DVD & Blu-rays: The Driller Killer, Assault On Precinct 13 and Fright Night

The Bottom Shelf returns, with more DVDs and Blu-rays of a horror persuasion...

Anyone who had the pleasure of catching veteran horror director, cinematic musical hero and all-round (if we subtly forget to mention Escape From L.A) legend John Carpenter on his recent debut live concert tour will be more than familiar with his skilled craftsmanship in the field of synth earworms. With the Blu-ray release of Assault On Precinct 13 in November comes perhaps the best of said themes, as we delve into a Santa’s sack of cinematic treats.

Carpenter’s 1976 budget siege thriller, inspired by classic western Rio Bravo and George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, follows the skeleton staff of a police station about to close for the last time as they and the few remaining prisoners fend off a marauding band of, erm, marauders. Only Carpenter’s second feature (following 74’s brilliantly stoned Dark Star), all of the hallmarks are here: skilful build-up of tension, occasional bouts of exploitation violence (the famous ice cream truck murder most prominent) and the Kurt Russell-style anti-hero spouting cheesy one-liners, getting the girl and adopting an ill-advised name (here, Darwin Joston’s sexy con Napoleon Wilson).

“This film should be played loud”, proclaims the opening caption to Abel Ferrara’s quintessential video nasty (banned in the UK from 1984-1999) The Driller Killer, also given a nice Arrow release in time for Christmas. Indeed, the power tool roar needs to be turned up as Ferrara, who’d go on to make other notable misery-fests Bad Lieutenant and King Of New York, sets out his stall here in lurid detail as an impoverished artist slowly realises his fondness for garish red.

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The Blu-ray transfer brings out all the grottiness of seventies New York as our somewhat disturbed artist Reno (played with bug-eyed relish by Ferrara under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine) cracks under the pressure of his art-dealer’s deadlines, displeased girlfriend and presumably the high price of living in the Big Apple. Of course, this makes for much of the titular drilling and killing as pitch-black satire meets slasher flick, Ferrara’s wryly self-deprecating swipes at the creative process elevating The Driller Killer into the hallowed realm of the cult classic.

On limited cinema release at time of writing before an impending Blu-ray arrival, writer-director Billy O’Brien this month also wrings new life from the genre with his inventive, surprisingly moving comedy horror I Am Not A Serial Killer, featuring a possibly career-best performance from Christopher Lloyd.

O’Brien’s earlier film, minor British monster movie Scintilla, though enjoyable, suggested none of the intelligence his latest film would: I Am Not A Serial Killer follows young John Wayne Cleaver (geddit?), a clinically diagnosed sociopath with homicidal tendencies, who manages to fight those tendencies on a daily basis. Played as a brilliantly blunt mid-west American teen struggling with bullies and familial strife by Max Records, the youngster from Where The Wild Things Are now all grown up, Records is a sympathetic potential killer, despite seeing people as “things” he’d charmingly like to cut up and examine the insides of.

It just so happens that there’s an actual killer in town and as John goes about his tasks of schoolwork, helping out at his mother’s (Breaking Bad’s Laura Fraser) funeral parlour and looking after his gruff elderly neighbour (Lloyd), he also has to try and stop the butchery. Elements of the occult (with one character tellingly called Crowley), filmed in O’Brien’s otherwise low-key style, and scored in a creepy eighties fashion by returning Scintilla composer Adrian Johnston, creates a startling concoction. Both a chilling slasher film, compelling character study and grim comedy, O’Brien’s movie deftly asks far more questions than it answers.

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Somewhat less refined, next up we have 88 Films’ Blu-ray release of Italian tat purveyor Sergio Martino’s Terminator-style silliness Hands Of Steel, shockingly and unforgivably retitled from its original 1986 title Atomic Cyborg, to its eternal detriment. Particularly coming from the director of such gems as The Great Alligator, Scorpion With Two Tails and 2019: After The Fall Of New York.

From the off, Hands Of Steel is wonderful to behold, in a kind of un-wonderful way. A serious, melancholic musical tone is set up by Goblin man Claudio Simonneti, only to be knocked down with the doofus ‘Atomic Cyborg’ coming on screen. After this, it’s as if Simonneti realises the deal and goes full Remo on our asses with gloriously bombastic action gubbins, and I for one see that as a great result.

Our hero comes in the form of Paco (Daniel Greene, a familiar face from multiple Farrelly brothers films and, obviously, eighties gym bunny drama Pulsebeat), a man who’s lost his life to shady government guy John Saxon, doing a full Winter Soldier on him, complete with the metal arms. This makes for assassination attempts through the medium of ‘You’ve been Tangoed’ ear clapping, Arnie-style metal tendon pulling and arm-wrestling domination throughout. Lines as good as “If you’re shitting in your pants, clean your ass with this” abound as Paco takes on government stooges, biker gangs and ‘acting’.

From Deep Impact and Armageddon through to Jurassic World and Dinocroc Versus Supergator, Hollywood has a rich history of similar-themed films coming out around the same time, having developed in tandem, one not necessarily ripping off the other. This month’s entry on that list involves a DVD outing for Child’s Play director Tom Holland’s original 1986 Fright Night, out shortly before fellow teens and vampire romp The Lost Boys.

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More horrific than Joel Schumacher’s film, though equally infested with eighties tropes, Holland’s film sees teenager Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) start questioning his new neighbours’ (sadly, previous neighbour Bob Hoskins – no relation – sells up, though imagine the larks if we’d had the actual cockney stalwart on board) line of work. Chris Sarandon, the suavely sophisticated businessman next door, couldn’t possibly be a lord of the undead, could he? Surely Charley’s obsession with TV show Fright Night is getting a little out of hand, right? Right? We all know the answer.

‘Rowdy’ Roddy McDowell is seemingly having the time of his life as charlatan monster hunter Peter Vincent, whilst The Princess Bride’s Sarandon is perfectly slimey as our hero’s nemesis and love rival. Whilst suburban paranoia has been funnier (notably Joe Dante’s brilliant The ‘Burbs a few years later), you could do a lot wrong with Fright Night’s winning blend of genuine chills, teenage kicks and eighties nostalgia.