and writers Kim Newman and Alan Jones
- A Crystal Classic: Luigi Cozzi Remembers Dario’s Bloody Bird (1080p) (15:02)
- Sergio Martino: The Genesis of the Giallo (1080p) (29:04)
- The Italian Hitchcock: Dario Argento Remembers The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1080p) (15:15)
- Newly commissioned artwork by Rick Melton http://www.stunninglysavage.com/
- 4 Sleeve art options with original and newly commissioned artwork by Rick Melton
- Two-sided fold-out poster
- Exclusive collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by Alan Jones, author of ‘Profondo Argento’

Verdict: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a uncontested giallo classic and not even Storaro's abhorrent reframing can diminish Argento's stunning directorial debut. The 2:1 aspect ratio is gonna be an issue, there's no doubt about but perhaps the exclusive supplemental materials and packaging may diminish some of the blow. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a must-own film and Arrow Video's Blu-ray is a must-have for those whom crave insightful bonus content and collectible packaging with the caveat that they can overlook Storaro's reframing. For what it's worth I would throw out there that Stanley Kubrick's preferred aspect ratio was 1.33:1 but I am not complaining that my Shining (1980) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Blu-ray's are 16x9 widescreen. 4.5 outta 5

Monday, May 30, 2011

DVD Review: I Saw the Devil (2010)

Label: Magnet Releasing
Region: Region 1 NTSC
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 142 mins
Video: 1.85:1 Widescreen 16x9
Audio: English and Korean 5.1 Dolby Digital with optional English subtitles
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Cast: Lee Byung-Hun, Choi Min-Sik,
Tagline: Evil Lives Inside

Film: Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil begins with a  pretty young woman named Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) pulling off a countryside road with a flat tire. She calls for a tow truck and passes the time  speaking with her fiance Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun, The Good, The Bad, The Weird) who is an Elite Special Agent which I assume is equivalent to the FBI. A man named Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, Oldboy) arrives on scene in a van and asks if she would like assistance with the tire which she politely declines. Once she ends her conversation with her fiance she notices the man's vehicle still has still not left the area. Turning on her car's headlights she is startled to discover the man is standing outside her car with a pipe in hand. He smashes his way into the vehicle, beats her unconscious and drags her bleeding body through the snow to his van. She awakens in his lair wrapped in plastic, weak and terrified. She pleads for her life and that of her unborn child. It is in van though as he cuts her into pieces and days later her remains are discovered by a group of children at play in a field.

Not content to let the authorities handle the investigation Kim Soo-hyeon seeks his own vengeance with the aide of her father, a retired police chief. With the identities of four suspects in hand Kim Soo-hyeon begins a revenge spree that threatens to not only destroy the psychopath but consume himself as well. His bloody quest puts him on the trail of Kyung-chul whom as portrayed by Oldboy's Choi Min-sik is as vile a killer as the silver screen has ever seen. During their first encounter Kim Soo-hyeon gets the better of Kyung-chul but instead of killing him opts to play a twisted game of cat and mouse which not only puts others in harm's way but threatens to turn Kim Soo-hyeon into a monster as well. It's a startling look at the lengths a good man will goes to revenge the death of a loved one. It's not a new concept but it's one of the best and most violent revenge-thrillers since Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy. The acting is solid throughout from everyone but it's the lead performances from Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik that are gonna be burned into your mind for quite a while.

This South Korean revenge-thriller from director Kim Jee-woon  is truly one of the most unrelenting films I've ever seen. Even at well over two hours in length there's enough tension and gut-wrenching intensity to keep you slack jawed and in awe right up until the film's unhinged finale. Seriously, every 10 minutes of this film plunges you deeper into a nightmare of revenge and operatic violence that never lets up and only get more fucked-up by the minute.

DVD: The film comes to DVD in it's 16x9 enhanced 1.85:1 original aspect ratio and looks stunning with strong colors and deep blacks. This director's films are always sumptuous visual delights with fantastic cinematography and this is no different, very stylish and gorgeously shot. For the purpose of this review I only listened to the Korean 5.1 (with optional English subtitles) and it was robust a  listen that gave the surrounds quite a workout. I should give a shout out to the film score's composer Mowg who provided an outstanding score that sounded super-sweet in 5.1. Supplemental materials include 24 minutes of deleted scenes which aren't throwaway either, there's some meaty stuff here including a prologue and an epilogue not in the film, a super-sleazy sex scene totally cut from the film all together and a lot of stuff that was just re-edited and cut to tighten the film up but all of it is worth a look. The other feature is 'Raw and Rough: Behind the Scenes of I Saw the Devil' in which we get a breakdown of the film's many action and stunt sequences.

Special Features:
- Deleted Scenes (24:11) Letterboxed
- Raw and Rough: Behind the Scenes of I Saw the Devil (24:05) 1.33:1

Verdict: Kim Jee-woon is hands down one of the most exciting filmmakers in the cinema right now. This is a thriller that if you can stomach it's ugliness is a stunner on the level of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. I cannot recall a film that put me through the wringer the way I Saw the Devil did, a tour de force of violent cinema. Definitely the best of 2011 so far. 4.75 outta 5

DVD Review: he (2009)

he (2009)
Label: MVD Visual
Region: Region 0 NTSC
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 70 mins
Video: 16x9 Widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Director: Creep Creepersin
Cast: Creep Creepersin, Ariauna Albright, Matt Turek, Trent Haaga, Sean Cain, Jordan Lawson, Marlina Germanova, Destiny Jasmine Rodreguiez, Julie Rose
Tagline: he is misunderstood... and his wife wants him dead.

Film: The multi-talented writer/director/musician Creep Creepersin is back not only directing this time but starring in this no-budget psychological thriller as the titular "he" whom is married to "wife" (Ariuna Albright, Witchouse). He's a sad, unemployed guy who's coming unglued a bit more each day. He's quite the paranoiac and is convinced that someone is watching him. When his wife catches him staring out the window with binoculars in hand he tells her that he's watching the Watchers so they know they're being watched also. The guy definitely has a few screws loose but his wife ain't no picnic to be around either but then again living with an unemployed nut can't be easy, right?  He is plagued by visions of a mysterious Russian speaking woman  and another in a black burka as well as a hitman who may or may not have been hired by his wife. In one of the films most schizophrenic moments he encounters his own doppelganger who taunts and ridicules him, it's a very surreal David Lynchian dream logic moment and I think Creepersin's has done an admirable job capturing the  surreal mental breakdown of someone slipping into psychosis. While not nearly on the level of Cronenberg's Spider (2002) or Adam Green's Spiral (2007) I think the film is dialing up a very similar number.

The main issue I have with the film is Creepersin himself who's not much of an actor and my advice to him would be to stay behind the camera. Technically we get some growth as far as film composition, narrative structure and dialogue when cm[pared to his previous film Frankenstein but this is still gonna be a difficult watch to anyone other than the most die hard of indie-film fans.

DVD: The film is presented in 16x9 widescreen with English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio, no subtitles are offered. Much like Frankenstein before it the film appears to be shot on consumer grade digital video and looks like it. The shot composition is getting better but still not great, the lightning is still pretty rough but we can see the director and his crew making progress though there are several  instances during the film when the video and audio fall out of sync. I wasn't sure if this was an effect to enhance the schizophrenic nature of the film or a technical error but I am going to assume it was technical in nature. The special features include a 13 minute behind the scenes featurette with some informative cast and crew interviews, way better than the rather wandering doc we saw with Frankenstein. There's also a director's commentary and several trailers for Creepersin's other films.

Special Features:
- Behind the Scenes Retrospective (13:46)
- Director's Commentary
- Trailers: The Cut Throat Corporate Massacre (1:16), Ding Dong Dead (1:02), Erection (2:11), Frankenstein (2:17), he (2:08), Peeping Blog (2:16)

Verdict: Creepersin is making progress as a filmmaker but this is still  not a completely watchable film. At it's heart this film is about a sad man who's lost touch with reality and while I think Creepersin's ambitions may have overstretched his resources and capabilities the film comes through with some nicely done  surreal flourishes that will have you  scratching your head and muttering "what the...." if not rewatching it anytime soon. 
2 outta 5

Saturday, May 28, 2011

DVD Review: Creep Creepersin's Frankenstein (2010)

Creep Creepersins' Frankenstein (2009)
Label: MVD Visual
Region: Region 0 NTSC
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 54 mins
Video: 16x9 Widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo

Director: Creep Creepersin
Cast: James Porter, Nicole Nemeth, Kelly Kingsbury, Mrs. Creep, Creep Creepersin
Tagline: Some Men Make Monsters, Victor Just Wanted A Friend

Film: Creep Creepersin's Frankestein is a character study of Victor (James Porter), a painfully awkward guy in his 40's who lives alone in a rural house where it would seem he spends nearly every waking hour watching one of those 100 pack Mill Creek classic horror collections for we only ever see him watch are films of the public domain variety. There he sits in the flickering glow of cathode tube with his only friend in all the world, a rat named Frankenstein. When he's not watching horror he's eating his preferred food of choice, scrambled eggs while looking at nudie magazine. I imagine this is how Harry Knowles started out in life. Knowles would be the exception to the rule though cuz not every weirdo with a stack of nudie mags and a Mill Creek boxset ends up creating Ain't It Cool News. Some just get weirder and weirder until one day they snap while watching Frankenstein  and the next thing you know you're receiving transmissions from the TV and being haunted by your dead mother. Suddenly, not unlike Angela Bettis in Lucky McKee's May, your thinking "I'll just make a friend" and before you know it you're not an internet geek-king at all but a demented killer along the lines of Ed Gein with a woman's corpse on your couch covered in marker-drawn stitches. Sure, she's dead but you talk to her anyway cause you're fucked in the head but guess what, even she thinks you're a fucking loser, ain't that a bitch?

Okay, know going in this is a micro-budgeted slice of outsider cinema and the production values are pretty low. The shots aren't particularly well composed and the editing is mighty rough. On top of that even for a 54 minute film it's painfully slow at times, you're just hanging there waiting for something to happen and when it does your just confounded. Those public domain horror films I mentioned earlier are intercut throughout the film also. It's an effective way to create atmosphere but after a certain point it obvious the film clips we're being used to pad out the films running time when in fact I think the film would have been much better suited to a 40 minute short film. There's easily 15 minutes of footage here that could have been excised without altering the film's storyarc.

The acting like everything else about the film is amateur hour but James Porter as Victor does have a few moments that convey the deep seated psychological issue he's suffering but those are fleeting as the overacting takes the character towards the full retard end of the spectrum, and you never go full retard, am I right or am I right?

DVD: Creep Creepersin's Frankenstein is presented in 16x9 widescreen. This production looks exactly like the shot on consumer grade digital video in two days that it is. It looks pretty damn rough all around and it's not particularly well lit or shot either. It's a debut film from an inexperienced cast and crew, ain't no hiding that fact. Unless your a connoisseur of no-budget outsider cinema this is gonna be a tough watch no doubt about it. Supplemental material includes the sprawling 38 minute making of documentary 'A Test of Our Own Stupidity: The Making of Frankenstein'  that looks even worse than the feature and three trailers for the film.

Special Features:
- A Test of Our Own Stupidity: The Making of Frankenstein (35:21)
- Teaser Trailer 1 (0:52)
- Teaser Trailer 2 (0:44)
- Trailer (2:17)

Verdict: Not exactly an auspicious debut for director Creep Creepersin to be sure but there are some interesting dark tidbits floating around here, it's an interesting take on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein but it's unfocused and jumbled and better done in the aforementioned May. Creepersin just doesn't have the resources or experience at this point in his career to pull it all together into a completely watchable film. You never know though, in twenty five years we could be looking back at this a classic of outsider cinema like
Sledgehammer but it's doubtful. Creepersin's surreal psychological thriller He (2009) and the office slasher The Corporate Cut Throat Massacre (2010) are on deck here at the Mausoleum so we'll soon see if the director's grown any since his debut feature film. 1.5 outta 5

Friday, May 27, 2011

DVD Review: Black Death (2010)

Region: 1 NTSC
Rating: R
Duration: 93 mins
Video: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 with Spanish Subtitles
Director: Christopher Smith
Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, John Lynch, Kimberly Nixon, Andy Nyman
Tagline: In an age of darkness one man will face the ultimate battle against evil.

Film: Christopher Smith is a director with with an entertaining body of work beginning with the creature horror Creep (2004), the horror-comedy Severance (2006) and last time out it was a time-loop thriller set at sea Triangle (2009). Obviously he's a director not content to settle into one sub-genre and now comes a dark, medieval occult thriller set during the era of the bubonic plague.

The year is 1348 and Europe is enduring it's darkest age as the black plague takes it's deadly toll. Death and decay fill the cities, rotting corpses litter the streets and the Church's grip on the people is ever tightening. Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is a young monk at a monastery amidst the plague. He is torn between his devotion to the Lord and his sinful love for Averill (Kimberly Nixon). Fearing for her safety in the pestilence riddled village he asks her to return to Dentwich, the marshland village they come from. She says she'll wait for him each day at daybreak for a week near a place called the Martyr's Cross if he should choose to leave the monastery. It a crisis of faith that deeply torments the young man who pleads to the Lord to send him a sign. When the monastery is visited by Ulric, a witchfinder in the service of the Church, it seems his plea to the Lord has been answered. Ulric comes seeking a guide to lead his band of men through a great marsh and to a village that is rumored to have not been touched by the plague. Osmund volunteers and so begins his faith testing journey.

Ulric's group of witchfinders is comprised of hardened Christian warriors, torturers and soldiers of fortune. One which bore an uncanny similarity in appearance to the late, great and insane actor Klaus Kinski. Once on their way Ulric divulges to Osmund that the village they seek is rumored to be run by a necromancer who it is said summons the dead from the grave and communes with the Devil. They have been charged by the Church with bringing the Necromancer to trial for witchcraft. They are well-armed and have with them a bladed mechanical contraption slightly resembling an iron maiden that is able to "split a man from anus to Adam's apple".

On their their journey they encounter a witch burning and a group of cross-baring, self flagellating fanatics who warn them to turn back for further upstream is a place where men have turned to savages. Nearing the edge of the Great Marsh Osmund sneaks off to meet Averill only to find her blood-stained clothing, the apparent victim of woodland thieves who then engage Ulric and his men. It's a splattery cutthroat battle with fast paced swordplay, decapitations and face pulverizing maces, it's a violent and bloody encounter that ends with the group short a man and without the aide of horses. Forced to continue their trek on foot they slog through the wetlands until they come upon an idyllic village that is lead by the pale skinned beauty Langiva (Carice Van Houten). Ulric plays it cautious only letting on that he and his men are wandering soldiers looking for sanctuary.  The villagers welcome them with open arms and a feast is thrown in their honor plenty of ale for everyone, but all is not what appears. What happens next will test the faith of every Christian man among them as they are drugged, imprisoned and forced to renounce God under pain of death.

Smith and cinematographer Sebatsian Edschmid put you right in the thick of of the thing, you feel the cold dampness of the marsh, the stench of the rotting dead  and the blood and sweat of battle. Sean Bean is perfectly cast as the zealot Ulric, a strong leader of men who 100% believes he is a Knight in the Lord's service. Bean, a veteran of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is no stranger to period films, his brooding brutish looks so perfectly captures the hard aesthetic of the era, the man is Boromir right down to the bone. Redmayne's Osmund is an interesting character caught between reason, want and faith who endures a twisted hero's journey which results in a skewed perception of faith with long lasting implications.

Smith is a director of some depth and his steady hand guides the film along to a chilling climax that is indeed a very grim affair though even darker still is an epilogue that questions the motive of religious extremism. Much like Smith's Triangle I'll be mulling this film over in my head for quite some time. I am not a religious person per se but Smith really puts his character faith to the test and it begs discussion. That said, don't be put off my the film's themes of faith and instead enjoy it for the kick as Gothic horror that it is.

DVD: This is a gritty film and it gets an suitably grainy anamorphic 2.40:1 aspect ratio presentation that captures a particularly dark period of history with muted, dark and dingy colors. Grim though it may be the cinematography captures the stark beauty of the German countryside where it was filmed. The 5.1 surround is pretty active providing a decently immersive for both battle and during the quieter moments with some fine filmscore and effects. A good selection of special features, mostly interviews with cast and crew, behind the scenes goodies, deleted scenes, a trailer for the film, trailers for other Magnolia features; including Rubber and Hobo with a Shotgun plus a nifty digital copy for the film for your ipod or mp3 player.

Special Features:
- Deleted Scenes
- Bring Black Death to Life
- Interviews with Cast and Crew
- Behind the Scenes Footage
- HDNet: A Look at Black Death
- Theatrical Trailer

Verdict: Black Death is a dark and twisted saga of faith with some nice horrific elements and just the right amount of creepy supernatural ambiguity. If you're a fan of Neil Marshall's Centurion (2009) this comes with a high recommendation and furthermore I would hope that the next time you reach for Wicker Man (1973) or Witchfinder General (1968) on your DVD shelf you might give this a shot - you'll be pleased that you did. I've been enjoying Christopher Smith's tour of genre filmmaking and I can't wait to see what sub-genre of film he next pursues, would love to see a dark-themed science fiction feature. 4 outta 5

Thursday, May 26, 2011

DVD Review: Sex and Black Magic (1980)

Label: One 7 Movies
Region: Region 0 NTSC
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 97 mins
Video: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono with English Subtitles
Director: Joe D'Amato
Cast: Richard Harrison, Nieves Navarro, Lucia Ramirez 

Film: Sex and Black Magic aka Orgasmo Nero is a wonderfully smutty slice of erotic Eurosleaze from Italian cult film director director Joe D'Amato (Anthropophagus) who gives us the exploitation goods with exotic locations, perversions and some cannibalism for kicks, why not? Apparently D'Amato is well known for his exotic sexploitation films, especially the Emanuele series of films but I come to this with a fairly clean slate having only just seen the island horror Anthropophagus which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Set on a tropical island with miles of white sand beaches and exotic scenery we meet Paul (Richard Harrison) who is studying the customs of the island's natives. He is joined by his vampy wife Helen (Nieves Navarro, Death Walks at Midnight). The two are having intimacy issues stemming from their inability to conceive a child. These intimacy issues fall to the wayside when  Helen meets Haini (Lucia Ramirez), a dark skinned exotic beauty who comes from a tribe of voodoo practicing cannibals, of course the couple bring Haini back to the mainland with them. What's the worse that could happen, right? Since Paul's distracted with work and scotch Helen and Haini become close (real close) and some slow-motion frolicking on the beach turns into a twisted lesbian affair. D'Amato makes sure we get plenty of lesbian action, masturbation, oral sex, 70's bush and three ways in scene after scene of titillating exploitation, it just wouldn't really be a D'Amato film if it didn't now would it?

The film not susurprisingly is very short on plot, a middle aged couple seek exotic sexual plaything 'nuff said, and instead is quite happy to sleaze along from one carpet munching sex scene to the next. Navarro as the lusty older woman is a vampy middle 40's sexpot with a ravenous sexual appetite. Ramirez's Haini is petite, not so voluptuous, but quite desirable and more than a bit crazed in the head, she does come from a tribe of voodoo cannibals, remember. At one point she nearly takes a machete to a man that Helen has brought home to screw, it seems Helen's sexual appetite is not content with her alone and Haini doesn't take it well. Eventually Paul catches onto his wife's affinity for the exotic woman and is upset but not so much that we don't get the inevitable three-way and then Paul getting blown by Haini on the beach leading to some jealousy from Helen which results in the couple deciding to return Haini her back to the island like taking a dog back to the pound, which results in a fun if not particularly shocking finale.

This is a sleazy softcore flick that borders on the hardcore with an insert shot featuring Italian pornstar Steve Cipriani getting a blow job from Lucio Ramirez. The film exploits the seductive power of the exotic dark skinned native people, perhaps even the fear of islanders by European people, not sure about that but the elements are here if you're looking for it. Sex and Black Magic gets billed as a horror film but this is really a tropical sexploitation film with only minor elements of cannibalism thrown in to spice things up. 

DVD: Sex and Black Magic gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen release from One 7 Movies. It's a decent looking source print with some nice grain, it's good too see that it wasn't overly doused with the DNR and there's only minor print damage. There's some image softness to it and compression artifacts but it's not too shabby overall. The Italian language mono audio is nothing to get excited about but the dialogue, effects and score all fare well. Unlike the other One 7 Movies titles I've seen this actually has some decent special features including a alternate and deleted scene, hardcore inserts (minus audio), the original end credits and a photo gallery. The hardcore inserts feature about 10 minutes of Ramirez and Italian XXX star Steve Cipriani going at it, fun stuff even w/o audio. These might be good whacking material if you could get past Cipriani's genital warts, that's right, we get some nasty VD action right on the screen, now that's just sleazy. I would have liked to see some featurettes or a D'Amato retrospective but this is a pretty sweet package nonetheless.

Special Features:
- Alternate Scene (0:50)
- Unused Shot (3:43) 4:33
- Hardcore Inserts (9:49) 16:9
- Original End Credits (0:48) Letterboxed
- Photo Gallery

Verdict: The title Sex and Black Magic like a ton of exploitation films before it is misleading, it's short on voodoo and cannibalism but truly excessive in it's lusty exploitation. My hat is off to One 7 Movies for digging up this obscure Joe D'Amato sexploitation film and presenting it in the original aspect ratio with a selection of cool bonus features. Those seeking grue may be a bit disappointed initially but by the end of this tasty slab of eurosleaze they'll have a stiffy in their pants and in a forgiving mood. Between this and Anthropophagus I'm definitelyy interested in further exploring D'Amato's sleazy filmography which includes nearly 200 titles.
3 outta 5

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Blu-ray Review: The Terror (1963)

[Blu-ray + DVD Combo]

Label: HD Cinema Classics
Region: [Blu-ray] Region FREE [DVD] 0 NTSC
Rating: R
Duration: 79 mins
Video: 1080p 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 with Spanish Subtitles
Director: Roger Corman (Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, uncredited)
Cast: Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller, Dorothy Neuman, Sandra Knight

Tagline: A New Classic of Horror Comes to the Screen!

Film: Roger Corman's The Terror is set in France in 1806. Lt. Andre Duvalier (Jack Nicholson) is a soldier in Napoleon's army who's become separated from his regiment, he awakens on a beach where he encounters a hauntingly beautiful woman named Helena (Sandra Knight) whom walks into the surf and disappears. Thinking she must have been overcome by the waves Duvalier follows her in and nearly drowns himself all the while being dive bombed from above by a vicious hawk. Losing consciousness he awakens (again) inside the villa of Katrina (Dorothy Neumann), an old witchy woman. He inquires if she knows of the young woman and she replies that he must have imagined her during his near fatal drowning.

Undeterred Andre further searches for the woman through the forest until he comes to the castle of Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff, Frankenstein) who reluctantly allows Andre to enter after he flashes his Napoleonic credentials. As if Nicholson and Karloff weren't enough for a ticket to this film legendary b-movie character actor Dick Miller (Bucket of Blood, Gremlins) also appears as the Baron's major domo. Inside the castle Andre happen upon a portrait of a woman whom bares an uncanny resemblance to the mysterious woman he seeks. The Baron informs him that he is mistaken as the woman in the portrait, his wife, died twenty years prior. Andre is obsessed with the young woman and continues to search for the woman's identity despite everyone's insistence that she is merely a figment of his distressed mind. He continues to encounter her but starts to wonder if he has gone mad, is she an apparition, a restless spirit, who is she really? And how does the witch Katrina figure into the story?

The acting is suitably melodramatic with pre-New Hollywood Nicholson giving a decent performance, he's definitely charming but not nearly French, fun stuff. Karloff seems a bit lost at times, he gives it a good go though but it's obvious this is just another paying gig. While the film is uneven, it's a wonder that the film is as watchable as it is given it's strange production, the sets are fantastic stuff. The towering Gothic castle, a macabre cemetery steeped in fog, creepy crypts and eerie red, green and blue lighting really go a long way towards creating an entertaining and atmosphere spookfest. It's a bit slow at times but the film's final 15 minutes are wonderfully twisted and memorable. 

The legend of this film holds that once wrapping on The Raven, which starred Boris Karloff as Dr. Scarabus, Corman immediately went into production on The Terror utilizing sets from The Raven and A Haunted Place. He tossed Karloff a few extra bucks to remain on for four additional days of shooting. While Corman shot the bulk of the film with Karloff in four days the film's production went on for nine more months, making it one of the longest Corman shoots ever I would imagine. In those nine months Corman left it to a handful of aspiring directors on staff to shoot second unit, and they're notable names, too. They included star Jack Nicholson who would go onto direct the Going South among others, Francis Ford Coppola  (The Godfather)who that same year would direct Dementia 13 and reportedly shot for 11 days only get 10 minutes of footage in this film, Jack Hill (Spider Baby, Coffy) and Monte Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop). Not too shabby.  

DVD: The film gets a AVC encoded 1.78:1 widescreen transfer in glorious 1080p HD. More so than either the Poor Pretty Eddie or Dementia 13 Blu-rays from HD Cinema Classics I thoroughly enjoyed the 1080p bump here. Perhaps because this film has for so long languished in the public domain that to see a nice HD presentation with vibrant colors, nice deep blacks and digitally restored has breathed new life into a film I've seen numerous times but never so eye popping as this. So, it looks pretty great, better than we've ever seen it on the home entertainment front, but there is that usual HD Cinema Classics application of DNR which removes the film grain which in turn smears the fine detail and textures, particularly in the facial features but I found the plasticine tendencies less bothersome here than with previous HDCC Blu's. Audio option include both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Mono with optional Spanish subtitles. The 5.1 opens it up a bit but only minimally, the 2.0 is thin but adequate for what it is. None of the HDCC Blu's I've reviewed feature lossless audio, c'mon folks it's 2011 let's get with it. Special features are limited to a trailer and a digital restoration trailer. That's a bummer but to see the film given a 1080p spit shine is pretty great, too.

Special Features:
- Movie Trailer (1:15) 1080p
- Before and After Restoration Demo (1:06) 1080p
- DVD of the film with same special features in SD.

Verdict: In years past I've not found myself particularly enamored with this film, no doubt the lacklustre presentations we've seen haven't exactly aided the film's reputation. HD Cinema Classics have given us a very attractive 1080p presentation of the film that enhanced my viewing experience, it's like watching it again for the first time. The Terror while not great is quite an entertaining Gothic melodrama from the master of b-movie cinema with decent performances from a pre-New Hollywood Nicholson and late-era Karloff. Neither are at their peak but this Blu-ray comes recommended, it's a definte good time.
3.5 outta 5

Sunday, May 22, 2011

DVD Review: 2033

2033 (2010) DVD
Label: Cinema Epoch
Region: 1 NTSC
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 93 mins
Video: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 with English Subtitles
Director: Francisco Laresgioti
Cast: Miguel Couturier, Marco Antonio Trevino, Sandra Echeverria
Tagline: The Illusion of a Better Future

Synopsis: In this futuristic sci-fi adventure, ultra-privileged young Pablo rejects his place among Mexico's ruling elite and joins a revolutionary religious movement bent on toppling the country's despotic military regime.

Film: Francisco Laresgioti's dystopian film takes place in Mexico City which has been renamed Villaparaiso (Paradise City) in the not so distant future of 2033. The country is ruled by a military dictatorship. Religion freedom is outlawed and the citizens are sated through the consumption of a mind controlling synthetic food called PECTI. It creates a slave army of workers who are addicted to the product they manufacture. Pablo (Claudio Lafarga) is an elite member of privileged society, his mother is set to marry the government's head of security but despite his affluence he finds the need to numb himself with drugs and alcohol. Perhaps dissatisfied with his life and the choices he has made. He's not a pleasant person, he hunts humans for sport, viciously attacks "rebels" who would dare mention God, and has a shitty relationship with his mother, he's just a difficult guy to like. If I was him I would do drugs to, just saying.

For years Pablo has believed his father died at the hands of "rebels" but moments before his grandfather's final breath he told that his father is alive. Shortly after a chance encounter in the men's room with a priest (no, not that kind of encounter) he is informed that his father was a rebel and is in fact still alive.

Up till this point I was going along just fine with the events in the film but Pablo's turn from government lackey to religious rebel was pretty shorthanded. The acting though passable just wasn't deep enough for me to buy into this young man's redemption who just moments before shot a man in street, brutalized a homeless man who mentioned God and shot someone for sport from a helicopter. Yeah, the realization about his dad, falling in love and cleaning a few toilets does not add up to inner self-discovery of that magnitude in my book. So, while the character arc of our protagonist bothered me quite a bit, he wasn't a redeemable character in my eyes, the fact that this is a film about religious rebels fighting for their right to express their beliefs openly and it didn't come across to heavy handed was quite commendable.  

The special effects in the film are top notch. There is a lot of digital architecture added to the city skyline, giant airships, and its seamless stuff. While I take exception with a few story elements as a sci-fi actioner this is one heck of an entertaining film. For the sci-fi nerds there's plenty of references to Blade Runner, THX-1138, Soylent Green, Gattaca, Logan's Run and Star Wars

DVD: 2033 comes to DVD from Cinema Epoch with a pretty stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with eye-popping crisp detail, vibrant colors and deep black levels. This is a visually stunning films and the transfer does it justice. The Spanish language 5.1 is also well done with some nice action in the surrounds. Unfortunately the special features are nearly non-existent with only a trailer and slide show. This is an impressive project that surely could have made for a decent commentary track from it's first time director.

Special Features:
- Trailer (1:31) 16:9
- Still Gallery (12 stills)

Verdict: 2033 is an ambitious film from a first-time director whom has assembled an entertaining sci-fi thriller with well staged action, artful cinematography, and great effects. It's sci-fi eye candy from start to finish with some fun nods to classic sci-fi films. 3 outta 5

Blu-ray Review: Dementia 13 (1963)

Dementia 13 (1963)
[Blu-ray + DVD Combo]

Label: HD Cinema Classics/Cultra
Region: [Blu-ray] A [DVD] 0 NTSC
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 75 mins
Video: 1080p 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 with Spanish subtitles
Director: Francis Ford Coppala
Cast: William Campbell, Luanda Anders, Eithne Dunn, Patrick Mcgee
Tagline: You Must Pass the "D-13" Test To Prepare You for the Horrifying Experience od Dementia 13. If You Fail the Test... You Will be Asked to Leave the Theatre!

Synopsis: Following the untimely death of her husbands the scheming Louise Holoran (Luanda Anders) travels to her in-laws estate in Ireland, only to find herself trapped in a creepy, decrepit castle with her husband's demented family. Upon arrival she is introduced to a pair of maladjusted brothers (William Campbell, Bart Patton) and a distraught mother-in-law (Eithne Dunn), still grieving for the daughter she lost in a drowning accident many years earlier. When a mysterious axe-wielding psychopath enters the fray, leaving  blood spatter corpses in his wake, the family doctor (Patrick McGee) takes it upon himself to try to get to the bottom of things - before it's too late!

Film: As the story goes Roger Corman found himself with an excess $22,000 following the completion of the film The Young Racers (1963) and wanted to invest that capital into a profitable  Psycho cash grab. A young sound technician on the set of the The Young Racers was chosen to direct the film based on his screenplay, that man was Francis Ford Coppola. The film he crafted is an effective psycho-shocker set in an Irish manor. 

John Holoran (Peter Read) is on a late-night boat excursion with his greedy wife Louise (Luanda Anders) when he suffers a massive coronary just after conveniently telling her that without him she'll never see a penny of his families fortune. He expires despite her efforts to save him, as his final words echo through her mind she dumps his body overboard. Cue some creepy Ronald Stein filmscore and equally eerie opening credits artwork. Louise forges a letter from her deceased husband saying he's gone to NYC on business and then boards a plane for Ireland to be sure she's included in Lady Holoran's will should she expire. There she meets John's demented family whom annually gather at the family estate to mourn the death of their sister Kathleen who drown in a lake on the property years prior. The entire family seems to be under the thrall of their mother's grief for the long deceased girl. Louise plots to take advantage of the distraught mother's state of mind and sets about to convince her that Kathleen is communicating from beyond the grave. She sets about doing this by stealing small trinkets from the dead girl's room and planting them at the bottom of the lake where they will be discovered when they float to the surface. However, that evening when Louis strips down to her undies and begins placing the items at the lake bottom she is shocked to discover the perfectly preserved body of Kathleen. As she frantically swims to the surface she is murdered by an axe-wielding killer. Well, you can't get more Psycho than that now can you? Our scheming blonde protagonist shockingly killed off pretty quick and a family with mommy issues. Coppola pooled his limited resources and used them quite well her. This gothic black and white tale of an axe-wielding maniac is truly captivating stuff. Acting legend Patrick McGee, so menacing in everything from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange to Lucio Fulci's The Black Cat, makes a memorably intense appearance as the intrusive family physician Dr. Caleb who takes it upon himself to solve the string of grisly axe-murders.

It's an eerie and macabre film, Coppola does a lot considering the notoriously short Roger Corman purse strings, with great use of light and shadow, an eerie score, and a stylish lens. He was obviously quite a talent even then and only 9 years later would direct The Godfather, 'nuff said.  Be that as it may after Coppola screened the film for Corman the producer was not pleased and brought in director Joe Hill (Spiderbaby, Foxy Brown) to shoot some additional exploitation elements.

Blu-ray: The film gets a brand new high definition upgrade sourced from original 35mm elements, a print I would assume, not the negatives. It's AVC encoded in 1080p, presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Dementia 13 is one of the many Corman produced films that have fallen into the black hole of the public domain. Over the years every PD label and their DVD duplicating brother have released it several times over. The quality has ranged from  unwatchable to tolerable. Here its been digitally restored as evidenced with a before and after restoration demo and while the restoration is not awe inspiring it is a marked improvement. The film has also been heavily hit with the DNR which removed most of the films original grain structure and along with it a lot of fine detail and texture resulting in a plasticine effect. It's a small complaint perhaps given how well the film looks compared to previous editions though it's far from pristine and suffers soft image, contrast issues, some wobble and inconsistent black levels. We're given the option of Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1 surround sound mix with optional Spanish subtitles. The 2.0 is quite a flat, it's very narrow with little depth and the dialogue suffers as it's occasionally swallowed up by Ronald Stein's eerie score. The 5.1 mix does little more than bleed into the surrounds. Given that the image is not particularly sharp I would have enjoyed a DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono track at the very least. Supplemental materials include a trailer, restoration demo, original art postcard and a DVD of the film with the same special features. An essay or commentary track would have been appreciated. The film has languished in the public domain for quite some time, why not boost the value of the Blu with some exclusive bonus content like we saw with HD Cinema Classics Poor Pretty Eddie Blu-ray?

Special Features:
- Trailer (1:53) 16:9
- Original Movie Art Postcard
- Before and After Restoration Demo (1:06)
- Region 0 DVD of the film with same special features

Verdict: Dementia 13 is a pretty fantastic cash-grab following the success of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho from a very talented first-time director (more or less) Franics Ford Coppola. This edition of the film is definitely worth a purchase for fans of the film looking for an image upgrade that don't mind some heavy DNR and aren't too concerned with special features. It's an affordable Blu-ray + DVD combo and you just gotta love that original artwork. 3.5 outta 5