The Bottom Shelf: Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and King Ralph

Here's our latest round up of DVDs and Blu-rays, with a horror slant...

“You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” utters John LaZar’s androgynous band manager Z-Man in the Russ Meyer cult ‘classic’ Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, neatly encapsulating both the sexual eccentricity of Meyer’s oeuvre and the ethos behind this blog’s return from a Walking Dead-style mid-winter hiatus. So yes: bizarrely, Mr Meyer’s swinging sixties and seventies romps have somehow never quite graced this monthly rake through cinematic muck, though with a timely Blu-ray release of his and Roger Ebert’s (yes, that Roger Ebert) po-mo musical melodrama, that’s about to change. 

Barring a giallo-influenced brutal last act, this 1970 parody of Jacqueline Susann’s original Valley Of The Dolls novel is somewhat less violent than other Meyer fare, such as the iconic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, though perhaps more interesting in its tongue-in-cheek exploration of the darker side of showbusiness. Like a messed-up Josie and the Pussycats, The Kelly Affair, an all-female rock trio, move to L.A with their manager, only to find their band name (by now the Carrie Nations) to be not the only thing changed permanently by their new surroundings. 

That’s the cue for endless band performances accompanied by Austin Powers types twisting the night away in a faintly disturbing way, big-titted protagonists on a not-quite feminist path and Ebert’s dialogue falling somewhere between distinctively out-there and, well, just rubbish. Loved by many critics for its elaborate in-jokes and pop cultural references (Muhammad Ali, Phil Spector and Charles Manson are all featured in some capacity), and Quentin Tarantino because he’s a bit of a ‘one’, in the 2010s, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is, however, just a dated, if mildly interesting, historical artifact from a vaguely embarrassing era.

Speaking of the Manson Family (seems that’s all we do around these parts), the illustrious Troma Entertainment sadly misses this year’s Academy Awards by mere days with the release of Paul McAlarney’s epic meditation on life and liberty, Honky Holocaust, which tells the tale of Manson’s fictional grand-daughter Kendra (Maria Natapov), who wakes up to a modern world run by African Americans. Taking Manson’s Helter Skelter premonition of a future race war between whites and blacks as a starting point, Kendra’s subtle-as-a-brick journey from member of white supremacist cult to unlikely leader of a hit-squad set on taking them down nicely mixes extreme gore with genuine moments of existential contemplation. Beautifully (ok, not quite the right word) punctuated with black comedy, thankfully piercing any moral-of-the-story potential, this addition to the Troma Now streaming service embodies everything we love about Lloyd Kaufman’s studio.

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Also out on Troma Now is the debut feature from 17 year-old writer/director Kansas Bowling, in which she seems to have enlisted all of her friends and family to get involved in what is proclaimed as the ‘first prehistoric slasher film’. Combining original music from surf bands The Ugly Kids, The Hollywood Argyles and Vicky And The Vengents with decent production values (for a Troma movie at least), this noble effort is sadly hindered by not nasty-enough nasty moments and not funny-enough comedy (despite one laugh-out-loud moment with our mumbling killer).

Still, not many 17 year-olds have the vision to put together a full feature heading to screens worldwide and with the likes of James Gunn, Trey Parker and Matt Stone starting out at Troma, things could be looking very good for this young director.

Sticking with the slasher shtick for now, next up is the Blu-ray and DVD release of a mid-eighties horror also-ran that has somehow garnered a bit of a cult following: Buddy Cooper’s The Mutilator. A cautionary tale about gun control, mixed with that old staple of twenty-somethings playing holidaying teenagers (here, done to a brilliant degree, with a few cast members seemingly in their thirties even), the scene is set when a child accidentally shoots his mother dead. The twist this time, though, is that the child murderer in the opening scenes doesn’t go on to let the trauma say make him a monster or exact his oedipal revenge with phallic weapons. 

Oh, no – here, the kid’s not troubled at all, and our protagonist (Ed is his name, played by Deadtime Stories‘ Matt Mitler) is only mildly perturbed by his now-deadbeat dad’s requests for him to house-sit the beach-front cabin. That sort of thing always goes well in slasher films, so now we know everything we need to about The Mutilator: everyone is hateable (particularly Ed – I know it was an accident, but not one bit of remorse? Oh, Ed: come, now) and bad things happen. Also known as Fall Break, this spawned a truly terrible title song, which, along with some massively entertaining, spectacularly bad acting from one cast member, are the only two things that really set this 1985 release out from any one of its million similar competitors. 

It seems March is unofficially slasher month here then, as we have one more example on DVD and Blu-ray to endure (actually, this one’s alright really, so just bear with me, ok?) from one of the true masters of the horror genre, Mario Bava, the man responsible for Blood And Black Lace and Black Sunday: Five Dolls For An August Moon. Immediately begging the question of why this film wasn’t mentioned directly after Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (it was even released in the same year!), so this writer could make a lazy ‘speaking of dolls’ link, nevertheless, this minor entry in the Bava canon is a decent mixture of nasty giallo and Agatha Christie whodunnit as a gaggle of unpleasant rich bastards meet on an island to basically die in tasty ways.

Visually bearing the colourful hallmarks of the best of Italian horror cinema (a nice extra features Mark Kermode interviewing Tim Burton, John Carpenter and Joe Dante about Bava’s influence on them), Bava’s direction adequately keeps a relatively dull plotline (seriously, who cares who the killer is?) chugging away to its bloody conclusion. Much like an artisan baker slumming it in Greggs (sorry Greggs: you know we love you, right?), the end result is tasty if not necessarily brilliant.

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Speaking of August Moons and, erm, moving ever more tenuously away from the slash-fest, next we have a couple of space-themed releases worm(hole)ing their way into this whole sordid affair, in the form of the Armageddon meets Aliens action of Alien Extinction and almost-documentary, The Visit: An Alien Encounter.

Alien Extinction, thrown up by The Asylum on DVD and all over the lower echelons of the supermarket aisle, doesn’t quite deserve its likely obscure fate, though also never quite escapes the regular Asylum feeling of having been done before, but better (though please understand that this is not by any means an endorsement of the works of Michael Bay). As space-miners try and avert an asteroid calamity, only to end up on an alien world, some decent low-budget CGI doesn’t quite Avatar the situation though helps suspend the old disbelief a while longer. Robert Picardo, A.K.A Star Trek:Voyager‘s Doctor, makes a regrettably straight-faced army bloke where so many Asylum films benefit from some level of eyebrow-raised silliness. 

Michael Madsen’s The Visit: An Alien Encounter firstly should have been directed by the gravel-voiced star of Celebrity Big Brother and Reservoir Dogs and not his Danish documentary-maker namesake. More guns, violent crime and awkward squinting would have made this a hoot. That said, this DVD imagining of what an actual alien encounter might be like more than holds its own without those ingredients. Madsen’s idea was simple – ask a variety of real-life experts what would happen and what would need to happen if a visitor from another world were to come down to earth, presented in the form of the camera operator representing our friendly A.L.F. 

With more questions posed than answered, the sometimes hammy specialists from the spheres of science, the military and politics almost incidentally stumble upon greater philosophical points about humanity and the nature of existence as they converse with our fictional visitor from Mars, Melmac or wherever. Making for a fascinating oddity filmed with relative restraint, Madsen’s film offers a pleasantly sober take on fantastical possibilities.  

Which brings us to King Ralph. Yes, it does. You must vaguely remember this 1991 culture-shock ‘comedy’ from your childhood in some way: if not successfully repressed alongside Nicholas Lyndhurst vehicle The Piglet Files and Bill Cosby’s Ghost Dad, the likelihood is that even your 10 year-old self knew in some way that King Ralph was a bad film. Well, it turns out that your childish instincts were correct- it’s still bad, as this DVD release proves.

Starring a Roseanne-buoyant early nineties John Goodman, just before his ascension to the real throne with the Coens’ Barton Fink later that same year, King Ralph sees the entire British royal family killed off by electric shock, leaving distant relative, loudmouth Vegas singer Goodman the sole heir to the throne. Pretty much mirthless from start to finish, like a strange museum (for the UK viewer at least), there is plenty of weird nostalgia to indulge in whilst not laughing. Firstly, defunct electronics chain store Rumbelows features prominently, begging the question of whether or not there was a payment for product placement, and if so, how much would it have been at that time? Likewise, how much did Peter O’Toole and John Hurt cost to get involved with this whole debacle? Also, what’s Sidney Pollack’s name doing on the credits – was there another Sidney Pollack doing the rounds at the time? So many questions.

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Emphatically one of those ‘so bad they’re good’ examples, like The Room or Boris Johnson, King Ralph is worth watching for the prospect of Billie Piper’s mum from Doctor Who as the love interest, John Goodman being racist to Patrick from EastEnders and Joely Richardson doing a terrifying Finnish accent. For the full experience, this should really have been released on VHS, though you can’t have everything, eh?

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