October 19, 2021

Slightly beating out the resurgence of trash action films from Europe by the likes of Claudio Fragasso and Bruno Mattei like the Strike Commando duo, 2018's Commando Ninja is a very goofy homage to VHS-era American bullet origes brought to life through a crowdfunding campaign. The story here is a mishmash of familiar tropes centered Commando Ninjaaround John Hunter (Eric Carlesi), a Green Beret who gets captured by ninjas in Vietnam and trained by his captor in the secret combat arts. Told of a mysterious red ninja who uses his abilities for evil, John finds his skills put to the test a decade later when one of his fellow soldiers, Hopkins (Philippe Allier), who now as a robotic arm after losing it in the ninja melee, to help stop a ruthless arms Commando Ninjadealer with a tie to their past. Suddenly it's a sci-fi, high-octane, financially-strapped spectacle as our hero has to cross time itself to save the world.

Clocking in at a brisk 68m12s, it's an affectionate ode to pretty much every Arnold Schwarzenegger film from the Reagan and Bush Sr. eras (especially Predator, The Terminator, and Commando) as well as the American Ninja and Sho Kosugi ninja series (plus a post-nuke chaser) with a lot of original goofiness all its own. (The presence of Cannon posters on the walls should be a pretty big tip-off, too.) Unfortunately the film also resorts to that plague of modern exploitation filmmaking, CGI blood squibs, though there's also a decent amount of practical effects including a very amusing exploding head gag. The region-free Blu-ray from ETR (the video imprint Enjoy the Ride Records), a partner label with Vinegar Syndrome, is as enjoyable as you'd expect with a solid 1.78:1 transfer accurate to the intentionally wonky source material. For some reason there's no setup menu, but the film can be viewed with ridiculous dub tracks in English, French, German, Polish, Russian, Czech, or Polish, with subtitle options in all of those languages plus Greek, Spanish, Danish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Italian. The big extra here is "The Making of Commando Ninja" (69m48s), which obviously runs longer than the feature itself with extensive coverage of the cinematic influences and the process of getting the whole nutty thing off the ground. The bonus short film "Hopkins" (18m17s) is a ridiculously foul-mouthed side story with our #2 character still fighting a war on the mean streets of the, uh, "Big Apple," complete with an homage to The Exterminator. Also included are the standard trailer, a Japanese trailer, tongue-in-cheek character bios, and a theme song option that serves as a nice teaser for the full soundtrack (which is also available on vinyl). Buy here from Vinegar Syndrome or here from Diabolik.

A genre homage of a different kind that also hails from 2018 can be found with Lake Michigan Monster, a Milwaukee-shot Lake Michigan Monsterindie that feels like a lunatic seafaring splicing of Guy Maddin, H.P. Lovecraft, and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Director and co-writer Ryland Brickson Cole Tews also stars as the deranged Captain Seafield, who assembles a skeptical three-person "team of the century" to head out to his Lighthouse Island as home base for a nautical "Operation Annihilation" hunt for the titular monster. It's all a plan to avenge his dead father, but things don't go remotely as planned when the supernatural strikes back with a vengeance. Virtually impossible to describe and packed with local Wisconsin humor (even during the finale) that will either make this tangy or baffling depending on your mood, this one adopts the usual staples of retro monster Lake Michigan Monsterfare like grainy monochrome photography and wittily placed film splices.

The Blu-ray from Arrow Video looks great with lots of texture throughout, plus effective 5.1 and 2.0 English DTS tracks, and it's packed with extras including a pair of audio commentaries from the cast and crew (Tews with actors Daniel Long, Beulah Peters, Erick West and editor Mike Cheslik), one sober and tech-minded and the other inebriated and totally ridiculous. A third track features critics Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Emma Westwood, who tackle it from more of a straightforward genre perspective. You also get an effects breakdown comparison (9m51s), a performance of the theme song by the Seafield Monster Sextet (5m15s), an "Interview in a Cabin" (9m3s) with Tews and Long at Fantasia, a cast and crew "Interview in a Bar" (12m43s) from the Beloit International Film Festival, and an "Interview by a Fire" (23m58s) audio chat with Cheslik on Mark Borchardt’s Cinema Fireside radio show. Also included are the first season (22m13s) and pilot (7m15s) for Tews and Cheslik's web series L.I.P.S., three Arrow Video Channel promos, the trailer, and a huge batch of behind-the-scenes photos. The packaging also features reversible sleeve options and, in the first pressing, an insert with liner notes by Barry Forshaw. Buy here.

One of those oddball regional horror titles from the late '80s that ended up going straight to VHS, Through the Fire had an even weirder path than most. Inexplicably retitled The Gates of Hell Part II: Dead Awakening by cheapo label Through the FireTapeworm Video (Cannibal Hookers, Crystal Force) complete with a tacked-on dedication card to Lucio Fulci, this one has nothing to do with galloping cadavers in Dunwich. Shot in Fort Worth, Texas, it's about dark forces at work in a small town where Sandra (Tamara Hext) has come looking for her missing sister. After getting plastered at the nearest watering hole, she's given a ride home late at night by nice guy cop Nick Berkley (Tom Campitelli), whom she calls to thank the next morning while he's recovering from what looks like a long night of passion with a stripper. A mysterious amulet is just the tip of the iceberg as they dig around town and uncover a mystery tied to a murderous sect, who like to pop up with knives in people's houses and plot the return to earth for the ancient occult god they worship. Though it doesn't really have a surprising bone in its body, this one's Through the Fireamusing enough with Southern charm and nicely charismatic performances by its two leads-- as well as a few sparing gore gags that keep you on your toes.

Out of commission for decades, this one looks very good thanks to a fresh 2K scan from the 35mm internegative that makes the scruffy, grainy production look a whole lot better than the old tape might lead you to believe. This is also the original cut of course with its intended title card. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is accurate to the modest source and comes with optional English SDH subs. The extras start with a new audio commentary with director and co-writer Gary Marcum, who remembers apparently every single thing about the production from casting through the arduous shooting process-- including rotoscoping by a special effects artist in his mom's dining room. Marcum pops up again with co-writer/associate producer Brad Potter for the interview featurette "Lighting the Spark" (19m9s) going further in depth in the film's background including the inspiration they took from Halloween, while special makeup effects artist Gregor Punchatz recalls his own work on the film in "A Labor of Love" (16m37s) after work on far more high-profile gigs on films like From Beyond and RoboCop. On top of that you get the entire radically different (and much chintzier) VHS Gates of Hell II version in glorious SD, featuring an alternate commentary with Marcum, Potter, and editor Jay Helton, moderated by Zack Carlson. It overlaps a lot with the featurette, but there are some nice bits studded throughout including some opening memories about the random product placement deals and the film's path to home video. Finally the disc closes out with a 4m22 reel of VHS-shot footage of the creation of the film's prosthetic special effects, focusing on how one memorably monstrous gag from the climax was achieved. Buy here.

A The Killing Boxfilm that seemed to be everywhere on VHS for a while that nobody ever seemed to actually watch, The Killing Box from 1993 is a unique but somewhat confounding Civil War ghost story that's gone on a number of different titles on home video and TV over the years including Grey Knight, Ghost Brigade, and The Lost Brigade. What we have now on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing is the 82m5s "producer's cut" version with a '90s synth The Killing Boxscore and a prologue explaining the whole concept of "The Killing Box," though a different director's cut was briefly available from Vanguard and supposedly better reflected the intentions of late director George Hickenlooper, best known for documentaries like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse and Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Sort of a cousin to the combat vampire film The Lost Platoon, this one involves a malevolent force accidentally freed by Confederate soldiers out in the middle of nowhere. Union officer and covert drug addict Captain Harling (Near Dark's Adrian Pasdar) finds his men are being picked off, so he enlists the aid of imprisoned Confederate officer Colonel Strayn (Corbin Bernsen) along with Colonel Thalman (Ray Wise) to figure out who's using the men on both sides for their own hunting ground. Of course, if you look at the alternate titles, it isn't hard to figure out what's going on. It makes sense Turner would jump on this one since it feels like a more macabre spin on Gettysburg, with an impressive cast that also includes Martin Sheen giving it a cozy '90s cable TV feeling even if it was intended for theatrical play. Plus it's always good to see a leading role for Pasdar, who never quite seemed to hit bona fide leading man status on the large or small screens for some reason. The Scorpion disc sports a nice HD scan provided by MGM that easily outclasses the DVD and VHS editions (which were pretty murky and taken from broadcast masters), with the proper widescreen framing snapping things into focus better than before. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 track also nicely replicates the original Ultra Stereo mix, and optional English SDH subtitles are provided. Extras include a ridiculously lo-res trailer and bonus ones for Cold Heaven, Night Visitor, Last Rites, The Greek Tycoon, and King of the Mountain. Buy here.

Another example of a wildly overqualified cast boosting a VHS-ready horror film from a few years earlier can be found in 1989's Grave Secrets, a slice of California supernatural hokum that marked one of the few attempts at Hollywood stardom for the wonderful Grave SecretsDutch actress Renée Soutendijk, who'd shot to fame in films like The Fourth Man and Spetters but went back to Holland after the tepid response to 1991's Eve of Destruction. Essentially an old school haunted house film slightly retooled for the post-slasher era, it feels for all the world like one of those harmless spooky films you'd stumble onto late at night on cable on something like the USA Network. Frequent '80s New World producer Donald P. Borchers (who went on to direct the blah 2009 remake of Children of the Corn) takes on the duties of helming this one (for purely budgetary considerations) about a harried bed and breakfast proprietor, Iris (Soutendijk, Grave Secretsof course), who brings in funding-hungry paranormal professor David Shaw (Paul Le Mat, looking a lot more haggard here than the same year's Puppet Master) to find out why her establishment seems to be a breeding ground for ghostly disturbances. As they dig deeper, it's clear that something nasty and very personal is at work here -- which makes sense as the opening scene showing a bloody Iris speeding through the night and being assaulted in her car indicates all is not as it appears.

If you want a modest but fairly effective little spooker for Halloween viewing, this one should do the trick since it also features some nice juicy supporting roles for David Warner and Lee Ving while composer Jonathan Elias effectively echoes the approach to his original Children of the Corn score here (right down to synths and kid's choir). The Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray (as part of its limited VSA line) is the first go-round for this one on video since the early '90s (when it hit VHS and laserdisc, the latter from Image Entertainment) and usual it looks sharp as a tack here -- so much so that you can now make out some very obvious ADR dialogue at times. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided for the okay English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. The sole extra is an audio phone interview with Borchers (14m53s), who goes into his early days working at Avco Embassy, his move to New World, and the casting and production of this film (including his key fandom of Melvin and Howard), as well as the obvious trims mandated by the MPAA to get an R rating. Buy here.

Though Impulse Pictures gave it a noble try over a decade ago, the English-language home video scene is sorely underrepresented when it comes to Rape of the Virginsthe pornochanchada, a wave of sex-laden films from Brazil that range from mild softcore comedies to full-on twisted hardcore brain melters. Despite the name, many of them don't Rape of the Virginsreally fall under the porno banner per se; there are legit plotlines along with all the bare skin, resulting in kooky viewing experiences that would appeal tremendously to the Something Weird crowd if they were easier to see. Mystery label One 7 Movies gives it another shot with a sort of pornochanchada roughie film, 1983's Rape of Virgin Girls (or Os Violentadores de Meninas Virgens), which also features one of the funniest copyright-flaunting soundtracks this side of an '80s Hong Kong film. The packaging touts this as "Explicit! Explicit!," though this is softcore all the way as we explore the nasty side of the streets of São Paulo where a girl can't walk home alone at night without getting tossed into a car by goons and forced into a life of prostitution. Turns out there's a big market out there for virgins, and pimp Marcus has it cornered thanks to skeevy old rich dudes willing to pay top dollar to be their first-- by force. While the soundtrack pounds with selections from somebody's Giorgio Moroder and ABBA vinyl collections, the cops try to figure out who's behind the sex slavery ring and dumping the bodies of the girls all over town once they've been deflowered. Of course, we already know five minutes in but that's because it's all just a clothesline to hang a bunch of sleazy set pieces, like a nightclub strip show intercut with a captive pleasuring herself accompanied by "Voulez-Vous" and "A Woman in Love." Unapologetically trashy and over the top, this is hopefully the first volley in a long overdue round of pornochanchada films with subtitles to stun a new audience. The DVD release is okay, featuring a transfer that's fine for the most part but has a few scenes with a slightly jerky appearance indicating some sort of frame rate issue (mainly involving cars driving). The Portuguese audio sounds decent and has the original soundtrack intact, with hysterically profane English subtitles (some of which linger on screen far, far after the line has been spoken). Buy here.

After starting his career off with a very sick bang with the controversy-courting Island of Death, Greek filmmaker Nico Death Has Blue EyesMastorakis took a while to find his groove as a purveyor of mostly direct-to-video thrillers, action films, and comedies. At least based on the title, you might expect that his second feature, 1976's Death Has Blue Eyes, is an attempt to cash in on the waning giallo fad around that time. However, it's actually a mostly unclassifiable stew of caper romp, quirky comedy, and softcore sex film, heading straight to VHS in the U.K. in the '80s and never reaching the U.S. at all until the Arrow Films Blu-ray in both countries. Snippets of this have been turning up in Mastorakis' various documentaries about himself and his Omega Films output, but seeing the whole thing in its entirety is a whole other head-spinning experience. In Athens, best buddies Bob (Peter Winter) and Ches (Hristos Nomikos) reconnect while the latter is sponging off an older rich woman for his own gain. Death Has Blue EyesWhen they decide to have a threesome with the nearest nymphet and get caught in the act, they hightail it to a hotel where they fake their room name and catch the eye of owner Geraldine (Jessica Dublin), who wants them to protect her psychically gifted daughter Christina (Maria Aliferi) -- whom she claims has witnessed an assassination that could put both their lives in peril. Got all that? Soon there are chases all over Greece, double crosses, triple crosses, fight scenes, and a lot more sex whenever anyone stops for breath.

A real head scratcher, this one has the usual Mastorakis pacing problems and befuddling soundtrack but also never fails to keep your interest with flashier visuals than the director's normally known for. He even deploys some Jess Franco-style fisheye lens shots throughout, which gives the film a bit more flavor than expected. As a coherent narrative it doesn't really gel, but as a pop art curio there's plenty here to enjoy. The Arrow release features a pristine restoration from the camera negative, with newly generated titles obviously added since any existing prints would be in pretty lousy shape. You get the option of watching the film in open matte 1.33:1 or matted 1.85:1 options; the latter might look more theatrical, but the former is more aesthetically pleasing and reveals a lot of extra nudity in the process. As usual, optional English SDH subs are provided. The extras start with a new interview with Alfieri (17m43s) about the fun time she had on the film, followed by an "In His Own Words" (24m37s) chat with Mastorakis that's as... uh... distinctive as his other featurettes, starting with a promo for his 80th birthday you have to see to believe. He goes into the state of his life at the time, of course, including personal disruptions, and also chats about his attempts to avert having the distributor insert more graphic footage behind his back. "Dancing with Death" (42m1s) is an assemblage of soundtrack cues from the film, followed by two theatrical trailers and an image gallery. The first pressing also comes with an insert booklet featuring liner notes by Julian Grainger. Buy here.

A documentary unlike anything else out there, The El Duce Tapes proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the '90s truly was The El Duce Tapesground zero for the pop culture apocalypse we now find ourselves in. While working as an actor in small role around L.A., Ryan Sexton went around filming the grungiest music acts he could find and ended up amassing hours of footage of The Mentors and its intentionally outrageous front man, El Duce, whose stock in trade was spewing the most offensive rhetoric imaginable during their live shows while wearing an executioner's hood. Very much in the vein of G.G. Allin but with more Naziism, rape, and general offensiveness thrown into the mix, the act pushed the notion of free speech to the breaking point and particularly earned the ire of the notorious Tipper Gore, whose pro-censorship crusade is a whole sordid saga unto itself. Regardless of how one feels The El Duce Tapesabout the band's outrage-baiting stunts, the doc crafted by Sexton, Rodney Ascher, and David Lawrence is a compelling one with a skewed sense of humor about the whole thing. Along the way you also get to see some familiar faces popping up in archival footage including Amy Pohler, Jerry Springer, and Bill Maher, as well as some unwelcome ones better consigned to cultural oblivion.

Image quality here is dependent on the source, so it's basically VHS quality from start to finish. Ascher, Lawrence, producer Tim Kirk, and graphics animator Sid Garrett provide a jam-packed audio commentary relating the whole saga about how this came about from the mysterious origins of Sexton's first meeting with El Duce through the lengthy, arduous process of honing all the material into a feature film. That's followed by a 34m16s audio interview with Sexton by Kirk about his own experiences with The Mentors, 4m17s of footage of the L.A. band Nilbog recording the score (including AGFA's Bret Berg on bass), an extra 12m52s of unused El Duce video material, a 16m44s behind the scenes look at raw footage with El Duce and Sexton chatting along the Hollywood Reservoir, a 6m16s look at female tribute band The Womentors, and a "Return to Rape Rock Mountain" interview (29m4s) with band member Steve Broy a.k.a. Dr. Heathen Scum. The first pressing also comes with an insert booklet featuring an essay by Manish Agarwal. Buy here.

Fans of classic adult cinema have been kept busy since Vinegar Syndrome spun off its more explicit titles into the Peekarama sub-label, Summer Camp Girlswhich means more new titles keep hitting Blu-ray. One of these is the all-star Summer Camp Girls from 1983, which has been around since the VHS and DVD days from Caballero but looks like a million bucks here with an eye-popping Summer Camp Girlstransfer from the camera negative. Flitting back and forth between legit-ish films and porn, cinematographer and director Gary Graver helmed this one (playing up his Orson Welles connections by calling this "A Harold Lime Production") for a look at the very randy Camp Quim, where girls of legal age get sent by their frustrated well-to-do parents for three months to get them out of their hair for a while. New arrival Angela (Shauna Grant) has no idea what she's in for, especially since any willing women around tend to spend their off time coupling with some combination of Herschel Savage, Paul Thomas, Eric Edwards, and Marc Wallice. Kimberly Carson, Tara Aire, Joanna Storm, and Danielle are among the campers who thankfully look way, way past summer camp age, and there's barely any storyline at all to leave room for six major naughty set pieces. The original trailer is also included. Buy here.

Also on Blu-ray from Peekarama is the sequel to one of the most legendary titles from the golden age of adult films, Debbie Does Dallas, which Debbie Does Dallas IIbrings back star Bambi Woods and second-billed star R. Bolla, a.k.a. Cannibal Holocaust's Robert Kerman, second billed here for a five-minute cameo in a totally different role. Through one of those weird distribution quirks, 1981's Debbie Does Dallas II hit HD first and, like its predecessor, is more interesting as a Debbie Does Dallas IIside effect of the U.S.'s fixation at the time with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders than any of its cinematic merits. That said, it's colorful and amusing with virtual nonstop sex scenes to keep the target audience happy with Woods giving it her all in her second and final role before vanishing from the public eye entirely. The gist here is that Debbie's hit the road and, after catching a ride with trucker Bolla, headed to a ranch run by her aunt. After tangling with some cops and having a tryst in a jail cell with deputy Ron Hudd, she makes her way to the ranch - actually a whorehouse, of course - where she learns the tricks of the trade complete with private lessons from the working girls (including some toy work that would've landed the VHS release from VCA in hot water in a few states if anyone was paying attention). The Blu-ray looks spectacular of course, blowing away the old tape master that's been recycled for decades and making the film look a lot slicker and more vibrant than before. Extras include a pair of very extensive cast audio interviews conducted by Casey Scott with actors Lisa Cintrice (79m43s) and Sean Elliot (also 79m43s), both of which are great crash courses in the industry history that clear up a lot of confusion and rumors while spinning out tons of stories about their lives outside the business and memories of their costars.

Back in 2018, Sick Picks covered one of the more infamous hardcore quickies by drive-in staple Ray Dennis Steckler, The Sexorcist, courtesy of a Peekarama DVD release paired up with Deviates in Love. Now it's back in a Steckler triple Debbie Truelove Strikes Backwhammy of no-budget XXX insanity with After Hours' Sexorcist's Devil Grindhouse Triple Feature. For those not in the know, Steckler spent much of the '70s turning out weird porno cheapies often compiled by assembling various loops Sexorcist Devilhe shot around Las Vegas with a voyeur peeking in windows to provide some kind of narrative connection, usually presented under the directorial nom de screw "Cindy Lou Sutters." You get plenty of that here, though the 1974 main feature (now christened Sexorcist Devil) tries to present more of a standard narrative with a heavy horror twist. Clocking in at a spare 59m34s, it features Steckler's wife and frequent star, Carolyn Brandt, narrating and tying it all together as a woman who plunges into devilish occult practices thanks to her hunt for the mysterious Professor Von Kleinschmidt. The films are presented matted at 1.78:1 as usual for the label (albeit with no big composition issues), and the element is in pretty good shape with the original soundtrack left intact. Also here are two lesser seen Steckler outings, 1974's Fire Down Below (boasting a 2018 copyright at the beginning so it's been a long time coming) and Debbie Truelove Strikes Back, both more traditional loop fests clocking in around an hour. Lots of cruising around Las Vegas and Hollywood, blonde girls with pigtails, ugly men, sex in trailers, and terrifying bedspreads are a few of the delights you'll find here. Also known as Perverted Passion (with its scuzzy trailer shocking more than a few viewers of Something Weird's first XXX trailer compilation in the VHS days), Fire wins out thanks to its nutty concept of a dumpy serial killer peeping in windows and occasionally killing someone before the hilariously violent twist ending hits you in the face. Alpha Blue's churned that one out several times already, but the transfer here is quite a bit better. Debbie Truelove Strikes Back appears to be a retitling of Debbie Does Las Vegas, a 1981 patchwork of footage shot much earlier with the title star (a fixture of Steckler smut) watching various grungy couples at play before joining in for a couple of scenes herself at the end. Buy here.

Also new from After Hours but presented with Something Weird as part of the Racier Reels line is the Andrea True Collection, a three-film DVD Road Servicesalute to the adult film star turned disco queen who took the charts by storm with "More, More, More" and would pass away in 2011. All of these are new 1.33:1 (as shot) scans from SW encompassing three of her golden age New York titles, 1973's Road Service, 1974's Dance of Love, and 1976's famously dreary Winter of 1849. The craziest of the bunch is definitely Road Service, previously available in a Winter of 1879lesser transfer back in 2011 as part of the New York Fantasy Grindhouse Triple Feature. True gets quite the showcase here as a married woman fixated on a mad rapist in the area, which comes to a head (so to speak) when car trouble sends Darby Lloyd Rain and Jamie Gillis to her house for shelter. In Dance of Love, Andrea plays the owner of a strip club that serves as a front for a bordello; while she starts to get too attached to a pimply young john who shows up, Lynn Murray dances around a lot and entertains the other callers. This was one of a handful of hardcore films helmed by Leonard Kirtman, best known to SWV fans for directing Carnival of Blood, and brings his usual level of "point and shoot fast" prowess to this one, too. Finally in Winter, a trio of grizzled prison escappes trudge through the snow and end up at a cabin where they have their way with the young daughters. Director Rik Tazíner (Cherry Truckers, Teenage Desire) also stars and wears a big eye patch, casting himself in the first couple of sex scenes that are filmed about as unflatteringly as possible. This is also the complete version of the film, including a strange pee punchline at the end shorn from most circulating video editions. Trailers for Dance and Winter are also included. Buy here.


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