The Bottom Shelf: Threads, Wishmaster, The Gruesome Twosome, Kills On Wheels

Our latest round-up of horror DVDs and Blu-rays features the infamous Threads, Kills On Wheels and Wishmaster...

Some readers in their late thirties may recall a vague childhood trauma, overwhelmingly grey in colour and horrifying in tone, ever-present in the subconscious and shared by thousands of other young minds exposed to the terror of nuclear war. That memory, to the ‘lucky’ generation shown this in British schools (this writer included), is, of course, Kes writer Barry Hines’ brilliantly bleak 1984 depiction of the aftermath of an atomic bomb being dropped on Sheffield, Threads, which gets a Blu-ray release on Severin Films this month.

One of the most horrific of movies from that or any genre, director Mick Jackson’s convincingly speculative film, produced for the BBC, begins as a combination of public information video (a plummy announcer reads out the seemingly disparate strands of far-flung Cold War events leading up to catastrophe) and kitchen sink drama as young lovers Reece Dinsdale and Karen Meagher deal with an unexpected pregnancy and plan their lives. Thoroughly believable (even – somehow – the fact a young couple could buy a flat back then on one factory-worker’s wage!), the little details of everyday life in the eighties are overlaid with lashings of dramatic irony (we know things aren’t going to end well) and a slowly creeping sense of dread.

When we’re shown the bomb actually hitting, grim scenes of devastation are a thousand times more impactful than any number of big Hollywood productions as buildings collapse, radiation sickness slowly picks off the survivors, nuclear winter falls and one character literally encounters their kitchen sink blown to hell. Unrelenting doom unfolds as the days, weeks, months and years go by (time flies when you’re having fun, eh?), with society’s infrastructure ripped to shreds and a return to pre-industrialised production the only way to survive.

Still uniquely affecting to this day, Hines’ bold script offers a local council chief executive (TV stalwart Harry Beety) as our unlikely action hero and a bleak dystopian future of rat-based ready meals and bad teeth as a persuasive argument for disarmament. The HD transfer highlights the surrounding unpleasantness here, though for the full grainy experience, you’d be best advised to track down a VHS copy and a VCR for an evening sobbing in your basement flat.

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Messed up as it is then, our next film, one involving a pair of twisted serial killers scalping innocent young women in small town America, comes as blessed relief. Thank Christ, then, for the ‘godfather of gore’ Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1967 cult classic The Gruesome Twosome, also getting a Blu-ray release this month in its own wonderfully gaudy style. The director of Bloodfeast and Something Weird’s colourful early take on the splatter film has its moments of agreeably daft violent lunacy and gonzo tomfoolery, albeit filtered through a ridiculously dated sixties filter.

Opening with two plastic mannequin heads, adorned with wigs, talking to each other about how they came to be in their current situation, sat in the window of ‘The Little Wig Shop’, we soon learn that the shop’s proprietor, one Mrs Pringle, happens to make her wigs with real human hair, with or without the consent of the donor. What follows is an excuse for Mrs P (How To Make A Doll’s Elizabeth Davis), her gurning simpleton son Rodney (Chris Martell) and stuffed bobcat Napoleon to lure an identikit parade of woman to their dayglo-red-spattered demise.

Punctuated by Russ Meyer-style extended shots of teens dancing badly and acting badly, plus amusing jabs at middle-class respectability (a scene involving binge-eating of potato chips and caressing of bananas whilst conducting sexy chat is ludicrously great), The Gruesome Twosome’s endearingly quirky silliness wins through as our dodgy wigmakers chirpily get about their daily business. All done without a hint of even slightly believable violence or nuclear fallout, thankfully.

Next up, then, we have a film the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis could have had an absolute ball with, Hungarian director Attila Till’s sadly not-quite-anarchic enough gangsters-in-wheelchairs thriller, last year’s Kills On Wheels, released on Eureka Blu-ray and DVD. Telling the tale of disabled hitman Rupasov (Szabolcs Thuroczy), recently released from jail and falling back into old ways with his former boss, our antihero recruits two young (also disabled) amateur comic creators, Zoli (Zoltan Fenyvesi) and Barba (Adam Fekete) as his new co-assassins.

As the three get to know each other in bickering fashion, Rupasov encourages the younger men to reject pity from others and get things done for themselves with increasingly outlandish results. As things escalate, Till skilfully imbues the action with a distinctive sense of realism, as simple things like stairs or getting out of wheelchairs hold things up, often amusingly, but always thoughtfully.

Sadly, the end result of this deliberately halting process is of a stop-start feeling to the detriment of otherwise fluid action scenes, which make a good point, though don’t necessarily make for massively entertaining cinema. Insights into the logistics of everyday life with a disability are nonetheless interesting in the context of a crime thriller and, despite its flaws, Till’s idiosyncratic film is consistently satisfying.

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We finish this month’s round-up with 1997’s utterly ridiculous, but also utterly fun, genie romp Wishmaster, coming to Blu-ray in lurid nineties style and practically trumpeting out the idiom ‘careful what you wish for’ with a smug glint in its eye. “Presented by” (read, executive produced by) Wes Craven, presumably his extensive horror contacts came to play in throwing together what is a fan’s semi-dream team of a cast and crew, despite the overall feeling of being somewhat throwaway.

Hellraiser sequels writer Peter Atkins cobbles together what there is of a script (sadly lacking enough cheesy one liners to score highly on the Schwarzenegger Scale) whilst Robert Kurtzman (effects man on basically every film, ever) steps up to directing duties, making the most of his own make-up virtuosity to conjure demons, statue-monsters and all sorts of other fantastical wishes gone wrong.

The cast is padded out with various genre mainstays, from John Carpenter regular George ‘Buck’ Flower to Tony Todd and Ted Raimi being his bug-eyed self. Reggie Bannister from the Phantasm films and the Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, both crop up, whilst Robert Englund plays a so un-Freddy character, you can practically feel the universal back-slapping going on. Sadly, none are utilized to full potential though it’s always nice to see Ted Raimi get killed off in increasingly nasty ways.

Star of the incredible and absolute-must-be-re-released-soon-so-I-can-review Mac And Me, Andrew Divoff, plays our evil-faced djinn, who really gets a kick from asking leading questions to an endless succession of Doubting Thomases and dealing out ironic wish fulfilment. Suitably sinister, Divoff’s great (in his own rubbish way) as a kind of panto baddie, stretching out every possible syllable like a cross between Steven Toast and Gonzo’s funky alien relative in Muppets From Space and looking like a less shite Apocalypse from that X-Men film.

Having spawned three sequels of varying quality (safe to say, from ‘bad’ to ‘very bad’), there’s definitely a certain unchallenging charm to Wishmaster if you like your scares unscary and your mangled bodies rubbery.