Sabers and Hatchets

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean will undoubtedly endure as a popular franchise in spite of the sometimes painful flaws that make the contrived trilogy a journey that begins with promise, hits a high note in the mid-section, and withers into a brackish puddle of nonsense.

Pirates I, The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), ran anywhere from 20-45 mins. too long and just kept dragging characters into unending conflicts before the end credits finally rolled and wrapped up a 143 min. running time. In spite of its egotistical length and a bombastic score that borrowed from every Media Ventures sample library and bludgeoned audiences with thematic material all-too reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s action scores for Jerry Bruckheimer’s prior excesses, it still managed to be, well, fun, which is surprising, given the film’s roots stem from an amusement park ride.

Pirates II, Dead Man’s Chest (2006), was all-action, pitting the heroes and heroine in streams of deadly situations that were solved by crazy physical feats or strokes of extreme luck. Like an episode from an old serial, there was no beginning or end – it just motored ahead at full speed, and terminated with a cliffhanger that seemed almost impossible to solve. Fans either found the film loud, incoherent, and bloated with action-comedy set-pieces, or welcomed its fast tempo that managed to offset the 150 min. running time. The new characters were an amazing collection of humans and CGI enhancements, and the score managed to exploit the dynamic violin twitter, and distance itself from the prior avalanche of bombast.

Pirates III, At World’s End (2007), began with a song-enhanced public execution, and had us eager to see how Jack Sparrow managed to escape from the massive sea monster’s bowels… only to have us pondering what felt like a deleted nightmare montage from Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, left unfilmed because a brig stuck in the desert and crabs resembling rocks and multiple characters talking to each other was maybe deemed incoherent, if not immaterial to the plot.

And that’s about where the film’s true colours came through: talky with pseudo-myth explanations of what the second film’s mysterious legends all meant; scaled-down action scenes which themselves had little point beyond interrupting dull blatherings of pirates meeting, arguing, back-stabbing, meeting, cussing, and back-stabbing; and a revolving set of scenes that had characters playing pirate chess – moving from prisoner to freeman to hostage to barter victim to hero to prisoner through an endless, pointless series of looped sequences that failed to propel whatever story the writers had concocted to justify a third film, running almost 3 hours.

It made no sense, it ran too long, it wasn’t funny, the action was a pale and cheapened imitation of the kinetic battle scenes of Pirates II, and it was all waste of time, with a considerable talent pool (read: Chow Yun-Fat) left un-mined.

If the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy illustrated how the swashbuckling genre could be vivified after some relatively recent colossal failures – Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986) and Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995) – it also demonstrated how one could kill it through excess.

The genre enjoyed a steady run during the forties with entries like The Black Swan (1942) taking over from the more serious epics – Captain Blood (1935), The Sea Hawk (1940) - headlined by Errol Flynn, although humour always played a role in balancing danger with saccharine romance.

When Burt Lancaster moved into the genre via The Crimson Pirate (1952), through his own grinning, gymnastic personality and Roland Kibbee’s giddy screenplay, formal conventions were spoofed – but without ridiculing some of their silliest aspects. Pirate chess still formed the backbone of the film – lured by treasure, captured by rebels, escape, encounter with buxom babe, capture by snotty royal army, some swordplay on deck and in the captain’s quarters, a big final battle, and maybe some singing – but the key genre changes refined the sidekick formula – two overt goofballs either creating mischief in unison, poking at each other’s sanity, or competing for the hot babe – and humour through choreographed action that tested the wit of the characters by placing them in impossibly absurd situations.

Lancaster and Nick Cravat established a formula that is amazingly contemporary because it’s been copied into other genres, and partly inspired Roman Polanski to make his own pirate movie, decades later.

Alongside the epic spectacle of sword and sandal films, pirates kind of popped up through a series of both serious films – High Wind in Jamaica (1965) – and fluff, and the most intriguing among the latter camp had Errol Flynn’s son Sean make his feature film debut in Son of Captain Blood (1962).

Recently released in France on DVD, Son of Captain Blood is not a good movie; the direction is bland and distanced, the music grating, the pacing a mess, and the finale’s borrowing from The Hurricane (1937) just plain preposterous. But it’s a definite curio, and while an example of how to make a limp swashbuckling epic on a shoestring, it’s also fascinating to see how the filmmakers tried to introduce Sean Flynn as a potential action hero by sliding him into the role of Peter Blood’s son, Robert.

His mom sees the sparkle and rebelliousness of his father in the boy, and lets Robert chance the sea on a merchant vessel, and for the first scenes of Flynn on the boat, it’s as though he was either coaxed or felt the need to grin and maintain a boyish comportment to evoke the spirit of father Errol, while the writers and director had voyaging women (mostly teens and youths) ogling and giggling from the sidelines in scenes repeated as if to reassure us that with patience, Sean and the film will deliver the romance and action and excitement redolent of dad’s classic films.

Like the sword and sandal epics, swashbuckling films ran out of steam, and sort of morphed into more exploitive and violent hybrids like Light at the Edge of the World (1971) before running dry, which is perhaps why Polanski may have felt it was time to return with a version that bridged the humour found in The Crimson Pirate with clichés audiences had come to enjoy, after watching the classics on TV and home video.

Pirates (1986) was a prestige production that disappeared very fast from theatres. I remember seeing it billed at Fairview Mall for maybe a week, and then kicking myself for not catching on the big screen; I had doubts about it being good, but it was a ‘scope pirate movie with Walter Matthau chewing the scenery, plus a music score by one of France’s top composers, Philippe Sarde.

Years later it popped up on an ugly panned and scanned VHS tape, and it was, when viewed back in 2002, a dud. A disaster. A mess.

Then came the Jack Sparrow trilogy, with Pirates III reeking of the worst excess hammered into the hull of an epic movie, and in revisiting Polanski’s dud, recently released in Spain in ‘scope transfer, it didn’t seem as indulgent. It’s not a good film, but one does catch glimpses of what Polanski was trying to achieve by crafting his own spin on the genre, and it had a plot; same old same old pirate chess, but it did make its way towards a finale that closed the film at just under 2 hours.

One also could see elements borrowed from Crimson Pirate and in particular, Richard Lester’s land-bound swashbuckling diptych, The Three Musketeers + The Four Musketeers, and appreciate some of the jabs at royal snobbery and religion. That isn’t to say Pirates is deep, but it has aged far better in the intervening years (6) since Disney’s franchise exhausted its good luck by failing to create a meaningful conclusion to its series.

In any event, instead of reviewing the over-reviewed Jack Sparrow films (though you could argue that was done 1000 words ago), we have reviews of The Crimson Pirate (1952), Son of Captain Blood (1962), and Pirates (1986) as examples of genre benders and fumbles that cost a pretty penny, or a smidge more than a ham sandwich.

Also of note this week as we catch-up & wrap up what’s left on the docket is Adam Green’s Hatchet (2006), a sometimes clever effort to rekindle the beloved elements of classic slasher films when latex and buckets of blood ruled before CGI turned murder & mayhem into outtakes from videogames. The unrated director’s cut includes more elastic trauma in the DVD from Anchor Bay / Starz Home Entertainment.

Also of note is Bluebeard, Edward Dmytryk’s extremely odd and uneven attempt to upgrade the famous tale of a wife-killer to a fascist, murky Germanic locale. Richard Burton’s accent drifts across a few cultural borders, but his beard is in fact blue, and the women deemed annoying and dispatched to the castle’s cooler are played by several gorgeous actresses, some best-known for their naughty exploitation work. The DVD from Maple / Lionsgate brings back into print one of Anchor’s Bay’s earliest DVD releases, in a clean albeit non-anamorphic transfer.


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Christmas Horror

The myriad DVD releases of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead has made fans skeptical of whether anything new and substantive can possibly be added to the existing archives on prior special editions, and undoubtedly when the film makes its debut on HD (discs of the Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Evil Dead II are already out on Blu-ray), the desire will be not a bare bones edition of Evil Dead, but everything assembled under one roof – which is what the new 3-disc Ultimate Edition mostly manages to achieve.

There’ve been more than enough single editions of The Evil Dead to satisfy budget-conscious fans over the years, so it makes sense to simply offer an Ultimate edition, particularly since those who regard Raimi’s film as a worthy horror flick don’t just like the film – they love it (myself included).

We covered the film in detail when it arrived in the very cool Book of the Dead edition back in 2002, so our review of the Ultimate compares the new extras, things left off, and the re-release of the 1.33:1 full screen version of the film, once available on long out of print DVDs from Elite and Anchor Bay.

There hasn’t been a full clarification by the filmmakers as to exactly how the film was meant to be seen, and it’s a similar problem with Joe Dante’s The Howling: both films were aimed at the drive-market and enjoyed popular home video releases, yet the letterboxed versions on DVD always felt tight, sandwiching and cropping the frame down with a discernible loss of upper and lower detail.

What exactly is the preferred ratio? Well, like MGM’s Howling special edition, Anchor Bay’s Evil Dead Ultimate set gives us the choice, which is important in these cases because there are appreciable benefits to watching the films in 1.33:1 only because the matting, whether or not done primarily to satisfy home theatre buffs, feels tight on the actors’ heads at times.

This isn’t the same thing as a panned and scanned 1.33:1 version of a widescreen film, as movies shot for an intended 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 exhibition ratio should never be touched, and when labels plop a full screen version on a dual layer DVD, you know that useless transfer is taking valuable space away from the widescreen version, robbing it of more visual resolution and a more robust selection of sound mixes you could be enjoying on your home theatre system. The 1.33:1 version of The Evil Dead is on a separate DVD, so it’s not affecting the widescreen version.

In any event, check out our review of the Ultimate Edition from Anchor Bay / Starz Home Entertainment, alongside a film review of Within the Woods, the short film made in 1978 by Raimi & Co. to raise funds for the Evil Dead. Currently archived on YouTube, it’s the missing link in completing the archival history of the Evil Dead mythos, and contains a enough unauthorized score and song clips burned into the sound mix to ensure the legal fees necessary to clear the film’s home video release will likely never happen.

Also uploaded is the 1936 British film version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, compacting the Frederick Hayward’s popular play into a short B-movie starring the inimitable Tod Slaughter. It’s creaky and clunky, but works as a fun B-movie, if not an interesting glimpse into the play’s elements reworked by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler for their 1979 musical, filmed by Tim Burton in 2007 and debuting in theatres Dec. 20th. The 1936 film, available from Alpha Video, is also a great intro to Tod Slaughter’s scene-chewing acting style, and fans wanting more info on this marginalized eccentric should visit a detailed and affectionate tribute site HERE.

Also newly uploaded is Suzie Templeton’s wonderful stop-motion animated film of Peter and the Wolf, set in a murky Soviet era period, yet true to the spirit and tragic horror of the original musical narrative by Sergei Prokofiev. Although available in Europe as a Region 2 PAL DVD, it’s worth hunting down if you have a multi-region player. The animation and characterizations in this Oscar-Nominated film are really quite beautiful.

Lastly, while the fine details on a fat review of the newly expanded 2-CD set of Jerry Goldsmith's classic Alien score is being wrapped up, we've added an interview with composer Elia Cmiral, who recently scored two films picked up for the travelling After Dark Horrorfest series: Dario Piana's The Deaths of Ian Stone, and Mark Young's Tooth & Nail.


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One too many

Warner Bros. has chosen to release Blade Runner in seven tiers spread over three formats – DVD, HD-DVD, and Blu-Ray – and it’s probably the most overly complicated cross-format release on home video at one time.

The studio’s decision to support all three formats is, for specific format-loyal consumers, probably the most appealing stance in the current high-def [HD] format war; it’s also smart, but with deep pockets, it’s clear the demise of one HD format would affect the major studio less than an indie label who decided to delve into the HD world by supporting what might later emerge as the doomed format, and finding their inventory cluttering delete bins, or idling as year-end write-offs due to a demise in sales.

I’m not really sure if that happened with the original DIVX DVDs, but a friend picked up Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie when that dum-dum format was as good as dead, knowing the film – at the time unavailable on standard DVD because Universal was being stubborn – could be had dirt cheap, so I could have an antique of sorts, and a sample of the studio’s idiotic attempt to circumvent rental shops.

There’s some irony in how Universal regarded DVD as an opportunity to achieve more control over rental revenue via mostly blah full screen DIVX releases, whereas Warner Bros. and New Line, for example, sensed that DVDs could become the ultimate collector format for the film fan, and respectively released superb – and loaded – widescreen editions of Mars Attacks! and The Matrix, for example.

Unlike Universal, which remains HD-DVD exclusive, Warner Bros. is quite committed to both HD formats. Either they’re richer than Universal, or the losing format would basically become a great tax write-off, offsetting the surge in sales of the winning format.

In using Blade Runner as means to appeal to every type of consumer – the average fan, the collector on a budget, and the HD fan and collector with deep pockets – they’re also asking merchants to set aside more shelf space for this singular title (a grating problem for smaller indie stores who regularly have to allot space to another wave of useless reissued, re-branded, titles that just aren’t necessary.)

A remastered edition of Blade Runner? That’s a genuine New Release deserving retail shelf space. Warner Bros. reissuing Logan’s Run and The Omega Man in new alpha cases? Not a New Release, and not deserving hype, regardless of the new cover art. It’s also interesting that The Last Man on Earth, the first version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend novel, was previously double-billed with Panic in Year Zero as part of MGM’s Midnite Movie series, and while still in print, it’s been reissued by the label with the same extras as a single disc for a smidge less, but with cover art mimicking the new Will Smith version of Matheson’s novel.

(In fairness, MGM’s double-billed edition came out in Canada, was allegedly pulled in the U.S., and was subsequently released in the U.S. and Canada without a kerfuffle. Point: It’s maybe a dollar more than the new reissue, but comes with a second and equally fun cheesy B-film, which the genre fan would probably prefer for the extra buck.)

What’s annoying about the Blade Runner tiers is that the 4-disc mid-price edition on standard DVD aimed at the ardent fan and collector with a budget lacks the golden egg – the workprint version on Disc 5 that’s in the big grey lunchbox. (I know it’s a replica of the Voight-Kampf gizmo, but it looks like a lunchbox.)

While Warner Bros. released special ‘tin’ editions of Forbidden Planet and King Kong (1933) with toys, lobby cards and other trinkets, the same DVDs could be bought for about half the price of the tins; they were the same collector/fan/movie buff editions at a fair price, and anyone wanting the assorted toys could dig deeper into the wallet.

In the case of Blade Runner, the only way to get the 5th DVD on standard DVD is to plop down double the cash for the lunchbox, or buy the non-lunchbox HD edition that’s just a few dollars more and contains all 5 DVDs.

In the case of older back catalogue titles like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Grand Prix, these titles are actually cheaper on HD-DVD than standard DVD, so the tiered Blade Runner scheme may be another attempt to dangle an even better carrot in front of film fans that are tempted to take the HD plunge, and just needed a modern classic as bait - one with what’s arguably one of the best collection of visuals and digital sound mixes perfectly suited to test the home theatre; if any movie could play silently on the wall as gorgeous wallpaper, Blade Runner is it.

For a while now, the studios have been wasting their time releasing mediocre comedies (Wild Hogs, RV) on HD in a silly attempt to appeal to what – the average filmgoer? The action fan who figures The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause is just as sexy as 300, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Crank on HD? The family with a flexible budget, happy to spend more on an HD of Norbit than buying or renting it on standard DVD so as to treasure every nuance in HD?

Perhaps it’s best that the big studios are the ones poking around in the dark to see what works, because it allows indie companies to watch for patterns, listen to the ire of fans, and hear from merchants as to what junk is being returned to distributors because no one wants to touch it. It may not even be a worry to smaller labels as to what format is poised to win, but rather, ‘What pattern is favourable to us so that we can test the waters without losing money and satisfy the target audience we also need to treat with respect.’

The HD editions of Blade Runner do that, but the leap collectors and fans have to make to gain the complete release on standard DVD is, well, kind of insulting, because you wonder if a year later, or 5 years later for some unnecessary anniversary edition, whether that fifth disc will come out again. (It is a perfect way to purge warehouses of unsold and overrun copies…)

Way back in 1999, when Warner Bros. released The Exorcist in a 25th Anniversary Special Edition, the film was treated to tiered editions because the studio wasn’t quite sure what would work between established VHS collectors, and what type of fan was part of the new DVD consumer body. So you had the single VHS edition; a limited boxed VHS edition with an extract from a making-of doc, plus a CD, lobby cards, a book, and senitype; and the DVD release in a snapper case, with the disc containing a commentary track and the full making-of doc.

If the DVD was aimed at collectors, why were some of those extras ferried to VHS?

Well, the 2000 DVD replaced the 1997 barebones DVD, which was authored with the 5.1 mix on the full screen side of the disc. (Whoops.) The VHS editions obviously disappeared into oblivion, although the goodies from the limited VHS box were apparently ported over (repackaged?) in a DVD Collector’s Set in 2001.

Then the theatrical cut was deleted soon after the expanded & clumsily branded The Version You’ve Never Seen (aka the Whiny Writer’s Cut, or The Version Friedkin Said Wasn’t Necessary A Year Ago Until Scruples Became Optional) was released in 2000. That became the de facto edition until a recent anthological set in 2006 timed to the DVD release of the cruddy prequel films brought the theatrical cut back from Revisionist Purgatory.

If this all seems petty, well, in part it is, but it’s also example of how some movies are kicked around, suffer through patently ridiculous incarnations, and are awkwardly handled when there’s greed, and when the studios are hedging bets because they really don’t know what will happen when new formats are being sold in the midst of fickle consumers – and that latter possibility is what’ll make fans a bit more cynical and mistrustful of the labels than they already are, though I think we’ve already reached a limit, and have our noses shoved against the plaster ceiling at this stage.

Way back among the first DVD releases, a few smart producers decided to put out a handful of definitive edition for that time, figuring a two-tiered edition was just wasteful; DVD was the elite format over VHS and laserdisc, so why offer anything less than the best? Blade Runner is admittedly an exception due to the various incarnations since its release, but studios and indie labels ought to rethink a release strategy when you can count the versions on two hands.

Part of the problem is due to the demise of VHS and laserdisc, and standard DVD being less affected by the massive quality jump it offered over those obsolete formats; even under the shadow of HD, standard DVD remains an affordable and attractive choice for the average consumer & heavy collector.

Keep the available options to consumers simple and fair, and (almost) everyone will be happy. Loose your way between the transition towards the next dominant video format, and in the case of The Exorcist, we'll have to endure a dum-dum: two film versions spread over six editions on two home video formats within three years (1997-2000)... a faint echo of the five film versions spread over seven editions on three formats that are on shelves now.


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A grisly celebration of the other white meat

“I sing like Bowie, and slice with glee.”Perhaps still intrigued with musicals after directing the animated The Corpse Bride with Helena Bonham Carter and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp, director Tim Burton reunited with the top two players from his personal stock company and crafted this vivid film version of the 1979 stage musical, which had Stephen Sondheim set music and lyrics to Christopher Bond’s prior revamping of the classic penny dreadful pulp tale about a barber named Sweeney Todd who cuts the throats of men innocently wanting the removal of their five o’clock shadows, and Mrs. Lovett, a thoughtful baker who sought to reduce Todd’s carbon footprints by redirecting the cadavers into a successful line of meat pies.

Depp’s rendition of Todd is a delicious fusion using Beethoven’s physical posture – including Ludwig’s maniacal hair – and the low vocal style of David Bowie, with Depp waving, fondling and singing odes to his fine set of silver-handled straight razors, hidden by Mrs. Lovett when the evil Judge Turpin had Todd wrongfully convicted, raped his wife, and raised their daughter Johanna as his personal ward until she reached an age appropriate for a socially inappropriate marriage.

Alan Rickman frequently conjures the beloved spirit of Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, particularly in scenes wherein he admonishes the young green-eared Anthony Hope (Todd’s seaman friend) for ogling Johanna, and when Turpin sentences a repeat offender to death, quite indifferent as to whether the pre-teen was guilty of the crime.

Playing the judge as a well-traveled man with his own collection of dirty foreign art, Rickman, like Depp, also sings his lyrics with just the right amount of contempt for mankind, plus his burgeoning love for teenage Johanna in an exquisite duet that has Turpin and Todd almost bonding as vengeful men while each conspires to commit his own cruel fantasy.

Had Todd been able to slice Turpin’s neck so early into the story, the film would've been over too early, so it’s only natural the barber’s scheme is foiled by a subplot that sets in motion a number of cruel ironies revealed in the film’s final scene.

Overall, it’s a tragic tale of pitch black revenge, and the filmmakers don’t shy away from any violence. The first victim, a pompous, pseudo-Italian barber named Signor Adolfo Pirellli, is the first to be drained of his blood when the character’s blackmail scheme is cut short by Todd’s straight razor. Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) almost chews the scenery as the egocentric twit, sewn into his blue satin toreador costume, and sporting a nasty ironed-down part that ends with rolling pin hair curls just above the ears.

Todd’s repurposing of his old barber chair also gives director Burton free license to indulge in myriad throat-slittings, jugular sprays, and a sly victim disposal system that’s accomplished in grisly detail by tilting back the chair, and tossing the half-dead fool down a chute, where he lands on the head and awaits Mrs. Lovett’s industrial meat grinder. The Dolby Digital mix nicely supports these Frank Tashlin-styled montages with neck cracks and cranial thuds, and Burton flips to several differing angles, sometimes giving us a glimpse of a victim’s frozen, shocked visage, laced with a wee bit of embarrassment.

The gore, bloody sprays, and subtext of adults relishing inappropriate buggery are neither indulged in nor softened, ensuring this film version of the Sondheim musical is aimed squarely at adults. Just as surprising are several jabs at Victorian corruption, which has Pirelli’s abused assistant drink a few pints of gin as a sleep aid – something the boy learned while growing up in an orphanage. The deaths are memorable, and a moment of vengeful immolation is beautifully detailed to enhance the rage that’s completely corrupted the soul of a particular character.

Sondheim’s vicious lyrics are supported by some buoyant scenes, particularly the grisly duet that has Todd and Mrs. Lovett fantasizing whether the use of a priest, lawyer, or local fop would spice up the revamped meat pies. The duet, like most of the musical numbers, glide between short bits of connective dialogue, and Burton is surprisingly restrained in his technique; with the exception of a fast-moving montage that ratchets the editing tempo, Burton uses tight framing, and frequently indulges in massive, intimate close-ups, recalling early thirties and forties melodramas.

The sets and cinematography are angled towards evoking an acid-washed view of an effluent-encrusted London, and the use of digital effects is more ambient, with some brief city views resembling three-dimensional theatrical silk screens over which the camera glides.

One could argue there are perhaps a few too many murders that slow down the pacing, but the star of the film is clearly Stephen Sondheim’s music, which propels the sad saga of a barber gone bad, and the woman, who for one shining period in her career, baked meat pies to die for.

Fans of the Sweeney Todd legacy can also check out several DVD releases, including the BBC’s 2006 version of the stage musical starring Ray Winstone and Essie Davis; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a 1982 taping of the Los Angeles performance starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury; a 2001 taping with George Hearn and Patti LuPone; and a rare 1936 British film version of the penny dreadful tale starring the appropriately named Tod Slaughter, and Stella Rho.

And if you’re in Toronto, there’s also a new touring production that’s coming to the end of its two-month run at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Dec. 9th, starring David Hess and Judy Kaye.

If none of those sate, then go buy some meat pies, have a Cornish pasty, or indulge in a tortierre with some ale.

This revue was made possible through an advance screening courtesy of Paramount, and Rue Morgue magazine, held at The Queensway Theatre, Dec. 6, 2007, on a bloody cold night in T.O.

- Copyright 2007 by Mark R. Hasan (KQEK.com)

Moving from Depp to sexploitation and smut, we've uploaded another trio of DVD reviews:

- The Sexploiters, another beautifully produced release from Retro-Seduction Cinema, a label that dearly loves the nutty, dirty B-movies they've been saving from oblivion in clean transfers and extras that place each film within the historical context of the sexploitation genre.

- Hideout in the Sun, also from retro-Seduction, with 2 versions (full screen and widescreen) of Doris Wishman's feature film debut, with oodles of extras to contextualize this nudie-noir (probably the only time that term will ever be applied to a film).

- Vintage Erotica Anno 1960, the latest volume in Cult Epics' excellent series of vintage dirty movies (well, they are!) once meant for elite parlours and collectors. Anno 1960 was probably aimed at the average connoisseur, and would've been screened in more mundane locales, like Jim and Susan Westwater's basement, after the kids have gone to sleep, Peaches the cat was locked in the kitchen, and the in-laws were on vacation in Florida. Sporting 12 meaty shorts, a stills gallery, and a bonus short from the 1940s, this new volume is available separately and as part of the Vintage Erotica Collection, gathering Anno's 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, and 1960 together.


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Un mélange de styles distincts

Yes, those gams are realDuring the eighties, Luc Besson was part of France’s latest crop of New Wave filmmakers. Known as a writer/director/producer who embraced beauty of the widescreen frame in his dialogue-free, black & white post-apocalyptic Le Dernier Combat (1983), Besson introduced us to a spike-haired Christopher Lambert in the oddball underground action comedy Subway (1985), constructed a hypnotic, frustrating fantasy-drama about free-diving in Le Grand bleu / The Big Blue (1988), and earned his first real critical acclaim with his inimitable hitwoman drama, La Femme Nikita (1990).

The American remake of Nikita, Point of No Return (1993) signaled Besson’s shift as a more executive-oriented filmmaker who sanctioned remakes, sold rights for TV series, and began to focus more on franchises and sequels instead of doing what he did best: write and direct offbeat films peppered with kinetic action, or make comedies that are some of the closest attempts to craft live-action versions of classic Warner Bros. cartoons. The Fifth Element (1998) remains Besson’s best and most satisfying animation tribute, yet it also symbolizes his increasingly rare forays as director.

After The Messenger (1999), Besson’s uneven Joan of Arc epic, the director took off six years before returning to directing, and when Angel-A appeared in North America, the film seemed to disappear after a short North American run – perhaps an indication, and perhaps more typical of this continent, that if your name doesn’t make annual headlines, it becomes a classic case of out of sight, out of mind.

Of course, whether co-produced and released in Europe by longtime studio partner Columbia or 20th Century-Fox, a lot of the films Besson has produced, written, or conceived stories for have either gone straight to video, or never crossed the Atlantic ocean in spite of being available in Asia and England on DVD with English subtitles and occasional English dub tracks.

Interestingly, the strangest example of this abandonment occurred early in his career. Atlantis, Besson’s underwater home movie/oceanic documentary, made right after Femme Nikita in 1991, more or less went straight to video in North America in 2003; the only way (at least in Canada) the film could be seen prior to its DVD release (which has since gone out of print) was to catch a badly panned & scanned mono broadcast on TVO, or Quebec’s TFO.

(The soundtrack album of Eric Serra’s Atlantis score was available on CD around the time of the film’s theatrical release, which may have been a contractual obligation by Virgin, since the label distributed Serra’s Big Blue score on LP and CD – itself an ironic move, given the composer’s music was dumped from that film after Besson’s 168 min. cut was edited down to 118 mins. for North America, with a new Bill Conti score that has yet to receive a commercial release.)

A more likely reason that many of Besson’s films have yet to breach the North American market comes from a perception that people don’t like reading subtitles, and in the case of remakes, legal agreements. That’s probably what’s kept Besson’s Taxi films from appearing as Region 1 editions with English subtitle tracks (although French-only widescreen versions of Taxis 1-4 are available through Canada’s Quebec-based Christal Films).

It’s unfortunate, given the first film is a buoyant little jaunt, and furthered the careers of its three main actors – Samy Naceri, Frédéric Diefenthal, and Marion Cotillard (La vie en rose) – as popular French cinema stars, but it’s hardly a new scenario. Claude Zidi’s La Totale! has yet to receive a Region 1 release, although the American remake, James Cameron’s True Lies, is very much in print on DVD.

(One major advantage to living in a bilingual country like Canada is the fact Quebec stations and home video distributors sometimes show films unavailable anywhere else on the continent. Albeit without subtitles, La Totale! pops up on TV once in a while, and Besson’s 168 min. version of The Big Blue was seen when the French language Pay TV station picked up the rights years before the current Region 1 DVD, and before a VHS PAL tape that provided an English subtitled version to British fans.)

Besson’s Angel-A may also have been theatrically marginalized because unlike his subsequent directorial effort, the family-friendly animated tale Arthur and the Minimoys / Arthur et les Minimoys (2006), the little romantic comedy was in black & white, and had actors unfamiliar to North America, so it was given a quick art house release before gliding onto DVD.

While not an epic and free from massive gunfights, explosions, and aliens, it’s an unusually personable film from Besson, and shows him in good form, focusing on a handful of characters, as in his first film, Le dernier combat. Shorn of the need to evoke franchise elements, it’s amiable fluff whose only major flaw is a dreadfully maudlin final reel, as further examined in our DVD review.

Also new to the website are reviews of Live Free or Die Hard, the latest and surprisingly fun installment in the Die Hard franchise, released on regular DVD with full R-rated swearing not present during its theatrical run; and a long & retentive assessment of I Know Who Killed Me, one of the most ineptly conceived and executed serial killer thrillers in recent years, and whose laughable twist ending may transform this Lindsay Lohan mess into a good bad movie favourite on home video.

We’ve also added another pair of long reviews for Mario Bava’s lone sex comedy, Four Times That Night / Quante volte... quella notte (1972), and comedy western, Roy Colt and Winchester Jack / Roy Colt e Winchester Jack (1970), both available in new & improved transfers as part of the Mario Bava Collection Vol. 2, from Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment.

Imminent are soundtrack reviews, arty smut, an interview with composer Elia Cmiral, and the new 3-disc Evil Dead set.

Yes, you’re going to have to buy it again.


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From bored to enlightened

Blade Runner - Polish Style!The Regent Theatre is the only theatrical venue in Toronto to catch Ridley Scott's definitive Blade Runner restoration before the film and its prior incarnations hit retail shelves December 18th in a multi-disc set on standard and high-def DVD.

When Blade Runner was originally released in 1982, it flew over my head not because of any complex plotting, inability to grasp film noir, or Vangelis’ synthetic music, but due to it being a Restricted film which, in Canada, meant no teen had a chance of seeing solo, let alone with an adult (unless they agreed to lie for you).

I didn’t know who Ridley Scott was at the time, but I did know about his prior film, Alien, because it was the film everyone was talking about because of the chest-bursting scene; in 1980 I was still in grade school, yet the whole class knew about the gory scene by the end of craft class because I wouldn’t shut up about it, even though I hadn’t seen it beyond the gory Heavy Metal graphic novel and Richard J. Anobile’s photo-novel that showed Yaphet Kotto’s tummy being pierced by one helluva proboscis; and when it debuted on home video, big mouth me was so terrified of seeing the reality that I watched the shock scenes on my friend’s dad’s Betamax tape in the reflection of my Timex. Total infantile scaredy-cat.

When Blade Runner debuted on pay TV (two movie channels named Super Channel and First Choice slugging it out before their eventual peace deal), I knew *of* the film because it had a teaser trailer featuring a bloody cloud in the title logo set to music by Robert Randles, one of the composers Scott allegedly kept in the wings in case Vangelis’ music didn’t fit the film according to plan.

(Scott had done a lot of tinkering with Jerry Goldsmith’s music on Alien, including appropriating cues from the composer’s much older score, Freud, a 1962 John Huston film which Universal tinkered with prior to its theatrical release. I wrote a long, long essay for Music from the Movies when Alien debuted on DVD with an isolated music track featuring all of Goldsmith’s used and unused cues. That score essay, comparing the composer’s and director’s intentions, will be uploaded to KQEK.com’s archives when the new 2-CD set of Alien from Intrada arrives, to tie-in with the CD review.)

Blade Runner’s blood clouded- logo was a very cool graphic, indeed. I did ultimately catch the movie on home video – the longer and more violent version – which I ultimately found boring (Vangelis’ music excepted).

I *was* familiar with film noir by then - bought a book, watched everything from Inferno (1953) to Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) – and argued the film’s value with several friends who either became colleagues, video gurus, or eccentrics (or all of the aforementioned). I found Blade Runner dull, the narration stunk, the pacing was slow, and Rutger Hauer’s decision to pierce his hand with a nail and taunt Harrison Ford in the finale made no sense, or seemed an excessive indulgence in onscreen violence.

I did buy the New American Orchestra LP which featured a handful of re-recorded cuts, as this was the only way to enjoy the score due to an alleged snit between director Scott and composer Vangelis, who apparently didn’t like the way his music was treated by the director in the film’s final editing and mixing.

Oh, and I could watch the head-crunching scene without a reflective device. Easy as pie.

It wasn’t until the first Director’s Cut (1992) that I developed a healthy appreciation for the film, now free of its monotone narration, and benefiting from serious visual and aural cleansing. The film looked gorgeous on the big screen, and was seen at Toronto’s once glorious Uptown Theatre at a midnight screening before the huge theatre was closed and razed in 2003 by its owners and developers wanting to plop another condo tower so more million dollar folks could live in a building – still un-built - bearing the name of a beloved edifice murdered by corporate and governmental greed and apathy. (Bitter? No…)

By 1994, Vangelis’ score had also been given a new CD release, featuring the original score recordings in its first (legal) commercial release beyond the two cues on the old Polydor Themes compilation CD; the new Blade Runner CD sounded great, and a number of fabulous cues were rescued from oblivion, but the dolt who produced the disc decided dialogue excerpts would improve upon the pure enjoyment of hearing a score unreleased for 12 years.

That of course validated the bootleggers’ efforts, who had already decided to release their own versions of the score, beginning with the infamous Off World CD (1993) – arguably prompting the aforementioned legal release from Warner Bros. - the Gongo disc (1995), and home jobs featuring every blurp and bleep necessary to relive the experience of seeing the movie without actually seeing it.

Scott’s new Director’s Cut seemed to restore all the missing bits the fans knew would made a more perfect film, and the incremental re-edits also marked a rare second time the director had tinkered with a film he’d directed.

Due to the now-standard and indulgently double-dipping trend of offering director’s cuts on DVD and releasing the same film twice or thrice outside of high-def, Ridley Scott has tweaked more than half of the films he’s directed, although of the affected batch, only Alien remains the most unnecessary, as he effectively ruined the slow pacing he and ace editor Terry Rawlings established in 1980 by integrating many scenes that were rightly deemed harmful to the film’s flow, and also quite redundant. (And Goldsmith’s Freud cues were still trapped in the finished mix.)

One aspect that really stands out in all Blade Runner editions is Scott’s pacing, which is very measured, and though kinetic during chase sequences and montages, it stays respectful of actors as they live out scenes, give natural, and believable performances in what’s effectively a futuristic film noir.

It may be that with each decade, Blade Runner will continue to ascend towards a top 10 or top 20 all-time classic status, which it rightly deserves, because the subtext, atmosphere, dialogue, visuals and music are for the performers and technicians, among the best things they ever created or achieved.

Blade Runner is less of a slow movie and more of a calculated genre hybrid, and while the whole Deckard-and-unicorn tie-in still feels like a rough concept that was never refined in the script or film to really resonate – the fact unicorn footage from Scott’s next film, Legend, pops up is still a clumsy, jarring affectation – the film just gets better with each viewing, and I’ve seen it a mere 3 or 4 times when it debuted on home video.

The new sound mix also rocks –the first skull crush as Batty kills papa Tyrell sounds like cracking boulder, but I *kept* watching – and Vangelis’ music is beautifully interwoven between source cues and an incredibly dense sound effects design; fans familiar with the underground CDs are aware of how much music was truncated for many scenes, but one can also assume Scott was trying to find the film’s pacing, and those long cues on the boutique CDs were safe insurance in case he decided to let a scene play out longer than planned.

Visually, the film looks great, and various fans and fan sites have focused on the new shots integrated into the film – namely the ‘fixed’ death of Zora. What’s more important, however, is how the scene remains a pivotal juncture where we understand why Deckard wanted to stay the hell away from retiring any more replicants: it’s a shitty job, and to the surrounding general public, he’s just an assassin spilling blood in their private places.

Zora’s death is tragic, foreshadows the end of her kin, and Vangelis scores the scene with such sadness that it becomes an elegy for a species hunted to extinction by government sanction; subjectively assessed subtext, for sure, but the scene on the big screen genuinely gets the eyes wet.

And while the sound and picture will be the main reason to see Blade Runner on the big screen, it’s the impact of such carefully constructed scenes that make the film so memorable. Scott’s use of close-ups and his eventual shift to extreme close-ups during the finale are intense portraits of agony in Panavision, with sweat, water, and grime dribbling from the actors’ faces as they battle around and atop the old Bradbury Building. So while you’ll probably pick up one of the many DVD editions – standard, ultimate, or high-def – try and catch it on the big screen. The Regent’s presentation is a digital projection, and it was very, very impressive.

And as for the upcoming 3-CD soundtrack set, well, it’s best to be cautious. The specs are detailed HERE at this exhaustive Vangelis site, and apparently Disc 1 is a reissue of the imperfect 1998 disc with dialogue cluttering up the cues. Disc 2 has unreleased music (which fans will undoubtedly compare with their Off World, Gongo, Esper, Deck Art and Deck Music boutique CDs), and Disc 3 is some oddity with the composer revisiting his themes anew, and “intriguing” verbal mutterings that will apparently include dialogue and/or words from Scott, plus filmmakers who have collaborated with Vangelis, including Oliver Stone (Alexander), and Roman Polanski (Bitter Moon).

Even from a cursory scan of track titles from Universal Music’s press release, one can see there’s no duplication of cues from CD1 on CD2, meaning any cues from the 1994 CD you hoped would be free of dialogue won’t, as CD2 clocks in at around 44 mins.

Blade Runner's original 2-week engagement at The Regent Theatre has been extended, of which more can be read HERE.


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Mario Bava’s return to the big screen

It is indeed a bay full of bloodThursday Nov. 15th marked what was probably the first time in maybe a decade that a 35mm print of a Mario Bava film was screened at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema as part of Rue Morgue’s monthly CineMacabre series. Not video projection, but a true film print of Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve / Last House on the Left 2 / Ecologia del Delitto), splashed onto a screen in front of an appreciative Toronto audience.

This is significant because over the past few years the local rep cinemas shrunk significantly after the Festival chain of theaters dissolved, and even when they were up & running, the offering double-bills tended to focus on Hollywood and foreign classics, vintage B-movies, 3-D flicks, and some recent blockbusters that had finished their first run in pricy megaplexes.

The variety was significant – a kind-of-annual 3-D festival included House of Wax, Dial M for Murder, Jaws 3-D, It Came from Outer Space, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, The Stewardesses – but I can’t really recall regular doses of sixties and seventies exploitation films popping up as much.

The reasons may have been, at their simplest level, two-fold: print availability (if they hadn’t been ground into celluloid dust over 20 years), and cost. Compared to a double-bill of Truffaut, Hitchcock, or film noir classics, how many people would pay to see a sexploitation couplet, if not a singular offering?

My own ignorance of how many were screened over the past 10 years comes from being spoiled by cable TV and DVD, particularly the latter, since so much is available for purchase and rent throughout the city. Toronto has an awesome collection of rental and sales locales, and with independents like Bay Street Video, Queen Video, and Suspect Video going strong, not to mention many used shops carrying their own eclectic selections, a heck of a lot can be screened in your own home (or on your computer, if you live in a closet with paper walls and sensitive neighbours).

As Nov. 15th demonstrated, the experience of watching an exploitation film with an appreciative crowd – fans plus total newbies to Bava’s sick black comedy – is way different than watching it on TV.

At home, there’s the pause button for restroom runs, the shuttle button for dull spots, and cookies & milk or junk food for personalized munchies cravings; in a theatre, there’s a screen the size of a low-rise building, and audience members laughing at the intentional and unintentional nonsense that makes classics like Bay of Blood so endearing.

Bay of Blood is not quite Bava’s best; shorn of it’s bill hook-in-the-face shot, brain matter splatter, and an awesome speared-to-the-tree scene in the final reel, it’s got serious slow spots, has two wandering sets of double-crossing lovers that make things a bit of a focal jumble, and is capped by a twist ending that’s beyond ridiculous (though some fans adore its audaciousness).

But even if it wasn’t a significant stylistic shift for the director (containing the kind of bold gore that could’ve saved Five Dolls for an August Moon) and is regarded as a precursor to Friday the 13th (because at it’s core, it’s basically a violent body-count flick with a mystery killer), Bay of Blood would still please an audience wanting sex, boobery, eccentric characters, bizarre dialogue, and artfully filmed killings.

A few people ooed when the curly-haired astrologist had her skull lopped off with an exe, when two lovers were speared before their climax (or did it deliver the ultimate payoff?), and when a leggy German chick was clipped with a bill-hook before writhing to death like a dying canary on a cottage lawn. It’s a good bet the shock worked for newbies, and fans who never realized how grisly Bava’s killings looked on the big screen.

Just as grand was Stelvio Cipriani’s score piped loud through the speakers, enhancing the weird melodramatic extremes Bava placed between his killings.

The Rachmaninoff-like schmaltz preceding the film’s opening garroting sequence is painfully funny (which one has to assume was a deliberately cheeky cheat before the first killing), whereas the long percussion track of the main theme (riffing Henry Mancini, with In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida’s bass groove, and not present on the downloadable CAM album and DigitMovies CD), increases audience tension as Bava intercuts between the drunken astrologist futzing with her Tarot cards, sweeping tracking shots of the German chick hip-swinging in her uber-mini-skirt, and a killer making his way towards the house.

Collectively it's a great example of mood and montage that’s arguably been overtaken by fast editing and politically correct tease angles (although Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez did get it right in their Grindhouse opus, placing bums, boobs, and legs all over the Panavision frame).

To enhance the night's mood, Vagrancy Films provided a quartet of vintage trailers: Schizoid (the U.S. title for Lucio Fulci’s giddy Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / Una Lucertola con la pelle di donna), Fulci’s The Brute and the Beast (aka Massacre Time / Tempo di massacre), a psychotically strobing teaser for The Exorcist which got the biggest audience applause, and Dario Argento’s Phenomena (with Dutch subtitles).

Whether we’ll be treated to a 35mm print of another Bava film in the near future is up in the air, but some background on the screening, some nods to the people and companies that made it possible, and impressions of the event are collected in a short Q&A below with Rue Morgue Managing Editor Dave Alexander, who, along with Office Manager Audra Butera, made sure this rare treat came off without a hitch.

Mark R. Hasan: Producer Alfred Leone was the source of the print, and you mentioned it was created for theatre retrospectives. Just curious if Bay of Blood is a kind of test to see if there's an interest among Bava and genre fans to see the director's work on the big screen?

Dave Alexander: Unless you're into Italian genre cinema, Bava really is an undiscovered master. Now that Tim Lucas has published All the Colors of the Dark, his twelve-pound, 1000+ page tome on the director, and Anchor Bay has released its second Bava box set, "The Maestro of the Macabre" is set for a serious renaissance – it’s time he earned wider recognition because he was a very skilled filmmaker on both artistic and technical levels, and has a very distinctive style.

In terms of this being a test, we just thought it’d be cool to show Bava on film, especially since an excellent print was available. The Bava book and DVD set was a good tie-in.

Mark R. Hasan: The challenges in seeking out, negotiating, booking, and getting a film print of a rare or classic film probably isn't unique to Rue Morgue's CineMacabre, and I wonder, among the many films you were able to screen this year and past, was Bay of Blood among the toughest to make happen, and what was Anchor Bay's involvement in the process?

Dave Alexander: Anyone who programs classic films will tell you what a headache this can be between sourcing a good print, getting permission to show it, paying for right, rental and shipping. Plus, if you’re bringing it in from another country – Bay of Blood came from New York – you have to worry about the film being held up at customs. We’ve had film prints held at customs until it was too late and were forced to show projected DVDs, which is a real bummer-and-a-half.

Audra Butera: This was actually one of the easiest films to get a hold of. International Media Films is a pretty no-BS type of company. Alfredo Leone was great and got us the print - no hassles - in the matter of days. One of the first times I haven't just about had a heart failure on the day when I find out the film has been held up in customs due to anything from improper documentation to content. The cost in shipping prints back and forth, plus theatre rentals can be extremely high, so we are very thankful that AB jumped on board with their support on this one.

Dave Alexander: For Bay of Blood, we pitched the idea to Anchor Bay of showing a Bava film that was in their new box set, and they could tie-in a promotion. The only way we could afford to bring in the print was if they were willing to rent it for us and we’d pick up the other costs. It was a win-win kinda deal. And keep in mind that there are probably more cost-effective ways for a company to promote a DVD set, yet AB was behind it all the way because they agreed that, yeah, showing a friggin’ rare print of an important Bava movie is pretty cool. We’re pretty damn lucky to get that kind of support.

Mark R. Hasan: Getting 35mm prints under the dominance and ease of DVDs has to be a major hurdle, because some print owners may feel the cost of striking and maintaining a working print isn't worth the cost and effort if the film doesn't play to packed houses. Why do you think it's important to screen prints when many rare and classic films are available on home video?

Dave Alexander: Bay of Blood is the perfect example of why you want to see this stuff on film, in a theatre, with an appreciative crowd. Bava in particular works best on film, projected big, as part of his trademark style is the lush use of colour that really pops on celluloid, ambitious compositions that you don’t get as much out of on a small screen and the crazy gore gags are exactly the kind of thing that an audience can applaud or cheer for, enhancing the collective social experience one gets from watching movies with a crowd.

Plus, Vagrancy Films provided some film trailers that we showed before Bay of Blood, which added that moviehouse feel to the proceedings. Add to the mix that wonderful sound of a projector purring away, the warm glow of light on the screen and a bag of theatre popcorn and it’s an experience that you can’t replicate at home. A lot of films, including Bava’s works, were made specifically to be projected on a big screen, and it’s vital to have that theatrical experience if you really consider yourself a movie lover.

Mark R. Hasan: Lastly, do you think there might be other Bava films that might enjoy a return to the big screen in 2008?

Dave Alexander: Honestly, it's very unlikely as far as CineMacabre nights go. We didn't want to show a Bava print unless is was quality, 'cause otherwise you just aren't getting the full effect, so we went to the source - Alfredo Leone - and rented one of his Bava prints, which were struck in 2001 (according to the date stamp I saw on Bay of Blood) for a retrospective.

I can tell you that Bay of Blood is the most expensive print we've brought in, and if Anchor Bay hadn't been awesome enough to sponsor the night and pick up the tab (don't forget, Rue Morgue also has theatre rental, print shipping and promotions costs), we would've lost money on the night. We had under 150 paying customers, which isn't enough to make that bottom line without sponsorship.

The point of CineMacabre nights isn't to make money - when Rue Morgue founder and president Rodrigo Gudino started CineMacabre movie nights, they were always intended to bring horror fans together and earn the magazine a good reputation in the horror community - but we can't afford to take a big loss, either.

It’s a shame, actually. There are five million people in the GTA, Toronto is one of the biggest film cities in the world, this was an incredibly rare opportunity, The Bloor is centrally located and we promoted the heck out of it, yet we couldn’t get enough of a crowd to sustain a one-night screening (!). Maybe it’s apathy, maybe we’re overestimating the popularity of Bava – hard to say. The important thing is that the folks who did come out had a blast and really seemed to appreciate it. That makes it all worth it. Hopefully they’ll spread the word and someday we can try another Bava print.

Thanks again to Dave and Audra for their candid thoughts, and here’s hoping more genre classics are given the same chance again on the big screen. For another account of the evening by another attendee, click HERE.

New reviews uploaded at KQEK.com include Vol. 2 of Anchor Bay’s Mario Bava Collection, with reviews for Bay of Blood DVD (what’d you expect?) and Five Dolls for an August Moon / 5 bambole per la luna d'agosto (1970) with more to follow shortly.


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The many masks of the devil

Although Mario Bava’s 1960 debut as credited director, Black Sunday / La Maschera del demonio, is the best-known adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s classic folk chiller “Viy,” the story was also filmed more faithfully by Russian directors Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov in 1967, and years later, the story and elements from Bava’s own film were hybridized by son Lamberto Bava in his 1989 cinematic ode, also titled Black Sunday / La Maschera del demonio, which was also released under the misleading title Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil, having nothing to do with Lamberto Bava's first two Demons films.

To add some comparative background to Mario Bava’s classic gothic thriller, previously released by Anchor Bay / Starz Home Entertainment as part of their Mario Bava Collection Vol. 1 and now available separately, we’ve added reviews of Viy, the 1967 Russian version, and Lamberto Bava’s ode (though bear in mind the film’s been assessed from an Italian language video, as an English dubbed or subtitled version remains unavailable on DVD).

Also part of Anchor Bay’s Mario Bava wave is Erik the Conqueror, the director’s third film after Hercules in the Haunted World, starring Cameron Mitchell and blazing Technicolor.

From Facets Multimedia is The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft / Le cas Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1999), an episode of the French TV series Un siècle d'écrivains. Directed by Patrick Mario Bernard and, Pierre Trividic, it’s an experimental bio-doc that uses stills, animated montages, stock film, music, and narration to evoke the prose of one of America’s best-known horror writers, H.P. Lovecraft, whose filmed works include "Herbert West, Re-Animator," "Dagon," "The Dunwich Horror," and "Cthulhu."

Also in the horror vein is an interview with Jaye Barnes Luckett (also known as Poperratic), writer/director Lucky McKee’s main composer and music collaborator on May, The Woods, Masters of Horror: Sick Girl, and Angela Bettis’ feature film debut, Roman. Cues from these works were recently released by La-La Land Records on Luckett’s film music CD, and a shorter version of the interview appeared in the August 2007 issue of Rue Morgue magazine. The original Q&A contains more details on Luckett’s experiences on May, and sheds light on some of the issues that arose when MGM/UA underwent a regime change, and McKee’s The Woods was shelved for several years until a 2006 release.

And for those in the Toronto area, Mario Bava fans should take note of a special screening of Bay of Blood at the Bloor Cinema, featuring a newly struck 35mm print from the producer, and present by Anchor Bay Entertainment, Rue Morgue Radio, Eye Weekly, and Suspect Video. Apparently part of a festival retrospective, this is a rare opportunity to catch ax-wielding mayhem, Bava-style, on the big screen this Thursday Nov. 15th. Click HERE for more info.


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Figurative Vermin, and Man’s Best Foe

Lewis Teague’s Cujo really holds its own as a mini-genre classic, most because the director focused on the very real fears of a mother and son trapped in a Pinto, while a drooling, pussy St. Bernard waits them out as rabies slowly turns the former workyard dog into a carnivorous monster.

Branded the 25th Anniversary Edition (which, given the film’s 1983 release date, makes 2007 its 24th anniversary, but why quibble), the new DVD from Maple (Canada) and Lionsgate (U.S.) adds meaty extras, and upgrades the audio options with selectable original mono and pseudo-stereo 2.0 mixes. The interviews are fun & informative, and like Teague’s commentary track for Cat’s Eye, the director provides an engaging retrospective of the film’s production history, as well as his own career.

The labels’ other genre release, Bug, has its own share of intriguing extras, and the film stands as William Friedkin’s best work in years. Maybe it’s the keen interest he has for the original stage play, or perhaps he loves the challenge of shooting a psychological thriller in confined spaces with just a handful of characters, but Bug shows the director has the skills to deliver a thriller that starts rather benign, and tips into madness and nihilism, arguably two core themes he’s revisited in prior works such as Sorcerer, and Rampage (the latter still unavailable on DVD, and in need of a proper special edition, with both the British and U.S. versions in one super happy magic deluxe edition).


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Musical brilliance on DVD

It’s a luxury when a documentarian is allowed a full hour to edify viewers on the brilliance of a singular film composer, and while it’s been 15 years since Joshua Waletzky’s doc on Bernard Herrmann debuted on PBS, it still holds its own as a fine intro to the world of one of cinema’s greatest film composers.

From his long association with Alfred Hitchcock – producing such magnificent scores for The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, The Wrong Man, Psycho, and Marnie – to his superlative scores for Ray Harryhausen’s enduring fantasy epics – The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and Mysterious Island – and his final work, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Herrmann’s style and unique approach to film scoring is detailed with film clips, music excerpts, and rare footage of Herrmann himself, including clips from the recording sessions for Francois Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black.

Released as part of a 4-title wave from Kultur, you can read my DVD review at Music from the Movies HERE, along with the first title in the series, The Hollywood Sound.


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Visions of Hell

The first horror review couplet is up, with a breakdown of the new 20th Anniversary Edition of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, the influential 1987 film that still stands on its own as one grisly, weird vision, and father of an increasing bad series of sequels (of which the first two are the most interesting, and the third is just nuts, placing Pinhead in space).

The latest film from Dark Castle also debuts Oct. 15th on DVD after a long wait since its theatrical run (boy, did they blow a lot on advertising), and surprise: it doesn’t stink. Not really a horror film and more straightforward theological thriller, The Reaping has its weaknesses, but if taken as a glossy B-movie, it should please fans of religious thrillers, although its decisive lack of sleaze means most horrific turns are far too earnest. Augmented by a great score from John Frizzell (whom we interviewed regarding his music).

Following the latter’s film's gross imagery of giant swarming locusts (Jesus, they’re huge), the next titles on the roster involve bugs and a killer pooch.


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Traveling to new horizons

Whether it’s space travel or moving to a new pad (which in my case means reducing, compacting, compressing, storing, and re-establishing selected stuff in a new home after seven years in a toxic mold-infested abode), stress is a factor that determines whether those moving from point A to B have the will and resolution to see it through, or go plain cuckoo in the process (of which I came close, particularly after vital keys were locked, for a second time in personal history, in a very stupid, inaccessible place).

Moving to a new house is one thing (and a loathsome, bothersome, disruptive thing at that), but going into space with a hard plan only to have things go awry is a wholly different experience (well, duh), and one the world at large watched on TV in 1970 when the men stuck inside the joined crafts of Apollo 13 were trying to figure out how to get home safely, with a massive NASA support team working overtime on practical solutions.

Although released way back in April, it’s worth checking out two space exploration documentaries from MVD Visual, particularly as they function as intriguing appendixes to the recent theatrical doc, In the Shadow of the Moon, which traces Man’s journey from this rock to the smaller one that’s been hypnotically roving around us for a long time.

Apollo 13: Houston, We’ve Had a Problem (2004) relies on archival footage and audio, and unlike prior docs and dramatizations of the mission, it plops the viewer (you) in between the scientists and the astronauts as the mission moves towards a very uncertain resolution.

Apollo 11: The Eagle Has Landed, is director Robert Garofalo’s second space doc, and similarly relies on rare footage, plus intermittent narration by Tom Baker (Dr. Who), and traces Man’s mobilization to safely land on the moon. The pacing is appropriately measured, and the footage is hypnotic, and both docs offer some vintage glimpses into the events depicted in David Sington’s 2007 doc, In Shadow of the Moon.

To balance out the ethereal beauty of real space travel we’ve added Queen of Outer Space, a longtime cult favourite that was recently given a deserved DVD release as part of Warner Bros.’ Cult Camp Classics wave.

Included in Vol. 1 of three genre-themed boxed sets, this 1958 stinker was made for a few bucks, and endures as a hypnotic (though sometimes dull) depiction of wonky fifties morality with women clumsily governing their own planet until the guys set things right with some smiles, bad gags, and some nuzzling and cuddling.

Zsa Zsa Gabor co-stars, and while she never really becomes more than the queen of her planet (a much smaller dominion, for sure), this B-picture proves Gabor couldn’t act for more than 30 seconds of screen time – making Queen of Outer Space a real treat.

Lastly, we’ve added an interview with Jeff Toyne, an up-and-coming composer whose prior experience as an ace orchestrator has served him well on several recent solo ventures. Released on CD and as a downloadable MP3 album via MovieScore Media, Shadow in the Trees is another fine horror score – low-key, thoughtful, and character driven – coming from a new voice in film scoring.

Toyne’s album was reviewed in a recent issue of Rue Morgue magazine, so here’s an interview with the composer.

And now that the unpacking is 65% done (I still have no idea where 4 tailor-made screws for an IKEA desk went, dammit), the backlog of material will start filling up the site, so keep checking for new material, or watch for our web posts, and those interested in expanding their soundtrack collection with titles they missed during the late 80s/early 90s are encouraged to check out our sale, which knocks down the prices substantially.


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Film music for newcomers

The first of four film music documentaries released by Kultur is profiled in my latest online Music from the Movies (MFTM) column. Titled The Hollywood Sound, it’s actually the last doc in the Music for the Movies series (nope, no relation to our illustrious website), and forms an excellent intro to pioneering composers such as Alfred Newman (The Song of Bernadette), David Raksin (Laura), and Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind), who helped establish the sound and technical skills required to compose, record, and mix music to create a functional and supportive music score.

Coming shortly to MFTM will be the remaining docs in the series – individual profiles of Bernard Herrmann, Toru Takemitsu, and Georges Delerue.

Also added today at KQEK.com is a review of Andrzej Korzynski’s score for Szamanka / The Shaman (1995), one of the more recent films by cinema’s persistent enfant terrible, Andrzej Zulawski, best known for his bizarro horror film Possession (1981). Korzynski’s seriously retro soundtrack is available from Poland’s online label Soundtracks.PL in both MP3 and APE formats.


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A lack of ambiance

We’ll have the next set of reviews up shortly, but in the midst of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), some film fans may have noticed a certain lack of ‘free’ coverage on TV – specifically, the extensive round-the-clock airings of press conferences & industry lectures and Q&As that for years were broadcast by Rogers on Toronto’s community Channel 10.

During TIFF’s prior runs, anyone could check out the bulk of panel interviews for big and small films, plus some intriguing industry sessions that had producers talking about foreign sales, emerging technologies, documentary filmmaking, or financing – admittedly a bit dry, but sometimes pretty revealing about some of the less sexy but vital aspects to getting a film made, distributed, and seen.

Even better were some ‘master classes’ or ‘maverick’ sets which had major directors or producers or composers engage in singular or group discussions with a moderator, plus some audience Q&As – better sessions included hour-long sets with directors Ivan Reitman, Brian De Palma, and Paul Schrader, and composer Mychael Danna. Not every press conference was interesting, not every film deserved a Q&A with its tired and jet-lagged stars, and not every industry session managed to excite the average film fan, but the wealth of topical, ephemeral information was part of the ambiance that made a week of movie overload fun.

Even those less inclined to attend a mere handful of films, or none at all, could vicariously participate by tuning into Channel 10, which repeated a fair number of conferences in case the first or second airings were missed (though usually some of the very first press conferences tended to disappear from Channel 10's rotation within the first 3 days of the festival - a common problem you had to be prepared for).

Rogers also included two original 30 min. programs that aired back-to-back: Rushes, basically a fluffy recap of the stars, who said what, and who went where; and Reel to Reel, which had regular Rogers critics Richard Crouse and Christopher Heard co-host a recap of the day’s screenings, with their own brief critiques of select films, and original interviews with actors and directors that were later edited into later episodes of Reel to Reel when the premiering films went into general theatrical release, or popped up on DVD. (On one rare occasion, their lengthy interview with directors Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky was archived among the extras on the 2-disc DVD set of Horns and Halos.)

Basically, for a whole week, anyone could see what all the fuss was about, and check out favourite stars or filmmakers engaged in 25-50 min. discussions in an environment TIFF organizes usually kept candid, maybe semi-formal, but fun - with smart and sometimes totally dopey questions posed by addle-brained media (or media poseurs).

Those too po' to buy the increasingly pricey TIFF tickets (now cresting above $20) could still mingle when friends and colleagues had a break in their tense schedules, and partake in some energetic, egocentric conversations about weird, foreign, bloated, disastrous, or sexy films that moved or disgusted.

I'm not sure if other major film festivals allow such windows into their inner workings to be broadcast locally, but in T.O., it ensured the festival was a fair gathering for the general public, and industry wheelers, dealers, elitists, and snobs. The press were privy to the industry conferences, and some were accessible to anyone with a TV set; for years, only the most apocryphal industry sessions were passed over by Channel 10’s fairly well-oiled machine.

So what happened to Rogers’ TIFF coverage? Interestingly, little has popped up media-wise, though in an online Q&A, The Globe and Mail’s Andrew Gorham did shed some light on what’s more than a curiosity:

“Rogers community channel is not carrying TIFF. As I understand it, CTV has the rights to the press conference broadcasts and Rogers and CTV could not work out a mutually acceptable deal. Rogers also said they are launching new programs in the fall and, after realizing they would not have extensive coverage of the fest, decided to focus on the new programming. CTV are media sponsors (CTV is part of Bellglobemedia, which partially owns the Globe) so that would be your best bet for TV coverage. Or (shameless plug) right here at globeandmail.com/tiff2007

With Bell/CTV and basically Rogers industry rivals in TV, satellite, internet, and phone service media, perhaps it seemed improbable the two companies could reach some fair agreement, since either side would’ve wanted some higher level of exclusivity and eclipse the other’s profile. Maybe Rogers wanted to offer the complete conferences, and CTV wasn’t happy with mere sound bites; or perhaps the Bell/CTV conglomerate realized that having full rights would’ve given them a prime opportunity to be publicly associated as the de facto supporter of the festival, since Bell is prominently involved in the Bell Lightbox building that’s destined to house TIFF central.

A sign of the shift in programming style and content was evident in last Friday’s Festival Schmooze broadcast: once the domain of City TV and CHUM’s own branded Star! media hosts, the Queen Street location and nighttime event was fused with elements of CTV’s own pop media team, and the resulting programming on CTV’s e Talk is a sad offering of fashionable, vapid sound bites by the program’s glossy hosts who address viewers in bizarre sing-song modulations.

Via e Talk, TIFF coverage on TV is basically repackaged in the show’s standard montages of tabloid idiocies: stars walking their dogs, holding babies, signing autographs, or ‘caught’ on the red carpet uttering some offside remark about love life, the best Toronto eateries, or their chic clothes to a dolled-up, caffeinated reporter.

Ben Mulroney’s current ‘exclusive’ conversation with George Clooney, for example, replaces the semi-formal and largely unedited 25-50 min. TIFF panel discussion and Q&As with real journalists that were standard to Rogers’ prior coverage. The ‘exclusive’ interview between Clooney and the polyurethane Mulroney (weirdly resembling a bronzed Max Headroom) has been chopped over several nights for viewers incapable of handling more than 3 replies by a big name star, and to make room for CTV’s incessant and orgiastic Canadian Idol reports.

Of course, the edited interview is laughable, and e Talk’s presentation is condescending to anyone’s intelligence: Clooney’s “only on e Talk” reply to Mulroney about his role in the schlocky B-film, Return of the Killer Tomatoes, is replayed yet again in Mulroney’s Part 2 segment the next evening, enhanced with video clips; with e Talk, it’s not the content that’s important, but watching it replayed with twittering images and junk techno loops for what the show’s producers seem to think every segment needs.

Rogers’ Rushes was less vapid, but both shows obsessed on tabloid ephemera and fashion, although Rogers at least counterbalanced their disposable offering with the Reel to Reel show.

At present , it seems anything truly newsworthy has been reduced to print and online outlets via reviews and columns, and while CTV apparently owns the broadcast rights to the conferences, via Bell’s Sympatico/MSN website, they’re offering mere minutes of highlights as streaming video – which hardly fills the need of fans wanting a whole conference, thereby simulating the experience of being in the press rooms.

TIFF’s own website apparently offers additional streaming video from the press conferences in a large online archive, but at present it seems the site is taxed by too many visitors, causing StutterVision clips that fail to load beyond the opening credits. It probably was a great idea to make the material available online – given its ephemeral nature – but in its clunky, chunky delivery state, it sure was easier to just tape material off Channel 10, or catch it during a late night/early morning repeat.

Rogers reached its zenith around 2002 when it offered a substantive amount of press and industry programming, and by 2005 and particularly in 2006, less conferences were broadcast, singular handfuls were too often repeated, and old conferences from prior years were slated as filler material for lack of anything new. Some conferences were chopped down to 30 mins., and by 2006, industry programming was relegated to Pitch This! – perhaps deemed by someone to be the most audience-friendly and least dry of the lot.

It’s also possible fewer film fans and the general public were watching the raw conferences, the round-the-clock coverage was disruptive to Rogers’ own broadcast schedule, and viewer interests changed, but what’s left is just pitiful. Alongside higher ticket prices, TIFF, as a film festival for film fans, is slowly evolving into something its founders must find a bit disheartening.


Imaginative Music

Ron Mann’s first feature-length documentary, Imagine the Sound (1981), makes its DVD debut on Morningstar’s bare bones but memorable release, and it’s probably the most accessible and unpretentious intro to free jazz - that loose, rule-breaking jazz offshoot in which melody, structure, tempo, and the usual round of solos by every band member are set aside in place of more cerebral and sometimes nutty concepts of improvisation and performance art.

Mann’s film features rare interviews with Paul Bley, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, and Kenny Werner, plus some lengthy performances that punctuate some of the marvelously entertaining and illuminating articulations by these marginalized artists.

Also reviewed are two excellent CDs:

- Daleko od okna / Far from the Window (2000), Michal Lorenc’s beautifully moving score for Jan Jakub Kolski's film adaptation of Hanna Krall's WWII writings, released by Poland’s Soundtracks.PL
- Expressing the Inexpressible, an excellent compilation CD featuring scores to various short films scored by newcomer Douglas Romayne. Beautiful orchestrations, and some fine orchestral writing.


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Rob Zombie’s remake (or re-imagining, if that’s more appropriate) of John Carpenter’s Halloween re-aligns the focus back to the issue of remakes of classic seventies films, though we’ll save that topic for a later date.

Halloween is certainly not a movie that needs an intro, although in Zombie’s interview in the August issue of Rue Morgue magazine, the writer/director/composer admits he was surprised at how many people had never seen the film, including actor Malcolm McDowell, who plays as Dr. Loomis.

Originally played by Donald Pleasance in the original and subsequent sequels, John Carpenter’s 1978 film was given the deluxe treatment by Anchor Bay in a 2-disc 25th Anniversary edition, sporting a high definition Divimax transfer and loads of extras. To tie-in to the Zombie remake, Anchor Bay / Stars Home Entertainment have reissued the original 1999 THX mastered single disc release at a more economical price, with a flashy new O-sleeve.

Also from the label are the latest pair of Masters of Horror episodes: Mick Garris’ own adaptation of a Clive Barker story, “Valerie on the Stairs,” and Tom Holland’s E.C. comics tribute, “We All Scream for Ice Cream,” based on a short story by John Farris.

In less than 2 weeks, The Toronto International Film Festival [TIFF] will begin, as will its’ interconnected Midnight Madness festival, which will include the latest film by the current masters of British Bleakness, Adam Mason and Simon Boyes.

Midnight Madness bigwig Colin Geddes gives a concise rundown of the duo’s latest film, The Devil’s Chair, and for those curious about their prior work, we have a review of Broken, probably one of the most cruel but gripping portraits of a sadistic relationship between an egomaniacal abductor and his ordinary, literally off-the-street victim. There’s bleak, and then there’s British Bleak, going back to Michael Reeve’s brilliant yet despairing Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm, itself slated to finally hit North American shelves as a special edition DVD on September 11th).

Coming next: more film music, and some stellar documentaries.


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