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29 June 2022

Arrow Video teeters on the EDGE OF SANITY (review)

It's "double the terror, double the fun" when Anthony Perkins trades Mrs. Bates for Mr. Hyde in EDGE OF SANITY!

Sexually repressed since his traumatic Freudian childhood experience of his father's infidelity with a prostitute, Henry Jekyll (Anthony Perkins, PSYCHO) has grown into a respected London physician as devoted to his practice as his wife Elizabeth (Glynis Barber, TERROR) is to her charities in London's East End. Experimenting with concentrations of cocaine as a more effective anesthetic than morphine, Jekyll has also been using the compound as a stimulant which he claims makes him feel exhilarated and euphoric. 

One night, however, Jekyll inadvertently inhales the fumes of an accidental chemical reaction and unleashes his repressed self in the form of Jack Hyde, who is a much snazzier dresser and lacks the good doctor's limp. Swaggering down to London's East End, he catches the eye of hustler Johnny (Ben Cole, HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH) who exposes him to the high class brothel of Madame Flora (Jill Melford, THE VENGEANCE OF SHE) but the Jekyll side of Hyde is scared off by the religious blasphemy enacted as entertainments by some of the prostitutes. Hyde runs off into the night and finds himself instead drawn to Susannah (Sarah Maur-Thorp, RIVER OF DEATH), a prostitute who resembles the one he saw with his father as a child. After a scuffle with one of her clients, Susannah disappears but Hyde finds a willing substitute for his more violent attentions. 

 As a killer slashes his way through prostitutes with surgical precision terrorizes London, Inspector Newcomen (Ray Jewers, A BRIDGE TOO FAR) suspects that the killer may be a doctor. Elizabeth suspects that her husband is being blackmailed by his mysterious patient Jack Hyde who she learns through her charity work is well known to the prostitutes for his sadism. Having formed something of a drug-addled unholy trinity with Johnny and Susannah, Jekyll may have willingly given over what was left of himself to Mr. Hyde. 

Fusing the overfamiliar story of Jekyll and Hyde and the overfamiliar story of Jack the Ripper, EDGE OF SANITY plays like Robert Louis Stevenson by way of Ken Russell's CRIMES OF PASSION and Richard Gordon's CORRIDORS OF BLOOD. An atypical Harry Alan Towers production directed by former Jess Franco editor Gerard Kikoïne – who had previously directed the Playboy Channel softcore pics LADY LIBERTINE and LOVE CIRCLES for Towers followed by the back-to-back slavespolitation films MASTER OF DRAGONARD HILL and DRAGONARD for Towers and Cannon – EDGE OF SANITY does not quite succeed as a psychological drama so much as a trashy cult film. Although it foregrounds the repressed desires of Jekyll and reveals that anyone who actually knew him would have recognized him as Hyde, Perkins' accent comes and goes and he is neither as alternately scary or pathetic as the Reverend Peter Shayne as Hyde or Norman Bates as Jekyll. Either the filmmakers were totally disinterested in the conventional Victorian scenes or their bland presentation was meant to reflect Jekyll's disengagement with them first in his work and then in his unfettered debauchery. 

The film's charms are all in the presentation which is deliberately, punkishly anachronistic. The photography of Tony Spratling (THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF) – possibly a quota credit since the camera operator is director Kikoïne's usual DP Gerard Loubeau (FIRE UNDER THE SKIN) – juxtaposes the burnished wood of Jekyll's domestic abode and antiseptic whites of his lab and hospital with the rain-slicked, color gel-lit streets of the East End shot at expressionistic canted angles. While some of the exteriors were shot in London, the studio scenes and the bulk of the film's interior and exterior locations – including Jekyll's visit to a Turkish bath which allows for some full frontal male nudity in the unrated version – were shot in tax break-friendly Hungary with sets designed by Tivadar Bertalan (MATA HARI). The wardrobe of the East End scenes seems more retro than genuine to the period, with Hyde's black trousers, silk shirts, and scarves seeming more haute couture than bespoke Victorian menswear, and the prostitutes sequined and bedazzled skirts and Madonna-style crucifix earrings more suited to a French discotheque than the streets of London. Frederic Talgorn's Paris Philharmonic Orchestra score gives the film some additional class (the demo tracks would be repurposed for the Towers-produced Poe slasher BURIED ALIVE directed by Kikoïne in tax-break friendly South Africa alongside the Alan Birkinshaw adaptations of HOUSE OF USHER and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH). 

Rather than being a Cannon or 21st Century co-production, EDGE OF SANITY was co-produced by Edward Simons' Allied Vision for whom Towers first "rescued" the South African production HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE by replacing its original director with John Hough (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE). Towers' wife Maria Rohm (VENUS IN FURS) is credited as associate producer and Claudia Udy (JOY) appears as one of the prostitutes. Although Towers worked on the script early on, it is not credited to his "Peter Welbeck" alter ego, but rather to the equally pseudonymous J.P. Fenix (apparently not a Jess Franco project kicking around since the seventies when Towers produced his version of COUNT DRACULA and Massimo Dallamano's DORIAN GRAY) and Ron Raley who would later adapt Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" for Towers' dull update PACT WITH THE DEVIL

Released theatrically by Millimeter Films (HARDWARE), EDGE OF SANITY was released on tape by Virgin Vision in rated and unrated versions along with an Image laserdisc of the latter. MGM released the film to DVD in its unrated form in an anamorphic widescreen/fullscreen double-sided disc with a good transfer but ugly artwork. The film's Blu-ray debut came courtesy of Shout! Factory in a double feature with prison slasher DESTROYER (also featuring Perkins). Fans of expensive German mediabooks could have snapped up a special edition from Wicked-Vision which featured English audio and subtitles for the feature but not the new extras. 

MGM's dated HD master was still quite gorgeous, but Arrow's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray features a ravishing new 2K scan that enhances one's textural appreciation of the film greatly. Rather than concealing Perkins' wrinkles under Hyde's white make-up, they stand out in greater relief on his face making him appear not so much old so much as an emaciated drug addict. There is also an immediately apparent contrast between the real Hungarian location streets and the stylized Whitechapel alleys and the stagey nature of Madame Flora's, a victim's loft (in which she refers to a crack pipe as her "good China"), and even a rooftop is in keeping with the performative nature of characters of which Hyde is first a voyeur and then a participant. The LPCM 2.0 rendering of the Dolby Stereo track also gives Talgorn's score a wonderful sense of breadth, although the live sound scenes stand out from the post-dubbed dialogue. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. 

While the Shout! release only featured the film's trailer, Arrow have gone all out in a mostly-successful attempt to rehabilitate this trashy film into something more considered. First up is an audio commentary by writer David Flint and author and filmmaker Sean Hogan who note the film's "explicitly Freudian" approach – including veiled remarks about Perkins' double life and the perversely "Hitchcockian" cameo of director Kikoïne during the opening sequence – suggesting that the film is more faithful than some adaptations of the Stevenson novel in that the good/evil dichotomy was not actually between Jekyll and Hyde but between the third party narrator and the portraits of both Jekyll and Hyde as they emerge in the narrative, and that the film deals more with addiction than duality; indeed, they compare the film to Hammer's horrors which pit bland good guys against more seductive evil along with Walerian Borowcyzk's DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBORNE in which the transformation to Hyde is explicitly a liberation from Victorian constraints. They also discuss how Perkins better managed to escape typecasting after PSYCHO into a variety of European and American non-genre projects than after PSYCHO II and PSYCHO III, after which he appears to have fully-embraced his cult image. They also argue that the film's anachronisms are intentional rather than sloppy and suggest that Towers was more hands-off on this project by his own remarks about the ignorance of the French art director for historical detail. 

Kikoïne appears in two interviews recorded for the Wicked-Vision release and ported over here with English subtitles. In "French Love" (21:12), Kikoïne discusses working in his father's dubbing and editing studio – including the French dub of Hammer's DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE which had Jekyll's feminine alter ego committing Ripper-style murders of women to obtain female hormones necessary for their transformations – moving onto softcore and then hardcore films before wanting to move on in 1982 after the French government changed the rating system, and meeting Towers at Cannes who offered him the chance to direct two of his Playboy films followed by the two Cannon films. In addition to recalling how he "tamed" Oliver Reed, he also mentions little-appreciated late-Cannon/21st Century Film art director Leonardo Coen Cagli. 

"Staying Sane" (24:17) is more focused on EDGE OF SANITY with Kikoïne recalling the offer from Towers – who had always previously communicated with him in English but revealed his fluent French – meeting Perkins in Hollywood, insisting that Jekyll and Hyde should not die since "evil never dies," and deciding against using prosthetics for Hyde in order to "free Norman Bates" (which apparently amused Perkins). Kikoïne delves heavily into the film's production design choices – from Madame Flora's to Jekyll's lab – to the wardrobe choices like Hyde's anachronistic Doc Martens and steel-tipped belt, as well as working with Perkins who shared Reed's interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking but was in the director's words a "class act." 

"Edward's Edge" (20:22) is a brand new interview with producer Edward Simons (COMMUNION) who recalls that Towers pitched the film to him, coming up with the "Edge of Sanity" title to distinguish it from the many other Stevenson adaptations, the commercial element of casting Perkins and Barber – Towers filled out the rest of the cast from his stable of performers – having his eyebrows plucked to placate Perkins when the same request was made of him for Jekyll's look, plans to shoot in the UK or Prague before settling on the more economical Budapest, the seasoned Hungarian crew, a humorous anecdote about Perkins' reaction when Simons insisted on bringing him to the British embassy in Hungary, and the film's screening at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival. 

"Over the Edge" (26:18) is a brand new interview with Stephen Thrower, author of NIGHTMARE USA, who discusses Towers and his Jess Franco credits, Kikoïne's adult career, the British/Hungarian co-production – Simons had worked for Brent Walker Film Distributors before Allied Vision – as well as the influences of Ken Russell and Derek Jarman while also suggesting that the blasphemous element seem shoehorned in here since lapsed Catholicism does not seem to be part of Jekyll's repression. 

Most informative is "Jack, Jekyll and Other Screen Psychos" (28:37), an interview with Dr Clare Smith, author of JACK THE RIPPER IN FILM AND CULTURE, who discusses the coinciding publication of the Stevenson novel, the Ripper murders, and the rise of the British tabloid press – and how the latter contributed to the image of Whitechapel as foreign and criminal – the source of theories that the Ripper must be a medical man, the early transition of the Ripper into cinematic bogeyman with the anthology Waxworks and G.W. Pabst's adaptation of Frank Wedekind's PANDORA'S BOX in which Louise Brooks' prostitute Lulu meets her end with Jack the Ripper as a client. She also discusses how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes has shaped our image of the ripper and the films in which the two appear like A STUDY IN TERROR and TIME AFTER TIME, the inaccurate portrayal of the Ripper's victims on film, and the rise in Ripper speculative fiction and films in the 1980s with the centennial of the murders, some of the more outlandish suspects – including American stage actor Richard Mansfield who was in London performing a stage adaptation of the Stevenson novel during the murders as well as even ALICE IN WONDERLAND author Lewis Carroll – as well as some of the latter day theories like Patricia Cornwell's libelous book about artist Walter Sickert (whose great-nephew had been the source of the popular theory of the Ripper being a royal family surgeon covering up an impropriety of which the prostitute victims were witnesses). 

The disc closes out with the film's U.S. theatrical trailer (0:59) with its trio of taglines "Twins of terror are better than one", "Mother's gone away, brother's here to stay", and "It's a ripping good time!" Not provided for review were the reversible cover featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys and the illustrated collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by Jon Towlson (the latter included with the first pressing only).

26 June 2022

Umbrella Entertainment exorcises POSSESSION (review)

Andrzej Zulawski unpacks his messy divorce and exile from Poland by way of a Carlo Rambaldi monster in the arthouse horror Cannes oddity POSSESSION, on Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment.

Secret agent Mark (Sam Neill, THE FINAL CONFLICT) returns to Berlin from a mission and refuses further assignment in order to address issues at home with his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani, CAMILLE CLAUDEL) and young son Bob (Michael Hogben).  Although she swears that there is no one else, Anna nevertheless wants a divorce, sending Mark into an emotional tailspin.  He eventually discovers that she has been having an affair with New Agey Heinrich (Heinz Bennentt, THE LAST METRO) – to whom she is drawn "because you say 'I' for me" – but even he claims not to have seen her for some time as they agreed to put some distance between them while she sorts out her uncoupling from Mark.  

In spite of her claims that she no longer loves Mark and that he disgusts her, Anna never truly pushes him away; and the mystery of where she goes and who else she sees becomes an obsession to both her husband and her lover in spite of the seemingly healthier alternative – certainly healthier than his self-loathing dalliance with Anna's caustic best friend Margit (Margit Carstensen, TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES) – of Mark's burgeoning relationship with Bob's schoolteacher Helen who is inexplicably an exact double for Anna.  When the two private detectives Mark has hired to follow his wife mysteriously vanish, Heinrich and Mark separately discover the nature of Anna's mystery lover and how far she (and one of them as well) will go to protect him (or it?)

Reportedly pitched by Zulawski to Paramount as a film about "a woman who fucks an octopus" and later described by Adjani – who won a César award for best actress for the film the same year that she won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for QUARTET – as "emotional pornography," POSSESSION is one long "dark night of the soul" in which a domestic situation brings up philosophical questions of death, birth, and faith in a slimy and bloody manner.  Although there is an element of "body horror", the film is more Cronenbergian in its THE BROOD-like fantastical depiction of a dysfunctional family involving a custody dispute in which both sides remain ignorant of the amount of psychological damage they do to their child and a woman whose inner conflict is monstrously externalized.  Also Cronenbergian is the exchange in which Mark tells Heinrich that God to him is a disease and Heinrich's response to that is that "through disease we can reach God."  

While Zulawski's own divorce seems raw in the way it informs the script – and he obviously hates the equivalent of the Heinrich character who is otherwise as incredibly entertaining as he is smug – he seems to recognize that his being "at war with women" is a projection.  Zulawski has Anna's double Helen noting that there is "nothing in common among women except menstruation" and that she finds pathetic "these stories of women contaminating the universe"; indeed, her claim to come "from a place where evil seems easier to pinpoint because you can see it in the flesh" makes one wonder if Mark might have somehow generated her as an idealized vision not only of his wife but also of himself in how certain and exacting she is about her beliefs compared to the doubts lurking beneath his own inscrutable "secret agent" image.

Shot in a seemingly depopulate West Berlin bordering the wall – with Mark's secret agent cronies threateningly lurking around the border as they observe his apartment – and suffused with the color blue in overcast daylight, cool moonlight, and Anna's dark dress, the film's cold world is as punctuated visually by red bloodshed as it is by surprisingly tender moments like Mark's moments playing with his son, comforting this night terrors, lying beside Helen in a moment that is as equally sexless as an earlier mirroring scene with Anna yet "warmer", and Mark's inability to be either cruel or entirely dishonest to Heinrich's mother (Johanna Hofer, VERONIKA VOSS) who is ready to depart the world when she is sure that Heinrich's own soul is no longer united with his body.  In spite of some weighty philosophical rumination – particularly Adjani's tearful and wrenching monologue about faith and chance – the film also has some wickedly funny moments such as when Mark who knows of his wife's apparent madness but not yet the nature of her lover taunts Heinrich with "Perhaps you met God a moment ago and you didn't even realize it" while Heinrich's attempt to extort money out of Mark to keep his silence about what he has seen is expressed as "You have to get me out of here, and send me on a long trip to restore my harmony!"

Neill, Adjani, and Bennent give wild performances that seem undisciplined but riveting, and anchored by supporting bits – including Adjani's dual role – and the mobile photography of Adjani's then-lover Bruno Nyutten (who later directed her in CAMILLE CLAUDEL) and the electronic scoring of Zulawski regular Andrzej Korsynski.  The "special effects for the creature" of Carlo Rambaldi (KING KONG) are difficult to assess in that the gestation of the creature is obscured by darkness, blood, and slime while the climactic reveal of its pre-humanoid state seems more like a bizarre latex sculptural art piece than a monster.  Stripped of its horror, POSSESSION seems like it would be less of a histrionic KRAMER VS. KRAMER than more akin to Nouchka van Brakel's A WOMAN LIKE EVE in which a depressed housewife's enforced holiday to the South of France opens her up to the discovery of an attraction to another woman that has a disruptive effect on her marriage (including a custody dispute and the discovery that her best friend has attempted to supplant her in bed with her husband and as the mother of her children).  The film seems to have been an influence on the British sci-fi film XTRO which melds a domestic drama with alien rape and grotesque births, as well as HELLRAISER in which a woman and her domicile become a mantrap to provide nourishment to her gestating lover.

Released theatrically in the United States by short-lived distributor Limelight International in a version that not only trimmed roughly forty minutes of the two hour plus running time but also moved scenes around, rescored some sequences to the more overtly horrific, and added some solarization opticals, it was in this form that POSSESSION first landed on home video from Vestron.  While the curious could track down the letterboxed Japanese-subtitled laserdisc and VHS import, POSSESSION was not seen in its complete form in the states officially until Anchor Bay's 2000 DVD (during their more adventurous years of output).  The film made its Blu-ray bow in 2013 in the UK from Second Sight followed by a 2014 mega special edition stateside from Mondo Vision using the same master with additional color correction supervised by Zulawski.  

Earlier this year, French boutique label put out UHD and Blu-ray editions featuring a new 4K restoration with baked-in SDR grading, and that is what Umbrella have used for their 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen Blu-ray which differs in some striking ways in terms of brightness with more highlights seeming to be preserved in the older master which also has darker and richer colors and healthier flesh tones.  The newer master is still not a bad way to watch the film, but if Mondo Vision or another company decide to tackle the film on UHD, hopefully their either get access to the 4K raw scan or do another scan for HDR grading and more faithful SDR.  Some DVD versions of the film floated around with an incorrect music track featuring some different cues.  Mondo Vision included this as a lossy option on their disc, but Umbrella's sole English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono track is the correct one, and its an overall clean track where the differences between the sync sound and post-dubbed voices are apparent but not distracting.  Optional English HoH subtitles are also included.

Extras start off with the audio commentary by Zulawski and biographer Daniel Bird recorded for the Anchor Bay DVD in which the director discusses the autobiographical aspects involving the breakdown of his marriage and his professional career with the shutdown of ON THE SILVER GLOBE, ending up in a hotel in New York with Paramount paying him, his "octopus" pitch being rejected by Gulf and Western, the fable aspect of the story, his reasons for selecting the "divided city" of Berlin, casting Adjani and Neill – contrasting Adjani's diva attitude and Neill's rigorous preparation – the blue look of the film and color psychology, convincing immigrants and homeless people to clear the street in the Turkish district by claiming he was making a film about the human heart, and his feelings about the Rambaldi creation.

Also included is the audio commentary by screenwriter Frederic Tuten recorded for the Second Sight edition in which the writer recalls being recommended to Zulawski by screenwriter Daniele Thompson, daughter of director Gérard Oury, whom Zulawski had first asked to collaborate with him on the dialogue.  He warmly recalls working with him on the script, visitng the set, the casting – Sam Waterston (SWEET WILLIAM) was initially in the running for the Neill role – being called back to the set to write around the deletion of the character of Anna's first husband, and his feelings about the creature which he believed would only be subliminally-glimpsed if at all.

"The Other Side of the Wall" (51:42) – shot for the 2009 German DVD and since reedited as the end credits cite both 2009 and 2012 copyrights – is a worthy companion to the two tracks, with Zulawski and Tuten expanding on their anecdotes with the added participation of producer Marie-Laure Reyre – who came on after the original debt-ridden producer vanished – and camera operator Andrzej J. Jaroszewicz.  Reyre recalls that they tried to get Neill's MY BRILLIANT CAREER co-star Judy Davis before him when Adjani turned them down, and that Zulawski did not know that his chosen cinematographer Nyutten was involved with Adjani when he convinced her to do the film.  Jaroszewicz discusses the use of wide angle lenses in the film and what that meant for the "total organization" of long take scenes and the logistics of shooting in Mark's tiny apartment.  Tuten's contributions include additional compelling thoughts about the Anna's existential plight and how the creature is birthed of it.  The opening narration's parallels between POSSESSION and the genesis of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" are also worth pondering.  There is also an interview with Zulawski (36:01) covering a lot of the same ground but nuanced in other areas like the breakup of his marriage, leaving Poland after ON THE SILVER GLOBE was shut down, his feelings about Anna and Heinrich and particularly about the character of Anna's first husband – an older man, a writer, a Jew living in Berlin – and how not only was the actor a casting mistake but he realized that the character actually further obfuscated rather than clarified Anna's background.

The disc also includes the film's U.S. theatrical cut (77:10) from a VHS source for the curious.  While this version in unquestionably inferior, it is worth seeing for the effort small distributor Limelight took to make this arthouse film marketable as a horror film as well as one particularly unnervingly effective change.  Without the context of Mark watching Heinrich's home movie, the shaky handheld photography of the scene of Anna's dance class just looks avant-garde, and it seems that it is us the audience rather than Heinrich the cameraman to which Anna delivers her monologue, particularly the bit where she looks straight at the camera and says "That's why I'm with you.”  The "Repossessed" (12:29) from the Mondo Vision edition – which did not include the US cut – demonstrates that not only did the US distributors trim and rescore parts of the film, they redubbed the phone calls to Mark with a demonic voice, and also had access to outtakes footage (including the shot of Anna holding a pair of eyes floating in the fluid of her miscarriage which was shot for but not used in the film).

"A Divided City" (7:19) is a location comparison featurette in which we not only see the transformation of areas around the torn down wall but also that the area around Mark's apartment is now riddled with graffiti while the former Turkish district has been somewhat gentrified.  "The Sounds of POSSESSION" (19:06) is an interview with composer Andrzej Korzynski who recalls meeting Zulawski in primary school, staying friends with him as they went their separate ways, and being suggested by Zulawski when Paramount needed someone to replace some of the rejected score for the LE GRABUGE on which the director was working as an assistant.  He then runs down his uses of music on THE THIRD PART OF THE NIGHT, THE DEVIL, ON THE SLIVER GLOBE, and POSSESSION with a look at his vintage synthesizer equipment.

"Our Friend in the West" (6:40) is an interview with producer Christian Ferry who had been working with Fox when Antonin Litvak recommended he meet Zulawski who had assisted him on NIGHT OF THE GENERALS.  Ferry invited him to the west to work with him by way of hiring him to re-edit and rewrite parts of LE GRABUGE – nicknamed "garbage" – and later optioned Christopher Frank's novel "La Nuit Américaine" for Zulawski who made it into L'IMPORTANT C'EST D'AIMER and he would serve as line producer on POSSESSION.

The disc also includes "Basha" (5:55), a short documentary on POSSESSION poster artist Barbara Baranowska, as well as the film's international theatrical trailer (2:47), and the U.S. theatrical trailer (1:57).  The cover insert is double-sided with different artwork motifs one each face while the synopses and list of extras are printed on the back of the slipcover.

Vinegar Syndrome goes back to HORROR HIGH with STANLEY (review)

Vinegar Syndrome doubles up two Crown International cult classics in the "nature attacks" classic STANLEY and the "teenage Jekyll and Hyde" flick HORROR HIGH.

REVIEW LINK: Vinegar Syndrome (US) Region ALL Blu-ray (DVDCompare)

STANLEY/HORROR HIGH Blu-ray specs: 

  • Disc One - Stanley:
    • 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 Widescreen
    • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
    • Optional English SDH Subtitles
    • Audio Commentary by screenwriter Gary Crutcher
    • "Dark Side of Eden" documentary
    • "Stanley Goes Hollywood" Q&A from a screening at the New Beverly Cinema (24:30)
    • "Stanley: Revisited" William Grefe location visit
       
  • Disc Two - Horror High:
    • 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 Widescreen
    • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
    • Optional English SDH Subtitles
    • Audio Commentary by actor Pat Cardi
    • "Cheerleaders on Tap" interview with actor Pat Cardi
    • "Looking Back" archival interview with Pat Cardi
    • "Still Amazed" interview with screenwriter J.D. Feigelson
    • "Gossip" interview with actress Michelle Falerne
    • "I Would Do It Again" interview with actor John Niland
    • Television Spots
    • Theatrical Trailer
       
  • Reversible Cover

24 June 2022

Umbrella Entertainment uses "Sorcery" for STUNT ROCK (review)

Umbrella Entertainment fires up a "death wish at 120 decibels" with their Blu-ray of the hybrid Hollywood satire/stuntwork documentary/concert film STUNT ROCK.

Real life Australian stuntman/stunt coordinator Grant Page travels to Los Angeles to work on a TV action series DANGERGIRL. Briefly sidelined by a TV stunt demonstration gone wrong, Page consults on the pyrotechnic effects of 70's band Sorcery's stage shows – Page being the fictional cousin of band member Curtis Hyde – which depict fiery battles between a Merlin-esque wizard and the devil. His gains a love interest in journalist Margaret (director Brian Trenchard-Smith's wife Margaret Gerard) who is concerned about his dangerous line of work while slinky Dutch actress Monique Van Der Ven (TURKISH DELIGHT) is concerned over her own lack of involvement in the show's action.

That's really all there is to it. Although Sorcery is the focus of the advertising, their performances and Page's work on them are used to showcase Page's stuntwork including his work on four previous collaborations with director Trenchard-Smith from the TV documentaries THE STUNTMEN and KUNG FU KILLERS to the features DEATHCHEATERS and MAN FROM HONG KONG, as well as a fire stunt Page did for Philippe de Mora's MAD DOG MORGAN.  An Australian/American/Dutch production (explaining the presence of a game Van Der Ven), this mix of mockumentary and filmic drama come across well as a sort of near-plotless episodic exploration of the entertainment world anchored by a charismatic lead who is nevertheless more a stuntman than an actor; indeed, the film concedes this by having Hyde introduce him to his bandmates as "Cousin. Stuntman. Horrible actor, but a hell of a nice guy." The film probably would not have worked as just a stunt film or just a behind the scenes concert film, but the film is not a vanity project for Page since he and Trenchard-Smith convey their admiration for their international colleagues (including highlights from the stunts in GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS).  

The sexual tension of the triangular Page/Gerard/Van Der Ven friendship is refreshingly mild making Margaret's concerns about Page's risk-taking a believable romantic complication while Van Der Ven belies her sex kitten reputation by being more interested in her craft than messing around.  The film also offers viewers a time capsule view of Los Angeles in the seventies which might look quite exotic to younger viewers, with theater marquees for DEEP THROAT (in the fifth year of its theatrical run) and some surprisingly smog-free L.A. vistas. The film also features early appearances by the late Phil Hartman in a small role – one of a number of supporting players from The Groundlings' comedy troupe – and LEMORA director Richard Blackburn appears as Van Der Ven's sleazy agent who also blithely comments on the expendability of stunt workers.  

Not released in the United States until 1980 through Edward L. Montoro's Film Ventures International as STUNT ROCK then SORCERY then CRASH, STUNT ROCK was the surprising recipient of a two-disc special edition DVD from Code Red in 2009.  The NTSC master struck for the film was given a bad PAL conversion for Umbrella Entertainment's Australian DVD edition.  That PAL-converted master's deficits were compounded when Umbrella included it as an SD extra on their Blu-ray of Trenchard-Smith's MAN FROM HONG KONG where technicians attempted to convert it to 24p not realizing that it was not a native PAL master resulting in a version that runs four minutes longer than the 24fps running time with distorted audio.  

Umbrella's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray rectifies things with a new 4K scan of the same archival 35mm elements.  While the heightened grain of blown-up 16mm material was less glaring in SD and the presentation felt more consistently "vintage," the new HD master makes the differences in source material far more evident but the bump up in detail during the 35mm-originated footage is appreciable and the 16mm always footage feels organic to the film since it is utilized in the form of cutaways rather than inserts.  The original four-track magnetic stereo track was damaged early on in the sales screenings so all theatrical and home video presentations have been in mono.  Umbrella's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is indeed mono but the dialogue is always clear and the scoring and songs sound wonderful.  Optional English HoH subtitles are also included, clarifying the names of some stunt talent and films mentioned in the dialogue. (Kino Lorber has released an American Blu-ray earlier this year).

Both commentary tracks from the Code Red DVD have been ported over.  The first features Trenchard-Smith, his wife Margaret, and Page.  Trenchard-Smith leads the discussion, noting that the Dutch backers provided $400,000 for the film and $100,00 for the production of the LP soundtrack – the title song was written for the film while the other song were part of Sorcery's repertoire – with the stipulation that the film be ready within months for Cannes and film markets complete with a four-track magnetic stereo soundtrack.  He notes the use of 16mm footage in split-screen that would be less grainy than blowing up the footage to the full frame, Russell Boyd (PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK) shooting 35mm footage of the opening stunt while he himself shot in 16mm, and the many guerilla shoots in Los Angeles for the non-union production (in which cinematographer Robert Primes uses the pseudonym Bob Carras).  Page recalls arranging the stunts in Los Angeles with American coordinators and performers – Hollywood being his first experience doing a fall into an airbag – and contrasts the "Australian honesty" with careerist Hollywood's blame game when something goes wrong.  Gerard, now a journalism professor, has endured much ribbing for being in the film but recalls the critiqued love interest aspect of the film as stemming from her recent marriage to Trenchard-Smith and Page being more like a brother as her husband's longtime friend.  

The second track features Trenchard-Smith, producer Marty Fink (IN LIKE FLINT), and actor Blackburn.  Trenchard-Smith leads the discussion again but Fink provides background on the Los Angeles location shoot – the guerilla shoot at LAX was budgeted as the cost of a parking pass – and Blackburn recalls that fellow UCLA graduate Ron Raley (later co-writer of EDGE OF SANITY and PACT WITH THE DEVIL for Harry Alan Towers) had worked on a short film with Jim Morrison that was stolen from UCLA.  Trenchard-Smith also points out similarities to the film THIS IS SPINAL TAP which was edited by Robert Leighton who edited this film's concert scenes.  

New to the Blu-ray is "The Ultimate Rush: A Conversation with Brian & Margaret Trenchard-Smith" (80:07), a pleasant remote conversation with the couple from their home in Oregon where they have lived since the nineties.  A lot of information is familiar but Trenchard-Smith does describe the film as a "ninety minute trailer for Grant Page" that was successful in that respect but less so in the box office, showing the film to Sandy Howard who hired him and Page to work on the Canadian projects CITY ON FIRE and DEATH SHIP, and the film's cult status as a time capsule of the Los Angeles seventies music scene.  Margaret Trenchard-Smith recalls meeting her future husband, getting married after a courtship of sixteen days, and her decision to pursue a degree when they moved back to America (whereupon she discovered she was most comfortable "acting" in the role of a professor).  They also lament that Page was underutilized as an actor, recall that van der Ven was already in the United States with her husband cinematographer Jan de Bont (BASIC INSTINCT) who was shooting Noel Marshall's ROAR and was reluctant for his wife to do stunt work after having his face clawed by a lion cub.

Also new is extended interviews (17:34) from NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD with Trenchard-Smith and Page.  Page opines that Sorcery were better magicians than musicians and fondly recalls the hit-and-run shooting of stunts like scaling buildings and bridges around Los Angeles without permits.  Trenchard-Smith emphasizes how important Page was in figuring out the logistics of the shots and describes the film as a "love letter to stuntmen" and a "paean to Grant Page."  The disc also features Brian Trenchard-Smith's Alamo Drafthouse appearances (24:48) which are just that, a sequence of director introductions to various screenings.  

Ported from Code Red is an introduction to the film by Trenchard-Smith (2:00) along with a selection of interviews with Trenchard-Smith, Blackburn, musican Smokey Huffs, and producer Fink (68:34).  Trenchard-Smith recalls his days as a schoolboy in England shooting his own stunts for amateur films, starting to work at Channel 9 in Australia, making THE STUNTMEN his first independent film and selling it to Channel 9, and coming up with the high concept for STUNT ROCK in the shower.  Fink recalls being hired as line producer because he shared the same lawyer was the Dutch backers, having experience with foreign directors, and lamenting that all directors were not as driven and innovative as Trenchard-Smith when faced with budgetary limitations.  Blackburn recalls being recommended to the film by schoolmate Raley, his talent for mimcry, and how he gets recognized for the film more than for LEMORA.  Huffs recalls his first band, wanting to do something more theatrical, being introduced by a bandmate to some magicians, the various incarnations of the band's lineup, some mishaps with fire on stage, as well as Trenchard-Smith, Page, and van der Ven.  

Also ported over is an audio interview with Sorcery drummer Perry Morris (22:21) while the disc has included for the first time the film's Cannes promo reel (19:30).  Closing out the package is the U.S. theatrical trailer (2:23), the trailer with commentary by Trenchard-Smith from "Trailers from Hell" (3:51), and a full Brian Trenchard-Smith trailer reel (40:55) including THE LOVE EPIDEMIC, THE MAN FROM HONG KONG, DEATH CHEATERS, STUNT ROCK, TURKEY SHOOT, BMX BANDITS, FROG DREAMING, DEAD END DRIVE-IN, DAY OF THE PANTHER, STRIKE OF THE PANTHER, OUT OF THE BODY, DANGER FREAKS, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2, LEPRECHAUN 3, LEPRECHAUN 4 IN SPACE, BRITANNIC, MEGIDDO, OPERATION WOLVERINE, ARCTIC BLAST, THE CABIN, CHEMISTRY, ABSOLUTE DECEPTION, and DRIVE HARD.  Packaged with the disc is a 16-page comic adaptation.  The double-sided cover features four artwork motifs for the film while the back of the slipcover features the synopsis and list of special features.

Umbrella Entertainment fears the UNDEAD (Review)

Australia attempts to wrest the the zombie comedy genre from New Zealand's Peter Jackson with UNDEAD, on Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment.

Having inherited a mountain of debt with her parents' family farm, Rene Chaplin (Felicity Mason) decides to sell up and, with the money netted from her win of "Miss Catch of the Day" at the local Berkeley fishing pageant, decides to quit the sticks for the city.  On the day she is set to leave – hitching a ride with the sleazy property agent (Steve Greig, CUT) – the town is hit by a series of meteors that have the side effect of transforming any one they contact into flesh-eating zombies.  Rene takes shelter in a farmhouse belonging to local loony Marion (Mungo McKay, INSPECTOR GADGET 2) who has been stocking up with guns and supplies ever since his cries of alien invaders and zombie fish went unheeded by the locals.  They are soon joined by pregnant Sallyanne (Lisa Cunningham) – still miffed at Rene for stealing her crown – and her cropduster pilot boyfriend Wayne (Rob Jenkins, PREDESTINATION), along with control freak constable Harrison (Dirk Hunter, RAIN FALL) and officer Molly (Emma Randall, AUSTRALIENS) in a fight for who is in charge and whether they are under alien attack or of its "just zombies."  The onslaught forces the six to flee the farm but a sinister kind of acid rain and lights that suddenly beam people and animals up into the sky suggest they have more to fear than just getting eaten.

Coming just before the early 2000s onslaught of independent zombie movies – of which maestro George Romero's DIARY OF THE DEAD and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD were emblematic of rather than extraordinary exceptions – UNDEAD's zaniness feels more like an attempt to outdo Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE and BAD TASTE in one go as the everything-but-the-kitchen sink directorial debut of TV commercial and short subject filmmaking siblings Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig (whose most recent Hollywood breakout pics were the unfortunate JIGSAW and WINCHESTER).  Broadly-played from the start with splattery gore and awful (though impressive on the budget) CGI, the film's confused story stumbles along with the antics of the louder actors overshadowing any attempts at character development, and the set-pieces fewer and farther between as the film moves towards its climax in which the outsiders to Berkeley seem as enthusiastic to meet aliens as the soon-to-be-obliterated crowds of INDEPENDENCE DAY.  In its broad strokes, it has the ingredients of a cult film, and it achieved that status domestically and internationally – stateside with Lionsgate competing with Dimension Films' many zombie-related releases (including an anniversary DVD of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) – but for audiences of a certain age it may resemble a more ambitious and slickly-made take on the many zombie epics essayed or attempted by friends upon the releases of cinematic MiniDV cameras like the Canon XL-1 or the Panasonic DVX100.

Shot in Super 16mm and blown-up to 35mm, UNDEAD was released stateside by Lionsgate on DVD in a stacked special edition and much of the same extras appearing in various combinations internationally.  Umbrella's Blu-ray was preceded by a barebones Dutch edition from a 1080i50 master followed by a German edition that also utilized the 1080i master but was packed with extras.  Madman Entertainment gave Australia a 1080p edition with the two DVD comment and a full slate of extras, as well as a choice of two versions: the original cut (103:59) and the Lionsgate version (96:24) which made pacing trims.  

Working from a new 4K restoration supervised by the Spierig brothers, Umbrella's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray only features the shorter cut (96:24), so presumably that was the cut they approved or the only one they had on film to restore.  The film's grading does not seem too revisionist, although the shadow detail under the blue filters applied to the day for night scenes may be better delineated than the previous master, and the deeper blacks may lend better shading to the CGI additions, but it will always be an inconsistent-looking film.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are rich with directional effects and the surrounds seem more ambitious than other films of this budget with plenty of omnipresent rainfall, spinning blades, gunfire, and explosions.  The English HoH subtitles, while free of errors, do fail to convey the manic intensity of some of the dialogue delivery even when in all caps.

The older editions featured two commentary tracks – the first with the Spierig brothers, cinematographer Andrew Strahorn, and special make-up effects artist Steven Boyle, and the second with actors McKay, Hunter, and Randall – while Umbrella has jettisoned those in favor of a new track by the Spierigs and Strahorn.  It is unfortunate that neither of the older commentaries were ported over – Lionsgate was able to fit them to the shorter cut for the US DVD edition – since the new track finds the trio lamenting on the fewer opportunities for risk and on-the-go thinking of their debut feature while also noting the amount of rehearsal and planning that had to go into making the film's 2:1 shooting ratio since the film stock was the most expensive component of the production on which the trio felt on an even keel with the mostly-inexperienced actors and other crew members who were especially willing to give the production their all once the brothers had quickly edited together some of the rushes to screen for everyone.

The rest of the extras are ported over from the earlier editions.  "On the Set of UNDEAD" (47:22) is an overview of the shoot with little commentary, focusing on the rehearsals, location shooting for some of the bigger scenes, stuntwork, and effects.  What is most interesting are the looks at where the sets give way to greenscreen as well as the DIY greenscreen shots captured on location (one wonders whether it was done to save on trying to recreate the location lighting, rain, and wind in a studio or out of just trying to shoot as much material on each shooting day as possible.  

"The Making of UNDEAD" (37:28) is a more traditional EPK piece with the Spierig brother discussing their early shorts, their love of horror films, other inspirations from westerns to John Woo, and the importance of enthusiasm over experience in mounting a feature project on a small budget.  The cast chip in occasionally, with Mason providing more backstory for her character than apparent in the finished film and McKay disussing his stunt work, while production designer Matthew Putland (GOLDSTONE) recalls running out of his department budget on the first day and depending on free and recycled resources to create eleven interior sets that had to convey character, and effects artist Boyle recalls initially planning for an hour and a half for each zombie make-up only to realize that was impractical when they were shooting multiple scenes with different zombies each day.  "Home Made Dolly Construction" (2:09) and "UNDEAD Camera and Make-up Tests" (1:45) are self-explanatory.

Before UNDEAD, the Spierigs produced a trio of short films starting with "Attack of the Undead" (37:25) which plays up the fifties sci-fi throwback angle with black and white photography but the bargain basement production values apparent in the opening give way to various practical and visual effects that are poorer than the ones in the feature but quite ambitious indie and low budget short films from the nineties.  The disc also includes a stills gallery (11:37) and the film's theatrical trailer (2:31).  Included in this limited edition package is a 17-track CD soundtrack that appears to reproduce the contents of the American 2005 La-La-Land Records disc.

23 June 2022

Vinegar Syndrome gets SCARED TO DEATH (review)

A sewer-dwelling mutant craves female flesh (and spinal fluid) in William Malone's directorial debut SCARED TO DEATH!

REVIEW LINK: Vinegar Syndrome (US) Region ALL Blu-ray (DVDCompare)

SCARED TO DEATH Blu-ray specs:

  • DISC ONE:
    • 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 Widescreen
    • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
    • Optional English SDH Subtitles
       
  • DISC TWO (Bonus Disc):
    • 2021 Director's Restoration:
        • 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 Widescreen
        • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
        • Optional English SDH Subtitles
  • Reversible Cover

20 June 2022

Umbrella Entertainment comes of age with IDA (review)

Umbrella Entertainment (Australia) Region ALL Blu-ray

A novice nun discovers dark secrets in her past in the sublime IDA, on Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment.

Having grown up an orphan in a Polish convent, eighteen year old Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is on the verge of taking the veil when the Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) reveals the existence of her one remaining relative Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza, ALL ABOUT MY PARENTS) who refused to take custody of her as a child in spite of many attempts by the convent at communication.  Anna is reluctant to see her, but the Mother Superior insist that it is only proper to do so.  Anna travels to Warsaw but her aunt, a judge and former communist prosecutor, seems scornful of her vocation, revealing to Anna's surprise that they are Jewish and that her parents were murdered by the "Good Christians" who sheltered them during the German occupation.  They part ways, but Wanda has a change of heart when Anna reveals her plans to visit her parents' graves, explaining to the younger girl that there are no graves but she has a plan to find them.  

Wanda and Anna travel to the village in which Wanda grew up to find the family farm now occupied by Feliks Skiba (Adam Szyszkowski, AFTERIMAGE) whose father Wanda believes murdered her sister and brother-in-law.  When Skiba refuses to acknowledge the truth of any of her allegations or her threats, Wanda and Anna go in search of his dying father Szymon (Jerzy Trela, THREE COLORS: WHITE).  Along the way, Wanda encourages Anna to engage in some worldly pleasures with hitchhiking musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik, MAGNESIUM) because "Otherwise what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours."  Underlying Wanda's bitterness towards faith and party, however, is a deep pain in which Anna can only share once they uncover the truth of their shared past.

An international artistic success and an acknowledged influence on Paul Schrader's acclaiemed FIRST REFORMED – the filmic apotheosis of his "man in a room" narratives and his heretofore academic treatise on transcendental film style – IDA is at once episodically-plotted and precisely-constructed, favoring a monochrome, stripped-down photographic style that is organic to the story, setting, and characters rather than an affectation.  While not the feature debut of documentarian Russia- and British-based Polish ex-pat Pawel Pawlikowski (THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH), IDA is his first narrative feature made in Poland, a homeland from which he was estranged.  Seeming at first to riff on the premise of Luis Bunuel's VIRIDIANA in which a novice visits her libertine uncle who means to corrupt her, IDA captures a sense of sixties Poland with which film buffs may be familiar from the Polish New Wave along with the social and racial undercurrents less than twenty years after the war.  

The contrast between the studied performance of veteran actress Kulesza and inexperienced Trzebuchowska – upon whose passive expressions the viewer is encouraged to read emotional and psychological complexities – is an effective mix that so overshadows the supporting performances of seasoned actors who come across as naturalistic non-actors (if Szyszkowski's grace moment seems futile it is only because his character is not owed the sympathy or compassion of his audience within the film).  If the ending has a rather cynical bent, with both main characters retreating in different ways from life as it has been altered for them – Anna seemingly choosing to serve her adopted faith at a remove from the "Good Christians" she has met – then one may conjecture that IDA is not a film about faith but about identity and how two women deal with major blows to their senses of self.  

Pawlikowski keeps his camera static, framing early scenes of Anna at the convent with actors low in the frame, as if to suggest not so much their subjugation to higher powers as being unobservant of their cloistered environment while scenes of Anna wandering the city and interacting with unfamiliar people often put her in the center of the frame.  The camera only moves in the final shot, a handheld take leading Anna towards her presumed destiny.  There is no score, only source music including Coltrane jazz and Polish tunes of the era, with a classical piece seeming to be the only non-diegetic music as it may or may not be emanating from a car radio but expertly underlines the emotions of the character.  In spite of her affecting performance, Trzebuchowska has chosen to step behind the camera as an assistant director while Kulesza and Szyszkowski would both appear in Pawlikowski's subsequent film COLD WAR.

Shot on the Arri Alexa Plus in the antiquated 4:3 aspect ratio – another choice Schrader adopted for FIRST REFORMED – with Zeiss Ultra Prime Lenses, and projected both digitally and scanned to 35mm film, IDA's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen image is tack sharp with rich blacks, a multitude of grays, and stable whites (some smoke-diffused).  Textures and fine detail are tactile from the contrasts of rural and urban decay to the contrasting fibrous and silky clothing that make characters either blend in or stand out from their environments.  

The Polish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track sports rather sedate sound design, being predominately front-oriented with some subtle rear channel atmosphere, but music and a few directional effects do demonstrate a sense of depth.  Optional English subtitles are provided and free of errors.

Extras-wise, Umbrella is pretty much a region free alternative to the Region A-locked American edition from Music Box Films, so stateside viewers may just want to go for what is cheaper (English-speaking Region B-locked viewers may favor the Umbrella edition since Artificial Eye's Region B British Blu-ray has no extras apart from the film's trailer). In the London Q&A with director Pawel Pawlikowski (21:18), the director mentions wanting to make a film in Poland, and how the Poland he wanted to capture was that of his memories (admitting that he has no handle on modern Poland), and that the character of Wanda was inspired by the Polish ex-pat wife of an Oxford instructor who he saw as warm and caring but who he later learned was deported to Poland for crimes against humanity.  He reveals that the shoot was rather chaotic in spite of how it looks, and that the cinematographer fell ill, requiring him to use the operator who made his DP debut on the film.

"On the Set of Ida" featurette (11:26) and the interview with the director (6:51) are extracts from a Polish culture program in which he rehashes some material but also reveals that the script had been making the rounds for a few years and won awards, but that the finished film actually diverts greatly from the source as he made a lot of discoveries during casting, location scouting, and shooting that reshaped the film.  The disc also includes a theatrical trailer (1:50). 

Umbrella Entertainment gets cozy with COSI (review)

Umbrella Entertainment (Australia) Region ALL Blu-ray

Rescued from the jaws of Miramax is the Australian comedy COSI, on Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment.

Having decided to allocate what limited funds there are to "drama therapy" rather than other necessary resources, the director of a local asylum (Tony Llewellyn-Jones, PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK), his head nurse Errol (Colin Friels, DARKMAN), and occupational therapist Sandra (Kerry Walker, THE PIANO) hire inexperienced Lewis (Ben Mendelsohn, ANIMAL KINGDOM) who is looking for a job after drama school to support himself and his law student girlfriend Lucy (Rachel Griffiths, THE ROOKIE). 

Although Sandra believes a variety show would be best suited to their patients, exuberant and outspoken Roy (Barry Otto, HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS) surges ahead with his desire to stage a production of Mozart's comic opera "Così Fan Tutte" despite the fact that no one can act or sing, least of all in Italian. Lewis is indecisive but Errol - who is either very optimistic or looking forward to a train wreck - suggests they start with the dialogue and to gradually incorporate the music.

Although Roy disparages Lewis' decisions at every turn, Lewis needs the older man to whip his cast into shape which also includes timid Ruth (WENTWORTH PRISON's Pamela Rabe), soulful junkie Julie (Toni Collette, THE SIXTH SENSE), batty and violent Cherry (Jacki Weaver, SQUIZZY TAYLOR), stuttering Henry (HOME AND AWAY's Paul Chubb), and pyromaniac Doug (TOP OF THE LAKE's David Wenham). As they make their way with great difficulty through the play, its sexual politics shed light on their own pasts and relationships, not to mention that of Lewis and his suspicions about long-suffering Lucy and his more "successful" director friend Nick (Aden Young, 300). Working with his cast of mental patients also forces him to reluctantly confront his long-suppressed feelings about his own mother's mental illness.

Based on a semi-autobiograhical play by Louis Nowra (MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART), COSI was swept into production as a film by Miramax who were hoping to capitalize on the successes of their pickups THE PIANO, MURIEL'S WEDDING (also with Collette), and STRICTLY BALLROOM and Polygram's THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT amidst the nineties boom of independent films and indie majors.  The film's frenzied staging and barnstorming performances get the laughs and wring out the drama off the stage.  Unfortunately, the film also treats the actual staged production as a comic highlight of sight gags that turns the mental patients' efforts into a freak show for a howling audience before an ending wrap-up that feels a bit limp. Performances are overall good even when Otto, Weaver, and Wenham are required to chew scenery, making up for some of the more limp drama in the triangle between Mendelsohn, Griffiths, and Young.

Released stateside by Miramax and on DVD by Buena Vista Home Entertainment and since sadly forgotten, COSI had an equally uneven home video history in its native Australia.  Village Roadshow's original PAL DVD featured an anamorphic transfer and 5.1 audio while Umbrella's later 2018 DVD edition was derived from an anamorphic NTSC source with 2.0 stereo audio only, no extras, and no menus.  Umbrella's new 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC widescreen Blu-ray is oddly-framed in the DCP aspect ratio of 1.90:1, trimming picture information visible on the top and bottom of the screen on the DVDs (the side information is absolutely identical).  The colors are in keeping with the nineties saturation of primaries but shadow detail is better, blacks are truer, and there is a variegation of whites that help on appreciate the interplay of locations, settings, and character (for instance, Weaver's white feather boa against the slight green tinge of the asylum's white walls),  

Audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo – presumably the 5.1 track on the old DVD was a rechanneling of the Dolby Stereo stems – cleanly delivering dialogue, effects, and music with Stephen Endelman's scoring taking a supportive back seat to his interjections of Mozart.  Optional English HoH subtitles are provided.

Extras start off with an interview with producer Richard Brennan (12:07) who recalls Mendelsohn sending him a ticket for the stage production, being transfixed by it, and optioning it the next day.  He also recalls the difficulty of finding funding until Harvey Weinstein asked Collette what she wanted to do next and she mentioned COSI.  He then details the attempts to get the film into production, finding a director – play author and screen adaptor Louis Nowara had first approval – including Peter Wier (GREEN CARD), and the many "one last thing" notes from Miramax including the suggestions of casting Ethan Hawke in the lead and model Elle McPherson (SIRENS) in the Jacki Weaver role!  The "Excerpt of Oral History with film buff Paul Harris and Richard Brennan" (21:56) covers a lot of the same ground while also getting into more detail about Miramax and its Australian money man representative through which a lot of the early notes were conveyed to the production.

Nowra also appears in an interview (24:43) in which he describes the play's origins in the mental illness on both sides of his family – his maternal grandmother tried to kill him as a child – growing up trying to understand mental illness, working at an asylum while in college and it being suggested that he involve the patients in a play, with the musical the real-life Roy equivalent wanting to do being Gilbert and Sullivan's "Trial by Jury".  The idea to write a play about it came as a means of keeping himself busy during a depressing period in which he was taking care of a acting partner who had suffered a nervous collapse.  He covers the workshopping of the play, the performances, the screen adaptation, and the various interferences from Miramax.  The disc also includes a stills gallery (4:01).

18 June 2022

Arrow Video goes into SHOCK (review)

Arrow Video/MVD Visual (US/UK) Region ALL Blu-ray

Recovering from a nervous breakdown several years ago, Dora (Daria Nicolodi, INFERNO) – along with her son Marco (David Colin Jr.) and her pilot husband Bruno (John Steiner, TENEBRAE) – returns to the seaside villa where she once lived with her late husband.  Bruno is wary of the fragility underlying Dora's demeanor but he cannot be home all of the time.  Dora is unnerved by Marco's natural curiosity about his real father, but his sudden acquisition of an imaginary friend coincides with sudden aggressive behavior towards her ("Mother, I have to kill you") and a series of increasingly deadly pranks that start to convince Dora that her dead husband is using their son to persecute her.

The final theatrical film of Mario Bava (who died in 1980), SHOCK was as much a swan song as a means of nudging son and longtime assistant director Lamberto Bava (DEMONS) into the director's chair (Bava the younger is credited as "assistant to the director" in the opening titles) just as forty years before colleague Riccardo Freda reportedly did the same thing by walking out on the productions of I VAMPIRI and CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER which were both finished by the elder Bava.  Reportedly, however, the younger Bava – who is co-credited with the screenplay (more about that below) – undertook the project to get his father back into directing after LISA AND THE DEVIL was taken away from him by producer Alfredo Leone and reworked into HOUSE OF EXORCISM and RABID DOGS was shelved due to bankruptcy proceedings against producer Robert Loyola (the film would not be released until 1998 when it was finished by the younger Bava).  

Released stateside as a sequel to THE EXORCIST cash-in BEYOND THE DOOR, the film show both Bavas less concerned with in-vogue possession theatrics than in separate themes that would recur in the filmographies of both directors.  In the case of the elder, we have the intersection of haunting and paranoia that marked "The Telephone" and "The Drop of Water" segments of BLACK SABBATH and HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, children as loci of the supernatural from KILL BABY KILL and BARON BLOOD, as well as the haunting as a continuation of masochistic ecstasy in THE WHIP AND THE BODY.  In the case of the younger, we have an "exorcism" of childhood terrors, exposing human madness in the darkness of A BLADE IN THE DARK and MACABRE while here we have an acknowledgement of the "mechanics" of Bava's horror trickery in the way a puppet show involving a queen and a ghost as well as a makeshift magic lantern show performed by Marco in the basement prefigure Bava Sr.'s in-camera trickery for the Dora's hauntings and hallucinations from the simplicity of a rose petal on piano keys mistaken for a drop of blood or a rake as clutching hand to the invisible hands that pull a blanket from her body and her hair floating upwards and lashing across her face.  

The film is most successful when focusing on the psychological battleground between mother and son while a visit to a psychiatrist (an underused Ivan Rassimov, MAN FROM DEEP RIVER) and a scene in which Bruno's plane experiences supernaturally-triggered turbulence.  The score by progressive rock band I Libra is one of the more experimental touches on a Bava film since Ennio Morricone's diverse instrumentation for DANGER: DIABOLIK – more so than Stelvio Cipriani's lounge and bossa work on the Bava films in between the two – and the photography of Alberto Spagnoli (KILLER FISH) and an uncredited Bava not only favors naturalistic lighting that somehow makes the modern villa setting even more alien but also camera movements that are more "subjective" in their handheld shakiness that give a more corporeal feeling to the ghostly presence that Dora appears to actually see in one sequence of the camera approaching her.  The ending is similarly perverse as that of A BAY OF BLOOD.  Bava's final directorial effort would be LA VENERE D'ILLE, a TV adaptation of Prosper Mérimée's story "La Vénus d'Ille" which also starred Nicolodi and was co-directed by Lamberto Bava.

Released theatrically in the United States and subsequently on VHS from Media Home Entertainment as BEYOND THE DOOR II – in a version that trimmed the sequence with Marco meeting the psychiatrist – and elsewhere under its export title, SHOCK got its first complete release stateside from on DVD and VHS from Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2000 (an identical DVD edition was reissued by Blue Underground in 2007) but it lagged so far behind most of Bava's filmography (even behind the release of Bava Jr.'s official directorial debut) in reaching Blu-ray.  

Arrow Video's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray comes from a new 2K scan of the original 35mm camera negative.  One of Bava's most naturalistic-looking films with no irrational color gels and conservative use of gobo shadows, the new HD master improves on the SD transfers in more subtle ways, the brightness levels lending more convincing shading to the film's few make-up effects – Carlo looks ghostly even in "living" form but that has more to do with the way Italian exploitation seemed to represent drug addicts as extremely pale as in films like CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT or ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK – while the heightened resolution reveals Bava carefully placing objects in the periphery of shots from the appearances of the hand sculpture to the soon to be animate furniture and bric-a-brac in the cellar.  

English and Italian audio options are included along with English SDH and English subtitles, and the choice of English or Italian version dictates the default audio and subtitle options (you cannot view the English subtitles with the English track or the English SDH with the Italian for comparison but you can jump back and forth between versions by switching versions from the popup menu), as well as the option of English or Italian credits – the title remains SHOCK (not SCHOCK) on both credits – and alternate takes of a handwritten note in either language.  Both versions are complete since the psychiatrist scene was included in the export version and only excised from the US theatrical cut.

The film is accompanied by a brand new audio commentary by Tim Lucas, author of "Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark", who was not asked to do a track for the original Anchor Bay release; which is just as well since Lucas mentions that he was not able to interview actor Colin Jr. when he was writing his book but has since contacted him.  In addition to providing some background on the development of the script from a period in the late sixties, he also mentions the unattributed source novel "The Shadow Guest" by Hilary Waugh to which the final product bears only the most superficial resemblance as well as how the film is informed by a number of more recent films and literary works from the obvious like REPULSION to a quite heavy debt to DEEP RED and even Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC, both of which involve supernatural nudging towards a discovery behind a bricked-up wall (while the former also included a little boy warped by a past crime).  He also provides background on the film, including Nicolodi's anorexia and calling estranged partner Dario Argento to visit the set for moral support, as well as recollections of Steiner and Colin Jr. (son of David Tyron Collin, the founder of the American University of Rome) who invested his BEYOND THE DOOR earnings to fund his education and is now an economist.

The disc also features a handful of new interviews.  In "A Ghost in the House" (30:34), co-director and co-writer Lamberto Bava recalls assisting his father as well as Ruggero Deodato – for whom he also co-wrote WAVES OF LUST – and Dario Argento.  He recalls wanting to get his father working again and going back to a treatment written by Dardano Sacchetti (MANHATTAN BABY) and Francesco Barbieri (EMERGENCY SQUAD) and shopping it around to various producers before Turi Vasile (MINNESOTA CLAY) and I.I.F. who insisted on their own writer with playwright Alessandro Parenzo (THE PRIVATE LESSON) credited as "Paolo Brigenti" whose script would be heavily rewritten by Bava.  He also discusses how his father faked being tired to get him to direct more of the film – Bava Jr. estimates he did twenty-five percent including the more dialogue-heavy scenes – working with the cast, and his father's trickery (as well as the film's memorable jump scare).

In "Via Dell’Orologio 33" (33:48), co-writer Sacchetti recalls that his public dispute with Argento following CAT O'NINE TAILS got him more notice and job offers, and that his original concept for the film was one of two treatments he proposed to producer Giuseppe Zaccariello (THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN) that also included BAY OF BLOOD which went into production while "Via Dell’Orologio 33" fell between the cracks.  He started to develop it under producer Loyota but it wound up in the bankruptcy assets and he did not know it was going into production under Bava until he was informed by screenwriter/actor Luigi Montefiori aka George Eastman (ANTRHOPHAGUS) that Bava Jr. had asked him to do some rewrites.  The producers told Sacchetti that he had not rights to the film since was not one of the claimants on Loyola's assets, but he and Barbieri would end up credited on the film.  Sacchetti discusses his concept and how the film differed little from it apart from making the father an addict and the stepfather a pilot, and how Lucio Fulci was intended to direct a script of his closer to the original that would end up being directed by Lamberto Bava as UNTIL DEATH for the BRIVIDO GIALLO series of TV movies.

In the video essay "The Devil Pulls the Strings" (20:45), author and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas discusses puppetry as a metaphor for possession, the centrality of the plaster hand of Buddha prop even though it is never mentioned in the dialogue, and the ways the materiality of the domestic space becomes alienated by the supernatural, making this a companion piece not only to her essay for DEMONS and DEMONS 2 but also the recent British Blu-ray for the American film SESSION 9.  

In "Shock! Horror! – The Stylistic Diversity of Mario Bava" 2021 (51:46), author and critic Stephen Thrower makes the argument that the knowledge of Lamberto Bava as a co-director really does not make the film any less "pure" of a Mario Bava work, and that the ways in which is disconnected from his classic works of horror are actually evident in a number of his later horror films, positing to stages of his horror filmography with I VAMPIRI to KILL BABY KILL in the first and HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON to SHOCK in the latter (with works like DANGER: DIABOLIK, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS, and FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON in between).  Thrower also cites the familiar filmic and literary inspirations but notes that the various pranks, hallucinations, and scares are less about making the audience jump out of their seat but jangling them into a relatable degree of fear as the protagonist.

"The Most Atrocious Tortur(e)" (4:12), an interview with critic Alberto Farina, is quite brief but a worthy addition as the critic recalls interviewing Nicolodi for OPERA and her showing him a drawing Bava did for her depicting Dora and her various torments that included an advent calender-like door cutout of the child under which was written "Mother, I have to dub you" referencing Bava being forced to redub Nicolodi's performance because the producers felt her voice to masculine, and the title of the drawing being the misspelled English language title of the interview piece.  

The disc also includes the Italian theatrical trailer (3:35) as well as four BEYOND THE DOOR II TV spots as well as a double bill spot with THE DARK (1:51 in total), and three image galleries featuring posters, the Italian fotobusta, and the Japanese souvenir programme.  Not provided for review were the reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Christopher Shy – presumably the original artwork is the Italian piece cribbed from the American paperback cover painting for Shirley Jackson's "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" as well as an illustrated collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by Troy Howarth, author of "The Haunted World of Mario Bava" (included with the first pressing only).  

An alternate O-card edition with the BEYOND THE DOOR II title is available exclusively from Arrow Video's American site (as well as Arrow Films' British site).

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