It's amazing to try and consider just how many feature length motion pictures have been made since the beginning of the medium. Even narrowing it down to, say, the ones that played on the big screen, that's still an almost endless well of films to draw from, from the microbudget cheapies all the way up to the most expensive, massive movies ever made. Paring it down further to Roger Corman's company New World Pictures, that's still (going off of the most basic IMDb search) 388 films, most of which were distributed or produced between the late '60s and early '90s. Shout! Factory is releasing several of Corman's cult classics on DVD and Blu-Ray, and today's titles are 1978's Deathsport and 1982's Battle Truck (aka Warlords of the Twenty-First Century). Sadly, neither of these unearthed B-movies are gems, but there are things to like about both films.
Deathsport stars David Carradine as Kaz Oshay, a sword-and-sandals type in a sci-fi world. There's some elaborate crap about who's who and what's what, but the basic gist of it is that on one side you have other live-off-the-land natives like Oshay, on the other, you have militaristic government types like Ankar Moor (Richard Lynch). If the latter captures the former, the prisoners are subjected to Deathsport, a vaguely-defined game involving motorcyles and people dying. Oshay and Deneer (Claudia Jennings) are captured, and they fight their way out. Oh, and there's mutant cannibals roving the hills, perfectly happy to eat either party. Got it?
Thanks to Allan Arkush's great audio commentary (more on this in the "extras" section), I know that half of the movie was shot by director Henry Suso (aka Nick Niciphor) and half by Arkush himself, and although I had no idea when I was watching the film, it seems almost blatantly obvious in retrospect. The movie is plodding and boring (how can a mash-up of swords and laser guns with cannibals on the side be boring?) until the various motorcycle scenes finally show up more than halfway through. Bikes explode, breakneck POV shots are used, and various asses are kicked (my favorite moment involves Carradine sliding his bike beneath another one). I wish I had more to say about the film, but there's not much going on (rushed rewrites, various scriptwriters, and the eventual Arkush reshoots weren't enough to give the movie a plot).
Battle Truck (the provided print of which retains its original title) is a step up, but it's not quite enough to sustain itself through all 91 minutes. Annie McEnroe is Corlie, the rebellious daughter of Colonel Straker (James Wainwright), a mysterious, evil man who trawls Australia in a giant armored tanker truck, looking for gasoline. Corlie doesn't like her father's murderous ways, so she escapes with the help of a rogue motorcyclist named Hunter (Michael Beck), and hides out with a group of peaceful nomads. When her father comes looking for her in full shoot-first-ask-questions-later mode, she and Hunter decide it's time to end Straker's reign of terror once and for all, taking on the Battle Truck despite their limited resources.
The primary problem with Battle Truck is that Straker just isn't an imposing enough villain. For one thing, he doesn't have a motive. The audience knows he's evil, and he wants to hold Corlie captive, who the audience knows is not evil, but it's not like Straker has some particular plan for her, nor does he seem to be doing much with the Battle Truck other than driving around in it. He's hording gas, too, but what exactly is he going to do with it? You also don't get to know much about Hunter, who as played by Beck is a pretty flat character. McEnroe brings plenty of charm to the film, and director Harley Cokliss has a much more assured hand behind the camera than Suso, but all in all Death Truck just needs some more meat on the bones. Interesting tidbit, though: the film opened 12 days before Mad Max 2, which might stop the obvious criticism dead in its tracks.
Deathsport/Battle Truck comes in a clear plastic case with two "worn" posters slapped on the front underneath a marquee design, and a neatly-designed back cover (I always prefer the top/bottom split for back covers as opposed to left/right). Inside the case, there's another giant poster for Battle Truck (using the original title), as well as a couple of promo images of Carradine and Jennings. It all looks very nice. Icing on the cake comes in the form of an actual paper insert, with a note fom Corman and some production credits on one side, and a list of upcoming titles on the other side.
The Video, and Audio
Deathsport is presented in what looks like 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and for the most part it looks surprisingly great. There are a few nicks and scratches here and there, but it looks almost on par with a modern movie, with strong, vivid colors and shocking clarity. However, there's a mild catch: as mentioned on the inside front cover, a TV interpositive provided the vivid source material, but that meant the R-rated material was missing. Whenever anything violent happens or some full frontal nudity happens, the picture turns a certain color of green and scratch marks appear. It's not really distracting, and may even add to the aesthetic for some fans, but it's probably worth mentioning. Battle Truck, on the other hand, is presented in 1.33:1 full frame and looks more like a tape transfer. It's leaps and bounds above most of the transfers on, say, The Best of the B's Vol. 2 (no watermark, anyway), but it looks harsh and muddy, there's a fair amount of print damage, and the colors are pretty warped.
Both movies are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and the experience is sort of backwards. Deathsport is tinny, harsh, and slightly painful to listen to at times, thanks to the movie's horrible howling bikes. It's audible enough -- I never felt like subtitles would have saved the experience -- but it's definitely a rough listen. Battle Truck goes down much easier; it doesn't sound great, but it sounds relatively clean for the movie's age. No subtitles are provided on easier film, so I'm afraid that anyone who does want them is out of luck.
Two mediocre movies doesn't necessarily mean a mediocre disc, and Shout! Factory proves it with two phenomenal audio commentary tracks: co-director Allan Arkush and editor Larry Bock on Deathsport, and director Harley Cokliss and moderator Jonathan Rigby on Battle Truck. Arkush and Bock are an easy listen, happy to talk about the film's brief highs (Lynch's performance) and the many, many lows (primarily Suso/Niciphor's struggle dealing with his first full-length production). The pair have a ball reminiscing about Corman, Carradine, and Jennings, without the constraints of a major studio hanging over their head or any real bridges to burn. Admittedly, given that Deathsport is not one of my favorite movies or something where the film itself made me intensely curious about the production, the track won't go down as one of my favorites, but it's absolutely a breeze to listen to. Heading right into Cokliss' track right afterward, I was a bit worried -- for whatever reason, I expected Cokliss to be a much older man (maybe it's his name) and the presence of a moderator suggested he might need some prompting. Luckily, both of these things are untrue, and Cokliss is an equally entertaining speaker, responding to Rigby's questions and comments and marveling at the surprisingly elaborate sets the production managed to haul together on such a low budget. Most interesting to me was his discussion about how to massively cut down the amount of time spent shooting a film, as well as his clear knowledge of film history (I doubt anyone expected Chinatown to come up while talking about Battle Truck, but it does!) and the surprising pedigree of Corman's productions (crew among these two films include people who would eventually work with The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles).
Beyond that, there's an original theatrical trailer, TV commercial and radio spot for Deathsport, and still galleries for both movies (both galleries are filed under Deathsport's "Special Features" menu for some reason). Trailers for Humanoids From the Deep, Galaxy of Terror, Piranha, and Starcrash close out the disc (also under Battle Truck's special features.
I wasn't particulary engaged by either of the B-pictures included on this disc, but the commentary tracks more than held my interest. Since the price is great (~$10 online) and the production value of the disc and its extras is pretty spectacular, I'm going to bump it from a rental to a recommended for anyone who remembers catching these at a drive-in or just appreciate's Corman's brand of affordable schlock.
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