Posts Tagged ‘media blasters’

"Scream" Movie Poster

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat : this movie has nothing whatsoever to do with Wes Craven’s postmodern revisionist slasher series that took the cinematic world by storm (for reasons your host still can’t quite fathom) in the late 90s/early 2000s. They share a title, but that’s it.

In point of fact,  writer-director Byron Quisenberry’s 1981 feature debut (he would go on to helm exactly one other film, something called Big Chuck, Little Chuck in 2004), Scream, also released under the equally nonchalant title of The Outing, bears little resemblance to any slasher before or since.

In the beginning, there were dolls

We open with a long, slow dolly crawl across a mantle in some unknown house in some unknown place. We see a series of dolls, some in various states of decapitation, a clock chimes, and we see an oil painting of a ship at sail on a stormy sea that’s dated 1891. We also get some voice-over from some unseen and unknown narrator about a sea captain, and the (sort of) cruel fate he suffered at the hands of  the”company men” who ran the ships. Then the clock we hear chiming is shown just as it strikes midnight, one of the dolls moves its eyes, and we’re gone from wherever it was we were.

The cast don't know what's going on, either

Next thing you know, we’re observing a group of folks (friends? business associates? it’s never really made clear — some appear to know each other, some are even related, as is the case with a teenage girl and her grandfather, but most don’t seem to know each other at all, so I guess it’s just one of those random “adventure tour” groups) on a rafting trip in what we’re later told is Texas (even though the film itself was shot on the old backlot at Paramount studios in Hollywood that they used for their westerns).  Tired from a long day, the group pulls in to shore on the lake/river/whatever and decides to find a place to camp for the night.

Walking just a bit inland, they find an old abandoned ghost town and decide, as you an I would I’m sure if we found a ghost town, that this looks like a pretty good place to spend the night. The two tour guides and their charges (one of whom is portrayed by John Wayne’s son, Ethan — the only other actors you might recognize are the aforementioned kindly grandfather, who appeared as the ancient bellhop on Twin Peaks that found agent Cooper lying on the floor and asked him what he was doing down there before taking forever to get him a telephone, and one-time John Ford regular Woody Strode, who isn’t part of the tour group but we’ll get to later) set to work rustling up some grub, drinking a few beers, fixing coffee, and getting their sleeping bags spread out on the floor of what appears to have one been a saloon.

Then the killings start. I guess. It’s hard to say for sure who’s doing the killing, although the rather haphazard script tries to play the traditional “whodunnit?” angle of making you wonder which member of the group is killing off the others.

Now, in their defense, Quisenberry and his cohorts weren’t filmmakers per se — they were stuntmen, who hustled up a little bit of a budget and were given free use of the old Paramount backlot to see if they could come up with a quickie slasher flick to make a few bucks since the early 80s slasher craze was in full boom at the time. Every major distributor, including Paramount itself, took a pass on the finished product when they saw it, but they managed to secure some limited fly-by-night independent distribution anyway, which is a testament to their perseverance.

But not to their skill. Scream plays out like exactly what it is — a low-budgeter made by some guys who had no clue what the fuck they were doing. But, again, to give credit where it’s due — by dint of sheer ineptitude and inexperience, they ended up coming up with a movie that, while in no way especially good, is certainly different enough from other similar fare to maintain interest throughout, even though, in fairness, it’s often crushingly,  even mind-numbingly, dull.

There’s a lot of sitting around and doing nothing on display here. There are pointless arguments with incredibly hokey dialogue. There is precious little by way of actual suspense. No compelling reason to actually give a shit about any of these characters is ever offered. In some cases, we never even learn their names.

In short, when they start dying, you really can’t be bothered to care. And it’s not only the blandness and sub-one-dimensionality of their portrayals that “achieves” this result — the nature of how they meet their ends contributes to this lethargy, as well.

Your standard "Scream" kill-shot

More often than not, we see a weapon or other implement hanging on a wall, we see an unseen hand begin to remove it, and then we see a dead body — that’s it. The bloody weapon might get hung back up. We might see some smoke in the darkness. We might see a long-distance shot of the corpse. And then again, we might not see any of that. One thing we definitely don’t see much of, though, is the person actually getting killed. There’s next to no gore on display here, just as there’s no T&A to make things at least dimly interesting, either.

In short, we’ve got a near-bloodless, near tit-less, near ass-less slasher flick that nonetheless racks up a semi-respectable (seven by my count, but the ambiguous nature of the ending leaves open the possibility of more) body count.

Woody Strode as the (sort of) Answer Man

As for exposition, there’s precious little of that, as well. The mysterious nature of the weapons being removed and almost floating toward their targets leaves open the possibility of a supernatural explanation for the murderous goings-on, but only when a mysterious rider (played by Western sorta-legend Woody Strode) comes into the ghost town on his horse with a Rottweiler a few steps ahead of him in the mist, shows the group one of their number that had gone out to find help but ended up dead (his covered body is slung over a second horse),  summarily dismounts, goes into the saloon, sits down, and lights up his pipe do we get the closest thing we’re ever going to get to an explanation here.

“Me and the captain, we came here when they gave him nary another ship. They were cruel men, them that run the ships. Company men.”

So, he was the narrator we heard at the beginning. Him and the captain came here (to the middle of Texas?) when the captain got put out to pasture. Company men are bad news. And that’s all we find out before he rides out again.

More people get killed in equally ineptly-staged ways. More scenes play out in such near-total darkness that it’s impossible to tell what the hell is going on, not that it really matters because you won’t care anyway. And then we get a kinda-bloody sickle sitting on the saloon floor and it’s never made clear if everybody’s dead at this point or what. But things are definitely over. How do we know this?

The murderous (I guess) Captain

Because next thing you know, we’re back in the house from the beginning, and back at the mantle, and “treated” to a long, slow crawl that shows the decapitated dolls, the chiming clock (it’s midnight again) and a new painting, this time a portrait of the unnamed Captain, dated 1891. And once again we hear the flat, but admittedly smooth, monotone of Woody Strode telling us:

“Me and the captain, we came here when they gave him nary another ship. They were cruel men, them that ran the ships. Company men.”

I just don’t know, friends. I guess the murderous spirit of  “the Captain” haunts the ghost town he came to when the company men clipped his sea legs and if people show up there, he kills them. But it sure could have been a lot more, well — clear, I guess. Especially for the victims. Call me old-fashioned, but if you’re gonna get killed, I’d like to know at least who is doing it, if not why.

"Scream" DVD from Code Red/ Media Blasters

Scream had a long, torturous path to its recent DVD release. Originally announced by Code Red, who assembled the extras, it was canceled due to low pre-orders, but appeared about a year later as a joint release from Code Red and Media Blasters, under their Shriek Show label. The print has some flaws, explained by the fact that it was shot in 16mm but blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, so there’s some understandable graininess to the image throughout. The digitally remastered anamorphic transfer does look as good as it probably can, though, all things considered. The sound is remastered mono is suitably crisp and clear. As far as extras go, there’s a theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a selection of other Media Blasters trailers, and then one giant missed opportunity in the form of the feature commentary.

Scream is a movie that has perplexed horror fans for years, and exerted a kind of strange allure over those who actually knew about it. Simply put, people want to know more — specifically, what the hell were these guys thinking? Unfortunately, in the commentary, writer-director Quisenberry proves to be somewhat untalkative, with Bill Olsen of Code Red and moderator Marc Edward Hueck literally having to pull information out of the guy. The best explanation we ever get for why the killings are so bizarrely staged is “we were going for a European thing,” a pretty unsatisfactory fallback explanation that Quisenberry resorts to on numerous occasions. When the dead air gets to be too much, Olsen and Hueck literally change the subject to completely unrelated matters just to get this guy to actually talk about anything. When the subject comes back to the movie itself, though, Quisenberry obviously can’t remember that much about what they did or why they did it and can’t really be bothered to have his memory jogged too often. So anyone watching the commentary hoping for some concrete answers is going to come away understandably disappointed.

But maybe it’s for the best, since the most obvious explanation, “we had no idea what we were doing,” just isn’t going to cut it for many hardcore horror aficionados at this point even though it’s probably the God’s-honest truth.

I can only recommend Scream for true slasher junkies and those who seek out cinematic curiosities for their own sake. It plays by its own set of rules and it’s quite clear those rules are being made up as they go along. There’s next to no onscreen bloodletting, there’s no nudity, there’s barely any foul language, there’s no “final girl” — the list of standard slasher ingredients that it just outright ignores is endless. Quisenberry makes clear that they weren’t actually trying to make anything here but a standard horror flick with a little bit of a supposedly “European” feel to it. What they ended up with is something entirely different, and entirely unlike anything else you’ll ever see.

It’s just that most people really won’t want to see it.

"The Disturbance" DVD Cover

"The Disturbance" DVD Cover

Looking back on things, 1990 was a strange year to try to make an independent exploitation film, as the landscape was shifting but had not yet settled. 42nd street was in its death throes, as were the drive-ins, but both were still up and running, if only on fumes. The home video market had cooled off a bit from its early-80s “explosion” days, and the two Shannons — Tweed and Whirry, in chronological order, had not yet established the direct-to-VHS market as being primarily the stomping grounds for “mature” T&A “mystery thrillers.” In addition, some movies were even going right to cable, with the proliferation of Skinemax and other pay channels looking for movies to fill up their schedules on the cheap. Last but not least, the independent “art house” circuit had not really come into being yet in anything like the form it is today.

Oh, sure, some of the old rules were still in play — at least a little bit of nudity was a must, for instance, but the “slasher” craze had died down a bit and heavy-duty gore was considered a bit passe at the time — as was, if we’re to be completely honest, horror itself.

Thankfully, though, not everyone got the message.

Down in south Florida, an aspiring your director named Cliff Guest had gotten ahold of a script by equally aspiring young screenwriter Laura Radford that he thought (quite rightly) had some real pop to it. He was able to secure (a laughably small amount of) financing through an outfit called A.F.T. Productions, headed by one Ron Cerasuolo, who would later go on to business success as the guy who came up with the original idea for the “Planet Hollywood” restaurant chain.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that of these three principal players, “The Disturbance” remains the only credit on the film resumes for any of them  (and the same is true for Timothy Greeson, who played the film’s troubled leading man, although that’s not particularly relevant to the point — yes, I do have one! — that I’m about to make here). That being said, however, they sure hit on a novel way to market their product.

Given that a theatrical release seemed almost impossible for a low-budget effort like this, and that much of what was assumed at the time to be horror’s last throes was headed straight to video and/ or late-night “premium” cable, it looked like “home viewing platforms,” as they say in industry lingo (although the wretched phrase had yet to be coined at the time) were going to serve as the dump-off spot for this little 10-years-too-late exploitation effort.

But what if they could expand the film’s market without the aid of even the most miniscule theatrical run?

That’s where the purely accidental genius brought about by cold, hard necessity came into play, and either Guest, Cerasuolo, or both in concert came up with the idea of actually making two films here for two completely different markets.

One would be a DTV ultra-low-budget “psychological horror” that followed the screenplay as written, namely the story of a young guy named Clay Moyer (the aforementioned Greeson), a schizophrenic guy who’s just been released from a long stretch in a mental hospital and has returned home to live with his parents. He’s prone to sleeping late and spending all damn day down at Miami beach doing nothing apart from watching the waves and trying to keep his head together. One day while indulging in this exhausting regimen, he meets a young lady named Susan (Lisa Geoffrion, since deceased, who also has only one screen credit to her name — that being this one, of course) and the two strike up a romance. Things are looking up for our guy Clay — he’s staying stable, he’s getting laid, and he even gets a job as a dishwasher in a kitchen.

Before too long, though, Susan begins to wonder why they never go to his place, only hers, and why he doesn’t talk about his past or his family very much. And when his clingy, smothering behavior starts to really cramp her style, she decides she’s had enough.

Needless to say, things spiral downwards pretty rapidly for Clay at that point. He’s been having troubling dreams about violent murder that only get worse when his ladyfriend dumps him (he even dreams about killing her). He begins to stalk her and to harass her at work. He has long periods of blacked-out or “missing” time. And just to add insult to injury, his mom catches him jerking off in the shower.

When dead bodies start turning up in the vicinity, though, Clay has to wonder if his dreams are really that, and if the fact that he can’t account for long stretches of time most nights might have a sinister explanation.

Not a bad little premise, if hardly resoundingly original. What is it, then, that sets this movie apart from so many other similar “Psycho”-type flicks?  Well, for one thing, the gore effects during the dream (or are they?) murder sequences  are good, especially given the budgetary constraints involved. But there’s much more to it than that, which is where the secondary market for this film really comes into play.

You see,  Radford’s script wasn’t just a garden-variety mentally-disturbed-killer-terrorizes-the-community story. It actually provided a rather detailed, accurate, thoroughgoing, and even sympathetic portrait of mental illness, in particular schizophrenia obviously, and those who suffer from it (and Greeson deserves credit for portraying Clay in a realistic, as well as humanistic, manner). So what did Guest and Cerasuolo (again, who gets the exact credit for this idea I couldn’t say) decide to do? They made another movie. Of the same movie. How appropriately schizophrenic is that? Which brings us to —

"What's Wrong With the Neighbor's Son?" VHS Box Cover

"What's Wrong With the Neighbor's Son?" VHS Box Cover

“What’s Wrong With the Neighbor’s Son? ” is “The Disturbance.” Minus the T&A. And the gore. It was distributed amongst the academic and clinical communities as a “realistic portrayal” of what it’s like to suffer from schizophrenia, a straight-ahead, no-frills, non-sensationalistic character study of those who suffer from this horribly debilitating from of mental illness and the challenges they face at home, in the workplace, and in their communities — a look at their internal and external struggles as they work to stay stable and find a place in a world that fears them. It’s won praise and accolades from most major psychological associations, been included as part of the curriculum in countless college courses and research and study groups, has been shown in numerous mental illness support groups, and has even been praised by Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush Junior. In short, it’s a well-respected and groundbreaking academic film.

And with about twenty minutes or so of nudity and gore thrown in, it’s “The Disturbance,” a far-better-than-average psychological horror exploitation film.

It got a little bit of buzz when Quentin Tarantino mentioned it as being among his top ten favorites of the 90s, but by and large “The Disturbance” saw very little distribution on the home video market (the original VHS release is literally impossible to find), and it only saw release on DVD last year from Media Blasters as part of volume one of its “Rareflix” box set collection (the other two movies coming with it being “Posed for Murder” and “Death Collector”). It’s not available for individual sale, but the “Rareflix” boxes are pretty cheap (they can be had new for about $15 each), and all things considered you get a decent amount for your money, given that the disc has a pretty decent-looking full-frame transfer, plenty good mono sound, and features a nice selection of Media Blasters trailers and, best of all, one of those semi-inebriated commentary tracks from Media Blasters personnel that made the (now, apparently, sadly canceled) “Rareflix” collections (there are four of them in total) such a treat for B-movie junkies.

So oo yourself a favor and check this movie out, it’s definitely several cuts above most similar fare and offers a much more realistic portrayal of serious mental illness and its consequences and effects than much more high-brow fare that tries to tackle similar material. Plus, it’s got more gore and nudity than that other purportedly “classy” — but usually in truth much more exploitative and much less authentic — stuff.  It’s well-made, absorbing, and even, dare I say it, compelling psychological horror on a shoestring budget, and you know, somehow I find it appropriate that the behind-the-scenes crew and the cast have no other credits to their name, since this film exists in a category all its own.

Rareflix Vol. 4, Featuring "Boogie Vision, "Transformed" and "Lightning Bolt"

Rareflix Vol. 4, Featuring "Boogie Vision, "Transformed" and "Lightning Bolt"

—transformed into Christian action heroes, that is! Yes, folks, blaxploitation veteran Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and second-tier martial arts star Leo Fong staged a comeback in 2005, but you probably missed it if you weren’t looking too closely. Williamson, star of classics like “Bucktown,” and Fong, star of less-than-classics like “Revenge Of The Bushido Blade” got themselves some old-time religion and re-emerged in the 2005 Jesus-vs.-the-drug-lords modern cinematic parable “Transformed.”

The mean streets of Westgate (which look to be Los Angeles suburbs) are the setting for this tale of—ahem!—intrigue , corruption and redemption, the debut (and to date only, as near as I can tell) directorial effort of Efren C. Pinon, who, if he plays his cards right (if his religion allows him to play cards at all, that is) could very well become the Ron Ormond of the 21st century—and who wouldn’t aspire to that lofty goal?

Westgate is a city besieged by the scourge of illegal narcotics, and while exactly which drugs are tearing the community apart isn’t spelled out (in a Christian flick apparently just saying the word “drugs” will do), the goal of the evil dope-pushing syndicate is apparently to get every kid in town hooked on their product (again, whatever that nameless product may be).

Enter Pastor Debra (Shirlee Knudson), a plucky young lady of the cloth who’s determined to win back her church’s neighborhood, and then the city, from the pushers, lead by the ruthless Cholo (Ken Moreno), a guy who’s apparently dealing drugs to provide a better life for his young son—by getting all the boy’s friends hooked. That little dichotomy doesn’t seem to bother Cholo much, though, and why should it? He’s got friends in high places, including none other than the mayor himself, who are all in for a piece of Cholo’s action and look the other way while he turns the children of the city into hopeless dope fiends.

Pastor Debra is no pushover, however—she’s evidently one of those hip, modern preachers who isn’t above engaging in some hardboiled martial arts action if that’s what it takes to keep the kids in her community safe. Watching her and her friends beat up the pushers in a local bar and then high-fiving each other and saying “praise Jesus!” really is a sight to behold, and I’d venture to guess you won’t find anything like it in any other movie ever made—which probably isn’t such a bad thing, in and of itself, but you have to give Pinon and the other folks behind “Transformed” some credit for not being afraid to be unintentionally absurd.

Our tough-as-nails pastor has some friends in high places, too—the mysterious aged ninja-type known only as The Fist (Fong), who always seems to show up when trouble is at hand, and the equally-aged-but-no-less tough mercenary warrior known as The Hammer (Williamson), a top-dollar freelance operative brought in by a secret unnamed group of good guys to provide help in Westgate’s hour of need.

It won’t be an easy fight—the whole city power structure is lined up against our good pastor, the local DEA office is on the take, and secret computer files reveal that the drug network reaches all the way to the top, with President George W. Rush (yes, really) and Vice President Dick Chaney (yes, really again) named among the nefarious network’s head honchos.

The hand of God has a way of intervening in these things, though (apparently often through tragedy), and when Cholo’s son O.D.’s on product supplied to the school kids by old man’s network, he lets Jesus into his heart while he prays by his comatose kid’s hospital bed (hence the “Transformed” title) and now Pastor Debra and her mystery men have a powerful ally on the inside and are ready to take down the dealers and their ninja army (well, okay, it’s just a few ninjas, and they look pretty old and slow themselves, but it’s the thought that counts).

I don’t know how else to say it, folks, “Transformed” is one of those things you’ve just got to see to believe. Scripture-quoting badass preacher lady and her arthritic protectors taking on a drug network that reaches all the way to the White House yet is apparently inept enough to be brought down by essentially a handful of concerned neighbors, albeit concerned neighbors who know how to fight. The seasoned action exploitation fan will find a lot to like here, people who  like just plain  weird movies will find a more-than-generous amount of  jaw-dropping moments, and everyone else will wonder, probably quite rightly I might add, just how this thing got made, and more importantly — why?

“Transformed” never got a theatrical release and I couldn’t even find any movie poster or stills for the thing to include in this review. It is, however, available on DVD, as you can tell from the photo at the top of this post, as part of the “Rareflix Volume 4” box set from Media Blasters. For those who haven’t been picking them up, I have to say that the Rareflix sets are not only a bargain, they’re also a blast. Volume 4 features James Bryan’s “Groove Tube”/”Kentucky Fried Movie”-style comedy “Boogie Vision” and Antonio Margheriti’s spaghetti Bond rip-off “Lightning Bolt” in addition to “Transformed.” The extras on the set are pretty light (the hysterical commentaries featuring various semi-inebriated Media Blasters behind-the-scenes personnel that featured on the first two volumes are sadly missing), but “Transformed” does include a commentary from Leo Fong and each disc is packed with previews for other cool Media Blasters titles, so it’s still a damn solid value for your entertainment dollar.

Poster Art For "Don't Go In The House"

Poster Art For "Don't Go In The House"

Let’s face it, grown men who have unresolved issues with their mothers, particularly those who still live with them, have been a staple among movie bad guys since the days of Norman Bates — and while it may have become something of a cliche, it’s one that works, because to the rest of us, there’s just something creepy about a guy in his 30s or 40s who lives with his mom.

Donnie Kohler (Dan Grimaldi), the central character in writer-director Joseph Ellison’s 1980 grindhouse psychodrama “Don’t Go In The House” has a million and one reasons to move out of his mom’s drafty old Victorian tomb of an abode, but he doesn’t. His mom used to burn him as a kid, you see, holding his hands and arms over an open gas flame on their gigantic old stove when he’d been a bad little boy. As a result, Donnie grew up not only with unresolved mommy-issues, but with a peculiar fascination with fire, as well. He’s both attracted to and frightened of it in equal measure in his adult years, as evidenced by the fact that he works in an incinerator but when a co-worker catches fire, he freezes up and is unable to assist in his rescue, forcing the other guys at the plant to save him even though Donnie is closest to the scene.

Needless to say, this act of cowardice doesn’t go over well with his co-workers, and Donnie leaves the plant humiliated. If he thought he had a bad day at work, though, things only get worse when he gets home — his mother, you see, has finally succumbed to old age and departed this mortal coil, and with her goes Donnie’s last (admittedly tepid) connection to reality. He’s on his own now, and has a lot of shit to work out as he finally “grows up” in his own uniquely twisted way.

His first actions are natural enough—he blasts his stereo at top volume and gets drunk. But this youthful (err—okay, so he’s not youthful) fling with excess quickly loses its appeal and Donnie soon combines his unhealthy fascination with fire and his unresolved issues with an overbearing mother (issues that he has now, in a classic case of psychological transference, grafted onto the entire female gender as a whole) in a decidedly toxic fashion. He starts calling in sick from work every day and nailing sheet metal to the walls, ceiling, and floor of  one of the many large and unused rooms in his house. Then, it’s time for him to get busy and bring home some “dates,” by any means necessary—but his idea of a good time with a member of the opposite sex requires him to wear an asbestos suit. That’s right, our guy Donnie decides to bring women home, chain them up, and take a flamethrower to them.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit there’s nothing terribly original about the premise here (apart from Donnie’s preferred method of dispatch for his victims), but Grimaldi really sells you on the character with his performance.  He absolutely seems like the quintessential loser who never left home, has no social skills, is terrified of the opposite sex, and blames them (all of them) for his problems. Ellison’s script is a character piece through and through, and the casting of Grimaldi in the lead was a brilliant stroke on his part. In the hands of a lesser actor, this would be standard—or even substandard—exploitation fare, but Grimaldi’s virtuoso performance alone elevates this movie several notches above where it probably belongs.

The house itself is a brilliant piece of location scouting, and succeeds in first capturing, then magnifying, the twisted mental landscape of  our psycho protagonist. The winter shooting schedule of the film in the New York/New Jersey area adds to the overall intensely moody atmosphere, as well.

All in all, this is a classic case of a film whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The creepily inherent understanding of the lead character’s twisted psychological worldview on the part of both the writer/director and the star, combined with (I hesitate to use the term but it really does apply here) a perfect physical setting takes what is, on paper, nothing too terribly special and transforms it into something very special indeed. Sick, twisted, depraved, abhorrent, offensive, shocking, perverse, and sleazy, to be sure—but very special nonetheless.

Media Blasters released “Don’t Go In The House” on DVD under their “Shriek Show” label a few years back, and it features a fine feature-length commentary with Grimaldi, an on-camera interview with the actor, an alternate take of one of the film’s more brutal scenes, the original theatrical trailer, and more. It’s available alone or as part of the “Grindhouse Psychos Triple Feature” boxset, together with “Cop Killers,” an early Rick Baker special effects effort, and Roberta Findlay’s notorious “Tenement.” Great stuff!