Halloween Blitz 18: Not That One, the Other One

It always behooves me when Hollywood plays the name game.  Not dropping them, but with titles.  Seriously, I’m not kidding.  For over a half-century, I’m still gobsmacked by the concept of two trashy movies named Harlow, both based on the same lousy biography, were released in the same year.  More than a decade later, it happened again.  This time with The Chosen, although the sources sprung from very different roots.  One concerned the Hassidic community in Brooklyn, the other a full-blown Italian horror romp about Satan ending Mankind.  Much anger and confusion ensued as audiences entered the wrong pics, so the latter’s distributor changed the title to Holocaust 2000.  Now, it’s happened again.  Two movies, both released within the past year, carry the moniker TRUTH OR DARE.  They also have similar plots, and I mean that both in narrative and the burial kind.  One was a high-profile, major studio-released opus.  And the other is this one, now on DVD from Cinedigm, in conjunction with CineTelFilms/Ingenius.

As I did my prerequisite research, I came up with some startling discoveries.  First off, this more modest version beat the Universal ToD to the screen, albeit the small screen.  It debuted on the SyFy Network (October 8, 2017), and ended up being heralded as one of the best original made-for-TV movies that station ever aired.  I tend to believe it for two reasons.  1) the subsequent ToD apparently ripped this one off and 2) it’s kinda goofy, stupid Halloween fun (let’s face it, if you’re looking for jack-o’-lantern fare, and see this title online, you’re not going to be disappointed if it falls short of Hiroshima, Mon Amour).  Long story short, within its 88-minute, it more than delivers the goods.

But what are the goods?  In a nutshell, TRUTH OR DARE relates the oft-told tale of seven idiot teens who enter every suburbia’s “haunted house.”  Except, in this case, it’s intentional.  They have Googled Scaryrentals.com, and taken over the joint for Halloween weekend.  Forget the fact that thirty years earlier, a group of bigger-haired idiots did the same thing for free and all died horrible deaths, save for one who merely suffered gruesome disfigurement.

The seven are your cookie-cutter slasher movie schmucks.  There’s Slutty Girl and Less Slutty Girls, Young Obsessed Psycho Smart-Ass Guy (who booked the party), Class Clown Guy and Enough-is-Enough Guy. As they begin to play truth or dare of the sexual kind, the rules quickly change to a more bloody edition.  Literally, their Smart Phones start giving them commands that were never asked, along with the chilling codicil: “Do the dare or the dare does you.”

Naturally, the fools scoff until the angry house responds in kind.  And the “dares” themselves are hilariously frightening and to the point.  How can you not love a horror flick that commands its cast to “put your hands on a hot stove,” “get run over by a car,” and, my favorite “eat Tyler’s burnt flesh.”?  Ya can’t.  And the fact that these teens are so obnoxious makes it all the more groovy.  Their names alone make the dare mandatory:  WASP cringe-worthy along the line of the aforementioned Tyler, plus Holt, Addison and Carter.  That said, they can’t match one of the actresses’ real-life names – yet another Britney, who has the gall to spell it “Brytni.”  Couldn’t wait to see her offed.

Just how stupid these kids are is revealed when they actually escape, but return to ask forgiveness (okay, so the curse DOES follow them outside the creepy, creaky abode; but still…).

While the super-slick ToD paid closer homage to the Saw and Hostel franchises, this TRUTH OR DARE is more in tune with the 1980s splatter fests (likely due to the lower budget); this is further underlined by the surviving sprouts tracking down the 1983 victim, played with a wink-wink, nod-nod by genre icon Heather Lagenkamp, the original Nightmare on Elm Street star; it’s a gratuitous scene, especially considering that her sage advice proves worthless.  Nice to see her, though.

As one might expect, the dialog in TRUTH OR DARE isn’t exactly Billy Wilder, mostly relegated to “OMG!,” “Ewwww!,” “No!” and ubiquitously “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”  Nevertheless, Kevin Duggin’s photography ain’t bad, the acting far better than in Wes Craven’s My Soul to Take, and the direction (by Nick Simon) jokey on purpose to handily get by (the proceedings are only a tad less humorous than the Scary Movie series).

The anamorphic widescreen DVD of TRUTH OR DARE be just fine.  The visuals look okay, and the 5.1 surround audio (featuring Nima Fakhrara’s score) sounding better than it deserves to.  I haven’t seen the big-screen ToD, but, from what I’ve heard, this vest-pocket version has just as many, if not superior scares – although neither is probably as terrifying as the 1991 Madonna version (Hey, that’s a THIRD one).

TRUTH OR DARE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround.  Cinedigm/CineTelFilms/Ingenius. CAT # CT5888. SRP: $9.99.

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Halloween Blitz 18: They Call Me Mellow Giallo

Not really a horror flick, nor a straight thriller – in fact, I’m not really sure what 1969’s LA BAMBOLA DI SATANA (Satan’s Doll to you) is, but it’s definitely an intriguing hodgepodge of ideas and themes, and now is up front and personal in a stunning limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/Rewind Film, s.r.l.

To call director/writer/producer/editor and likely lab-dailies-can-carrier Ferruccio Casapinta the auteur of SATANA seems apt, but not as much as “he’s the guy to blame.”  Casapinta certainly bit off a lot to chew.  In some ways, he was revolutionary, as he absolutely hit the viable formula for the giallo genre a full year or more before it took off.  No doubt, he glommed many of his ideas from Mario Bava’s works, particularly Blood and Black Lace and The Girl Who Knew Too Much, but to credit him as one of the originators of the graphic mystery/horror pics that graced Italy from the early to mid-1970s is piling it on rather thick.  Casapinta isn’t really sure what he achieved, and, to properly stack the deck, he additionally took advantage of the then still very profitable Bond-type spy movies.  In short, lots of beautiful women in turmoil added to creepy stuff that defies logic.  That SATANA would be Casapinta’s only movie is no surprise.

The narrative, even for a giallo, is simplistic and inane to the max.  A series of murders around a beautiful villa in a rural part of Italy culminate with the death of the baronial estate’s owner.  He bequeaths the manse to his distant niece Elizabeth (Erna Schurer), who, equating the journey with a fun vacation weekend, descends upon the spooky but elegant joint with her lover (Roland Carey) and their dumbass but equally super-gorgeous friends.

But they’re not alone.

The creaky house is being maintained by a creaky Mrs. Danvers type (Aurora Bautista) and the local doctor.  They don’t exactly make these pesky young panting hippie couples (right off the cover of Panting Young Hippie Couples Monthly) welcome, making the dinnertime conversations especially awkward.

And still the murders continue.

Meanwhile, the local inn/diner/discotheque/bar reveals a slew of additional weird locals, including Carol, a stunning artist (Lucia Bomez), who turns out to be a secret agent trying to solve the deaths, a hothead who serves no purpose whatsoever, and lots of mini-skirted damsels who frug their stuff in a laughable, totally unnecessary and inept club sequence.

With the lead babe’s only new friend, a next-door neighbor pal of her late relative’s (Ettore Ribotta), they attempt to figure out what the hell’s going on.  As do we.  Turns out the dead unc’s BFF was in the process of buying the decaying property when sudden death reared its ugly head.

There are so many things wrong with SATANA that it demands audience members shout out Zero Mostel’s immortal Producers line “Where did we go right?!!” A ridiculous fight scene between the hothead and Jack (the macho lover of Elizabeth) is so over-the-top riotous, one thinks that, like Carol, he, too, is a secret agent, as his karate and kicking skills surpass any 007 wannabe.  Turns out, he just likes to fight. What SATANA does have going for it are the following:  It’s sumptuously shot and lit on-location, the women, certainly no great shakes as actresses, look fantastic, and Schurer even (considering the promising more than delivering premise) gets seriously naked.

The horror stuff is amazingly well-done, but almost as an afterthought.  It’s as if they had the title and the poster in mind, and now had to back it up.  This is accomplished by Elizabeth succumbing to terrifying, graphic nightmares of satanic sacrifice in which she is an unwilling participant.  These gruesome gags, aided by atmospheric fright lights of reds, greens and dark amber, are enough to make the trailer a surefire lure for horror buffs.  The nocturnal howling winds and the disembodied calling of her name is yet another perk to this bizarre odyssey of Bazooka Gum Comic filmic literature.  For me, however, the second biggest highlight is the cloistered activities of the Mrs. Danvers ghoul, who, when alone in her chamber, lets her hair down, dresses in Victoria de Sade’s Secret attire and slut-walks across the room in masturbatory mastery.

I said that’s the SECOND highlight.  The positively best thing about SATANA is the ending, an EC Comic pulp pip denouement than will simultaneously have viewers’ eyes popping and mouths jaw-floor-dropping. It’s grindhouse drive-in gold at its most outrageous.  For me, it’s what puts this pic in the “it’s a keeper” category.

SATANA is one of the rarest movies ever released by Twilight Time.  Or for giallo fans, who, for decades, have only heard of its existence.  To have it in this stunning 1.85 High Def transfer (in Italian w/English subtitles) is indeed a prize.  But, be warned, it’s truly for giallo completists and psychotronic fans only.  But that ain’t bad.  They say, one always gives special attention (or, in this case, a special pass) to one’s sick children.  This being the case, SATANA gets Valedictorian of the Year.  As much as I kept shaking my head in disbelief, I couldn’t get some of its loopiness out of my brain; thus, it’s a title I keep going back to.  If you go for it (and, remember, it’s a limited edition of 3000, so, when they’re gone…they’re gone), methinks you will feel the same.

LA BAMBOLA DI SATANA (Satan’s Doll). Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA [Italian w/English subtitles]. Twilight Time/Rewind Film, s.r.l. CAT # TWILIGHT 196-BR. SRP: $24.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com and www.twilighttimemovies.com

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Halloween Blitz 18: Dead Things Shouldn’t Play With Children

And yet another example of an art-house movie masquerading as a grindhouse special, 1975’s LEONOR, at last, comes to Blu-Ray in a spectacularly restored, uncut edition, thanks to the combined efforts of Kino-Lorber and Scorpion Releasing.

The pic, long on eclectic collectors’ horror want lists, concerns the trials and tribulations of a small Spanish medieval duchy, presided over by a brutish, lustful nobleman, Dominar Richard.  We first see him and a doctor galloping furiously through the countryside, desperate to get to his ailing wife’s side after she was critically injured in a riding accident.  Alas, it is all for naught, as the woman, the beauteous Leonor, perishes and is immediately interred in the family crypt.

Richard, too obsessed with her and sex in general, at once canvasses his subjects, searching for the most drop-dead gorgeous replacement.  He finds one, albeit a barely-legal stunner, by the name of Catherine, and takes her the same day as his wife’s funeral.  Before you can say “presto-chango,” the young girl becomes pregnant (the first of two royal births), and the years pass without much incident.  In fact, ten of them.  But things are never as they seem, and Richard has been unhappy, dissatisfied and unfulfilled for most of the decade.  He can’t stop thinking of his beloved Leonor, fantasizing that all his coital couplings are with her, dreaming of having the dead spouse back in his life.  The appearance of a demonic emissary with a jocular warning of “don’t wish so hard for something” is ignored by the desperate and horny Dickie.  “So be it,” shrugs the devil’s disciple

Meanwhile, like in all medieval folk tales, there’s a plague sweeping through Europe.  Titled twerps from all the capitals of the Euro empire converge upon Richard’s hacienda, remarkably the one remaining territory untouched by pestilence.

Or is it?

Richard is unaware at first of a strange presence that is ultimately revealed to be Leonor, back from the dead and yearning for carnal pleasure as much as her husband.  But there’s a price to pay.  Get rid of the replacement trophy wife, ignore your sons, and dead honey L is yours.  This seems to be a no-brainer for the now-dangerously demented nobleman.  Oh, yeah, but there’s one more slight annoyance.  Returning from the grave has made Leonor hungry for more than sex.  She needs to feed upon the innocence of children, as in draining them of all their blood.

Naturally, the locals don’t take kindly to this disruptive behavior and, in true horror-movie fashion, arm themselves with torches and pitchforks and storm the castle (and, all the while, that nasty plague is getting closer and closer to Spain).  Can they succeed?  Will Richard come to his senses?  The answer lies in a dramatic, sensational climax that is alternately shocking, sensual, beautiful and poignant.

For those unfamiliar with this movie, LEONOR may already have piqued your interest from the above description.  Indeed, I have intentionally avoided the listing of names responsible for this opus.  So I will begin now.  The cast of this Spanish-French-Italian co-production is superb.  As the roguish Richard, France’s renowned Michel Piccoli (who also served as one of the producers) is on view as you have unlikely ever seen him.  Usually portraying sophisticated, charming George Sanders types, Piccoli here is a swashbuckling, ass-kicking boorish lord of the manor – adept at killing, loving and riding like hell.  As his teenaged replacement sex-partner, the ridiculously young and gorgeous Italian actress Ornella Muti excels in one of her finest performances.  And, as the title character, no one compare to Swedish thesp Liv Ullmann, who seems to be relishing every frame she appears in (and so do we).  The remaining supporting players are terrific as well, and they include Francisco Nieto, Tito Garcia, Antonio Ferrandis, George Rigaud and Carmen Maura.

The cowriter/director of LEONOR is none other than Juan Bunuel, yep – son of Luis.  Like his famous father, he proves himself a formidable movie-maker, retaining much of his pater’s quirky and snarky sense of humor (as Richard and the doctor ride to the castle, they are besieged by outlaws, including a dwarf brigand who is dispatched with a tiny crossbow; later, when the doctor examines Leonor and advocates surgery, Richard’s confidant begs his master to reconsider.  “Doctors only want to cut,” he sneers, making a biting social commentary on the medical profession that has transcended the centuries).

Bunuel’s fellow scripters include Jean-Claude Carriere (The Tin Drum) and Bernardo Zapponi (Deep Red).  The sumptuous widescreen cinematography is by Luciano Tovoli (The Passenger), and the lush, sweeping score by no less than Ennio Morricone.

LEONOR is an obscurity that doesn’t disappoint either as an allegorical treatise on the hypocrisy of religion, medicine and politics or as a Times Square horror hoot.  Truly, the initial scene of Leonor’s return is so matter-of-factly done in the background that I gasped.  It absolutely chilled my blood.  And, trust me, nothing can beat a crimson-robed Ullmann scouring the bleak Spanish horizons, preying on children.

The new HD restoration of LEONOR is marvelous.  As noted, this is the complete, uncut Spanish version (in the original language with English subtitles).  Most Americans have never seen this edition, which runs approximately 15 minutes longer than the aborted mess released here as Mistress of the Devil, dubbed in English (that version is likewise included in this package, and had also been given an HD upgrade).  Interestingly enough, the conflicting versions have different aspect ratios (US: 1.66:1 ; SPANISH: 1.78:1).

Regardless of your take on LEONOR, I can guarantee that this Liv-ing dead girl grim fairy tale is a movie you’ll never forget.  Highly recommended.

LEONOR. Color. Widescreen [two versions, see above; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA [English dubbed/Spanish w/English subtitles]. Kino-Lorber/Scorpion Releasing. CAT # K23304.  SRP: $29.95.

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Halloween Blitz 18: Grindhouse Gruesome Twosome

By partnering with a number of eclectic distributors, Kino Lorber has proved itself to be the DVD/Blu-Ray company to contend with.  Horror, as we fans all know, comes in all forms.  From the goth class of Hammer and Bava to the arthouse abstract work of SABU to the franchises culled from the genre’s top authors…Well, you get it.  Prime in this catalog are the grindhouse gore ‘n’ sex fests that stemmed from the low-budgeted mind (do with that what you will) of the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis and others.  The Italians always were among the first to glom on to a viable source of “homages,” whether it be from The Exorcist, Jaws or even out of their own backyard.  Thus, we have the intriguing and thoroughly engrossing (and grossing) title elegantly dubbed ETOILE, a 1989 Times Square classic if ever there was one. Holding up its own end from our shores is the graphic NIGHT ANGEL  (also from 1989).  Kino has done both proud, via a pair of excellent widescreen DVDs, each laden with enticing extras.

The glaring question about 1989’s NIGHT ANGEL isn’t merely “why haven’t more people heard of this movie?”  It’s “WTF took it so long to be made?”  After all, a horror movie about hot sex demon Lilith preying on contemporary mortals to satiate her insatiable lust…Gotta say it, when it comes to debauchery and gore, ya can’t beat the Bible.

The script by Joe Augstyn and Walter Josten (also the co-producers, two of ten!) couldn’t have hit the right keys any better.  Not only is the alluring Lilith evil incarnate, but she does the club scene and scores a high-ranking job at a fashion magazine.  Schtupping men and women alike, and occasionally feeding on them is par(sley) for the course, and her list of victims is quite impressive – especially for a B+ movie:  Debra Feuer, Karen Black, Doug Jones, Helen Martin, Gary Hudson, Dana Kimmel (and even Roscoe Lee Browne as the narrator!).  (Super)naturally, audience interest in this type of thing (and we DO mean thing) depends upon the actress chosen for the title role.  And you can’t do better than the nasty goddess chops of Isa Andersen.  She looks great, twerks great, dances like a Marilyn Manson masturbation video and, best of all, genuinely enjoys her work.

The movie, as it must, has a female bent with women acting as co-producers and, most prominently featuring a lady director.  Dominque Othenin-Girard, best known for her horror sequels (Halloween 5, Omen IV) churns out the monster sex ‘n’ violence with some nifty panache; NIGHT ANGEL is certainly her finest moment (to date).  Othenin-Girard also comes with a class-A softcore pedigree, having likewise helmed such racy video faves as Beyond Desire, Private Lessons: Another Story and an episode of Red Shoe Diaries. This experience comes in extra handy during NIGHT ANGEL’s near-climactic orgy sequence where everyone gets down to the point of rivaling the finale of Sausage Party, except this is with real folks.  It’s ripping, writhing fun from those long-ago days of big hair, big phones and big a-holes who couldn’t deserve their fates more (the gratification of these “payback hits” is again further emboldened by the director’s clever inclusion of the movie’s definite underlying feminist vibe).

NIGHT ANGEL looks fairly good, slick albeit a mite grainy.  The camerawork by David Lewis is okay (ditto the score by Cory Lerios), but the stereo-surround is killer.  Some amazing extras grace this platter, including audio commentary by Othenin-Girard, interviews with Augustyn, makeup and SFX creator Steve Johnson and a behind-the-scenes image gallery.  My favorite, though, is a recent visit with Andersen, who proves herself a delightful, jovial character.  I bet she’s actually never killed anyone in real life.

Move over, Anna Wintour; in NIGHT ANGEL, the Devil really does wear Prada…except when she’s not wearing anything.

 

1989’s ETOILE is an Italian import grindhouse movie disguised as an arthouse entry.  The fact that it’s not the other way around makes it all the more comic-book friendly and delectable.  ETOILE makes no bones about its prime influence, Dario Argento – and specifically his seminal works Suspiria and Phenomena, the latter right down to casting the 1985 classic’s lead Jennifer Connelly.  While director/cowriter Peter Del Monte (who penned the story and screenplay with Sandro Petraglia and Franco Ferrini) lacks the stylistic chops of his mentor, there is still enough atmospheric creepiness and dreamlike nightmarish imagery to put the show over the top (and the key words ARE “over the top”).

ETOILE follows the deadly path of American ballerina (and relentless self-tasker) Claire Hamilton (Connelly), in Budapest to try out for a premiere dance company.  Her disappointment at being rejected by the sinister head director (Laurent Terzieff) leads to self-imposed exile bordering on madness.  Her hooking up with a fellow American Jason (Gary McCleery), in Europe with his eccentric clock-collecting grandfather (Charles Durning), gives the woman a brief respite.  But Jason is smitten – totally in swoon mode – and can’t let go of her, despite the woman’s on again/off again strange sensual behavior.  It’s as if she’s two people, or possessed…or insane.

I’ll help out a little bit here without giving the whole show away.  ETOILE answers the age-old question: “What do satanic demons do for fun?”  Well, for one thing, as patrons of the arts, they assemble a centuries-old ballet company filled with the greatest dead dancers ever to lose their souls.  To sign them often means committing sacrificial murder.  And occasionally, art imitates knife.

There are some unnecessary red herrings in ETOILE, but the moody photography by Acacio de Almeida and music by Jurgen Knieper smooths over the rough edges.  There are some priceless moments of performance, especially when the vampiric impresario announces, “I will put evil on the stage.” And certainly, there are few more chilling deliveries of “the maestro is expecting you” than the one uttered to Connelly as she literally prepares to dance her heart out.

The erotic glue holding the whole pastiche together is, not surprisingly, Connelly.  No longer the striking girl from Phenomena, Connelly here has blossomed into stunning young womanhood (likely in her first grown-up role).  Her body language, eye contact and natural reactions to the Rosemary’s Baby ambience is, to quote her perfectionist taloned impresario, pitch perfect.  Ditto, the other European cast members, especially Olimpia Carlisi.   That said, from our side of the pond, McCleery and Durning are kinda goofy, but not so offensively as to ruin the foreboding aura.

“Everyone wants to dance Swan Lake” is the mantra of this piece; indeed, every director since Michael Powell has wanted to present the famed ballet as a horror allegory (often, with accent on “gory”).  The worst offender, Darren Aronofsky, turned a nicely cast bloody Red Shoes into an overrated bloody mess.  ETOILE (whose fetching poster features Connelly being ravaged by a black swan) is ultimately a more rewarding Grand Guignol experience.

The Kino Lorber/Scorpion Releasing DVD of ETOILE has been remastered from the overseas full-length 101-minute cut, and makes its American debut in an excellent new 2K scan in 16 x 9 1.85:1 anamorphic dimensions with an English soundtrack (it was filmed in English).  Extras abound, including on-camera interviews with Del Monte and executive producer Claudio Mancini  The memorable visuals of the most unique ensemble company since Tod Browning yelled, “Action, and castrate,” ETOILE is authentically bizarre enough to have you spinning an encore.

NIGHT ANGEL.  Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Stereo-surround. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K22433. SRP: $19.96.

ETOILE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo.  Kino-Lorber/Scorpion Releasing. CAT # SCORP1139.  SRP: $19.95.

 

 

 

Halloween Blitz ’18: Crazed Maze

A notorious 1950s horror flick and a Holy Grail 1950s 3-D pic.  How can this title have two such extreme opposing camps (camp being an ideal word)?  Simple.  As a flat movie, 1953’s THE MAZE is mildly interesting, bordering on the silly; as a 3-D supernatural trek, it’s an outstanding example what the format was capable of – a tour de force of style over substance.  In 3-D, THE MAZE is one the process’s greatest triumphs.

A superb restoration of the up-till-now hen’s-tooth stereoscopic version can currently be cherished by 3-D fanatics via a magnificent new Blu-Ray, courtesy of the gang at Kino-Lorber Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment and the 3-D Film Archive.

The plot, based on a Maurice Sandoz novel, was picked up by Monogram Pictures for their first foray into the depth-defying in-your-face three-dimensional Olympics.  The crew, including scripter Daniel Ullman, was comprised mostly of Monogram house talent, which did not bode well for the proceedings.  Then came the big guns, in the form of director and set designer William Cameron Menzies, in the biz since 1917 and generally acknowledged as the major force behind the look and feel of such trifling affairs as Gone with the Wind, the silent versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Thief of Bagdad and more than sixty other sumptuously designed American movie gems.  Menzies’ dive into the directing arena was a well-chosen addendum to his cinematic leanings.  Not surprisingly, considering his past efforts, he proved to be a terrific manipulator of atmosphere and genuinely surreal, near-expressionistic visuals not seen since the German Weimar days.  He strived to add a delirious level of reality to his stark compositions, incorrectly causing many cineastes to believe that most of his final works were shot in 3-D (this is particularly true of his 1953 sci-fi classic Invaders from Mars).  The high-key lighting and layered foregrounds and backgrounds lent credence to this erroneous given for years.

Alas, THE MAZE was to be this craftsman’s only three-dimension achievement.  I say “alas,” as Menzies, through this work alone, remains one of 3-D’s best innovators, perhaps its most inventive director.  After years of watching flat prints on TV, I imagined what a 3-D version would look like.  I wasn’t even close.  Seeing THE MAZE in its original 3-D was a revelation (mind you, I’m a thoroughly addicted third-dimension junkie).  Simply put, THE MAZE is one of the greatest 3-D movies ever made.  Indeed, in Menzies’ creative hands, virtually every shot is geared up for the process.  Beautifully so, too.  Key moments that remain in my mind (after already screening this disc three times) include midnight arrivals with luggage in foreground and background, fog-enshrouded landscapes, Caligari-esque hallways draped in spider webs….That said, the rubber flapping bats, not so much.

Okay, so what is THE MAZE?  It’s one creepy, engrossing monster mash that (even flat) has you intrigued until that very end where…won’t go into it, suffice to say that it leaves most viewers hopping mad.  Not going to elaborate.  In 3-D, that Monogram capper is less obtrusive in relation to all the magical visuals that have come before it.

Craven Castle is a Scottish Manderlay – with a worse secret.  Playboy/heir bon vivant Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) couldn’t care less; that is until his uncle dies and he is suddenly called back to the ancestral digs to wrap up some family affairs.  Reluctant to do so, as he is about to be married to a gorgeous Englishwoman, Kitty (or Kit the Brit, aka UK import Veronica Hurst), MacTeam begrudgingly agrees.  He is never heard of again, save warnings to said fiancée to keep away.  Of course, had she done so, this would have been an even more disappointing conclusion (and a way shorter movie).  Aggressive to the point of irritation, Kit barges into the castle with her aunt (Katherine Emery), and they both live to regret it.  The secret is indeed horrible, and should have been left to the likes of Val Lewton (unfortunately, he had already passed, and probably wouldn’t have taken a Monogram gig anyway).  The eeriness of seeing an emaciated, humorless,  almost white-haired Carlson snapping at the women like, to paraphrase Thelma Ritter in All About Eve, “bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end,” is a WTF transformation to behold.  Being a woman in love, Kit isn’t swayed away so quickly, and does what anyone’s fiancée would do – calls in doctors to have him committed to a lunatic asylum.  That the doctor and his wife and another couple are former friends of Gerald  and Kit adds to the old dark house flavor and offers extra ops for 3-D shocks.

The supporting cast of THE MAZE is quite engaging, and includes such scene stealers as Hillary Brooke, Owen McGiveney and Clyde Cooke.  Furthermore, it’s truly a joy to see Michael Pate sinisterly sneaking around the turrets, but not as much fun as eyeing gorgeous 1930s starlet (still stunning in 1953) and original Old Dark House alumnus Lilian Bond in 3-D.

As mentioned above, the tech credits for THE MAZE generally sprouted out of the Monogram/Allied Artists stable.  The monochrome photography was by Harry Neumann, who must have shot at least 10,000 pictures for the studio, usually Poverty Row quickie mysteries with an upgrade to Bowery Boys comic adventures.  THE MAZE, without question, is his finest accomplishment (he was assisted by Maurice Davidson, with input from Menzies).  The music is by Marlin Stiles (who pretty much scored everything the outfit produced and released), and is reasonably apt.  The picture was also an early production from Walter Mirisch, who would notably go on (along with his brothers) to rule United Artists in the 1960s (The Magnificent 7, West Side Story, The Pink Panther, In the Heat of the Night).

The Blu-Ray edition of THE MAZE in 3-D (2-D also included) is typical of the output from The 3-D Film Archive.  That is to say it’s terrific!  The left and right 35MM materials used are practically pristine (only some very slight bleeding occurs in the backgrounds during the first few minutes of the thriller; but, again, barely noticeable).  The clarity, contrast, and, natch, depth are astounding.  The audio has been likewise restored from the 1953 3-channel 3-D sound tracks.  The echoey cacophony of the Craven Castle crypt (say THAT five times fast) are of theater-like quality.

Supplements include excellent audio commentary by Tom Weaver, Bob Furmanek, Dr. Robert J. Kiss, and David Schecter, plus the 1953 trailer (also in 3-D); the trailer is a hoot, although we recommend watching it only AFTER you’ve seen the feature.  It’s guaranteed to have you collapsing into laughter.  A final neat extra is a 2018 interview with costar Hurst, who shares her memories of the filming and the cast, crew and, specifically, Menzies.  Apparently, it was a fun ride, a pleasant shoot, and likely the highlight of her career.  As a sidebar, the actress (who, at 87, bears a resemblance to UK thesp Eileen Atkins) drops an arresting romantic tidbit: at the time of THE MAZE, she was dating American ex-pat actor William Sylvester (Gorgo, 2001), whom she met while he was across the pond.

3-D collectors need to add THE MAZE to their libraries immediately.  As indicated, it’s one of the Golden Age’s (or any age) premier examples of cinema’s flirtation with the process.  Truly, not to be missed and a guarantee to duck.

THE MAZE. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment/3-D Film Archive.  CAT # K22680. SRP: $34.95.

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Halloween Blitz 18: Kids Slay the Darndest Things

Just in time for Halloween (or any time, for that matter) comes the long-awaited Blu-Ray remaster of the 1960 sci-fi/horror classic VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, now available from the Warner Archive Collection.

On a crisp autumn morn, in the pastoral English countryside hamlet of Midwich, a strange phenomenon occurs.  The entire living populace (livestock included) collapses into a deep sleep.  Visiting Major Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn), whose sister is a member of one of the town’s leading families, alerts the armed services who likewise can’t explain the bizarre incident.

That’s just the beginning.  Shortly thereafter, every woman of child-bearing age discovers that she is pregnant.  While this causes a scandal among the teens, single females and wives whose husbands are away on military duty, many of the ladies are pleased, none as much as the aforementioned sister of Bernard’s, Anthea (Barbara “Be-Still-My-Heart” Shelley), married to renowned Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders).  Gordon is likewise thrilled, until the pregnancies all come to term early, giving birth to an Aryan race of blonde urchins possessed of superior intellect, piercing eyes and strange powers.  Unlike the peapod sleep of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, these children are the hybrid of human/alien splicing, and spearhead an extra-terrestrial plan to take over the Earth.

Yep, it’s as creepy and chilling as it sounds, although reading about it (based on the classic novel by Day of the Triffids author John Wyndham, who obviously reveled in narratives involving unique invasions) can’t compare to the images of a tiny tot army of boy and girl Rhoda Penmarks wreaking havoc on Midwich.

While Zellaby is spared and even admired, due to his intelligence and logic, the rest of the village does not fare as well.  Human sibs are tortured if they interfere, grownups are brutally killed via the mind-fuck abilities of the youngsters (crashing their cars into blazing infernos, blowing off their heads with rifles, that kind of pre-video game stuff).

The UK learns that similar incidents in less developed areas of the planet occurred, but because of the superstitious nature of the inhabitants, they immediately liquidated the newborns and their mums as soon as they popped out of the birth canal.  The civilized and humanitarian habits of the Brits work have worked against them, a realization that coming far too late when it dawns on the country’s leaders that these children must be destroyed.

This is a nail-biting exercise in terror, delivered in the best of the genre’s traditions.  Photographed in stark black and white by Geoffrey Faithful, and featuring a spine-tingling score by Ron Goodwin, VILLAGE remains one of the great doomsday epics of the 1960s (both picture and sound are beautifully rendered in this new High Def WB Archive transfer).

The direction by Wolf Rilla is spot-on, as is the screenplay, cowritten by Rilla, producer Ronald Kinnoch (under the pseudonym of George Barclay) and famed scripter Stirling Silliphant.  The acting, too, is a key attribute to the success of this movie, specifically the two leads, Sanders and Shelley, but also Gwynne, Laurence Naismith, John Phillips, Peter Vaughan, Richard Vernon, and most notably the extraordinary 10-year-old actor Martin Stephens (who would further cement his name in the horror pantheon the same year with his performance in The Innocents).

For a studio that purposely steered clear of horror after the Lon Chaney and Tod Browning pics (the Spencer Tracy Dr. Jekyll and Albert Lewin’s Dorian Gray being rare exceptions), MGM sure made up for sci-fi/horror between 1956-63, giving us a slew of bona fide classics, including Forbidden Planet, The Time Machine, this movie and The Haunting.

VILLAGE was a great sleeper hit upon its release in 1960, garnering praise from critics and audiences alike.  A lackluster sort-of sequel (Children of the Damned) was released in 1964, but the original’s influence continued to be felt throughout the industry for decades.  Hammer’s superb Joseph Losey movie about segregated radioactive children was released under the misleading title These are the Damned, and John Carpenter attempted a graphic remake in 1995.  But nothing compares to the original.  In addition to the aforementioned fine transfer, Warners has included audio commentary by Steve Haberman, author of Chronicles of Terror – Silent Screams.

I must close by including a wonderful remembrance concerning this movie, from around fifteen years ago.  I was at a horror fest for the supreme reason of meeting guest Barbara Shelley, who turned out to be a genuinely lovely person, and wickedly funny.  I asked her about VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, and she gushed with delight, calling it one of the most pleasurable experiences of her career.  What made it so was the participation of George Sanders, a facet I can totally understand.  As Shelley recounted, “George was one of the most brilliant, funniest people I have ever met.  There’s so much down time on a film set, and George made every second fun.  He was an expert at limericks, none of which I dare repeat – many which he composed himself.  He also was so erudite on a vast variety of subjects, just a fascinating man.  I particularly recall one instance involving young Martin Stephens.  George gleefully told me one day that the ‘little brat’ fancies himself a chess player.  Now George was a master chess aficionado, and told me his plans to relieve Stephens of a good portion of his salary.  ‘A boy his age has no need for having that kind of money.’  ‘But, George, you can’t do that.  He IS a child.’ To which George, wringing his hands devilishly, replied, ‘Experience is the best teacher.’

“Not long after that, he stormed past me, red in the face.  When I inquired what was wrong, he responded angrily ‘The little bastard beat me!’  I burst into laughter. I had a long-standing rule with my agent.  If a project came along with either George or Chris [Lee] attached to it, accept it immediately.  You don’t even have to bother sending me the script.”

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. CAT# 1000714462. SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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Halloween Blitz 18: Chip off the Old Bloch

Perhaps the most elusive of all the Amicus horror titles, 1966’s THE PSYCHOPATH at last becomes available on Blu-Ray from the inmates at Kino Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment.

A thickly plotted chiller, with a particularly ghoulish capper, THE PSYCHOPATH has been a title I have been searching for since the advent of laserdiscs.  I’ve been a fan of this obscure oddity since I first saw it during its original 1966 release (at the RKO Coliseum, during an especially raw spring day).

It’s major Amicus, not only because of the unique Robert Bloch narrative, but because of the slick direction by Freddie Francis, the game cast of pros (and albeit a couple of cons), the beautiful, atmospheric Technicolor (and TechniScope) photography by John Wilcox (under the watchful eye of former d.p. Francis) and the outstanding, unnerving score by Elisabeth Lutyens.

But let’s get to that narrative.  Amicus is essentially known for its omnibus movies.  The only problem with this kind of format is that right off the bat you’re asking for it.  I mean, you’re guaranteeing an uneven result – some stories are just going to be better than the others.  In 1965, Paramount and Amicus released The Skull (also available from Kino, and recommended), another rare full-length scenario.  While it was likewise penned by Bloch (and directed by Francis), it was cowritten by wannabe scribe Milton Subotsky, Amicus’ cofounder.  Subotsky may have been a decent producer, but he was a lousy writer.  Whatever merits The Skull achieved (and it achieved quite a few) was due to Bloch.  THE PSYCHOPATH aces its predecessor for no other reason than the cringe-worthy producer-scenarist had no hand in the scripting.  It’s pure Bloch from fade-in to fade-out (and based upon his original story).

Robert Bloch, as all horror buffs know, is the author of Psycho.  The sensational response to his 1959 novel, and, of course, the 1960 Hitchcock pic, made him the premiere go-to mental illness monster dude.  And many went.  Bloch’s literary output included American Gothic, Hell on Earth, Firebug, Chamber of Horrors and Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper; his movie work comprised such maniacal mayhem as The Couch, Straitjacket, The Night Walker, The Deadly Bees, and, of course Psycho IITHE PSYCHOPATH is a cherry on a poisoned sundae, as it carries the largest array of unsavory characters ever assembled for a gory “and then there were none” scenario.  If Psycho wowed ’em with one loony, THE PSYCHOPATH would double it with crazies popping up like a rush hour of Whac-a-Mole wacks.

The story, placed (and filmed) in England, begins with the gruesome murder of a musician on his way to a rehearsal.  The victim and his fellow quartet members are lifelong friends, who bonded during the Second World War.  They were members of a dubious commission who infiltrated Nazi collaborators; dubious, as this group profited from their findings, and, it is revealed, rigged at least one with dire consequences.  You see, already, this is a step way above the usual horror item.

The von Sturm family was destroyed by these men, branded as enemies of humanity.  The husband committed suicide, the mother and small son fled to England, and quietly proceeded to go insane in tandem.  The torment of this family, the loss of their revered position and possessions is made all the more anguishing when a newly formed commission discovers that they were innocent.

Mark von Sturm wiles away his nights as the lone security guard at a boat-building company, biding his time by clipping and collecting photos of nude women.  Mama von Sturm had spent the past two decades in a fairly successful business fashioning dolls.  Their home resembles a massive doll warehouse, with hundreds of the oft-grotesque figures populating every nook and cranny.  Seems the case is cut and dried when the investigating inspector finds a doll in the likeness of the victim by the corpse’s side.  Soon the quartet is whittled down via a series of frightening deaths, each act mimicked by an accompanying doll effigy.  Only one problem:  Mark is interested in life-sized, living dolls, and mother is a wheelchair-bound invalid.  So, who’s to blame?

The poster kinda gave away at least part of the solution; it depicted a pop-eyed Mark grasping a near-naked girl puppe and a butcher knife under the heading “Mother, may I go out to kill?”  Of course, he had airtight alibis for some of the murders, and mother can’t be the culprit (right?).  Is it one of the quartet, intent upon silencing his coconspirators now that the wartime case has been reopened?  Or is it the hot-tempered, violence-prone American med student boyfriend of the daughter of the lead musician?

Can tell you now that even by today’s anything goes standards, the sheer weirdness of the jaw-dropping ending is beyond demented.

Tech credits, as one might surmise, are high.  The cast is generally A-1, with Margaret Johnston (Night of the Eagle) with John Standing sharing top honors, and Patrick Wymark (as the harried inspector) not far behind.  There’s also the wonderful Alexander Knox as the father of the damsel in distress (gorgeous Judy Huxtable, in her movie debut), plus Thorley Walters and Colin Gordon.  The fly in the thesp ointment is Don Borisenko as the American BF, truly an abysmal performance that nearly sinks the picture every time he appears (mercifully, not often); this was still during the period where any American name was thought needed to ensure a U.S. release (insult to injury, Borisenko was a Canadian).  It’s really the one and only misstep from the casting department.  On the other side of the spectrum is a cameo by the great U.K. stuntman Peter Diamond as a snarky junk dealer, whose disregard for a major character’s fate had the packed theater of teens bursting out with laughter and applause in 1966.  We were a nasty bunch.

The disappearance and subsequent MIA shelf life of THE PSYCHOPATH for over a half-century is  as much a mystery than the one on-screen.  Stories of rights problems, negligence of film elements, etc. haunted collectors and buffs yearning to become reacquainted with this nightmarish exercise of revenge.  Even a one-time airing on TCM proved unacceptable as the scope movie was presented pan-and-scan full-frame!

What a joy to see a really nice 35MM transfer of a TechniScope print.  While it’s far from perfect (the first reel exhibiting noticeable emulsion scratches that would be a no-go for any other Kino release), it’s definitely high quality enough (after that initial few minutes) to warrant an addition to a horror fan’s library.  The Kino Blu-ray, I should add, absolutely displays an authentic 1960s Technicolor look, and the mono sound is quite good, specifically that chilling recurrent Lutyens main theme.

FYI, this was part of one of those great Paramount double-features, co-billed with the Cornel Wilde classic The Naked Prey.  Seventy-five cents sure went a long way back then.  Those were the days.

THE PSYCHOPATH.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K22678.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Halloween Blitz 18: Smittle Shop of Horrors

Of the approximately 200,000 Stephen King screen adaptations, there are a handful of great movies, a lot more turkeys and some that undeservedly tend to go unnoticed.  1993’s NEEDFUL THINGS, now on Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios is an upstanding celluloid citizen of the third category.

A royally entertaining, sardonic, creepy, atmospheric and gory King pic, NEEDFUL THINGS appropriately begins on the crisp, autumn night of October 27, 1993 as an ominous black Rolls-Royce speeds toward the New England hamlet of Castle Rock.

Inside the vehicle is the debonair, aristocratic Leland Gaunt (the debonair, aristocratic Max von Sydow), en route to his new business enterprise – a curiosity shop dubbed Needful Things.  The quaint, charming reconverted Victorian home is a front, however, for a satanic bartering firm that exchanges one’s soul for material objects, provided the deal is sealed by committing gruesome mayhem that prey on one’s fears.  Gaunt may, in fact, be the Big S incarnate himself!  Oy vey!

Castle Rock is primed for such a store, as the place is rife with neurotics, psychotics and users of anti-biotics in all sizes, shapes, genders and ages.  A gleeful Gaunt is thus guaranteed to make a killing.

How a transplanted cop (looking to get away from the dirt of the big city), his smart but skittish girlfriend, a child-woman (who in other times would have been termed as “tetched”), and a variety of bigots/loudmouths/various haters all converge to embrace/combat the evil that has infested their burg makes for some deft supernatural fun.

The cast is superb; aside from the aforementioned von Sydow, the Castle Rock townies include Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, Ray McKinnon, Duncan Fraser, William Morgan Sheppard, Don S. Davis, Robert Easton, a frightening Valri Bromfield and, most notably the great J.T. Walsh.

The movie, lavishly filmed on-location in British Columbia (ably standing in for Maine) by Tony Westman (one can almost feel the Northeast Halloween weather nipping at their necks, sharing the space with the goosebumps), was directed in high (camp) style by Fraser Heston, unquestionably his finest pic; he is helped immensely by the snarky script by W.D. Richter.  Believe me, there’s nothing better than a rotted teeth, taloned von Sydow chiding reluctant villagers into killing their own with cries of, “Aw, you WUSSIE!”  The music score by Patrick Doyle, too, adds to the unbridled eeriness.

The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray edition of NEEDFUL THINGS looks and sounds sensational in widescreen high-def and stereo-surround.  As a bonus, Heston provides audio commentary.

The perfect disc to trot out every October 31, NEEDFUL THINGS quite literally defines the phrase “hell to pay.”

NEEDFUL THINGS.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K1634.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Halloween Blitz 18: Blair-Rich 2: Deliverance from Evil

I’m probably going to lose a lot of credibility here (and maybe even some readers), but, gotta say it:  I have a soft spot for 1977’s EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, now remastered in a special Blu-Ray edition from the lunatics at Scream Factory (in conjunction with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment).

The movie is notorious for its creators’ approach to a sure-fire sequel. Except the “can’t-miss” title infamously missed.  It was literally laughed off the screen during its initial release, and trashed by critics like so many Jimi Hendrix guitars.  I never quite understood all the hostility (I kinda do now, and will explain below).

Top-billed Linda Blair returns as Regan, an understandably troubled teen residing in a goofy Manhattan rehab center for screwball offspring of wealthier screwball adults.  Since the original movie’s star Ellen Burstyn wouldn’t touch this project with a ten-foot crucifix, the suits remarkably took 1970s wags’ advice:  if you can’t get Burstyn, get the knock-off, Louise Fletcher.  So LF’s the surrogate mom/shrink who runs the fruitcake hostel.  She’s also the inventor of a revolutionary “thought shared hypnosis transfer” machine (basically, an electrode-laden headband in desperate search of a colander) rendering results that George Zucco and Lionel Atwill could only dream about.

Entering this asylum is Cardinal-ordered Father Philip Lamont (the loopiest Richard Burton ever), a near-unhinged priest, obsessed with exorcism and, in particular, the Regan case.  I don’t think one could actually call what Burton does in this pic “acting,” at least not in the traditional sense.  It’s more like “braying” of the jackass variety (and one who’s been in the loco weed).  When Burton tries on the brain device to exchange thoughts with Regan, it’s a bona fide Looney Tune fest (apt, from the studio that made them), and practically just as animated.

Regan, on the other hand, sees her new life as the half-full glass.  She’s so terminally dippy throughout that Blair’s performance can only be described as “deliriously possessed Doris Day”; indeed, she even gets to dance in the nuthouse’s Christmas revue, clod-hopping to Lullaby of Broadway (replete with a choreography credit to Daniel Joseph Giaghi, who should have remained anonymous).

There are so many unintentional movie references in HERETIC that it’s difficult to keep track.  I’ll go with my favorite:  Regan’s homage to Blockheads, the 1938 Laurel & Hardy classic.  Remember that hilarious moment when Ollie is reunited with Stan twenty years after the Great War?  “Remember how dumb I used to be?,” sez Laurel.  “Well, I’m better now.”  Ollie soothes his pal, only until Stan causes immense slapstick havoc and destruction prompting the magnificent Hardy to mutter “I’m BETTER now.” Okay, so Regan, it seems, can now communicate with autistic children.  When she finally gets one to speak, the stunned former mute (not making this up – it’s Dana Plato!), asks “What’s the matter with you?”  And here comes (at least in my demented mind) the reference. “I was possessed by a demon.  Oh, it’s okay.  He’s gone.”  If only Father Burton had been present, so that he could later bemoan “I’m BETTER now!”  That said, during the pyrotechnic SFX gala climax, he does get to be pushin’ the cushion with a devil-controlled slutted-up Regan, an action that only Stan and Ollie hinted at in Their First Mistake.

But there’s more of a subplot (to compensate for subtext) to HERETIC.  And it involves A) the King of the Demons, Pazuzu and B) his nemesis Kokumu, a gifted African boy Burton had heard of (and must find to save Regan).  You see, the late Father Merrin (Max von Sydow in a flashback return appearance), only frightened the hell out of Regan’s uninvited visitor.  The wascally malignancy still lives inside her – rent free.  This is what Padre Lamont must address, and release.  Kokumo, we learn, is currently (depending upon which alternative universe you choose to occupy) a grown human God or a modern physicist; both are impersonated by James Earl Jones and each visited in startling fashion by Burton.

It is at this juncture that we additionally are apprised of the Good Locust and the Bad Locust, an Oz-ian nod that only the director of Zardoz could have envisioned.  Oh, did I say that this is a John Boorman picture?  Well, it is, and fully decked out in all his visually splendid tricks, expertise and cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffery.

And here lies the problem I alluded to earlier, the tanking of HERETIC.  The original Exorcist terrified millions of moviegoers worldwide because of its realistic slant, the fact that William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel truly seemed plausible.  HERETIC doesn’t capitalize on this factor, but instead goes for a dark fairy-tale angle, right down to the quite ethereal (if not noisy), and genuinely lovely final imagery of Blair and Burton.  Had the movie not been hyped as a sequel, the weirdness of this whole megillah might have passed muster.  There’s no way anyone can take this seriously, nor probably should.  Keeping this mindset, HERETIC is quite a thrilling joyride, brilliantly cinematic (thanks to the superb d.p. William A. Fraker and the always inventive Boorman), and, in the deranged hands of writers William Goodhart and (an uncredited) Rospo Pallenberg, hopelessly amusing.  Certainly, this horror show is more akin to the director’s fantasy arenas of Point Blank and Excalibur, rather than Deliverance or Hell in the Pacific.

The other cast members certainly deserve mention.  Fletcher, for her kinder, gentler medical practitioner (as the Burstyn wannabee Dr. Gene Tuskin), is best termed as Ratched-Doesn’t-Live-Here-Anymore.  And, as another original Exorcist alumnus, Kitty Winn as Sharon Spencer sadly and creepily becomes taken over by Mephistophelian nasties causing her to look and act like a Satanic Marcia Clark.  The only authentic touch of dignity is Paul Henreid, as the Cardinal who orders Burton to “investigate the circumstances involving the death of Father Merrin” (and then regrets it).

SIDEBAR:  I recently spoke with the actor’s daughter, Monika Henreid, who revealed that when Warners first phoned their Casablanca star to appear in the pic, he absolutely refused.  They continued to call, and he continued to hang up.  Finally, a beleaguered production assistant weakly asked how much would it take for the thesp to do the two-day part?  Henreid thought he had the upper hand, and shot back with a pie-in-sky figure.  The assistant hung up, and shortly thereafter, Warners agreed to Henreid’s terms.  “DAMN IT, now I have to do this film!” shouted celebrated veteran actor/director.  That said, once shooting started, he thoroughly enjoyed himself.  “My father was raised as a Roman Catholic, so he knew how to work those robes and admitted he had a lot of fun with the part.”  It was his last screen appearance.

Boorman himself admitted the movie’s failure despite his original intention (“the idea of making a metaphysical thriller greatly appealed to my psyche”); of course, we know all too well what often happens to good intentions when combined with Hell infrastructure.  True, in the series franchise, HERETIC should really not exist; it’s strictly “Go Directly to Legion” (but only the restored Blatty version/edition).

Weighing all the aforementioned pros (direction, photography, the daft premise), HERETIC’s fans can enthusiastically cap off this I Scream Sunday with the ultimate movie cherry on top:  an absolutely gorgeous score by Ennio Morricone.  The haunting main theme that melodiously drifts in and out of the narrative and plays over the end credits is a thing of beauty to behold (or is it to behear?).

The two-platter Scream Factory/Warner Bros. restoration of EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC looks pretty good, although occasionally replicating the “peachy,” muted look that seemingly plagued most Seventies American movies.  One disc is the 102-minute 1977 theatrical release, the other an elongated director’s cut that adds fifteen minutes to the insanity (it’s the one to go with).  Both versions have been remastered in new 2K High Definition scans (there’s also an option of the original mono track and a stereo-surround remix).

A number of great extras complete the package, including audio commentary from John Boorman, interviews with Linda Blair and the pic’s editor Tom Priestley, the theatrical trailer, and a still and poster gallery (including shots from deleted scenes).

So there you have it, one of my many guilty pleasures (except perhaps these days, NOT so guilty).  I think you might find some gruesome laffs as well, should you choose to revisit this much-maligned freak show.  Of course, this is coming from someone who is one of the few to have actually liked Alien Covenant, but that’s another story.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Scream Factory/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT # SF 18987. SRP: $34.95.

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Halloween Blitz 18: The Blair-Rich Project

“…A supernatural detective story…” That’s how author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty termed the hook for his 1971 groundbreaking novel The Exorcist. Pronounced unproduceable by Hollywood wags, the eventual 1973 celluloid result not only proved the naysaying party-poopers wrong, but ended up becoming one of the biggest box-office hits of all time.

As a fan of 1949’s Alias Nick Beal (wherein Ray Milland essayed a film-noirish Satan), I was wholly (if not holy) on-board. The movie, as realized by then-wunderkind William Friedkin – okay, two paragraphs in, and I already can no longer avoid the cliche – certainly sent heads spinning, raking in dough, begatin’ two official sequels (which, for different reasons, I both hold dear to my black little heart), and basically becoming responsible for an entire sub-genre in (where else?) Italy.

Originally THE EXORCIST didn’t exactly wow me. It didn’t take the five-deep lines queued around the blocks to inform me that I was in the minority. Damn, this pic even sent the older generation back to the movies (it was one of three post-1970 flicks that I remember my parents and their friends actively seeking out…the other two being the reasonable Airport and the dirty-old-pervert-friendly Basic Instinct nearly twenty years later). I thought it was missing something; furthermore, I wasn’t thrilled with the look of the movie, thinking it way too grainy and washed-out…There was no reason, I reasoned, that the AIP blaxploitation rip-off Abby (can’t beat that Adolph Caesar trailer narration: “The DEVIL is her lover NOW!”) looked better than its fifty-times-the-budget sourcework.

Little did I know the crazed politics behind the making of THE EXORCIST – in part due to the crazed mind of Friedkin, the Warner Bros. suits and the decade’s overall deteriorating lab work (the movie, unlike many contemporary WB titles, was not printed in the soon-to-be obsolete Technicolor process, but in, aptly, God-awful Metrocolor).

Much of this controversy is covered in the truly outstanding THE EXORCIST: EXTENDED DIRECTOR’S CUT AND ORIGINAL THEATRICAL VERSION (say that five times fast and add twelve Hail Marys), available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.

Friedkin’s Director’s Cut, which adds approximately ten minutes to the 122-minute length, isn’t exactly all his – he makes concessions to author/scenarist Blatty…and that’s a major restoration point.

Scenes cut in 1973 comprised suggestions and decisions from WB exec John Calley and (later) Friedkin himself. Some are understandable – in fact, they even now aren’t really necessary…but TWO totally helped change my take on the movie…and should never have been removed. One is a brief eye-popping moment of Linda Blair’s character doing a back-flipped speeded-up spider crawl down a staircase whilst spewing blood. Although admittedly today this is not as outrageous a behavioral display when factoring in 2018 information superhighway technology (I can swear that I’ve seen House GOP Darrell Issa do the same thing on MSNBC), but back then it would have rivaled the 360-degree melon spin and the pea soup rendition of the Danny Thomas spit take (and I mean spit).

But that’s all freak-show stuff; the key sequence is an amazing scene – beautifully shot – between exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and faith-questioning Father Karras (Jason Miller), also on a staircase (perhaps Friedkin had a nasty escalator experience in his youth). In this segment, the two discuss the nature of belief…how could God love us if He could allow such terrible things to happen to one of His flock? It really IS the purpose of the entire movie, including Von Sydow’s simple “do you get it now?” explanation. I won’t go into it – however, it makes it clear that the child is NOT the victim. Blatty went into a furor when he saw Friedkin’s edit, screaming that the director “…cut the heart and soul out.” And he did. The two didn’t speak for decades, finally reconciling during the movie’s meticulous restoration. Friedkin, in a second audio commentary (and in one of the handful of supplemental documentaries), still maintains he was right…that by including that scene, the power of the movie is diluted. This stubborn exhibition of insanity was further highlighted in 2013’s entertaining feature-length Warners doc Tales from the Warner Bros. Lot where interviewed EXORCIST sound recordist Chris Newman deemed Friedkin “certifiable,” both then and now.

I do have to mention the refurbished look of THE EXORCIST. True, cinematographer Owen Roizman was going for a you-are-there-documentary feel, but I don’t think he really aspired to infringe upon Crown-International territory or, worse, plummet into the Kroger Babb abyss.

Suffice to say that the Blu-Ray looks crystal-clear astonishing, like a real mega-buck movie should…with actual flesh tones and an accurate color spectrum. And way less grain (although some scenes DID need the available light rendering). At last THE EXORCIST doesn’t look as if it had been Chemtoned to death.

Since 1973, the people who inhabit THE EXORCIST have pissed me off with their whiny compromised religious beliefs and disbeliefs. This was mostly relegated toward Ellen Burstyn’s character. Hey, your daughter has Satan inside her. DEAL with it! Frankly, I figured that between the three-way battle for the girl (priests, birth mother and Mephistopheles), Beelzebub wins talons down since, after all, possession IS 9/10 of the law.

I was also confused by the hoopla surrounding Linda Blair…mainly that the moguls were concerned about her uttering some of the dialogue. So, let me get this straight, it’s okay to have her masturbating with a crucifix, but let’s get someone else to dub the four-letter epithets…Granted, if you are determined to go that way – you can’t do better than Mercedes McCambridge…Nevertheless once you smash your mother’s mouth into your bloodied vagina and (deservedly) play jai alai with a shrink’s testicles, shouting “Fuck me!” doesn’t seem that extreme. Then again, I haven’t understood the Hollywood mindset since they first signed Keefe Brasselle.

Admittedly, Linda Blair remains the one iconic human EXORCIST participant…and this, I’m convinced, was a Godsend. Exposing Blair to the most horrific, degenerate acts she could fathom was the best pre-Rick James prep the young actress could have received, prior to the advent Craigslist.

The only character I personally identified with was investigating cop Lt. Kinderman; the reasons are obvious: A), he’s a classic movie fanatic and B), he’s portrayed by (a toupee-less) Lee J. Cobb. Although let’s be brutally honest:  every mortal soul on Earth needs to be concerned when Lee J. Cobb embodies the calmest and most rational member of any undertaking.

It’s nice to know that I pretty much agree with Blatty on everything. As ferocious as the devil-made-me-do-it moments (flipiscus wilsonis) are, the most nightmarish memories in THE EXORCIST derive from the sequences depicting Blair undergoing excruciating medical procedures within the sterile confines of a modern hospital operating room. It’s what freaked him out…and still does (ditto moi).  I was amazed at how much suffering they put her through before wondering about the last resort possibility of an exorcism…Even more perplexing to me is whether or not demonic possession is a pre-existing condition. I’m sure this also greatly disturbed Miller’s conflicted Father Karras, whose specific vocation is priest/psychiatrist – certainly the most contradictory job title after Celebrity Intellectual Property Law.

The aforementioned documentaries are almost as fetching as the Director’s Cut (which, to me, is the only way to go; purists can still access the 1973 edition, which is, as the set’s title indicates, also included). BEYOND COMPREHENSION, a half-hour look back with Blatty, is partially filmed in the cabin where he wrote the novel, interestingly an abode he rented from Angela Lansbury (for $70 a month!). Blatty effectively reads excerpts from his book, and recounts, with some mirth, the writing process – plus the dealings with publishers, Warner Bros., an ex-wife and other non-demonic tribulations.

TALK OF THE DEVIL presents a rare B&W Seventies interview with Father Eugene Gallagher, the priest who first told Blatty (during his student days at Georgetown University) of the 1949 case history which inspired the novel and movie. Filmed shortly after the movie took off, Gallagher proves a worthy subject, injecting sardonic humor into the unfunny events which ultimately changed the cultural landscape. Best (for me) is his skepticism – not at exorcism per se – but at cut-up Blatty’s initial inquiries into the case. Gallagher thought his student, a notorious practical joker, was kidding.  When the Father later on heard that Blatty was actually writing a book based on the ’49 episode, he nervously believed it would be a send-up…along the lines of some of the writer’s screen work, such as the Blake Edwards comedies or John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. That said, there are some chilling exorcism revelations – though none as frightening as interviewer Mike Siegel’s period mutton chops.

Of the other EXORCIST extras, including trailers, TV/radio spots, a 40-page Friedkin account of the movie (adapted from his recent autobiography, The Friedkin Connection) and a featurette on location shooting, two mini-docs stand out: BEHIND-THE-SCENES OF THE EXORCIST and RAISING HELL: FILMING THE EXORCIST. While some of this has been discussed above, I can’t underline enough their relevant value to SFX fans, due greatly to the filmmakers’ foresight to have a special unit chronicling much of the movie’s production. This footage is appended by interviews with Blatty, Roizman, Blair, Newman and Friedkin.

There are workprint clips from scenes that couldn’t go into the 2010 Version You’ve Never Seen because of the disappearance of original picture and sound – most bizarrely a Casablanca ending between Cobb and actual Jesuit theologist William O’Malley.

Of course nothing could delight armchair Satanists more than seeing Linda Blair dummies rotating and floatating or Newman discussing how to find the proper sound a rosary cross makes when repeatedly pounded into a girl’s vagina.  Are you listening, North Carolina?

And while we’re on the subject of sound, one must take note of the masterful remix into 6.1 surround (for the Director’s Cut) and 5.1 for the theatrical version (released in mono, I believe). The jump-out-of-your-seat sound effects are pretty great while the audio nicely presents Jack Nitzsche’s score, and, natch Mike Oldfield’s now-seminal Tubular Bells tinkle (what I prefer to call “Love Theme from The Exorcist”).

I close with one personal reminiscence. I was at NYU when THE EXORCIST first premiered, ensconced in their highly-touted Film Department. One of my fellow students was Dave Smith, son of the picture’s SFX artist extraordinaire Dick Smith. I vividly recall the day Dave brought in the life-sized Linda Blair devil-doll, and prominently propped it up in the Equipment Office. This deeply disturbed us all, primarily as “she” was way more animated than any of the usual vomiting/head-twisting employees currently working there.

THE EXORCIST EXTENDED DIRECTOR’S CUT AND ORIGINAL THEATRICAL VERSION.  Color.  Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 6.1 DTS-HD MA stereo-surround [Extended Director’s Cut]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA stereo-surround [Theatrical Version]. CAT # 3000052989.  SRP:  $34.99.

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