Movies Till Dawn: Programmer’s Notes – Bizarre Transmissions

889290247780;canvasHeight=360;canvasWidth=267After a wince-inducing opening sequence in which real pigs are butchered – to the tune of comic music – “Slaughterhouse” (1987, All Channels) settles into an E.C. Comics-styled blend of dark humor and ‘80s slasher tropes. Writer-director Rick Roessler draws from any number of rural-set horror films (most notably “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2,” released just one year before) for his story, about a meatpacking plant owner (Don Barrett) who employs his mute son, Buddy (Joe B. Barton) – a king-sized maniac with what might be called an artisanal approach to carving meat – to dispatch creditors and local law enforcement seeking to foreclose his facility. A handful of party-minded teens also end up on Buddy’s kill list, and while the stalk-and-slash set pieces aren’t particularly gory, Roessler wrings a lot of American Gothic atmosphere out of his locations, which include an abandoned slaughterhouse near the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego that stands up to any studio-made set for creepiness. The 30th Anniversary Blu-ray includes a staggering amount of supplemental material, including two making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, trailers (including an amusing “No Smoking” clip featuring Buddy) and much more.

51NGZbgOyrLLike “Slaughterhouse,” “The Mutilator” (1984, Arrow Video) is a low budget, regionally made horror film that plays fast and loose with audience expectations in its opening moments before settling into the traditional cycle of morbidly creative murders. North Carolina director Buddy Cooper frames his first third as a slaphappy teen comedy, with a relentlessly bouncy synth-pop soundtrack underscoring a giddy pack of college students celebrating something called Fall Break (the film’s original title) at a beachside condo. From there, the tone turns abruptly dark as an assailant dispatches the kids with an array of devices; though the film is sluggishly paced (the killer appears to take a nap at one point) and rife with plot holes, Mark Shostrom’s special effects are crude but incredibly gruesome, even by period splatter standards. These scenes earned the picture considerable notoriety among the Fangoria faithful, as well as with the ratings board, which trimmed much of the offensive material before a wide theatrical release. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray is taken from an uncut 35mm print (found at the Library of Congress!) and features the label’s usual array of extras, including commentary tracks with Cooper and his cast and crew, interviews with Shostrom and composer Michael Minard, screen tests, trailers and even the original screenplay. Cult movie trainspotters will also note the presence of Ben Moore, one of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ original “Two Thousand Maniacs!” (1964), as a local cop who comes to an unfortunate end.

product_images_modal_M-ROTORCover72dpi__7B3d30a643-128c-4331-9e3b-125bf0a6c40e_7DAlso on the homegrown horror front, “R.O.T.O.R.” (1987, Scream Factory) is a Texas-made spin on machines-gone-amuck thrillers like “The Terminator” and “RoboCop,” with co-producer Richard Gesswein as a tough Dallas cop/scientist whose creation, a robot police officer (played by at least four different actors), takes its peacekeeping operative a bit too seriously. Director Blaine Cullen – a prolific animation director and storyboard artist – makes all the right choices to create a wrong-headed movie: reams of ludicrous dialogue (“You fire me and I’ll make more noise than two skeletons making love in a tin coffin, brother”) issued by terrible actors, many of whom appear to have been dubbed in post; atrocious direction (an out-of-nowhere standoff between Gesswein and punks holding up a convenience store is a miracle of mismatched editing and angles) and continuity errors; absurd characters (jive-talking janitor Shoeboogie, bodybuilder/scientist Dr. Steele, comic relief robot Willard, who reads “Eerie”), and a finale that asks the audience to believe that an indestructible killing machine can be incapacitated by loud noise. For junkfilm aficionados, “R.O.T.O.R’s” Ed Wood-grade mix of technical ineptitude and awful aesthetics is a lot of fun to watch, and should make for a fine evening of riffing; Scream Factory’s Blu-ray pairs it with “Millennium,” an occasionally effective science fiction effort written by John Varley and directed by Michael Anderson (“1984,” “Logan’s Run”).

3019The Black Sleep” (1956, Kino Lorber) is a nastier take on the mad scientist potboilers issued by low-budget studios like Monogram and PRC during the 1940s, with scientist Basil Rathbone creating a platoon of monsters in his efforts to perfect the brain surgery that will revive his comatose wife. “Sleep” benefits greatly from its cast of horror vets on the way, including Lon Chaney, Jr., John Carradine and Tor Johnson as former test subjects, Bela Lugosi in a silent role as Rathbone’s meek butler and Akim Tamiroff, in a role intended for Peter Lorre, as the doctor’s henchman. Though Reginald LeBorg directs without much conviction, he delivers a few s grisly shocks – a shot of an exposed brain seeping cranial fluid, George Sawaya as a sailor-turned-guinea pig with a collapsed face, and Phyllis Stanley as a shrieking mental case plagued with patches of hair – before unleashing Chaney, Carradine, et al to run amuck in the film’s berserk conclusion. Kino’s Blu-ray is a vast improvement over previous MOD and grey market versions, and includes commentary by genre expert Tom Weaver, who discusses the film’s production and theatrical release, as well as early drafts of the script; he’s joined by film music scholar David Schecter, who pores over the film’s score. An episode of “Trailers from Hell” devoted to thie film’s coming attraction reel, with commentary by Joe Dante, and a barrage of production stills and poster art close out this enjoyable disc.

91Ro3fnPpnL._SL1500_In the two-part “Jungle Bungle,” which kicked off the 1972-1973 animated series “The Brady Kids,” cartoon versions of the six step-siblings – all voiced by the actors who played them in the live-action sitcom – enter a balloon race at a county fair. The Bradys’ nemesis, Chuck White (voiced, along with most of the other non-Brady characters, by veteran comic Larry Storch), disables the kids’ balloon and strands them on a remote island, where they encounter a talking mynah bird (Storch) with magical powers, a hiccupping Father Nature (Storch), giant crabs, the Abominable Snowman, an enormous chicken and Ping and Pong (Jane Webb), a pair of babbling pandas who are also Chinese astronauts. All parties eventually return safely to the Brady house, which is conspicuously absent of any adult characters, and also bang out a couple of tunes (“Time to Change” and “I Believe in You”). Originally airing on the “ABC Saturday Superstar Movie” in 1972, “Jungle Bungle” was the first of 22 animated Brady adventures produced by Filmation, whose distinctive animation style – endlessly repeated scenes and character action (many of which were frame-by-frame replacements from “The Archies Show”), stiff movement and long, slow pans across static backgrounds to fill out screen time – should be immediately identifiable to the ‘70s-era cartoon faithful. The three-disc “Complete Animated Series” set from CBS will undoubtedly appeal to Brady completists, but casual viewers may also be captivated/bewildered by the kids’ encounters with aliens, ghosts, the Lone Ranger, Superman, Wonder Woman (who travels back to ancient Greece with the Bradys) and an alarming array of criminals, all enhanced by a disorienting adult laugh track. Brady devotees will also note that Barry Williams, Maureen McCormick and Christopher Knight do not voice Greg, Marcia and Peter in the second season; contract disputes led to their replacement by Lane and Erika Scheimer (Filmation co-founder Lou Scheimer’s kids) and David E. Smith.

91MalqSrLVL._SL1500_The first volume of Arrow Video’s “American Horror Project,” which aspires to bring obscure horror movies from the 1970s to light, makes a solid case for the idea that studio efforts like “The Exorcist” and independent releases that drew a cult following (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”), weren’t the only notable horror films from that decade. While none of the films featured in Volume One – “Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood” (1973), “The Premonition” and “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” (both 1976) can be considered lost classics, all three make intriguing choices in regard to genre tropes, as well as stylistic and thematic experiments, that result in wholly unique and at times, remarkable horror films. The Philadelphia-lensed “Malatesta” – probably the least-known of the three films in the seat, having been largely unseen for decades – prefers atmosphere and metaphor over linear plotlines to tell its story of a family whose search for a lost son leads them to a hidden world of monsters beneath a derelict carnival (where Herve Villechaize is among its employees). Director Christopher Speeth’s flourishes of surrealism require some patience, but his underground world, filled with malevolent Pop Art sets, and its hippie-ghoul inhabitants, who watch silent horror films while dining on their victims, suggest a spiritual and visual kinship with avant-garde directors like Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith. “Witch,” from exploitation vet Matt Cimber (“Butterfly”), reads on paper like grindhouse fodder, with Millie Perkins as a woman whose history of childhood abuse spurs her to seduce and then butcher her would-be sexual partners. While Cimber doesn’t shy away from the prurient aspects of the premise, and the script by Robert Thom (Perkins’ then-husband) saddles the cast with ponderous dialogue, equal time is devoted to depicting Perkins’ inner turmoil and the devastation wrought by the cycle of abuse; in doing so, “Witch” hews closer to psychological thriller than roughie. The most satisfying film in the set is Robert Allen Schnitzer’s “The Premonition,” which, with its gritty Gulf Coast locations and a central conflict rooted in family issues – two couples struggle over parental rights to a child (Danielle Brisbois) – might pass at first blush as a independent dramatic feature from the period. Schnitzer manages to fold the horrific elements – a parapsychological element, and issues of mental instability – into the story that largely compliments the more realistic aspects; aside from a few uneven moments, “The Premonition” manages to be an unsettling supernatural thriller and a compelling personal drama, which is no mean feat. Arrow’s three-disc set sheds light on the history and context of all three films through its usual wealth of extras, which include excellent commentary by Richard Harland Smith on“Malatesta”, Cimber, Perkins and cinematographer Dean Cundey on “Witch” and Schnitzer on “Premonition”; new and archived interviews with many of the major participants, including Christopher Speeth and the late, great character actor Richard Lynch (who stars in “Premonition”), as well as outtakes, trailers and TV spots, three short films by Schnitzer and a draft of the script for “Malatesta,” make this a must-have for ‘70s horror and cult creepshow fans.

product_images_modal_MITRM-GMCover72dpi__7B24f14e3f-733d-47de-924c-11a9619965c8_7DElsewhere: more ‘70s horror, this time courtesy of American International Pictures, in a Scream Factory Blu-ray that pairs “The Dunwich Horror” (1970) with “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1971). The former, directed by AIP’s in-house art director Daniel Haller and co-written by Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”), has Dean Stockwell using college student Sandra Dee as a sacrifice to summon H.P. Lovecraft’s monstrous space gods, “the Old Ones.” The picture has an equal number of effective elements – Les Baxter’s psychedelic/electronic score, Sam Jaffe as Stockwell’s fanatical grandfather and Haller’s take on Stockwell’s inhuman half-brother, which is depicted largely through the sound of wind and bird cries – and misfires (the casting of Dee, the appearance of Yog-Sothoth, who looks like an unwashed biker), but remains a moderately successful attempt to translate the author’s work. “Murders,” directed by Gordon Hessler (“Cry of the Banshee”), uses the Edgar Allan Poe story as a framing device for its “Phantom of the Opera”-inspired story about an actor (Herbert Lom, who played the Phantom for Hammer), disfigured in an on-stage accident, who wreaks revenge on his former castmates for his condition and the suicide of his fiancé (Lili Palmer). An impressive cast of American and European performers, including Jason Robards, Adolfo Celi and Michael Dunn, and Spanish locations help to overcome the picture’s unfocused script; the Scream Factory Blu-ray includes the longer 98-minute version of the film, as well as a short interview with Hessler and trailers for both films.

91+QMkKtz6L._SL1500_More exotic locations await in Blue Underground’s double bill Blu-ray of “Code 7, Victim 5” (1964) and “Mozambique” (1964), a pair of action-thrillers produced by Harry Alan Towers and filmed in South Africa. Both are fairly lightweight efforts anchored by ex-pat American stars: in the former, Lex Barker is private eye Steve Martin, investigating a string of murders connected to a WWII conspiracy, while “Mozambique” stars Steve Cochran as a pilot roped into a smuggling ring. Both pictures have their share of brawls, shootouts and in one case, an ostrich stampede, but the real draw is the South African settings, which are beautifully photographed (Nicholas Roeg is behind the camera on “Code 7”); what’s clearly missing are non-white South African citizens, all kept out of view due to apartheid rulings. Harry Alan Towers would return to South Africa for various productions, including an absurd take on “Ten Little Indians” (1989), between projects for Jess Franco (“Venus in Furs”); Blue Underground’s disc includes English-language trailers for both films.

238097&w=230And to conclude our broadcast day, there’s “The Winter” (2014, IndiePix), a British-Greek production about a failed writer (Theo Albanis, in his acting debut) who leaves the Dickensian squalor of his home in London for the mountain village of his childhood. Shuttered up in his family’s ancient home (a real and allegedly haunted property owned by the family of director Konstantinos Koutsoliotas), Niko slips in and out of a dream state in which the troubled past of his parents mingle with his own wayward reality. For his directorial debut, Koutsoliotas drew on his work as an animator and VFX artist (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), as well as ghost stories from his own family, to create some striking images on a micro-budget and two-week schedule. For a picture with such an emphasis on visual effects, “The Winter” also says a lot about the need to understand and learn from what we’ve lost in very simple terms (often without any dialogue). Its loveliest and saddest scene is a flashback that begins with just shadows on the wall, as Niko’s father (Vangelis Mourikis) tells him a bedtime story that, like all fables, is both frightening and beautiful. It’s a remarkable debut, and the right way to close out a long and bizarre night of viewing. 

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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