Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hidden Horrors: COMPANY SPOTLIGHT – SYNAPSE FILMS



By Brian M. Sammons
(NOTE TO READER: The trailers which follow the movies discussed below are NOT from the newest remastered Synapse Films DVD editions. The quality is much better for these DVD releases. Also most of them ARE NOT WORK SAFE!!!)

I thought it was about time to do another company spotlight. What’s that, you may ask if you didn’t read the last couple I did? And if you didn’t, for shame! Well whenever I find an entertainment company doing the good work of giving horror to masses I want to make sure everyone knows about it for two reasons. First, so that horrorheads know what cool wares they might otherwise be missing out on. Second, I do this so that people go there and buy said wares so that the company in question can continue to put out quality products. See, it’s a circular thing. And yeah I’m also selfish so I want companies like Synapse around for a long, long time so that I continue to get their kick ass flicks. Ha, you didn’t think I did such things out of the kindness of my heart, did you? Anyway, enough prattle, let’s get to it.

Synapse Films is the brain (love?) child of Don May Jr., Jerry Chandler and Charles Fiedler. Their goal was, and continues to be, to bring out the rarest of the rare and coolest of the cool horror, sci-fi and erotica flicks. Basically cult films of all stripes. Furthermore, to make sure that those old, sometime forgotten movies look and sound the best that they ever have. The amount of work Synapse does to restore these films is truly commendable. For all the movies I’m about to discuss, the discs by Synapse is the definite edition for quality.

However, for the true movie junky like me, great picture and sound is only half of what we look for in new additions to our movie library. Come on man, it’s got to have the extras, and thankfully that’s another area where Synapse excels. If they can put a bonus on a disc then they will put it on that disc, no ifs, ands, or buts. Trailers, commentaries, behind-the-scenes, bloopers, deleted scenes, all the bells and whistles, the kitchen sink, all that and a bag of chips and everything else too.




Ok, time for brass tacks, so we begin with one of the movies that blew me away as an impressionable youth: THE DEADLY SPAWN (1983). I first caught this film during my early horrorhead days as a VHS rental from a mom and pop video store (man, do I miss those). It was about an alien coming to earth, slipping into the basement of an unsuspecting family home, and eating anyone and everyone that comes down there. And, well that’s about it for the story, but what made this movie stand out was the special effects. The monster munching scenes were splattery and goretastic in the extreme and the alien had a thoroughly unique look that could have come right out of H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmares. Essentially a series of toothy maws set into eyeless, meatball-like heads on rather phallic bodies, they are good and alien looking. Sure, watching this movie again as an adult I thought the hungry aliens look a bit puppety now, but the effects still hold up for the most part. Furthermore, the movie was quite a bit funnier than how I remembered it, but then maybe by appreciation of goofy, splatstick humor has matured.

I thoroughly enjoyed my return visit with THE DEADLY SPAWN and I am so very grateful that Synapse not only took the time and money to put this most cultastic of cult movies out on DVD, but also took the effort to include a ton of special features. It is this commitment to praising the virtually unknown film that I want to stress again and again is what makes Synapse Films so special.

(REMINDER: NOT WORK SAFE!!!)






Forget the unknown for now, how about a movie that most companies just wouldn’t touch? I’m talking about the infamous THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE (1974), sometimes referred to as “They call her One Eye”. This is one of the most notorious 70s grindhouse flicks ever, and rightfully so, but it is also surprisingly very well made. Maybe because this movie was made is Sweden and they take cinema more seriously there, even when they’re going for exploitation. Whatever the reason this movie is leaps and bounds ahead of stuff like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) in story, acting, and direction. And yes, also for graphic sex. Be warned, the uncut version of this film is really uncut, with uncensored scenes of full penetration, orgasms and other images that seem to have been spliced in from a porno movie. If such things offend you then stay away from this movie and you might as well skip on down to the next movie. However if you’re fine with such things, keep reading.

THRILER is about a beautiful, young mute girl tricked into prostitution by a sleazy guy who gets her addicted to heroin. So right there, this movie isn’t the normal rape revenge flick. No, this little lady plans her revenge carefully and coldly, using the money she makes in tips for performing her unwanted job well to seek training in guns, fighting, even racecar driving. That means that when this little lady finally embarks on her killing spree it a bit more believable then say, MS. 45. Oh and as for the revenge part of this film, it is as gloriously gratuitous as the sex scenes as the kills are shot in slow motion and filled with the red stuff. There’s even a bit of kung-fu action to complete the grindhouse experience. Sure this movie can be a bit tough to watch at times, but if you like revenge flicks, then this is one of the best.








How about forgotten, overlooked sequels, do you dig those? Yeah, for the most part I don’t either as they usually suck, but not all of them do. Some have just fallen through the cracks, like THE STEPFATHER 2 (1989) and BASKET CASE 2 (1990). Sure, neither of these are great films, but both are enjoyable and have their high points. If you’ve never seen either of these films, or the ones preceding them, then you’re missing out. In brief, STEPFATHER 1 & 2 is about an evil, psychotic man looking for the perfect family and spinning into a homicidal rage when things go wrong. As for the BASKET CASE movies, well that one I’m not going to tell you about. Sorry, but that would ruin the surprise and a lot of fun of watching these movies is the WTF factor you have to experience firsthand. I will say that it’s the touching, tender tale of brotherly love and leave it at that. Oh and murder, lots of murder.

Aspects of the story aside, these discs have long been sought after by serious horror collectors and leave it to the guys as Synapse to finally bring them out on DVD. Not only that, but they eschewed the typical barebones treatment such “secondary titles” normally get and released some great looking discs with a nice collection of interesting extras. So if you’re a STEPFATHER fanatic or a BASKET CASE…err, basket case, then rejoice for you can finally get the sequels to those flicks.








What about Bruce Campbell, you like him, don’t you? Of course you do, who doesn’t? He’s always been a fan favorite but not everything he’s been in has been golden, or even remotely good for that matter. Yes, I’m looking at you MINDWARP (1992) and MOONTRAP (1989) and ALIEN APOCALYPSE (2005) and, well I could go on and on. But one of the good ones is William Lustig’s MANIAC COP (1988). Thankfully Synapse has brought back the murdering, mutilated cop to DVD with a great looking video transfer, remixed audio, and a handful of special features including a great audio commentary with the director and more importantly, the always entertaining Mr. Campbell.

If you’ve never seen MANIAC COP, then you’re in for a treat. The intimidating-looking Robert Z’Dar plays a good cop, sent to prison by a crooked system where some of the criminals he had previously sent up the river shank him in the shower and carve up his face for good measure. However you can’t keep a good (or it seems, maniacal) cop down. So the big bad policeman returns from the dead to extract his revenge on the cops and good citizens of New York. Campbell plays a cop framed for the murders of the Maniac Cop. He is joined by another genre veteran, Tom Atkins as an inquisitive detective and the two go looking for the truth behind the killings. So unlike the typical slasher flicks, you get a pretty neat mystery behind at least half of this film, but enough brutality and the red stuff to keep the gorehounds happy. In my book that’s a win/win.








Want more? Well how about some good old kink? Everyone likes something kinky, even if they don’t admit it. Well Synapse has got the whips and chains things covered with a double dose of both the fictional and the real. The fiction takes the form of one of the original S&M classics THE IMAGE (1975). If you’re a fan of the highly erotic films done with a lot of style and class, then this movie about two women in a dominate/submissive relationship, introducing a young man into their games of pleasure and pain is as good as they come, if you’re into that kind of thing.

For a far, far, FAR more hardcore edge to S&M there is the documentary called GRAPHIC SEXUAL HORROR (2009) about the infamous sadomasochistic (and now defunct) website INSEX.COM. While this was a comprehensive look at a little seen, and lesser understood, fetish lifestyle, be warned: the images and subject matter is pretty damn graphic. Hey, it says so right in the title and boy, they’re not lying. Another thing about this movie that was refreshing was that the interviews with actors and fans of such things are shockingly frank and not always complementary to the website, lifestyle, or people this documentary was about. So if you’ve ever been interested in intense S&M, or you just like to get the occasional glimpse of the wild side, this documentary will do that for you and then some.

(REMINDER: NOT WORK SAFE!!!)








The last thing I want to highlight is Synapse’s first step into the High Def world, their first Blu-ray release of 1971’s VAMPIRE CIRCUS from Hammer Films. Now CIRCUS is not my favorite flick from the British horror masters that gave us Lee and Cushing facing off in the amazing Dracula films that ran from the 50s to the 70s, but it is weird enough to warrant a look. And despite the new format, Synapse shows that they are still masters of the game with an astonishingly beautiful video transfer and a ton of new special features of this long overlooked movie.

As for the story, it’s as trippy as you would expect a genre movie from the early 70s to be, but it’s also a bit sexier then you would think for that time. A young girl in a 19th century Austrian village is killed and the townsfolk do the pitchfork and torch thing and march to the local count’s castle and kill him for the crime. As the count dies, he curses the village that all their children will die so that he can return from the dead. Many years later and the town is really having a bad time of it as it’s in the midst of a deadly plague. Well along comes a surreal circus to bring joy and merriment to the blighted berg and hopefully get their minds off of their woes. Unfortunately the circus performers are all shape-shifting vampires and soon children are once again going missing. Could the count’s curse be coming true?

If you’re a fan of the Hammer brand of horror, then this is a wonderfully weird, and now thanks to Blu-ray, an amazing looking movie that should not be missed. Thanks and praise be to Synapse for bringing this long forgotten film back out to the masses in an awesome edition. Based on the strengths of this BD alone I can’t wait to see what other movies they do in Blu.






Oh, it looks like I won’t have to wait long as the long neglected 80s slasher, THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (aka PRANKS) (1982), is all set to make the jump into High-Def with an "Uncensored Director's Cut" in the very near future. So please excuse me as I 'squee' like a little girl for a few minutes.




Now if any of the movies I have discussed here has tripped your trigger, and they really should have, you can get them and a whole heck of a lot more horror, sci-fi, cult, erotic, documentaries, and more here: http://synapse-films.com To say that I highly recommend going over to Synapse and picking up a whole bunch of groovy movies would be an understatement.

--Brian M. Sammons