Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Dollar DVDs: Reviewsapoppin!

It has been dollar DVD mania around here ever since my local Kroger's began carrying both the EastWest and (weird, but not in a good way) MMM titles. Kroger's put up a full display and, with the exception of the cartoons, the EastWest titles were picked clean in less than a week. Between Kroger's and Dollar Tree, I now have two chains within walking distance of my house who carry God's Own Gift to Obscure Media Junkie Cheapskates. The EastWest PD titles are particularly nifty as they're being culled from sources that haven't been tapped by other dollar DVD manufacturers, namely TV movies, Italian imports, and cheapjack horror films from the 70s and 80s. Better yet, EastWest gives you two movies per DVD (both crammed on one side so the encoding leaves you with a somewhat rough but decent picture), a deal being matched by the more conventional Treasure Box and their double-sided "Family Value Collection" DVDs. Treasure Box, having saturated the market with copies of Africa Screams and Road to Bali, is finally starting to dig up some pretty rare and fascinating PD titles of their own. Here are some of my favorite finds from the past few weeks.

The Bat (1959) (Treasure Box) - 1/2 of a double feature with the ubiquitous PD classic House On Haunted Hill, I had assumed this was the just as ubiquitous 1926 Roland West silent.. but it AIN'T! It's a 1959 remake..or, rather, another film version of the Avery Hopwood play, starring Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, and DARLA HOOD from the Hal Roach Our Gang shorts!! Moorehead and Price's performances are better than this bizarrely atavistic little film deserve. Never has the Old Dark House horror/mystery format seemed more stilted than when filmed with slick late-50s production techniques and performed by actors less inclined towards stylized theatrics. Special mention goes to the cool jazzy theme song which would have been more at home in one of the German Dr. Mabuse thrillers from the 60s, or maybe one of the Eddie Constantine Lemmy Caution movies.

City of the Walking Dead (aka Incubo sulla città contaminata, aka Nightmare City) (1980) (EastWest) - Italian Romero rip-off with a few genuine scares in spite of some decidedly unconvincing zombie makeup jobs. An irradiated airplane lands without clearance at an airport in Italy and the crew, now blood-sucking zombies, escape the plane and spread a zombie plague throughout the city. There's a hilarious scene of zombies running around in a field while a friendly stray dog playfully dashes around between their legs. The "twist ending" is lame beyond words.

Carnage (1986) (EastWest) - A very late Andy Milligan film made to cash in on the success of Poltergeist. A couple of newlyweds buys a house haunted by the previous owners, a couple of newlyweds who committed suicide. All sorts of silly, not-terribly spooky goings-on ensue, including several gory and highly unrealistic deaths, but it takes forever for the dimbulb newlyweds to catch on to the fact that they're may actually be something not quite right with the house. A priest getting a cleaver in the head finally convinces them to clear out, but (gasp) it's too late! You can pretty much guess the ending.

Class Reunion Massacre (1978) (EastWest) - Holy cow! All through this, I kept saying "There's no way in hell the filmmakers would have given this a title as limp and prosaic as Class Reunion Massacre." And I was right! The real title is The Redeemer: Son of Satan! and it goes a little way towards expressing the high-minded lunacy of this slasher/art film. A pre-teen boy comes strolling out of the middle of a lake, hops on a waiting bus, and heads to a nearby church where he joins a group a choirboys getting ready for a service. The preacher's blood-and-thunder sermon demonizes "social undesireables" like gays, gluttons, and women who enjoy sex. We then join up with a small group of thirty-somethings who have all been invited to a high school reunion. Of course, they're all the "types" mentioned in the sermon. There's the promiscuous girl, the gluttonous football player, the gay actor, the lesbian, the lawyer, etc.. But the joke is on them! There is no class reunion and they're all locked inside the school with a crazed psycho-killer with supernatural powers! In one unsettling sequence, the killer, dressed as a clown and joined by some kind of marionette, uses the school's gymnasium to deliver a rambling, incoherent speech about sins and redemption. The Redeemer was a very earnest attempt on the part of some first-time filmmakers to make an exploitation feature with some kind of depth. Loads of symbolism to be found here. Well worth a watch or two.

Gangster Story (1960) (Treasure Box) - Walter Matthau directs himself and his wife Carol Grace (Truman Capote's model for Holly Golightly) in this clunky but not meritless late noir. Gangster Matthau pulls off one of the least likely bank heists on record and then falls in love with librarian Grace. Believe it or not, things don't work out well for them. A spiritual cousin to The Beatniks (also 1960), Paul Frees' sole directorial effort.

The New Adventures of Heidi (1978) (Treasure Box) - Mostly awful TV musical, saved by the presence of Burl Ives as Heidi's grandfather. The real problem here lies not with the quality of the performances or even the story, but with the HORRIBLE songs, and there are a LOT of them.. more than in your average musical, it seems. When Ives begins to go blind, and is then assumed dead after vanishing in the woods, Heidi gets a job as Best Friend to a Poor Little Rich Girl. Grandfather finally returns and the Poor Little Rich Girl's family pays for the surgery that restores his eyesight.

King Solomon's Treasure (1977) (Treasure Box) - H. Rider Haggard gets the Harry Allan Towers treatment. Towers was also responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies, to which this film is superior in just about every way. Shot on location in Africa, King Solomon's Treasure boasts some beautiful scenery, some enjoyably laughable dinosaurs and giant crabs, and an all-star cast including Britt Ekland, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Patrick Macnee and David McCallum. The movie on the flip side is King Solomon's Mine, a beautiful British production from 1937 starring Cedrick Hardwick and the remarkable Paul Robeson. who among other achievements, was the first African-American ever to play Othello with a white cast.

The Magic Sword (1962) (Treasure Box) - Probably Bert I. Gordon's best film, a kind of low-rent version of the Harryhausen-Schneer Dynamation movies with a lot of wit and some surprising gore. Knight Gary Lockwood and six national stereotypes go on a quest to rescue princess Anne Helm from the clutches of a warlock played by the surprisingly lively (for the 60s) Basil Rathbone. Estelle Winwood is Lockwood's foster witch and Rathbone's comic rival. Watch for Maila "Vampira" Nurmi as The Hag! The Magic Sword is one of seemingly dozens of movies from which footage was stolen for Dünyayi kurtaran adam (1982), known on this side of the Atlantic as The Turkish Star Wars.

King Arthur, The Young Warlord (1972) (Treasure Box) - On the flip side of The Magic Sword is this peculiar little UK film, actually a few episodes of Arthur of the Britons (1972-73) strung together into a feature. It's actually a good attempt at creating a hypothetical foundation for the Arthur mythos. Oliver Tobias stars as a dark age Celtic warlord who attempts to join the British tribes together under his rule in order to maintain peace. A young Brian Blessed appears as Mark of Cornwall and takes huge bites out of boulders and trees. The primary flaw of the movie/series is that every character is more likeable than Arthur.

Torture Chamber (1967) (EastWest) - This stylish German horror film, Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel, was presumably never released as The Pit and the Pendulum in the US so audiences wouldn't confuse it with the 1961 Roger Corman movie. Instead, it was released as The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, Castle of the Walking Dead, The Blood Demon, The Snake Pit, The Snake Pit and the Pendulum, and The Torture Room. Under any name, I prefer this film to Corman's film. Christopher Lee stars as Count Regula, a sadist who is drawn and quartered for torturing virgins to death in his private dungeon and who later returns from the dead to claim his final victim in order to attain immortality. Lots of visual references to 16th century painter Hieronymus Bosch, especially in one amazing scene featuring trees studded with human body parts. Packaged as a double feature with The Satanic Rites of Dracula, Hammer's last Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Dracula movie.

The Alpha Incident (1978) and The Capture of Bigfoot (1979) (EastWest) - Bill Rebane, known primarily for The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) and the excruciating non-film Monster-a Go Go (1965) also made a few other drive-in quickies in the 1970s and 80s and EastWest has been kind enough to release two of them on one DVD. The Alpha Incident is the better of the two. Inspired (if that's the word) by The Andromeda Strain, a virus from Mars is set loose in a rail station. The five people who may or may not have contracted it are trapped inside when the station is quarantined by the government. Worse, those who contract it can't fall asleep because, if they do, their heads become special effects and ooze and splatter tempra paint all over the place. Ralph Meeker, the best actor ever to play Mike Hammer (in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)) and who gives one of the best performances in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957), appears here in a colorless role with virtually no lines despite the fact that his name is above the title. The ending was "inspired" by the ending of The Night of the Living Dead. The Capture of Bigfoot isn't as good but some impressive scene-chewing from Richard Kennedy keeps it interesting.

Chariots of the Gods (1970) (EastWest) - Who needs empiricism when it's more fun to believe that the ancient Mayans were zipping around in rocketships? Erich Von Daniken's "ancient astronaut" theories are a load of horse pucks but this documentary based on his book provides some excellent views of some very interesting archeological sites and ancient monuments. Also includes some wistful footage of the National Museum of Iraq before it became the Baghdad Grab N' Go (does anyone know whether the famous Baghdad Battery has gone missing or not?). Would you believe this was nominated for an Oscar?

Mooch (aka Mooch Goes to Hollywood) (1971) (Treasure Box) - This week's hands-down WTF prizewinner is this berserk little heap of Hollywood self-reference written and produced by Jim Backus and starring Higgins the Dog (aka Benji), masquerading here (poorly in some shots) as a female. Mooch arrives in Hollywood on a boxcar complete with her belongings in a little handkerchief tied to the end of a little stick and quickly hits the streets, ready to use her canine wiles to shmooze her way onto the silver screen. And how can she go wrong with the omniscient voice of Zsa Zsa Gabor ringing in her little noggin, giving her advice and steering her from the evil lure of the porn industry? Indeed, in one "fantasy" sequence, we are treated to the sight of Mooch prancing around in a little sparkly g-string, something Senator Santorum has warned us about (later, we even get to see Mooch dressed up as a Playboy Bunny, something else Sen. Santorum would not approve of). In her travels around the city, Mooch meets Vincent Price (who drives a Jeep and flashes the peace sign), James Darren, Jill St. John, and Jim Backus himself. Jim Backus, in the movie's most unabashedly unhinged moment, is shown cavorting on the beach dressed as Mr. Magoo, complete with a putty nose! We even get to see Jim recording the soundtrack for a cartoon. At the end, Mooch ends up at one of Jim's garden parties and we get brief glances of Darren McGavin, Marty Allen, Cesar Romero, and an ailing Edward G. Robinson! Mickey Rooney appears briefly lurking outside a porno theater. MUST BE SEEN TO BE BELIEVED!


Blogger Bill said...

Wasn't Herschell Gordon Lewis also responsible for part of Monster A Go-Go? I seem to recall reading that somewhere; also remember seeing it as an MST3K offering once - a pretty excruciating picture. . .

7:34 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

H.G. Lewis bought Rebane's unfinished movie "Terror At Halfday", added a few close-ups of feet and hands, and devised the infamous "There was no monster." ending to wrap it all up. I think he released it as a double bill with Moonshine Mountain. Monster a-Go Go was far and away the worst movie ever featured on MST3K. It's unwatchable on its own.

9:26 AM  

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