Movies Till Dawn: Freaky Deaky

V/H/S/99” (2022, RLJE Films) Fifth entry in the found footage horror anthology franchise is set in 1999 (the tail end of the VHS era, it should be noted), which is echoed, somewhat opaquely at times, in the subject matter of its five stories: professional prankster-rockers a la CKY (“Shredding”), hyperactive, Nickelodeon-style kids’ programming (“Ozzy’s Dungeon”), teen-oriented horror (“Suicide Bid”), sex comedies (“The Gawkers”), and Y2K fears (“To Hell and Back”). As with the other entries in the “V/H/S” universe, “99” is hit-and-miss: “Shredding” and “Gawkers” are essentially extended gross gags, while Flying Lotus’s “Dungeon” and Vanessa & Joseph Winter’s “Hell and Back,” manage to showcase coal-black humor and impressive and elaborate set designs amidst gallons of bodily fluids  (“Suicide Bid” is notable for star Ally Ioannides’s ability to withstand real spiders on her face while in a coffin filling with water). The chief selling point of the “V/H/S/” films is their nihilistic, no-way-out aesthetic – everyone comes to a bad end in these films – and in that regard, “99” delivers as well as or better than any of its predecessors. RLJE’s steelbook Blu-ray includes a cast and crew panel interview, deleted scenes, storyboard and rehearsal footage and a behind-the-scenes look at the impressive makeup for “Gawkers.”

Crippled Avengers” (1978, Arrow Video) When the Three Tiannan Tigers gang murder his wife and mutilate his son, Chen Kuan-ti gets revenge by training his son in Tiger-style kung fu and outfitting him with special metal hands that shoot darts from the fingertips. The pair exact brutal vengeance on the Tigers’ own sons, but the experience warps them, transforming them into cruel bullies who leave a quartet of bystanders with debilitating injuries – one is blinded, another deafened, and a third (Chiang Sheng) suffers brain damage. Given that the victims are played by four-fifths of the Venoms – the Shaw Brothers super-group featured in director Chang Cheh’s show-stopping cult favorite “The Five Deadly Venoms” – it’s only a matter of time before they consult a wise master who trains them to hone their intact senses to develop kung fu skills. Rousing Shaw Brothers production may raise some eyebrows over the “crippled” label, but concerns are largely rendered inert by Cheh’s show-stopping training sequence and the finale, constructed from a series of expertly choreographed face-offs that showcase the talents of the four Venoms (Kuo Chui, Lu Feng, Sun Chien and Lo Meng). Arrow’s Blu-ray is, like the accompanying titles in its “Shawscope Volume One” set, remastered with the original Mandarin and English dubs, and features a 2003 interview with Lo Meng and a short featurette by Celestial Pictures (which owns the Shaw Brothers film library) on Chang Cheh.

The Asphyx” (1972, Kino Lorber) Experimental camera footage of his own fiancée and son’s death (!) provides Victorian scientist Robert Stephens with proof that the titular (and creepy) spirit appears before a person’s demise to retrieve their souls, as well as a possible path to immortality. British thriller has a intriguing (if particularly morbid) premise that it pursues with what feels like a greater emphasis on restraint and suspense than the increasingly hyperbolic thrills from ’70s-era Hammer; director Peter Newbrook (a camera operator on “Lawrence of Arabia”) succeeds in that department, despite a talky script that also hinges key plot moments on a guinea pig, though the emphasis on less blood didn’t help the film’s chances at the box office. Kino’s new remastered Blu-ray includes both the sharp-looking UK theatrical cut and an extended US cut that incorporates slightly grainier footage from a SD print; Kim Newman and Stephen Jones address the different edits in lively commentary and Kino adds trailers for other British horror titles like “The Blood Beast Terror.”

Scream of the Demon Lover” (1970, Severin Films) “Jane Eyre” by way of ’70s Italian-Spanish exploitation, with Erna Schurer as a 19th female scientist who endures the full panoply of atrocious behavior from every man she encounters before arriving at the stately castle of her new employer (Carlos Quiney), a nobleman who experiments with carbonized matter, all the better to revive his dead brother. The pair develop a slow-boiling case of the unrequited hots for each other, but there is also her recurring nightmare of a handsy monster and a rash of killings involving her boss’s former paramours to contend with. Released Continentally as “The Castle with Doors of Fire,” the film was shorn of some 20 minutes and given its more lurid retitle for an American release; Severin’s Blu-ray – part of its “Danza Macabra Vol. One” collection, which also includes the thoroughly out-to-lunch “Lady Frankenstein” – is the uncut version, which means more tawdry material, and remastered from a sturdy 16mm Eastmancolor print; commentary by Eurocult experts Rod Barnett and Robert Monell, who discuss the film’s pedigree in detail; a video essay by Stephen Thrower on director Jose Luis Merino and an interview with Schurer – still lively in her 80s – rounds out the disc.

The Werewolf of Washington” (1973, Kino Lorber) Satire of horror tropes and the Nixon-era White House with Dean Stockwell as a presidential press secretary who becomes the titular monster during a diplomatic visit to Hungary. His subsequent kill spree in wolf form is blamed on Communists, hippies, etc., by the movie’s stiff Nixon clone (Biff McGuire) and broad carbons of his inner circle (John and Martha Mitchell, Tricia Nixon), which essentially sums up the film’s attempt at irreverent counterculture humor. Director Milton Moses Ginsberg, who helmed the claustrophobic experimental film “Coming Apart,” and Stockwell do what they can with the material, which ultimately coalesces into an offbeat footnote in political comedy/monster movie history. Kino’s Blu-ray offers the restored theatrical cut and Ginsberg’s director’s cut, which is actually shorter in length; an interview (on Zoom) with the filmmaker prior to his death in 2021 and a discussion of the film (which largely centers on making sense of the material) by critics Simon Abrams and Sheila O’Malley are also included.

The Cycle Savages” (1969, Scorpion Releasing) Artist Chris Robinson runs afoul of psycho biker Bruce Dern twice – once after making a sketch of him, and later for romancing his girlfriend (Melody Patterson of “F Troop”) – which marks him as an impending recipient of a bad scene at the hands of Dern’s gang. Future California lieutenant governor Mike Curb and Casey Kasem co-produced this late-inning entry in American International Pictures’ string of biker pics, which is distinguished largely by Dern in full-bore scuzz mode and its secondary elements, including locations throughout Echo Park and Silverlake, Kasem as Dern’s pimp brother (!) and uncredited turns by tough guys Scott Brady and Steve Brodie, and the fuzz-heavy soundtrack featuring the Cycle-Mates (studio players and guitarist Davie Allan, most likely), the Boston Tea Party, Orphan Egg, and other psychedelic crate-digger favorites. Scorpion Releasing’s widescreen Blu-ray includes an interview with co-star Maray Ayres, who plays ill-fated biker mama Sandy, and trailers for other ’70s exploitation titles in their vast library.

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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