JULY 5, 2011

Most fans of Thelma & Louise probably couldn't quite pinpoint why it felt so much like a Roger Corman flick, but the obvious and increasingly oft-noted answer lies with one of his most under-appreciated crime films, 1976's The Great Texas Dynamite Chase. The big selling point here is obviously the pairing of two different but charismatic starlets from the period, late Playboy model Claudia Jennings and Tourist Trap final girl Jocelyn Jones, both of whom prove their acting chops are even more valuable than their obligatory nude scenes. The title comes from the unique method of bank robber Candy (Jennings), who lights a stick of dynamite during her stickups dictating how long the teller has to fill up a sack with money. One of her targets, Ellie-Jo (Jones), runs into her again and decides to come along for the ride as they embark on a crime spree across the midwest. Along the way they pick up a less-than-hostile hostage (Johnny Crawford) who turns into a potential romantic partner as well. Fast, bloody, sexy, and funny, this is one of the more upbeat spins on the outlaw formula Corman repeatedly explored in the '70s, and unlike its virtual remake, the ending actually leaves you with a big smile on your face. Shout Factory's triple-feature DVD kicks off with a band new anamorphic transfer of this film, which was previously issued as an open matte, fuzzier-looking version from New Horizons years ago. The second feature in the two-disc set, 1980's Georgia Peaches, is a featherweight Corman made-for-TV movie (originally a proposed pilot) directed by one of his most longstanding collaborators, onetime production designer Daniel Haller, who had earlier helmed several AIP films including The Dunwich Horror and Die, Monster, Die! before turning to the small screen. Obviously intended to cash in on the success of The Dukes of Hazzard, it stars onetime Battlestar Galactica lead Dirk Benedict as Dusty, a racecar driver who's strongarmed into helping the U.S. government break up some cigarette bootleggers with the help of his girlfriend, Sue Lyon Peach (Terri Nunn, lead singer of new wave group Berlin) and her singer sister, Lorette (Tanya Tucker!). It's all basically a set-up scam by a land-hungry neighbor (a typically scenery-chewing Sally Kirkland), so they have to redefine justice on their own terms. Completely disposable but moderately entertaining if you're in the mood for something that might play on CMT in the middle of the night, this bears the onscreen title of Follow That Car, which sounds like a screwball Disney movie. Last up, and the only film presented in fullscreen, is Smokey Bites the Dust, a 1981 chase caper with Jimmy McNichol (circa Night Warning) as a teenager with a lead foot who goes on a joyride with high school cool girl Peggy Sue (Janet Julian) with her sheriff dad and pretty much the rest of the cast in hot pursuit. Intentionally slapstick and oddly out of place for an '80s film, this one wears in inspiration on its sleeve, and even its title; if you want lots of silly mayhem with Keystone Kops-style car chase scenes and jokes right out of Hee-Haw, you've come to the right place. Regular Corman actor (and occasional director) Mel Welles pops up here along with a bizarre bit role for Angelo Rossitto. Extras include trailers for all the films except Georgia Peaches and written recollections from Corman. It's not as loaded as some of the label's other titles in the collection, but you still get a lot of bang for your buck.

Most of you probably know the name Cropsey as the maniacal slasher from the 1981 film The Burning, but it's also the name of a boogeyman whose history is told to frightened campers around the upper East Coast in America. The documentary named after this legendary fiend by directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio never mentions the slasher film by name but instead tries to get to the root of this urban legend, which they trace to a real Staten Island convicted murderer named Andre Rand. A onetime employee at the Willowbrook State School which was closed down to horrific hygenic conditions, he continued living hidden away underground with others from the building. Two child murders were attributed to him, and though he professed his innocence and current evidence casts some doubt, he was sent off to jail. Though it feels like a pseudo-documentary that could have been designed for a horror film festival, the film uses real facts to weave a chilling tale about how the degredation of social conditions can spawn monstrous consequences which then become the stuff of campire nightmares. Easily the most high-profile title released from Vicious Circle Films on DVD to date, this film received theatrical play in 2010 to positive reviews. (Oddly enough, a more traditional doc taking off from the tragedy called Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years after Willowbrook came out earlier the same year but without the macabre angle.) Eerie and challenging, the film comes to DVD with a serviceable 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that varies depending on the various source materials; most of it's excellent and freshly shot on digital video, with some stills and archival material obviously looking a bit rougher. Extras include half an hour of additional material dropped from the final cut (all of it's interesting) and a bonus selection of press clips.

Off LimitsOne of the very few blaxploitation films released by Twentieth Century Fox (along with the terrific Together Brothers, which would have made a great co-feature here) is Gordon's War, the fourth directorial effort for actor Ossie Davis (who made his auspicious debut behind the camera with Cotton Comes to Harlem). Paul Winfield gets top billing as Gordon, of course, a Vietnam vet who comes home to Harlem only to discover his entire neighborhood decimated by drugs, including his own wife who died from a smack overdose. Together with three other vets, he comes up with a plan to run the diseased dope peddlers out of town -- no matter how many bullets it takes. The cast here is a strong asset, with Winfield's grounded lead performance augmented by strong suppoting performances including an early role for Atlanta native Tony King (before going on to Cannibal Apocalypse) and even a young Grace Jones. The anamorphic transfer is pretty good, especially given the film's vintage and modest production values, and better than the muddy letterboxed version shown before on the Fox Movie Channel. Extras include the trailer, TV spots, and an entertaining audio commentary with King and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper, with special attention given to the late Davis' command behind the camera. Its co-feature is connected only by a Vietnam narrative element, action scenes, and distribution by Fox: 1988's Off Limits, a VHS staple with Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines as plainclothes military cops in 1968 Saigon. Someone's knocking off the local prostitutes who are having relations with American servicemen, and an array of contacts and suspects soon crops up ranging from a pretty nun (Amanda Pays - remember her?) and a wonderfully hammy Scott Glenn, with Fred Ward also on hand as a superior officer who plays a key role in the film's climax. Violent, dark, and definitely the product of another age, this police procedural/serial killer thriller obviously got greenlit on the popularity of Platoon and subsequent 'Nam dramas, though this one only caught on once it hit VHS and cable. Director Christopher Crowe (who produced the '80s anthology shows Darkroom and Alfred Hitchcock Presents before scripting The Last of the Mohicans and the underrated Fear) chips in here with an audio commentary in which he talks about the process of recruiting the extremely qualified cast and pitching the concept of the film, while Dafoe takes the actors' perspective by recalling working with the late Hines and doing another Vietnam film so shortly after Platoon.

A slasher film that sat on the shelf for five years before escaping as a Troma pick-up in 2011, Killer Yacht Party concerns the mayhem unleashed when a jackass club promoter decides to hold a big party on a supposedly haunted yacht where a rich woman died years earlier. One girl named Jane's trying to fit in with the cool crowd and seems to have "final girl" stamped on her forehead, and before you know it, everyone starts dying off one by one before a final confrontation. A fairly nifty kill in a bathroom stall is easily the highlight in what's basically a by-the-numbers stalk and slash offering, with most of the nastiness happening either in extreme darkness or offscreen. You can easily see where the whole thing's going pretty clearly in the first half hour, and most of the characters are hateful jerks you can't wait to see get offed. Then again that pretty much holds true for most cheapie slasher films, so if you want another spin on a very familiar formula, at least it's all in focus and there's a little blood here and there to keep you awake. You also get the usual goofy intro with Lloyd Kaufman and Debbie Rochon, a director and writer commentary about the logistics of mounting a genre offering with almost no money, a trailer, and the usual avalanche of Troma-plugging video tidbits.

With a title like Ninjas vs. Vampires, the mind conjures up spectacular scenes of black-clad martial arts masters clashing against bloodthirsty armies of the undead. The reality of the film doesn't quite measure up, not surprisingly, but it takes a surprisingly ambitious effort anyway to construct a compelling mythology out of a squad of ninjas (including a witch and an on-the-wagon vampiress) who save hero and wannabe filmmaker Aaron (Jay Saunders) and his would-be girlfriend (Devon Marie Burt) from a fanged attack. As it turns out, there's an all-out war to wipe out the vampires in the area, including some grotesqueries who look like they stepped out of a fetish comic book. Filled with some wry humor, elaborate CGI effects (some good, some below Birdemic level), and a large canvas of characters, it's a diverting if mostly nonsensical follow-up to director Justin Timpane's previous Ninjas vs. Zombies. At least it's certainly more fun than the wretched Underworld movies, for what that's worth, on about .01% of the budget. Despite the scope framing, it looks like this was shot on HD video and matted down somewhere along the way; in any case, the compositions look fine on Breaking Glass' DVD. Extras include a trio of commentaries(!) from the director, producer, cast, and crew members, along with a small smattering of deleted scenes (also with optional commentary), a music video by Solarice for the theme song, an alternate ending, footage from the premiere, and a preview of the third(!) film in the series.

A triple header of video crap so cataclysmic it makes the head spin, The Unknown Comedy Special takes its title, more or less, from the early '80s cable special The Unknown Comedy Show, designed to highlight the ubiquitous raunchy stand-up persona created by Murray Langston. Wearing a paper bag over his head, the Canadian became a fixture on variety shows during the late '70s and early '80s, even appearing in The Gong Show Movie. Definitely more vulgar than his usual TV schtick, this special captures some of the highlights from his stage act along with contributions from fellow comedian Johnny Dark and even a juggling act. Your mileage will vary on how much of the bag-headed jokester you can handle, and anyone who came of age after the days of Diff'rent Strokes will have absolutely no idea what the heck's going on for each of its 60 minutes. Incredibly, producer/director Bill Osco (most famous for Flesh Gordon and the X-rated Alice in Wonderland) managed to recycle some of the footage here into a patchwork new film in 1998 under the title Urban Legends, which would probably rank on many lists of the worst films ever made if more people actually had the opportunity to see it. Originally released in a padded 100-minute version from Eclectic in '08, this "director's cut" clocks in at 68 minutes, which is an improvement only because the experience passes far more quickly. The gist here is a bad comic with a ridiculous fake bouffant hairdo named Rusty Defage (Dino Lee) sits at a desk talking about several disgusting urban legends, which are then dramatized for your edification. The broken needle in the arm gag is probably the most memorable, and along with lots of unfunny comedy, you get some (very shaved) female frontal nudity on a toilet, too. A staggering train wreck that will have you doubting your sanity and rejecting whatever religion you hold closest to your heart, this belongs on your shelf in a deep, dark corner next to atrocities like Cool as Ice, The The Underground Comedy Movie, and Transformers 2. There's also an audio commentary by writer Carl Crew, an Osco cohort who acted in Blood Diner and wrote The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer. If that's not enough, the disc closes out with a final short also courtesy of Osco, Art of Nude Bowling. At a brisk 12 minutes, this B&W curio features Ron Jeremy (with face and genitalia optically scratched out) and was included on the previous Urban Legends release; it also features lots of faceless naked women of various weight configurations showing you how to bowl naked, of course. This Septic Cinema release lives up to its banner with the most repugnant menu design of all time, which you can thankfully bypass when popping in the disc. Naturally, human curiosity will kick in for anyone who sees the disclaimer, but don't say you weren't warned.

Honky Tonk NightsBack in the last Sick Picks, you might remember a weird little number called Uncle Fart's '70s Sleazy Picture Show. Well, there's more where that came from, albeit in a much more softcore vein, with Uncle Fart's '70s Grindhouse Sleazefest, a quartet of forgotten grindhouse curios left moldering in theater basements for decades. After the obligatory primitive cartoon opener with the filthy Uncle Fart and his tiny sidekick Scooper we get down to business with Sex Odyssey, a dialogue-free caveman sex flick that plays like the entirety of One Million Years B.C. except with no dinosaurs and a lot more bare breasts and body hair. It's a strange and painless half hour that segues into Dionysius, an equally short offering in which someone obviously got some buddies together out in the woods somewhere in California, hauled out some sandals and animal fur, and had everyone run around acting stupid and getting naked when they're not playing the flute and acting, uh, mythical. Despite all appearances, the third and longest film, Honky Tonk Nights, isn't a watered-down version of a porn film despite the fact that most of the cast and crew consists of XXX veterans. It's actually an attempt to go legit (circa 1978) with redheaded favorite Serena opening the proceedings crooning a tune called "One More Drink for the Road" as a singer named Dolly Pop. Enter Belle (Carol Doda), a former stripper trying to make it as a singer, and soon both women are competing for the attentions of their bar owner boss, Georgia (The Devil in Miss Jones' Georgina Spelvin), who's grappling with a takeover attempt by a greedy land baron. The country tunes aren't so hot (Serena's opener is the best, relatively speaking) and the filmmakers load it up with a lot of chit chat, but there's also a fair amount of T&A to keep patrons awake. Besides, it's always weird when adult celebrities try to win mainstream approval (see also: much of Marilyn Chambers' career), making this a peculiar little footnote for completists. Finally things close out with Satan's Daughter, which at least exemplifies the '70s part of the title thanks to its assault of hideous furniture, depressing suburban landscapes, and ironed hair. A young woman is first seen practicing some sort of occult ritual (we can tell 'cause the lighting is bright red), and then her friends all come by her house so they can take turns having sex with each other. Then they get together for an orgy in the living room, and she drops dead in the middle of all the bumping and grinding. The end. Capped off with the most hilarious attempts at shock and grief ever attempted by "actors," it's a completely disposable closer to the set but pretty amusing if you're prepared for low-wattage erotica and a fleeting, half-baked satanic light show. All four titles are presented full frame and interlaced, looking appropriately aged but watchable throughout.

Speaking of pure, unrepentant sleaze, one of the most controversial and consistently filthy studios of all time was New York's Avon Films, which turned out grimy, wildly-plotted porn films in the late '70s through the early '80s featuring the likes of George Payne, C.J. Laing, Jamie Gillis, and regular director/actor Shaun Costello. The Avon 7 Theater in New York was their flagship outlet where 42nd Street denizens could witness an increasingly depraved variety of scenarios so wild they ingited a political firestorm in the '80s from politicians include Ed Meese. Three of their more famous offerings get the deluxe treatment in After Hours' New York Grindhouse Avon 7 Triple Feature, a two-disc set kicking off appropriately enough with Costello's Slave of Pleasure from '78. Private dick Dan McCord (Roger Caine, the guy who gets bled with a tree branch in Martin), a character making a third appearance after Avon's Dirty Susan and Fire in Francesca, is enlisted to track down a missing wife (Rosanne Farrow) by her concerned husband (Costello), whose conniving mistress (Laing) has teamed up with some nefarious white slavers operating out of Coney Island. A far cry from today's anonymous adult offerings, this labyrinthine and colorfully kinky adventure operates with the sensibility of a pulp novel filtered through the Marquis De Sade, including a climactic endurance test for Laing that pushes her limits even further than the notorious climax of Radley Metzger's Maraschino Cherry. Another veteran director from the period, Carter Stevens, steps up to bat next with 1981's Prisoner of Pleasure, more of a, shall we say, "atmospheric" piece than the first feature. This time a housewife named Marjorie (one-shot actress Patrice LaPerle) decides to dabble in the swingers scene and gets snatched by some particularly deviant souls who introduce to kinks of every conceivable stripe -- including an appearance by the legendary Long Jeanne Silver, whose skills I'll leave to you and your web search engine of choice. Stevens even appears as the ringleader of the kidnappers, with Payne taking on the usual Gillis role as the most depraved man onscreen. Last up is the same year's My Mistress Electra, which puts Costello back in the driver's seat again for the story of Mike (Rod Pierce), a young guy who's startled and pretty excited when he spies his wife Connie (Linda Vale) as one of the participants on film during a friend's stag film party. He does investigating into her alter ego, Mistress Electra, which she refuses to admit, and stumbles onto a world of freewheeling sexuality and dirty photo sessions with dominatrixes. More colorful and stylized than its companion films, this is an amusing time waster and, though not as perverse in the long run, it bears that unmistakable stamp of Avon grime. All three films were previously included in godawful transfers (sourced from ragged, EP-speed VHS copies) in Alpha Blue Archive's pricey 10-disc Avon box set, but for this set all have received fresh new transfers from the only available 16mm film sources. Yes, there's still a ton of debris, scratches, and damage, but the leap in quality is pretty astonishing considering how drab and miserable these looked before. The only extras are a reel on the second disc of Avon trailers, a greatest hits package that hopefully hints at another volume to come, and liner notes by John Nilsson, who sketches out the basics of the movie theater and the talents involved while (probably wisely) dodging some of the more brutal, possibly apocryphal stories about the company's main players. [UPDATE: Costello has since claimed the set is unauthorized and has campaigned to have it pulled from the market.]

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