Everything you need to know about Artsploitation Films is summed up in the company’s moniker: the new North American film distribution label offers international titles that explore the link between arthouse and grindhouse features. The subgenres share more than a few square feet of common ground: it doesn’t take a protractor to draw a connecting line between the visually striking, taboo-breaking work of directors like Luis Bunuel, Lars von Trier and Werner Herzog (to name just a few) and filmmakers like David Cronenberg, George Romero, Larry Cohen and Jack Hill, whose output is usually consigned to the root cellar of blood-and-guts and trash movies. Artsploitation’s initial DVD/Blu-ray offers travel a similar path between raw and refined, though with varying degrees of success. The most audacious of the batch is German director Till Kleinert’s “Der Samurai,” a genre-bending psychological thriller about a by-the-books police deputy who discovers that a cross-dressing psychopath (a very intense Pit Bukowski) is dispatching the locals with a samurai sword. Amidst the references to werewolf movies and Japanese swordplay and copious amounts of gore, there a layer of subtext about sexual identity and male roles that keeps the whole thing from tipping into deliberate camp territory. The same can’t be said for “The House with 100 Eyes,” which purports to parody found-footage and serial killer tropes with a story about married lunatics struggling to capture their latest atrocities on camera. It’s neither inventive nor humorous, and the endless shaky-cam scenes of torture will wear down all but the most hardened horror fans.
Romain Bassett’s French thriller “Horsehead” is a step in the right direction towards embodying Artsploitation’s mission statement with its story of a young woman’s attempt to understand her family’s secrets through lucid dreaming. Her arresting visions, which hinge around glimpses of the titular character – a mystery man with a horse’s head – attempt to (and largely succeed) at evoking the color-saturated nightmare landscapes of Mario Bava, which is no small feat. It also features welcome appearances by Catriona MacColl (from Lucio Fulci’s “The Beyond”) and Murray Head, of all people. The Dutch film “Reckless” is more clear-cut in its intentions – to redo the 2009 British thriller “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” and while it matches its source material in regard to grit and grime, there’s little beyond that element to suggest that the effort was worth undertaking. “The Treatment,” from Belgium, also trucks with awful human behavior – specifically, the murder of an entire family by a vicious killer – but takes more interest in the psychological and emotional impact of such a crime, especially on those charged with investigating it. That the detective on the case is himself the survivor of childhood trauma adds not only suspense but also substance to this very dark but engrossing film.
If all of that is too heavy a meal for your summer movie appetite, you can instead tuck into more traditional fare, like “Into the Grizzly Maze” (Sony) which pits a giant, bloodthirsty bear (Bart the Bear) against estranged brothers James Marsden and Thomas Jane. Billy Bob Thornton and Scott Glenn lend their own degree of grizzle to the proceedings, which unfold at a brisk clip with plenty of mayhem and an attempt at context (loner Marsden must settle his beef with society, as embodied by a mumbling Jane, in order to bring this force of nature into line) that should satisfy those looking for either. The chief pleasures of the British ghost story “Altar” (Cinedigm) are Matthew Modine and Olivia Williams, who work overtime to sell the scare tactics afoot in their newly purchased and not very imaginatively haunted house.