Friday, April 29, 2011

Brian Sammons Hi-Def Horror Hoedown!

EMBODIMENT OF EVIL (2008) – Blu-ray review

Director: Jose Mojica Marins
Cast: Jose Mojica Marins, Jece Valadad, Milhem Cortaz

Confession time, I never saw the previous Coffin Joe movies. I know, I know, I can all but hear the tongue clucking and see the finger wagging of the horror snobs already. You know, the same people who were first to jump on the Asian horror bandwagon in the late 90s and loudly proclaim to everyone that any Japanese flick about a girl ghost with stringy hair in her face was infinitely better than anything done over here when the truth of the matter was that while there was some great movies to be seen from the East, many more were just as crappy as the schlockiest, no-budget, direct to video American fright flick. Yeah I hate elitist jag-offs like that and for years I’ve heard the members of the “I like things just because they are largely unknown” club go on and on about the Coffin Joe movies from the 60s but I wrote such things off as the typical claptrap.

Then I got this movie for review and damn it, but if this movie is an example of the previous two films then the snobs may have been right. And I really hate that.

Ok, preamble over, time for some history. Back in 1964 Brizalian writer, director, actor Jose Mojica Marins made the first movie about the evilest undertake this side of The Tall Man; Coffin Joe. Marins even played the part of Joe and that film had the awesome title of AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL. In 1967 Joe returned for THIS NIGHT I’LL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE. Then there came…nothing. For over forty years Coffin Joe was silent. But in 2008 one of the greatest comebacks in horror history happened when Jose Mojica Marins, in his seventies no less, put on the top hat and got back behind and in front of the camera once more for the third and final Joe movie. But can any magic that the other two movies had still be alive after forty years? While I can’t attest to the first two flicks, I can say that this movie was quite the experience.

EMBODIMENT OF EVIL begins with Coffin Joe getting released from prison after forty years for his previous naughty deeds. Almost as soon as the prison gates close behind him he starts back up with his life long quest to find the perfect woman to bear his child before he dies and Joe’s willing to torture and murder anyone and everyone to get what he wants. That is, when he’s not suffering from nightmares and flashbacks about all his previous victims. Good thing he has his trusty hunchback (no, really) to help him and the total lack of a moral compass so he can do incredibly horrible things. How horrible? Well Eli Roth, Takashi Miike or anyone else for that matter don’t have nothing on Jose Mojica Marins for evil nastiness.

While I liked the movie on many levels, what really blew me away was just how great everything looked. The use of color is amazing and reminded me of Dario Argento and that’s a huge compliment coming from me. There was also a palatable and creepy gothic feel to everything you just see any more in movies made today. You add to that a spicy, south of the border flavor and you have a refreshing break from all the crappy remakes that Hollywood tries to pass off as horror movies these days.

This new Blu-ray/DVD combo package from Synapse Films is just a beauty to behold. Synapse has always busted their butts to bring out the best video transfers available but they have really outdone themselves with this Blu-ray. As I said, Marins is a master of color and this film just comes alive in High-Def. If for no other reason than just to treat your eyes to a truly great looking, if at times bloody and icky, film, you should get this movie on Blu-ray if you can or DVD if you must. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

Now as cool as the film was, not everything is all wine and roses here. I must admit to being somewhat disappointed with the very limited selection of extras on these discs. There are two pretty short features, a trailer, and that’s it. No interviews, no commentary tracks, no critical analysis, no anything. While the addition of extras can’t make a bad movie good, their all but absence can make the Blu-ray of a good movie a bit of a bummer. That said, EMBODIMENT OF EVIL is more than good enough to warrant a purchase even with somewhat lackluster bonus features.

Lastly, let me end by stressing that even without seeing the previous movies of this series I still easily picked up and followed the storyline here and thoroughly enjoyed this film. Now that’s saying something. How many trilogies do you know of that you can come into at the end and still enjoy as much as the first movie? So if you are like the vast majority of horror fans out there and have never seen a Coffin Joe movie before, don’t let that stop you from getting EMBODIMENT OF EVIL on Blu-ray. Get it today and the next time the cool horror kids start talking about little seen fright films, you just might impress them with you own nugget of the obscure.

DEEP RED (1975) – Blu-ray review – Blue Underground

Director: Dario Argento
Cast: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia

Argento’s classic giallo has finally come to North American shores on a truly gorgeous Blu-ray edition from my good buddies (and with all the great films they’ve brought out, I say that in all sincerity) over at Blue Underground. Wait, what’s a “giallo” you ask? Well think of it as a bloody and weird as all hell murder mystery. Sort of like Italy’s take on the slasher flicks, although giallos were being made long before Michael Myers donned his pale William Shatner mask. If you’ve never seen one of these movies then are you in for a treat. Also, if you’ve never seen a giallo then DEEP RED is an amazing place to start.

The story is admittedly kind of weird. However you don’t watch Dario’s flicks for the story, you’re there for the experience and trust me; DEEP RED is one hell of a ride. This time out we have a German psychic lady who, while giving a lecture in a packed auditorium, says that she has just read the mind of someone in the crowd, someone who’s sick, who has killed before, and will kill again. Unfortunately she can’t tell whose mind she had just read. What’s really unfortunate for her is that the black gloved killer believes the psychic and takes a meat cleaver to her to keep her quiet.

Enter our heroes out to solve the crime and stop the deranged killer before more lives are lost. You have an English musician who witnessed the psychic’s murder first hand and is the new target of the killer teaming up with a feisty female reporter to unravel this very twisted mystery. Along the way there are several of Argento’s trademark murders that are beautiful in their brutality and gorgeous in their grotesqueness. Very few filmmakers can hold a candle to Argento when it comes to visual storytelling and setting up memorable scenes that will stay with you for a long time.

I won’t say too much more about the story because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises. There are also WTF moments aplenty. Case in point, when you see the creepy little doll, you’ll know exactly what I mean. This movie is an experience and words just won’t do it justice. Trust me, if you’ve never seen DEEP RED then you’ve missed one of the great horror films of all time. Well it’s high time to rectify that and this new Blu-ray is a great way to do that.

There are two versions of the film on this disc, both lovingly transferred to high-def. The English version of DEEP RED at 105 minutes and the much longer Italian version of PROFONDO ROSSO at 126 minutes. Don’t worry, even the Italian version has an English/Italian 5.1 surround-ex soundtrack. Yeah, Blue Underground don’t play when it comes to bringing out movies and the fact that they would have two versions of this film, both looking and sounding equally great, goes to show you that they’re not just about the quick buck, but are true horror fans. It is that commitment to excellence that makes any disc by BU stand out.

Now for those extras. There is a brief collection of interviews (all total about 11 minutes worth) with Argento, co-writer Berhardino Zapponi and the legendary music masters, Goblin. Goblin also provides a new music video for the movie and not to be outdone, a synth heavy rock group I never heard of called Daemonia also provides a modern take on DEEP RED’S signature spooky theme. Trailers for both the US and Italian versions of the film bring the extras to a close. So my one and only grip with this new Blu-ray has nothing to do with the amazing presentation of the movie (make that movies) but with the rather thin extras. But is that enough of a bummer to keep me from highly recommending this movie to anyone and everyone? Hell no!

It simply cannot be stressed enough just how good these movies look in HD and Blue Underground has set the bar very high with this release. Argento’s trademark eye-popping colors all but jump off the screen and smack you upside the head. The blacks have never been darker, the yellows more brilliant, or the Reds more Deep. Consider this movie very highly recommended.

THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1982) – Blu-ray review

Directors: Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow
Cast: Laurie Lapinski, Stephen Sachs, Daphne Zuniga

Last seen on DVD under the title PRANKS, this 1982 slasher was best known for two things. One, it had very young Daphne Zuniga (THE SURE THINGS and SPACEBALLS) as one of the disposable victims. Two, most of the gory kills was cut out of the film by overzealous censors and the splatter had never been restored. That is, until now. Synapse Films is not only the first company to bring out this slice of 80s slasher fare in High Definition, but also uncut. That’s right, all the glorious gory goodness is back in the movie. If that wasn’t enough reason for you to get this, then how about this: not only is this movie on Blu-ray, but it’s also on DVD for those who have yet to upgrade, and both discs come together in one nice, neat package. What’s not to love?

Oh wait, you’ve never seen THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD? Ok, let me give you the nickel tour. And yeah, as far as the story goes, a nickel is all you’re going to need. That’s not to say that this slasher isn’t any good, just that it’s not that original.

A group of college kids volunteer to help close up an old dorm building before it’s scheduled to be demolished but unfortunately for them a mysterious psycho is bumping them off one by one. And well, that’s it for the story. Ok, there’s a little bit more, but not all that much. There’s a decent group of kids for the slaughter playing up the usual slasher stereotypes of good girl, wise-cracking clown, tough guy, etc. What sets this movie apart, just like any slasher flick, is the kills, how creative and gory they are. Luckily DORM delivers the goods now that the blood and guts has been restored. The infamous power drill scene is a clear standout but a baseball bat with nails pounded through it and a very large pressure cooker are all used to good effect.

Oh and let’s not forget the afore mentioned cutie, Daphne Zuniga. If you had a thing for her during the 80s like I did, then you’ll enjoy her here, slumming it in a horror movie to pay her dues. Yeah she’s not in the movie for long (opps I guess I should have given a spoiler warning or something , but just watching the movie you can figure that out pretty quickly) but what little she does, she does well.

As for the extras that I love so much, there is an audio commentary track with the two directors, a short featurette with the composer of the film called “My First Score” and another with makeup effect guy (and later Oscar winner) Matthew Mungle. A pair of trailers round out the extras and that’s it for the behind the scenes goodies. So there’s not a ton of bonus content on this disc, but it is a lot more than what’s ever been done for DORM before.

If you take the combo Blu-ray and DVD package, the buffed and prettied up video, the extras and most importantly the restored and uncut gore gags and add it all up together, you get a hell of must have for any fan of 80s slashers. This is the second Blu-ray from Synapse Films I’ve seen and it makes me hungry to see what they do next. Consider this one highly recommended.

THE BEYOND (1981) – Blu-ray review – Arrow Video

Director: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale

Finally Lucio Fulci’s THE BEYOND is in high-def for the very first time. That right there should be all you need to know to go and get this right now. But just in case you’re new to the splattery surreal cinema of this Italian horror maestro, I guess I’ll give you a little bit more to go on.

Down New Orleans way there is a quaint, secluded hotel that just so happens to have been built over one of the seven doors to hell. As if that wasn’t bad news enough, some years past an artists accused of black magic was chain-whipped, nailed to a wall, had some sort of acidic plaster poured over his head, and then was walled up alive. I guess a simple witch burning wasn’t fun enough for these virtuous vigilantes.

There is one odd bit about this Blu-ray release that I feel I should mention here, although I honestly don’t think it’s that big of a deal. The last time I watched THE BEYOND was on the DVD from Grindhouse Release and in that version this beginning prologue was shot, or at least shown, in sepia tones. On this Blu-ray from Arrow Video it is shown in black and white. Now that slight change didn’t do anything for me one way or the other, but I’ve heard of some “controversy” (yes those are ironic quotation marks) about some people getting all in a huff over which way is better. Me, I can’t understand such silliness as the prologue only lasts seven minutes the artistic merits or flaws between sepia and black and white don’t mean a whole hell of a lot to me I guess. But I thought I’d mention it.

Oh well, flash forward to the modern day of 1981 and a young woman inherits the hotel and hires some handymen to start renovating it. It is during some basement repair that the corpse of the walled-up warlock is discovered, but naturally the rotting body isn’t totally dead, and soon people are being torn apart in the amazingly stylish and gruesome fashion that made Fulci a legend in the horror world. There’s a face clawing that rips a guy’s eye out, a woman that gets her head dissolved by acid while her daughter watches (who then goes instantly blind afterward), a horde of flesh-eating tarantulas, and a host of other disgusting delights. As the bodies begin to pile up and more corpses begin to saunter and slay, it is up to the hotel’s new owner and her sort of love interest, the town’s local pathologist, to uncover the deadly mystery that links the hotel, a tome of black magic called the Book of Eibon, and all the horrible murders together. Can the young couple, with some help from a blind prophetess and her doggie, save the day before the door to hell is thrown wide open and the whole world is lost? Well if you know Fulci films then you probably already know the answer to that.

THE BEYOND is Italian splatter cinema at its finest. It’s got great gallons of gore galore, an amazingly eerie soundtrack, and so much style that it should be walking down a runway in Paris. Yes at times the story doesn’t quite make sense, and that goes for the film’s final scene as well, but that just adds to the movie’s overall surreal and nightmarish feel. If you want to watch a true horror movie that’s creepy and icky as all hell then THE BEYOND is the flick for you. There is a reason this movie is considered by most learned horrorheads to be modern classic.

Ok, so the movie is undeniable awesome, but how are the extras on this maiden voyage of THE BEYOND on Blu? Well don’t worry, this is UK’s Arrow Video, have they ever disappointed you?

Arrow has pretty much outdone themselves with all the bonus content to be had here. There’s an intro to the movie and a featurette with actress Cinzia Monreale, not to mention a Q&A session with the other female lead in this film, Catriona MacColl. The lovely MacColl also pulls double duty and returns for an audio commentary with costar David Warbeck and there’s a second commentary tack with Antonella Fulci, daughter of director, Lucio. On the second disc, a DVD so the quality isn’t as high but who cares, there’s another featurette on the movie as it was known and shown outside of Italy under the title of SEVEN DOORS OF DEATH. Catriona MacColl returns for more for a lengthy interview about not only THE BEYOND but all the horror movies she did for Lucio Fulci. The man who did the splatter special makeup effects for Fulci’s THE BEYOND and ZOMBIE 2, Giannetto De Rossi, also gets his own thirty minuet interview. The last meaty mini movie in this package is an overview of many of Fulci’s fright flicks. An alternate pre-credit sequence and an International trailer bring this convoy of awesome extras to a close. In addition to all this, Arrow Video does its usual bang up job with non-disc goodies such as their famous double-sided box art, which gives you four choices on how you want to display your Blu-ray. A double-sided wall poster and a more than hefty 31 page collector’s booklet round out the extras. Honestly, all Blu-ray and DVD companies would do well to emulate Arrow when it comes to packaging extra swag with their releases.

As I alluded to at the start, getting this Blu-ray is a no brainer if you have a BD player and consider yourself a horror fan in any sense of the term. It looks amazing, it sounds amazing, it has an amazing amount of bonus features, and the movie, well that’s pretty darn amazing too.

--Brian M. Sammons