Color, 1987, 108 mins. 57 secs. / 109 mins. 5 secs.
Directed by Guy Magar
Starring Dennis Lipscomb, Leslie Wing, Suzanne Snyder, Jeff Pomerantz, Hoyt Axton, Clare Peck
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Code Red (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 NTSC), OFDb Filmworks (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL) / (1.78:1) (16:9)
Direct from the height of the music video craze comes this gaudy tale of possession and dismemberment, an entertaining oddity that haunted VHS shelves for years and startled many viewers with its outrageous color schemes and bizarre death scenes.
The story is simple: on Halloween night, police cars speed through the streets to find costume onlookers at a building where a jumper is about to take the big plunge. George Miller (WarGames' Lipscomb) just wants to end it all, but when he falls several stories and hits the ground, he doesn't die. In fact, a strange green-hued force seems to enter him, and as time passes, George is tormented by dreams involving a man being brutally gunned down by four faceless people. His psychiatrist, Jennifer (Wing), gets him back on his feet enough to reenter society, but he soon suffers a nightmare in which his eyes turn green and he compels a woman to disembowel herself with a kitchen knife. The next day in the newspaper, he finds out that's exactly what did happen -- and Jennifer's doc boyfriend, Alan (Pomerantz), thinks George might be more than just a damaged soul. Meanwhile George does a little detective work and finds out that another man in town was murdered at the same moment George tried to kill himself...
That plot might sound like your average episode of Tales from the Crypt, but this film is so soaked in neon-heavy '80s style that most viewers won't care. The murder sequences are all strange and inventive enough to catch the attention of any horror fan, especially a surreal vignette involving a huge pig's carcass at a meat processing plant, and Lipscomb does well in a rare leading role different from his usual TV work. The script itself doesn't quite hold together as some characters get far more developed than others; glorified guest star Hoyt Axton (fresh off of Gremlins) basically gets to phone in his appearance as a cop, while the victims don't really get embellished at all due to the structure of the story. That hardly matters though considering this is basically designed as a drive-in thrill machine, delivering plentiful eye candy with a caffeinated synth score by Alan Howarth (in between in his work with John Carpenter on Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness). The opening sequence is especially effective in this respect, a rapid-fire montage of swirling police lights, creepy Halloween masks, and pounding electronic music.
Barely released theatrically in the U.S. by Taurus, Retribution was widely distributed on tape by Virgin in the late '80s in an R-rated version with slight trims made to three of the most violent scenes. The uncut version popped up on tape in Holland, but most countries only saw the standard R-rated cut. A special edition was first announced from S'more Entertainment in 2011, but that was soon scrapped; instead, a 2012 DVD from Code Red was released in time make it a 25th Anniversary Edition. The transfer of the feature itself looks terrific, rendering those crazy color schemes with much more fidelity than VHS could ever capture. The restoration of the 1.78:1 framing also helps a great deal, matting away some extraneous head room and balancing out the compositions more effectively. The Dolby two-channel stereo track also sounds good, mainly focusing on the music and some of the more extreme sound effects during the paranormal sequences.
The usual R-rated version is used for the main attraction, but the extra gore footage is also included as a bonus reel (7m34s since the murder scenes run in their entirety). Surprisingly, the quality of these full frame bits is very good, too; this isn't a lackluster videotape port here. Some of the extra shots are pretty astonishing, including an extended hand removal via blowtorch and more of that insane butcher scene. On top of that, Magar contributes a commentary track that's... well, let's just say if you can't tell someone's walking through a door, he'll certainly point that out. He really gets into a blow-by-blow description of the film (even calling that butcher murder one of the greatest sequences in horror history), but there are also some informative bits: pointing out his cameo as a cab driver, explaining the freaky glowing eye effects, and talking about the mood he wanted to set with some of his shot set ups. The "Original Trailers" option leads to a VHS-sourced theatrical trailer and what looks like a distribution promotional reel, along with a (brief) photo gallery and bonus trailers for The Last Chase, Family Honor, Mardi Gras Massacre, and Nightmare. As with some of the label's other recent titles, this one was sold directly through their site instead of retailers.
In 2015, the film got a Blu-ray upgrade from Code Red sold exclusively through Screen Archives as a limited 2,000-unit edition. The DVD was obviously pulled from the same HD master but as you'd expect from a 1080p rendering much closer to the source, those eye-popping blasts of red and lime lighting really shine through here thanks to the higher resolution. Framing and element quality are identical, while the grain and detail bump up a few notches in terms of clarity. The DTS-HD 2.0 mono audio sounds strong but is obviously hampered by the limited nature of the original mix, while the most substantive extras, the audio commentary and bonus gore footage, are carried over as well. Later that same year, German label OFDb Filmworks released the film on Blu-ray with an interesting wrinkle: a composite edit reinstating all of the excised unrated footage, plus the director's commentary, the deleted scenes as an extra, and a trailer.
Flash forward six years to 2021 with an insanely loaded three-disc edition released by Severin Films including two Blu-rays and a soundtrack CD featuring the score by Howarth (identical to the relatively recent expanded and remastered release from Dragon's Domain). Disc one features the usual theatrical cut, presented here in a more recent scan featuring more natural color timing (a lot less blue here) and additional image info on the sides. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track sounds good as always, and this marks the first time the film has come with English SDH subtitles as well. In "Writing Wrongs" (12m18s), co-writer Lee Wasserman reiterates some of the usual tidbits about the film (such as the influence of The Exorcist) while covering his own experiences in film after graduating from Columbia, the process of raising funds for an indie film, the motivation for making a horror movie, the challenge of the very low budget, and his positive impressions of the final result including its ambitious special effects. Wing appears next in "Shock Therapy" (8m6s), explaining how she got into acting via ballet dancing in North Carolina and ended up on the performing arts scene in L.A. where she got one of the main roles in this film and enjoyed good chemistry with both Lipscomb and Magar. In "Angel's Heart" (6m47s), actress Suzanne Snyder shares her own memories of researching the L.A. prostitution scene, adoring the wild colorful hairstyle of her character, and being energized by the environment of the shoot and family atmosphere despite the stressful nighttime shooting on the streets. Actor Mike Muscat turns up next in "Santa Maria, Mother of God, Help Me!" (9m9s), chatting about his career as a character actor after honing his skills as a class clown in high school and discovering drama, a passion that led to a life in front of the camera playing everything from drug addicts to amiable goofballs. Howarth gets to explore the nuances of his own work on the film in "Settling the Score" (8m15s), laying out how the layers of synthesizers rose and fell to establish tension starting in the memorable opening and setting the pace for the rest of the story; he also notes the disappointment of Magar not continuing in the same genre direction after this stylish outing. In "Visions of Vengeance" (7m18s), special effects artist John Eggett talks about his early days working for Cannon and getting to play with lots of new ideas thanks to the script for this film that called for some pretty outlandish creative concepts that had to be handled very carefully to avoid any harm. (Note that the volume on this one is really low, so be ready when the loud menu screen kicks in after it's over!) In "The Art of Getting Even" (6m35s), artist Barry Fahr gets to enthuse about his love for his own "playroom" art studio in downtown L.A. at the time, his accidental involvement with Star Wars and his work on The Gong Show, and his affinity for scenic art that led to creating the "neo-expressionist" paintings seen in this film. Finally in "Living in Oblivion" (9m38s), production designer Robb Wilson King notes how his first jobs working for Roger Corman and Wes Craven got him into the business with a specialty in horror movies that served him well on the demands for vivid, stylized visuals on Retribution. An early Magar short film, Bingo (1m59s), is a quick depiction of bingo hall culture that takes a very Shirley Jackson-style turn; it also features an optional Magar commentary explaining how this "anti-Vietnam" statement came out (though he doesn't mention Wasserman's presence here as a grip of all things). Also included are the trailer (sourced from the usual SD full frame master) and the 6m58s promo reel and a gallery of stills and poster art (2m14s). Disc two features the extended, unrated cut of the film, with that gory extra eight seconds integrated back in from SD but flowing pretty seamlessly all things considered. The image quality otherwise is identical to what's on disc one, and it also comes with a new audio commentary with Magar in conversation with Severin's David Gregory about the making of the film. It's a much smoother listen than the older commentary thanks to better moderator prodding, and though he does tend to lapse into reciting the movie events from time to time, it's a solid overview of how the whole thing came together, got scissored by the MPAA, and ended up as the still-burgeoning cult classic we have with us today.
Updated review on June 25, 2021