DVD Stalk: Jess Franco's Count Dracula, Monsters & Madmen, and DVD Stalk Blog
We kick off this week's batch of horror DVD reviews with Ian Jane's early take on Dark Sky's late February release of Jess Franco's Count Dracula (El Conde Dracula) and find that their are things to like (and dislike) about the film. Here's Ian to give us a little bit about Jess Franco's Count Dracula: "Franco's film follows [Bram] Stoker's novel quite closely and in fact it was this idea, to stick so close to the novel, that won [Christopher] Lee over to the project. The film starts off very strongly, with a lot of great mood and a truly sinister atmosphere. When we finally do meet the Count Lee is fantastic in the role, aging in reverse as the film plays out. The very obviously Spanish locations (with some interiors shot in Italy) don't double well for London or Transylvania but they do add an interesting vibe to the picture that gives it some flair and Franco makes the most of the castle and the surrounding area." But it's clearly not just Franco's locations or dedication to Stoker's novel that makes the film a worthwhile venture. It's also the excellent cast. "The cast list for the film reads like a 'who's who' of Franco's better movies, with Kinski, Muller and Rohm having starred in Venus In Furs (definitely one of his better and more accomplished efforts), Miranda having starred in more than a few of his films before her death and Lee having appeared in The Bloody Judge, The Castle Of Fu Manchu and Eugenie by the time this film was made. These were people who were familiar with Franco's aesthetic and his style as a director and who, by this point, would have had a rough idea of what to expect from the project. As such, their performances are uniformly quite good (with Kinski and Lee stealing the show)." Jess Franco's Count Dracula is, unfortunately, not a great effort from the legendary director, but simply a good one. There are clearly a few problems throughout the film but, as Ian says, "the good definitely outweighs the bad here. Despite some shoddy direction in spots and the slower moments in the movie, Franco's film succeeds more than it fails thanks to some great locations and a fantastic cast." Add to that the fact that Dark Sky Films has provided (yet another) excellent DVD remaster - with some rather nice extra material included - and you've got an easy recommendation for any discerning horror fan.
Everyone knows that Criterion Collection is the gold standard studio for quality when it comes to DVD releases. And, while they may not put out a ton of horror-related material, they have released a couple very important discs. This week, DVD Savant checks in with a look at one of their latest releases, Monsters and Madmen, which consists of The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood, First Man Into Space, and The Atomic Submarine. I'll let Savant do the talking: "One of [the Criterion Collection's] few stumbles was when they treated the okay-but-no-classic 50s monster-fest Fiend Without A Face with a kind of reverse-condescension, as if ashamed of it...Not every movie needs to be justified as Great Art. Criterion has since demonstrated a more balanced attitude to vintage pulp exotica like The Blob and the homemade monster movie Equinox. That commitment continues with four more titles from the library of Richard and Alex Gordon, 50s producers that occasionally translated their fan enthusiasm into better-than-average genre fare. Monsters and Madmen features two horror efforts starring Boris Karloff, and two awkward but likeable futuristic monster efforts." Savant has a lot to say about each film but particularly calls The Haunted Strangler "a far better film than Karloff's horror vehicles from earlier in the decade," and Corridors of Blood a "fascinating horror picture; like John Gilling's The Flesh and the Fiends it reaches for greater significance and almost makes it." Unfortunately, the other two films in this set don't fare quite as well as Savant calls First Man Into Space "an exploitation monster movie with a formula that would be repeated by a score of impoverished Z-pictures" and The Atomic Submarine "a thoroughly silly adventure released by the penny-pinching Allied Artists studio..." Despite the shortcomings of two of the four films in this set, Criterion has still released an excellent DVD package that should certainly sit on the shelf of just about any horror fan. These films are not only fun and interesting, but the extra material included in this set should keep you busy for days. Monsters and Madmen comes highly recommended.
"It's about time that the mainstream recognizes the efforts of Luke and Andy Campbell. Since the late '90s, these Ohio adolescents, working with a gang of pals under the Splatter Rampage Productions moniker (now Compound Films), have created some of the cleverest, most endearing homemade horror/comedy mash-ups in all of the outsider oeuvre. Beginning with their pro wrestling homage (the truly insane Splatter Rampage Wrestling) and working through a hilarious serial killer spoof (Midnight Skater) and a slightly more serious teen melodrama monster movie (Demon Summer), the boys have benefited from smart scripting, appealing amateur performances, and a real feel for how movies are made. Now comes their most ambitious project yet, the gang vs. zombie spectacle called The Red Skulls. Representing a real growth in the guy's cinematic language, there is still enough of the old SRW magic to make longtime fans happy." Ah...And so begins horrorhound Bill Gibron's look at the Tempe Entertainment release of The Red Skulls. And there are only more glowing words to come: "You see it from the first few frames – something has definitely changed about the way Luke and Andy Campbell make movies...Sure, the amateur acting is still there, and when you're dealing with your friends and family, it's hard to guarantee that everyone will take your project seriously. But with The Red Skulls, Luke and Andy have fashioned their first real attempt at a conventional motion picture. Even with all its ingratiating genre elements, and its last act lurch into some over the top fight clubbing, this film represents real, measurable growth from the duo...But it's more than just the use of crane shots, or the odd little touches on the Red Skulls gang gear (everyone wears industrial relics obviously snatched from a local junkyard). No, what the Campbells have crafted here is a linear story, avoiding the vignette like approach of Skater or Summer. While both of those pictures did try to follow a three act arc, giving us a set-up/crisis/conclusion, they also went overboard in their desire to show off a certain film geek self-congratulation. It was never malicious; it was meant to show that they were more than just kids with a stack of Super VHS cassettes. But with The Red Skulls, one never gets the impression of sitting in on a series of favorite film homages. Instead, the plot draws directly from recognizable entities (The Warriors, any number of '50s JD epics) while never fully incorporating their more creaky, clichéd components. The Campbells create their own world here, a place loaded with recognizable types and easily identifiable moments. Even when the storyline takes its sharp left and heads over into zombie stomp gore goodness, we buy the shift – especially since the Brothers have prepared us for such a situation early on. It's a key to why The Red Skulls plays like a fully realized film, instead of just another lo-fi effort." High praise, indeed, from Mr. Gibron as he easily gives the film the highly recommended distinction, finally calling The Red Skulls "an engaging example of independent cinema done right."
Bill Gibron's back again for a look at POPcinema's "hilarious horror homage" Chainsaw Sally and, for the most part, likes what he sees. "For schlock aficionados, the best parts of Chainsaw Sally do indeed focus on how our amiable anti-heroine gets her blood and guts groove on. This Maryanne Manson, Gothed up good to maximize her unhinged hotness, is played by [writer/director Jimmyo] Burril's wife April Monique, and she makes for an interesting motion picture lead. She's got the look down pat, far more menacing and memorable than dozens of her dopey Hollywood counterparts. But she is so shy, so subtlety underwhelming as our main maniac that there is something rather endearing about her villainy. It's as if the malformed boy Jason grew up to be a misunderstood Miss with a knack for cleaving the citizenry via hideous horsepower. In addition, she fits in perfectly with her husband's high kitsch conceits. She is someone who lives the lifestyle showcased – both in real life and in the film. Not the killing and corpse eating...at least, one hopes not – but the combination of creepy and campy that permeates Sally and Ruby's doublewide abode. Sure, the look is pure thrift shop chic, a combination of fairy lights, exploitation film posters and random novelties and knickknacks, but April and able acting partner Alec Joseph (in complete Frank-n-furter Wannabe mode) really sell the situation. You never once doubt that this pair put on a batch of popcorn, slip into their Freddy Krueger pajamas, and settle in for a night of local horror host hilarity." It may not be all positive for Chainsaw Sally, but Gibron finds enough to like about the film to give it a solid recommendation. "For most films and their creators, the 'post-mimic' tag is an albatross, a detrimental demarcation that signals a telling reliance on the efforts of others to manufacture new narrative ideals. But for Jimmyo Burril and his cheery Chainsaw Sally, such a stigma should be more than welcome. It indicates the level of loyalty this director has for the genre, its stars, and the seminal efforts that came before. As a result, what could have been dull and routine ends up exceeding even the most elemental expectations. Granted, there could have been a higher 'power tool to person' quotient, but in the end, Burril delivers enough ancillary entertainment to keep us on board."
Mike Long stops by this week for a look at the Dark Sky Films release of the Japanese horror anthology show Prayer Beads and finds it to be a fairly uneven (but at least rentable) entry in the genre. "Prayer Beads reminded me of Masters of Horror in that it's very hit or miss. Some of the episodes, such as "Apartment" are good. Others feature nice ideas which peter out. And some are simply failures. One things that all of the episodes share is a sluggish pace, and they each felt as if they were struggling to fill the 29-minute time slot." What's especially unfortunate about Prayer Beads is that Dark Sky has failed to give us any quality extra material. The studio has, since their inception, been great about providing at least some meaningful extra features on each of their discs. Not only does this give the viewer a little more bang for their buck, but it also helps in providing a little bit of perspective on their feature product. I know, personally, there have been many times when I've gained a whole new respect for a film (or TV show) simply by watching the extra material. The lack of extra material on Prayer Beads is an unusual change for Dark Sky and hopefully a trend they won't continue. Prayer Beads, nevertheless, is still worthy of at least a rental spin.
Mike Long also checks out the Monarch release of Dark Remains and finds it "a frustrating film because it gets creepy right, but it gets many other aspects wrong." Such is the case with many of horror's "dime-a-dozen" straight-to-video, but at least Dark Remains has some kind of pulse. "One thing which [writer/director Brian] Avenet-Bradley certainly gets right are the scenes in the film involving the ghosts. On the DVD's audio commentary, Avenet-Bradley admits to being influenced by The Evil Dead and it shows in the ghost's makeup design, as they have pale ragged skin and totally white eyes. Unlike many horror movies, which attempt to build suspense and then trot out all of the action at the end, appearances by the ghosts are quite prevalent in Dark Remains. The ghosts appear in mirrors, walk through the background, and occasionally attack the other characters. And despite the fact that most of these are done practically - with real actors appearing as ghosts in the scenes - they are quite effective. There were at least two scenes which made me jump and many of the ghost scenes simply have a creepy feeling to them...Given the fact that it actually contains some creepy moments - a true rarity - I really wanted to like Dark Remains. However, the quiet moments in the movie were a bit too quiet and the jumbled story left me unsatisfied. Still, in the realm of low-budget horror movies, one which treats its audience with respect and manages to offer a few scares must be commended." It's, at the very least, easily worth a rental.
"Imagine the little kid from The Sixth Sense as a frazzled stay-at-home mom and you're halfway to understanding the bland yet semi-compelling conceit of Danika, a TV-movie-level thriller starring (the aging yet still adorable) Marisa Tomei. Well, I found it perfectly serviceable little flick ... up until the predictably obvious (and depressingly mean-spirited) twist ending." That's Scott Weinberg opining on the First Look Pictures release of Danika. I'm not quite sure how they snagged Marisa Tomei for the flick, but it's just about the only high point. If nothing else, she's still pretty nice to look at. "Director Ariel Vromen delivers his tale in a crisp and efficient fashion, but he has an annoying habit of letting his camera just kinda "float" around the action -- and it's pretty darn distracting when a camera can't just sit still during one simple dialogue scene. Danika's visions (and the flick's few stray moments of creepy atmosphere) come through in fine form, but Vromen is obviously beholden to a screenplay (by first-timer Josh Leibner) that's way too obvious, conventional, and beholden to flicks like The Sixth Sense and Jacob's Ladder." Rent it if you really feel the need to watch something fairly new from Tomei. Otherwise, it's probably passable.
Scott Weinberg also checked out one of the latest POPcinema titles, Cannibal Campout, and didn't really find much to like: "To criticize the acting, the writing, the "production design," or any other component that's normally evaluated when discussing film would be a moot point; everyone involved with Cannibal Campout knows it's a complete piece of mindless cheese. Some people find this sort of cinematic masturbation kitschy or amusing. I find it grating, obnoxious and pretty freaking tiresome." Ok, so it's not one of the greatest horror films of all time, but it's certainly got its own little place in genre history. What's great, however, is that we have a nice response letter from Jon McBride to tell us all about it: "First let me say that I have never responded to a review like this, even though there have been many reviews posted about my movies, but this time I just couldn't help myself...I don't mind at all that Scott didn't like my movies and, believe me, I have received my share of negative reviews on projects I've worked on. His assessment of the final product is totally justified depending on personal taste. While many people have really enjoyed my movies, lots of people don't and that's fine. It would be a pretty boring place if we all liked the same movies anyway. Personally, I don't happen to like 90% of the movies I see at my local theater but that's another topic entirely...What I do mind about Scott's reviews is that he totally dismissed the most important aspect of my movies, which is, good or bad, they are fluke video phenomenons unlike any other and it is a miracle that they are even available. They have also become inspirations for Independent movie makers everywhere and have been distributed World Wide. I still find that fact incredibly hard to believe given their amateurish no-budget nature but that's the truth of the matter. Usually whenever my movies are met with criticism I pose the following question. 'How many movies can you name which were made for $400, for a goof, in someone's back yard, with a VHS camcorder, with one person doing just about every single production job, sometimes including running the camera and jumping into the shot to act (or at least attempt to act) that were ultimately released World Wide?'...Well, I can actually name two. Cannibal Campout and Woodchipper Massacre..." Well, we can't say he McBride doesn't have a point. For one reason or another, you might want to check these flicks out at least once.
Regular contributor, Scott Weinberg, also finishes up our weekly highlights with a look at the, sadly uninspired, Lionsgate release A Dead Calling. Here's a bit of what Scott has to say about the film: "Noteworthy to horror fans in that it features some (rather unimpressive) work from Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Leslie Easterbrook (reunited from The Devil's Rejects, don't forget) and for very little else, A Dead Calling is a schizophrenic little cheapie that possesses a few surprisingly good components - but not nearly enough to keep the thing afloat...To call A Dead Calling schizophrenic would be a seriously deficient diagnosis. This thing is ultra-double-schizo, and the experience isn't helped by Mr. Feifer's over-reliance on stock contrivances and predictable plot points. Plus most of the actors sound like they were given their first look at the screenplay two hours earlier, and the directorial style can be charitably described as "basic point and shoot." Much could be forgiven if A Dead Calling offered a new idea or a unique spin, but the filmmakers were content to meld a half-baked ghost story with a limp little slasher flick, and the result tastes as undercooked as a raw hot dog." Eh, what can we say? January is a slow month for quality horror (and quality DVD releases in general). A Dead Calling is a bit of a mess, but at least Lionsgate has included a few nice extra features. Only recommended as a rental for the brave...or the sleep-deprived. Watch at your own risk.
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