MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Magician: Orson Welles, The Confession and more

Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles: Blu-ray
I think that it can be argued persuasively that a week in the life of Orson Welles, whose centennial we celebrate this month, was more intrinsically interesting than two years in the lives of everyone who’s made the cover of People, US Weekly, the Enquirer, Life & Style, OK!, In Touch and Star, at least since Kim met Kanye. I was reminded of this while watching Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, Chuck Workman’s glowing biopic of one of the greatest artists and celebrities at a time when simply being young, attractive and rich wasn’t sufficient cause for worship by the media. If Workman’s film doesn’t add much to what most of us already know about Welles, or have gleaned from his still fascinating films, “Magician” is worth it for the archival material chronicling his rise to prominence with the Mercury Theater. It’s also informed by the testimony of filmmakers, actors, critics, relatives, lovers and, even, restaurateur-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck, who’s probably still holding Welles’ IOUs from their days at Ma Maison. And, what would any Welles documentary be without the recollections of Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom? Ironically, for at least one generation of TV viewers, the man who gave us “Citizen Kane” will still be remembered most vividly as a talk-show raconteur, pitchman for Paul Masson, golden throated narrator of cartoons and documentary series, and occasional guest roaster on “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.” As someone who actually could read the names and address off a phone book and make them sound like Shakespeare, Welles was as much fun to watch as anyone else who sat beside Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, back in the glory years. And, yes, he also was a heck of a magician. Typically, Welles was able to convince Bogdanovich that no less an illusionist than Harry Houdini taught him his first tricks, in the 1920s. Whether or not this qualifies as one of his whoppers, it’s a great story and usually that’s enough for a genuine celebrity. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds an interview with Workman.

The Confession: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Merchant of Four Seasons: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I wonder how the work of the Greek director Costa-Gavras would have been judged in the late-1960s and ’70s if The Confession had preceded Z into theaters around the world, instead of the other way around. As powerful a statement against fascism and right-wing barbarism as Z was, it also was criticized in some quarters for being anti-American and promoting political division in Greece. That’s because the film’s co-protagonist (Yves Montand) – patterned after anti-war activist Grigoris Lambrakis — was a prominent spokesman for a pacifist group opposed to the government of an unnamed European country, unmistakably Hellenic. After speaking at a rally, Deputy Z is killed in an attack by thugs hanging off the back of a small truck. Responding to the protests of enraged pro-democratic crowds, the government covered up the attack by saying the he died from wounds suffered in a collision with drunk driver. A typically routine investigation, led by an uncharacteristically skeptical magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant), determines that the deputy’s death had been orchestrated and carried out by security forces employed by the conservative government. By the time Z opened theatrically, in 1969, people already protesting the war in Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, racism and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were able to embrace an anti-Hollywood movie that appeared to confirm their views about America’s role in propping up totalitarian regimes in the Third World countries. Z ends by reminding viewers that democracy and civil liberties were casualties in the struggle for peace and the men responsible for Deputy Z’s death received slaps on the wrists. Of course, this mirrored events in Greece after a repressive military junta replaced the conservative government. Costa-Gavras would return to similar themes, only this time from a South American perspective, in Missing and State of Siege.

Released in 1970, The Confession attacks oppression and treachery from a completely different ideological direction. This time, however, Montand portrays the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia at a time when the Soviet Union was tightening its grip on all of the Iron Curtain countries. One day, after work, Gerard (London) notices that he’s being followed by carloads of brutes who look as if their other job was breaking bones for the Teamsters Union. Normally, given their standing in the Czech Communist Party, Gerard and his wife, Lise (Simone Signoret), would be among the last people in line to be purged for their political activities. In fact, their credentials could be considered to be little short of impeccable. Even so, in the early ’50s, an increasingly paranoid Stalin demanded action against potential advocate for reform and the first place his puppets looked was in the direction of high-ranking Jews, or anyone who might have spent time in the West fighting with the International Brigades on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War and had joined the French Resistance after escaping the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. As an enthusiastic party member in his early 20s, London had the distinction of being sent from Moscow to Spain to spy for the Soviet Union and, after retreating to France, being arrested with his pregnant wife and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Having managed to somehow escape death in the camps, the Londons took up residence in Switzerland, until being lured back to Czechoslovakia, where he quickly moved up the political ladder. In 1951, he was arrested but not charged for unnamed abuses of power and party privileges. For almost a year, London was kept in isolation and tortured to within an inch of his sanity, through sleep deprivation, constant harassment and cruel prison conditions. His inquisitors demanded that he confess to participating in a Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist conspiracy, as well as numerous anti-Soviet crimes, along with 13 other party leaders. Tellingly, 11 of the 14 co-defendants in the Slánský show trial were Jewish and 11 would be executed after admitting to trumped-up offenses. (Surviving the death camp as communist and a Jew had already raised bushy eyebrows in Moscow and Prague.) Like Gerard, London would escape the hangman’s noose, but be sentenced to several years of hard labor. To avoid harsher punishment and confirm he had been “re-habilitated,” London would testify in the show trials of other Czech and Slovak officials. By the time he was released, Stalin was dead and his iron grip relaxed. It wasn’t until the violent Soviet quashing of Hungarian revolt, in 1956, and Prague Spring, of 1968, that the Londons fully acknowledged the rotten odor emanating from the Kremlin and he decided to write his memoirs, “On Trial.”

Based on a screenplay by Jorge Semprún Maura, whose own story mirrored that of London, Costa-Gavras’ depiction of the months-long torture experienced by Gerard not only is extremely difficult to watch, but also eerily reminiscent of what we’ve learned about the treatment accorded Islamic prisoners by CIA officials and untrained National Guard sadists. For some viewers, the show trial accorded the doomed Czech officials resembled the show trial of the Chicago 8, before it was reduced to a Yippie carnival and repudiation of Chicago Machine politics. Before his death, in 1986, London continued to say that his memoirs shouldn’t be construed as being anti-communist, just anti-totalitarian and anti-fascist. Costa-Gavras makes the same point about The Confession. If Z hadn’t preceded it, however, the Young Republicans of 1969 might have trashed his reputation by using it as a recruiting tool for the Nixon Youth. The new 2K digital transfer, supervised by Costa-Gavras, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, adds several featurettes that add perspective to London’s thrilling story and the difficulty of maintaining one’s belief system in the early years of the Cold War, never knowing who to trust or believe. Other featurettes include “You Speak of Prague: The Second Trial of Artur London,” a 21-minute documentary by Chris Marker, shot on the set of The Confession; a new interview with the film’s editor, Françoise Bonnot; a conversation between director Costa-Gavras and programmer and scholar Peter von Bagh, from the 1988 Midnight Sun Film Festival; “Portrait London,” a 1981 interview with Artur and Lise London; an interview with actor Yves Montand, from 1970; a new interview with John Michalczyk, author of “Costa-Gavras: The Political Fiction Film”; and an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova.

In the stage and cinema works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it wasn’t always easy for postwar German audiences to differentiate between social satire, parody and provocation. The same holds true for his legacy on film, outside Germany. In a career that lasted 16 years, he was responsible for writing, directing and acting in nearly 50 movies, shorts and TV mini-series, as well as continuing to create Brechtian theater pieces. After beginning his career in the late 1960s making films that ranged from experimental to difficult, Fassbinder would turn to the Hollywood melodramas of German émigré Douglas Sirk for creative inspiration. While he continued to explore the role of the outsider in society, as well as the interplay of racism, sexual orientation, politics, class and family dynamics, his movies became noticeably more accessible to mainstream audiences on the international stage. The Merchant of Four Seasons was the first movie to benefit from his exposure to Sirk’s themes, which, of course, had been muted by Production Code restrictions. Set in the late-1950s, before Germany’s economic miracle, it tells the story of a lumpen loser, Hans (Hans Hirschmüller), whose every attempt to improve his lot in life is thwarted by acts of sheer stupidity, the bullying of his impossible-to-satisfy mother, alcohol abuse and post-war malaise. After being kicked off the police force and leaving the foreign legion, Hans humiliates his family by settling for a job peddling produce from a pushcart in the courtyards of tenement buildings. His wife Irm (Irm Hermann) sometimes tags along, but that ends when Hans reacts to her interrupting him at a tavern with a beating in front of their daughter. When she leaves and threatens divorces, Hans is stricken with a heart attack. It prevents him from engaging in the physical aspects of the job, but triggers an impulse in the reunited couple to expand the business by hiring others to do the heavy lifting. With Irm’s assistance and support, the business begins to thrive. And, while it raises his family’s opinion of him, the idle time also causes his mind to wander back to the real turning point in his life. He saw a bright future for himself, which wasn’t shared by his beautiful girlfriend’s father, who couldn’t allow his daughter to accept life with a peddler. Sensing that things aren’t likely to get any better for him, Hans decides to share his misery with as many friends and family members as possible. The Merchant of Four Seasons has been given a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; commentary with filmmaker Wim Wenders; new interviews with actors Hermann and Hirschmüller, and film scholar Eric Rentschler; and an essay by film scholar Thomas Elsaesser.

So Bright Is the View
In the long wake of the collapse of the Ceauçescu regime, a new Romanian cinema emerged from the rubble, marked by sardonic humor and bleak recollections of life in a land that time and the faint promise of Marxism forgot. It took a while for the concept of creative freedom to catch hold, especially among older citizens conditioned to mistrust Western philosophies and bourgeois intellectuals. Several Romanian films screened at Cannes in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that the world stood up and took notice of such pictures as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, California Dreamin’, Tales from the Golden Age, Police, Adjective, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu and Tuesday, After Christmas. If these titles rarely played outside art houses and festivals – beyond Bucharest, anyway – commercial filmmakers from outside Eastern Europe beat a path to Romania for its diverse locations, historical architecture, crack crews and inexpensive overhead, as well as its symbolic relation to the Draculian legend. In Joël and Michaël Florescu’s downbeat contemporary drama, So Bright Is the View, Estera (Bianca Valea) is a middle-class resident of the capital, caught between the prospect of moving to one of two New Jerusalems – a promised job in America or Israel, where her mother pretends to be thriving – or by maintaining a lackluster career as a drone in a tech company. As those options effectively dwindle from three to none, Estera can’t help but feel as if her strings are being pulled by a God who disapproves of hubris, however humble. As difficult as it is to watch this appealing young woman’s bubbles being burst before our eyes, it’s worth remembering that Estera’s fate is being by shared hundreds of thousands of recent university graduates here, who’ve learned the hard way that the mortgage on their American Dream is held by insanely greedy bankers and politicians too compromised to approve the reforms that would lift the burden of college loans off their shoulders. The Florescus allow the pregnant Estera’s more down-to-earth boyfriend to assure her that, no matter what happens to them, their child will participate in the  rebuilding a country that has natural beauty and seasonal change going for it, at least. That’s if Estera doesn’t go ahead with her plans to abort the baby, of course. In a country with as many qualified actors and as much behind-the-camera talent as Romania, it’s interesting that only one actor, Ovidiu Niculescu, has more than one feature credit on their resume. If nothing else, this seems to indicate that the fledgling Romanian Independent Film Collective is off to a bright start of its own. The group’s mission statement asserts that the organization is “comprised of young writers, photographers, actors, editors and film technicians who join together for the advancement and enrichment of cinema and cinematic media as art and expression in Romania. It is an anti-bureaucratic, anti-exploitative, democratic and free association of members.” Good luck, on that.

The True Cost
When it comes to decrying the terrible injustices endured by the world’s poorest and least protected workers – too many of whom are paid pennies to manufacture clothes that range in price from expensive to bargain-basement — there are several ways to grab the attention of consumers, corporate executives and lawmakers. One way is to sneak hidden cameras into sweatshops as a direct challenge to the lies advanced by industry spokespersons every time a building occupied by hundreds of sewing-machine operators collapses, trapping them in the rubble or killing them outright. Instead of accepting the blame and facing the consequences, company executives claim they weren’t aware that their legitimate Asian sub-contractors would then sub-contract the work to disreputable interests so far removed from the chain of accountability they probably can’t imagine why anyone would care. By now, too, consumers have grown so tired of being told that the problem wouldn’t exist if there were no demand for inexpensive clothes, they’ve stopped listening. Last month, the wonderfully caustic HBO satirist John Oliver trashed the fashion industry and its media lapdogs for blindly encouraging consumers to participate in Black Friday madness and buy clothes on sale at prices that they must have been sewn by children or indentured servants. The True Cost is a 92-minute documentary that takes us from the shaming of Nike in the early 1990s for subcontracting with sweatshop operators, to the devastating building collapse in Bangladesh and fires at factories in Pakistan, killing a combined total of 1,386 people and injuring 3,115 others. It also shoves our noses into even less-accountable operations in India, where freelancers dump chemicals used in the treatment of leather directly into ditches and tributaries of great rivers in which children play, animals feed and water for all sorts of other purposes is taken. Blessedly, director Andrew Morgan and producer Michael Ross have been able to identify enough forces for good in the overall garment industry — Stella McCartney, Livia Firth, Vandana Shiva, among them — to suggest that someone, somewhere is aware of the problem and is taking steps toward reform. All of the documentaries in the world wouldn’t provide enough impetus for change, however, if consumers weren’t as anxious as they are to seize on bargains promoted on television shows like “The View” and “Today”; in glossy magazines and red-carpet shout-outs; on billboards looming over such high-traffic thoroughfares as Times Square and the Sunset Strip; and local TV newscasts that count down the seconds to the opening of Walmart stores on the day after Thanksgiving.

Smoking Laws
First released in the UK in 2011, but reportedly made three years earlier, Matthew Ehlers’ once-observant indie dramedy Smoking Laws recalls a time, not so long ago, when office workers addicted to nicotine would cluster outside the doors of their buildings puffing away as if they were outlaws waiting for a train. In Chicago, at least, that meant braving temperatures that ranged from a dry 20-below-zero to 95-above, with an equal percentage of humidity in the air. I don’t know if these informal gatherings of like-minded smokers still exist, especially since many building owners, insurance companies, middle-management executives and chronic whiners now insist on enforcing a 30-foot perimeter around each entrance for such activities. For a time, this left taverns, restaurant patios and casinos as the only areas open to smokers accustomed to engaging friends and new acquaintances over drinks and snacks. Predictably, anti-smoking activists then were able to convince regulators to prohibit smoking in bars and some non-Indian casinos. It didn’t break my heart, but, occasionally, more customers could be found outside the tavern than inside, spending money. Smoking Laws depicts how the patrons of one fictional establishment adjusted to such a ban – a half-dozen years ago, anyway — by taking their kibitzing, bickering, cell calling and hooking up just outside the doors to the bar or kitchen. The story is told from the point of view of the bar’s manager, who not only has to focus on all of his customers’ satisfaction, but also the workplace dramas of his employees. Smoking Laws probably could have been funnier and more trenchant, given more money and talent. More to the point, how interesting are the people around you who still smoke?

Gun Woman: Blu-ray
Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf: Blu-ray
Cannibal Ferox: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray
Island of Death: Blu-ray
From Asia With Lust Volume 2: Lipstick/Weekend
Just when you think you’ve seen it all and nothing new can sneak up on you, the mailman drops off a few packages containing movies so bizarre they restore your faith in the medium to shock, disturb and entertain in almost equal measure. This week, already, I’ve watched four such films on Blu-ray, all from different distributors and three different countries. Two are the product of the same fertile mind. Born in Tokyo and educated in Fresno, Kurando Mitsutake brings a distinct Pacific Rim sensibility to Gun Woman and Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, a pair of bloody soft-core Eastern Westerns shot in and around Agua Dolce, Lone Pine and Death Valley, California. In both, too, blind or half-blind Japanese protagonists dedicate themselves to avenging the rape and murder of a spouse to a crazed pervert. I don’t know if Mitsutake was more influenced by Quentin Tarantino, George Romero, Sergio Leone or Beat Takeshi, but their fingerprints are all over his movies. (He directly credits Tomisabura Wakayama, Shintaro Katsu, Kihachi Okamoto and Sergio Corbucci in final roll.) The almost entirely gratuitous nudity harkens to the “pink” era in Japanese cinema and possibly Russ Meyer. In Samurai Avenger, released in 2009, Mitsutake assumed the lead role of Blind Wolf, a master swordsman required to run a gauntlet of seven assassins before he can get to the monster who killed his wife and daughter and forced him to blind himself with a dull stick. That’s all the information most potential viewers would need before taking a shot on “Samurai Avenger” on disc. Everything else can be learned in the 90-minute making-of featurette.

By contrast to the almost primitive special makeup effects in Samurai Avenger, Gun Woman looks as if Mitsutake was handed a hundred-million-dollars and told to make sure every cent of it finds its way to the screen.  While it’s more likely that he was allotted only a small fraction of that amount, Gun Woman looks that much more accomplished a picture. It, too, opens with a violent rape, murder and disfigurement, this time inside the home of a prominent Japanese doctor. To avenge the crime, the ruthless half-blind Mastermind (Kairi Narita) recruits a destitute street urchin (Asami) with nothing to lose – except, perhaps, her life – if the mission fails. After extensive training with guns, swords, knives and kung fu, Mayumi is ready to infiltrate the previously impenetrable desert bunker of the necrophilic fiend who murdered her mentor’s wife. Knowing that Mayumi will have to be naked and in a trance-like state to gain entry into the killer’s lair, the Mastermind stuffs parts of her handgun just under the skin of her chest and shows her how to rip out the sutures when she awakens from her trance. Adding to the degree of difficulty is the necessity of her being completely nude on her mission and, bless her, during the long and arduous training sessions. It’s amazing, really, and, after about 15 minutes, as erotic as separating recyclable items. At 5-foot-3, the plucky Asami is well known in Japan as a star in adult-video industry. By now, though, she’s probably a better fighter naked than the WWE Divas are in tights and sports bras. The only question that lingers throughout Gun Woman is how Mayumi is going to be able to rip the parts of the pistol from her surgically altered body, re-assemble them, take out the target’s well-armed bodyguards, execute the killer and get to a waiting ambulance, before all of her blood drains from her wounds. The Mastermind calculates his student will have 23 minutes, on the outside, to do it. If this scenario sounds too ridiculous to be taken even remotely seriously, you haven’t seen enough Japanese genre flicks. Admittedly, Gun Woman frequently goes beyond the pale, but Mitsutake pulls off the crazy stuff with aplomb. As is made clear in the making-of featurettes and commentaries included in both Blu-ray packages, working alongside Mitsutake is truly a singular sensation.

Moving a bit further back in time, Cannibal Ferox asks us to take at face value the boast made on its cover: “The most violent film ever made.” It inspired me to look up the definition of “Ferox,” as a way of anticipating what could possibly make Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox more violent than Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust, which I’d just reviewed on Blu-ray. As the Latin word for “fierce,” “ferox” already had been affixed to the scientific names of several nasty species: a ferocious line of brown trout, long-snouted lancefish, lizardfish, sand shark, a soft-shelled turtle, the carnivorous fossa of Madagascar and several notoriously hazardous plants and trees. At first glance, the title, Cannibal Ferox, would appear to be needlessly redundant — cannibalism, by its very nature, being an act of violence — but the original title, Make Them Die Slowly, probably could have been confused with any number of torture-porn specimens and more than a few Westerns. Lenzi had gotten the cannibal craze rolling in 1972 with Man From the Deep River (a.k.a., “Sacrifice!”), which cross-pollinated Elliot Silverstein’s controversial Western, A Man Called Horse, with Mondo Cane. In 1980, he moved the flesh-eating scenario from Thailand to New Guinea in Eaten Alive! (a.k.a., “Doomed to Die”). Like “Holocaust,” “Ferox” opened in Manhattan but quickly found itself in a remote port on the Colombian side of the Amazon River. In the picture, as in real life, Leticia is used as stepping-off point for traders, hunters, explorers and drug traffickers. Here, a group of gringos from New York – one of whom appears to be hiding out from mobsters – is on a dual mission, involving research into the possibility of cannibalism in deep-forest tribes and the black market for precious gems. The subtext, of course, is that so-called civilized people will instinctively revert to crude primal instincts as soon as the safety nets and security blankets of contemporary society are removed. In doing so, the camera is attentive to tribal customs guaranteed to shock first-world viewers, including the on-screen butchering of decidedly non-animatronic creatures, rape, primitive torture practices and prevalent nudity. While Cannibal Holocaust’s most lasting gift to the international cinema was introducing the found-footage conceit, “Ferox” doesn’t break any new ground, beyond adding a few new torture methods to the repertoire. Grindhouse’s 2K, restoration is accompanied by deleted and banned scenes; a re-mix of the musical score; a surprisingly candid commentary with Lenzi and star John Morghen; interviews with Lenzi, stars Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Danilo Mattei and Zora Kerowa, and special effects master Gino DeRossi; original Italian, German and U.S. theatrical trailers; a gallery of stills and poster art; a booklet containing liner notes by 42nd Street historian Bill Landis and director Eli Roth; and a bonus CD with an original soundtrack album by Budy-Maglione, newly re-mastered in 24 bit/96khz sound from the original studio master tapes.

Like Grindhouse, Arrow Video delights in breathing new life into exploitation flicks that long ago were given up for dead. Cannibal Ferox and Nico Mastorakis’ similarly unappetizing Island of Death have plenty of things in common, including material their creators’ refuse to defend in newly recorded interviews. Nearly 40 years after it debuted in Greece, Mastorakis admits to having been inspired to make Island of Death (one of its many different aliases) by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s performance at the international box office. The Athens TV personality vowed to make a movie even more violent and sexually perverse than Tobe Hooper’s splatter classic for the same reason as Hollywood hacks churn out crappy sequels to crappy movies: drachmas. That said, it’s not for nothing that Island of Death and Cannibal Ferox became hot properties on the underground cassette exchange. Here, the carnage occurs on the famously sunny Greek island of Mykonos, known for its party-hearty nightlife and quaint laid-back village vibes. At first glance, Christopher and Celia (Robert Behling, Jane Lyle) seem no different than tens of thousands of other tourists who arrive by boat every day, between May and September. Within hours, though, they’re back to committing the crimes that put them on the lam in the first place. In addition to the hyper-violent murders he commits, Christopher finds plenty of opportunities to spice his sex life with bestiality, water sports and incest. Blond bombshell Celia isn’t averse to using her charms to arrange hookups for Christopher, photograph his crimes and fake an interest in girl-girl action when its suits him. Inconveniently, they aren’t alone on the island when it comes to acting out their worst instincts. Among the writer/director’s more interesting artistic conceits was setting some of the bloodiest violence in broad daylight and in direct contrast to the vividly white buildings and turquoise sea. The other thing the Arrow package shares with the Grindhouse title is a bonus package that vastly overcompensates for the bad taste left by the movies. Mastorakis doesn’t hesitate to remind us of grindhouse credits that include Death Has Blue Eyes, Terminal Exposure and Death Street USA, along with such quasi-mainstream efforts as Blind Date (Kirstie Alley, Joseph Bottoms), Hired to Kill (Oliver Reed, George Kennedy) and the Next One (Keir Dullea, Adrienne Barbeau). In addition to a lengthy interview and verbal self-portrait, Mastorakis returns to the island to show us how little things have changed since the mid-1970s.

Rape/revenge fantasies have been a staple of Japanese exploitation fare for most of the last 50 years. Sexual violence also was exploited in such Western hits as Death Wish, Billy Jack, Straw Dogs, Mad Max and, yes, Deliverance. In these films, the rapes of female characters (and one hapless male) are avenged by men who take the law into their own hands. In Japan, however, it’s generally left to the women and her friends to exact revenge. That’s because, until recently, women had more to lose by admitting to being raped – and, effectively, devalued in a male-dominated society — than the men who forced themselves on them. (Murder was, of course, a far rarer occurrence in Japan.) According to UK film historian Colette Balmain, in the Introduction to her book, “Japanese Horror Film,” “Rape in Japanese society has not been considered a crime until recently. This attitude lies in the Japanese ideal of female obedience and submission that sees the woman as to be blamed for the violent expression of male desire. … Rape becomes a sexless act of cruelty committed on the woman’s body, whose main role is to re-establish the power relationship (domination-submission) between men and women.” It explains why police and the courts aren’t key forces for justice in such films as Lipstick and Weekend from Troma Entertainment’s tellingly titled From Asia With Lust series. Here, however, female protagonists are allowed not only to resist violent advances and groping by men, but also to feel newly empowered by exacting their own justice. The presence in both movies of “adult superstar” Miyuki Yokoyama adds a level of titillation that helps viewers overlook the criminal nature of vigilantism and suggests that it takes a more hardened or even more worldly sort of female protagonist than those women who have had to accept being groped on crowded subway trains and buses as just another manifestation of the male prerogative. It shines a different light on how we, in the West, view exploitation films from other cultures.

Sword of Vengeance: Blu-ray
First-time director Jim Weedon’s Sword of Vengeance may be set in the north of England in the 11th Century, but, if you alter the accents and re-conceptualize the clothing worn by the Saxon and Norman warriors, what’s left is a samurai revenge flick. That the mysterious warrior who rides in to save the peasants also resembles Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s “man with no name” trilogy gives Sword of Vengeance another handle for American audiences to grasp. Hunky Stanley Weber (“Borgia”) plays Shadow Walker, a freedman with a grudge against the Norman family exploiting local farmers in the name of power, greed and a reign of terror referred to as the Harrowing. The Saxon peasants won’t learn until much later what exactly the stranger has against the powerful warlord, but it’s enough to know that he’s on their side. It’s fun to watch Shadow Walker shape the farmers – men, women and children — into a formidable fighting force, capable of using military and guerrilla tactics that might still work today. As a member of the creative team responsible for the Viking actioners, Hammer of the Gods and Valhalla Rising, writer/producer Matthew Read probably could craft a terrific period video game out of expertise on the subject. As it is, Sword of Vengeance is less interested in creating a historical drama than a royal rumble in the mud, with pissed-off peasants dressed to kill and seemingly invincible Norman soldiers in uniforms from the Darth Vader Collection. Visually, the foreboding skies and murky surfaces give Weedon’s film a graphic-novel texture that should delight young men and boys addicted to heavy-metal action. Those looking for a lesson in ancient British history, however, may want to stick to PBS and the BBC. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Weedon and producers Rupert Preston and Huberta Von Liel, and a short behind-the-scenes featurette.

Let Us Prey: Blu-ray
I have to assume that Irish director Brian O’Malley and co-writer David Cairns intentionally chose “p-r-e-y,” instead of “p-r-a-y,” for the title of their first feature. Book publishers play fast and loose with homonyms and homophones all the time, if only to catch the eye of grammarians, copy editors and English teachers, all of whom are considered to be primary consumers of mysteries. With thousands of virtually indistinguishable thrillers, chillers and whodunits released each years, anything that draws attention to a title can help boost sales. The same applies in the DVD arena. Let Us Prey needs all the help it can get to reach an audience of paying customers, not because it isn’t very good, but because it’s just one more tree in a large and dense forest. O’Malley admits to owing a debt of gratitude to John Carpenter, whose Assault on Precinct 13 is indirectly referenced in Let Us Prey. Steve Lynch’s evocative musical soundtrack also reflects Carpenter’s style. Here, Pollyanna McIntosh is convincing as a rookie cop, Rachel Heggie, whose first assignment is in a small town jail staffed by police jaded by time and experience. Rachel’s determination to play by the rules is tested on the night shift by both her fellow cops and the prisoners. In fact, the prisoner named Six (Liam Cunningham) is holding everyone in the building hostage. He had been arrested earlier in the evening, less as a suspect in a killing than for a being a mysterious stranger in a small town and somehow surviving a head-on collision with a speeding automobile. The driver of the car is cooling his heels in a cell next to Six and a couple of men booked on serious charges. In addition to being able to make wooden matches levitate, Six is able to get inside the heads of everyone in the building and torture them with memories of their misdeeds and wicked fantasies. Rachel, alone, appears to be without blemish, but her connection with Six is even more profound. The resulting mayhem is predictably gory and explosive, but not without a certain visual aesthetic.

Madman: Blu-ray
The Food of the Gods/Frogs: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Empire of the Ants/Jaws of Satan: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Urban legends, hazing rituals and campfire stories are to the horror genre what Grimm’s Fairy Tales are to Disney and other purveyors of family entertainment: time-honored and completely free sources of exploitable material. The Burning and Madman, made almost simultaneously in the Golden Age of Slasher Flicks, both were inspired by the reliably scary “Tale of the Cropsey Maniac,” whose retelling became an annual ritual at summer camps in and around New Jersey and upstate New York. Only The Burning was able to directly refer to the camp caretaker, Cropsy (no “e”), whose face was badly disfigured in a prank and has vowed to punish those responsible, as well as naughty boys and girls who wander too far away from the nightly campfires. In Joe Giannone and Gary Sales’ cult-favorite, Cropsey has mutated into Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers), who resembles the late, great wrestler Haystacks Calhoun, but whose name recalls the mid-century TV pitchman, Earl William “Madman” Muntz. Otherwise, it relies on the same slasher formula that wore out its welcome by 1986. The remarkable thing about Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray re-release is a bonus package that would put most Criterion Collection offerings to shame. Besides a short introduction by co-writer/producer Gary Sales, there are a pair of commentary tracks, one with Sales, Ehlers and the late Joe Giannone and actor Tony Fish, and the other with the podcasters known collectively as The Hysteria Continues; featurettes “Madman: Alive at 35,” “The Early Career of Gary Sales” and the 92-minute “The Legend Still Lives,” made in 2011; a stills and artwork gallery; “Music Inspired by ‘Madman’,” which highlights fan submissions that utilize the picture’s atmosphere to fuel grim lyrics; “In Memoriam,” during which Sales  discusses the work of Giannone, Tony Fish and actor Carl Fredericks, who died in 2012; a couple of Dead Pit interviews from a 2008 horror convention; and promotional clips.

Just before the tidal wave of slasher and splatter flicks came to dominate the drive-in scene in 1980, the kind of sci-fi/horror movies that Japanese filmmakers stopped making in the 1950s suddenly began popping up on screens across the U.S. Just as Rodan and Mothra spoke to the residual effects of radioactive fallout from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American filmmakers created creatures mutated from carelessly discarded toxic and nuclear waste and chemicals that found their way into the food chain or ground water. Released in 1972, Frogs did for amphibians and reptiles what Birds did for birds, a decade earlier. It also reflected the success of Willard, in which a social misfit deploys an army of rats on his tormentors. The casting of Ray Milland as a millionaire who poisons wildlife on his private island lent an air of credibility to a story that could easily have been dismissed as a mere novelty. The geezer invites his family to his estate for a birthday celebration, not anticipating that the island’s frogs, snakes, bugs, Gila monsters and other creepy crawlers have picked the same occasion to exact revenge on him. Look for very early appearances by Sam Elliott and Joan Van Ark, who adds her recollections to the bonus featurette. The other half of the double-bill is the H.G. Wells-inspired The Food of the Gods, from 1976, in which a group of football players who use their week off to go hunting on an island in the Pacific Northwest – or, if you’re Canadian, the Pacific Southwest – where they become the prey for giant wasps, chickens, worms and rats. The mutations are caused by a mysterious substance that is oozing from the ground and is too tempting for the critters to avoid. Besides the backsliding evangelist, Marjoe Gortner, it stars Ida Lupino, Ralph Meeker, Pamela Franklin and Jon Cypher.

Empire of the Ants would be worth the price of admission, if only to watch a sleazy land developer played by Joan Collins – just slightly past her prime, but still a babe – being attacked by giant ants. Like The Food of the Gods, the low-budget sci-fi/horror hybrid was adapted from an H.G. Wells story by genre specialist Bert I. Gordon. The Wisconsin native holds the distinction of having the most movies shown on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Here, a group of investors has been lured to south Florida by one of those all-expenses-paid come-ons that are never worth the price of a free ticket. As it turns out, the development has been polluted by radioactive waste that’s been leaking from barrels that have been dropped into the waters off of the Everglades. Voila, the island’s ants have grown to the size of bugs of the Volkswagen variety. After a harrowing escape through the swamps, the investors discover an even more sinister scheme than Collins’ land deal. None of Empire of the Ants is terribly convincing or compelling, but it is of a piece with other AIP drive-in fare of the period. The second half of this double-feature is Bob Claver’s 1981 thriller, Jaws of Satan (a.k.a., “King Cobra”), a title, at least, that combines two of the most prominent themes of the past decade. Here, a Southern town is being plagued by unusually aggressive snakes, which display traits associated with cobras, rattlesnakes and copperheads. Satan has mobilized the local serpent population against a priest who’s inherited an ancient Druid curse and it’s up to Fritz Weaver, Gretchen Corbett, Jon Korkes and a 10-year-old Christina Applegate to stop the plague before a new dog-racing facility opens or the Apocalypse. The Scream Factory upgrade makes the movies easier to watch than they might have been on “MSTK3” or matinee revivals.

Blood Slaughter Massacre
#EM3: Eenie Meenie Miney Moe
Valley of the Cycle Sluts
Camp Massacre
Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan
Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead
Smokey and the Hotwire Gang
At a time when even the most familiar names in Hollywood are forced to watch their movies going straight to DVD/VOD/Blu-ray, the path to distribution has grown even narrower for filmmakers trying to catch a break with an off-brand company willing to take a chance on something new. Even then, if it weren’t for the niche websites that focus on genre products, cash-strapped artists and executives would find it next to impossible to find the right audiences for their films. Last week, the New York Times announced that it no longer would feel obligated to review every movie that opens in a theater between New Jersey and Connecticut. The problem comes down to the limited amount of money budgeted for freelance critics and reductions in the space allotted for reviews each Friday. I can see the Times’ point, considering the number of movies given limited runs in one city or two, before being shipped to the after-market, preferably with a few kind words lifted from an otherwise lukewarm review. The other issue brought up by critics of the new policy is the likelihood that faith-based and family-friendly titles, exhibited in theaters leased by backers for a week or more, can be even easier to ignore than in the past. Technically, God’s Not Dead wouldn’t qualify for inclusion, even though it grossed more than six times its $9.2-million production budget in leased runs. On the other hand, the benefits of a New York Times review for certain niche titles – especially one likely to be negative – probably aren’t what they once were.

The retro splatter thriller Blood Slaughter Massacre was screened in the Big Apple last week, ahead of its release on DVD. I couldn’t find a review in any mainstream outlet, despite the interesting story behind it … just as well. Manny Serrano and co-writer Louie Cortes’ movie originated as a series of faux trailers for 1980s-vintage horror flicks. When combined, the trailers practically tell the entire story of a movie that’s waiting to be made. After screening the series at a short-film competition at the Saturday Nightmares Convention, in New Jersey, Serrano and Cortes were approached by the founder of the New York City Horror Film Festival, the late Michael J. Hein, who encouraged them to expand the idea into a feature and put them together with the production company, Mass Grave Pictures. It has since been released by Wild Eye. “BSM” adheres to all the basic rules governing slasher films in the Golden Age, especially the one about having no pity for girls who show their titties. The opening flashes us back to a party, 10 years earlier, during which several teenagers were brutally murdered by a fiend in an ill-fitting mask. The killer escaped justice and the incident was covered up by local authorities. Flash forward to the present and the same two cops who were called to investigate a noise complaint at the house where the party was being held recognize signs that the same killer is back. No genre troupe is ignored or cliché avoided in advancing a story that wallows in blood and gore. Clearly, the filmmakers are big fans of the classics and expect viewers to be similarly inclined. The DVD adds commentary, deleted scenes and the original short films.

Jokes Yanes’ fast and sexy #EM3: Eenie Meenie Miney Moe is another movie that’s destined to get lost in the shuffle of straight-to-DVD releases that kinda-sorta resemble each other and whose stars wouldn’t be recognized by anyone outside their hometowns. That would be too bad, because it captures the sounds, rhythm and color palette of Miami in ways rarely achieved by filmmakers who parachute into southern Florida every now and again, and split back for Cali a half-hour after the Martini Shot is slated. And, yes, all of the usual touchstones of Miami nightlife are covered: drugs, discos, guns and insanely hot guys and gals. The common denominator is the hustle … and the horror of watching young lives destroyed by things they couldn’t have seen coming. One of the protagonists’ hustle is using his company’s tow truck at night to hook up expensive cars and take them to chop shops, but not before he strips it of everything that’s loose and valuable; an underage teenage girl is living the fast life with a dealer; her brother would take the guy out in a second, if he wasn’t working on a hustle with the Russian mob and didn’t need the aggravation; and they’re not alone. Everything begins to congeal when the truck driver steals a bag of pills from a sports car and, assuming they’re Ecstasy, begin peddling them around town. The results couldn’t be more devastating if Jack the Ripper had moved into the same South Beach apartment building as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The EDM soundtrack keeps things from slowing down even a little bit.

Most of the actors in Valley of the Cycle Sluts (a.k.a., “Death Riders,” “The Bandits”) look as if they had been recruited from prisons, biker bars and strip clubs and were being paid in beer, gasoline and free tickets to a David Allan Coe concert, in lieu of cash. Instead of having to depend on early morning wake-up calls to round up cast and crew, the PA’s simply waited for taverns to close and taunted the bikers into chasing him to the location of the shoot. They didn’t even have to change clothes. Sleaze veteran Jason Williams plays Wade Olson, an undercover cop, who, after humiliating a couple of street-level smack peddlers, is kidnapped by a gang of biker babes. Once in the desert, they stake him to the ground and force him to watch them strip to down to their Frederick’s of Hollywood Outlet Store skivvies and pierced nipples. The first woman who gives him a hard-on, without using her hands, gets to kill him. Most men are capable of getting aroused looking at a nurse’s ankles, while on a metal table waiting for a colonoscopy, but not this guy. Later, after Olson is allowed to escape, we’re treated to the sight of women in garter belts, stockings and teddies running after him in the desert. It’s a tiny bit sexy, but only in the most perverse sort of way possible.

Someone had to make a horror movie in which contestants in television weight-loss competition are killed off one-by-one, possibly to improve the odds of one or more of them winning the million-dollar first prize. Most of them would have died in the course of the competition, anyway, but where’s the fun in merely watching nature takes its course? In John Waters’ hands, Camp Massacre (“Fat Chance”) could have been a real hoot. Even the momentary presence of adult-star Bree Olson, wrestler Al Snow and “ghost hunter” Scott Tepperman could save this big glob of fat.

In Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan, pirate Captain Zachariah Zicari somehow finds himself on the banks of the Ohio River, circa 1714, where he saved settlers on the American frontier from unleashing the forces of hell. Captain Z accomplished this by preventing a group of she-demons from unleashing the force of a powerful amulet that would have released something called the Leviathan. Three hundred years later, the amulet is discovered in the river by a bunch of hillbillies who believe that it could fetch a fortune on e-bay or “Antiques Roadshow,” simply for its gold content. Instead, they’ve summoned the spirit of Captain Z, who resembles a cross between Captain Morgan and Jack Sparrow. Meanwhile, the staff of the local after-work hangout begins to act as if it’s being taken over by Red Lobster. The whole thing smacks of “Amateur Night in Dixie,” but, then, that much is clear from the cover art.

If you don’t dig writer/co-director Richard Griffin’s latest low-budget horror chiller, it’s not because Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead (a.k.a., “Dr. Frankenstein’s Wax Museum of the Hungry Dead”) is the work of an amateur intending to go pro. He’s already made a dozen-plus features of varying quality, including Pretty Dead Things, The Sins of Dracula. The Disco Exorcist and a few other titles I may or may not have reviewed. I’m guessing that “Hungry Dead” is the closest Griffin’s come to a traditional horror in a long while. A group of wise-ass students pay a visit to a wax museum one afternoon as part of a class outing. Some decide to come back at night for a wee bit of hanky-panky, not knowing that the museum’s owner is related to the original Dr. Victor Frankenstein had he’s inherited some of the family DNA. Just when the kids think they’re alone, safe and ready to party, the monsters come out to play. No one could mistake it for a Universal or Hammer classic, but it’s a movie and, in the end, that’s all that counts.

Anthony Cardoza’s Smokey and the Hotwire Gang is so old it should come with a razor to cut the gray hairs from the beards of the car nuts who can remember the last time a gallon of gas cost less than a dollar and CB radios were flying off the shelves of Radio Shack … soon to be a memory, itself. I’d be lying if I said that I was able to follow the narrative of this Smokey and the Bandit wannabe, beyond the presence of big rigs, truck stops, citizens-band radio and busty waitresses. At one point, I mistook legendary car customizer George Barris for porn star Ron Jeremy, who also was active in 1979. He plays a supporting role as a car buff whose van is stolen and used in an armored car robbery. Like Bert I. Gordon (Food of the Gods), Cardoza was a frequent contributor to “MST3K,” as an actor in Ed Wood’s Night of the Ghouls and Coleman Francis’ The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), The Skydivers (1963), Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966) and The Hellcats (1968).

The Saint: The Complete Series
The Nanny: The Complete Series
The Wonder Years: Season Three
The big news on the TV front this week is Timeless Media Group’s release of all 118 episodes of “The Saint” for the first time on DVD. For those keeping score at home, that translates to 5,660 minutes of material on 33 discs. The ITC series starred Roger Moore, whose debonair and practically unflappable screen persona had already been cemented in such series as “Ivanhoe,” “The Alaskans” and “Maverick,” as cousin Beauregarde Maverick, before the British launch of “The Saint,” in 1962. The first two black-and-white seasons were shown here in syndication, before the show was picked up by NBC for its prime-time schedule. The show’s protagonist, Simon Templar, was created in 1928 by British-American author Leslie Charteris, who also deployed the character in novellas, short stories, a long-running comic strip and movies, tackling television. Although “The Saint” was listed alongside such spy series as “The Avengers,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Danger Man,” “I Spy” and “Get Smart,” Templar was considered to be more in line with Robin Hood, in that he preferred returning stolen money to its rightful owners than toppling evil regimes. Like Richard Boone’s Palidin, in “Have Gun – Will Travel,” Templar was a ladies’ man conversant in politics, current events and the arts. He was no more required to remain in London than Paladin was limited to taking job in the Bay Area. Look for guest star appearances by Oliver Reed, Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Edward Woodward (“The Equalizer”) and such Bondian beauties as Honor Blackman, Shirley Eaton and Lois Maxwell). Moore’s decision to remain active in the production of “The Saint” and other TV projects, effectively pushed his move to the James Bond series until 1973.

To describe Fran Drescher’s voice as merely being nasal is to completely miss the point of what made the Queens native one of the most popular of all 1990s sitcom stars. Neither does it explain why so many aurally sensitive viewers, like me, would no more tune into “The Nanny” than they would entice a flock of magpies to nest in that big shade tree in their back yards. I was reminded of this phobia while sampling select episodes of the show in Shout! Factory’s “The Nanny: The Complete Series.” Nevertheless, there’s no arguing with success and that exactly what “The Nanny” was for CBS from 1993 to 1999. The show was the brainchild of Drescher and her then-husband Peter Jacobson. While on a trans-Atlantic flight between New York and London, Drescher sat alongside top network executive Jeff Sagansky, for whom she had starred in the short-lived “Princesses.” After some gentle nasal persuasion, he agreed to let her and Jacobson pitch to an idea for a sitcom to CBS. While in London, visiting Twiggy Lawson, Drescher refined her pitch to a spin on “The Sound of Music,” but, “Instead of Julie Andrews, I come to the door as Fran Fine.” The doorstep belonged to Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), who was looking for a nanny for his daughter. The contrast between the WASP-y Brit and the loud and impulsive Jewish gal from Queens proved irresistible to viewers, who already anticipated that the friction between them someday would soften and turn to love. The DVD set includes the pilot episode, with commentary my Fran Drescher, along with commentaries on “Imaginary Friend” and “I Don’t Remember”; a background featurette, “The Making of the Nanny”; and reunion special.

Also new from Shout! Factory is “The Wonder Years: Season Three.” The four-disc DVD set contains all 23 episodes of the show’s third season and features songs from the original broadcasts by the Jackson 5, Paul Simon, The Who, Elton John, The Beach Boys, Diana Ross, The Righteous Brothers, James Taylor, The Byrds, Jackie Wilson and James Brown.Bonus extras include a roundtable discussion with Danica McKellar, Fred Savage and Josh Saviano; the featurette “A Family Affair: At Home With the Arnolds”; and interviews with several cast members.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon