Posts Tagged ‘low budget film’

Original "Fiend" DVD Cover from Retromedia

The late, great Don Dohler made sci-fi/horror flicks in and around his suburban Baltimore neighborhood with a 16mm camera, some friends, a couple thousand bucks, and little to no concern for what anyone else actually thought about them. The most common “locations” he utilized were his own house and his backyard. He made movies for the most basic, and most compelling, reason of all — because he wanted to. What have you done?

Dohler was something of an accidental renaissance man, to be sure — as he relates in the superb documentary film about his life and work, Blood, Boobs And Beast, filmed before and during  the battle with cancer that he eventually lost, on his 30th birthday a guy broke into the office where he was working, held him at gunpoint, and as his life flashed before his eyes he asked himself — have I really done what I wanted to with my time on this Earth?

When he got out of the situation unharmed, Dohler, who already had a wife and two kids at the time, threw himself into his first love — the movies. Specifically, horror and science fiction movies and the techniques that effects technicians used to make that “movie magic” that so captivated him as a child.

He produced a magazine called Cinemagic that taught aspiring young effects whizzes how to make their own Hollywood-style not-always-so-special effects on a shoestring budget, and future FX legends like Tom Savini have credited Dohler’s mag with inspiring their later career choices. While bigger publications like Forest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland showed eager young readers what the latest sci-fi and horror moviemakers were up to, Cinemagic showed even-more-eager young readers not only what they were doing, but how they did it and, most importantly of all, how you could do pretty much the same thing yourself.

But eventually writing about all this stuff wasn’t enough for our guy Don and he had to have a go at it himself. To that end, in 1978 he hacked out a bare-bones “alien-monsters-on-the-loose script,  got out his 16mm camera, assembled some local actors, friends, and family members into a makeshift cast, rigged up some rudimentary stop-motion effects, and the end result was The Alien Factor, a movie that he spent pocket change making and eventually sold to both local broadcast and then-nascent-and-desperate-for-product-that-didn’t-cost-much-to-secure-the-rights-to national cable television.

The end result? A movie that cost Dohler a couple grand to produce and didn’t get any theatrical distribution whatsoever, a movie that was plugged the hardest in his very own magazine, ended up being on late-night cable all the time and turning a small, but respectable, profit.

Having had his first taste of low-grade “success,” Don was ready to have another go at things in 1980, this time with the somewhat darker and more atmospheric Fiend, alternately known as Deadly Neighbor, a somewhat more polished (as far as these things so) and confident effort that nonetheless does nothing to betray its near-zero-budget roots and doesn’t represent any sort of compromise in Dohler’s vision, admittedly limited as it may be.

Most of the actors are folks who had worked on The Alien Factor and been pleasantly surprised when Dohler was actually able to eventually pay them for their work, so they were game to give it another whirl. He filled out the minor and non-speaking roles, as before, with friends, neighbors, and family members. The bulk of the action again takes place in his house (specifically his basement) and his yard.  And with an improved eye for shot composition and a scaled-down appetite for homemade effects work, he ended up with a film that is by no means great but certainly a hell of a lot better than it should have been or maybe even had any right to be.

Simply put, Dohler knew what he was doing, and can-do and want-to won the day over should-do.

Don Leifert looking very fiendish, indeed

Now, to be brutally honest, all Dohler films have essentially the same story — a monster, or monsters, from outer space threatens a quiet sleepy suburban community, and an ambitious local, or goup of locals, goes after them and eventually wins the day. This is the basic premise of both The Alien Factor and Fiend as well as subsequent efforts such as Nighbeast and The Galaxy Invader.

What sets Fiend apart from the others, though, and makes it my favorite of all Don D.’s flicks is that the emphasis here is more on the horrific than it is on the fantastic. And it’s not so much bloody horror, either — this movie is essentially a gore-free zone. In Fiend Dohler relies on atmospheric horror and a creepier-than-usual twist on his basic plot outline, and damn if he doesn’t pull it off to the best anyone possibly could given the limitations he had to work within.

From the very first scene, a suitably creepy night-shoot at a local cemetery where some weird red energy blob/giant insect from space descends into a grave, animates a corpse, and the zombie-from-space-thing sets about attacking and absorbing the “life energy” out of a young couple there to do some making out, the stage is set. The old-school horror, absolutely magnificent title logo adds to it, and the superbly over-the-top performance of Don Leifert as the titular Fiend, who immediately goes about buying a house in the suburbs, assuming the name of Eric Longfellow, and opening up a violin-lesson business in his new home is  sensationally tongue-in-cheek while not being overly coy or knowingly winking at the audience too obviously.

The Longfellow/Fiend has to recharge his biological batteries every couple of days or so by strangling someone and absorbing their “life energies” in a red hazy glow as he did with that first pair of young lovers, or else he starts looking pretty gruesome, and the cut-rate make-up effects Dohler utilizes to transform Leifert from “normal fiend” to “ugly fiend” are terrific. Leifert looks a bit like Ron Jeremy or Stan Van Gundy’s less successful brother on the best of days, but when he’s running low on juice he genuinely looks downright creepy.

Our “hero” of the story, such as it is, I suppose, is one Gary Kender (Richard Nelson), an average suburban Pabst Blue Ribbon-drinking guy who lives next door to Longfellow/Fiend and is sick of hearing all that godawful amateur violin playing at all hours. His wife, Marsha (Elaine White) thinks her hubby’s overreacting and is even considering taking some music lessons from their new neighbor herself! Every housewife needs a hobby, I guess.

Anyway, needless to say, as the local body count spirals ever upward, and a neighborhood kid who plays in the cul-de-sac Longfellow/Fiend and Kenders lives on is found dead in the woods behind their homes, good ol’ Gary suspects the creepy neighbor is somehow involved and doesn’t buy his line that he and his assistant, Dennis (the always-awesome George Stover, a regular in fellow Baltimorian John Waters’ films as well as appearing in each and every Dohler flick) were listening to violin music in Longfellow’s semi-swank (but still obviously unfinished) basement on headphones and didn’t hear a thing.

And let me make one quick aside here — the kid Longfellow kills (like all good psychopaths he seems to prefer young women, but he’ll settle for anyone in a pinch) was one of Dohler’s own daughter, and while there’s no on-camera child-murder,  he did have her get under a sheet and get carted into the back of an ambulance and everything! And one of Longfellow’s early strangulation victims, a single woman walking home from work, was played by Dohler’s wife! I told you he kept things in the family.

But I, as is my custom, digress. Look, there should be some pretty obvious plot holes visible here by now — foremost among them being why would an evil alien insect-energy creature choose to reanimate a corpse and kill somebody every day or two if all it wants to do is live in a house in the suburbs, hang out in the basement, drink wine, and listen to violin playing? If you’re gonna go through all that hassle to stay “alive,” wouldn’t you at least be looking to conquer the world or something? There are other little logical inconsistencies scattered throughout, as well — where did Longfellow/Fiend get the money to buy a house, for instance? And the amazingly convenient ways in which Kender begins to learn about insect-energy-corpse-animating evil creatures from outer space are downright laughably absurd. I mean, he may as well just pick up a National Geographic and find a cover article about them for all the sense it makes.

But if these kind of things bother you, then you’re not only seeing the wrong movie, you’re reading the wrong damn blog. Fiend is the absolute shit not because it’s a great wok of art with anything meaningful to say about the human condition or even an internally logical storyline, but because one guy with nothing more than a burning desire to make the kind of movie that he liked to watch as a kid went out and did it, near-insurmountable odds against him be damned.

"Alien Fiend" Double Feature DVD from Retromedia Featuring "The Alien Factor" and "Fiend"

And now, 30 years later, people — well, okay, some people — are still talking about Fiend, even though it’s a miracle the damn thing ever got made. Retromedia have released it on DVD on two separate occasions, once on its own as seen at the top of this review, and more recently as part of the “Alien Fiend” two-sided double feature disc with The Alien Factor. Both movies sport digitally remastered full-frame (as intended) transfers that, sure, look a bit grainy and have some artefacting here and there, but on the whole look way better than you’d ever figure they would. The touch-up job done on the prints is very nice indeed. The soundtracks for each are mono, as you’d expect, but are crisp and clear with no audible hiss or distortion to be found. And while you’d probably expect these to go out bare-bones with no extras at all,  each movie features outtakes and deleted scenes (mostly of the “blooper” variety), and feature-length commentary tracks by actor George Stover, who has a razor-sharp memory and not only manages to entertain, but also to inform. They’re a terrific listen. How’s that for a couple of near-nothing-budget backyard homemade space-monster movies?

Which brings us back to where we started — the late, great Don Dohler made sci-fi/horror flicks in and around his suburban Baltimore neighborhood with a 16mm camera, some friends, a couple thousand bucks, and little to no concern for what anyone else actually thought of them. The most common “locations” he utilized were his own house and his backyard. He made movies for the most basic, and most compelling, reason of all — because he wanted to. What have you done?

"Christmas Evil" Movie Poster

This time of year the question is often asked, “What is the best Christmas movie ever made?” The usual contenders always seem to emerge, of course — “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story” , yadda yadda etc. etc. Horror fans may suggest either “Black Christmas” or “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” But no less an authority than John Waters has gleefully declared writer-director Lewis Jackson’s 0verlooked 1980 B-movie masterpiece “Christmas Evil” (a.k.a. “You Better Watch Out,” actually Jackson’s original — and preferred — title) to be the absolute best of the bunch, and I’m with him on that all the way. Not so much a straightforward horror film as a black, tragicomic morality tale, this bizarre little flick hits all the right notes and is so self-assured in its absolutely singular bizarreness that you can’t help but sit back in awe as  the bleakly absurd spectacle of it all plays out before your eyes.

If you'd seen this with your own two eyes when you were a kid, wouldn't you be scarred for life, too? Especially if the woman in question was your mother?

When little Harry Stradling was a kid, he was the sort of tyke who just couldn’t wait for Christmas. He’d stay up all night, pacing back and forth in his room, hoping to hear Santa landing on the rooftop and sliding down the chimney. Unfortunately, he learned that old Kris Kringle wasn’t real the hard way — one Christmas Eve he thought he heard something downstairs, went to investigate hoping to catch Old St. Nick in the act, and found his dad, dressed in a Santa suit, going down on his mom. He’s never been the same since.

Fast forward about 30 or 40 years and our guy Harry (played by distinguished Broadway actor Brandon Maggart, who never had much of a career in film, apparently wants nothing to do with this one anymore, and is now best known for being the father of Fiona Apple) is  a rather disturbed and introverted sort, the kind of troubled soul his New York City neighbors should probably keep an eye on — except he’s already keeping an eye on them. Or, more specifically, on their children. He’s making a list and checking it twice, cataloging who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. And this Christmas, he’s finally going to do something about it.

Harry's got it all in his book, right down to the neighbor kids' hygiene habits

Harry works at a toy factory, you see, where he’s recently been promoted from the line up to some low-level management position or other. He misses being down on the factory floor “close to the toys,” as he says, and he’s unimpressed with the executive “suits” he now has to kiss up to. Amidst talk of  post-Christmas plant downsizing (quite prescient in 1980) and a nebulous new management directive  forcing the workers to give to charity while ownership does nothing of the sort (again, a disgustingly common enough practice these days but rather novel for its time) at the company holiday party, Harry starts to hatch his master plan in his mind. Harry’s trauma-inducing bout with accidental voyeurism has caused him to grow into something of a Christmas purist, if you will, and he’s out to save all that is right and true with the holiday season and to — umm — excise all that isn’t. In short order he procures a van, a bunch of toys, a Santa costume, and some weapons, and he decides to bring back the less-than-jolly St. Nick legends of old to life — the ones where he’s both jolly and vindictive, handing out toys only to those who deserve them, and vengeance to those who don’t.

Harry's getting an idea ---

Soon it’s Christmas Eve, and having blown off his brother’s family for the second holiday in a row (he took a pass on spending Thanksgiving with him, his wife, and their kids, as well), he instead springs into action in his custom (hand)-painted Christmaswagon. Kids at an orphanage get a whole load of goodies. The friendly folks at a large family holiday get-together get a visit where he displays his friendly side (as do they to him). But a yuppie scumbag emerging from a midnight mass service at a church in ritzy part of town gets skewered through the eyeball after declaring that Santa better give him something good because he has “superlative taste” (can’t say I blame Harry for that one), and the guy who suckered Harry into picking up his shift at the factory earlier that night so he could go out drinking with his buddies on Christmas Eve meets his red-suited, white-bearded maker, as well.

Santa Harry

Soon, Harry’s a hunted man, as townsfolk who think he’s acting a little bit weird around their kids take up torches and pitchforks and chase him through the New York/New Jersey streets like a modern-day version of the mob hunting down Frankenstein’s monster. But little do they know Harry has a surefire method of escape that delivers one of the most jaw-droppingly awesome endings in movie history. For some reason it’s hotly debated conclusion that some people just can’t get their heads around, but I’m here to tell you that not only is it absolutely astonishingly perverse it its obvious, albeit surreal, simplicity, it’s literally the only way this story could, or for that matter should, finish up.

DVD Cover for "Christmas Evil" from Synapse Films

Available for years only as a bare-bones release from Troma, in 2006 the good folks at Synapse Films finally issued a bona fide and thoroughly comprehensive “special edition” release of full director’s cut of this twisted gem. Not only does it feature a sparkling new widescreen anamorphic transfer of the film with remastered 2.0 stereo sound that’s an absolutely joy to watch and listen to, but there are two commentaries, one featuring director Lewis Jackson where he gives an awesomely involving account of just how low-budget exploitation films such as this came to fruition in the late 70s/early 80s and all the various pitfalls along the way as it moved from script to screen, but there’s a second commentary track featuring Jackson joined by the film’s most famous fan, the legendary John Waters himself! Needless to say, it’s a riot from start to finish. Also included are a selection of stinging lobby comment cards from a test screening of the film, deleted scenes, screen test outtakes, and a comic-style “essay” on the film from “Motion Picture Purgatory” author/illustrator Rick Trembles. Great stuff all around.

What can I say? Everything about “Christmas Evil” works, from the red-and-green-heavy color schemee utilized throughout to Maggart’s amazing, and strangely involving, performance in the lead, to the laugh-out-loud grotesquery, to the police lineup of drunken guys in Santa suits, to the often-quite-incisive sociall commentary,  to the already-mentioned supremely awesome ending. It’s an absolute one-of-a-kind piece of moviemaking. And while Lewis Jackson, sadly, has never made another film, truth be told he doesn’t need to. This stands as a singular work of genuinely madcap, unhinged genius that will never be duplicated and, frankly, in the annals of Chritmas moviemaking, never surpassed.

"Black Devil Doll" Movie Poster

Oh, my. “Filmed In Negroscope.” “Rated ‘X’ by an All-White Jury.” “‘He’s a Muthafuckin’ Puppet!” “If You Think You’re Ready for Him — Think Again, Bitch!” The taglines here make it perfectly clear that there’s something to offend every sensibility in this 2008- lensed, low-budget (apparently it was shot for around $10,000), essentially straight-to-DVD (although it has gotten some limited horror convention and midnight-movie circuit theatrical play over the past year or so) shockfest (or should that be schlockfest?). Let’s briefly consult what’s on offer here against our handy checklist of  black puppet exploitation movie debauchery:

Gratuitous and often pointless nudity? Check. Oceans of cheap-looking blood? Check. Deliberate racially insensitive dialogue in abundance? Check. Purposefully OTT stereotyping? Check. Necrophilic rape? Check. Lewd bathroom “humor,” including fart sounds? Check. Foot-long puppet schlong? Check. Copious amounts of puppet jizz, including a facial? Check. Puppet rug munching? Check. Puppet ass munching? Check. Puppet diarrhea? Check.

Yup, it’s all there.

Black militant Mubia Abul-Jama (hmm, that name sounds familiar) is sentenced to die in the electric chair at midnight for raping and murdering 15 white women. As the clock ticks down on his life,across town bored and busty party-girl Heather (played by Heather Murphy) is fooling around at home with her ouija board. When old sparky kicks into action, Mubia’s soul (or whatever) is quickly zapped straight down to hell, but the power of the “mystifying oracle” vacuums (or, again, whatever) him back up into the real world and transmits his essence out of the board and into Heather’s Howdy Doody-type doll, instantly transforming the bow-tied, freckled white puppet into a militant Black Panther-type foot soldier in America’s unofficial race war (voiced by the movie’s director, Jonathan Lewis), and he’s only got one thing on his mind : Caucasian poontang.

He's a lover ---

Soon —as in within five minutes — Heather is unable to resist the Black Devil Doll’s “charms,” and he’s sliding her the wooden salami morning, noon, and night. However, our guy (err, our puppet) is not a one-woman kind of “man,” and in fairly short order he’s demanding that she bring some of her girlfriends around for him to — ummm — meet (okay, for him to rape and kill — and not necessarily in that order — if you want to be technical about things). She somewhat hesitantly obliges his request — I mean, she doesn’t really want to, but that puppet-lovin’ is just so good that she can’t say no.

He's a killer ---

Anyway, while her ex, a wanna-be white rapper who lives at home with his grandma and goes by the handle of “White-T” pines after her, Heather burns up the phone lines, gets a few of her uniformly slutty friends (played by Christine Svendsen, Erika Branich, Precious Cox, and the — ummm — generously, and pneumatically, enhanced Natasha Talonz, all of whom have to be at least a decade older than the characters they’re portraying, and none of whom are , sorry to be so blunt, all that especially attractive) to come on over to her house for a weekend of movies, wine coolers, and girl talk. When the Black Devil Doll sends Heather a little (or not so little, as the case may be), secret signal, though, it’s time for her to head on out to McDonald’s for about six or eight hours so he can get down to business.

He's a voyeur ---

Once she clears out, the girls all find convenient reasons to strip down to either next to nothing or just plain nothing (one has to shower, one has to bathe, one has to work on her tan, one has to sleep, one has to — yes — take a dump), and they don’t get dressed again for the entire duration (that duration being 72 minutes in total) of the film, because Mubia goes on a rampage and rapes and murders them all (again, not necessarily in that order — in fact, it’s usually the reverse).

When Heather gets home and sees what’s become of her friends, though, she blows a gasket (apparently she only thought Mubia-doll was going to rape them and was, you know, okay with that, but the killing thing is a bit much for her), rips off her shirt for no reason, and blows him (back ) to hell with her gun. Oh, and somewhere in the midst of all the other debauchery, our pint-sized (except where it counts) wooden revolutionary does a bunch of coke, and “White-T” crashes the “party” and our sex-crazed puppet murders and mounts him, too.

He's a cokehead ---

So, that’s the “plot.” The performances are as amateurish and unprofessional as you’d expect, the gore effects are beyond cheap (but at least they’re not CGI), and the dialogue is abominable and  brain-meltingly wretched (again, as you’d expect). In other words,  the sleaze is so thick you can cut it with a knife here, folks.

Loosely (very loosely) based on the late Chester Turner’s shot-on-video 1983 underground mini-sensation “Black Devil Doll From Hell,” the Lewis Brothers (producer and co-writer Shawn and director Jonathan, respectively) have certainly “crafted” a deliberately politically and morally incorrect piece of modern-day exploitation garbage here, and it’s entirely appropriate that it’s released on a video label called Lowest Common Denominator Films, since that’s exactly the level this thing is operating on. Not that I mean that as a criticism, because I most assuredly don’t. As stated at the beginning, this is movie’s “mission statement,” if it were pretentious enough to have one, would be to piss off everyone all the time. In that respect, then, it can only be considered an unqualified success.

The DVD package is pretty nice on the whole, with a “making-of” featurette, a short selection of animated BDD cartoons, a trailer, a fairly comprehensive set of liner notes, a poster,  and a feature-length commentary from Jonathan Lewis voiced “in-character” as the Mumia-doll. Fun stuff all around.

He's a muthafuckin' puppet!

Needless to say, “Black Devil Doll” isn’t for everyone. Hell, in a rational and sane world, it wouldn’t be for anyone. But in the hopelessly fucked-up world we do actually live in, I have to admit that it had me laughing my ass off.

criminsaneposter

"Criminally Insane" Movie Poster

And so we come to the end of our little Halloween recommended viewing list, and while I’ve stressed time and again that it’s not really a “countdown” in the strictest (or any) sense (which begs the question of why I even called it one in the first place, and I’m afraid I don’t have a good — or again, any — answer), I assure you that I have indeed saved the best for last. If you’re going to take the easy (and entirely understandable) way out and only see one movie from this list, make it this one.

Why, you may ask? Is it the best flick on the list? No, of course not. It’s not even particularly “good” by any commonly understood definition of the term.

Is it, then, the scariest or most frightening? Good heavens no, it’s not even close to being scary at all.

Is it the most competent or well-executed? Are you kidding? It’s absolutely ludicrous, and down there with anything in the Ed Wood or Coleman Francis oeuvre in terms of technical accomplishment.

Then for the love of God, you may ask (again), why?????????????

That’s easy. Because this 1975 ultra-shot (61 minutes) “feature” from legendary bargain-basement auteur Nick Millard (billed here as Nick Philips — he has, according to the IMDB, no fewer than 21 aliases he worked under during his anything-but-illustrious career, seemingly changing names as often as the rest of us do underwear, usually depending on whether he was working on soft-core or on horror cheapies) is — pun absolutely intended this time — two tons of fun.

Billed as “250 Pounds of Maniacal Fury,” our protagonist here, one Ethel Jankowski (Priscilla Alder in a delicious role she really sinks her teeth into—again, both puns fully intended), actually tops the scales at well over (how much over I couldn’t say) 300, and she’s just been released from a mental institution where she was given a steady regimen of electroshock “treatment”(I’ve never understood why attaching electrodes to someone’s genitals qualifies as torture while attaching them to their temples is considered “therapy”) entirely against her will, and now she’s supposedly calm and rational enough to go back into the “care” of the community and so moves into her grandmother’s rather quaint San Francisco (Millard made almost all his films in his home Bay Area environs) Victorian.

It doesn’t take long for tensions to arise, though, as after one day of watching Ethel eat her out of house and home (and garage and shed and summer cottage and detached fallout shelter and you get the metaphor here before I strain it any further, I’m sure) Grandma decides to lock up the kitchen cabinets to prevent Ethel from gorging herself to death.

Our girl Ethel already has a damn unpleasant disposition to start with (and a nasty racist, or at least ethnocentric, streak, as evidenced by lines like “That Jew doctor tried to starve me to death” when she’s telling granny about her stay in the bughouse), and having her supply of consumables padlocked (with grandma holding the only key, of course) really sets her off. So she does what any morbidly obese and fanatically determined psychopath would do, I suppose — hack her to death with a meat cleaver, takes her key, unlocks the cabinets, and stuffs her face.

The food runs out pretty quickly, though, and it isn’t long before Ethel needs to call in a grocery order. There’s just one problem : she owes the market $80 and she won’t get more food from them until she pays up. No problem, she tells the store’s owner, just send the delivery boy over and she’ll pay up her past due balance as well as pay for the current order.The kid gets there and tells Ethel she can’t have more food until she pays the $80 she owes, to which she replies “But I don;t have $80, I only have $4.50.”

What happens next? You guessed it, the kid gets killed and Ethel takes the box of groceries he brought over. She hides his body in grandma’s bedroom (where the corpse of the elder Jankowski is rotting away) just in time, it turns out, as her good-for-very-little (alright, nothing) prostitute sister, Rosalie, drops by unannounced and informs Ethel she had to get away from her old man who’s been beating the shit out of her and has to crash with her and grandma for awhile.

In short order, Rosalie and her guy get back together (making for some truly OTT politically incorrect “relationship dynamics” in the scenes they share — I’ll say no more), but their happy reunion really starts to cramp Ethel’s style when they start bitching about the nasty smell coming from behind the locked door to grandma’s room. You’ve probably already guessed who this little scenario is going to play itself out.

To make matters even worse for our bloated psycho, the cops have come around and started to ask questions, too, since it seems the grocery delivery boy never came back from work and Ethel’s explanation that he must have taken the 80 bucks and split town isn’t going to buy her too much time. And her doctor would like to know where her grandmother is since only Ethel seems to answer the phone.

There are no surprises here. Millard/Philips displays nothing like any sort of creative directorial flourish (although in fairness, what do you want for $30,00? — and Millard claims that’s the biggest budget he’s ever hard to work with!). the gore is plentiful, but also plenty cheap (it’s generally of the “go down to the hardware store and get me some red paint” variety). What saves this movie, then, from being just another entirely-unmemorable shot-in-a-week piece of throwaway celluloid pablum?

In a word, it’s Alden. She’s so deliriously deadpan and morbidly monotonous throughout — whether she’s eating, hacking up a body, eating some more, lying to the cops, eating even more, dealing with cheap insults from Rosalie’s boyfriend, eating still even more or — well, hell, eating still even more than that, she’s so coolly detached and matter-of-fact that you’d almost swear she was, in fact, cool — even though I guess she can’t be since she’s so fat, and Hollywood has taught us for years than fat people absolutely can’t be cool under any circumstances.

There’s no flustering Ethel, though — corner her and she’ll make some shit up. Don’t believe her lies and she’ll kill you. It’s as simple as that, really. Nothing comes between her and her food.

There’s something here to offend everyone, and you’ve gotta love it for that. There’s nothing even remotely subtle or, for that matter, tasteful about “Criminally Insane.” It’s pure dreck that embraces its status as cinematic filth and absolutely wallows in it. There’s no pretense — Philips couldn’t afford any and didn’t have the time. It’s trash — pure, unadulterated, unvarnished, and unashamed, and as such, it’s one of the most refreshingly honest movies you’re ever likely to see.

Criminally3

Ethel in action ---

A final note about the (even by grindhouse standards absurdly) short run time — somehow, even though you wouldn’t mind if it went on longer, you don’t feel cheated, and it feels right. It’s not like this is a particularly complex story, anyway. Again, this is part and parcel of the absolute self-assuredness of this film. Granted, it’s self-assuredness borne of the fact that it had no other choice, but how damn great is that in a world where most movies spend at least half their run time trying to pretend to be more important than they really are?

“Criminally Insane,” unlike most of the uninspired navel-gazing that passes for “entertainment” these days, knows exactly what it is, and not only doesn’t care that you know, too, it states it proudly.  Quite frankly, if you’re going to crank out a $30,000 exploitation quickie about a 300-lb. female serial killer, this is the only way to do it.

crazyfatethel01

--- and Ethel inaction.

The good folks at Shock-O-Rama, under their Retro Shock-O-Rama banner,  have released “Criminally Insane” on DVD as part of their “Nick Philips Horror Trilogy Collection,” triple-feature, single-disc set, along with another bizarre 1975 Millard/Philips cheapie, “Satan’s Black Wedding,”  and the shot-on-video 1987 sequel, “Criminally Insane 2,” (also known, wouldn’t’cha know it, as “Crazy Fat Ethel 2” — and we’ll note in passing that Millard made another “sequel” of sorts starring Alden called “Death Nurse,” also in 1987, and a proper sequel to that, “Death Nurse 2,” in 1988 — both of which were also shot on video). The picture boasts a nice 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is supposedly “mastered from the original 35mm film elements, but still looks pretty crummy, it must be said — which probably can’t be avoided,  and is also quite fitting given the film itself, so I’m not really complaining even though it might sound like it — and let’s be honest, you probably wouldn’t expect anything better anyway. The mono sound is fine, if occasionally muffled — again, as you’d probably expect.

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The "Nick Philips Horror Trilogy Collection" from Shock-O-Rama featuring "Criminally Insane"

What I will complain about a bit is the commentaries for all three films, featuring Philips and moderator 42nd Street Pete. These are dull, uninspired, and feature interminably lengthy stretches of absolute nothingness. Old Pete should have done a much better job of having some engaging lines of questioning ready for Philips, since he’s got a lot to say, as the three making-of featurettes (one for each movie) included on the disc attest to. He’s got a sharp memory and is an interesting guy, too bad these commentaries are such a snooze.

All in all, though, it’s a packed-to-the-rafters little package that delivers great value for money, and it’s worth owning just for the presence of “Criminally Insane” alone. The other stuff is just icing on the cake — pun, again, completely intended.

So that’s a wrap on our non-countdown Halloween countdown that I probably shouldn’t have called a countdown. I hope you’ll give some, or all, of these movies a try.  Hell, even one of them.  If I can convert one person somewhere over to one movie they otherwise wouldn’t have known about, much less seen, then all my harrowing struggle will have been worth it.

DVD Cover for Code Red's New Release of "The Strangeness"

DVD Cover for Code Red's New Release of "The Strangeness"

Ah, October. The air turns a little crisper, the leaves begin to fall, and your humble host runs runs out of autumnal cliches really quickly. So why not just cut to the case? (Whoops, guess I hadn’t quite run out of cliches after all.) With Halloween fast approaching, this is the time of year when people who don’t even normally give a damn about horror movies suddenly take an interest in finding some good ones, so in order to facilitate a happy horror-viewing experience for what readers I do actually have, I thought I’d spend my posts for the month of October on a kind of “countdown” of interesting horror flicks you may not have seen. I don’t in any way claim these to be the ten best horror flicks of all time, nor am I even purporting to list these in any particular order, I just thought I’d focus on ten good movies that you, dear reader, may not have ever seen and I think would be worth your time.

Let’s start the ball rolling (damn, another cliche) with a little-seen gem lensed in 1980 (though it didn’t see release until 1985, and even then it went straight to video) by three friends from USC film school on a budget of right around $25,000 that has just seen its first (and altogether excellent, it must be said) proper issuing on DVD from the always-awesome Code Red label (yes, they do appear to have a pulse!) a couple of weeks ago.

First off, let’s state the obvious : this movie is cheap—dirt cheap—and that certainly shows in places throughout, whether it’s the altogether unprofessional acting (watch one of the principal characters, purportedly from Britain, employ/unemploy a come-and-go accent, for instance), the occasionally muddled and confused camerawork, or the dime store- Ray Harryhausen (but damn cool nevertheless) stop-motion monster that’s stalking and terrorizing our hapless heroes, it’s patently transparent at numerous times that just about no money was spent on this thing.

Those financial limitations, however, forced our intrepid young trio to get creative if they wanted to make anything like an effective little horror movie, and in that regard, “The Strangeness” is something of a triumph. A qualified triumph, to be sure, but a triumph nevertheless—of necessity-driven accidental brilliance, creative gusto, decision making-on-the-fly, and sheer bloodymindedness. Our trio of USC recent-grads and almost-grads (director/producer/screenwriter/ editor/incidental music composer David Michael Hillman, producer/screenwriter/incidental music composer/actor/sound recording engineer/visual effects designer/opening “teaser” scene director Chris Huntley and producer/actor/sound recording engineer/visual effects designer Mark Sawicki, respectively) were determined to get this thing done and to come out with a finished product that neither they nor audience would feel compelled to turn their eyes away from in sheer embarrassment or disbelief (well, at least not too often).

The result is a truly admirable little (absolutely) independent creature feature that is by turns involving, gripping, impressive (especially considering its extreme limitations), atmospheric, and inescapably authentic. Chances are that even though the film’s basic premise of horrific-creature-living-in-a-mineshaft-picks off-trapped-and-terrified-ordinary-people-one-by-one has been done before and (numerous times) since, you’ve never seen anything quite like “The Strangeness.”

Our intrepid mine explorers

Our intrepid mine explorers

The set-up, as you have probably surmised by ow, is simple enough : a group of explorers go into a disused mine in order to see if there’s enough gold left to make reopening the underground facility a profitable venture for a local mining concern. There are some creepy legends about the place, though—it closed not because it had been played out but because the workers refused to continue going down there. A previous expedition that went with a similar eye to getting the mine running again disappeared. And then there are the old Indian legends about some kind of monster in the caves. For those reasons, our little crew is composed not only of prospective miners but of a mercenary/privateer-type and a writer on local California mining history and his wife (okay, I know it’s ridiculous that the last two would be allowed into a potentially dangerous situation like this, but if you can’t suspend your disbelief about scenarios like that, you’re just not gonna make it through this movie).  Things start pretty slowly, I’ll be the first to admit, and the film take a good 40 minutes to really get rolling, but this initial period of doldrums, resultant though it may be from inexperienced screenwriting, actually gives us a chance to do something we can’t always do in horror movies, which is to clearly differentiate each character and their (admittedly completely two-dimensional) motivations. It’s not terribly exciting, but  it works, even if purely by accident, and there is some some wonderful and truly professional northern California coastal location scenery throughout that wouldn’t look at all out of place in any film with ten, 100, or even 1,000 times the budget of this one.

Once inside the mineshaft (actually a few papier-mache rock walls inside director Hillman’s parents’ garage, but thanks to wisely-chosen camera angles and inventive and effective use of various lighting gels you’d quite literally never guess it, so well-constructed is the illusion-on-a-budget here) our adventurers are quickly trapped by a cave-in and while they search desperately for a way out they hear strange noises, come across evidence of those who have been this way before, and then start getting killed.

Okay, there are way too many obvious parallels here to draw to films like “The Boogens,” The Stuff,” “The Descent,”  “What Waits Below,”and even the newly-released “Pandorum,” (which is, for all intents and purposes, “The Descent” in a spaceship)—but “The Strangeness” was one of the first movies to realize the inherent dramatic tension that comes with setting a horror movie inside a mine or a cave, and in many respects it still outshines those later, more expensive offerings.

As for the monster itself, well—

"The Strangeness" attacks!

"The Strangeness" attacks!

Let’s just say it’s part penile, part vaginal, part Lovecraftian, and altogether Freudian. As co-producer/creature designer Huntley explains in an on-camera interview included in the DVD extras, he was living as a closeted gay man at the time and the idea of a giant dick-like appendage that grabs you and puts you inside an equally giant pussy that eats you up and swallows you whole is probably as obvious and public a statement about his confused sexual state at the time as he could make. In any case, it’s still nothing the filmmakers (nor the model-maker who actually built it, Ernest D. Farino, who went on to work for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic) have any reason to hang their heads about and it has a certain amateurish charm that both draws attention to its bargain-basement origins and somehow transcends them thorough its brazen gumption at the same time. They’re not showing off their ultra-cheap creature, but at the same time you don’t get a sense that they’re actively ashamed of it, either—this is what they could do with the cash they had and it’s nothing to brag much about but still a damn sight better than what anyone has any right to expect.

And to be honest, that’s not a bad summation of “The Strangeness” as a whole. It’s nothing close to revolutionary, but it doesn’t pretend to be, and it’s miles beyond anything you’d think they could come up with given the circumstances. It’s got a creepy atmosphere and a “can-do” spirit and somehow the two complement, rather than conflict, with each other.

Original VHS Cover for "The Strangeness"

Original VHS Cover for "The Strangeness"

Now for the particulars of the Code Red DVD : Folks, what we’ve got here is one incredible little package that suits the film perfectly. There are on-camera interviews with principal filmmakers Huntley, Sawicki, and Melanie Ann Phillips (David Michael Hillman as she’s now known after undergoing gender reassignment surgery some years ago—probably the reason people have had a tough time tracking her down for the occasional interview over the years) that are both fascinating and fun, there’s a selection of their USC  student short film work (some live action, some animated), all three get together for a feature-length commentary, and there’s a nice sampling of trailers for forthcoming Code Red releases, as well.

In addition to all that, the technical specs are great. The original mono audio track sounds as crisp and clean as possible with only occasional drops in the sound, and the picture, struck from one of the film’s only answer prints and presented for the first time ever in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer,  looks as close to flat-out magnificent as this can. The colors are vibrant, the blacks are strong and well-defined, and compared to the earlier home video versions where the last 30 or so minutes of the film (which take place in almost complete darkness) were basically unwatchable because you couldn’t tell what the hell was happening, the difference is—well, like night and day (okay, last cliche of the review, I promise). If by some chance you have seen “The Strangeness” before, you will simply not believe that it could ever look this good. Sure, there are some occasional flecks and grainy spots, but it’s a 16mm print stuck in 1980—that’s inevitable.

So all in all, what Code Red gives us here is a flat-out technical miracle packaged together with the type of well-thought-out and highly personal extras for which they’ve quickly become known, all in service to a film that truly deserves this kind of TLC-heavy treatment.

Flawless “The Strangeness” is not. But remarkable it certainly is. And if you’re going to do a horror movie marathon sometime around Halloween, it’s a great choice, and is well-deserving of the new round of attention it’s hopefully going to get as a result of Code Red’s superb new DVD release. So why not take a trip down into the mine with “The Strangeness”—you’ll definitely find a gem. Not the prettiest, to be sure, and one that’s definitely rough around the edges, but a gem nevertheless.

"Not Quite Hollywood" Movie Poster

"Not Quite Hollywood" Movie Poster

“Stone.” “The Man From Hong Kong.” “Stork.” “Fantasm.” “Long Weekend.” “Mad Max.” “Turkey Shoot.” “Razorback.” “Dead-End Drive-In.” ” Mad Dog Morgan.” “BMX Bandits.” “Patrick.”

If the names of these movies don’t ring a bell—or even if they do—you’d be well-served by checking out director Mark Hartley’s respectful-yet-irreverent new indie documentary “Not Quite Hollywood,” a fascinating look at the history of “Ozploitation,” the bizarrely unique brand of low-budget exploitation filmmaking from Down Under.

In a very real sense, the history of the Ozplotation and the history of Australian filmmaking are one and the same, as no other country on earth has a movie industry whose roots lie in low-budget, drive-in pictures, and while more serious and scholarly arthouse fare like “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “The Last Wave” were the types of films Australia wanted to be known for producing in the 1970s, in truth these high-brow pictures were few and far between, and the bedrock of this nascent industry was the low-budget genre picture designed to draw people into the drive-ins (Australia is the only country besides the US with a distinct drive-in movie culture) and deliver the same types of cheap thrills, cheap shocks, cheap sex, and cheap gimmicks as their more-well-known American counterparts—all, of course, delivered on a cheap budget.

In truth, there was no Australian film industry to speak of until “Stork,” an ultra-low-budget screwball sex comedy, came along in 1971 and proved to the Australian filmgoing public—and prospective producers/investors—that Australia could produce its own fare for its cinemas and even, eventually, worldwide distribution markets. A veritable flood of Aussie sex comedies followed, such as the highly-popular “Alvin Purple” and “Fantasm” films, and the nudity-filled romps rules the day for several years until the small cadre of Australian filmmakers started to branch out into genres such as horror, action, and biker (or “bikie” as they’d say down there) movies, as well—there were even a few Australian kung fu flicks!

“Not Quite Hollywood” covers it all, with candid interviews from the directors, producers, stars,  and cinematographers behind many of the most notable Ozploitation efforts. Special attention is paid to the gonzo, balls-to-the-walls stuntmen who did so much to make this bizarre brand of filmmaking what it is, as well. American and British stars who made the trek Down Under  to either revive sagging careers or just plain keep working such as Dennis Hopper, Jamie Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach, and George Lazenby are on hand to share their recollections, as well.

Plenty of folks who went on to have fairly successful careers in Hollywood like George Miller, Fred Schepisi, and  Russell Mulcahy got their start directing Ozploitation pictures, and while names like Brian Trenchard-Smith are not as well-known stateside, their names are well-known to the Australian filmgoing public and their contributions to the growth and development of Aussie film cannot be overstated. Future mega-stars like Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson got their start in the world of Ozploitation, as well.

Oh, and there’s plenty of Quentin Tarantino, too, if you’re interested—as a human treasure-trove of knowledge of all things exploitation, he knows many of these movies well and his thoughts and reminiscences on them are insightful, interesting, and delivered with a lot less self-involved self-importance than we’ve grown accustomed to from him over the years.

I’m a little biased toward the subject matter here because I absolutely love Australia, having spent six months there, and I absolutely love low-budget exploitation filmmaking, so pairing the two is a match made in heaven for your humble host. But I have to admit that my own exposure to the world of Ozploitation has been minimal at best, since most of these films are unavailable on DVD here in the States. Sure, I’ve seen most of the well-regarded “classics” of  the filed like “Stone,” (my personal favorite of those I’ve seen and one of the absolute best biker movies ever, period) “Mad Max,” “Roadgames,” Razorback,” and what have you, but this movie has got me wanting to hunt more down—a lot more. There’s a plethora of delights for the low-budget coniosseur to be found in the wild world of Ozploitation, and I can’t wait to discover some of them for myself.

"Combat Shock" Tromasterpiece 25th Anniversary Edition DVD Cover

"Combat Shock" Tromasterpiece 25th Anniversary Edition DVD Cover

“It was becoming clearer all the time. The war is not over. The battlefield may have changed, but the war is not over.”        —Frankie Dunlan, “Combat Shock”

This is the REAL guerrilla filmmaking. Forget today’s “YouTube generation” with their hi-def home video cameras baring their excuses-for-souls in overwrought,  self-important quasi-confessionals that even they won’t care about themselves a week from now. In 1984, armed with nothing but a few thousand bucks and a 16mm camera and lighting equipment borrowed from the film school he was attending (and soon to be teaching at), Buddy Giovinazzo, a guy with nothing more than a couple short films and some music videos done for his own band ( who went by the moniker 2000 A.D. Circus, in case you were wondering) on his resume hit the postapocalyptic-looking streets of Staten Island and committed to celluloid something so fearlessly and unforgivingly bleak that even today’s audiences, reared as they are on high-gloss torture porn and million-dollar grime, will find sitting though the whole thing from start to finish hard to endure. That’s because “Combat Shock” is nothing less than a cinematic brass-knuckled punch to the gut. A movie that spits in your face while you’re down on the ground and dares you to get up again, you disgusting wimp. And just as you start to get your bearings and lift your head, it delivers another body blow and dares you to try that shit with it again, worm.  The world you ignore—the world you want to pretend doesn’t exist—the REALITY that squirms and slithers at the absolute bottom of the trash barrel, underneath the maggot-infested, rotted-meat discards of your SUV-driving, charge card-funded ILLUSION of a life—it’s forcing its way to the top, DEMANDING that you pay attention, no longer allowing you to turn a blind eye to the fact that its horrid dog-eat-dog squalor is the price OTHER people have to pay so that YOU can pretend everything is fine and dandy. “Combat Shock” is a movie that screams at you how much it hates your fucking guts and how richly you’ve earned that hatred—and for that, I love it.

Let’s go back in time for a moment to 1984. Ronald Reagan’s TV commercials are triumphantly declaring that it’s “morning in America,” but the reality on the ground is that all the people enjoying this glorious fiction of a “morning,” complete with its Hollywood sunrise, hoisted flags, and happy children scurrying off to greet the smiling school-bus driver left  one hell of a mess the night before, but guess what?  It’s morning for millions of other folks,  too — the people who weren’t at the party  and won’t be at tonight’s,  either. They’re sifting through the broken beer bottles, soggy cigarette butts, and puked-up food the partiers left in their wake, looking for some way to survive in the hollowed-out shells of once-booming industrial towns the Wall Street fat cats and junk-bond hustlers left behind as “collateral damage”  on their way to Reagan’s bright and shining new dawn.

A lot of those numberless, faceless, voiceless, hopeless “left-behinds” are veterans. Guys who put it all on the line, risking the one and only thing they truly had—their lives— in the jungles of Viet Nam while the daddy warbuckses of the world made billions standing in a pool of their blood and atop a makeshift hill of their severed limbs. Some came back so shellshocked, so physically broken and/or psychologically and spiritually tunneled-out, that from where they were standing, limping, crawling, or lying down, the guys who died, the guys who didn’t have to come back and try to eke out some kind of gutter-level existence on the table leavings of the same assholes who profited from their sacrifice and were now enjoying Ronnie’s new morning, were starting to look pretty lucky.

One such discarded veteran is Frankie Dunlan.  When we join Frankie’s story, he’s already at rock bottom, and while the shiny, happy people will tell him there’s nowhere to go but up, we all know that’s bullshit.  “Morning in America” for Frankie means, like every other morning for the past four months,  he doesn’t have a job to go to. His overbearing wife and horribly deformed (thanks to Frankie’s exposure to agent orange) baby are starving. He can’t make the rent on his calling-it-a-shithole-would-be-a-compliment apartment in the economically bombed-out ruins of Staten Island. There’s no water. The toilet’s backed up (note for the squeamish: while some movies have backed-up toilets, and lots of movies smell they came out of backed-up toilets,  “Combat Shock” points the camera lens inside the backed-up toilet). The train line runs right outside their window. His clothes are stained and torn to shreds. And just to add insult to injury,  his frayed shoelaces snap on him when he’s tying them in preparation to head out to another day in the unemployment line.

That doesn’t prove to be an easy trip, though.  Local “debt collectors” he had to turn to in order to make last month’s rent are looking for him and don’t much care at this point if he pays them back in cash or blood. A junkie pal of his is so strung out he doesn’t even recognize him at first and tries to hold him up for cash he doesn’t have. His mind is is riddled with waking fever-dreams of Viet Nam—both of the war atrocities he committed there and those perpetrated upon him when he was captured.

And of course, when he does finally get there (warning to those with short attention spans: “Combat Shock” is not exactly a fast -paced flick) the line goes around the block, it takes hours to get in, and there’s no work, anyway. And Frankie’s long meander home isn’t much easier—when he tries to prevent a little girl who can’t be more than 10 or 11 years old from beating up her kid sister, he’s attacked by—get your vomit-bags handy—her pimp, who says Frankie needs to fork over 50 bucks if he wants to keep talking to her, proving only that even when he tries to do the right thing, it’s absolutely hopeless. “Combat Shock” is many things, but a “feel-good” movie isn’t one of them.

Suffice to say, there’s only one way Frankie’s story can end, and of course it ain’t pretty. You see it coming five minutes into the movie, but even so,  when it happens it’s still nerve-wracking. Hell, I’ve seen this movie a dozen times at least and it still gets  no easier to take it all in with  subsequent viewings. How many movies can you say that about?

And while too many “B”-type films than you can mention are hindered by their low budgets, in “Combat Shock”‘s case—for the most part, with an exception or two I’ll detail in a minute–the fact that it was made for nothing is actually a key reason for its success. Frankie is played by Ricky Giovinazzo, writer-director Buddy’s brother. Ricky’s a musician by trade (he also provides the frenetic and bizarre, so-incongruous-it-actually works score to the film) and not at all what you’d call an Oscar-caliber actor. Hell, it doesn’t even feel like he’s actually acting at all. Combined with the film’s completely non-stylized, absolutely direct camerawork (Giovinazzo and company never had any filming permits and shot the whole thing “on the fly,” quite often having to settle for getting things in one take and moving quickly to the next scene) this gives the proceedings an absolutely naturalistic, almost documentary-type feel and eliminates much of the “comfortable distance” between viewer and subject found is most cinematic fiction.  “Combat Shock” is a story that lives beneath gutter-level, and its raw, amateur, unpolished technical quality is exactly right for it.  the word we’re looking for here is AUTHENTIC–completely, agonizingly, harrowingly AUTHENTIC.

Awww---isn't he a little darling?

Awww---isn't he a little darling?

So what doesn’t work? Well, as you can see above,  Frankie’s baby, a puppet-type construct whipped up by effects man Ralph Cordero for $140, is a little too “Eraserhead”-influenced to really work in the context of the story (and to be honest, the influence of David Lynch’s indie surrealist masterpiece—which, in Giovinazzo’s defense, was a very popular thing to ape in the outside-of-Hollywood film world at the time and would eventually even find its way inside the movie capitol’s less-than-hallowed-halls—  is glaringly obvious in a few other notable instances as well, such as the occasional close-up of the vapor-spewing humidifier in Frankie’s hovel and some truly Lynchian dialogue on the part of his case worker at the unemployment office, interrupted as it is with Buddy G himself popping his head inside the guy’s door and asking to borrow a veg-o-matic, a complete non-sequiter that would feel right at home in (the admittedly later, but  it’s still Lynch so I’m straining the comparison in that direction on moral grounds alone, chronology be damned)”Twin Peaks”). The “Viet Nam” flashback scenes are, it’s  painfully obvious,  shot on Staten Island, with, it’s painfully obvious, non-Vietnamese actors (one of whom, a woman gunned down by Frankie, was actually Giovinazzo’s wife at the time). The woman playing the nurse at Frankie’s VA hospital-bedside (in another series of flashbacks) is Vernoica Stork, the same actress who plays his starving-and-therefore-understandably-nagging wife, in a black, curly wig. I know, I know—it’s a zero-budget flick and Giovinazzo was doing the absolute best he could given the circumstances, but these no-way-to-be-avoided shortcomings really do detract from the overall aura of (here’s that word again) authenticity that the film otherwise conveys so brilliantly (even if only by dint of complete practical necessity).

Now, “Combat Shock” had a very brief theatrical run on New York City’s grindhouse circuit in 1984 under its original title, “American Nightmares.” Buddy G had always envisioned that what he was making here was an arthouse flick, but its raw and brutal violence and uncompromisingly grim overall worldview and aesthetic scared the self-appointed film “sophisticates” away in droves at test screenings, and to the notorious streets of “The Deuce” it went.  Somehow, I suppose,  it’s only right that a gutter story filmed in a gutter style should play in the cinematic gutter — poetic justice indeed. I’m sure many of the people who saw this film knew the world it showed— hell, the world it lived in—as intimately as one can. Some folks know street-level genius when they see it, though, and fortunately for Giovinazzo the folks at Troma picked up his little opus for re-release in theaters and (later) on VHS in 1986.  They got together with Buddy at that point and fitted it out with its new “Combat Shock” title,  redid the opening and closing credits sequences, tinkered a bit with some of the sound and gore effects (another area, it must be said, where the lack of budget well and truly heightened the—word for the day, kids—authenticity of the film, as the blood n’ guts effects really work marvelously), trimmed eight minutes of  some of the more relentless brutality off the  runtime (mostly from the ending, although even in edited form it’s still a pretty tough slog) in order to get an “R” rating from the MPAA, and outfitted it with a completely-incongruous (though still pretty cool in its own way, it must be said) “Rambo”-style poster and ad campaign.  And the end result? 25 years later, we’re still talking about it, and it’s still reducing new audiences to the same levels of shellshocked trauma that Frankie himself would understand so well.

All of which brings me (go ahead, I know you’re dying to scream out “Finally!”) to the new 25th anniversary edition 2-disc set from Troma, the fourth entry in their “Tromasterpiece” collection. What do we get here that we didn’t have in the original release? Well, for one, there’s new and vastly more appropriate-to-its-subject packaging (although I miss the original artwork, myself). There’s a great  liner notes essay inside by “Shock Cinema” editor Steven Puchalski. We get both versions of the film—the 100-minute “American Nightmares” cut (available on DVD for the first time and  struck from the very first 16 mm answer print, complete with original opening and closing credits sequences and sound and visual effects), and the 92-minute “Combat Shock” cut (which also features the absolutely terrific commentary track with Buddy G and “Nekromantik” director Jorg Buttgereit, recorded in Berlin, where Buddy now occasionally works directing television, that first appeared on the earlier single-disc edition). There’s a new trailer made especially for the “Tromasterpiece” DVD. We get a wide and intriguing selection of Giovinazzo’s short films, both pre-and post-“Combat Shock” (including “Mr. Robbie,” aka “Maniac 2,” starring the original “Maniac” himself, Joe Spinell, which also features on the “Tromasterpiece” DVD release of “The Last Horror Film”) in addition to a sampling of his 2000 A.D. Circus music video work.  There are no less than four very good interviews with the brothers Giovinazzo, three with Buddy (one of which has, again, Buttgereit along for the proceedings) and one with Rick, which marks his first ever on-camera discussion about his role in the film ( and I must say he couldn’t be any more different, personally,  to the character he portrays in the film). The original theatrical trailer is on hand for good measure. There’s a fascinating short look at the Staten Island locations as they appear today. And finally, best of all, there’s a new 30-minute documentary, “An American Nightmare,” a detailed look not only at the making of the film, but its distribution history,  its rediscovery in the “cult” cinema underground, and its impact on both contemporary and subsequent independent moviemaking, including reflections from such notables as “Deadbeat at Dawn” and “The Manson Family” director Jim VanBeber” (“Combat Shock” was an obvious influence on “Deadbeat”, although admittedly it’s a whole lot grimmer and grimier) “Henry:Portrait Of  Serial Killer” director John McNaughton (“Henry”  probably was, and remains the closest thing around to “Combat Shock” in terms of style and tone), “Maniac” director Bill Lustig, “Evil Dead 2” screenwriter and “Intruder” director Scott Spiegel, “Hardware” and “Dust Devil” director Richard Stanley, and “Document of the Dead” director and “Street Trash” writer-producer Roy Frumkes. Definitely one of the most informative and insightful–not to mention interesting—“behind-the-scenes”-type DVD extras in some time.

So yeah—this is the total package. If you already own the original Troma release, you can throw it in the trash or try to get three bucks for it on eBay. This is the version you need to own. And that goes double if you don’t have it already. I had mentioned in a post last week that I thought this would figure to be the must-own DVD release of the year, and my prognostication was, even if I do only say so myself, exactly correct.

Is “Combat Shock” for everyone? Is the Pope a Presbyterian? If, however, you want a cinematic experience you seriously will never forget (even if you’d like to)— if Hollywood “coming-home-from- ‘Nam fare like “Born on the Fourth of July” or even Cimino’s excellent “The Deer Hunter” left you feeling like the ugliest side of the story of these vets had been glossed over—if you genuinely enjoy being challenged to keep going through something you feel like  you might not want to see thorugh but know, deep down inside, that you must—and yes, if you can forgive a few necessary foibles of amateurism in service to the greater good that very same amateurism provides—then “Combat Shock” is a film that if you haven’t seen you absolutely need to see, and see very soon. But be warned—it leaves a stain inside that can’t be washed away, and there’s no Spray-n’-Wash for the human soul.