Thursday, January 30

Some quick thoughts on Roger Watkins' Shadows on the Mind (1980)

Years after being traumatized witnessing the drownings of her father and stepmother as a teen, a wealthy young woman, Elise (Marion Joyce), is released from a sanitarium and returns to the remote country estate where she grew up. Shortly afterwards, her estranged stepbrother, psychiatrist, and his fiance converge on the estate and a series of grisly murders begins.

Roger Watkins' Shadows of the Mind is really only worth a look if you're a devotee of the director's prior The Last House on Dead End Street (1977). Much like that infamous effort, Watkins apparently had a terrible experience with Shadows, disowning it and having his name taken off the film's credits prior to release. Watkins only finally revealed in 2005 that he had worked on the film under the name "Bernard Travis". Ryan C. over at Trash Film Guru has has more about the man, who effectively destroyed Watkins' mainstream hopes, behind that pseudonym in his recent entry covering the film. Disenchanted, Watkins' helmed several adult features before surfacing again after the new millennia upon rekindled interest surrounding Last House. Ultimately, Watkins never attempted to reclaim copyright over this meek slasher before his passing in 2007, a strong indication of his feelings toward it.

Shadows simply doesn't possess the constant manic rawness of his chipped 1977 masterpiece. It's about forty tedious minutes of watching a disturbed woman listen to inner voices followed by Watkins' rough-hewn style finally flourishing in several murders. Even then; an overbearing, hackneyed score blaring over the killings undermines their shock value. By the last twenty minutes, you might feel a little of what the director felt after wasting so much unappreciated time on someone else's project.

Co-writer and lead Marion Joyce's Elise is just another boring psychotic stereotype. We never feel anything for her character, making the inevitable killing spree all the more unsurprising. A better, or at least more game, actress might have tried valiantly to breathe life the role, making the experience more bearable, like the unhinged Sallee Young in Demented (1980). The few other cast members add nothing than a body count and their connections to Elise are barely sketched out.

A great example of this Shadows' terrible pacing is when Elise's stepbrother, who wants her out of the picture to inherit the estate, makes it known to the caretaker that his sister probably doesn't want to live there and he might lose his gig. His immediate response in the very next scene is to try and strangle her while screaming, "I need to talk to you!" and "Listen to me!" while her stepbrother pleasingly looks on in the distance. Then right afterward the caretaker is mysteriously killed (seen above). This entire sequence literally makes no sense because the caretaker is hardly given any screen time prior, much less his motives established. Was he always intending to kill her, easily swayed, or mentally handicapped? Or did Elise's stepbrother somehow magically know telling the caretaker that would lead to an altercation that would then drive her to kill the caretaker so he's not a nuance?! My damn head hurts.

Though the film's choppy nature echoes the fate of Last House, which was massively truncated to under eighty minutes from an over three-hour version essentially stolen away from Watkins (sadly still the only version known to exist today). Who knows how much Shadows was tampered with, but likely Watkins didn't have any say in the editing process and it's curious to note the basic credit sequences also resemble those of Last House. Shadows of the Mind is only for those that either love stuffy slasher also-rans, I know you're out there, or wish to see a director's last embittered shot at legitimacy in the face of those that couldn't have given a damn about him as a filmmaker.

However; copies of Shadows of the Mind are pretty damn scarce. The film only received VHS releases in Australia, Netherlands, Venezuela, and Japan. There hasn't been an authorized DVD released anywhere yet. So needless to say this Japanese tape screened for this review, from obscure distributor TSI Group, is extremely rare with just a couple copies ever surfacing. The full frame presentation is in English language with small Japanese subtitles. The Japanese title, 血に飢えた少女, translates to "Bloodthirsty Girl".

Thursday, January 16

So I finally found out there's the potential of an EVIL CULT (2003) prequel!

This sounds dumb, but Rob and Neil Taylor's no budget horror comedy Evil Cult has heart. Rob Taylor stars as Neil Stryker, a man of mysterious origin given a ride by the head of a seemingly peaceful communion. The curious Stryker soon discovers their dirty secrets, including mangling and imprisoning unwillingly participants, with his only option total annihilation after the dangerous cult attempts to melt his brain. Heaps of dismembered bodies, an ultimate showdown with the cult's powerful leader, and a time-jumping surprise from the past ensue.

What separates Evil Cult from the homebrew shot-on-video masses is its sheer creative spirit. Taylor plays quirky badass Stryker with an infectious confidence that, paired with surprisingly balanced comedy, drives straight through the film's rough patches. Tongue-in-cheek nods to Evil Dead kick into overdrive as the character sets upon a path of destruction and it's exactly the kind of goofy movie a middle schooler who's just discovered Raimi's classic would dream up. That's not a slight, a sense of fun sure-footedness conquers Evil's Cult's extremely modest resources and its been an SOV favorite of mine for years.

Still, I never figured there'd be a follow-up. Before stumbling upon "The Mad Scientist" few days ago, I had no clue that the Taylor brothers and friend Nic Costa, who also appeared in the first film, have been chipping away at a prequel since 2005. They even staged a successful Kickstarter campaign a few years back, still up here, to help complete the project and judging by the film's group on Facebook progress is still being made. Rob Taylor also has a YouTube channel with the complete Evil Cult, trailers, and pitch videos. It already looks like a hoot and I'm excited to see what these guys have in store. Here's to hoping this obvious labor of love sees a release this year.

Sunday, January 12

Some thoughts and images from The Making of Sweet Home (1989)

Toho Video's Sweet Home VHS 
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Sweet Home might be a criterion of sorts, a pioneering example of a video game and film developed in conjunction and released on the same day. However, the certainty of their partnered development is shaky, as the parallels are so strong that it seems hard to believe an entire game was built off of a finished film in such a short span. Despite the film's Wikipedia entry citing an interview with game director Tokuro Fujiwara speaking to a collaborative effort, I'd lean toward the role-playing Famicom game by Capcom coming first with the film adapting from its groundwork.

Either way, this haunted house picture enlivened by inventive effects work is great fun, and seemingly more known to retro game enthusiasts than most horror fans. Toho mounted an impressive marketing blitz upon Sweet Home's "dual" release with one of the fruits being this ninety-minute documentary covering the film's special effects. A wide range of methods were employed, everything from simple lighting tricks to large animatronics, all explored in great detail. Make-up effects legend Dick Smith was tapped to do on-location aging make-up and there's glimpses of him at his craft.

Naturally the entire feature is narrated in Japanese without subtitles, but if you're interested in the film or practical effects it's well worth the time and so comprehensive any language barrier is easy to forgive. There are two small snippets of English of Smith stating it's an honor to work on the film and an American member of the animatronics team describing the difference between what Japanese and American audiences demand from visual effects (Japan has a much higher suspension of disbelief).

According to Tom Mes in his review at Midnight Eye, Kurosawa effectively disowned the film over producer Juzo Itami, who also had a prominent role on-screen, looming large over production. This documentary goes a long way to reinforcing this, as Itami is often seen storyboarding and coordinating sequences with Kurosawa mostly in the background (the second shot below is the only "hands-on" footage of the director included). Itami even makes the VHS's cover front and center posing with one of the SFX props. Pardon the lack of a picture of said cover, I was very graciously sent a DVD-R copy by Yui (@LucioFulci74) of the Splatter, Slasher, Thriller Club (thanks again!). I've collected some stills from this making-of and uploaded the film's theatrical trailer over on BoGD's meager YouTube channel. Hopefully, Sweet Home makes it to DVD/BD eventually, it's still only on VHS and LaserDisc in Japan, and if it ever does this excellent companion piece must accompany it.

Saturday, January 4

Impressions of the Japanese Blu-ray of Dawn of the Dead (Theatrical Version) (1978)

Unlike my thoughts of Scream Factory's Day of the Dead (1985) Blu-ray, I'll cut to the chase. Although I will say that I'm a huge fan of Dawn of the Dead and own multiple releases across different formats from various countries. Being still in the stoneage, I lack a BD-ROM, so sorry, no direct screenshots. I viewed this BD on a calibrated Panasonic TC-P50VT25 plasma and Samsung HL-P5085W (720p) DLP using an non-modded Sony BD-P185 (the disc loaded up quickly with zero issue).

First, the specifications, as reported here, the encode is indeed MPEG-4 AVC on a 50GB disc. Bitrates tend to mean nothing, but megabytes per second never seems to dip below thirty-five and spike into the forties. The English 5.1 track is in lossless Dolby TrueHD with their recent 96kHz upsampling feature (confirmed 96kHz by my Onkyohovering around 2.0mbps). Both the English and Japanese Dub 2.0 are standard 640kHz Dolby. All three tracks sound fine but the 5.1 track has a distinct harshness at times due to the age of the film. Two sets of non-forced Japanese subtitles, not even on by default when selecting English audio.

The only extras are three original US trailers/teasers in full frame standard definition. There are twenty-five chapter stops and the total feature runtime is 2:07:02. Just to compare the Arrow Video UK runs 2:07:03 while the Anchor Bay US runs 2:07:06. There appears to be nothing different about the Japanese disc and other releases of the theatrical version. The Blu-ray case is a thicker style case with a small flyer advertising a few other horror discs from Stingray.

On to the good aspects of Happinet/Stingray's transfer. Overall, the image quality is noticeably improved over both the Anchor Bay and Arrow BDs. Both of those suffer from varying degrees of digital noise reduction, employed as part of a quick "remastering", only hampering fine detail. The Anchor Bay BD especially looks downright blurry. The lack of this on this Happinet BD with healthy grain structure leads to clothing and facial detail being much more lifelike and look less like watching video. On those grounds, this is certainly the best the film has ever looked on home video.

However; this new BD sadly has a few very obvious picture issues. The worst being blown out contrast levels. Contrast is elevated overall, but the real problem is that any direct light source, gleam from reflective surface, and sometimes even the sky in outdoor shots blooms and burns an intense solid white. It becomes distracting and actually hard to look at. Very reminiscent of Sony's recalled Robocop (1987) Blu-ray which also suffered similarly blazing hot white levels.

One of the more obvious examples is the fluorescent tube right outside the door where the group is holding up. It's so super fucking bright there's distortion to the shots it's featured in. The same light on the Anchor Bay and Arrow looks perfectly normal. As noted, this problem also appears in the sky at times, totally blanking out clouds. Especially apparent in the shot of the zombie climbing out of a junker while Roger's trying to hotwire one of the BP trucks. The sky behind the zombie is so bleached white that it almost obscures him. And again the sky in both the US and UK discs looks fine in this regard.

This generally bright contrast only exacerbates what print damage is present. I'm not one to throw a bitchfest over some lines and flecks (both the US and UK have such damage), but there's a really odd anomaly that appears repeatedly throughout. As pictured above, "rainbowing" aliasing pops up to the center right of the frame. It only lasts for a frame or two and takes on different "blob" or line shapes that sometimes move in a strobing fashion before disappearing. The most effected portion of the film is when the young SWAT member commits suicide up until Roger escapes to the basement for relief. Can anyone identify what could be causing this? I'm at a loss to whether it's on the print or haywire digital encoding. Both displays I viewed this BD on exhibited this and I've never seen anything quite like it. Regarding the other "normal" damage, it's interesting this presentation doesn't share any of same wear-and-tear seen on the Anchor Bay or Arrow.

Color is also a bit wonky, but I'm unsure if it's "creative" colorgrading done to this transfer or inherent to the print used. Some shots lean toward a greenish tint, while others reddish, yet others neutral. Sometimes shots within the same sequence have different hues.

An example being when the old priest surprises Peter and Roger in the tenement cellar. The shot of the priest looks normal while the very next shot of the two SWAT members aiming their rifles at him leans red. Or the climax before zombified Stephen reaches their hideout. The shots of Peter telling Fran about Stephen are very warmly hued, then suddenly after the door is wrenched open, the color turns cool. This isn't a massive issue, but the Anchor Bay and Arrow definitely have more consistent, but probably still not "accurate" color schemes.

So it's really a judgment call. The increase in detail is very clear and fantastic to finally see after all these years. Yet the problems described above are also quite apparent. With Anchor Bay's DVD/BD distribution license recently expiring, it's up to how long you're willing to wait for a better or worse Blu-ray re-release. Although if you're a fanatic you'll of course want this edition as it's not just a simple port of an existing transfer (like Happinet's Day of the Dead BD). You can certainly see the potential for a truly fantastic presentation of Dawn of the Dead in this release, but ultimately we're not quite there.

Wednesday, January 1

Some quick thoughts on Zombie Night (2013)

To adapt a quote from Alex Cox's Repo Man, ordinary fucking people that you hate fight for survival when zombies arise and begin feasting by night.

There's two predominant camps that will bash John Gulager's Zombie Night, those that cast it off merely for being an Asylum production and those that stupidly expect The Walking Dead. Throwing out those junk opinions, everyone else just won't care for it and that's understandable. After two off-the-rails Feast sequels and the disastrous Piranha 3DD (2012), it's easy to blame Gulager for screwing up this formulaic outing. It might be a mess, but its an interesting one and the director really is the least responsible.

With obvious riffs from Night of the Living Dead (1968), including lethargic zombies, some of the characters in Zombie Night are copied verbatim from the Romero classic. Alan Ruck, who's finally showing some age, is essentially Cooper, a family man swearing by his safe room and stubbornly refusing to help others out of fear for his loved ones. His wife, played by Jennifer Taylor, is Cooper's wife Helen, in contention with her husband's decisions over their bitten son. Shirley Jones of Partridge Family fame embodies an elderly version of the near comatose Barbra. So you'd think lead Antony Michael Hall would be similar to Ben, but a crippling problem arises with not just his character, but also everyone else.

Even if your only exposure to the subgenre is The Walking Dead, you probably get that effective zombie siege fiction tends to need at least one character with a measure of common sense. That individual needn't be a white-bread protagonist or even necessarily right, but someone who endears viewers through sensible actions. We first root for their plans to work and if those collapse hope for the survival of the character. Duane Jones' Ben is that person in the original Night of the Living Dead. On the other hand, Zombie Night lacks such characters as we watch people we never grow to care for running from place-to-place, continually making stupid choices along the way. Literally no one is likable, and although the cast is on auto-pilot, this aspect seems part of the material. There's also some gigantic logic gaps, the biggest being (spoilers, click and drag to highlight) one of the survivors overhearing that all zombies die off at dawn so they just have to survive until then. If this was a first time phenomena, how in the hell would anyone know that would happen?!

Here's a quick example of how unbelievably dumb characters frequently are. We're introduced to a cop who's arresting a looter, and upon returning to his precinct, finds it abandoned and ransacked with phones ringing off the hook. Picking one up he recognizes the voice as one of his old high school teachers, Shirley Jones' character, and promises he'll be right over to assist. It's well apparent zombies have risen as he's forced to leave his squad car after being attacked and witnessing a little girl shot dead and suddenly reanimate (ascribing to the "revised" Romero/Walking Dead rules). So does he have better things to do like finding family and friends in the chaos? Doesn't seem so, when we see him next he's approaching the empty house of his once teacher to investigate. Seriously? 

Ultimately, Zombie Night is more a wasted opportunity than just bad outright. It actually has the chops to be a decent, albeit run-of-the-mill timewaster. Gulager's capable direction guides a film, with solid zombie make-up, that wisely keeps its ambitions within its slim budget. Unlike The Asylum's recent Zombie Apocalypse and Rise of the Zombies that end up straining with how high they aim. Yet dumb, unsympathetic characters paired with an aimless story and paycheck acting make this one a chore. If you're still interested, The Asylum now has three movies of the same ilk and I'll bet we'll see a cheapo three-pack at Wal Mart soon. Also I'm unsure what's new/different in this unrated version compared to Syfy's airing, but the total runtime is 1:28:21.
. you dare tread upon the staircase?

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