Color, 1984, 91 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Larry Cohen
Starring Anne Carlisle, Brad Rijn, John Woehrle, Matthew Stockley, Stephen Lack, Ann Magnuson
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
After enjoying one of his most critically praised films with the timeless Manhattan monster film Q, director Larry Cohen spent a frustrating period trying to mount projects in California that mostly led to dead ends. Fortunately he ended up getting a deal to make two low-budget features back to back on his usual stomping grounds courtesy of the British company Hemdale, with both films seeming to fit in with the craze for Hitchcockian thrillers still going strong at the time. However, the end results -- Special Effects and Perfect Strangers -- turned out to be pure Cohen to the core, using an impressive roster of the Big Apple's up and coming indie actors and sporting location work to die for.
Taking a cue from Shadow of a Doubt, Perfect Strangers concerns a mob hit man, Johnny (Smithereens' Rijn), who's known for low profile and ability to pull off a job without being seen. However, an afternoon killing in an alley ends up being witnessed by a little boy, Matthew (Stockley), who hasn't learned how to verbalize sentences yet. Matthew's mother, Sally (Liquid Sky's Carlisle), quickly ushers her son inside when she sees the bloody aftermath and resolves to forget the whole thing ever happened since she's run off from her now ex-husband, Fred (Woehrle). Now she works doing clothing repairs for a boutique shop and participating in feminist rallies with her friends and coworkers, but all that changes when Johnny, under orders to take care of loose ends, starts hanging around the neighborhood and begins dating her. Meanwhile a police officer, Lieutenant Burns (Scanners' Lack), keeps swinging by trying to get Sally to help ID the criminal she never even saw, but she's reluctant to cooperate anyway thanks to the advice of her closest friend, ultra-feminist Malda (Making Mr. Right's Magnuson), that cops are the enemy of women anyway. Complicating things further, Fred shows up and engages in some impromptu kidnapping that Sally barely manages to cut short thanks to a public argument, and Johnny is nervous that the little tyke could start talking at any minute and blow his cover.
Aside from the first and last five minutes, Perfect Strangers barely even tries to be a thriller and works much better as an offbeat character study about a very odd, doomed romance. The fact that Johnny remains far more sympathetic than Fred despite his multiple murders is a testament to the chemistry shared between Carlisle and Rijn, who was something of a Cohen repertory player for a couple of years before dropping off the map. The real star here though is the city itself, which is shown off in all its Reagan-era glory with Cohen indulging in his amusing habit of shooting guerrilla-style scenes in public (which he already famously pulled off during the spectacular parade sequence in God Told Me To). Here he does it multiple times including that abduction sequence and, most memorably, a great extended nighttime sequence at a Take Back the Night march peppered with anti-porn and LGBT crusaders as well.
Released theatrically by New Line, Perfect Strangers first turned up on VHS from Embassy complete with its signature poster art that tries to pass this off as some kind of suburban erotic thriller. In 2004, the Hemdale library had passed over to MGM so they issued it on DVD in one of those flipper discs featuring a full frame option and a widescreen 16x9 option on the other. The full frame one loses nothing on the sides but gains a considerable amount on the top and bottom, though the framing is slightly wonky on both presentations. Exactly why that is can be found in the film's worldwide Blu-ray debut which arrived in 2020 from Vinegar Syndrome, which sports the rare alternate title, Blind Alley, on the actual film source (a 2K scan from the 35mm interpositive). Image quality is vastly improved in every possible way; the film was shot with many sequences featuring heavy diffusion effects, but the detail is much more impressive here and colors are richer and more natural with deeper blacks. It also features far more information on both sides compared to both framing options on the MGM disc and looks nicely framed throughout, with more vertical information visible than the earlier 1.85:1 option as well. (See below for a few comparisons.) The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track also sounds good considering the very modest nature of the original source, which features some pretty sloppy sound editing at times. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. As for extras, in "A True Artist" (7m46s), Carlisle speaks over video conferencing (due to the current pandemic of course) about coming on this film just after his biggest cult hit thanks to an acting class, the extremely low budget, the way Cohen brought out a connection with her young costar that wasn't possible on the set, and her more ongoing pursuits as an artist. Then "A Shadow in the City" (9m13s) is essentially the full Cohen interview conducted for the documentary King Cohen in which the now deceased filmmaker discusses the making of this film as a simple project back in New York as a two-picture deal with Hemdale, including extensive location coverage that required him to memorably jump in front of the camera during a crowd scene that threatened to get out of control. A brief promotional gallery (38s) is also included; as with Vinegar Syndrome's other MGM releases, the trailer is absent here but can be found on the older DVD if you're a completist.
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)
MGM (DVD) (1.85:1)
MGM (DVD) (1.33:1)
Reviewed on August 19, 2020