Sunday, March 4, 2012

Brian Sammons Hi-Def Horror Hoedown!

GAME OF THRONES Season One– (2010) Blu-ray review

Creators: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Cast: Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage

Ok, so this isn’t a horror show, but it is easily the best show on television right now. Yep, I mean that and stand by it 100%. This is how you do good genre television, right here. Now this is only the first season, so it doesn’t fall into the late season decline that other once great TV shows slipped into (X-FILES, DEXTER) and it has yet to do a second season and run the risk of falling into the dreaded sophomore slump that some shows hit after a stellar debut season (THE WALKING DEAD). Also while more sword and sorcery than horror, THRONES has far more death and truly eerily moments (every time the white walkers are on screen) than pretty much any other TV show on the air right now. It also has the guts to “go there” and by that I mean having really bad things happen to good people. So for those reasons, and the fact that it’s just so damn good, I decided to review it here.

GAME is based on the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series of books by George R. R. Martin. Now I have never read these books, but then most of the fantasy I enjoy are the classics of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and J.R.R. Tolkein. And if you know those three authors, then you know how varied their fantasy worlds are, so I am not against reading the books by Mr. Martin, I just have yet to do so. So I went into this new dramatic series on HBO as much of a blank slate as possible. So based solely on the strengths of this TV show, I was completely won over. I found it one of the most compelling and complete fictional worlds ever conceived, and that was all the show, not any of the books. A higher compliment than that for a fantasy series, or any series, I cannot think of.

If you have yet to see this show and read the books, then I envy you your first experiences should you chose to pick up these new Blu-rays. And boy, do I think you should. So with that in mind, I shall try my best to avoid spoilers in this review. So read on without fear.

As the title suggests, GAME OF THRONES is far more of a political drama than an action packed Conan story where the mighty barbarian hews through savages with his broadsword. Although to be fair, this show does not shy away from the violence in any regard. Or the sex. If wanton nudity offends you, consider yourself warned. On the other hand, I enjoy sex and violence in my entertainment. I am a horrorhead, first and foremost, so I liked the gripping story and incredibly detailed characters getting spiced up a bit by a nice beheading or a pair beautiful, bouncing breasts from time to time. Call me a pig, but I’m an honest pig.

As for the story, it takes place in what I would call a “low fantasy” setting. There are no elves or fairies and magic and wizards are in very short supply. There were once dragons in the skies, but they are now long dead, and the supernatural elements are used sparingly but effectively, such as the mysterious and creepy white walkers and the dead men they control. This is a story about men and woman and all the various political intrigues, backstabbings, and dirty deals that revolved around a collection of noble houses tenuously united underneath the banner of a usurper king. The king sits upon an iron throne, created from all the melted swords of the previous dynasty’s enemies, that everyone wants for their own. There are enemies within the kingdom that plot and scheme, the deposed heir of the last mad king, now in exile across the sea, will marry his young sister to a hulking barbarian if that will get the throne back to him, and then the undead threat from the north. In this world, the seasons don’t act like they do here. When this story begins, the kingdom has enjoyed a many-years-long summer, but all the signs point to the fact that winter is coming and that it’s going to be a particularly long and harsh winter. And in addition to all the hardships that a mini ice age would cause, it looks like the undying white walkers shall return this winter after a thousand-year-long slumber.

As you may guess, things start to fall apart for the kingdom in record time and on all fronts. There are battles to be fought of a personal nature, and those that will leave hundreds dead on the field. There are enemies on distant shores, those that share the same bed, and even those that mock death. And with all that conflict, it is only natural that some die. However who dies may surprise you and also let you know that in this world, no one is safe. That’s yet another instance where this show beats the hell out of many a horror movie.

Combine that rich, incredibly detailed story with beautiful settings, well done special effects, competent direction, and amazing acting (some of the best I’ve seen in any TV show or movie) and you have one hell of a must watch show. On that last bit, the acting, while all involved do a superb job to the last man, woman, and even child (and I usually hate watching kids trying to act), I feel special praise must go to Peter Dinklage a little person who plays Tyrion “the imp” Lannister, a dwarf (no, not fantasy, LORD OF THE RINGS dwarf) who is remarkably pragmatic, charismatic, and just plain fun to watch every second he’s on the screen. In a show with a cast this huge, and with as many great and memorable characters, that he should so clearly be my favorite speaks volumes to his acting chops.

Now as good as this TV show is, the Blu-ray collection by HBO is just as good. Not only does everything look amazing in High-def, but these discs are jammed packed to over flowing with extras. So much so, that I shall save us both a lot of time and not try to list them all here. I will just say three things here about them. First, wow. Second, this is how a flagship show for a premium cable channel should be released; with tons and tons of extra features. This is a lesion Showtime needs to desperately learn, as all their seasons of DEXTER have so far only had a pitiful amount of extras. And third, these Blu-rays come with a very detailed, illustrated and acted out compilation of histories all about the lands, people, and past events of the world this show is set in. These were entertaining, informative, and a great way for someone like me, who had never read the books, to learn more about all the behind the scenes bits. I loved it.

So GAME OF THRONES Season One is a great show, it looks great on Blu-ray, and it has a bunch of great extras. Yeah this one is a no-brainer, you need to get this set of Blu-rays. Consider this one very highly recommended.


Directors: Kinji Fukasaku, Kenta Fukasaku
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Tarô Yamamoto, Ai Maeda, Shûgo Oshinari

BATTLE ROYALE is a near legendary, violent, dark, and impressively well-made Japanese movie with a surprising amount of message it wants to deliver along with its sometimes over-the-top violence. I say that it’s legendary, not only for daring to do things that most other films would run like hell away from, but because sadly, for various legal reasons, it was never released in the US. Still, even with that huge hurdle to overcome, many people here sought out import DVDs or even crappy bootlegs just to see this amazing movie. Well thankfully the long drought has ended and we here in America can at last get this film at our local stores. And the best part is that it’s one hell of a cool package. In fact it is so cool that I’m going to change things up a bit and start with the extras and presentation of the movies (yes there are two of them here) before getting into the films themselves.

BATTLE ROYALE: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION lives up to its subtitle and is presented in topnotch fashion by Anchor Bay in a three Blu-ray and one DVD set. The three BDs contain the theatrical cut of the first BATTLE ROYAL, the director’s cut of the same movie, and BATTLE ROYALE II: REQUIEM. All the movies are presented in HD and look…sadly only ok. The BATTLE ROYAL flicks have never looked really amazing in any format, but for their big coming out party in America, not to mention them being on Blu-ray, they really should have looked a lot better than they did here. No they don’t look horrible, but the video could have been polished up a bit and had some of the rather muted colors brightened. As for how the films sound, the director’s cut of the first movie has an English dubbed audio track, while the other two Blu-rays only have a Japanese language track and English subtitles. Sadly, none of the movies come with any commentary tracks, but that’s par for the course for forging films released here. The DVD contains all the extras, and there are an impressive pile of them. There’s a short (12 minute) documentary on BATTLE ROYALE, a press conference video, behind-the-scenes featurette, auditions, rehearsals, cut scenes, a nearly hour long making of featurette, a featurette on the special effects, a short video from the Tokyo International Film Festival 2000, and more. And yes, most of these special features are in Japanese with English subtitles, but if you’re interested in these movies at all, I’m going to guess that such things are not a big deal for you. Oh, and as the cherry on top; the whole package comes in a nice, hardcover book-like binder.

So now you know that Anchor Bay put a bunch of time and effort into bringing these movies out in style, the question is; was it worth it?

Oh hell yes it was.

The story behind the original, groundbreaking film refreshingly original and crazy. Ok, the movie is based off of a novel, but the statement stands. In Japan the youth are so out of control that the government institutes a new law; the BR Act. With it, soldiers abduct a class of middle school students, with the full blessing of their teacher, and transport them to a remote island where they are forced to take part in a kill or be killed game of death. Each kid has an exploding collar locked around their necks and told that they have three days to kill each other off until only one remains. If at the end of three days there is more than one student left, all will be killed off. To “help” them, each student is given a random bag. In addition to food and water, some hold swords and guns, while others contain only paper fans and frying pans. The lesson here; life is not fair. This predicament turns student against student and pits lifelong friends against one another while the cold, cruel eyes of the adults watch everything unfold on closed circuit television.

There are several themes present in this very violent and blood movie. First it’s a tale of survival and how some try to hang on to humanity even in the face of utter destruction. After all there is no escape from this island, and if you chose not to kill then you will certainly be killed in at least three days. It also shows how some embrace chaos and violence, either willingly or because of past traumas, both physical and mental. Perhaps the biggest message this movie wants to impart is to distrust authority. Some say that it’s a parable for the military and war, as the old always throw the young into the meat grinder, forcing them to kill and be killed. I agree with that, but I think it’s a more of a general; “hey, question all authorities because you never know” idea. Whichever the case, it is effectively dramatized here as you see young kids (in the movie they should be around 15 or so, although most actors do appear older than that) forced to become animals by the people who should be looking out for them the most: the adults.

So BATTLE ROYALE is one of the few films that flirts with the title of “masterpiece” that I could actually see earning it. The movie has a while lot to offer to whole lot of different people. If you just want an over the top, gory, action fest, BR will do that for you. If you like movies with deeper meanings and messages, this flick has got you covered. If you’re a Japan-o-phile who likes all things from the land of the rising sun, this film is so Japanese that it should come with a side order of sushi and sake. It is a one of a kind experience that could not be done any better than it is here.

Sadly, others out there did not agree with the previous sentence and in 2003 they made a sequel to BATTLE ROYALE. As good as the first film was, the follow up is pretty damn terrible. This unnecessary and unwanted sequel was started by the original director, the very talented, but elderly, Kinji Fukasaku, who sadly died early on in the shooting of the BATTLE ROYALE II: REQUIEM. The reins were then picked up by his son, Kenta Fukasaku, who not only dropped the ball, but kicked it down the street, bounced it over a curb, and into a fresh pile of dog crap some lazy dog walker failed to poop scoop.

Gee, can you guess how much I like the sequel?

Seriously, it’s a mess. It is boring, overly long, and often just nonsensical. Sure the first film had some crazy ideas, but it made sense in a cold, brutal, practical way. This follow up just does far too many things for the sake of the plot alone. The story is a bit of a confusing mess, starting with a terrorist-slash-resistance group taking on the authoritarians still in charge of Japan. Some of these revolutionaries are survivors of the old Battle Royal games. So in order to take care of the problem, the government garbs a whole new class of middle school students, put the explosive collars on them, and give them new rules like paring them up boy-girl and telling them that if they get to far from each other they heads will blow up. How will this stop the terrorist? Because the adults will use these new kids to kill the rebels. That’s right, the government knows exactly where their enemies are and could bomb them into the Stone Age through naval bombardment or the air force, or use professional solders to do the job. Instead they throw some untrained school kids at the terrorists first. Huh? So it’s off to the island base of the rebels, the new kids are given guns but no bullets (again, huh? These guys are working for the government, right?), and an arbitrary deadline of 72 hours. Why? Because that’s the same time limit that the first movie had. It all makes perfect sense, right? Who cares, this movie sure doesn’t. It all just a flimsy excuse to retread the teen on teen violence that made the first movie so (in)famous. Sadly it’s not even a pale shadow of the original film in message, acting, direction, or even gory violence.

So is it a bad thing that BR 2 is part of this collection? Hell no, I’m glad it’s here. If BATTLE ROYALE 2 was on its own disc I would pass on it. However it is a welcome addition here as it just sort of feels right to have both movies in one package. Will I watch it again? Probably not, but it’s nice that I have the option to do so if I someday want to.

This is the multi Blu-ray set to have for BATTLE ROYALE fans. It far outshines any edition of the film (not to mention the lackluster sequel) to date. If you loved this movie and just have an import DVD, or heaven forbid a bootleg, then you need to upgrade this set. If you have yet to see or get this movie, and you’re not offended by violet and very dark films, then do yourself a huge favor and pick up this COMPLETE COLLECTION today. BR is still as cool and powerful today as it was in 2000. Consider it highly recommended.

THE RING– (2002) Blu-ray review

Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, Brian Cox

Now this was a surprise. This new Blu-ray from Paramount arrived on my door, unannounced, almost like the haunted video tape the movie is about. I had heard nothing about this slice of horror remake goodness from the early oughts (and for once I’m not being sarcastic when I say that, as I really did like this remake) coming out and I’m usually pretty up on such things. Then I saw that it had a sticker on it that said “Best Buy Exclusive” and I guess that sort of explained things. Best Buy has always done a poor job spreading the word on any of their exclusives. In most cases that’s ok, as BB exclusives usually aren’t much to crow about, so is this one any different?

Surprisingly yes, yes it is.

Now is it possible that you don’t know the story behind this one? I mean, the original film this remake was based on all but singlehandedly ushered in the brief J-horror craze in late 90s to mid 00s here in America. And out of the flood of Asian horror that followed, the original RINGU was easily one of the best. And to be honest, not only was this remake very faithful to the original, but I think it added a few things that actually made the remake in many ways better than the original. Now I know all the Japanophiles out there are cursing my name right now for saying that, or perhaps just thinking I’m the “typical American” that hates to watch subtitled movies, but sorry haters, that’s not the case. I love foreign fright films because by and large they are much better than anything we Americans are doing in horror today. But I stand by the statement that I like the remake better than the original. Deal with it.

Anyway, just in case you have never heard about RINGU/THE RING, here’s the Cliffs Notes version. There is a rumor going around a school about a haunted video tape (yes, VHS tapes were still a thing when this movie came out) that after you watch it, someone calls you up on the phone and tells you that you’ll die in seven days. A young mother and reporter gets drawn into the weirdness when she goes looking into the mysterious death of her teenage niece. Unfortunately in the course of her investigation she watches the cursed video, as she naturally doesn’t believe in the spooky stories. But after the phone call and various freaky things start to happen to her, she soon realizes that she only has a few days left to uncover the sad, horrific truth behind the video if she’ll have any chance of not only saving her life, but the lives of those closest to her who had also seen the evil video cassette.

While this remake was made for American audiences, it expertly captures two elements that made the Japanese original so damn good. First it does the creepy-evil-girl-ghost-with-the-long-black-hair-in-her-face thing to perfection. You have never been this terrified of a preteen girl before, even if you’re a parent of one. The second is the thing that all Asian horror movies seemed to be fascinated with; taking everyday items and putting a horror spin on them. Seriously, there were Asian horror flicks based on video tapes, newspapers, cell phones, computers, cameras, dark puddles of water, spirals (yes, spirals) and even one from South Korea called THE RED SHOES all about, you guessed it, a pair of haunted shoes. Yeah, not all of those plots worked, but the fact that they even tried to make shoes or abstract shapes like spirals frightening has got to be applauded.

So too must you applaud this remake. In a world were almost all remakes are universally horrible, even if you don’t agree with me that this film is better than the original, you still must admit that it’s a fine fright flick in its own right. It is well directed by Gore “I made a ton of money on pirate movies” Verbinski and almost all the actors turn in great work. I say “almost all”. Sadly, I’m not a fan of child actors, and while young Daveigh Chase was wonderfully creepy and eerie as the ghostly Samara, the little boy who plays the investigative mother’s son is pretty bad. He is so precocious to the point of being completely unbelievable and so emotionless that he could be carved from wood. Or perhaps related to Keanu Reeves. Whatever the case, he’s just plain bad. No, not Jake Lloyd in STAR WARS EPISODE ONE bad, but he is pretty painful to watch. Still if that’s the worst thing I can think to say about this movie, it does tell you how good the rest of it must be.

In addition to the new HD transfer of the movie there are a few extras new to this disc, however the goodies are a mixed bag and some features really aren’t that special. There is a weird 15 minute recap of movie called “Don’t Watch This” which really has no reason to exist. I mean, it only uses footage from the film and add nothing new, so why was it created is anyone’s guess. There is a three minuet special on urban legend which is also not only very short, but seems like it would be far more at home on another disc. Like say, oh I don’t know; the movie URBAN LEGEND. There’s the very short creepy video that people watch that gets the little girl ghost all upset. The usual interviews of the cast and crew and a trailer are also found here. The best extra this Blu-ray has is easily a short film (around 15 minutes) called “Rings” about a group of teens who watch the haunted Ring videotape for kicks and to see how far they can take it before having someone else watch the tape, thus saving their life. This little movie was surprisingly well done and actually broadens THE RING mythos out a bit. I’d love to see more things like this end up on Blu-rays more often.

THE RING is a great little movie and has always been a double surprise for me. Not only is it the very rare remake that doesn’t suck, but it’s an even rarer PG-13 horror movie that actually has some chilling moments in it. It is the best film of director Gregor Verbinski’s career so far, and that includes all the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN flicks. It has never looked better than it does here and it has a few (ok, one) good special features. If you don’t have this movie yet in your library then it gets a very high recommendation from me. If you already have the DVD, then it gets a passable recommendation, mostly for the much improved picture quality.

STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER– (1975) Blu-ray review

Director: Andrea Bianchi
Cast: Edwige Fenech, Nino Castelnuovo, Femi Benussi

Come on, with a title like that, how can you not want to see this movie? That’s one thing Italian 70s giallo films were always good at; coming up with great, over the top names. There was DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS, A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN, DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING, and my personal favorite; YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THEY KEY. While YOUR VICE… is the best title of anything, ever, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER has always ranked high on my Completely Awesome Titles List. And yet, I have never seen it. Yes, shocking I know, but whereas I’ve heard of this movie for years, I never got around to actually watching it. Well big huge thanks must go out to Blue Underground for bringing this out on Blu-ray and thus giving me an excuse to watch it. But, cool title aside, the question was; would I like it?

Yes I would, and for all the wrong (but oh so right) reasons.

The story is a pretty good murder mystery that is actually easier to follow, and more believable, than many other giallo films. It starts with a fashion model dying during a botched abortion. Next thing you know a killer in black leather and motorcycle helmet kills the abortion doctor. Then someone connected to the modeling agency the dead woman worked for dies next. So it goes, with men and woman getting dispatched one by one. And yes, true to the title, most do die in various stages of undress. It is obvious to the audience from the start that someone is avenging the dead pregnant woman, but who could be the black clad killer? That’s the thrust of this movie, but it doesn’t even begin to go into what made this movie so memorable and damn fun to watch. So, allow me to do that for you now.

First, yes this flick is chock-full of lovely, all natural, naked ladies. Hell, just opening the Blu-ray case reveals an inside cover photo of a nude woman. From the title, to the inside cover, to the blurbs calling the film ‘trashy’ and ‘sleazy’, you have no one to blame but yourself if you sit down to watch this movie and get offended by all the lovely lady bits in full display. That said, if all this flick had going for it was tons of naughty nudity, it would have been a dude. I mean, we’ve all got the internet, if you want naked flesh, it’s only a few keystrokes away. So let’s move on to winning point number two.

STRIP NUDE… is laugh out loud funny, and I don’t know if that was completely intentional. OK I know it had to be intentional for someone, but what I’m talking about is the English dubbing. I simply can’t believe that everything the characters say here in English is what they said in the original Italian. The amount of crazy that comes out of the characters’ mouths in this movie is quite a lot of fun. I won’t give any of it away, but I will say that when the fat, greasy, sleazy co-owner of the modeling agency tries to do it with one of the models, well that part of the film could have easily been written by the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATHER 3000 people.

Then again, the divine insanity found here might have been international, as after the scene I hint at above falls to pieces, the large looser turns to the only lover that ever satisfied him; a blow up doll. It’s things like that, mixed with some other out of left field turns, that do make me wonder if this movie was meant to be as hilarious as it turned out to be. Intentional or not, I laughed more here than I did at the last few modern comedies (yes I’m looking at you THE HANGOVER PART 2) and I loved this movie for that.

Oddly enough, the kills in STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER are perhaps the weakest part of this movie. Such things are usually the meat and potatoes of giallos films, but here they just felt sort of ho-hum. The first few are almost bloodless, and while some toward the end turn out to be glorious gory, there was nothing special about them. They weren’t especially suspenseful or creative. To be sure, they weren’t bad, they were sort of just there. DEEP RED (1975) or BAY OF BLOOD (1971), this movie was not, but a lot of things aren’t those movie and they’re still good, as so too is STRIP NUDE…

The new Blu-ray from Blue Underground presents this movie in a great looking transfer. Sure it doesn’t look like a modern HD movie, but it looks far better than any mid-seventies Italian film has any right to be. Sadly as good as this movie looks, the extras are nothing to get excited about. There are two short interviews (combined equaling just about eleven minutes) with actress Solvi Stubing and co-writer Massimo Felisatti, a couple of trailers and a poster and still gallery. That’s it. I wish there had been some more goodies in this extra basket, but at the end of the day, I’m just happy to have this movie on Blu-ray at all.

STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER is as good as it sounds. That is, if a title like that sounds good to you at all. Sure this movie isn’t for everyone, but you know what? Usually stuff made for everyone usually sucks. This film was made for fans of giallo movies, and if you consider yourself one of those, then you’ll dig this movie every bit as much as I did.

THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT– (1987) Blu-ray review

Director: Josh Becker
Cast: Brian Schulz, Robert Rickman, John Manfredi, Timothy Patrick Quill

This is one of those movies I’ve always heard about and seen on the video store shelves back in the 80s and early 90s when I all but haunted such places. Yet I never bothered to watch it. I don’t know why. Maybe because I was a horror snob back then and if it wasn’t a horror flick then I wasn’t to be bothered? Yeah despite it having strong links to the crew that made the EVIL DEAD flicks, it’s not a horror movie. It is very much a throwback (even in 1985 when it was released) to 70s action, exploitation movies. While I have grown to like such things now, at the time when I always saw this VHS cover everywhere, I wasn’t. So I was quite excited to get this new Blu-ray in for review, as I would finally see this movie after so long. But would I like it?

All the signs pointed towards yes, yes I would like it very much indeed. First, it was made in Michigan, just like me. Second, when I said it had strong ties to the EVIL DEAD guys, that’s an understatement. It was thought up by writer/director Josh Becker, who was one of the crew on EVIL DEAD, and by DEAD star Bruce Campbell as the two drove back from Tennessee to Michigan after the ED shoot. In fact, the movie was written as a staring vehicle for Campbell. Unfortunately by the time the movie was set to start filming, Bruce was part of the Screen Actors Guild and could not be part of the non-union movie. Shame, it would have been wonderful to see Campbell in this part. But hey, you can still sort of see that on this new Blu-ray. More on that in the special features section of this review.

Easily the strongest connection between THOU SHALT NOT and EVIL DEAD is that the director of the latter turns up here as an actor. Sam Raimi puts in a wonderfully over the top performance as a crazy cult leader. He chews through scenery like a woodchipper, rolls his eyes around like a mad man, spouts insanities, drools, dances, and totally loves every minuet he’s doing it. He steals the show every time he’s on screen and makes this movie a must see for him alone. And the fact that he does all that while wearing one of the worst wigs in the history of movies is particularly impressive.

The story behind this movie is pretty simple. It’s about a small group of Marines fresh from the killing fields of Vietnam (ok the obviously Michigan woods – complete with pine trees - standing in for Vietnam) run into a group of Manson Family-like maniacs once they’re back in the US. Much bloodshed ensues. And well, that’s about it. While not a bad idea, this does bring up the only slight sticking point I had with this movie, there’s not much to it. At time it feels kind of long and a good chunk of it felt like padding. I mean, there’s a brief bit of Vietnam War action in the begging, but after that not much happens until the hour mark in the film. That’s a long time to just have the four Marine characters driving around, going to bars, picking up chicks, trying to get back together with an old girlfriend, and so on. Now this movie does use that time to wisely flesh out the characters, and the group of Marines are a fun and likable bunch to be around. Still, I thought TSNK…E should either have been a bit shorter, or got to the action much sooner. However that’s a minor quibble, and because the characters were so engaging, it’s one that I didn’t mind too much.

What this movie gets so right is the trademark Raimi-esque humor. Or is it “Raimi-esque” at all? This is the second movie I’ve seen recently from someone in “that EVIL DEAD” crowd, other than Sam Raimi, to have that same kind of off the wall, almost slapstick style. That other film being grocery store slasher, INTRUDER, which Sam Raimi also acts in, by the way. So I really have to start wondering just how much of those silly sensibilities come from Sam Raimi, and how much they are a product of the group of goofballs as a whole. Well wherever it came from, I do love it so, and that sense of black humor is fully on display in here. In fact, it was easily my favorite part of this movie. Without it, this flick probably would have been a bit of a chore to sit through, but with it, it was a joy.

The new Blu-ray from Synapse films is a pretty impressive package. While the HD transfer of the film doesn’t look stellar, there is a ton of grain on the screen at times, the movie does look much better than I have ever seen it before. Being familiar with a bunch of previous Synapse releases and how O.C.D. they are when it comes to making a movie look as good as it possibly can, I can only assume this was the best they could possibly make it look. Or maybe it was a stylistic choice? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. I didn’t mind the grain, and actually prefer it in exploitation flicks like this. It somehow just feels right. But I thought I’d mention it for all the videophiles out there who cry if something is less than crystal clear on their TVs.

As for the extras and bonus features, there’s a nice collection here. First there is the double-sided cover. That gives you two options on how you want to display your movie. As a fan of the original movie poster, I really loved this and I wish more BD and DVD companies would do this. As for the on disc extras, there are more than a few noteworthy ones on here. There are two audio commentaries. One with director Becker and the man the movie was made for, Bruce Campbell. The other is with the actual star of the film, Brian Schulz and DVD extra guru, Michael Felsher. Both were well done, informative, and more importantly, entertaining enough to keep you listening. There is a 30 minute or so special called “Made in Michigan” about the creation of the movie. There is a short interview with Bruce Campbell on the movie he was almost in. An alternate title sequence, a deleted scene of someone puking, and a trailer are the usual special feature suspects collected here. Now all that’s very cool, but we’re not done yet. Hands down the best extra on here is the original super 8mm short film “Stryker’s War” in its entirety at about 50 minutes in length. This little film is a gem for Bruce Campbell fans as it stars him in the prototype that would become THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT. Hell, that alone is worth the price of this Blu-ray.

I really got a kick out of seeing this move for the first time. It was bloody fun, and at times surprisingly funny. It has a bit of drag to it in the middle, but it never really stops completely. Fans of grindhouse-like cinema should seek it out. Fans of all things EVIL DEAD should seek it out. Fans of silly, goofy, slightly gory action films should seek it out. Fans of historically accurate movie on the Vietnam war…should not.

WIZARDS– (1977) Blu-ray review

Director: Ralph Bakshi
Cast: Jesse Welles, Bob Holt, Richard Romanus

I loved this weird, animated movie from the mind of the man that would give us the first LORD OF THE RINGS movie, not to mention the first X Rated cartoon; FRITZ THE CAT (both of which were also animated). It was a movie about magic vs. technology and was mid-70s trippy in a mildly psychedelic way. It dealt with themes of war and sex and was so unlike all the Disney stuff I was being spoon fed at the time that it blew my mind. No, it wasn’t gratuitous like Anime often is. It didn’t have to be. It was mature without being obscene and gave its audience a lot of credit by assuming that they could handle such things. That’s something that sadly seems lacking these days. I mean, when did PG (as this movie was rated) become synonymous with tame, toothless, tasteless, toddler fair? Less we forget, but JAWS was rated PG and that had blood, bad language, death, terror and *gasp* nudity! Oh dear lord, think of the children! But I digress, and I’m about to go into a rant, so let’s get back to the magic that is WIZARDS.

The film sure doesn’t begin as a kid friendly cartoon, with terrorists setting off a nuke that starts a nuclear war that all but destroys the world. The destruction was so vast that only a handful of humanity survive the million-year-long nuclear winter. The rest of mankind became grotesque mutants of all hideous shapes and sizes. But in time, hope rose out of the ashes in the form of elves, fairies, dwarves, and other magical creatures that have returned after a long slumber. Into this wonderfully weird world of sword and sorcery fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, two brothers are born with great power that are diametrically opposed to each other. There’s Avatar, the kindly, good, child and poor Blackwolf, with his skeletal arms, red eyes, and heart full of evil. These brothers are the titular wizards and their struggle is at the heart of this movie.

While Avatar embraces the peaceful ways of magic, Blackwolf goes to the wastelands, rallies the mutants to his cause, and starts digging in the rubble for lost bits of technology to bolster his army. There the evil wizard finds guns, tanks, and plans, but his most powerful weapon is film. Yes a film; a collection of Nazi propaganda movies, war footage, and speeches by Hitler. Blackwolf projects these movies in the sky over battlefields to fill his hate-filled mutants with bloodlust, and to strike fear into his peace loving enemies who have never witnessed such things.

Pretty heavy stuff for a cartoon, huh? Well add to that humor that will probably sail over the heads of most kids, and often cutting comments on war, man’s reliance on technology, racism, and even religion. Tie it all together with unique character design and more styles of animation than you can shake a bony arm at. There’s still illustrations carried by effective narration, traditional hand-drawn animation, highly detailed black ink backgrounds, rotoscoped (animation traced over live-action scenes) battles, and even regular old black and white footage from the aforementioned Nazi films. Disney, or anyone else for that matter, would never dare to mix all these different styles together. While I would not want all animated movies to follow this path, it was a nice change of pace from the usual.

The new Blu-ray from Twentieth Century Fox is as pretty a package befitting such a visually unique film. It comes in a small, hardcover booklet-case with 24 pages of info, history, and full color illustrations and concept art. As for the on-disc extras, there’s a commentary track with Ralph Bakshi that’s pretty good along with a 34 minuet interview with the same man that goes in depth about his background in animation and why he came up with WIZARDS. Trailers, TV spots, still galleries round out the admittedly short list of special features. Sure there could have been more, but for a thirty-five year old film that has been largely forgotten by today’s audience, I was impressed that it had as many extras as it did.

WIZARDS is a trippy, surreal, fantastic fantasy if there ever was one. While rated PG and suitable for most kids, it’s not dumbed down for them. Children will like the silly cartoon characters and adults will like the surprisingly mature sci-fi and fantasy tale. For a great example of “they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore” and why that’s a very sad thing, give WIZARDS a watch. I’m betting you’ll dig it.

--Brian Sammons