The Bottom Shelf: Re-Animator, The Beast Within and more

Feature Nick Aldwinckle 10 Jun 2014 - 06:35

Re-Animator, The Beast Within and Camp Dread are among the horror films to appear on DVD and Blu-ray this month. Nick takes a look...

Wow. Just a month in and this regular post dedicated to the - shall we say - more idiosyncratic, less delicate of movies (or shall we just say “gory horrors and not-quite-B-movies”) has the splendid fortune of getting to review Stuart Gordon’s tongue-in-cheek classic, Re-Animator.

Produced by Brian Yuzna, the warped individual behind the brutal class satire/mutant cannibalism jaunt Society, and starring that rubber-faced icon of the midnight movie, Jeffrey Combs, this remains one of the crowning glories of 80s cult film-making. Re-Animator's essentially an outlandish, sillier take on HP Lovecraft’s spin on the Frankenstein mad-scientist story, and Combs, who you’ll undoubtedly know from such box-office juggernauts as Doctor Mordrid and Cellar Dweller (reviewed here next month), plays brilliant-if-misguided medical student Herbert West.

With the dead returning to life and decapitated head comedy blended deliciously with a laudably deadpan performance from our star and cartoonish effects from Bret Culpepper, Gordon’s quirky direction harnesses the eclectic ingredients with style. Second Sight’s latest re-release on DVD and Blu-ray offers little new that dedicated fans haven’t seen and bought before, though the nice selection of a newly-restored ‘Unrated’ version alongside the ‘Integral’ one in a steelbook package isn’t too shabby. A few seconds into Richard Band’s appropriation of Bernard Herrmann ‘s Psycho theme and you’re hooked all over again.

Sticking with the bloody adaptations of gothic horror literature, we now move swiftly on from Lovecraftian science gone-mad to The Pit And The Pendulum, by the 19-century author who influenced him, Edgar Allan Poe. Roger Corman’s 60s production, loosely based on the macabre short story set in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, sees the great Vincent Price in fine, scenery-chewing form for this Blu-ray release. 

With vaguely psychedelic visuals and much higher production values than some of Corman’s shoddy later work, Richard Matheson’s plot, which veers wildly from Poe’s source, involves murder, ghostly sorts dropping by and the infamous titular swinging torture device. But none of this really matters though, as style is everything here: the creepy castle setting with an even creepier Price is perhaps the atmospheric peak of his and Corman’s seven-movie Poe cycle.

Also lovingly trampling over revisiting an esteemed original text this month is Dwight H Little’s sledgehammer-subtle The Phantom Of The Opera on Blu-Ray. In 1989, fresh from five Nightmare On Elm Street movies, Freddy himself, Robert Englund, seemed the obvious (to some, anyway) choice to play Gaston Leroux’s accursed composer, Erik.

Of course, the action’s transported to present day Broadway and then, with a time-travel element involved, Victorian London rather than the Paris Opera House of the same period. Still, in some ways, Little’s outlandish vision of Erik’s Faustian pact is perhaps more in keeping with Leroux’s sadistic original character than the usual sugarcoated celluloid fare.

Some intricately, satisfyingly horrible make-up effects on Englund’s detachable face sections, grisly death scenes and even a bonus appearance from a young Bill Nighy make this ridiculous relic mildly fun for skin ailment revenge thriller fans.

As if further proof were needed that only decidedly dodgy types choose to spend their time hanging out in attics (Grand Designs, take note), we also have TV movie-with-teeth The Attic out on DVD this month to hammer the point home.  

It's known in the US as Crawlspace, but tragically, Piranha 3D writer Josh Stolberg’s film has nothing to do with the 1986 Klaus Kinski Nazi film of the same name. Shame, that, though this home invasion picture has some almost as nasty moments, with a strong performance from perennial “I know that face but not the name” Steven Weber as a former home-owner-turned-mentalist. Despite this, and the inexplicable presence of Anchorman’s David Koechner in a small role, the whole thing just feels a little tame for this desensitised swine. 

Speaking of TV movies, Eric Roberts makes a surprise guest appearance this month with the 80s nostalgia-trip Camp Dread on DVD. The star of Sharktopus and The Dark Knight this time plays a crooked reality TV producer and former horror movie director who invites troubled teens to his definitely-nothing-like Camp Crystal Lake rural setup.

You’ve guessed how well this goes for the ever-dwindling population of punchable guests as they compete for the grand prize of $1 million. Though, as ever, Roberts’ lines are not so much phoned in as texted by his assistant, a decent script with plenty of twists and unhappy endings thrown in for good measure, along with an extended cameo from Hatchet’s Danielle Harris, marks Camp Dread as one of the better films in his career.

Almost as prolific as Our Eric (as he really should be called) is the 80s action villain extraordinaire, Ronny Cox, who crops up once more in were-cicada (yes, you read that right) saga The Beast Within (1982) on Blu-ray. Having played Cohaagen in Total Recall and Dick Jones in RoboCop, here, Cox is our protagonist, the father of a rapidly changing teenager, Michael (Paul Clemens).

Despite screenwriter Tom Holland wasting the opportunity to name our troubled youth John (John Cicada, anyone? No?), this utterly bonkers, though admirably straight-faced movie proves to be quite unsettling, thanks in large part to Les Baxter’s sinister score and some unremittingly brutal scenes.

Director Philippe Mora’s movie came about four years before David Cronenberg’s 80s body-horror remake of The Fly and there are certainly parallels between the two, though it’s unclear whether Cronenberg was directly influenced by it. Both films are highly effective exercises in getting under the viewer’s skin, and it seems a little harsh that Mora’s work, with its 70s-style grittiness, remains in the shade of its famous relative. 

Bleaker still is the opening execution in Steven Berryessa’s post-apocalyptic road movie, The Forgotten (AKA Falls The Shadow), in which racist redneck nutbars take pleasure in burning a woman alive. Scene set, this would-be modern fable follows iconic southern US archetypes (a bereaved soldier, a ten-gallon cowboy, a good ol’ boy and a “senorita”) as they fight for the soul of the South.

Berryessa’s America is ravaged by a nuclear winter from above and eccentric shit-bags on the ground, impressively creating an atmosphere somewhere between John Hillcoat’s savagely grim The Road and fellow Aussie George Miller’s Mad Max. Frustratingly, Berryessa’s script is badly let down by poor acting throughout, leaving The Forgotten destined to be, well, forgotten.

Special effects legend Stan Winston’s directorial debut, 1988’s Pumpkinhead, was less campy than expected, providing the requisite chills and animatronic monster costumes you’d want from a film with his name involved. “They couldn’t leave dead enough alone,” smirks the DVD tagline for the gloriously daft sequel, Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, an entirely different beast.

Of course, our vengeful voodoo vigilante makes a return, as does pretty much the exact same plot as the first film. In place of Winston, we get Puppet Master 4 and 5 director Jeff Burr and another batch of idiot kids stumbling to their deserved doom at the hands of a resurrected golem-style grumkin.

Notable for Dirty Harry and Hellraiser’s Andrew Robinson slumming it and the genius casting of Bill Clinton’s half brother, Roger, as one Mayor Bubba, Blood Wings is perhaps the perfect bad monster movie sequel, as long as we’re not counting the Basket Case films, Jaws: The Revenge and Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College.

You can read Nick's previous Bottom Shelf here.

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