OCTOBER 21, 2011

Snow DevilsLast Halloween, Sick Picks took a look at some of the weirder offerings out there from studios offering MOD ("manufacturing on demand") DVDs, including offerings from the Warner Archive, Columbia Classics, and MGM. Well, it's that time of year again, so here we go! You can also click on any of the titles below for more info.

When he wasn’t busy turning out solid gothic horror films like Castle of Blood in the ‘60s, director Antonio Margheriti (or “Anthony M. Dawson”) revealed his crazy side with a string of ultra-cheap, ultra-weird sci-fi movies. The most-loved of these is easily Wild, Wild Planet, which was picked up by MGM along with a handful of his other films. The last title in that decade’s cycle to be released in English is 1967’s The Snow Devils, which teams him with occasional leading man Giacomo Rossi-Stuart but brings the action back down to Earth (at least at the beginning) where the ice caps are mysteriously melting. (Wow, how could that happen?) Intrepid leader Rod Jackson (Rossi-Stuart) of the futuristic agency Gamma I (a tie-in to three of the other Margheriti space operas) leads a trio of explorers to investigate reports of “snow devils,” only to uncover a race of abominable snow aliens with a nefarious plan to conquer the planet. If you’ve seen any of the other films in the series, you should have some idea of what to expect here: indifferent dubbing, wildly meandering plotting, zippy music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, and wonderfully rudimentary special effects. It’s all basically disposable Saturday matinee nonsense but energetically executed and quite fun if you know what you’re up for a lounge-flavored space age treat. The Warner Archive release is comparable to their other series titles (which also includes War of the Planets), i.e., much better than any home video version before but still kind of scrappy-looking given the injections of stock footage and occasional element issues, including some haphazard blow ups and zooms. The sole extra is a rough-looking, non-anamorphic theatrical trailer featuring the groovy main theme and the line, “An invincible army of frozen fiends!”


Legend of Lylah ClareOf all the big-time Hollywood directors after World War II, none had a stranger career than Robert Aldrich, who could segue between satirical war films and high-camp melodramas. One of his biggest hits was the "horror hag" classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and a few years later in 1968 he took advantage of relaxing censorship restrictions to deliver an even more cockeyed, cynical look at Tinseltown with the brain-bustingly strange possession yarn, The Legend of Lylah Clare. Based on a now-lost 1963 episode of The DuPont Show of the Week starring Tuesday Weld and written by the amazing Robert Thom (Wild in the Streets and Angel Angel, Down We Go), it's here transformed into a delirious spectacle starring Kim Novak in a career-killing performance as Elsa Brinkman, an ingenue chosen by tyrannical director Lewis Zarken (Peter Finch, again) to star in a biopic about his most famous discovery, German-born movie star Lylah Clare, who died under very lurid and mysterious circumstances. Elsa takes a little too well to the role and soon becomes possessed by the dead star, barking orders in an Exorcist-style German growl that must be heard to be believed. The first 40 minutes or so operate sort of like a traditional movie, but once Novak starts chewing the scenery, the film erupts into an explosion of surreal set pieces unlike anything you've ever seen, all climaxing with a high-wire circus act, a suicide, a splashy movie premiere, and a violent dog food commercial. Also along for the ride are Ernest Borgnine as a sleazy agent, Rossella Falk as a repressed assistant, Black Emanuelle regular Gabriele Tinti using his real voice as a studly handyman, and Mrs. Vincent Price, Coral Browne, as a viper-tongued gossip columnist who carries a rose in a metal brace on her leg. Absolutely essential viewing, as anyone who has stumbled across this one on TCM in the wee hours of the morning can attest. (And would you believe it was remade in '81 as The Blonde, a vehicle for porn star Annette Haven?) The Warner Archive disc is freshly remastered in anamoprhic widescreen (1.85:1) and looks great apart from a little print debris here and there; the non-anamoprhic theatrical trailer is also included.


RPMDuring the counterculture revolution of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, several established directors decided to chase after young viewers by making movies about how those shaggy-haired kids were, like, totally with it, man, and everyone over thirty was totally square and out of it. Otto Preminger and Michelangelo Antonioni contributed two of the wildest entries to this cycle, but as the party was starting to die down, “social issues” maestro Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) chipped in with his own cockeyed contribution, R.P.M. The whole film takes place on a college campus where the students have taken over one of the major buildings and staged a sit-in to protest to drive out the current president and have their demands met. Since their number one choice for a new leader (Che Guevara) is dead, they have to settle for one of their favorite runners-up, beloved sociology professor “Paco” Perez (Anthony Quinn), who really likes undergraduates (“sexually,” clarifies one faculty member). Right now he’s actually keeping company with a ditzy grad student (Ann-Margret) who likes to run around in see-through tops, and when he’s summoned in the middle of the night to take his new position, he’s sucked into a string of demands from the de facto leaders of the movement, a pre-Sounder Paul Winfield and a post-2001 Gary Lockwood (with a really terrible haircut). Naturally it all ends with a loud students versus police riot, mostly shot out of focus. All of this looked hopelessly stupid, trashy, and dated the minute it hit theaters in 1970, which of course means it’s a pretty brilliant time capsule now complete with an oddly sincere and committed performance by Quinn and an endearing soft-rock soundtrack by Barry De Vorzon and Perry Botkin, Jr. before they reteamed with Kramer the following year for the much more successful Bless the Beasts & Children. Oh, and it was written by Erich Segal, who demolished the bestseller charts with Love Story. R.P.M. (which is helpfully subtitled “*Revolutions Per Minute” during the main credits) was briefly released on VHS by Columbia in the format’s early days but stayed out of commission for decades, with only a couple of rare TV airings reminding anyone it existed. In 2011, Sony debuted a new HD transfer on Turner Classic Movies and followed it up with this on-demand DVD release which, as expected, looks terrific. The framing on the anamorphic (1.78:1) transfer looks much more focused than the ancient open matte versions, and all the colorful, highly questionable furniture and clothing looks vivid throughout. It’s also uncut, complete with Ann-Margret’s fleeting topless shot. No extras; a real shame, as it would’ve been interesting to see how they managed to make a trailer out of this one.

The Traveling ExecutionerEqually forgotten but more offbeat and ultimately rewarding is another film from the same year, The Traveling Executioner, a bizarre capital punishment comedy/drama from director Jack Smight (Damnation Alley). Stacy Keach has one of his juiciest roles as Jonas Candide, who makes his living traveling the American South in 1918 with his portable electric chair for which he charges $100 a pop. His latest job doesn’t go smoothly when the condemned doesn’t die right away, and when the convict’s wife, Gundred (High Plans Drifter’s Marianna Hill), turns out to be next in line, Jonas falls for her and decides to come up with a plan to dodge the chair. Aided by a neurotic young mortician (Bud Cort, who had a pretty amazing run in ‘70), he comes up with a string of cons including one extended bit involving a makeshift brothel. A black comedy in the truest sense, this film is also frequently poignant and climaxes with a virtuoso sequence flagrantly copied years later in The Green Mile. Not all of the crazy tone shifts work, but this is definitely a potential cult item just waiting for rediscovery after its mishandled theatrical release. A terrible VHS version was fleetingly issued by MGM, but the Warner Archive disc marks the first official widescreen version ever available on home video with the expansive 2.35:1 scope framing finally restored. It’s a real beauty and certainly worth checking out; the sole extra is a non-anamorphic theatrical trailer that probably left most audiences scratching their heads.


The Night DiggerWriter Roald Dahl is best known for his morbidly amusing books and short stories including favorites like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches, but in 1967 he decided to take a crack at screenwriting with a very odd choice: You Only Live Twice, a James Bond film. His final screenplay was easily his weirdest, a 1971 gothic horror tale called The Night Digger. Dahl's wife, Patricia Neal, stars as Maura, a repressed matron living in an English country house with her domineering blind mother (Pamela Brown). Enter a motorcycle-riding new handyman, Billy Jarvis (Excalibur's Nicholas Clay), who seems to be a good religious boy but is in fact a serial killer who ties up his victims and eventually deposits them beneath a road being built nearby. A twisted romance soon blossoms between Maura and Billy, but will he be able to take his inner demons? Though no classic, this film is strange, poetic, and perverse enough to stick in the memory of many people lucky enough to stumble across it on TV, either billed under this title or The Road Builder. The harmonica-laced music score by Bernard Herrmann is excellent, Neal is powerful in only her second role after a comeback from a string of severe strokes (largely cured through Dahl's innovative help), and the central nude murder sequence in the middle of the film -- usually watered down to the point of oblivion in reissue prints and cable screenings -- is shocking enough to rival Hitchcock's Frenzy from the same year. Warner's disc is a substantial improvement over the cropped, ragged old master that's popped up on occasion on Turner Classic Movies, as it's properly framed, presented in anamorphic widescreen, and much longer and more graphic than the versions most people have seen. The 97-minute running time has always been the subject of some controversy, as some British sources have listed it running as long as 110 minutes. If anyone has actually seen this version, please drop a line and give some details.


The Last RunLast up in our tour through the forgotten cinematic debris of '71 is The Last Run, which took a backseat to a much better-remembered car chase film from the same year, Vanishing Point. Directed by veteran Richard Fleischer, this one takes its cues from hardboiled noir fiction with George C. Scott starring as Harry Garmes, a retired getaway driver who's settled down in Europe in a small fishing village to get away from the Chicago crime world. A young aspiring thief, Paul (The BIrd with the Crystal Plumage's Tony Musante), and his girlfriend Claudie (Trish Van Devere), talk Harry into driving them across the border to France, but things don't go as planned and soon both sides of the law are chasing them down. Though imperfect, this lean, spare thriller features some terrific cinematography by the great Sven Nykvist, a punchy score by Jerry Goldsmith, and one of those utterly grim endings you only find in films from this era. The film itself was largely overshadowed by scandal, first when original director John Huston was kicked off by Scott, then when Scott split from his wife, Colleen Dewhurst (who also costars here), to marry Van Devere the following year. Perhaps for these reasons, the film was barely released on VHS and became ridiculously difficult to see for decades. The Warner Archive disc marks its first availability in full scope, and the anamorphic transfer looks quite nice throughout. Definitely worth a look if you want to see a neglected example of '70s crime cinema at its most uncompromising.


Lost HorizonThough it isn’t quite the film that killed off big Hollywood musicals for good (that honor likely goes to At Long Last Love), you can’t blame the producer of 1973’s Lost Horizon for lack of trying. The idea of remaking Frank Capra’s 1937 fantasy classic as an all-star color extravaganza actually makes sense, but the casting here is… well, misguided, to put it kindly. Putting Peter Finch, Liv Ullmann, Sally Kellerman, Michael York, and Olivia Hussey in one movie sounds great on paper, but having most of them singing and/or dancing is something else entirely. (At least Finch tries to pull a Rex Harrison and talk his way through most of his songs, while Ullmann’s notorious “The World Is a Circle” song was at least dubbed.) The premise here is exactly the same, as a plane carrying some American visitors from a Chinese revolution crashes into the Himalayas where they’re saved by a rescue party of residents from the nearby paradise of Shangri-La. Of course, the fact that said rescuers are led by John Gielgud as “Chang” indicates something’s off, but once they reach Shangri-La, everyone starts bursting into songs written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Of course, there’s a big supernatural secret behind this heaven on earth, and everyone must debate whether they want to stay or leave – with potentially disastrous consequences. Directed by Charles Jarrott (The Other Side of Midnight), writer Larry Kramer (Women in Love), and producer Ross Hunter (Airport) were all reputable names at the time, so it’s still not quite clear where everything went astray. (Smart money goes on Hunter though.) That said, for all its ridiculous miscalculations, it’s an insanely entertaining film if you’re in the right mood; the lavish production values and whimsical fantasy make for some solid eye candy, and like it or not, some of the pop songs are really catchy (especially “The Things I Will Not Miss” and “Question Me an Answer”). Needless to say, audiences weren’t receptive to this film’s kitschy charms after the advent of more serious, reality-based fare like Cabaret, and after premiere screenings were ridiculed, it was drastically hacked down for general release, losing three full songs and, most notorious of all, a wild fertility dance involving Hussey and a chorus line of orange thong-clad dancers stuck in the middle of the song “Living Together, Growing Together.” This insane highlight (imagine Alejandro Jodorowsky directing a number for the Village People) went back in the vault and was rumored to be lost for decades, and when an expanded but still incomplete version was cobbled together from varying source material for a Pioneer Special Edition laserdisc in the ‘90s, it seemed all hope was lost. Well, in a surprising move, Sony’s MOD program has unveiled a spectacular HD restoration of the 100% complete premiere cut of the film, with all of the deleted footage restored in pristine condition. It looks and sounds amazing, and the only reason to possibly hang on to the old laserdisc is the isolated music-only track. On top of that, the DVD also contains Bacharach’s original demos at the piano for most of the songs (many with very different lyrics from the final product), a vintage PR featurette about the making of the film including behind-the-scenes footage, a reel of surviving scenes from an incomplete promo about Hunter discussing the creation of the feature, teaser and final theatrical trailers, and two TV spots.


Smile Jenny You're DeadFilmed as a pilot movie for the TV series Harry O starring David Janssen, the evocatively-titled Smile Jenny, You're Dead ran in '74 after an initial episode had already aired (so this is basically a second pilot film). The show continued to run for two seasons but has only been rerun a handful of times, while this one continued to run late at night on various channels well into the mid-'80s. The story introduces Harry O as a beach-dwelling private eye who left the police force after a bullet damaged his back, and now a precocious runaway moppet (Jodie Foster!) shows up on his doorstep for reasons having little to do with the story. Meanwhile a model named Jennifer (Andrea Marcovicci) is distraught when her husband won't grant her a divorce, but that problem gets solved quickly when it turns out she has a psychotic stalker (future softcore helmer Zalman King) who puts a bullet in that troublesome hubby in an elevator. Harry gets called onto the scene and gets to know Jennifer as the other men in her life start dropping like flies, with the killer's obsession possibly turning her into the final target. There's obviously not much of an actual mystery here, but there's some fun to be had in watching the hammy King (who starred in Blue Sunshine and later devoured the scenery to bits as another cuckoo in the ridiculous "Disco Angels" episode of Charlie's Angels) make creepy faces in the mirror and slice up photographs with a pair of scissors. Plus you get a pre-Disney Foster already stealing scenes fromo her older peers, along with a fun cast of supporting characters including Clu Gulager, Tim McIntire, Howard Da Silva, and John Anderson, plus a nice Klute-inspired score by excellent TV composer Billy Goldenberg. Though not quite as crisp as some of their remastered made-for-TV movies (The Bermuda Depths is still probably the champ), the Warner Archive disc looks quite good and easily surpasses those bland syndication prints that used to make the rounds. Hopefully this means more Harry O adventures will be on the way in the future.


YorRemember Antonio Margheriti a few paragraphs up? Well, after slowing down on the horror and sci-fi movies to focus on straight-up action films, he unleashed the most ludicrous film of his career in 1983: Yor, the Hunter from the Future. By this time, Italians were hedging their bets by mounting projects as both feature films and expanded TV miniseries at the same time, a tactic also used for titles like A Blade in the Dark and The Scorpion with Two Tails. The longer 200-minute cut of Yor has yet to appear in English, but it's really not that substantially different; you basically just get a lot more walking around and random chit chat, with some random extra silliness that should please completists. Anyway, the streamlined 88-minute feature version hit American theaters mere days before the brain-melting madness of Luigi Cozzi's Hercules during a banner summer for Italian trash cinema; this one wins by default for its biggest claim to fame, the catchy electronic theme song "Yor's World" by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis (performing under their familiar group name, Oliver Onions). That song is just the start of the fun as we follow bleach-blond caveman Yor (Howling II's Reb Brown) as he makes friends with a couple of fur-wearing locals (Corinne Clery and Luciano Pigozzi), tries to figure out the meaning of the weird medallion around his neck, flies hanging on the feet of a pterodactyl-type monster, and eventually uncovers a secret about his prehistoric environment already spoiled completely by the actual title of the movie and the poster art. You also get the always wonderful John Steiner (Tenebrae) hamming it up as The Overlord, the villain behind the film's big conspiracy. Despite amassing a substantial cult following among scarred '80s kids, Yor has been treated like a bastard stepchild by Sony since its fleeting VHS release until this remastered-in-HD disc version. The anamorphic transfer looks immaculate, and while we can only pray for a Blu-Ray somewhere down the road after someone at Sony has a few too many beers at lunch, this will do just fine. A full frame theatrical trailer is the sole extra.


Out of the DarkIt was only a matter of time before someone made a sleazy slasher movie set in the world of phone sex employees, but no one could have imagined the result turning out as weirdly as 1989's Out of the Dark. Kicking off with a sequence later duplicated (weirdly, almost shot for shot) in Dario Argento's Sleepless, one of these erotic employees converses with one of her clients, a psycho named Bobo. That night she runs into the real thing when a clown trying to entertain her in the park at night suddenly turns homicidal with a baseball bat, and soon the other ladies in the office run by Karen Black(!) are being targeted. From this point the film unspools a long list of suspects and an even longer list of surprising cast members. Tracey Walter at the disgruntled cop investigating the case! Bud Cort (again) as an unstable basket case! Divine in his last role as a detective! Executive producer Paul Bartel as a prissy hotel employee! Tab Hunter for no good reason! If this all sounds like an '80s slasher film by way of John Waters, well, you'd be pretty much correct. It's frequently goofy, sometimes creepy, and mostly fun, with a pretty solid central performance by one-time '80s "it boy" Cameron Dye (Valley Girl, Fraternity Vacation) and plenty of ridiculous gore and T&A. Plus, it's got a killer clown. What more could you want? The disc looks excellent throughout and has a much slicker, more atmospheric presentation than the long-discontinued Columbia VHS version, which sported a generic fashion model thriller cover that probably didn't lure in too many customers. The Bobo artwork here is definitely more jolting, but whether it leads to more awareness of this oddball late '80s freak show remains to be seen.


Kongo Last up on our MOD tour is the earliest but by no means mildest of the pack, the outrageously nasty 1932 Pre-Code offering Kongo. Based on the already grotesque 1928 Lon Chaney film West of Zanzibar, this sound version ramps up the sweat, sleaze, and sadism to new heights with Walter Huston in his darkest role ever as Deadlegs Flint. This wheelchair-bound, scarred magician uses stage illusions to control the African natives in his isolated Congo village, and with the help of his exotic mistress (tragedy-bound Lupe Velez), he concocts a plan for revenge against Gregg (C. Henry Gordon), the man responsible for Flint's paralysis and stealing his (now deceased) wife to boot. Basically it involves luring Gregg's daughter (Virginia Bruce) and her boyfriend into prostitution and drug addiction, but that's just the start as events get darker and more ironic on the way to a truly twisted conclusion. While the direction here isn't stylish enough to qualify this as one of the best horror classics of the era, it's definitely one of the strongest in terms of content alone and can still make viewers squirm with discomfort. The print used for this first official video release of the film in any format appears to be the same one seen on TCM broadcasts, though it's obviously taken right off the master here and looks a generation or two better in quality. The only extra here is a biggie: Untamed Africa, a bonus almost-feature-length documentary about the Dark Continent that makes a suitable, albeit more cleaned-up, companion to the main feature.


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