The Bottom Shelf: Halloween horror special
It's almost Halloween, so here's Nick with a spook-filled round-up of DVD and Blu-ray releases...
Halloween is traditionally the time for the rush-release of a million iffy umpteenth sequels, upsettingly-serious remakes and bloody awful found footage bullshit. Luckily, this is exactly the kind of hazardous material this blog was set-up for, so sit back and allow me to swim face-first through the deluge of dross, semi-dross and surprising non-dross for a special bumper batch of releases.
First up, let’s have a belated look at the recent Blu-ray bow of undoubtedly one of the real VHS greats and the noble figurehead of the cult Troma film studio, The Toxic Avenger. Not that our friend Toxie really needs any introduction, but just in case: after an accident involving toxic waste, high school cleaner Melvin Junko mutates into New Jersey’s first superhero and sets about righting wrongs in his hometown.
The boss-eyed new Melvin is pure Troma: shambling, horrible to look at and most definitely not safe for work. Leading his former tormentors to their increasingly violent deaths, the Blu-ray re-master highlights the DIY-look of Troma main-man Lloyd Kaufman’s film in its full gaudy splendour.
With Troma this year celebrating its 40th anniversary with a whole new host of Toxie merchandise (remember the bizarre 90s kids’ cartoon and action figures, by the way?), it says a lot that this gory 1984 oddball romance and its sequels retain such a cult following despite being, well, a bit rubbish.
Sticking with the theme of “anti-heroes who look a bit melty-faced”, that niche sub-genre all the greatest movies belong to, including the full Tommy-Lee Jones back catalogue, October sees the Blu-ray release of one of the lowest-rated movies of all time on IMDB, William Sachs’ The Incredible Melting Man.
With a gloriously literal title (yes, the film follows an astronaut who comes back from space and starts to melt whilst taking down a cast of killable types), other than some great make-up effects from the legendary Rick Baker, this is deeply, unenjoyably bad. What is really incredible about this, though, is that Sachs’ movie was evidently profitable enough to warrant a spin-off novelization, which this writer somehow owns a copy of. I can confirm that it seems equally dire, for anyone who cares to know.
Also dire is the lumpen lupine saga Werewolf Rising on DVD, starring Melissa Carnell as a modern woman returning to her country roots, only to find there’s something amiss in her old hometown. Despite a dependably chilling turn from Nude Nuns With Big Guns(!) star Bill Oberst Jr as a murderous type, this is sadly offensively dull, clichéd and utterly forgettable.
Featuring a monster outfit nearly as cheap as Werewolf Rising’s howling nasties is the found-footage Egyptian-set DVD Day Of The Mummy. Inexplicably starring Lethal Weapon’s Danny Glover as the most miscast jewel collector in Hollywood, Glover is the multimillionaire funding a mission to the pyramids to find a fabled gemstone.
William McNamara plays the sub-Indy Egyptologist following his nose to the money and his schlong to his surprisingly glamorous female assistant as the explorers slowly realise they may have fallen victim to an ancient curse. All this would be well and good if we believed this was actually happening in Egypt and not the Californian desert and that the mummy costume wasn’t bought from the joke shop round the corner, but, hey, can’t have everything, right?
A decent sequence making full use of the off-screen space in creepy underground tunnels aside, Day Of The Mummy is a nonsensical, deeply predictable shaky-camera yawnfest of the highest order.
Far classier (though by no means classy, can we be clear?) is Escape From The Planet Of The Apes director Don Taylor’s 1977 take on the HG Wells classic The Island Of Dr Moreau, getting a Blu-ray release this month. Starring an ageing Burt Lancaster in the title role opposite a never-more-incredulous Michael York doing his posh 70s thing as only he could, Taylor’s vision remains good fun.
Despite being as rough around the edges as the unshaven beast-people occupying the good doctor’s otherwise lovely resort, there’s a satisfying bleakness and vintage feel to this timeless tale of science-gone-mad that only gets better with time.
Another 70s relic makes a return this month on Blu-ray in the form of the nasty-for-its-time Mark Of The Devil. Yet another example from that spate of movies riding on the blood-spattered coat tails of Witchfinder General, Horror House director Michael Armstrong’s film stars the weirdo-for-hire Udo Kier before the typecasting as a dreamy young witch-hunter (aren’t they all?) in 18th Century Austria, working for Herbert Lom’s somewhat dodgy Lord Cumberland.
When a buxom barmaid is wrongly accused of practising black magic, our hero is forced to question whether it’s right to burn women at the stake for minor indiscretions (hint: it’s not) and challenges his morally ambiguous employer, which is always a wise move.
Apparently based on real-life events and filmed in an actual Austrian castle where witch-hunting activities really took place, the semblance of realism ends there. Brutal to the end, this grotty exercise in proto-torture-porn leaves a sour but memorable taste in the mouth.
Now, after all that unpleasantness, it’s time for something much more palatable, namely the Blu-ray release of one of Tom Hanks’ best performances and Joe Dante’s 1989 small-town satire The ‘Burbs. No, you didn’t read that wrongly.
This hit comedy hardly qualifies for the usual under-the-radar/dumped-straight-into-the-skip criteria of this blog, admittedly. Still, in the trademark style the creator of Gremlins and Small Soldiers brings, this tale of creepy outsiders doing nefarious things in suburbia is a thinly veiled love letter to the satanic horrors and monster movies constantly passing through this space.
Perfect for a game of spot-the-horror-reference as well as a biting commentary on US foreign policy and small-town values, Dante’s subversive, delirious build-up of paranoia is at times simply brilliant.
Slightly (only slightly) less famous is the first in 88 Films’ Slasher Classics on Blu-ray collection, Graduation Day. “Classic” may be a case of false advertising, but, by god, this second Troma production of the month is certainly a slasher film and no doubts.
Ticking off almost everything you’d expect Kevin Williamson had in mind when he wrote the Scream films, this pretty standard college stabfest sees a dead college athlete’s older sister return home for the funeral, only to find there’s someone bumping off her classmates willy-nilly. With some ridiculous over-acting, obvious setups and bad, well, everything, Herb Freed’s 1981 film isn’t quite Halloween (or even Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers for that matter) but remains mildly diverting nonetheless.
The other slasher this month is Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright, bursting onto Blu-ray in full lurid detail. Director of minor hits The Church and the bonkers Dellamorte Delamore as well as being Dario Argento’s protégé, Soavi has a grand pedigree. With stars of Opera (Barbara Cupisti) and Cannibal Holocaust (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) to boot, this 1987 production should have been great.
With the theatrical theme (a deranged serial killer is taking out a theatre company, one at a time) and an equally theatrical owl-masked mentalist, Soavi’s film has the same vivid colours and general gloss that made Dellamorte Delamore so lush. Sadly, Stage Fright is no Argento work, with rampant clichés and a general lack of suspense sabotaging proceedings. A lovely final set-piece sadly isn’t enough to realise the great potential, though there’s some consolation in fascinating extras featuring critic Alan Jones and a nice documentary on VHS.
Moving away from the masked killers for a moment (I know, but we have to), by far the most interesting release this month is one Michael J Paradise’s 1979 curio, The Visitor. Somehow involving a cast including John Huston, Shelley Winters, Sam Peckinpah, Glenn Ford and even Lance Henriksen, this batshit take on the demon-child schtick of The Omen involves secret societies, alien life-forms and a smattering of wonderfully-realised psychedelic imagery rendered very tasty on the new Blu-ray format.
The end result is sadly less downright mental than you’d want from a movie featuring ultra-violent director Sam Peckinpah as a Christ-like prophet and fellow filmmaker John Huston as an elderly babysitter, though there are plenty of stand-out set-pieces. Made all the better by a fine, malevolent performance from young Paige Conner as our telekinetic brat, The Visitor remains a weirdly satisfying concoction.
We finish this gargantuan feast with a nod toward the Blu-ray arrival of the great David Cronenberg’s early foray into body-horror, Shivers: They Came From Within. Strewn with wry prods at the neutered banality of modern living, Shivers sees an apartment block’s residents overcome by a parasite that turns its hosts into dangerously randy bleeders (literally).
Essentially a ground-breaking spin on the zombie mythos, Cronenberg’s witty yet repellent movie still feels extremely fresh today. An intriguing statement of intent for what would become a remarkable career, Shivers remains an early favourite for this master of horror’s many fans.
You can read Nick’s previous horror column here.
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