Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Brian Sammons Hi-Def Horror Hoedown!

PHENOMENA (1985) – Blu-ray review – Arrow Video

Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi

Arrow Video from the UK returns to knock out another Dario Argento classic onto Blu-ray disc. The good news for us on this side of the Atlantic is that this disc is region free. But is this import worth paying the little extra to get it sent here? Let’s find out.

PHENOMENA, released in North America as CREEPERS, is one of Argento’s weirder films, and if you know his body of work then you’ll know that’s saying something. Listen to this, a very young Jennifer Connelly plays the daughter of a famous actor who can talk to and control all sorts of insects. That alone would be a full movie in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, but wait; we haven’t even gotten started with the weird yet. Anyway she is sent to a very exclusive girl’s school in Switzerland that just so happens to have someone with a collapsible spear murdering young girls and leaving maggot-infested gloves behind. She meets Donald Pleasence as a wheelchair-bound entomologist with a chimpanzee as his nurse and best friend and the two decide to become armature detectives looking for the murderer with the aid of a carrion-loving fly (no, really). They manage to find the lair of the mysterious spear-spree-killer and that’s not only when the blood really starts to hit the fan, but it’s also just the beginning of WTF moments. Oh and did I forget to mention that Jennifer’s character sleepwalks a whole lot while having vivid visions of a glowing white hallway? Yeah I don’t know why, and the movie never explains it, but she does. Anyway, I won’t give away the totally crazy ending, but I will say that as far out of left field as it is, I loved it. Oh and the Iron Maiden song that comes out of nowhere, twice. Yeah, that was pretty cool too.

Hey you know those movies where people say “Aw man, you’ve just got to see it to believe it”? Well PHENOMENA is a prime example of one of those. Luckily for you, it’s an Argento flick which means it looks simply amazing so your eyes will be entertained while your mind is being blown. I tell you, if there was one director born for high-def, it’ Dario Argento and his masterful use of color. This new Blu-ray has PHENOMENA looking better than ever before.

However good looks are only half of what this package has to offer. It also has the usual goodies you’ve come to expect from Arrow Video. It has a double-sided wall poster and double-sided case art (thus giving you four options to choose from for showing off you Blu-ray.) As for on-disc extras there’re three of them here. The first is an hour long making of doc called “Dario Argento’s Monkey Business” with interview from many of the filmmakers, including Dario himself. There’s a six minuet interview with composer Claudio Simonetti called “Music for Maggots” and lastly a twenty minuet Q&A session with Sergio Stivaletti, the special makeup effects artist for this, and many Argentto films, called “Creepers and Creatures”.

Come on people, it’s Argento and Arrow Video back together again. Consider this one highly recommended.

INFERNO (1980)– Blu-ray review – Blue Underground

Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi

America’s Blue Underground and UK’s Arrow Video have been playing a little game with horror releases. When it comes to bringing out classic fright films out on Blu-ray, the two companies have been releasing a number of the same movies within a very short time span. Sometimes Arrow will bring it out first, other times it’s Blue Underground. Now it is not my intention to start comparing both Blu-rays of the same movie produced by these two titans of terror discs, but I thought I’d do that at least once, and that time is now. Besides if you want to know about this movie, a movie you should already know all about if you’re a horrorhead worthy of that illustrious title, you can check out my none-too-old review of it here: http://the-black-glove.blogspot.com/2010/09/brian-sammons-hi-def-horror-hoedown.html

First, let’s talks about the video quality of these two Blu-rays. Both the Blue Underground (BU) and Arrow Video (AV) present crisp, clear, vibrant images, and for an Argento film, that is all important. Dario is a master of light, shadow, and most importantly; color and high def Blu-rays are the only way to watch his movies, but with BD does it better? Well this is a very close call, as like I said, both look great, but there is a slight difference between the two. The BU release looks a bit more like film while the AV disc is a bit more buffed out. Now it depends upon your personal taste, but I’d rather have the film look over the almost slightly too plastic look that old movies sometimes get when they have been digitally enhanced to the max. So for me, the newer Blu-ray Blue Underground gets the nod, but only by a little bit.

On to the sound. Sure both sound good, but Blue Underground offers English 7.1 dts, English 5.1 surround, English 2.0, and Italian mono. Arrow’s Blu-ray has English 5.1 dts, English stereo, and Italian mono. So for offering more and higher end choices to the consumer, Blue Underground takes this one handily.

Now for something that really has nothing to do with how much you enjoy this movie, but they are things that I do really love; the extras on the disc. BU has three interviews. One with actor Leigh McCloskey at 15 minutes, another actor Irene Miracle at 14 minutes, and the third is a combo interview with Argento and assistant director Lamberto Bava at 8 minutes. A trailer and a short intro from Argent is all that they have. Since this isn’t a review of the Arrow Video edition of this movie, I won’t recount all the extras it has. Again, if you’re interested, check out my other review. But I will say that the AV Blu-ray has many more extras that last a lot longer. So for bonus material, sadly this new one from Blue Underground is a little lacking.

Lastly, since we live in the really real world, price is important. The short answer is if you live in the UK you’ll probably want the Arrow Video release, but if you live in North America then Blue Underground will have the disc for you. The BU Blu-ray can be found on Amazon.com for $20.99 and other such sites for about the same price. The AV one is £16.99, which once converted to US bucks is $27.64. Then there is the pricey shipping from Europe and it’s easy to see that Blue Underground wins the price battle.

So what does this all mean? Well both Blu-rays are great, but the new one by Blue Underground is the winner. Better picture (slightly), sound, and price. The only thing about it that could have been better was the number and length of the extras. So if you have yet to get this awesome film on Blu-ray, now you really have no excuse. You can get it March 29th.

THE WALKING DEAD SEASON 1 – Blu-ray review

Created by: Robert Kirkman, Frank Darabont
Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Sarah Wayne Callies, Jon Bernthal

Is there any horror fan out there that does not already know about this amazing series, let alone haven’t already seen it? I mean, as far as horror on film, video or whatever, THE WALKING DEAD was easily the best thing to come out in 2010. Nothing else came close. But just in case you’ve recently woke up out of a coma, or perhaps crawled out of your own grave, let me give you the skinny about this awesome TV show now that it has now been released on Blu-ray.

Comic book readers already know about the multi-award winning, ongoing series by Robert Kirkman. The book has been around for a number of years now and it easily deserves all the accolades it has, and will continue to get. It is character driven story so that the living people in it come off as real and aren’t just there as zombie chow. It is in all ways great and wonderful, but when word that AMC was going to bring the comic books to TV, the fans all asked, “how the hell is that going to happen?” I mean a very gory, adult-oriented zombie story that deals with a lot of hard, unpleasant things happening all the time, just how the hell was that going to fly on basic cable? HBO and SHOWTIME is one thing, but AMC is bound by the moral watchdogs over at the FCC, so there’s no way all the glorious zombie gut munching from the comics were going to make it into the TV show, right?

Well surprisingly not only did the show fly like a champ, but it has some Grade A gore. However as nice of a surprise as the intact blood and guts is, it is only one of the things that make this show so great.

With stories by Kirkman, the afore mentioned special effects overseen by KNB’s Greg Nicotero, and Frank Darabont , one of the best directors in the game (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE, THE MIST) not only producing and writing, but directing the pilot episode, how could this show not be awesome? I mean that’s a lot of talented people lending their considerable knowhow to the effort and it shows.

At its core, THE WALKING DEAD is a show about survival. A cop is wounded in the line of duty and slips into coma, only to awaken some time later into a nightmare world populated by the walking, hungry, murderous dead. And yes, if that sounds a lot like the “zombie” flick, 28 DAYS LATER, you’re not the first one to make that observation. Anyway our main hero, Rick, first goes one a journey to find his missing wife and child and then tries to lead them, and a small band of survivors to safety. Along the way there is the ever present threat of the zombies, but just as the real stars of the show are the human survivors, the real threats just might be other humans, either driven mad or looking to take advantage of the chaos to indulge their own, wicked appetites.

But wait, I hear some of you say, what if you read the comic books, is the TV show just a rehash of them? Short answer is thankfully no. While the characters and basics of plot are there, enough of it has been changed so that fans of the comic will still find plenty of surprises here. While the pilot was a fateful adaptation of Kirkman’s comic, things start changing in the second episode and by the end of the season the story has taken a turn that was never even hinted at in the comic book series. The merits of that change can be argued by the fans, but the fact that new twists and turns are being introduced into the show, while still keeping the majority of the story that made the comics so great intact, is a good thing.

In addition to the two discs containing the six episodes of the first season, the Blu-ray has a number of extras and featurettes including a half hour general overview of the series called “The Making of The Walking Dead.” Additionally, each of the six episodes also has a short (ten minutes or so) special focusing on the specifics of their episode. Kirkman hosts a short “sneak peak” of the show and Nicotero has a “Zombie Makeup Tips for Halloween” that you can do at home with every day, household items. Highlights from San Diego’s Comic Con’s Walking Dead panel with the creators and producers, trailers, and six deleted scenes and on set interviews round out the extra undead goodness these Blu-rays have to offer.

Getting this Blu-ray set is a no brainer. Sure, not every episode is stellar (name me a TV show that does that, if you can) but far more than not are winners. Nothing like this has been on television before and it is just simply amazing that it is on now. Shows that dare to take chances, and succeed so wonderfully, should be celebrated and supported. Do your horrorhead civic duty and get these Blu-rays today. The fact that you’ll have some very good television to watch in glorious high definition, well consider that a bonus.

VAMP (1986)– Blu-ray Review – Arrow Video

Director: Richard Wenk
Cast: Grace Jones, Chris Makepeace, Robert Rusler, Dedee Pfeiffer

VAMP is one of those classic 80s vampire flicks that seemed to have slipped through the cracks. While everyone remembers films like FRIGHT NIGHT, NEAR DARK and THE LOST BOYS, this movie, their contemporary and equal in cool factor alone, has become one of the long lost and little remembered. Well UK based Arrow Video remembers it and has decided to give it back to the masses, now in glorious high-def. But just in case you’re one of the many who have let this one slip under your radar, here’s the skinny behind VAMP.

Keith and AJ are two cool college guys looking to get into a fraternity, but in order to do so they must hire a striper for an upcoming party. Unfortunately for them, the make the huge mistake of going to the “big city” with their nerdy sidekick, looking for the After Dark Club. After running afoul of an albino street gang, they find the club and are quickly mesmerized by the exotic (and exceptionally strange) Grace Jones who is not only the queen of the strippers but also the queen of the vampires. After one of the buddies gets the juice box treatment, the rest team up with a spunky waitress with a mysterious past and make a run for their lives. Unfortunately they are stuck in a very weird, hostile, rundown city with vampires, albinos, and murderous garbage trucks all looking to do them in.

VAMP is one of their rare horror comedies (hormedies?) that really pulls it off. It ping pongs back and forth between funny and frightening, but there is surprisingly a lot more to it than that. There’s a delightful sense of the weird running throughout and the color scheme of purple and green gives it a nice visual style often missing in horror films. The direction is very good and all the actors do their jobs well. Chris Makepeace is the embodiment of the nice guy, Robert Rusler is the quintessential cool guy, Dedee Pfeiffer is great as the ditzy blond, and Gedde Watanabe (of SIXTEEN CANDLES fame) is perfect as the nerdy comic relief. Even Grace Jones, who I never really liked in earlier roles like CONAN THE DESTROYER and the James Bond film, A VIEW TO A KILL, is really good here as the titular VAMP. Hmm, maybe that’s because she never once utters a single word? Whatever the case, it all works out well. VAMP has always been one of my favorite flicks that I could namedrop and enjoy the looks of confusion on the faces of my friends. Well now that it’s out on Blu-ray, that may change, but I’m ok with that.

To further make this Blu-ray a must buy for vampire lovers everywhere, Arrow Video has once again provided the goods, both on and off the disc. Those on the disc include three chunky interviews with director Richard Wenk, actress Dedee Pfeiffer, and producer Donald P. Borchers, that all together total over an hour. There’s the short “Scrapbook of Scares” featurette that focuses on press releases and reviews collected by director, Wenk. There a short bit of behind-the-scenes rehearsals of Grace Jones’s first vamp attack, bloopers, trailers, and perhaps the coolest bit; a comedic short film by Richard Wenk called “Dracula Bites the Big Apple”. However I did find one thing missing that I thought was a big disappointment; no audio commentary. The old DVD from America’s Anchor Bay had a great one, and I really don’t know why Arrow couldn’t send them a few bucks to use it here. It’s a pretty big missed opportunity. Oh well, as far as off the disc goodies there’s a double-sided wall poster, a double-sided Blu-ray case cover, and a seven page collector’s booklet.

VAMP is a great, unique movie and if it’s missing from your home movie collection, and chances are it is, then this is a great way to get it; on Blu-ray for the very first time. It’s never looked, sounded, or been better. It’s recommended.

SCREAM 1, 2 & 3 (1996. 1997, 2000)– Blu-ray review

Director: Wes Craven
Stars: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox

SCREAM 4 is just around the corner and that’s both a bad and a good thing. It’s bad because with the trend that Wes Craven’s last few films have taken (CURSED and MY SOULD TO TAKE jump quickly to mind) the old master horror may have lost his touch and just might be happy to phone it in now. But it’s good for two reasons. First, at least it’s an honest to goodness sequel and not another damn remake. Second, stuff like this always means that the old movies get the update and upgrade treatment. So now we have the first three SCREAM movies on Blu-ray from Lionsgate and Miramax. Let’s grab a knife, open these babies up and have a look.

Now I’m sure you’ve all seen the first movie or at the very least, know about it. After all, whether you love it or hate it (and there are plenty of people on both sides of that fence) it is undeniable that SCREAM revitalized horror in the otherwise horror-free 90s. However, just in case you’re one of the very few horrorheads that don’t know about these flicks, here’s the nickel tour. SCREAM is at its heart a pretty basic slasher movie. A killer is bumping off high school students, dressed in a black robe and a white “ghost” mask, reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, “The Scream”. The novel approach this slasher takes is calling his victims up to have them play horror movie trivia and if they lose, they die.

SCREAM gained some fame for its famous director (Wes Craven) who gave the world Freddy Kruger, and its far-too-pretty and way-too-hip cast. However what really set this movie apart was is self-referential attitude and all the winks and nods it gave to horror fans. Now it is true that another film did that first (it’s called THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE and I just reviewed it, so look it up if you’re interested) but whether or not SCREAM “borrowed” anything from that far lesser known film is up to debate, but what’s not beatable is how acclaimed and influential that first movie was.

The second movie takes the survivors of the first film; perfect victim Sidney, goofy but goodhearted cop Dewey, ruthless reporter Gale, and horror movie obsessed Randy to College and pretty much more of the same. Someone is killing off coeds dressed as Ghost Face as the movie based off of the murders from the first movie called “Stab” draws near. To be sure, this sequel has its moments but nothing really new is done so the film walks the line between good and just ok.

SCREAM 3 wraps up the trilogy with long lost secrets being discovered, a whole new crop of victims trying to film another “Stab” flick in Hollywood, and a lot more self-referential humor that pokes fun not only at horror movies, but the people who make them. Unfortunately the twists and turns this movie tries to pull off are pretty outlandish and the occasional odd bit (like Jay & Silent Bob showing up) just seem really out of place and self-indulgent. Easily the weakest of the original trio, I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come with the upcoming movie.

As for special features, all three Blu-rays have audio commentary tracks with director Craven and various behind the scenes others (but sadly no actors). The first movie rightfully has the most featurettes. There’s some behind the scenes stuff, a Q&A with the cast and crew, and the usual press release-like feature. In addition, trailers and TV spots can be found on all of the Blu-rays. SCREAM 2 has some outtakes, deleted scenes, a brief behind-the-scenes bit and two music videos (why?). The third film has deleted scenes, a brief behind-the-scenes thing, another music video, and an “alternate ending” that really differs only minutely from the official ending. It seems to me that these movies could have, or perhaps should have, had some more goodies to offer, but the extras here aren’t bad.

If you’re a fan of Ghost Face then now you can finally see him do the slice and dice in high-def. The movies look and sound really good, there are enough special features to entice, and they are priced affordably. If you are missing these from your home horror collection, or you just want to upgrade, these Blu-rays are for you.

--Brian M. Sammons