Author - Michael Lisenberry

Mini-Reviews of My Vinegar Syndrome’s Halfway to Black Friday Sale Purchases

Summertime is in full swing and that means one thing if you’re a cinephile with a spending problem fueling your mission to single-handedly keep physical media alive: Sale season!

Kino-Lorber, Severin, Barnes and Noble’s semi-annual Criterion/Arrow Video 50% sale… Heck, even Target runs a three for two sale this time of year and they stock plenty of boutique releases on their website. The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of deals if you know where to look.

This year I found myself participating in Vinegar Syndrome’s Halfway to Black Friday sale for the first time. The sale typically runs Memorial Day weekend and is your chance to get most everything available on their site at half price. This also marks when they tend to release some of their biggest titles of the year and issue new limited editions of previous titles.

With their lovingly restored releases of some truly oddball and obscure films thought lost to the video store graveyard, Vinegar Syndrome has quickly become my favorite boutique distributor and Halfway to Black Friday 2022 was a great way to beef up their presence in my library. Here are some snap thoughts on the titles I came away with…

Fade to Black

The Plot: When Eric, a socially awkward cinephile, is pushed just a little too far he dresses up as a series of famous characters from Hollywood history to make the citizens of 1980 Los Angeles pay the price in blood.

Best Bonus Feature: Fade to Black features a brand new audio commentary by the hosts of horror fan podcast The Hysteria Continues. I’m a sucker for any time fans are brought in to provide commentary and this track brings the goods to this movie about fandom gone wrong.

Worth Buying? If you can find it, yes. This has been one of Vinegar Syndromes more popular releases, going so far as to be one of the handful of titles to earn a second limited edition slipcover. As it stands both the slipcover and standard editions are sold out but it should be fairly findable on the secondhand market. Definitely worth hunting down this vastly under-appreciated slasher flick.

Ebola Syndrome

The Plot: A fugitive from the law grapes his way across South Africa, contracts Ebola, and becomes patient zero in an epidemic of blood and gore all in glorious 4K.

Best Bonus Feature: This release features an all new audio commentary by film historian Sam Deighan as she contextualizes the madness of this shocking Category III (aka Hong Kong’s NC-17) film.

Worth Buying? Ebola Syndrome is a bit much. It’s definitely one of those movies you watch with an eye on the door, wary of who might accidentally walk in on you watching what scene. That said, if you can check your morals at the door you’ll definitely find some fun to be had with this gratuitous piece of sleaze.

Homegrown Horrors Vol 1

The Plot: Homegrown Horrors brings together three regional horror films from the late 80s and early 90s. First up is Beyond Dream’s Door, a psychological thriller about a man’s apocalyptic dreams bleeding into waking life. Next is Winterbeast, an absolutely wild Northeast cousin to the Evil Dead movies. Rounding out the set is Fatal Exam, a supernatural slasher that warns of the dangers of mixing haunted houses, a mysterious killer, and painfully long runtimes.

Best Bonus Feature: Winterbeast. 100% it’s Winterbeast. I know Winterbeast is an actual movie and not a supplement but hell, Winterbeast. For the special effects alone it’s gotta be Winterbeast.

Worth Buying? Definitely. Especially so if you’re a fan of low-budget regional genre filmmaking. If you’ve got any mix of the following sets on your shelf – Weird Wisconsin, He Came From The Swamp, The Dungeon of Andy Milligan, The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast, Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection, etc. – this belongs right beside them.

Censor

The Plot: A strict and morally rigid censor confuses the horror films of a notorious director with the events that may have taken her sister’s life. Violence ensues.

Best Bonus Feature: “Ban the Sadist Videos!” is a two part feature length documentary on video nasties. If you’re interested at all in schlock filmmaking and the history of the UK’s censorship, this feature is well worth the watch.

Worth Buying? Absolutely. Censor made strong showings on the festival circuit a few years ago and has found a worthy home as one of the first films released under the Vinegar Syndrome Pictures imprint. It’s a taut psychological thriller with robust bonus features and spectacular packaging in its limited edition release.

Scared to Death

The Plot: A crime novelist uses his past expertise as a police officer to uncover the mysteries surrounding a genetically engineered humanoid monster stalking and killing the residents of early 80s Los Angeles.

Best Bonus Feature: For some reason, Seattle based goth horror band Dracula Party decided that 2021 was the year to write and record a song based on the plot of Scared to Death. Then they made a music video. It’s terrible and weird but most of Vinegar Syndrome’s releases exist on a spectrum of “terrible” to “weird” so I’ll allow it.

Worth Buying? If you’re a fan of cheesy self-serious sci-fi horror cranked out in the immediate wake of Alien then sure, give it a go. Otherwise pass.

Voyage of the Rock Aliens

The Plot: An intergalactic rock band makes its way to Earth in search of good tunes in this off-kilter 80s musical that begins with a Pia Zadora/Jermaine Jackson music video and ends with a tentacle monster attacking a high school.

Best Bonus Feature: “Where They Are Now: Reuniting the Band Rhema in the 21st Century” is a newly produced retrospective on the band featured in the film, just in case you can’t get enough of this store brand Devo.

Worth Buying? While not the most stacked release I got during the sale, Voyage of the Rock Aliens is some of the most fun I had with any of these titles save for one we’ll get to in a bit. Besides, there’s a How Did This Get Made? episode about it and you know that’s a sign of a good time.

Cloak and Dagger

The Plot: A young boy’s table-top spy RPG bleeds into the real world as he finds himself caught up in the world of Cold War espionage in mid-80s San Antonio, Texas. His only hope? Hallucinations of Jack Flack, his favorite fictional spy.

Best Bonus Feature: The packaging on this set is superb. Being the label’s third Vinegar Syndrome Ultra release, Cloak and Dagger features the same magnetic clasping box and perfect bound making of book that previous releases Beastmaster and Six-String Samurai do. The art design on this release is impeccable with the interior slipcover perfectly matching the packaging of 1980s Atari cartridge boxes right down to the price sticker and misspelled copy.

Worth Buying? At the time of this writing there are still over 1000 left in stock but that can change. I missed the boat on Beastmaster and had to pay a pretty price for it on eBay. VSU releases have quickly earned the prestige they deserve with their over the top packaging, loads of special features, and once a year release schedule. Buy this film immediately.

Thriller – A Cruel Picture

The Plot: A mute prostitute spends her free day each week learning how to drive, shoot, and kick karate ass in order to take revenge upon the men who’ve ruined her life in this rape-revenge shocker from Sweden.

Best Bonus Feature: Thriller, while banned in Sweden and much of Europe at the time of its release, eventually found new life overseas. This limited edition release contains bonus blu-ray and 4K discs containing They Call Her One-Eye, the American recut of the film.

Worth Buying? If you can find it, yes. This release was long rumored in various Vinegar Syndrome fan communities and it immediately became the chief cause for FOMO in this year’s Halfway to Black Friday sale. While there is a new limited edition containing only the original cut in its own slipcover, the now sold out first edition is the only place to find the American version of the film.

The Laughing Dead

The Plot: Tourism, Catholic priests, Dia de Los Muertos and Aztec rituals all collide in a bonkers film directed by a man whose previous biggest credit was writing an episode of Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers and featuring special effects by the director of the movie Troll.

Best Bonus Feature: The Laughing Dead is pretty sparse on features but credit is due to Unholy Assembly, a 35 minute making of that sheds a little light on what went into this truly weird movie full of kids cussing out priests and people turning into (spoiler) Aztec gargoyle monsters.

Worth Buying? The overall package isn’t anything special but the next time sale season comes around and you can grab this at a good price, go for it. It’s not the *best* bad movie out there but it can hold its own for a night of fun watching with friends.

Miami Connection

The Plot: When a gang of motorcycle ninjas takes over central Florida’s cocaine trade only one team of Tae Kwon Do masters/rock band/family of orphans can stop them – Orlando’s hottest night club act Dragon Sound!

Best Bonus Feature: Miami Connection was the brainchild of one man – regional celebrity and Tae Kwon Do studio entrepreneur YK Kim. Buckle up because there’s a whole audio commentary featuring the man as he waxes poetic on his mission to bring Tae Kwon Do to the masses through this forgotten gem of a film.

Worth Buying? Yes. A thousand times yes. Miami Connection is absolutely insane and the best time I’ve had watching a movie eight times in one month this year. The acting is terrible, the story makes no sense, and it’s the The Room of martial arts flicks. There is no way you watch this movie without it leaving a giant smile carved into your face.

The Final Verdict

And there you have it. This was my first, and definitely not last, time participating in any of Vinegar Syndrome’s sales. The Criterion to Arrow to Vinegar Syndrome pipeline has been strong with me over the past year and this sale helped them claim an even more sizable chunk of my shelf space. With physical media being all but a dying art form its good to see companies like these keeping the torches lit and it makes me happy to be a good consumer and help support them in their restoration, preservation, and celebration efforts.

LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga Review

Like most self respecting thirty eight year old men, I love both LEGOs and Star Wars. They each held their separate corners of my childhood until they crossed paths in the 1999 marketing ramp up to The Phantom Menace and have been inseparable ever since. As a matter of fact, LEGO Star Wars as a sub franchise has existed for just over half of the entire history of Star Wars itself, making LEGOs almost as synonymous with George Lucas’ masterpiece as Lightsabers, Death Stars, and bodily dismemberment. However it wasn’t until 2005 that LEGO Star Wars would debut in video game form and today, seventeen years later, we have developer Traveller’s Tales magnum opus in LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga.

While LEGO Star Wars as a franchise has been around for almost a quarter century, the history of LEGO Star Wars games is quite short. LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game and LEGO Star Wars II covered the events of the prequel and original trilogies respectively. LEGO Star Wars III presented the events of the Clone Wars and LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens was just that, a game based on the first film in Disney’s sequel trilogy. It’s been three years since the sequel trilogy concluded and wrapped up the Skywalker Saga but we’ve been left with unfinished business until now, where much like my long overdue review of this game Traveller’s Tales has finally finished the story they began all those years ago and close out the Saga.

Now if you’re a cynic like me, when you first heard of LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga you likely thought this was going to be a game similar to 2007’s The Complete Saga— a simple repackaging of previously released content with few quality of life enhancements and a touch of new content to round out the story. I want to get this out of the way up front, this is absolutely not that. I’m pleased to report that The Skywalker Saga is a from the ground up plastic brick retelling of the entirety of the nine core Star Wars films and perhaps the first semi open world one at that making for a wonderful surprise for anybody who may be getting tired of the tried and true LEGO video game formula.

Much like LEGO as a brand encourages freedom of play and a blue sky creative approach, The Skywalker Saga wears a similar openness on its sleeve from the moment you start the game. Upon hitting the game’s main menu, rather than be forced down a linear path of events you can choose to play the three Star Wars trilogies in any order you want. Was your first exposure the prequels? Fantastic, start with The Phantom Menace. Are you a purist? Then select A New Hope. The only restriction is you can’t jump straight into the middle of a trilogy, i.e. you can’t play the best Star Wars film without finishing its immediate predecessor The Force Awakens first.

That freedom extends into the game itself. LEGO games have historically been played from fixed camera perspectives. Sure, the camera tends to lend itself to wider angles and some limited controllability but by and large they’ve been committed to a limited point of view and a restricted plane. While LEGO Batman 2 did allow for some open world roaming between missions, once you moved on to your next objective it was back to the tried and true formula. The Skywalker Saga breaks the licensed LEGO game mold by dropping the camera tight behind your character for a true open world action game experience. This allows for not only a closer look and greater appreciation for the detailed world and character models, but also opens up new gameplay mechanics with a brand new, fairly serviceable cover mechanic for heated gun battles like you’d find in the hallways of a Rebel Blockade Runner.

With freedom being the name of the game, its easy to get distracted in The Skywalker Saga due to the abundance of simple side missions and exploration opportunities present throughout the game. While moving from objective to objective, you’ll find plenty of NPCs to help in simple fetch quests or blocked off Metroid-esque opportunities to come back to later and retrieve a special Kyber brick, a core upgrade resource in the game. While yes, at the end of the day this is a game for kids and the side missions never really amount to much, they do lean into the typical LEGO game trope of making sure you have the right character for the task. Whether it’s swapping characters to C-3PO to understand exactly what the fish nun on Luke’s convent island is asking for or calling up Rey to use her scavenger abilities to climb to an out of the way brick, the side missions may be simple but they innovate on years worth of core LEGO game play.

LEGO games are known for their reverence to their source material through presenting countless options for playable characters. The Skywalker Saga does that and more. At nearly any point you can switch to almost any character you’ve come across and buy plenty of others using the LEGO studs you’ve collected. And these aren’t just core characters. Want to survive the Battle of Hoth as a spindly legged Droideka? Sure. Take Uncle Owen gambling in the casinos of Canto Bight? Go for it. There are close to 400 playable characters to choose from across nine upgradeable classes. Using the aforementioned Kyber bricks, acquired from side missions, challenge objectives, and completing story levels, you can level up both core stats like health across all your characters or class specific skills the rewards Bounty Hunters collect for downing enemies. In addition to swappable characters, you can also choose from over 100 different ships to pilot making this the video game equivalent of dumping out a bucket of LEGOs and going ham on the living room floor.

All of the freedoms that The Skywalker Saga provides would fall flat if they didn’t have the presentation to back them up. I played The Skywalker Saga on an Xbox Series X and the game ran beautifully at a native 4k/60fps without stuttering once. To top that off, the game is beautiful. At this point we’re all used to the simple character models of the LEGO franchise but The Skywalker Saga takes it to a level close to what we’ve seen in the theatrical LEGO movies. Characters are detailed right down to the LEGO branding inside their feet and the seams in the plastic where their parts were once molded. Characters also now show weathering, as outdoor environments are largely dirt, water, and mud while LEGO bricks are reserved to build structures and indoor locations. This means that throughout the beginning of A New Hope you can expect to see Luke getting sandy and some of his paint chipping off as he now looks as you’d expect a LEGO Minifig left out in the desert to wear down. Complimenting the excellent visuals is sound design that feels lifted straight from the movies. Dialogue is an indistinguishable mix of classic lines with newly produced recordings with soundalike voice actors all while John Williams’ timeless score weaves throughout.

LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is a surprisingly deep experience that kept me coming back to scratch the completion itch which surprised me because while I’ve liked plenty of LEGO games they haven’t felt like they’ve had anything new to offer in some while. I was surprised to find that after years of a franchise that’s become a little copy and paste, this game takes key steps forward in evolving Traveller’s Tales model and has something more than just a new licensing deal. But LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga isn’t just a great LEGO game— It’s also a great Star Wars game. It provides deeply replayable recreations of key moments across the Star Wars film franchise wrapped up in both a deep love and respect for the source material balanced with LEGO’s trademark irreverent sense of humor all culminating in a game that both the oldest Star Wars fan and youngest LEGO builder can enjoy together.

Arrow Video’s Mill of the Stone Women Limited Edition Blu-ray Review

When pressed to think of Italian horror your mind likely immediately lands on giallo, the forebearer to the slasher flick. You may jump straight to the wave of zombie cash-ins of the 70s and 80s. What you probably don’t picture is Hammer-esque gothic dramas. Arrow Films is out to change that with their release of Giorgio Ferroni’s 1960 classic, Mill of the Stone Women, Italy’s first color horror film! Read on to find out if this release is rock solid or merely dust in the wind.

Feature

As Mill of the Stone Women opens, writer Hans finds himself in picturesque Holland to work on a story about the… well, the titular Mill of the Stone Women. It’s literally right there, just downriver from where Hans makes landfall and name checked within sixty seconds. Hans sets off for the mill where sculptor Professor Wahl lives and works, creating a carousel of sculptures that wouldn’t be out of place in a carnival dark ride.

Allowed to board in the Mill’s attic, Hans promptly falls in love with the professor’s daughter, Elfie. Hans and Elfie’s love is not meant to be, however, as Hans’ girlfriend, art student Liselotte, arrives at the mill. Further complicating the Hans-Elfie-Liselotte triangle is Elfie’s fatal blood disease, missing locals, and the paranoid machinations of Professor Wahl. Where does the story go from there? Some truly bonkers places that I won’t spoil in this review. Suffice to say, if you’re planning a trip to Holland go ahead and uncheck the “Creepy Art Instillation Windmill” box in your AirBnB filters.

Mill of the Stone Women is an effective horror film from a time when the genre was just beginning to blossom in Italy. Setting itself apart from its contemporaries in 1960s Italian neorealist cinema, the film is beautiful to look at with its use of location shooting in the quiet marshlands of Holland and stunning set design of the mill itself. While the special effects definitely show their age, the clockwork parade of sculptures has a unique charm befitting what is essentially a mid-century European roadside attraction. While the film can feel a bit slow paced at times, it wraps up right at the hour and a half mark making for a short, sweet slice of Italian horror history.

Picture and Audio

Mill of the Stone Women is presented in its original 1:66 aspect ratio from a brand new 2k scan of the original 35mm negative by Arrow Video. The restoration is clean with few remaining imperfections outside of some visible dirt and scratches in the opening titles. The color grading looks good with a consistently cool tone that matches the foggy Holland marshland the film takes place in without interfering with skin tones. The audio mixes were restored from their original mono tracks and hold up as well as any Italian films of the time could be expected to as it was commonplace for sound and dialogue to be recorded entirely in post. That being the case, it’s not abnormal that sound can slip out of sync.

Extras and Packaging

Leading the extras is an audio commentary by horror and fantasy historian Tim Lucas. Lucas offers an insightful academic track that touches upon everything from production anecdotes to putting the film in context against its contemporaries in Italian cinema and predecessors in gothic horror. Lucas begins the track by speaking to his personal history with the film going back to his own childhood and its clear that he has a deep love and intimate understanding of the film that makes the commentary a must listen.

Next up is Mill of the Stone Women and the Gothic Body, a visual essay by Arrow stalwart Kat Ellinger. In her essay, Ellinger spends twenty minutes speaking to the trope of wax figures in horror, its history throughout horror of the early 20th century, and its origin in Victorian cabinets of curiosity.

On the archival front, Turned to Stone and A Little Chat with Dr Mabuse are lengthy features that center on interviews with actress Liana Orfei (Annelore, one of the missing townsfolk) and actor Wolfgang Preiss (Dr Bohlem, Wahl’s assistant) respectively. Backing these up are trailers, image galleries, and alternate opening title sequences. The real stand out feature of this release are the multiple cuts of the film. From the director’s cut of RoboCop to the censored television version of Mallrats and the fan edit of Phantom of the Mall, Arrow has proven themselves to have a talent for digging up these alternate cuts and they’ve outdone themselves on Mill of the Stone Women. Up first on disc one you’ll find two versions of the film- The original Italian version and the dubbed English export version, both running at 96 minutes with the only difference being localized titles and different audio. Move on to disc two, exclusively in this first limited edition run of the film, and you’ll find two more cuts- the French version and re-cut American version. While the French edit comes in a bit shorter than the original release, the American cut has the most striking changes. A voiceover narration, newly shot inserts, rearranged scenes and added visual effects, the film is punched up a bit to satisfy contemporary American audiences.

Mill of the Stone Women is packaged in Arrow’s standard hard slip case used for all of their limited edition releases. Inside the case you’ll find a reversible slip cover featuring original and
all new cover art, a fold out poster and a sixty page booklet featuring essays covering the making of the film and the differences between the different cuts of the film, excerpts from contemporary reviews of the film, production stills and information on the restoration.

Overall

Arrow Video has long been the premiere label for boutique horror releases. After a long run of giallo films, it’s refreshing to see them turn their attention to a different corner of Italian gore with Mill of the Stone Women. While not as packed with supplements as other releases, a celebratory commentary track and the inclusion of four different cuts of the film help Mill of the Stone Women earn its spot on the shelf of any horror collector.

Arrow Video Giallo Essentials Yellow Edition Collection Review

Hot on the heels of their recently released volume of Italian slasher flicks, Giallo Essentials – Red Edition, UK genre label Arrow Video is back at it again with a another serving of blood, sex, and mystery with the aptly title Giallo Essentials – Yellow Edition. Is it time to go back for seconds or should you move on from this buffet? Read on and find out.

Features

Like Giallo Essentials Red before it, Yellow collects three films previously released by Arrow Video.

First up is Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done to Your Daughters. Known in Italy as The Police Ask For Help, What Have They Done to Your Daughters is one part giallo, one part poliziotteschi – Italy’s premiere cop-sploitation genre that hit the height of its popularity in the mid-70s. What Have They Done to Your Daughters is a taut crime thriller following a police inspector and rookie assistant district attorney as they investigate the hanging of a minor that leads them to an under-age prostitution ring. Leaning heavily on the police procedural side of its narrative, What Have They Done to Your Daughters is a prime example of the experimentation happening in gialli as its popularity began to wane in the mid to late 70s and stands out among the other films in this set for it.

Next we have Sergio Martino’s Torso, a film conspicuously absent from last years eponymous Sergio Martino Collection. When a masked killer strikes at the female population of her university, a wealthy student invites her friends to stay at her family’s villa in the countryside until its safe to return to school. This wouldn’t be a giallo film if things remained safe, however, and the body count quickly begins to tick up as the killer follows the coeds to the villa and murders them one by one in a sex and violence fueled precursor to the soon to be established American slasher genre. Where most gialli find themselves preoccupied with the mystery, Torso at times feels much more focused on its set pieces and the relationship between the killer and one of the girls, Jane, who finds herself as an early example of the final girl trope that would become so prevalent in American horror.

Finally we have the most typical giallo of the set, Strip Nude for Your Killer. Where the previous films in this set pushed boundaries in terms of genre blending and evolving the slasher, Strip Nude for Your Killer is your standard giallo with the sex dialed up to 10. Beginning with a botched abortion, winding its way through nude photo shoots, attempted rapes, and sauna hookups, Strip Nude for Your Killer tells the tale of a killer working their way through the modeling world. Light on plot, heavy on sleaze, this isn’t a standout in the genre by any means but filthy fun nonetheless.

Picture and Audio

The three discs contained in this set are all reissues of their prior releases containing the same transfers of previous 2K restorations by Arrow. The transfers do an admirable job across the board as usual with boutique releases like this. Each disc carries a 2k scan from the original negative of its respective film, preserving the rich colors, deep blacks, and texture of the era’s film stock. Each film is presented with both Italian and English mono audio tracks with clear sound and consistent levels, albeit lacking the separation you would get from a stereo or higher mixes. These films look and sound as good as they ever have with any minor faults such as unfocused shots or the lack of audio options owing to the original production processes rather than the impeccably faithful archival work done by Arrow.

Extras and Packaging

Giallo Essentials Yellow carries over all the bonus features included with the original releases of these films. Each disc features the standard image galleries and original trailers as well as options to view alternate opening sequences for each film. Each film also includes interviews with principals from each film from director Sergio Martino on Torso to Strip Nude for Your Killer’s production manager and everyone in between.

Each film features an audio commentary track by Arrow’s go to giallo experts – HORRORPEDIA.com’s editors on Strip Nude for Your Killer, author Troy Howarth on What Have They Done to Your Daughters? and critic and documentarian Kat Ellinger on Torso. Ellinger happens to appear on all three discs, with video essays appearing on Strip Nude for Your Killer and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? Rounding out the extras are a 2017 Q&A session with Sergio Martino and an interview with critic Mikel Koven both on the disc for Torso. All in all, while nothing new, there are hours of material to dig into across the three discs making for a quality deep dive into the history of these films.

Giallo Essentials Yellow maintains the packaging style from its predecessor – the three films are each in their own single disc jewel case, all housed together in a rigid box within a yellow sleeve with a windowed cutout to showcase the box’s all new artwork. It matches the style of the previous release and will look great next to it on your shelf. Other than that, the packaging is as expected with Arrow’s typical reversible sleeves for each disc yet lacking any other physical extras such as booklets from previous releases of these titles.

Overall

Giallo Essentials Yellow is a great follow-up to Giallo Essentials Red. Where Giallo Essentials Red brought together three films that highlighted the beginning, middle, and end of the genre’s popularity, Yellow features three films from the early to mid 70s that showcase a genre in excess and attempting to evolve past its tropes making it worth adding to your collection for the history lesson and pulpy fun of the giallo craze. Like previous Arrow repackaged collections, however, there is no need to purchase the set if you already own these titles.

Arrow Video DEEP RED 4K UHD Blu-ray Release Review

There are few directors more synonymous with a genre than Dario Argento and Giallo. After establishing his name with landmark horror films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O’ Nine Tails, Argento took a brief hiatus to direct comedy before coming back to thrill audiences with his 1975 film Deep Red. Earlier this year Arrow Video began revisiting the early works of Argento with 4K updates to their releases of Bird and Cat and just in time for the holidays they’re back again with Deep Red. Is this stocking stuffer worth the update? Read on and find out.

FEATURE

Christmas. A person stabbed to death in front of a child. Years later, psychic Helga picks up on the grisly thoughts of a killer in the audience of a parapsychology conference. Tracking her to her apartment and killing her in an effort to hide their identity, the murderer is spotted from the street below by Marcus, an American jazz musician played by David Hemming. Outed as an eyewitness to the crime by local media, Marcus finds himself in a race to uncover the killer’s identity before he finds himself at the business end of the murderer’s blade.

Deep Red is widely regarded as Argento’s one of Argento’s best films and its not hard to understand why. Argento had evolved into a master of his craft and the genre by this time and the film can be seen as his commentary on art itself. David Hemming had previously been best known for his starring role in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, a similarly plotted thriller about a photographer who captures evidence of a murder and sets out to solve the mystery. Antonioni had a reputation for being a meticulous filmmaker and its notable that some of his star’s first lines in Argento’s film call out a desire for art to be less precise, more “trashy.” To that end, Argento crafts visuals that could be museum pieces in their own rights- a notable early scene plays out against a diner that looks eerily similar to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks only to fill them with visceral murders and a freewheeling, jazz-inspired editing style that makes Deep Red a compelling watch for any thriller fan.

PICTURE AND AUDIO

Being a reissue, Deep Red already has the benefit of a notable restoration by Arrow Video for their 2016 Blu-ray release. Without being able to compare the two directly but being familiar with Arrow’s previous restorations, one can imagine that the most notable upgrades will be in clarity of the image, the consistent quality of the grain, and depth of the HDR10 and DolbyVision color profiles. Overall the colors maintain a consistent tone throughout and the grain lends a fine texture that brings out the filmic qualities of the original 35mm negative. The clarity of the image is sharp as well, never more apparent than when taking in the immaculate styling of 1970’s feathered male hairdos. Bloody fingerprints leap off the screen and crushed velvet looks good enough to touch in a restoration that looks just as good in your living room as it did on theater screens in 1975.

Deep Red is presented in two versions and each has its own separate audio options. The original cut has both mono and 5.1 Italian audio tracks. Additionally the original cut has a mono hybrid Italian/English track. While no English dub was completed for the original cut, a hybrid track was assembled with some scenes playing back in English and others in Italian with subtitles. On disc two is the shorter export cut of the film with a single mono English track. Sound is crisp and clear, if sparse, on all four tracks with the standout element being Goblin’s jazz influenced synth score. All soundtracks are identical to what was found on the original 2018 release.

EXTRAS AND PACKAGING

The limited edition release of Deep Red is packaged in the standard sturdy Arrow slipcover featuring a reversible cover and new artwork to match their recent 4k releases of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O’ Nine Tails. Also included in the set is a collectors booklet with previously released writings on Deep Red’s place in giallo history and a brand new essay exploring the use of space in the film, a poster featuring the box art, and the traditional Arrow reproductions of lobby cards. There is also a special edition available that features the film’s original poster art on the slipcover.

The new supplemental features in this release are all found on disc one. The theatrical release disc contains two audio commentaries, one by film historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson and the second by Argento expert Thomas Rostock. Rostock’s commentary has appeared on previous releases of the film and takes a clinical look at the film while Howarth and Thompson’s track is brand new and much more conversational as the two discuss the finer points of the film while watching it together. Also found on the first disc are hours worth of interviews shot in 2018 with everyone from the original actor chosen for the role of Marcus to
Dario Argento himself.

Other extras carry over from Arrow’s previous releases of Deep Red. On the first disc, alongside the theatrical release of the film, you’ll find both the original Italian trailer for the film as well as Arrow’s 2018 restoration trailer while disc two features the export cut of the film and archival interviews with Dario Argento and collaborators from previous releases of the film. Disc two also contains the original US trailer, an archival introduction to the film by composer Claudio Simonetti, and the stand out archival feature Profondo Giallo, a thirty minute visual essay on the film by critic Michael Mackenzie.

OVERALL

Deep Red served as both a return to form for and a pristine example of the filmmaker that Dario Argento was and continues to be. Arrow Video’s 4K release accomplishes much of the same, by preserving the same wonderful release the company rolled out on Blu-ray in 2018 while updating it with a handful of new features and a new 4K conversion for 2021. While the features are mostly the same as Arrow’s previous release, the new transfer alone makes this worth the upgrade for current owners and a strongly recommended purchase for anyone who doesn’t already own it.

Frankenstein’s Daughter Special Edition Blu-ray Review

The 1950s were a hell of a time for aspiring filmmakers. Seemingly anyone with a few dollars in their pocket, access to a generic laboratory set, and mediocre make-up skills could make a sci-fi horror movie and cash in on the wave of atomic age hysteria sweeping the United States. In 1958, “seemingly anyone” was B-movie director Richard Cunha and his cash-in was teen horror movie Frankenstein’s Daughter. In 2021, classic film distributor The Film Detective has gifted us with Frankenstein’s Daughter on blu-ray and DVD. Did The Film Detective create life or is this disc dead on arrival? Read on and find out.

Feature

Pop quiz! Did Victor Frankenstein have any children? If you answered “no, of course not, unless you count his monster which of course you should because parenthood is just one of many themes you could infer into Mary Shelley’s original work,” you’d be wrong. Victor Frankenstein not only had a child but his children had children and in the oddly misnamed Frankenstein’s Daughter we meet not his daughter, but his grandson Oliver Frankenstein, a mad scientist hell-bent on recreating his family legacy with the help of his loyal aide Ig— er, I mean Elsu.

Living under the impregnable alias “Oliver Frank” and working as assistant to noted scientist Carter Morgan, Frankenstein inserts himself into the lives of Morgan’s teen niece Trudy and her impeccably 1950s named friends Suzie, Johnny, and Don. Starting with spiking Trudy’s fruit punch with an immortality serum, causing her to transform at night into an Edward Hyde-esque beast, and eventually working his way up to full-blown attempted rape and murder of Suzie in order to get an obedient female brain for his home-sewn monster, Oliver spends the film’s 85 minute runtime living up to the family name.

There’s also a seven minute long nightclub scene in the middle of the movie featuring the singing talents of Harold Lloyd Jr., so there’s that.

Frankenstein’s Daughter is a time-capsule of a time and place in American horror. Much like other films of the time to their varying successes, Frankenstein’s Daughter was produced as little more than a vehicle to put teens in theater seats and bring in whatever profits it could for its distributors. This movie wears its $60,000 budget and week-long production schedule on its sleeve and you’ll either love it or hate it for that.

Picture and Audio

Frankenstein’s Daughter features a brand new 4K restoration from the original film negative. The resulting image is strong with consistent tone and rich contrast throughout. The 16-bit DTS-HD dual-mono audio is clean and in my viewing never produced any distortion or muffled sounds.

Extras and Packaging

Frankenstein’s Daughter lands on the lighter side of bonus features, although what’s present is rather decent quality. In its standard blu-ray case you’ll find a booklet with a short making-of essay by historian Tom Weaver. On disc you’ll find a commentary by Weaver as well as two short documentaries. Weaver’s commentary is excellent. The man comes prepared and over the course of the film’s runtime you’ll feel like you’re sitting in on a film history class as taught by a guest lecturer. His remarks are well thought out, appropriately paced, and supplemented by pre-recorded remarks sourced from his peers (including B-movie aficionado and director of the parody/homage Lost Skeleton of Cadavara, Larry Blamire). This commentary track is well worth a listen.
John Ashley: Man From the B’s is a ten-minute long career retrospective on the film’s leading man, tracking his career from B-movie actor to producer with credits ranging from Apocalypse Now to Walker, Texas Ranger.

The stand-out feature on this disc is Richard E Cunha: Filmmaker of the Unknown, a thirty minute long piece on the life and work of the film’s director. What sets this bit apart from other career recaps is the incredible footage shot by Cunha himself as in the 1980s he received a bit of fan-mail with a list of questions that he decided to respond to by shooting an interview piece with himself full of wit, anecdotes, and a personal tour of the video store he owned and operated. Cut together with archival footage by producers of this disc, Filmmaker of the Unknown is a must-watch bonus on this release.

Overall

We are currently living in a renaissance of under appreciated genre movies getting their due in the form of boutique home media releases and the fact that The Film Detective has put together a decent release of a public domain movie currently floating around on any number of websites, let alone YouTube, is a testament to that fact. Can I recommend this movie? Depends on your personal tastes. If you can laugh at the cringe idea that the biggest failure of Victor Frankenstein was not making his monster submissively feminine enough, call over some friends and pour the stiffest drinks you can and enjoy a trip down the weird side roads of so bad-it’s-good independent cinema.

Synapse Films Demons & Demons 2 Blu-ray Two-disc Limited Edition Review

What do you get when you combine the masters of Italian horror, twin tales of cursed movies, pre-reunification Germany and a heaping dose of 1980’s charm? Demons and Demons 2, of course! Widely regarded as two of Italy’s finest horror movies, Synapse Films is bringing Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava’s masterpieces to 4K blu ray just in time for Halloween. Is a ticket to this double feature of the damned worth it? Read on and find out!

FEATURE

By the 1980s, there was only one name to know when it came to the world of Italian horror: Dario Argento. Having long since established himself as a master of the slasher proto-genre Giallo, Argento found himself taking a break from directing to write a pair of screenplays for Lamberto Bava, the son of Argento’s contemporary and occasional collaborator, Mario Bava. The end result? Demons and Demons II, two of the most insane horror movies to come out of the ‘80s.

In Demons, a masked mystery man gives out free movie tickets to unsuspecting pedestrians on the streets of Germany. When a prostitute foolishly puts on a mask on display in the cinema lobby, she finds herself cursed to become an infectiously demonic beast, mirroring the plot of the movie showing in the theater. What follows is a night full of blood, gore, cocaine, and switchblade-wielding pimps as the theater-goers band together to fight off a growing number of demons before they get attacked and become demons themselves.

In Demons II, the cursed movie airs on broadcast TV and spreads the demon infection through an apartment building. What follows is a night full of blood, gore, birthday cake, and tiny child demons as the tenants band together to, um… fight off a growing number of demons before they get attacked and become demons themselves.

Italian pulp horror was never known for plot and the Demons duology is no exception. A cursed movie causing an outbreak of zombies demons is little more than a plot device designed to get us to as much horror and 80s heavy metal as we can stomach. The set pieces are bonkers and the gore is plenty and that’s all we need from these films, especially with each barely clocking in at 90 minutes. These movies have it all- Demon hookers, samurai swords, 80s punks, motorcycle chases, rebar impalements, demons bursting from the corpses of demons, and all the bile, blood, and more pus than you can shake a squib at proving that sometimes all a movie needs to be good is to be a whole hell of a lot of fun.

PICTURE AND AUDIO

Both features are presented in all new restorations from their original 35mm negatives by L’Immagine Ritrovata. Images are clear and the color pops, especially in the neon soaked streets of mid-80s Germany. Black ares hang together well with no noise and there are only a few faults in the image for Demons II owing to technical difficulties in the original filming process.

Demons also features Arrow Film’s recreation of the US cut from the new 4K remaster and both films feature English 2.0 tracks remastered by Synapse Films.

EXTRAS AND PACKAGING

Demons 1 & 2 comes in a standard clear two disc case with all new artwork on both a limited edition slipcover and a reversible sleeve that can be flipped around to showcase the films’ original art. Inside the package you’ll find reproductions of the movie ticket from Demons and a birthday invitation from Demons 2, each featuring technical information about the transfers, as well as a fold-out poster featuring art from Demons by heavy metal airbrush artist Wes Benscoter.

Moving on to the discs’ bonus features, this release is packed, apparently licensing and maintaining the majority of features from Arrow Films’ stunning UK releases for the benefit of American audiences while adding new content of their own.

You’ll find three audio commentaries across the two discs in this set. Commentary by the hosts of the Hells Belles podcast on Demons and the track by film critic Travis Crawford on Demons II are definitely worth a listen but its Demons’ commentary track by director Lamberto Bava and other choice crew members that stands apart. In his commentary, Bava dives deep into the meanings and metaphors in his film, often talking about it in the same reverance you’d expect if Fellini ever had a chance to record commentary for La Dolce Vita. To hear Bava speak about the meaning behind the aforementioned samurai sword, lining up the film-within-the-film with plot twists in the main narrative, or why the choice to feature demons and not the then-popular Italian zombie is a thing of beauty and highly recommended. In addition to the commentaries are a pair of lengthy visual essays. “Produced by Dario Argento” by critic Michael Mackenzie places Demons I and II within the larger scope of Argentos work. “Together and Apart” by critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas explores the themes of technology in the Demons films. Rounding it all out you’ll find the typical archival interviews, trailers, and festival appearances that tend to get collected for boutique releases like this. All in all, a meaty collection of extras that will satisfy anyone interested in these films.

VERDICT

Demons and Demons II are widely regarded as some of the best that Italian horror has to offer. While the films may not always make sense and lack what most people would call a story, its hard to argue against them. There’s something special in Italy’s answer to The Evil Dead and the passion these movies were made with is evident from the start. While these films have already been released on 4K UHD overseas by Arrow Video, Synapse’s new transfers give American audiences the chance to experience the best versions of these movies without paying extra to get them through customs. Add in hours worth of bonus content and you’re left with one of the stand out boutique horror releases of 2021 and an easy recommendation for any horror hound.

The Green Knight 4K and Blu-Ray Combo Disc Set Review

The Green Knight, or, “Sir Gawain and the Gorgeous 4K Transfer”. At least, that’s what I would title it! Written by an anonymous poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the best known works of Arthurian romantic poetry. Directed by David Lowery, The Green Knight is the latest screen adaptation of the poem, a visual feast, and one of the best films of 2021. Does Lionsgate’s 4K home release do the film justice? Read on and find out.

Feature

The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and a man with no stories of honor to call his own. When the eponymous Green Knight appears one fateful Christmas Day and challenges the Knights of the Round Table to a game of blows, Gawain eagerly accepts and foolishly seals his fate to return to the Knight the following year to present his neck and be struck down. What follows is an introspective and oftentimes phantasmagoric journey from the civilized trappings of chivalric, Christian England to the depths of Druidic woods as Gawain learns the definition of honor.

The Green Knight has found itself a deeply divisive home in cinema audiences. While many have come to this film expecting the traditional sword and sorcery epic of traditional Hollywood what you’ll find here definitely fits more with the film’s A24 label mates as a work of modern mid-budget independent cinema. It is poetic and at times obtuse but it is director David Lowery’s vision through and through.

Lowery’s work tends to be about characters and the stories they tell about themselves and The Green Knight follows well in that trend with a protagonist whose sole goal is to earn a story he can call his own, all the while presenting himself as who or whatever he needs to be to survive whatever situation he finds himself in. While the film is colored in at the edges by fantastic performances by Joel Edgerton, Alicia Vikander in a double role, and Ralph Ineson as the the Green Knight himself, it’s Dev Patel who carries this film from start to finish. His Gawain is a man full of sorrow for the mistake he’s well aware he’s made and he wears a general aura of uncertainty throughout the whole film as you feel his tension between wanting to find a way out of his predicament while having the primal need to fulfill his bargain with the Knight.

This is a captivating film, if you’ll allow it. The performances are rich and the cinematography is stunning. Special effects are largely captured practically in-camera and there’s a real weight to the visuals that stands apart from the CGI weightlessness that modern fantasy can often suffer from. This is a thoughtful and gorgeous journey through Arthurian legend and easily one of my favorite films of the year thus far.

Picture and Audio

The Green Knight is presented in an absolutely gorgeous 4K transfer mastered in both HDR10 and DolbyVision. The film was shot in native 6.5K and that clarity transfers beautifully to this release. Colors pop and textures are rich with detail. Whether it’s the mustard yellow of Gawain’s cape and the deep greens of the forest or individual leaves rustling in wind swept trees and the knotty details of the Knight’s face, this film earns a place as a go-to disc to show off your set-up.

The Dolby Atmos and Dolby 7.1 audio is just as impressive. Ralph Ineson’s deep voice reverberates through the mix and yet individual sounds are easy to isolate and pick out. Individual strings plucked in the score, creaking wood, footsteps echoing through castle halls- This mix is clear and sounds are easy to track.

Extras and Packaging

At first look, The Green Knight’s extras seem a bit on the lighter side, three making-of features and a theatrical trailer. They are as follows-

  • Boldest of Blood and Wildest of Heart: Making The Green Knight
  • Practitioners of Magic: Visual Effects
  • Illuminating Technique: Title Design

That may not seem like a lot but with a combined runtime of almost an hour, these three features represent a fairly meaty look at the making of the film. Boldest of Blood and Wildest of Heart is the longest of the three, clocking in at 35 minutes and taking you through all areas of production with cast interviews and plenty of on-set footage. Practicioners of Magic is a look at the special effects and how a number of them were accomplished in-camera and Illuminating Technique showcases how the many title cards in the movie were designed.

Notably absent from the extras is the fantastic oral history trailer that was produced to introduce people to the story but it is easily found on A24’s YouTube page. I highly recommend checking it out and wish this release had more features exploring the history of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.

The Green Knight is a standard release, packaged in the typical black 4K blu-ray Scanavo case. The first printing includes an embossed sleeve but aside from that the packaging is fairly normal. The Green Knight is packaged with a digital code and Blu-ray disc of the film.

Overall

The Green Knight was one of my most anticipated movies of 2020 and unfortunately it fell victim like so many other features to the delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that it has come and gone from theaters it is here to stay with a wonderful 4K home release. A beautifully designed and shot film, The Green Knight is a highly recommended 4K disc to add to your library.

Arrow Video Unveils October 2021 Releases Including DEEP RED

October officially marks the start of spooky season and Arrow has the movies to make sure it’s frightfully fun! The party starts on October 19, Arrow switches gears to Japanese folklore with the release of Yokai Monsters Collection. This limited edition 3-disc set brings the complete monster trilogy from Daiei Film (100 Monsters, Spook Warfare, Along With Ghosts) together on Blu-ray for the first time. Despite not gaining much attention outside of Japan, the films have developed a legacy for their use of special effects and puppets. This new set will look to introduce a new generation of fans to this spectacular world of Japanese monsters and ghosts. Also included is the 2005 film The Great Yokai War from legendary director Takashi Miike. The Great Yokai War was Miike’s attempt at rebooting the series. Miike’s film received a sequel, The Great Yokai War: Guardians, earlier this year.

Also releasing on October 26 is perhaps the month’s highlight, as Dario Argento’s landmark classic, Deep Red, comes home with a snazzy new 4K ultra HD Blu-ray. Deep Red is one of the most iconic Italian films of all time and arguably Argento’s masterpiece. The opening scene of a brutal axe murder is one of the most grisly death scenes ever depicted and the pulsating score courtesy of Goblin is top shelf. This 2-disc set includes both the 127-minute original Italian version of the film and the full 105-minute export version, including the scenes that were never dubbed in English. This limited edition release includes a collector’s booklet, double-sided foldout poster, 6 lobby cards, and more.

And last but not least, He Came from the Swamp: The William Grefe Collection is coming on October 26. Renegade filmmaker William “Wild Bill” Grefe has bravely explored the dark depths of the Florida everglades in a way few filmmakers have. This 4-disc set includes seven different films from the independent director, all of which have been restored using the best remaining film elements. This set is a standard issue release of a special edition set released last November. The special edition sold out quickly but continues to get rave reviews, with Quentin Tarantino recently praising it on the New Beverly podcast.

 

Cold War Creatures: Four Films by Sam Katzman Ltd Ed Blu-Ray Review

The 1950s were nothing if not an interesting time for horror. Coming out of WWII, America took its first steps into both the Atomic Age where everything held the promise of futuristic wonder and the Cold War where anyone could be the enemy and no one could be trusted. This shift in the zeitgeist dragged horror along from its roots in the gothic romance overtones of the Universal classics to a science fiction explosion of aliens, monsters and ray-guns of tomorrow.

“B-Movies, A+ Box Set”

No man was better positioned to ride this wave than producer Sam Katzman, a man who started in the film business at age 13 and had well over a hundred production credits by the time the 50s rolled around. Here, Arrow Video revisits four of Katzman’s works from the end of his sci-fi period in a set that is sure to be a treat for everyone from fans of schlock to students of film history.

FEATURES

Cold War Creatures covers four of Katzman’s productions.

  • The Creature With the Atom Brain (1955) – Merging the sci-fi and crime genres, The Creature With the Atom Brain follows American mobster Frank Buchanan as he forces a Nazi mad scientist to reanimate the dead to off those that betrayed him.
  • The Werewolf (1956) – One part lycanthropy, one part 50s paranoia, The Werewolf takes your typical Wolfman story and flips it on its head by swapping a mystical curse for radioactive wolf serums intended to help mankind survive the nuclear apocalypse.
  • Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) – A tale of cursed treasure and the undead who are destined to protect it, Zombies of Mora Tau spins a treasure hunting story set on the coast of Africa and features underwater zombie action a full two decades before Fulci’s famous zombie/shark fight.
  • The Giant Claw (1957) – Goofy monster bird puppet. Need I say more?

Overall these films present a wonderful look back at the kinds of films that dominated theaters in the 50s. Katzman worked in the studio system and these films were all Columbia productions, bringing with them the quality and budget that would afford. These movies were quick productions, designed to put people in seats and shock their audiences. That being said, none of these films are particularly long watches either- The longest is The Wolfman at 80 minutes. These are brisk, fun watches perfect for late night viewing.

PICTURE AND AUDIO

The four films are each presented in their original aspect ratios and latest restorations by Sony Pictures. The images are crisp and clear with very few spots of dirt or scratches left. All four films are in black and white and with consistent tone throughout, natural grain structure and very little flicker. All in all a better set of restorations than one would expect from most seventy year old B-movies.

Each film is presented with its original mono sound.

EXTRAS AND PACKAGING

Cold War Creatures is packaged across four discs, one for each film. Each disc is housed in its own slim case and everything fits into a sturdy cardboard sleeve similar to what Arrow’s previous limited edition box sets are packaged in. Each film has, as is standard these days for boutique releases, reversible sleeves featuring original poster art on one side and new art painted by – – – on the other.

Each film has an optional introduction by Arrow stalwart Kim Newman and each has their own commentary track by a range of academics and historians. Of them all, Emma Westwood and Cerise Howard’s commentary on The Giant Claw is a stand out as my personal favorite as they have a healthy sense of humor about the quality of the film and approach it from a sense of unconditional love.

One standout set of extras are the Super 8mm versions of Creature With the Atom Brain, The Werewolf, and The Giant Claw. Long before the days of video, some studios would release condensed versions of their films on 8mm to play in the same projector one would use to play back home movies and here you get those shortened versions of Katzman’s films complete with narration and new scores to make the films make sense in an eight minute runtime.

Spread across the four discs are video essays starting with Before and Beyond the Cold War Creatures, a feature length documentary/lecture on the life and work of Sam Katzman by film critic Stephen Bissette. Following on the next three discs are shorter video essays that each take a look at a specific facet of Katzman’s films. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas brings us Beyond Window Dressing, a deconstruction of the role of women in Katzman’s films. Atomic Terror: Genre in Transformation finds Josh Hurtado discussing the blend of the mythic and science fiction. Finally we have Family Endangered!, which as it sounds finds critic Mike White taking a dive into family issues in Katzman’s work. These features together give a holistic look at the output of Katzman that is, thankfully, par for the course in these kinds of releases.

Rounding out the extras are trailers and image galleries for each film, two double-sided posters, both an art book and a book of essays on the legacies of each film, and the standard lobby card recreations Arrow packs in with many of its limited edition releases.

VERDICT

Once again, Arrow has knocked it out of the park with a filmmaker retrospective box set to rival previous releases like Weird Wisconsin or He Came From the Swamp. From the deep breadth of extras that place these films into perfect context to the fun of the movies themselves, Cold War Creatures is a lovingly produced set that deserves a home on the shelves of sci-fi geeks, horror nerds, and film history buffs everywhere.