DVD Stalk: Masters of Horror: Homecoming, Cat People, and Camp Blood: The Musical
It's starting to seem like just about every week we have a new Masters of Horror disc coming out on DVD. I'm certainly not complaining though, as the Showtime series has done a great job of reinvigorating the horror-television-serial format that thrived with shows like Tales from the Crypt, but had died down in recent years. This week, however, DVD Savant gets a chance to check out one of the most highly-acclaimed episodes of the series: Joe Dante's Homecoming. Infused with Dante's usual ability to fuse dark humor with social satire, Homecoming is easily the most ambitious (and probably the most accomplished) episode to come out of the Showtime series. Instead of going the simple route of many of the other episodes by focusing mostly on the gory and grotesque (and I certainly don't fault many of the episodes for going in that direction - they do what they do and they do it well), Dante's film carries a very strong political message about the current state of affairs in the United States and abroad. It's a message about military action, war, and foreign policy. It's a message about what it is to be corrupt and dead inside. And it's a message about angry dissent toward those very political viewpoints. Homecoming isn't just a zombie film; it's also (and probably more importantly) an accomplished black comedy that can easily stand side-by-side with any of Dante's other films. Not to mention, it's still a hell of a zombie film. This is easily the Masters of Horror disc that I've been most fervently anticipating and, just like the other releases in the series, Anchor Bay delivers with a fully packed DVD that will satisfy any dedicated horror fan.
DVD Savant also has the privilege, this week, of tackling CasaNegra's first two remastered releases in their series of classic Mexican horror from the 1960s. Released domestically on DVD by Panik House, both The Witch's Mirror (El Espejo de la Bruja) and The Curse of the Crying Woman (La maldición de la Llorona) finally get a chance to shine in their original language here in the states. As Savant explains: "Unless one happens to catch an infrequent showing on Spanish language television, original-language versions of these pictures are almost impossible to find, especially in quality presentations. Part of that is due to the heritage of K. Gordon Murray, an enterprising American who imported the films and dubbed them horribly into English." Influenced by scores of American horror and suspense films, The Witch's Mirror and The Curse of Crying Woman would hardly be all that interesting if it weren't for their Mexican take on oft-told stories and the inventive work of their directors.
CasaNegra and Panik House have done a fine job of porting these titles over to the U.S. with their original language tracks in tact while also providing some quality extra material. Commentary tracks on each disc will allow unfamiliar American audiences a chance to really get to know The Witch's Mirror and The Curse of Crying Woman in a way that was previously unavailable. The inclusion of several more engaging extras on each disc makes CasaNegra's overall presentation, in the words of DVD Savant himself, "...both refreshing and classy."
Bigfoot Terror is the latest in Retromedia's recent themed compilation discs and packs together Shriek of the Mutilated, The Legend of Bigfoot, The Capture of Bigfoot, and Search for the Beast on one dual-layer, double-sided disc. With the word "terror" in the title, you'd expect some real scary moments, but Ian Jane quickly informs us that "...the only frightening thing about this set is just how bad most of these movies are." The only title previously released as a single-disc affair, Shriek of the Mutilated, is probably the best thing about this set, so if you already have that release you might want to pass on this set. Diehard bigfoot fans (and hardcore fans of '70s trash cinema in general), nevertheless, might find something to like about Bigfoot Terror.
Scott Weinberg takes a look at Film Baby's latest horror release, Delivery, and finds the Jose Zambrano Cassella product lacking the true scares to make it a quality horror flick. All the elements are in place, but the film is simply deficient in its consistency and tone. Delivery is "...undone by the leaden pacing, the goofy dialogue, several outrageously inert acting performances, and a tone that ranges from 'bleak and angry' to 'snarkily tongue-in-cheek.'" The film does, however, have a few clever little sequences and there's clearly some potential in Cassella to make a good horror film. All of which probably warrants Delivery at least a rental.
Chris Seaver's Destruction Kings is a clear departure from his strange Low Budget Pictures universe, but his fifteen years of working under that banner has made the director a cult favorite. Bill Gibron calls the film "...Ghostbusters meets The Monster Squad as LBP favorites Bonejack and Teen Ape team up to fight the oncoming supernatural apocalypse in Chris Seaver's supposed swan song (at least for these characters)." Gibron goes on to call Destruction Kings a "near masterpiece" and an "undeniable success." That, coupled with the nice DVD presentation provided by Tempe, make Destruction Kings a highly recommended disc.
Bill also has a chance to check out Troma's latest, Zombiegeddon and proclaims: "Zombiegeddon [is] a film that fails on so many unimaginable levels that it's destined to become an instant cult classic...a jaw dropper. Wait, strike that – it's a jaw unhinger! This is without a doubt the most messed up, ridiculous, epic, moronic, mind numbing/boggling/breaking/broasting excuse for a horror film ever to come wafting like a wet fart out of the cornfields of Kansas. With a b to z grade movie cast that would make your average horror hound pop with demented delight, and a storyline laced with religious overtones, rogue maniac cops, and the standard shuffling of flesh eating corpses, it would take a monumental effort to fork up this fright flick." What more would you expect from Lloyd Kaufman and the very cool people at Troma? This is precisely what makes their films so much fun. Personally, I can't wait to see what they have in store for Poultrygeist.
Our resident Jess Franco expert, Ian Jane, takes an early look at the Blue Underground release of the director's 1969 film, Succubus (also known as Necronomicon). The knock against Succubus has long been that it doesn't really make sense, is difficult to follow, and is somewhat incomprehensible. Ian, however, takes umbrage with this claim and says "...like a few of Franco's best films, Doriana Grey and Vampyros Lesbos to name but two, the film succeeds not so much as a traditional narrative but as a series of odd images and set pieces linked more by a central character than by a central storyline." Succubus may not be one of Franco's very best films, but it certainly belongs near the top of the list for being a dreamy, sexy, and often unsettling erotic horror. Blue Underground does their usual bang-up job with the material, as well, making this a must-own disc for any Jess Franco fan.
Finally, we have BCI's latest interesting installment in their Eastern Horror series. This time around, we get the 1988 film Magic of the Universe and the 1989 film Counter Destroyer. A treat for those fans of Asian cult cinema, the Eastern Horror does a nice job of finally bringing some rarely-seen (at least in America) films to domestic DVD. It is, however, a shame that BCI doesn't have better material to work with, as the audio-visual presentations are often shoddy at best. Eastern Horror: Magic of the Universe / Counter Destroyer is certainly a niche market product, but it's one that fans of that area of the horror genre won't want to miss.
The only horror film you'll probably be able to find in most first-run theaters is John Moore's remake of the 1976 Richard Donner classic, The Omen. Opening on a Tuesday - to capitalize on the 6/6/06 date - The Omen (2006) certainly brought in quite an audience as it opened to over $12 million (the largest Tuesday opening in motion picture history), but couldn't seem to garner the affection of many critics. Scott Weinberg, Eric D. Snider, and Brian Orndorf each had a chance to check out the nearly shot-for-shot remake starring Julia Stiles and Liev Schreiber, and all concluded that The Omen (2006) is a lazy, dull, and ultimately unnecessary, carbon-copy remake of a horror classic. Dethroned in its first real weekend at the box office by Pixar's Cars, The Omen (2006) may not last all that long in your major cineplexes around the country (especially with all the summer blockbusters about to be unleashed). If you're really keen on seeing this flick, you may need to do so pretty soon. You may, however, just be better off picking up a copy of the new collector's edition DVD of the original film.
An incredibly slow July 4th week not only for horror releases, but for the entire DVD industry in general. Things should pick up, and get back to normal, next week. In the meantime, check out some past horror titles you might have missed. Here, nevertheless, are three titles that actually do hit shelves this week.
Part horror, part noir, the original Cat People still stands as one of the most influential horror films of the 1940s. The film was not simply a hit at the box office upon its release in 1942; it also influenced the way films (and not just horror films) were made thereafter. While not the erotic thriller that Paul Schrader re-envisioned in 1982, Jacques Tourneur's Cat People is a much more subtle, yet all the more terrifying, version of Irena's transformation from loving wife to wronged predator. Tourneur ramps up the tension in his film by showing as little as possible and, instead, chooses to use shadow, light, and sound to create an environment in which it's often difficult to decipher what's real and what's in the mind's eye.
The first in a series of thrillers produced by Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur's Cat People tells the tale of Serbian-born Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) - a beautiful, but psychologically damaged fashion artist - and her Manhattan ship architect husband Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). The two fall madly in love (mind you, without a single kiss) and marry, although Irena believes that - according to a homeland myth - she will transform into a deadly panther when aroused or angry. When the happy couple's passionless marriage begins to deteriorate, and Oliver considers falling for his coworker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), Irena's "transformation" begins to threaten the lives of her husband, her therapist, and Alice. In a somewhat rushed conclusion, the terror that threatens them becomes a deep-seeded metaphor for female sexual repression and anxiety. Irena becomes more than just the "woman scorned."
So what makes Tourneur's Cat People so good? What does it have that Schrader's version doesn't? Imagination. Tourneur is a master director who gets all his thrills and chills from the manipulation of shadow, light, and sound. The film chooses to show very little while still eliciting the maximum amount of fear and tension. Rarely do we see the panther outside of its cage at the zoo. Tourneur rather opts to provide little glimpses of the panther - a shadow here, a growl there - to raise the tension level. It works magically. Just as Oliver Reed and Alice Moore wonder whether the myth of Irena's people is true, so does the viewer. We know as much as they do, and we are literally cornered in the dark in just the same way. Tourneur's decision to create horror in this way is a testament to the power of the cinematic text and its ability transform nothingness into audience fear. Far more accessible than a film like Last Year at Marienbad, Tourneur's Cat People achieves the same basic goal - the creation of something out of nothing. The technique (certainly not invented by Tourneur, but pushed to the max in Cat People) would prove to be influential for virtually every filmmaker thereafter. If you're unfamiliar with the horror genius of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton, or have only seen the Paul Schrader version of Cat People, now is the perfect time for you to pick up a copy of this horror classic.
George A. Romero will, undoubtedly, always be most easily remembered for his original Zombie Trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead - if you want to add Land of the Dead to the mix, be my guest). Those films will surely stand the test of time and become the filmmakers great legacy in the horror genre. What people seem to forget, however, is that Romero also made a bunch of interesting genre flicks in between those zombie masterpieces. Perhaps a precursor to his great classic, Dawn of the Dead, Romero's 1973 film The Crazies showcases the director's knack for crafting films that are not only incredibly entertaining horror, but also work as effective social commentaries. If you can't see the beginning threads of Dawn of the Dead in The Crazies, you may not be looking very hard. The concept is a pretty simple one: the small town of Evans City, Pennsylvania is quarantined after the release of a deadly virus known as "Trixie." The result of contact with the virus is either death or raving psychosis. What transforms The Crazies from just another bio-horror into something with more depth, however, is what transpires once the military shows up in full biochemical gear and declares marshal law. Wow, turn this virus into a zombie outbreak and change Evans City into a mall, and you've pretty much got your setup for Dawn of the Dead. That's not to say, though, that Romero's 1973 film is a boring, early version of his ultimate classic. It's not at all, and really ends up being a quite different, uniquely interesting horror film. But the seeds of his later work are clearly planted in The Crazies. If you're a fan of Romero, you owe it to yourself to see this often-overlooked film at least once.
If all goes according to plan (and Lionsgate doesn't hack his film to pieces in the editing room), come August 4th, Neil Marshall will be a bona fide star of the horror genre. His latest film, The Descent, is quite possibly the best horror film of the last ten years, and it finally gets a long-awaited statewide theatrical release this summer. I have a feeling that American audiences will be shaken to the core by The Descent's sense of claustrophobia and fear residing in the darkest of places. To horror fans that keep up on their quality British cinema, however, Marshall may already be a star. The director's 2002 film, Dog Soldiers, is one of the best werewolf films to hit the horror genre in quite a long time. Sporting some fantastic special effects to create its 7-foot-tall werewolves, the film pits the beasts against a British military unit on a training exercise in the Scottish wilderness. Clearly intelligent about the genre, and equally skilled behind the camera, Marshall produces some truly frightening moments without completely overdoing it. Dog Soldiers broke box-office records upon its release in the UK, but failed to find a distributor here in the U.S. until the Sci-Fi Channel decided to scoop up the film to play on its cable station. It turned out to be a pretty smart move as the film has since gone on to be a certifiable cult favorite. It even earned Marshall his rightful spot in the young "Splat Pack." Even if Dog Soldiers had done nothing more than provide some solid werewolf entertainment horror fans would have been happy, but the film also spawned the career of a true genre auteur. Dog Soldiers clearly put Neil Marshall on the map, but mark my words: The Descent is the film that will make him a horror legend.
-DIY Independent Horror: Round 1-
This week's Severed Limbs section is the first installment in what will be a recurring feature in DVD Stalk: DIY Independent Horror. Much like our other recurring features in this section (Horror Score Mania, etc), do-it-yourself independent horror is often overlooked in the genre world. The oversight is legitimate at times - when this brand of horror is bad (and it's pretty often) it tends to be really bad. There are, however, those few cases (the "diamonds in the rough," if you will) where a group of friends get together to shoot a quick, independent horror flick and actually end up with a pretty damn fine film. Our goal with the DIY Independent Horror feature is to give those particular films some exposure, and hopefully bring them to a whole new audience.
If any film ever echoed the do-it-yourself, independent attitude it's definitely Camp Blood: The Musical. Written, edited, and directed by the trio of Tanner Barklow, Jefferson Craig, and Thomas Hughes, this retro-horror-spoof is truly a "bunch of friends got together and shot this wacky horror flick" production which, in most cases, would be a recipe for disaster. Your typical drunken-college-kid horror production is full of lame acting, messy photography, and horrendously bad dialogue. What most of those attempts lack, however, is charm. There's no charisma, spunk, or even obvious dedication to the project, and all those elements thrown together into one big sloppy mess of a film is what often makes those films barely watchable. And this is precisely what sets Camp Blood: The Musical apart from all the others. These guys (and gals) have heart. They have desire, dedication, and most of all charm. What they don't have, however, is quality acting, production values, dialogue, or even singing voices. Yet, for some strange reason, when the entire thirty-minute film is over, all those shortcomings are completely forgivable.
Not only are the odds against the makers of Camp Blood: The Musical from the very beginning (simply because they lack the funds and equipment to make a flashy horror picture), but they also put one more roadblock in the way of success by tackling one of cinema's most difficult genres: the horror-spoof-comedy. When done well (e.g. The Return of the Living Dead and Club Dread), the results are amazingly good. When done poorly, however, the results can be disastrously unfunny and the critics unrelenting. What is clear, from the very moment the DVD arrives in the mail from the Camp Blood... crew, is that these guys aren't taking themselves totally seriously. Along with the DVD itself came the following letter from the filmmakers:
"Camp Blood: The Musical was written in eight hours in March 2005. The songs were recorded in one day and the video itself was shot in less than two, all with student actors. It was made on a budget of $200.00. The majority of the budget was spent on T-shirts and beer..."From the very moment that I read those words, I knew that Camp Blood: The Musical would probably be a fun and lighthearted experience because these guys (and gals) were clearly having a lot of fun making their film, fooling around with the genre's many cliches, and mostly goofing on themselves.
So, by now, you're probably wondering just what this 30-minute film actually has to offer. Well, if you're in the market for another Broken Lizard production with a tightly scripted plot, funny dialogue, and spot-on parodies, then Camp Blood: The Musical might not be for you. If you're looking for something that's clearly an amateur production with some hilariously funny ideas, more cheese than a block of cheddar, and a myriad of other laughter-inducing aspects, then this is your type of flick. I'm sure the filmmakers themselves would be the first to admit that their actors are simply hamming it up for the camera, their production values are horrible, and even their singing voices are sometimes ear-piercingly bad. What results from all this, however, is an incredibly likable little horror-spoof. Camp Blood: The Musical - and, essentially, all of the people that worked on the film - clearly have more heart and charm than probably ninety-percent of the Hollywood horror productions you see every year. Passion is completely contagious, and these people are having so much fun making their cheesy little horror-spoof that it's hard not to laugh right along with them for a half-hour. Not to mention there's also a little bit of T&A for the guys out there, several twisted (albeit less-than-stellar) kill scenes, and even a few pretty clever songs ("The Tops Come Off" first comes to mind).
The bottom line about Camp Blood: The Musical is that it's clearly not a polished, perfectly-executed horror film. Far from it, in fact. But it a highly enjoyable little surprise in the world of DIY independent horror. At only thirty minutes the film moves ahead at breakneck speed, going through its simple plot, singing its songs, and getting out while its ahead. It's just enough cheese, but never quite too much, and the pacing keeps the whole film pretty fresh. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, but Camp Blood: The Musical is (more often than not) a success. It's a fun alternative to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood horror and stands high above the dreck that all too often comes from the "anyone with a camcorder can make a movie" crowd.
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