The Bottom Shelf: Theatre Of Blood, Sparks, Wrecked and more

It's a new monthly horror column, where Nick looks at the latest DVD and Blu-ray releases. This time? Theatre Of Blood, Sparks and more...

Welcome to Den Of Geek’s newest regular feature. Leaving a monthly stain on the glowing veneer of the site’s hallowed digital halls, this blog’s humble goal is to explore cinema’s shady alleyways in search of the obscure, weird and not-so-wonderful, bad taste, or just plain bad. All clear? Then, let’s get wading.

Everyone knows that critics are a wretched, bitter cross-section of human sewage, right? In case you’d forgotten, the first few films we encounter provide evidence of these dregs of society finally getting their just desserts.

Vincent Price might be the perfect critic-slayer. Surely there can be no finer way to go than accompanied by a Shakespearian quote in the high-camp dulcet tones of a horror legend. Theatre Of Blood, Douglas Hickox’s 1973 film, lovingly restored and re-released in a neat steelbook set this month on DVD and Blu-ray, offers just that delicious prospect.

As hammy thespian Edward Lionheart, Price’s character bears a grudge against the theatre reviewers who refused him a Best Actor award, prompting his attempted suicide. Presumed dead but rescued by his daughter (Diana Rigg), Lionheart now lives in a derelict theatre with boozy vagrants to help exact his Bard-themed revenge. Handy. 

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With a great ensemble cast of character actors including Arthur Lowe, Robert Morley and Kind Hearts And Coronets’ Dennis Price in his final film role – all grotesque and begging to be bumped off – this gory black comedy is a hoot.  Throw in a commentary from all four of the League Of Gentlemen team and this loveably creaky classic is even more worthy of reappraisal.

Similar in theme though lacking in fun, Joel M Read’s notorious previously banned 70s grindhouse hit, Blood Sucking Freaks, finally gets an uncut UK Blu-ray release via Troma Entertainment. Produced a few years after Theatre Of Blood, there’s a similar postmodern thing going on here with a lot of added nastiness.

An off-Broadway Grand Guignol production opens to derision as our ringmaster, Master Sardu (Seamus O’Brien), plays out scenes of S&M, torture and violence. One critic, though, is soon to find out when the troupe abducts him that the acts he scoffed at were in fact real. With decapitation, bestial naked women slaves, disemboweling, brain-sucking and, erm, a dwarf named Ralphus all par for the course, Read’s movie certainly justifies the ‘splatter-exploitation’ tag.

Tempting as it is to entirely ditch Blood Sucking Freaks as sadistic attention-seeking, the layers of irony, knowing self-reference (Sardu sounds suspiciously like Sade – as in Marquis de, not Smooth Operator) and great score by Michael Sahl, this film is far more interesting than its excesses would suggest.

Whilst on the subject of mutilation and subjugation (when are we not?), it only seems right that Butcher Boys, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre writer Kim Henkel, gets a mention. After being involved in umpteen Leatherface spin-offs, it seems Mr Henkel fancied something new (ahem) and did the same thing again in a modern setting. 

Unrelentingly brutal, this tale of birthday drinks ruined by inconvenient urban cannibalism (think Basildon on a Saturday night), though genuinely disturbing, often feels more than a little old hat. It may follow inner-city gangs plying a trade in dodgy meat rather than redneck power-tool enthusiasts, but let’s not harbour any illusions. Butcher Boys is, right down to Texas Chainsaw cast cameos, an effective if uninspired re-tread.

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By far the more interesting movies this month surprisingly come in the form of the less ‘nasty’ releases and those more ‘Hollywood’: alternative superhero flick Sparks, and Tinseltown lunkhead Josh Duhamel vehicle Wrecked.

Leaking from the brain of Christopher Folino and the pages of his own graphic novel, Sparks unfortunately isn’t the knockabout sitcom tale of a roguish electrician, but in fact follows Ian Sparks, a young man given special powers by a meteor crash in an alternative 40s America.

With the tagline ‘Even superheroes have a dark side’, the key difference with Folino’s movie is that it shows a genuinely dark, traumatised side to the caped experience rather than, say, a Nolanesque troubled heroism. With our hero struggling with a superpower that can be more burden than gift and regularly doing the wrong thing, Sparks is intriguing though sadly a little muddled.

Mostly mediocre performances other than the reliable Clancy Brown don’t help and it’s soon apparent this source material’s potential falls flat.

Wrecked is a whole different kettle of fish. Ostensibly a stagey two-header with

Transformers star Duhamel and Balls Of Fury’s Dan Fogler as two old school friends stranded in the middle of the US desert, the gradual wind-up of tension as the two rip into each other’s lives and then each other is gripping.

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With an eerie setting, this darkly existential crisis, influenced by the likes of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, is more savage emotionally than the one physical act of violence (involving pocket-sand! Yes!) we see to begin with. Bolstered by surprisingly strong performances from leads more used to blockbuster action and goofball comedy, this sharp psychological thriller is well worth a look.

Grabbing hold of the car broken down in middle-of-nowhere tenuous link, that brings us sloppily on to Tourist Trap, the silly 1979 House Of Wax variant from Puppet Master director David Schmoeller, now on Blu-ray. Featuring gravel-voiced/faced/bodied Chuck Connors (from a million westerns and, erm, Airplane II) as a good ol’ boy museum curator, various young women find reasons to remove their unnecessary clothes before meeting their maker. 

With an enjoyable turn from Connors as a slightly-too-helpful bad good Samaritan, evil toys turning on the charm and a top cheesy score, this bears all the hallmarks of producer Charles Band’s distinctive brand of bad films.

Surely an influence on Band’s career, Jack Hill, master of Blaxploitation and creator of 60s horrors Spider Baby and Blood Bath, also had a go at cautionary tales for 60s greasers in the form of Pit-Stop, out this month.

Retitled from the original 1969 title, The Winner, this dated drag racing drama follows rivals (look out for B-movie stalwart Sid Haig) as they race and fight and hump and crash. Complete with a moralizing end of He-Man moment, twisting pixie-cut dancers and utterly punchable lead, Pit Stop is no better or worse than say a Days Of Thunder or Fast And Furious Twelve.

We finish this first round-up with a title from the low-budget Wizard Studios and available on, the brilliantly-monikered PMS Cop. ‘It’s Her Time Of The Month!’ blasts the particularly insensitive tagline for this (hopefully) too-ridiculous-to-offend production.

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Imagine RoboCop. Instead of Murphy, we have a female cop given experimental drugs to curb aggressive behaviour, only for it all to go to hell, paving the way for a hyper-hormonal killing-machine taking ever-more creative revenge on her creators. Throw in Frankenhooker pseudo-feminist subtext and you’re there.

Director/writer/producer/tea-boy Bryon Blakey makes a surprisingly good fist at the helm, with some great set-pieces and hilariously OTT death scenes as the PMS Cop goes a-rampaging. Perhaps lacking some of the expected oddball antics from a film with this title, Blakey’s film, like many of those we’ll be covering here, is nonetheless good fun for all the family.

Look out for another edition of The Bottom Shelf next month.

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