Movies Till Dawn: Beyond Belief

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974, Dark Sky Films) Tobe Hooper’s landmark horror film has been imitated, duplicated, and sequelized multiple times, all of which (even Hooper’s own 1986 revisit) haven’t come close to the anarchic, nightmarish terror of the original feature, which pits a group of travelers against a family of cannibals in a remote corner of the Lone Star State. Home video versiosn of “Chain Saw” are almost as numerous as its remakes, though Dark Sky’s latest editions (limited and steelbook) offers a wealth of extras along with a new 4K Ultra presentation of the feature. You’ll need a UHD player to watch the movie itself and hear its four vintage commentaries (which feature, in various combinations, the late Hooper, stars Marilyn Burns and Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen, DP Daniel Pearl, and other crew members); a second Blu-ray disc includes a new making-of documentary, as well as a staggering number of extras, including an interview with Hooper by William Friedkin, multiple interviews with cast and crew, location visits, deleted scenes, trailers, and more.

Wings of Disaster: The Birdemic Trilogy” (2010-2022, Severin Films) Earnestness is the key to enjoying James Nguyen’s utterly hopeless trio of science fiction/horror films, which pit a gaggle of seemingly hypnotized individuals against flocks of eagles and vultures mutated by global warming. Nguyen is incapable of producing a single frame unmarked by the most amateurish incompetence: ineptitude reigns supreme in every element, from performances (shell-shocked, hopelessly awkward) to CGI effects (Atari 2600-level graphics) and plotting (playground level). The films draw huge audiences who convulse with laughter over their failings, but as many have noted, Nguyen is at least sincere about his intentions. His talent is non-existant but his commitment appears to be unwavering – why else shoulder the slings and arrows leveled at “Birdemic” and then make TWO MORE (which add cavemen and zombies in Hollywood to “Birdemic: The Resurrection” and returns the action to its coastal California origins for “Birdemic 3: Sea Eagle”)? Masochism, maybe; dogged (if completely blind) determination, more likely, and reason enough for the films to exist. Severin Films bundles all three features on Blu-ray with a jaw-dropping 13+ hours of extras, including commentary by Nguyen, cast, crew and “Jeopardy” champ Andy Wood (not a typo), interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, festival appearances, and numerous trailers.

Phenomena” (1985, Synapse Films) Your tolerance for insects – many, many flies in adult and larval form – and director Dario Argento’s forays into surreal slasher territory will determine your appreciation for his 1985 feature “Phenomena,” which fuses supernatural material (star Jennifer Connelly’s telepathic link to said bugs) with over-the-top splatter (a serial killer preys on young women). The unsettling dream logic employed in Argento’s best films (“Suspiria”) fuels the action here, which involves entomologist Donald Pleasance using Connelly’s psychic abilities to further his own forensic investigation into the killings (with the idea that flies’ attraction to corpses will somehow root out the murderer); the strategy generates some striking set pieces (Connelly’s plunge into a pool filled with maggots) and bizarre flights of fancy, many of which involve Pleasance’s over-protective chimp assistant. Synapse’s 4K UHD presentation (which again, you’ll need a UHD player to watch) supports the film’s proponents, who hail “Phenomena” as one of Argento’s most visually impressive efforts, with beautiful 4K restorations of the original Italian version, a shorter international cut, and the severely truncated American edit (released as “Creepers”); separate commentaries by Argento historians Troy Howarth and Derek Botehlo (who’s joined by David De Valle) underscore the film’s successes and flaws, while a feature-length documentary, aptly titled “Of Flies and Maggots,” adds perspective from Argento, co-stars Daria Nicolodi, and others. The three versions of “Phenomena” are compared in a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie, while Argento’s “Jennifer,” a music video featuring Connelly, and various trailers round out the two-disc set.

“The Return of Swamp Thing” (1989, Lightyear Entertainment) Sequel of sorts to Wes Craven’s 1982 “Swamp Thing” finds Heather Locklear headed to Florida to query stepfather/mad scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan) about her mother’s mysterious death; there, she finds Arcane up to more genetic monster-making as well as a protector and would-be love interest in vegetable super hero Swamp Thing (Dick Durock). Director Jim Wynorski – a veteran of the Roger Corman school and producer/director on countless low-budget features – decides to approach DC Comics’ venerable monster hero with tongue planted firmly in cheek; the result is fitfully amusing but mostly works as an exercise in cornball humor and self-reflexive dismissal of its obvious flaws. Lightyear’s 4K Blu-ray offers multiple commentaries by and interviews with Wynorski (who really hates Louis Jordan) and various production team members, including Michael Uslan (producer of several “Batman” titles) as well as TV spots, trailers, and a genuinely funny music video by RiffTrax’s Rifftones.

Doctor Death: Seeker of Souls” (1973, Scorpion Releasing/Kino Lorber) Convinced by hazy visions that his late wife (Jo Morrow) will return after death, businessman Barry Coe (the original Mr. Goodwrench) calls upon the mysterious Doctor Death (Altman regular and TV vet John Considine), who promises to aid in her revival her by transferring a new soul into her body. Multiple murders are required to shore up the new souls, but as Coe and Dr. Death soon discover, folding displaced spirits into a dead body has its share of complications. Loopy independent horror feature from director Eddie Saeta – a longtime assistant director at Columbia – and actor/songwriter turned writer Sal Ponti (with an uncredited financial assist from Motown chief Berry Gordy) can’t decide if it’s a supernatural chiller, a splattery grindhouse picture (with an abundance of gloppy gore), or a tongue-in-cheek black comedy, and instead settles on being all three. The result is a deeply eccentric and frequently amusing curiosity highlighted by Considine’s bemused performance and a host of oddball touches, not the least of which is a scene in which Dr. Death sends Coe a severed head to underscore his commitment to finding new souls, and cameos by, among others, eccentric Czech actress Florence Marly (“Queen of Blood”), Leon Askin (“Hogan’s Heroes”) as Dr. Death’s mute assistant, Larry Vincent – a.k.a. beloved KTLA/KHJ horror host Seymour – and Moe Howard who appears as an audience member at one of the doctor’s soul-transferral demonstration. The Scorpion/Kino Blu-ray looks quite flawless for a low-budget production and features both commentary by and an intro from Considine (as Dr. Death) as well as an interview with Saeta’s son, Steve, who explains the Moe Howard connection.

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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