“Marihuana/Narcotic” (1936/1933, Kino Lorber/Something Weird Video) Fake News as Your Grandparents Saw It: a double bill of rabid anti-drug films from notorious exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper, which detail how pot and opium fueled a descent from middle-class contentment to eventual death for a Promising Young Woman and Upstanding Young Doctor, respectively. In typical fashion, Esper maintains a stern tone of condemnation for his protagonists’ behavior while also reveling in their moral decay through scenes of wild jazz parties, skinny dipping, visits to opium dens (complete with appalling yellowface actors) and shoot-outs with the police. These moments have a manic energy that’s sorely missed during the leaden “abstinence” scenes, which underscore Esper’s true intent: to separate suckers from their folding money and not to warn anxious parents (though the U.S. government certainly believed that). Though not as well known as “Reefer Madness” (which Esper eventually purchased and distributed), both “Marihuana” and “Narcotic” deliver an even greater dose of budget-minded delirium, and as such, should absolutely slay at your next junkfood film screening; Kino’s Blu-ray – part of its excellent “Forbidden Fruit” retrospective series – features the best-looking prints available, culled from the legendary Something Weird Video vault, and bundles them with commentaries by historian/filmmaker Bret Wood and exploitation kingpin David Friedman, as well as two tame Esper shorts, “How to Undress (In Front of Your Husband)” and “How to Take a Bath,” both notable for their noxious attitudes towards women.
“Sonic the Hedgehog” (2020, Paramount Home Entertainment) Sonic, a blue wisenheimer of a hedgehog, is sent to Earth by his owl step-parent when their extraterrestrial island home is overrun by malevolent echidnas; once on our planet, his presence – and ability to run at gale force speeds – draws the attention of both small town sheriff James Marsden and the operatically evil Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). As that sentence illustrates, what is acceptable as perfectly rational for a video game – specifically, Sega’s long-running Sonic franchise – doesn’t always translate to a movie plot, and for the most part, “Sonic” plays like a candy-colored (and induced) fever dream, even for those who grew up with the games. That probably won’t matter for the film’s pre-teen target audience, who will appreciate the (appropriately) manic pace, abundant CGI mayhem and frequent fart/butt gags; adults may express gratitude for the presence of cast members Ben Schwartz (as the voice of Sonic), Marsden, Carrey and Adam Pally, who all dig into the silliness with admirable gusto, and for the film’s availability for kids during this extended shutdown. Paramount’s Blu-ray/DVD set includes commentary by Schwartz and director Jeff Fowler, deleted scenes and bloopers, multiple making-of featurettes, and even a comic book.
“Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson” (2020, Severin Films) Feature-length documentary about the low-budget filmmaker, best known for such threadbare but well-loved cult titles as “Dracula vs. Frankenstein” and “Satan’s Sadists.” Blessed with boundless ambition and a blind spot in regard to budgetary, technical and plot deficiencies, Adamson employed an oddball mix of faded actors (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and equally scrappy pals (future Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, enthusiastic spouse Regina Carroll) for his awkward, rough-hewn but earnest attempts at horror, science fiction, grindhouse action and comedies. His adventures in the screen trade brought him in contact with, among others, Charles Manson and Colonel Sanders, but even his strangest encounter or most out-to-lunch film couldn’t approach the bizarre and macabre circumstances of his own demise in 1995 at the hands of an obsessed live-in contractor. Director/Severin chief David Gregory assembles testimonies to Adamson’s can-do-even-if-you-shouldn’t aesthetic from surviving collaborators (Russ Tamblyn) and aficionados (Al biographer/LA Beat contributor David Konow) for an amusing and affectionate portrait of a likable guy, keenly aware of but unafraid of his limitations, and one who didn’t deserve his unpleasant curtain call. Severin’s Blu-ray includes the feature film and outtakes, a promo reel for Al’s unfinished UFO doc, and a bonus feature, “The Female Bunch” (1969), shot on location on Spahn Ranch and featuring members of the Manson Family (!) as extras.
“Carnival Magic” (1981, Severin Kids) A sluggish chimp with the ability to talk (well, mutter) may provide a Hail Mary for a circus in decline – that is, if the big top’s drunken lion tamer (Joe Cirillo) can get past his jealous feelings towards the chimp’s psychic magician owner (soap star Don Stewart) and pump the brakes on his scheme to sell said monkey to a doctor with designs on experimenting on and ultimately vivisecting the animal. Did I mention that this was a children’s movie? Specifically, it’s a children’s movie by the aforementioned Al Adamson, and his penultimate film project before his death. And like all of Al’s screen projects, “Carnival” is strapped by an underfed budget and a totally nonsensical script that attempts to fold domestic and animal abuse, alcoholism and some very weird father-daughter drama into a talking chimp movie. That tonal smash-up is largely responsible for the film’s cult status (along with a lambasting on “Mystery Science Theater 3000“), which exceeds even Al’s horror and biker efforts, and which is likely to draw you into its clutches after viewing Severin Kids’ Blu-ray. The disc is a boon for Adamson devotees, bundling not only “Carnival” but Al’s 1983 children’s adventure film “Lost” (with Sandra Dee!), outtakes from another kid-friendly effort called “The Happy Hobo,” commentary by “Carnival” producer Elvin Feltner and an appreciation by Alamo Drafthouse programmers Zack Carlson and Lars Nilsen.
“Why Don’t You Just Die!” (2020, Arrow Video) Matvei (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) wants doe-eyed Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde). Olya wants Matvei to kill Andrei (Vitaly Khaev), her detective father and, according to her, a world-class bastard. So Matvei, dope that he is, decides to carry out his beloved’s wishes, but Andrei, who is built like a warhead, refuses to expire, no matter how many hammers, television sets, power drills and other objects are employed. Outrageous black comedy plays like the finale of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” stretched to feature length, but writer-director Kirill Sokolov tempers the bloody excess with the blackest of slapstick and hyperactive camerawork that suggests a Russian (read: grimly determined but game) take on Sam Raimi and the Coen brothers’ visually hyperactive early efforts. Available digitally on Apple TV, Google Play and Microsoft. UPDATE: Arrow Video has also released “Why Don’t You Just Die!” on Blu-ray, which features six making-of docs, short films by Sokolov and an interview with Kim Newman.
“Secret Ceremony” (1969, Kino Lorber) A depressed Elizabeth Taylor and an infantile Mia Farrow, unmoored by the deaths of their daughter and mother (respectively) find something like happiness (or love) by pretending to be the other person’s deceased relation; complications arise with the arrival of Farrow’ sinister creep of a stepfather (Robert Mitchum). Second collaboration between Taylor and director Joseph Losey is, at times, as willfully impenetrable and overwrought as their previous effort, “Boom!” But the performances are more even-handed here (save for Mitchum, who goes for broke in the creepy department), and the film boasts a moodily stylish production aesthetic, including Gerry Fisher‘s photography (steeped in a color palette that suggests degrees of ripeness and decay) and Richard Rodney Bennett’s shivery score. Their work is discussed in detail, as well as the film’s alternate and missing footage, in the commentary by Tim Lucas.