MARCH 4, 2015

SoulmateMarketed as a horror movie but really far more difficult to classify is Soulmate, a sort of gothic British supernatural love story that soars well past viewer expectations. After surviving a car wreck that claims the life of her husband, violinist Audrey (Anna Walton) tries to cut her wrists in the bathtub and instead finds herself sinking further into solitude and melancholy. She goes to stay at a cottage in the country where a locked room holds an unexpected mystery inside: the former owner, Douglas (Tom Wisdom), who's now a ghost. They strike up an unusual rapport as she untangles the story behind his life and demise, while the other living people in the area offer a few clues of their own. Douglas also becomes more tangible thanks to her presence, but all may not be as it seems. The tacky cover art for the American DVD promises some kind of demonic spook show, but what you get here instead is an atmospheric and lyrical little chiller with two committed central performances and a nice throwback atmosphere. Director Axelle Carolyn (wife of The Descent director Neil Marshall) proves herself adept at juggling narrative and tone, and the scope photography is often very striking. Unfortunately the film stumbles a bit with an unsatisfying ending that leaves way, way too many questions open, but otherwise it's a fine little gem people will enjoy discovering for years. Extras on the Revolver DVD include the nifty Carolyn-directed short film "The Halloween Kid" (also with Walton and sporting narration by Derek Jacobi), another poignant Carolyn short entitled "The Last Post" (with a nice central performance by the great Jean Marsh and a lovely score by Poirot regular Christian Henson, who also did honors on the main feature), and a nine-minute Q&A with the director from the Etheria Film Festival in L.A. A British DVD is also available with a Carolyn/Marshall commentary, but it's missing the entire opening sequence after the BBFC threatened to ban it entirely over the problematic suicide scene.

You Can't Kill Stephen KingYou really have to give credit to any film that could get away with a title like You Can't Kill Stephen King, a tongue-in-cheek horror outing that makes its agenda clear early on by opening with a scantily-clad girl running scream through the woods and introducing its major players with on screen text descriptions like "Ronnie: Stephen King junkie, porn enthusiast, creepy virgin," "Lamont: token black friend, expert navigator, loves the white girls," etc. Anyway, they're all heading out in a car to the woods to hang out at a lake near the famous author's house, and the Maine locals aren't too thrilled with having interlopers hanging around. None of the residents can even seem to agree whether King lives there anymore, and soon the screen is filled with creepy kids, throat slashing, girl-on-girl kissing, a bizarre dream sequence mashing up The Shining and It, and of course, a surprise ending. Once you strip away all the literary gags it's basically a straightforward slasher film, but there's enough here to keep King fans chuckling and a really eccentric sense of humor that works more often than not. The DVD looks quite good with very solid digital photography showcasing the beautiful locations, and the lone extra is a trailer.

Cruel TangoSort of an attempt to drag the giallo formula into the Saw era is Cruel Tango, a 100-minute slice of budget artsy horror trash from 2012 that shoots for the same audience as fare like Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears. The difference here is that it was shot on a far lower budget on video, and it's actually Italian, a quality that works in its favor. Basically what we have here is another serial killer yarn, in this case with a noted crime blogger Vincenzo (Francesco Castiglione) receiving and posting the video handiwork of a masked maniac who slaughters women to various selections of music appropriate for the blog itself, Il Tango Che Uccide - "Cruel Tango." He manages to track the source of the carnage to a village in southern Italy where the murders escalate in viciousness and trap Vincenzo and his girlfriend in a deadly game with the local officials as well. Meanwhile the killer seems to grow gradually more insane himself, talking to his doppelganger about his parents before he unravels completely for the big unmasking. A tad overlong and sometimes nonsensical, it's still an amusing throwback if you have a taste for latter-period Italian thrillers from the VHS era like Nothing Underneath, Too Beautiful to Die, etc., and the faux-Simonetti music score is often quite effective. The DVD from One 7 Movies looks fine considering the cheap nature of the source (much of which looks like it was shot on a consumer-grade DV camera), with optional English subtitles available and a trailer constituting the sole extra.

Also hailing 186 Dollars to Freedomfrom 2012 but sharing nothing else in common is the Peruvian-American film 186 Dollars to Freedom, which is sort of a digital-age successor to films like Midnight Express and Brokedown Palace. The action takes place at the dawn of the 1980s in an atmosphere of severe political unrest, and California surfer Wayne (John Robinson) steps right in the middle of it when he gets hauled in on trumped-up drug charges. Far from finding hot women and tasty waves in Lima, he instead learns the hard way how to get along inside the big house as he tries to find a way out and deal with other problems like hostile fellow prisoner, a broken foot, and torture-happy guards. Though he doesn't perform much beyond the limits of a high school drama class, Robinson goes through a fairly effective physical transformation throughout the film, which ranges from moments of effective tension to an odd mish mash of flashbacks and political commentary that doesn't always add up. It also doesn't skimp on the physical anguish of the story, with one bloody third-act bit involving wrist suspension and a box cutter bound to make a few viewers wince. Blairwood's DVD looks pretty middling throughout presumably due to the dark and grubby nature of the source material (complete with shimmering galore during the opening and closing credits), and it comes with a solid slate of extras including an audio chat track with director Camilo Vila and screenwriter Monty Fisher (whose real-life experience in jail inspired the film), eight minutes of fuzzy deleted scenes, the trailer, a collection of storyboards, a promo reel, production stills, and a 22-minute reel of casting tests for many of the supporting actors.

The Inside"27% of missing persons are never found... or explained." That ominous statistic sets the stage for The Inside, our next film in the 2012 exploitation sweepstakes hailing this time from Ireland. Loaded with enough stylistic tics to give you a migraine, it still manages to wring out a few chilling moments during the ordeal of some girls who decide to record a birthday party for posterity with the big present only delivered at the end of the night. That means we basically get another found footage outing as they fall into the clutches of filthy, sadistic vagrants who terrorize them in an empty warehouse decorated with some ominous occult symbols. If you're not a fan of handheld shaky cam or overly stylized flash cuts and other editorial indulgences, this one won't come close to winning you over; of course, it also follows the lead of most other found footage films by delivering a completely nihilistic ending, in this case delivered with even less justification than usual. What makes it stand out is the odd narrative structure as it features both an odd wraparound involving the discovery of the footage and a supernatural change of direction in the final act, which doesn't come close to Kill List territory but makes it worth a peek for horror completists. The main extra on the U.S. disc from Revolver is a picture-in-picture commentary with director Eoin Macken, who apparently did just about every other job behind the camera apart from providing the catering (though maybe he had a hand in that, too). There's also an amusing 19-minute documentary loaded with cast and crew interviews as well as fake blood and latex applications aplenty, along with a fairly vague trailer.

Angels of DarknessA loose updating of the vampire classic Carmilla is the gothic horror film Styria, which has been retitled Angels of Darkness for home video. In the early 1980s, Dr. Hill (Stephen Rea) and his daughter, Lara (Eleanor Tomlinson), cross through Hungary into the titular Eastern European region where they stay at a remote castle. Lara's been thrown out of school after a vague incident involving the pushing of another girl, and now she spends her time wandering around the area listening to goth music while her dad deals with local officials who want to demolish the property. One afternoon Lara witnesses a blood-spattered young girl named Carmilla (Julia Pietrucha) running from a car trying to run her down, and so she takes the injured stranger into their home. As the two girls become close and residents in the area start to die, it becomes clear that Carmilla has a link to the history of the castle and the strange, chilling works of art found within. A respectable addition to the long line of adaptations of the J. Sheridan Le Fanu staple like The Vampire Lovers and Blood and Roses, this particular twist overflows with inventive visual ideas and boasts to a gorgeous music score, not to mention a typically fine performance by Rea and a couple of novel new twists on the tale at the end. The slow pacing may put off viewers expecting a more extreme horror fest, but if you know what to expect, it's well worth exploring. The Revolver DVD looks quite impressive, though in HD the crisp imagery would no doubt pop even more. The menu screen offers not extras, but a brief textless trailer is appended at the end of the film.

House of Last ThingsDefinitely earning points for ambition is the hallucinatory horror film House of Last Things, which weaves together two separate stories bound by a supernatural connection. Recently released from an institution, Sarah (Diane Dalton) is taken to Italy by her husband, Alan (Randy Schulman), a music critic, for reasons that should be familiar to anyone who's seen Don't Look Now. Meanwhile Kelly (Lindsey Haun) goes to housesit for them and is joined (without permission) by her brother, Tim (RJ Mitte, Walt Jr. from Breaking Bad), and her kleptomaniac boyfriend, Jesse (soap actor Blake Berris). Both groups start to fracture thanks to puzzling visions involving a yellow balloon and eyeglasses, but things really take a right turn when Jeese brings home a young boy he's seemingly abducted from the parking lot of a grocery store. Soon things get really crazy with a barrage of inexplicable events involving an all-knowing neighbor, flaming rental signs, a sinister vineyard, a giant apple, and interchanging roles and body tattoos. It actually does all come together more or less at the end with an oddly haunting barrage of developments, but the execution is the main attraction here thanks to dreamy cinematography and an evocative atmosphere that carry it over some of the more baffling passages. Worth checking out as long as you're willing to pay attention and soak in the eccentric ambience of the whole thing, which also takes the unexpected step of blatantly objectifying its three adult male cast members instead of the female ones. Schulman and Dalton have less to do than their younger peers who get the juiciest material, but everyone acquits themselves well with Haun in particular handling the demands of her transformative role quite well. The Revolver DVD is no frills for some reason but looks quite nice, with 5.1 and stereo audio options.

Trophy HeadsConsiderably more retro and accessible is the elaborate scream queen homage Trophy Heads, a Full Moon Pictures valentine of sorts to the leading ladies of '80s and '90s horror favorites. Max (Adam Noble Roberts) is a psychotic loser who hangs around his basement in his undies watching DVDs of horror movies, and with the aid of his mom (Maria Olsen), he concocts a plan to bring his favorite movie goddesses to life for his own enjoyment. That means tracking down the likes of Linnea Quigley (who gets the funniest bit as a Christian street evangelizer with Kristine DeBell), Brinke Stevens (who's turned into a massage therapist), Michelle Bauer (a juice stand vendor), Jessica Morris, and Darcy DeMoss. That means locking the scream queens in his underground prison and letting them loose in recreations of their most famous movie scenes, which they have to repeat with fuzzy memories and sometimes violent deviations from the original scripts. Keep an eye out for other cameos along the way like Stuart Gordon and David DeCoteau, too. Available on both Blu-ray and DVD, this is probably the cleverest of Charles Band's most recent productions thanks to its barrage of references to favorites from the golden age of home video sleaze, though its premise may come off as weird and misogynist to anyone too young (or old) to get the joke. Be sure watch all the way through the closing credits, too. The transfer looks as bright and sharp as a 2014 production should look, and plenty of extras are included like a Band commentary with DeMoss, Stevens, and Jacqueline Lovell (which is very entertaining in its own right), a 10-minute "Videozone" going behind the scenes in the best Full Moon tradition, a 22-minute reel of raw production footage, a "Submit Your Head" fan photo featurette similar to what's used for the end credits, and trailers for this film and others like Trancers 2, Ooga Booga, and Unlucky Charms.

The Ed Wood AwardsHow much one subscribes to the "so bad it's good" philosophy is still a matter of taste, with everything from The Golden Turkey Awards to Mystery Science Theater 3000 and its imitators inspiring multiple generations now of snarky viewer behavior. Joining the fray is the Midnight Marquee DVD release of The Ed Wood Awards, a celebration of the "worst" films around hosted by Ted A. Bohus and Fred Olen Ray. It's actually more valuable as an artifact of the departed Fanex Convention, a horror/sci-fi celebration usually held in the Baltimore area and notable for its policy of not having prestigious guests charge money for autographs. (Needless to say, that's a far cry from what we see today.) As the hosts swig Heineken and deal with copious a/v issues, they unspool a number of clips from a variety of films (Night of the Lepus, God Monster of Indian Flats, The Boneyard, The Brain from Planet Arous, The Amazing Colossal Man, Yeti, Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, The Alligator People, and many more) and present the awards in various categories like "Vegetable Most Past Its Expiration Date" (won by From Hell It Came, in case you were wondering). There are also a handful of new goodies like the amateur spoof Plan B- from Outer Space, and not surprisingly, the work of Al Adamson, Ray Dennis Steckler, and Roger Corman seems to dominate here. The actual ceremony clocks in just under an hour, while another hour of the disc is filled out with extras like "The History of the Horror Films" (in Amazing Dollovision!), a survey of the genre from Universal and Hammer to the mid-'90s using vintage monster dolls and miniature sets, with a few unexpected bits like recreations of Psycho, The Exorcist, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, The Deadly Spawn, and Blood Feast. There's also a "Guilty Pleasures of the Horror Film" from 1991's Fanex 5 with panelists citing personal favorites like Shriek of the Mutilated and Nude on the Moon.

Mystery World of SexAbstract to an almost insane degree is Mystery World of Sex, a Vegas and Miami-shot slice of dreamy electronic eroticism by "Mr. E" with an actress named "Kaci Starr" guiding the viewer through nearly two hours of slo-mo hypnotic strangeness, often packed with nudity and treading extremely close to hardcore at times. One zaftig redhead rolls around in pasties for a photo shoot, another writhes on a staircase, and a photo shoot turns into the longest tug job in cinema history, which is about the only semblance of a plot you'll find. The women are presented in a variety of body shapes and sizes, which is pretty rare these days, and the aggressive score by "All Lowercase Letters" (or would that be "all lowercase letters?") and "We Are Ghosts" is undeniably effective. The pseudonymous director is easily identifiable as Ramzi Abed, who also helmed Nerdy Girls and the solid The Devil's Muse and the thematically similar Nerdy Girls, and he manages to prove as much of an exhibitionist here as his leading ladies. Extras include a trailer, a spicy photo gallery, and a Starr short film with Abed again.

Telephone WorldAbed also ditched the Mr. E moniker to direct Telephone World under his own name, with both titles shot back to back in 2013. Designed as one continuous 80-minute take, it's a sort of nightmare showbiz story about Rachel (Elissa Dowling), a struggling actress vying for the lead in a TV show called Fairfax Girls. Apart from its bookending segments, the film unfolds in real time during the course of an afternoon as our heroine gets high, showers, cuts herself, and juggles phone calls about her professional and personal life. Most of it is shot with diffused black borders around the frame to give it a queasy peeping tom quality, and the obviously improvised nature of most of the conversations gives it an uneven but sometimes harrowing feel with Dowling throwing herself into the role with scary abandon at times. The Cinema Epoch DVD is presented in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 (an inexplicable tech choice these days) and looks comparable to other low budget films of its ilk, while the stereo audio limited mainly to the striking electronic score. Keep an eye out in the closing credits for shout outs to Werner Herzog and Amoeba Records, too! Bonus features include the trailer, a "Take Me Out to Dinner" music video, and a bonus short film by Abed, "The Tunnel," a macabre piece about a young man's disintegrating life involving a morgue, a pretty interpretive dancer, and none other than Lloyd Kaufman in a scene-stealing extended cameo.

The Claire Sinclair ShowCult Epics has managed to find a surprisingly durable industry in both vintage and modern entries in the pin-up culture that blew up in the '50s and seems to come back into vogue every few years, with Bettie Page still the reigning pop culture queen. For an example of how to do it in the second decade of the '00s, check out The Claire Sinclair Show Vol. 1 & 2, an ode to the popular Playboy model (who took Playmate of the Year honors in '11) and Vegas headliner with two half-hour segments devoted to her charms. First up is the 23-minute "Claire on Claire," in which she interviews herself (thanks to a little basic camera trickery) with direction by label founder Nico B. and covers the entirety of her career from Hollywood Boulevard character jobs (as Disney's Belle, not surprisingly) to her rise through the ranks of pinup favorites. Then the "extended version" of "Bunny's Last Sitting" features 24 minutes with famed photographer Bunny Yeager chatting with Sinclair and doing her last photo shoot with her, accompanied by retro surf rock music. The audio here is very echo-y thanks to the location, but it's a nice artifact of the two representatives of different eras spending time together with a look at Bunny's home filled with striking photos of Page and other familiar faces. Also included is a 7-minute reel of Super 8 silent footage from the same photo shoot, a Sinclair-hosted 2-minute promo for The Erotica Channel's Bettie Page: Bondage Queen, and her three-minute enthusiastic appraisal of the great Joseph W. Sarno homage, Viva.

Hot & Saucy Pizza GirlsAnd for the obligatory adults-only Sick Picks entry, let's close out with a look at one of the many impressive DVD releases from Vinegar Syndrome, Hot & Saucy Pizza Girls. Featuring a twangy country theme song and an amazing roster of '70s legends in their prime, it's deservedly remained a favorite for generations and stayed on home video in various formats from VCX. Shot in 1979 by director Bob Chinn (hot on the heels of Disco Lady, Tropic of Desire and Fantasyworld), it was primarily promoted as Desiree Cousteau's big follow up to her hit role in Pretty Peaches as Ann Chovy (har har), one of the libidinous delivery girls for the Country Girl Pizza Parlor working for store owner John Holmes. She's joined in her sexy delivery duties by Candida Royalle, Lauren Dominique, and Christine De Shaffer, but trouble's on the horizon with fried chicken magnate Paul Thomas trying to take them all down. On top of that there's a six-foot chicken running around trying to sexually assault local women, and the detective in charge (John Seeman) gets distracted by all the flesh at his disposal, too. Incredibly goofy and lighthearted, this is great fun for vintage adult fans and presented on DVD by Vinegar Syndrome in its uncut 71-minute theatrical form compared to the edited version usually circulated on VHS and DVD. This is also the first widescreen edition with 1.78:1 framing, and the often warm color tones look great here thanks to film elements apparently kept in very good shape. The mono audio is also clearer than before, allowing you to better appreciate one of Holmes' better, more charismatic performances. (For the record, some of the other vets having fun here include Richard Pacheco, Vicky Lindsay, Amber Ray, Spender Travis, and Chinn himself as Holmes' business partner.) Extras include the theatrical trailer and a great video interview running 11 minutes with producer Damon Christian, whose very fluffy, sleepy cat threatens to steal the show throughout. Christian has some crazy stories about how got into the business and dealt with the infusion of mob money, which necessitated one supervisor on set at all times and the threat of leg breaking when the pizza parlor set started to go up in flames. Holmes stories abound as well, of course, but the gangster stories really take the cake here including an account of how he got out of being a made man himself. Crazy, crazy stuff and another essential release from one of the best labels out there right now.



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