Movies Till Dawn: Death Smiles on the Saturday Morning Strange

Two Thousand Maniacs!” (1964, Arrow Video) A carload of Yankees traveling through the Deep South comes to regret their decision to visit the small town of Pleasant Valley, where the residents’ exuberant hospitality hides a more sinister intent. Like its predecessor, the splatter Urtext “Blood Feast“, Herschell Gordon Lewis‘s “Maniacs” is crudely made and designed primarily as a showcase for its messy and sadistic murder set-pieces; it’s also morbidly funny (e.g., a severed arm roasts while a bluegrass band plays “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”) and Lewis even spares a few moments for suspense and pacing. Considerable atmosphere is also wrung from the town of St. Cloud, Florida, which stands in for Pleasant Valley, and whose real residents throw themselves into playing the titular maniacs. Arrow’s Blu-ray pairs vintage audio commentary from Lewis, producer David Friedman and Something Weird‘s Mike Vraney and Lewis’s 1964 hillbilly music-and-murder feature “Moonshine Mountain” with outtakes, trailers and newer material, including multiple interviews with/tributes to Lewis from Bob Murawski (“The Hurt Locker”), Tim Sullivan (“2001 Maniacs”) and Fred Olen Ray.

The Colossus of Rhodes” (1961, Warner Archive Collection). Rebels on the island of Rhodes enlist a dandified Greek (American actor Rory Calhoun) in their plan to overthrow a corrupt king (Roberto Camardiel) and his emblem of power – the Colossus, a massive statue/war machine. Italian-Spanish sword-and-sandal epic marked the directorial debut of Sergio Leone, who overcomes the genre’s limitations – absurdly over-complicated plotting, gaudy sets and costumes – with the fluid camerawork and wide vistas that would define his Italian Westerns (“Fistful of Dollars”) and vigorous action set-pieces, the best of which pits Calhoun and the rebels against the fire-spewing Colossus during an earthquake. Warner’s English-dubbed Blu-ray includes commentary by Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, who relays amusing production trivia (Calhoun covering up his tattoos with his costume’s cape) and Leone’s subtle tributes to/parodies of American films (including “North by Northwest”).

Death Smiles on a Murderer” (1973, Arrow Video) Buried in this Italian supernatural thriller, beneath piles of Gothic-weirdo ephemera – which include, but are not limited to incestuous hunchbacks, homicidal cats, Incan reanimation formulas and Klaus Kinski– is an occasionally unsettling ghost story, hinged around an amnesiac girl (Ewa Aulin from “Candy”) whose presence tears apart (figuratively and literally) a staid family. Director/cinematographer Aristide Massacessi (a.k.a. Joe D’Amato) stirs up some genuine chills when he focuses on the deaths that follow the girl; the rest is woozy budget surrealism that should appeal to camp/badmovie fans. Arrow’s Blu-ray includes commentary by Tim Lucas and new and vintage interviews with Aulin and D’Amato, whose dizzying c.v. of risqué/grisly Eurocult titles is also explored.

Jack the Giant Killer (Special Edition)” (1962, Kino Lorber) Cornwall farmer Jack (Kerwin Mathews) proves to have the right combination of strength and skill to fend off sorcerer Torin Thatcher and an army of monsters dispatched to kidnap princess Judi Meredith. Charmingly naïve adventure from producer Edward Small, who enlisted Mathews,  Thatcher and Nathan Juran, who starred in an directed, respectively, “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” to make what he hoped to be another fantasy hit; the end result doesn’t meet that standard, due largely to the absence of Ray Harryhausen‘s stop-motion creations, but the giants, sea monster and dragon, created by Jim Danforth, Gene Warren and others, have enough roar and snarl in them to satisfy classic creature feature fans and very small children, and Juran does what he can to approximate the visual wonder of “Sinbad” on a much slimmer budget. Kino’s Blu-ray includes another informed commentary by Tim Lucas and a real curiosity: a musical version of “Jack” made for TV, in which the characters are clumsily edited to “sing” some woeful numbers.

Henry Miller: Asleep and Awake” (1975, IndiePix) Director Tom Schiller (“Saturday Night Live”) prods awake the literary outlaw, then 81, who upon rousing, narrates a 35-minute tour through the bathroom of his New York apartment, which includes photographs of fellow writers like Hermann Hesse, Hieronymus Bosch prints, a carving by Jung and a photograph of the “Hello, Dolly!” set which he impishly tries to pass off as his childhood home. His monologue eventually expands to touch on issues of sex (of course), aging and spirituality, underscoring the notion that wisdom – or eccentricity – is never beholden to age or time restraints.

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 Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, 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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