DVD Stalk: Christmas Evil, Maniac Cop, and Ghost Whisperer
We kick off this week's huge batch of horror DVD reviews with Bill Gibron's take on the Original Director's Cut of Lewis Jackson's 1980 black comedy horror film, Christmas Evil. Originally titled You Better Watch Out, Christmas Evil might not have clicked with an audience back in the early '80s, but it's still a hell of a fun film that finally get's its rightful treatment on DVD from the always great Synapse Films. Don May, Jr. treats every single that passes through Synapse with great care and Christmas Evil is no exception. There's an entirely new transfer with Jackson's originally intended cut of the film, a nice audio presentation, and a wealth of extra material. What more could you possibly want for a deranged-Santa-goes-on-a-killing-spree type of film? Here's a sampling of what Bill has to say about the film and its release on DVD: "Christmas Evil is a minor masterpiece, a surreal seasonal effort that mixes the psychological with the slasher to come up with a hybrid so compelling that it literally takes one's holly-berried breath away. With its genuine desire to explore the nature of good and evil, as well as to give the story of Santa Claus a real, disturbing face, writer/director Lewis Jackson creates one of the most irresistibility odd experiences in the history of holiday cinema. When he first conceived the project (under its far more compelling title You Better Watch Out), Jackson never realized the backlash he would face in fooling with the Yuletide's number one icon. But thanks to a shroud of scandal fueled by other Xmas/killer cinema -- including Bob Clark's Black Christmas and Theodore Gershuny's Silent Night, Bloody Night -- Christmas Evil ended up being labeled a liability. While our current post-modern irony would question anyone taking such a film seriously, the truth is that 26 years ago, people held the holidays in a near sacrosanct capacity. Spitting on St. Nick -- or even worse, making him a vengeful nutjob with an unhealthy obsession with all things Kringle -- was akin to silver bell blasphemy. Today, we'd just laugh at such a depiction. But it was such a silly standard that kept this exceptional film from finding the audience it so richly deserved. While not very respectful to the facets of the festivities, it is still a fascinating motion picture...It's too bad that Lewis Jackson had to wait 26 years before his twisted take on the true nature of Santa Claus could be considered separate from the societal beatification of that crass, over-commercialized Coca-Cola mascot. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating from a DVD standpoint alone, You Better Watch Out!/Christmas Evil actually deserves a DVD Talk Collector's Series tag for the film itself. Frankly, anyone not stunned at how jaw-droppingly brilliant this psychological spectacle is doesn't appreciate the literal language of film. While definitely outside the mainstream, this experimental exercise in sinister season's greetings should become an annual lesson in ritual vs. reality. There can be no greater present under any film fan's tricked out Tannenbaum than this amazing motion picture." With praise that high for the film, how can you not want a copy of Christmas Evil inside your stocking this holiday season?
If you're reading this column week in and week out, chances are good that you're probably a fan of Jorg Buttgereit's two Nekromantik films. But, as Ian Jane says, "...his last motion picture, Schramm, might just be his most accomplished work." The film is "a grim tale of a serial killer and the prostitute he loves, this isn't exactly a happy film but it is very well made and more than just a little thought provoking – it's also incredibly dark, and incredibly disturbing." Schramm is about as grim and grisly as they come, but the film is also incredibly well made with some beautiful cinematography, a few excellent performances, and a relentless amount of independent grit. Buttgereit certainly knows how to get every last dollar out of his low-budget features and Schramm is no exception. With a wealth of extra material included, this disc is a no-brainer for the hardcore horror fan. "A dark, disturbing and at times rather pretentious arthouse-horror hybrid, Schramm is never the less a very effective film that will hit a lot of people in a lot of different ways. It won't be for all tastes, that is for certain, but those who can handle the subject matter are encouraged to give it a shot. Barrel's re-release of their earlier DVD doesn't give previous owners a reason to upgrade but those who don't already own it and are interested can once again get the definitive version on DVD." Well said, Ian.
Bill Gibron is back again with a look at another excellent DVD release from Don May, Jr. and Synapse Films. Maniac Cop has seen the light of day on DVD a few times before, but it seems as if Synapse has vowed to make this special edition release the definitive version of the '80s fright flick. Here's what Bill has to say about the film itself: "Maniac Cop is one of the best b-movies ever made, a sensational combination of old fashioned film noir and pure unadulterated '80s schlock. The brainchild of genre veterans Larry Cohen (It's Alive, Q) and William Lustig (Maniac, Uncle Sam), this spin on the standard slasher flick represents the true tale end of the fear fad's cinematic viability, while proving that storyline and execution can overcome even the most formulaic film facets. Indeed, some of the best elements of this exemplary exploitation effort are the creative choices made by Cohen and Lustig. A master at manipulating a narrative so that it travels down paths unexpected by audiences, Cohen keeps the viewer guessing throughout, giving us red herrings and probable motives from almost everyone in the cast. Equally endemic is this screenwriter's desire to make every individual in the story a complex and multi-dimensional part of the plot. There are no throwaway roles here – everyone onscreen serves a significant purpose. All Lustig has to do is realize the script's solid sentiments and a sturdy little surprise is in store for followers worried about witnessing the same old slice and dice nonsense. Thanks to his superb work behind the lens, Maniac Cop transcends its tired terror trappings to become an elemental action epic." And that's all before even mentioning the superb assemblage of actors in the film. Robert Z'Dar, Tom Akins, and William Smith lead the way with genre-favorite Bruce Campbell right alongside. It's a surprisingly competent horror flick that stands the test of time. "When it first came out in the mid '80s, Maniac Cop was seen as a pleasant, if pedestrian diversion, a movie trading of the fading phantoms of the serial killer splatter rampage category of film to pry a few more dollars out of a less and less demanding demographic. Today, viewed with renewed appreciation and a definitive digital makeover, this cleverly controlled entertainment becomes one of the era's finest forgotten gems. Easily earning its Highly Recommended rating, Maniac Cop stands as a milestone in the career of its director, and another notch in the many indented creative headboard of its influential genre scribe. Those who've previously dismissed the movie need to give it another spin. You'll be surprised at how compelling a standard slasher cop drama can be. Newer members of the Maniac Cop clan will definitely want to pick up this disc. Synapse has given new life to an old favorite, and just like the resurrected corpse of Officer Cordell, this DVD is hard to refuse...or ignore." Larry Cohen, Bill Lustig, and Bruce Campbell...How could any horror fan pass up that combination of talent?
Also this week, Jeffrey Robinson and Ian Jane check out two recent horror-related TV releases and both come away liking what they see. Robinson's interesting take on the first season of Jennifer Love Hewitt's CBS drama Ghost Whisperer pegs the show as more heartwarming and dramatic than it is frightening, but still finds the show exhilarating with the same "feel-good nature of Quantam Leap." But, hey, we're still talking about ghosts here, right? "The show is about a woman who has had a special gift since she was a young girl. Her gift is the ability to communicate with earthbound spirits, or ghosts, that for one reason or another have been unable to cross over into the afterlife." Oh, ok, good. I thought so. So, Jeffrey, how does Hewitt handle all this responsibility? "At first, I was skeptical about how she would fit into a supernatural, feel-good drama. In her past roles, I have primarily seen her in over-the-top dramas, which clearly this show is not. I was happily surprised to find that Hewitt fit her role with grace. She gives Melinda a likeable personality and really portrays the toll of her work. The other characters are also handled well, but they do not quite compare to the style Hewitt provides her character." So it sounds like CBS has crafted a fairly interesting show about ghosts with an incredibly hot, young starlet in the leading role. Hmmm.... Sign me up! Not to mention the huge amount of extra material that Paramount has included on the first season's DVD release. Ghost Whisperer: The Complete First Season is certainly worth at least a rental. Robinson calls it "an intriguing drama with likeable characters and heartwarming stories," and although it might not be every horror fan's cup of blood, the above description is enough for me to give the series a chance.
Ian Jane, on the other hand, tackles the fifth season of a series that just about every horror is probably familiar with: Tales from the Crypt. Here's a bit of what he has to say: "Just like the notorious comic books that they were based on, the episodes almost always blended a twisted sense of black humor with the gore and shock scenes and twist endings that they became known for. Critics would often blast the comics for being too intense or too depraved for the younger audiences that they were aimed at, despite the fact that there was very often an obvious moral to the story and that usually the stories were quite tongue in cheek. With the TV show they didn't have to worry about that so much. Since it aired on HBO and not on a regular network, the shows was free from the standard censorship issues inflicted on regular broadcast television and as such, the series was aimed primarily at adult viewers – just like it should have been." Tales from the Crypt: The Complete Fifth Season may not be quite as good (episode-wise) as some of its predecessors, but there's still plenty to like in the thirteen episodes included on the Warner Bros. release. "While there are a couple of episodes here that are really only average, there are also some excellent ones that hold up well even now, more than ten years after they were made. Tales from the Crypt: The Complete Fifth Season has all the shocks and suspense and humor you'd expect from the series as well as some fun performances and interesting casting." If you're a fan of the series, then Tales from the Crypt: The Complete Fifth Season will fit very nicely on your DVD shelf, right next to the previous releases. Some of these fifth season episodes are simply can't-miss material.
"Freak Out is a film that definitely grows on you. No, not like a fungus, or the latest release from some gloomy Goth act. At first, it's difficult to determine what filmmaking partners Dan Palmer and Christian James are up to. The set up follows the standard Hollywood horror hackdom - a long ago schoolyard humiliation resulting in a virulent vow of future revenge - and yet the reasons behind the shame are so silly, and the ensuing narrative so strange, that you honestly think something is purposefully being left out. Then the first big joke arrives (it has something to do with a return, 13 years later, to the scene of the indignity) and we start to get the message. Like a far more clever Scary Movie, or a Monty Python derived movie macabre, Palmer and James are out to imitate their favorite fright films while simultaneously sending up the genre every step of the way. Combining a little Benny Hill style slapstick, a healthy dose of Goodies era goofiness and more than a few nods to a certain Texas based nighttime soap opera, what we end up with is a compendium of styles and a wealth of worthy material. If it wasn't conceived and created before Shaun of the Dead delivered the definitive horror comedy, Freak Out would be in there, fighting feverishly for first place. But thanks to its independent homemade roots, it will have to settle for a still sensational second best." In that one paragraph, Bill Gibron says it better than I ever could. Comedy and horror is one of the most difficult cinematic equations to balance. When it works it can be brilliant (e.g. Return of the Living Dead), but when it doesn't work the results can be disastrously bad (e.g. Scary Movie 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 43, 50???). Freak Out may not be a perfect film or even a great film, but it does a hell of a job of straddling that comedy/horror line just well enough to make for an interesting little flick. As Gibron says, "Still, in an arena not know for its successes, Freak Out is a wonderfully wicked terror treat. Even the minor lapses in logic and likeability can't undermine its unusualness." Which is way more than can be say for a myriad of films in the very same genre.
Ian Jane also has a peek at BCI Eclipse's latest release in their Crypt of Terror line of horror double features. This time around he's treated to the pairing of Land of the Minotaur with the British horror Terror. Land of the Minotaur is an interesting Greek film that Ian describes as "goofy and completely predictable." He says that "Land of the Minotaur is at least enjoyable enough in that it's well cast and it has some nice scenery. The PAL release that came out under the alternate title of The Devil's Men a few years back has some racier and bloodier content and it's a shame that BCI has put out the PG version, but even with the naughty bits missing in action it's fun to see Cushing and Pleasance together in the same film...While not as good as other devil worshippers vs. innocent people movies like The Devil's Rain, this film still moves quickly enough and has enough interesting actors in it to warrant a look. Go into this one with your expectations low and you should come out okay." Terror, however, doesn't fare quite as well: "There isn't much story here and the film borrows very heavily from Dario Argento's Suspiria (it's hard not to notice the influence) though it doesn't work on the same level as its inspiration. There are some fantastic and rather bloody murders here that keep things moving along at a good pace and the film works well if you approach it expecting nothing more than a fun ninety minutes of trashy horror. There isn't much in the way of legitimate suspense and it's fairly easy to see where it's all going early on but the murder set pieces are definitely creative and the art direction is quite stylish." The film is notable, nonetheless, for the appearance of Peter Mayhew, better known as Chewbacca, in a small part that Ian says "will prove amusing to those who only know him when he's covered in fur and growling at Stormtroopers." Although neither Land of the Minotaur nor Terror will ever be considered horror classics, Ian still recommends this Crypt of Terror disc as a nice bargain double feature of two interesting (if not all that successful) foreign horrors.
I'll let Ian give you the background for his look at Bruno Mattei's latest release from Media Blasters: "Bruno Mattei is probably best known in North America for his horror films like the atrocious Hell Of The Living Dead and the equally awful (but somehow far more enjoyable) Rats, both of which have been staples on home video for some time now and both of which have actually received special edition DVD releases from Anchor Bay Entertainment some years back. His nunsploitation efforts (well, all two of them at least) haven't been as easy to come by, with only The Other Hell having been readily available on DVD, a film which most of us would rather forget than celebrate. Media Blasters, through their Exploitation Digital line, have dug up another nasty nun film from Mattei, the much more obscure 1981 effort The True Story Of The Nun Of Monza (not to be confused with Eriprando Visconti's Nun Of Monza from 1969, widely considered the granddaddy of the sub-genre." Now, who among horror fiends does not like a good nunsploitation flick? No one? No one? That's what I thought. "It's a little difficult to take the film seriously when you know Mattei is behind the camera but the movie does have its moments. It's actually a very well shot film with the cinematography doing a fine job of capturing the locations used for the film. The convent makes for an eerie and sometimes almost desolate setting and the shadows and age that fill the building don't help that matter much. As such, it's got some atmosphere and some mood that it wouldn't have otherwise. Zora Kerova definitely looks good in the part, and somehow the habit works for her. Those who enjoy a little sin with their skin will be happy to find out that the film has definitely got its share of naughtiness and that Mattei doesn't shy away from the seedier side of the narrative...The True Story Of The Nun Of Monza is enjoyable enough for what it is – a European trash film intent on waving some taboos in the face of the viewer. If you keep that in mind going in and expect nothing more than some cheap thrills and nice camerawork you'll be okay with the results. It's not a classic of the genre but it delivers on the expected staples and it's entertaining enough in its own trashy way." And, really, that's all us nunsploitation, trash cinema fans have ever wanted...
Finally, Ian Jane wraps up our review highlights by checking out Bob Keen's directorial debut, Heartstopper. Though Keen's film "borrows very heavily from Wes Craven's Shocker and from Halloween II" it, unfortunately, "isn't quite as interesting as either of them." Known best for his makeup and special effects work, Keen does a fine job of pacing the film and providing some visual excitement, but still manages to fall short. Heartstopper is simply too derivative and contrived. It's as if he's just trying too hard. Here's what Ian has to say about the film: "That being said, Heartstopper isn't a complete waste of time. Keen's pacing is quite good and the art direction and cinematography does a good job of making the hospital where the bulk of the action takes place looks nice and eerie. The make up effects are quite well done and even if they are repetitive at times as stated, they are at least effective. There are also a few good jump scares in here that will catch you by surprise. They won't have a lasting effect but as temporary and superficial scares go, they're done well. It's a shame then that the script was so contrived. If the 'been there, done that' feeling that we get throughout the film hadn't been so overpowering this could have been a decent low budget shocker." Anchor Bay's DVD release is just fine, though it would have been nice to see some interesting extra material, but the film simply can't hold up well enough to warrant much more than a rental. "Heartstopper has a few interesting moments and a couple of good scares but is ultimately brought down by some mediocre performances and a script that isn't as good or as interesting as it should have been." We're anxious, however, to see what Keen can do with a better script and some quality actors. Heartstopper, unfortunately, isn't that film and is worth a rental spin at most.
I'll be completely honest in saying that there aren't a lot of movies that have truly out-and-out scared me. Sure, I've had my fair share of jump scares, breathless moments, and chills down my spine while watching horror flicks. But there are only a small handful of films that have really shaken me to the core. The Exorcist did it - at least the first time I saw it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did it the first time as well; mostly for its ballsy relentlessness. And the third film that really gave me a bone-chilling fright will probably be a bit of a surprise to most horror fans as it's a film that often gets overlooked in the genre. Paul W.S. Anderson hasn't exactly become one of Hollywood's hot-button horror directors, but before he decided to direct some real garbage (e.g. Resident Evil and AVP: Alien vs. Predator) Anderson crafted one of the finest, creepiest, and downright scariest haunted pseudo-sci-fi flicks in a hell of a long time. Event Horizon might not be on the very top of your list of great fright flicks - it is, admittedly, often cheesy, stilted, and contrived - but what it lacks in nuance and technical wizardry, it makes up for in sheer horrifying imagery and tension. The first time I saw Event Horizon on the big screen, I can remember going home and not getting much sleep that night. (Mind you, I'm way too old to be losing sleep over a "scary movie.") There was just something about the idea of this spaceship traveling through space (straight into hell) that gave me a good old-fashioned case of the Heebie-Jeebies. The footage of the abandoned crew. The ghostly (and ghastly) hallucinations of the crew. And mostly Sam Neill hamming it up as the crazed Dr. Weir. It all just literally scared the hell out of me (pun completely intended). If you've never had the chance to check out Event Horizon, or decided to pass up the chance because you thought it was just another sci-fi flick, do yourself a favor and get a copy in your DVD player immediately. It's a creeptastic ride through hell and back that would make any horror film fan happy.
The 2005 Aussie import, Wolf Creek may have only hit theaters here in the states about a year ago, but I still think it's worth mentioning in this space. As the horror trend that's currently running through Hollywood continues to grow (both a good and bad thing for us horror freaks), chances are good that a few smaller, foreign horror gems might not find their rightful place in genre history. Wolf Creek may not exactly be part of the Horror Canon quite yet, but it is a finely made and interesting example of the genre with a really kickass baddie that's sure to be remembered by horrorhounds for a long time. Here's what I wrote about Wolf Creek when it first hit theaters here in the U.S.:
"Where Wolf Creek shines, however, is in its absolute relentlessness in achieving what it sets out to do. It may not actually fully achieve its goal, but the film makes some interesting choices that I didn't expect. When McLean finally decides to amp up the action, and we get down to the real meat of the story, John Jarratt takes center stage and creates a character that is going to be remembered in the horror genre for quite some time. Jarratt's Mick Taylor is such a despicable, grimy human being that watching him slice off a few fingers is nothing compared to his creation of a "head on a stick." It's a tough scene to watch, and one that will certainly make the gorehounds happy, but it does a lot for creating the only truly memorable character in the film.If you've never seen the film, you're certainly in for a twisted little treat. It speaks highly of McLean's potential as we wait patiently for his next foray into the genre. Wolf Creek is a horror flick that deserves to be seen.
I just want to personally take a moment to sincerely thank DVD Stalk contributor Ian Jane for stepping up as Editor for the last issue of our little horror column. While I was off getting hitched (on Halloween weekend, no less), Ian was working hard behind the scenes to write, edit, and basically put together the entire issue. It's not an easy (or quick) task and Ian deserves a huge round of applause from the DVD Stalk readers for his work on the last issue. So be sure to use the contact information at the bottom of the column to drop Ian a line and tell him what a great job he did while I was out cutting my wedding cake (complete with Corpse Bride cake topper). Thanks again, Ian!
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DVD Stalk Editors: Scott Lecter, Geoffrey Kleinman.
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