Synapses Films' 42nd Street Forever DVD releases, which number a half dozen and counting, have become must-owns for film geeks. The collections, which the label began issuing in 2005, are a buffet of trailers from the so-called "grindhouse" era: the notorious, the long forgotten, and everything in between. Other, lesser labels have attempted to follow their lead with trailer compilations of their own, but no one does it quite as well as Synapse; their discs are howlingly entertaining and marvelously compiled, and feature about the best possible A/V quality for scraps of film as presumably neglected as these.
42nd Street Forever's inaugural foray into HD, simply subtitled Blu-Ray Edition, is comprised mostly of titles from the series' first two standard-def releases, 2005's 42nd Street Forever Volume 1 and 2006's 42nd Street Forever Volume 2: The Deuce. The 225-minute Blu-ray disc (that's right, three and a three-quarter hours) gives us a total of 89 trailers, compared to the 47 of volume one and 56 of volume two. A few presumably didn't make the cut due to quality; there's also a decent assortment of new titles, including Chained Heat (Linda Blair in prison!), Act of Vengeance (aka, ahem, Rape Squad), The Teasers Go to Paris, The Teacher, The Tale of the Dean's Wife, Pornography in Denmark, The Minx, Dark Star, Dr. Butcher M.D., Salo (or the 120 Days of Sodom), and the immortally-titled Honky.
But it's not just a matter of finding cheap-o trailers, stringing them together, and slapping it on a disc. The folks at Synapse clearly take the idea of "programming" these releases seriously; there's a certain kind of grindhouse or drive-in movie that fits here, a specific free-wheeling style, reckless energy, kitchen-sink abandon, and relentless hucksterism. It's not a notion as simple as "so bad it's good"; it's more complicated than that. These trailers appeal to a kind of vulgar base instinct about what movies are: tough guys, fast cars, naked ladies, spurting blood, flying fists, scary monsters, fire, explosions, crashes, bullets, lasers, nipples, the works. There are no aspirations for high art here, no delusions of grandeur; these movies are about providing a good time and, more importantly, making a quick buck.
The sad truth, as many of those who've tracked down some of the titles in these collections have learned, is that the pictures in question frequently were unable to provide even that--low budgets, limited resources, and questionable talent on and off screen prevent most of them from working for more than a few moments at a time. And that's what makes their trailers such a treat: released from the burden of providing a full feature's worth of engagement, a three to four minute preview can distill the money shots, genuine thrills, and sexiest ladies into a quick collection of the picture's greatest hits. 42nd Street Forever: The Blu-ray Edition, then, in compiling the most popular and ridiculous of the series first two offerings, amounts to a survey of the best of the best.
The trailers are also smartly programmed within the disc itself, a not inconsiderable factor for consumption and enjoyment. They're grouped into the expected subgenres; the collection starts with blaxpoitation titles, then moves into revenge pictures and T&A flicks, cheap sci-fi, monster movies (domestic and Japanese), "mondo" docs, import crime and spy films, kung fu, biker movies, and "hickspolitation," with stops along the way for sub-sub genres like 3-D sex movies, cheerleader epics, and nudist colony documentaries. But the transitions between them are admirably smooth; it only makes sense, after all, to use Flesh Gordon as the bridge between the skin flicks and the low-budget science fiction.
Organizational kudos aside, there are pleasures a-plenty among the trailers themselves, which range from the intriguing (Rolling Thunder, They Call Her One Eye, I, A Mother) to the hilariously trite (the young flesh trifecta of College Girls, Street Girls, and The Babysitter) to the jaw-droppingly bad (seriously, you've never seen a trailer--or, I'm betting, a movie--that looks as incompetent as The Guy From Harlem) to the totally inexplicable (The Crippled Master, the werewolf/biker hybrid Werewolves on Wheels, the caveman sex comedy When Women Had Tails). And the showmanship, of course, is second-to-none; there's pomp ("It may very well be the most important film you will ever see!"), hyperbole ("The wildest party scene you've ever seen in film!"), and utter bullshit (if you die from fright after the double feature of Night of Bloody Terror and Women of Bloody Horror, you'll get two thousand dollars!) as far as the eye can see.
Video & Audio:
You don't exactly go to a collection like this looking for demo-perfect image and sound; part of the charm and texture of these trailers is in the dirt, scratches, grain, and sheer ugliness of these low-budget productions. But Synapse's MPEG-4 AVC transfer works from what seem to be the best possible source materials, and while some are certainly spotty, several others (Ms. 45, Chained Heat, Deadly Blessing, and Born Losers particularly) are surprisingly crisp and attractive. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is surprisingly good as well, keeping the booming voice-overs and poorly recorded dialogue as clean and audible as can be expected.
There's only one, but it's a doozy: a running Audio Commentary for the entire program (all 225 minutes of it) by AV Maniacs' Edwin Samuelson, Fangoria's Michael Gingold, and Temple of Schlock's Chris Paggiali. The trio previously collaborated on commentary tracks for volumes three and four of the series, and have by now developed a nice rapport. Their tracks are alternately informative (why no, I wasn't aware that Steve McQueen did some stunt-riding in Dixie Dynamite), and funny, with slightly bemused reactions ("Jeez, that's really sleazy!") and apologies ("Sorry folks, there's a lot of orgies--we're not spanking off, we just don't know what to say"). These guys know their stuff, and do it such an engaging way that you may be tempted--as I was--to only listen to them; you can get the gist of the trailers from the video and leaked audio, and sometimes their anecdotes and trivia are more entertaining than the movies they're discussing.
Some of these trailers are pretty hard to handle, even in a detached, ironic way (I'm with the audio commenters--I cannot stomach those "mondo" trailers, and they will clear a room in five seconds flat), and four hours is a lot of anything to take in at once (though whether you'll be doing so straight through, as I did, is certainly up for discussion). That said, 42nd Street Forever is a trashily enjoyable, often uproarious, frequently filthy treat, and while those who own the original DVDs may balk at re-upping here, these trailers are like good singles you're happy to hear again on a greatest hits collection. Besides that, the fine A/V presentation, jazzy audio commentary, and smattering of new titles (not to mention the reasonable price tag) make this one well worth snatching up.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.