Monday, February 27, 2012

Blu-ray Review: FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971)


Label: Shameless Screen Entertainment
Region Code: Region FREE
Rating: 18 Certificate
Duration: 99 minutes
Audio: English and Italian 2.1 DTS HD, Dolby 2.0
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (2.35:1) 1080p
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Francine Racette

Synopsis: Dario Argento's "lost masterpiece" FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET concerns rock musician Robert Tobias (Michael Brandon, LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS) whom one night confronts a man who's been following him for several days. Catching up to the voyeur in an abandoned theatre the man pulls a switchblade and in the ensuing struggle Robert accidentally stabs the man in the abdomen, he falls from the stage into the orchestra pit, dead. In a bizarre turn someone in the upper wings of the theatre wearing an unnerving mask shines a spotlight on the altercation and snaps several incriminating photographs of the tragic event. Robert flees the scene and tries to put the events behind him but in the following days he is overcome with paranoia and fear when the dead man's ID shows up in the mail, pictures of the crime appear and the voyeur enters his home taunting him, but to what end and why?

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971) is considered the last entry in what is known as Dario Argento's Animal Trilogy following the brilliant debut THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) and CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971). The trio of films feature music scores from the master of film music Ennio Morricone and feature protagonists drawn into a murder mystery. BIRD featured an American writer, CAT a blind puzzle maker and FLIES features a rock drummer, all familiar character types to Argento enthusiasts. Dario would again bring an American writer to Rome with TENEBRE and a musician who witnesses a brutal death with the masterful DEEP RED, with FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET the twist is that our protagonist is the defacto killer.

The film starts off with a sweetly edited title sequence set to the tune of a tasty 70's rock freak-out (by Morricone) as Robert (a drummer) and the band jam on a psychedelic art-rock tune. There's a nifty scenario played out as we see flashbacks to the sun glassed stranger tailing Robert and a mosquito Hell bent on distracting him from keeping the beat during the band rehearsal culminating in a sweet hi-hat execution eliminating the pest. It's after the band's rehearsal that Robert sees the man who's been following him, at his rope's end he gives chase to the man who leads him into an abandoned theatre and the altercation ends with the strangers unfortunate death and documentation by the masked voyeur.

Soon the ID and photos arrive at his home but no blackmail demands are made, Robert's at a loss for what the voyeur's motivations could possibly be. Why has the crime not been reported to the authorities? Later the voyeur escalates matters when he enters Robert's home only to assault and taunt him pushing him to his nerves ends. His wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer, BLACK CAT) tries to comfort him when he confides the murder and ensuing taunting but he's inconsolable. He enlists the help of an odd duo of vagrants whom live in a shack by the city's river, a man known as "God" (Bud Spencer, MY NAME IS TRINITY)) and "The Professor" (Oreste Lionello, THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS). He also enlists the aide of an odd homosexual detective named Gianni Arrosio (Jen-Pierre Marielle, MICMACS).

The incident continues to haunt Robert nightly, his fear manifesting itself as creepy images of a beheading which take seed after hearing of a beheading incident from a friend whom describes how a stiletto knife is stabbed into the victim's neck to turn their body rigid and to upturn their head just as the swordsman's blade lobs it off. It's a nightmarish and vivid image and it's an effective fortuitous image that's seen several times throughout the film. Something also thrust upon us are flashbacks to what one would assume is the killer's troubled and abusive relationship with a father figure giving scarce clues to the motives behind the homicidal frenzy.

The night that Robert confesses the murder to Nina the admission is overheard by their maid whom hatches an ill-conceived scheme to blackmail the musician which leads to a well structured and pulse-pounding pursuit through a park at night as she attempts to evade the killer whom apparently doesn't want anyone intervening in their grand scheme of revenge. It's a wonderful scene even though I felt a bit cheated when the murder happens off screen, we hear only her death cries, our tormenting voyeur now a killer. Fear not though, there's a few key death scenes that while not quite gory are definitely brutal. When the voyeur sees fit to off an accomplices that's outlived their usefulness there's a particularly sweet repeated bashing of their skull sending the victim to the ground where a thick gauge wire is wrapped around his neck and slowly turned until death, just a really effective scene.

It's  after this that we're introduced to Nina's cousin Dalia (Francine Racette, AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS), a real European nymphish beauty. We also meet the wonderfully gay detective Gianni Arrosio. I have an affection for Argento's colorful secondary gay characters whom populate many of his films, some of whom surely have been imbued with a bit too much flamboyance and not much substance or purpose but nonetheless were colorful additions to the films. Jean-Pierre Marielle as the oddball detective is one of my favorites, I really felt his death and enjoyed his tragically triumphant parting words.

Meanwhile Robert and Dalia have kindled a impromptu romance under the nose of Nina after some fun splashing around in the bathroom. Who bathes their cousin's husband, really? It's a fun and flirty trist that ends with both naked in the tub, Racette is a sight to behold, a real beauty but even her unnaturual impish looks cannot save her from the voyeur turned killer as she is stalked through Robert's home in a tense scene resulting in a PYSCHO-esque tumble down the stairs followed by a knife plunge into her soft, supple flesh. In perhaps a sweet sci-fi ode to HORROR EXPRESS a laser is used to read the last image imprinted upon her retina in death, what they discover is the titular series of four flies.

With the bodycount steadily rising and Robert's fear and paranoia at a fever pitch he resorts to awaiting and confronting the murderer in his home, it's a nice shocker ending and the culprit is truly bug nuts insane, a wonderfully over-the-top villain with a unique set of motivations stemming from a scarred childhood and an insatiable need for revenge. The finale is marked by two wonderfully stylish slow-motion shots involving a gunshot and a beautifully staged car-crash slash decapitation, it's a thing of beauty.

Blu-ray: Shameless Screen Entertainment's 40th Anniversary Edition of Argento's FOUR FLIES IN GREY VELVET presents the film in a sweet region-FREE Blu-ray. It was only just three years ago that Mya Communications released the film on DVD for the first time and that release was a revelation when compared to the fuzzy VHS copies floating around at the time. Shamless's Blu-ray is an improvement over the Mya DVD and is clearely the best the film has ever looked. It has been fully remastered in HD from the original film negative with improvement in fine detail and black levels which are deeper and less murkey. We're given the option of viewing the legendary "missing forty seconds" of inserts either through seamlessly branching or viewing them separately from the film. The standard definition footage is less than stellar but is presented in the correct aspect ratio at least.

Audio options include both English and Italian 2.1 DTS HD and Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtitles for both the Italian language track and English SDH. The original English audio has been remastered exclusively for this release from the original magnetic soundtrack and while audio is not the most dynamic it is clear with few distortions, Morricone's score sounds great and the English soundtrack easily bests the Italian option.

Special features aren't in excess but enjoyable nonetheless. There are US and Italian theatrical trailers, the latter of which is a delightfully trippy and savage trailer, the UK trailers for Argento's films are usually far superior to the Englsih versions in my estimation. We also get a a poster and stills gallery, a short introduction from writer and assistant director Luigi Cozzi who also offers up a nearly 42 minute exclusive interview about the film and his involvement beginning with his introduction to Argento as a journalist following the release of The Bird with The Crystal Plumage leading to Dario asking him to collaborate on Four Flies with Grey Velvet, crafting the story around the elaborate death set-pieces and the many influences on the film from Sergio Leone to pulp writers like Cornell Woolrich (BLACK ALIBI) and Raymond Chandler (THE LITTLE SISTER). There's also a brief segment wherein Luigi Cozzi talks about the similiarties in Argento's film to his own earlier film THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH which Cozzi vehemently rebukes as mere coincidence based on a similiar Woolrich literary influence, then denouncing Martino as an Argento immitator, fun stuff. For fans of Cozzi, Argento or Giallo this is a must-see, essential viewing that covers many facets of the film from casting, shooting, the effcets and even UK rockers DEEP PURPLE originally scoring the film. An interview with Dario Argento or a commentary would from Argento experts Kim Newman and Alan Jones would have been a nice addition to the extras but the Luigi Cozzi interview is pure gold.

Special Features:
- Reversible Artwork
- Introduction to the film by Luigi Cozzi.
- New, exclusive and extensive recent interview on the making of Four Flies On Grey Velvet with writer and assistant director Luigi Cozzi.(41:23) 16:9
- Original English audio remastered in HD exclusively for this Shameless release from the original magnetic soundtrack and available for the first time since the film’s original theatrical opening in the 1970s.
- Shameless re-build edit of the complete version of the film including four inserts of previously missing footage known amongst Argento fans as the legendary “missing forty seconds” (the inserts are in Standard-Definition quality). The Blu-ray will allow for seamless branching of the four inserts giving viewers two versions of the film: one all HD without the re-inserted scenes and one longer version including the inserts.
- Restoration of all individual damaged frames, most notably with respect to the removal of the black diagonal frame line (caused by the film jumping the high speed camera gate) in the final car crash sequence.
- Optional Italian audio version in HD with English subtitles.
- Italian Trailer (2:35) 16:9
- English Trailer (0:55) 16:9
- Alternate English opening and closing credits (5:00) 16:9
- Shameless Trailer Park (Blu-ray only) (11:26) 16:9
- Photo Gallery (5:43)

Verdict: Shameless Screen Entertainment's 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray easily demands an upgrade from Mya's previous DVD edition with a wonderful presentation and a sweet slew of bonus content that should make any Argento enthusiast pleased as punch. This wonderful edition receives high marks from me, a must-have and an underseen Argento classic. Now that Four Flies on Grey Velvet is no longer the rarity it once was I would very much like to see his maligned comedy THE FIVE DAYS OF MILAN (1973) find it's way to DVD/Blu-ray if only to say that I've finally seen it. 4 outta 5

Monday, February 20, 2012

Blu-ray Review: BABA YAGA (1973)

BABA YAGA (1973) 

Release Date: February 28, 2012
Label: Blue Underground
Region Code: ALL
Duration: 83 Mins
Rating: Not Rated
Video:16:9 Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: English, Italian DTS-HD Mono
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, English for Italian version.
Director: Corrado Farina
Stars: Carroll Baker, George Eastman, Isabelle De Funes

Synopsis: Legendary sex symbol Carroll Baker (BABY DOLL, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS) stars as a mysterious sorceress with an undying hunger for sensual ecstasy and unspeakable torture. But when she casts a spell over a beautiful young fashion photographer (the gorgeous Isabelle De Funes), Milan's most luscious models are sucked into a nightmare world of lesbian seduction and shocking sadism. Are these carnal crimes the result of one woman's forbidden fantasies or is this the depraved curse of the devil witch known as BABA YAGA?

Comic book adaptations have been a regular feature in the multiplex's this past decade, everything from Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of Daniel Clowes' edgy indie GHOST WORLD to the Marvel's juggernaut X-MEN franchise has been plastered on the silver screen but comic-to-film translations aren't exactly a new idea, nearly forty years ago director Corrado Farina's adapted the revolutionary comic strip VALENTINA by Guido Crepax into the surreal supernatural fantasy BABA YAGA (1973).

In this surreal tale of witchery and soul possession Valentina (Isabelle De Funes) is an erotic-fashion photographer whose chance encounter with a mysterious, older woman by the rather bizarre name of Baba Yaga (Carrroll Baker) thrusts her into a strange journey that threatens to claim her very soul. The witchy Baba Yaga takes an unnatural interest in the nymphish fashion photographer and it's not long before Valentina falls under her lesbian-tinged thrall, plagued by trippy nightmares involving Nazis, sadomasochism and a eerie bottomless pit.

It's a quirky film for sure and there's no shortage of weird shit transpiring on screen as Valentina slowly loses her mind as her strange dreams begin to bleed into her waking life. Things really start to turn towards the bizarre when Baba Yaga curses her camera which results in the bizarre death of anyone Valentina photographs and it gets even a bit odder yet when Baba Yaga gifts Valentina with a weird leather-clad porcelain doll which acts as Yaga's super-hot ginger-haired assassin but not in a Puppet Master sorta way, the doll transforms into an actual woman played by super-vixen Ely Galleani, it's wacky stuff.

On the plus side the film is dripping with early-70's atmosphere helped along by a creepy piano score which occasionally veers off into groovy jazz freakouts but it's also hamstrung in my opinion by a barely coherent plot that at times gives into a bizarre dream-logic that some might find hard to swallow epsecially when administered with such a deliberate pace, it's a definite slow burn and I'm not sure it makes for the most appreciative narrative for the uninnitiated.

Threadbare plot aside there's no arguing this is a gorgeously shot arthouse film which at times brought to mind the opulent eroticism of classy soft-core porn director Radley Metzger (SCORE, THE IMAGE). Farina utilizes Fumenti style over-exposed film frames to capture the film's comic origins which at times is striking but also a bit distracting.

The performances not unlike it's narrative are not exactly a strength of the feature. Isabelle De Funes is serviceable as the gorgeous, wide-eyed photographer but there's little depth to her character or anyone else's for that matter, it's all surface. Carroll Baker, still quite a beauty here, is cold and detached, probably owing more to Farina's direction than anything else. George Eastmen as Valentina's love interest just feels tacked-on in a thankless role and everyone else just sort of drifts through the picture.

The film might be a hard sell to the horror crowd with it's near lack of bloodshed or gore, it creeps along on atmosphere and eroticism but not much in the ways of actual chills.

Blu-ray: Blue Underground's transfer of BABA YAGA (1973) is derived from pristine vault elements and looks pretty great all around with a wonderfully crisp image with plenty of fine detail and nice deep, inky blacks. This being my first viewing of the film I can't tell you how superior it is to either of the Blue Underground or Shameless Screen Entertainment's DVD editions but this is a pretty spectacular HD image. 

Audio options include both English and Italian DTS-HD Mono options, both sound quite good if not overly dynamic and both suffer from minor hiss throughout with the Italian fairing slightly worse. There's also a selection of subtitles including French, Spanish, English SDH and a separate English subtitle for the Italian version.

Blue Underground have supplied fans with typically generous amount of bonus content beginning with a 21 minute interview with director Corrado Farina whom talks about his love of Crepax's VALENTINA comic strip, the difficulties translating the revolutionary comic into the cinematic format, trouble casting the feature, the film's censorship and subsequent failure at the box office. It's a fairly comprehensive interview and will surely be a treat for fans and newbies like myself. We also get a mini-doc about Guido Crepax's work beginning with a brief history of the comic strip format in Italy featuring many vintage comic panels, great stuff and a great introduction to Crepax's  work for someone like myself whom knew very little before diving into this film. The deleted and censored scenes features a few extended scenes of Valentin's nightmare sequences as well as full-frontal nudity from both Carroll Baker and Isabelle De Fun├Ęs which was censored upon the film's release, these scenes are sourced from lesser quality sources than the feature but are nonetheless intriguing. The remaining features are rounded out by a theatrical trailer, comic-to-film comparison reel and a poster and stills gallery. Overall a very well-rounded package that with the exception of a commentary leaves little to be desired.

Special Features:
- Farina and Valentina - Interview with Director Corrado Farina (21:40) 16:0
- Freud in Color - Guido Crepax Documentary (12:06) 4:3
- Deleted and Censored Scenes (10:01) 16:9
- Theatrical Trailer (3:33) 16:9
- Poster and Still Gallery
- Comic Book-to-Film Comparison

Verdict: As a witchy thriller BABA YAGA is less than successful but as a a slice of lesbian-tinged arthouse Eurotrash erotica it manages to weave a spell that's hard to shake even though it's not quite eerie enough to illicit a scare and not nearly erotic enough elicit a, err, you know what I mean. Either way it's a interesting watch that's well worth a rental or perhaps even a buy for the euro-cult enthusiast, weird stuff. 3 outta 5

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Label: Troma Entertainment
Region Code: ALL NTSC
Duration: 82 mins
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (1.78:1)
Audio: English Dolby Digital Stereo 
Director: Mathew Reel
Cast: Elske McCain, Trent Haaga, Ciciany Oliver, Jeff Sisson

JESSICKA RABID is the latest slice of cinema trash from Troma Entertainment directed by Mathew Reel and starring Trenta Haaga and Elske McCain filmed right here in Tucson, AZ.

The film stars Tucson local Elske McCain as the mentally challenged titular character Jessicka who is kept like an animal by her fucked-up incestuous cousins Marley (Trent Haaga), Brad (Jeff Sisson) and Abby Hoffman (Ciciany Oliver). She's a feral woman who's kept in a dog cage out in the garage, she's fed from a bowl, hosed down once in a while and shits and pisses in the backyard while being walked on a leash. That's pretty fucked-up as it is but the film also goes the incest route as she's trained to give BJ's to Brad who also loans her out to z-grade porno shoots, she's Marley's regular fuck doll and even Abby, whom at first seems one of the film's more sympathetic characters, also gets in on the incest action training her to shampoo the carpet with the liberal application of peanut butter to her lady bits, a very nice touch.

So, it's a pretty sweet deal for the cousins but not so much for the mentally challenged cum-dumpster Jessicka. It's while being kept in the filthy dog cage that Jessicka is bit by a vicious dog and wouldn't you know that the beast is rabid and infects the feral woman with a fearsome rage which she in turn directs towards her captors. The ensuing massacre features some nice blood letting and a fun decapitation scene but the movie isn't a splatterfest by any means, it's definitely disturbing but revels more in the deranged acts of fucked-up degradation perpetrated upon the mentally challenged woman by her white trash captor's more so than on-screen gore but it's fucked-up shit no doubt. So, while the subject matter is disturbing and reprehensible the death scenes aren't particularly well executed but fun in a no-budget schlocky sorta way, particularly a decapitation scene towards the end o' the film when we get a nice HIGH TENSION-esque gettin' head scene, fun stuff.

The film is super low-budget and the filmmakers have wisely chosen to embrace their limited means and go the route of an early 70's looking drive-in production approximating a fuzzy, scratched 8mm print that looks like it's been through the wringer a few too many time, very washed out. It's gives the film a authentic grimy grindhouse patina complete with choppy editing and bad sound, it's a gritty production and it quite suits the film's gritty subject matter.

The film's plot is pretty bare with some bad scripting and poor dialogue that doesn't do the film any favors. The acting is also a bit spotty at times with a few nice exceptions. Trent Haaga as the quasi leader of the incestuous family is pretty great as usual and Elske McCain as the titular Jessicka has some nice animalistic moments that convey basic emotions but I wouldn't say it's well-acted either but overall I think the film is a pretty damned entertaining watch, uneven and poorly paced but entertaining nonetheless.

By Troma standards the DVD comes with a pretty great array of extras , including a fun group audio commentary, trailer Lloyd Kaufman outtakes filmed at the awesome Loft Cinema here in Tucson, a digital Jessicka Rabid comic and two slide shows plus the usual array of Tromatic extras, a very fine set of special features.

Special Features:
- Behind the Scenes Featurette(10:53) 16:9
- The Lloyd Kaufman Outtakes (1:46) 16:9
- Digital Jessicka Rabid Comic
- Trailer (3:01) 16:9
_-Behind the Scenes Slideshow (0:50) 16:9
- Exclusive Super Hot Elske McCain Slideshow
- Audio Commentary
- Tromatic Extras

Verdict: What's not to love? Forced incest, sexual slavery, exploitation of the mentally ill, depraved violence against women (and men), rabid revenge and debauchery, a smorgasbord of low-budget offensiveness that really channels the 70's grindhouse for all it's worth. I wanted to see more gore and for it to go just a little further than it treaded but maybe I'm just weird that way, if you're gonna go for it I say go all the way. Not a film for everyone, just the fucked-up freaks who enjoy nasty no-budget exploitation films. 3/5

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

DVD Review: THE DEAD (2010)


Release Date: February 14th 2012
Region Code: 1 NTSC
Rating: R
Duration: 105 mins
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (1.78:1)
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Director: Jonathan Ford, Howard J. Ford
Cast: Prince David Oseia, Rob Freeman
The Ford Brothers low-budget zombie flick THE DEAD (2010) starts off with a kick by throwing us right into the action alongside an American Air Force flight engineer named Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) on board a cargo plane that's just evacuated the last white folk from an infected area of war-torn Africa. The already tense atmosphere on the plane escalates when a wounded passenger expires and returns undead and hungry for flesh causing a frenzy in the cargo hold, the ensuing commotion and the planes hasty take-off ends with the Cessna making an abrupt night time water landing just off the coast. Lt. Murphy is the lone survivor and finds himself washed-up on the coast surrounded by dozens of the shambling undead only just making it off the beach with his life. Inland he commandeers a beat-up pick-up truck making his way through the blistering savanna which is peppered with the undead. He soon encounters an African soldier named Daniel Dembee (Prince David Oseia) whose on his own journey having just returned to his village to find his wife has been devoured by the undead. His son having apparently escaped during an evacuation to a military base in the North. The two join forces seeming as two stand a better chance of fighting off the hordes of undead, Daniel in search of his missing son and Murphy looking to find a way off the continent.

Murphy and Daniel are men of few words with little conversation between them, the lack of dialogue may prove to be problematic from some alongside an odd pace, but while I can see it being a chore for some I rather enjoyed the film's languid pace, full of dread and atmosphere, this film oozes atmosphere. Don't get me wrong, while there's some sweet action set-pieces the film is a definitely a slow burn with a pretty threadbare plot, there's just not a lot of twist and turns here and that's fine. I would have liked to seen more interaction between the two soldiers but the film manages to convey an understanding between the two without resorting to dramatics with a communication short-hand. Both turn in solid performances but I felt that Freeman was a bit stiff at times, perhaps that was his character's military demeanor or post-traumatic shock but he just felt aloof and disconnected. The film does offer some commentary on black/white relations in Africa but it's not drilled-in, there's definitely potential for this have been an unnecessarily political film but the directors have wisely chosen to focus on what all great zombie films have done previously, zero in on the character's struggles in face of a zombie apocalypse.

Honestly, the film rarely offers anything new in the way of zombie tropes but the familiar elements seem fresh when juxtaposed against the harsh African enviorment, it's a great setting and makes for a visual feast; rugged mountainous areas, blistering sandy dunes, and sweltering grassy savannas all crawling with hordes of the undead. It's hard to believe it hasn't been done before, it's an inspired setting that's gorgeously shot with slow takes that revel in the scenery which never devolve into eye-shredding fast-editing.

The slow moving, shambling dead are in abundance here and I must say that I find them so much creepier than their fast-moving counterparts. The idea of a creeping, deliberate horde of hideous, flesh-chewing undead just disturbs me, no matter where you go they are constant and just nearly upon you. These are the zombies of George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE, a wounded, wandering legion of dead-eyed ghouls. The effects are rendered quite effectively, there's some very nice make-up effects here both practical and CXGI. There's no shortage of gut-munching and skin-tearing carnage, it's great stuff. A particularly effective shambler at the top of the film is seen limping painfully, the bone protruding from it's knee in a compound fracture with a nerve shredding sound of broken bones grinding against each other as it walks, that one gave me the willies.  

There's not much I didn't enjoy about THE DEAD, this is a solid piece of zombie entertainment deserving of a wide audience. The unique setting, familiar yet welcome tropes and nasty bits of gore all come together to make for an entertaining watch, definitely one of the most solid zombie flicks I've seen in a few years.

Special features on the disc include a deleted scene, a brief behind-the-scenes featurette and audio commentary with the filmmakers who provide some  pretty entertaining insights about the film which I'm only listening to just now while typing this, it's fun stuff.

Special Features:
- Audio Commentary with Writer/Producer/Director Howard J Ford and Writer/Director of Photography/Co-Director Jon Ford
- Deleted Scene (1:42) 16:9
- Unearthing THE DEAD: Behind The Scenes (5:12) 16:9

Verdict: After months of avoiding clips, press and trailers for THE DEAD it was a genuine treat to watch it, finally. This ones a winner, a grim, Romero-esque zombie chiller with tons of glorious gutmunching and claustrophobic thrills set in the rugged but gorgeous African terrain, a very high recommend.  4 outta 5