MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Holiday Horror Gift Guide: Midsommar, NEKRomantik, Malvolence, Hill House, Killer Sofa, Devil’s Revenge, Killer Nun, Drone, China Beach, MSTK3 … More

Parents and other adults have usurped Halloween as their own holiday of choice, leaving kids to fend for themselves. Trick ‘r Treat candy has been on sale since the waning hours of the Labor Day weekend and television networks – including PBS and TCM – have a staged a non-stop marathon of scary movies for almost that long. Even so, plenty of room is left on niche networks for films that remain taboo on mainstream outlets. Streaming services have loosened the barriers even further.  Some of the pictures available this Halloween season are so shocking they should come with barf bags. I’ve compiled a list of movies and TV mini-series that could be considered inappropriate for viewing during any month, except October. This doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining on their merits, or they “go too far,” just that they shouldn’t be shared with the kiddies or easily disturbed grown-ups. Happy Halloween.

Midsommar: Blu-ray
In the follow-up to his suspenseful and frequently recommended debut feature, Hereditary (2018), New Yorker Ari Aster proves here that he had a few more cards up his sleeve. There’s almost nothing more difficult for a young writer/director of horror to do than repeat the success of a commercially and critically successful hit. Unlike Hereditary, Midsommar doesn’t rely on mental illness, ghosts and other phenomenon to frighten viewers. In fact, for most of its 147-minute length, Midsommar more closely resembles “Brigadoon” than such classics as The Wicker Man (1972) or The Last House on the Left (1973), to which Aster also owes debts of gratitude. Although it didn’t duplicate the same lofty numbers as Hereditary, it scored nearly the same Metacritic score and probably returned a decent profit. What made Midsommar’s theatrical run different, as well, was a marketing strategy that pushed the need-to-see meter to new heights. Viewers were told to expect graphic violence, perverse sexuality and nightmarish images that didn’t rely on jump scares and special makeup effects. It forced audiences to consider the possibility that pagan rituals are still practiced today, by people who could be their friends and neighbors. Neither did Midsommar feature a pair of lead actors as recognizable as Hereditary’s Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne. Instead,  future stars Florence Pugh (“The Little Drummer Girl”) and Jack Reynor (Detroit) were asked to shoulder most of the load, which they did, admirably.

Here, a group of anthropology students from America is invited to spend a few days in northern Sweden, at the rural commune known only to one of the young men. The visit corresponds with the Midsummer period historically observed in northern Europe by pagans and Christians, alike, at the June solstice. The celebrations have been traced back to the Stone Age. More recently, the tradition of lighting festive fires upon St. John’s Eve was first recorded as a popular custom by 12th Century French liturgist Jean Belethus, a theologian at the University of Paris. (What, you thought it was the invention of William Shakespeare or Hugh Hefner?) Although Pugh’s emotionally fragile Dani isn’t a graduate student, she insists on joining her boyfriend, Christian, on the trip to the Arctic Circle, in Sweden. What could go wrong? After hiking through a thick border of trees and bushes, the forest opens into a meadow, where a group of women, men and children – wearing clothes you’d expect to find in shops and restaurants in Solvang, a Scandinavian enclave near Santa Barbara – suddenly appears, from out of nowhere. In fact, the students were invited to witness and participate in a nine-day neo-pagan celebration that occurs there with the same frequency as Haley’s comet. They’ll learn that the highlight of the festival is a fertility rite conducted to ensure a 90-year cycle of life. For the students, it literally offers an opportunity to observe a once-in-a-lifetime sociological event.

As the days pass and the foreigners become assimilated into the commune’s customs, it becomes increasingly apparent that they’ve put themselves in the hands of a cult that requires fresh male blood to ensure that the young women, who’ve just come of age, are pregnant when the festivities end. In fact, the teenagers are allowed to choose from among their peers — the anthropology students, too – the young man with whom they’ll share the communal fertility ritual. It sounds as if it might be more fun than it actually is. To Dani’s shock and Christian’s dismay, the couple is separated by the elders. They’ve already observed what happens to the oldest members of the clan, when they’ve outlived their usefulness to the clan and it’s their turn to fulfill the ancient prophesies. While mandated from birth and seemingly voluntary, the ritual suicides aren’t for the faint of heart or stomach. It’s tough stuff that portends worse things to come, in advance of the fertility ritual. Naturally, there will be other sacrifices, which date back to medieval times and include wild animals. Some occur off-screen, while others are sickeningly depicted for all to see. Even when the worst of the worst occurs, the communards don’t appear to be all that bloodthirsty. That may be the scariest thing about the movie.  Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Hereditary) do a fine job making Hungarian locations resemble similar settings in northern Sweden, while the special-effects could hardly look more realistic. Special features include “Let the Festivities Begin: Manifesting Midsommar” and deceptively whimsical, “Bear in a Cage” promo.

NEKRomantik 1 & 2: Blu-ray
Nekromantix: 3 Decades of Darkle: Blu-ray
How many of your friends at school or the office would you guess are dressing up for the annual Halloween monster mash as necrophiliacs or ghouls? Not as many as those pretending to be zombies, vampires, ghosts or jokers. The only reason I can imagine for imitating such loathsome fiends would be to extend the experience of watching NEKRomantik (1987) and NEKRomantik 2 (1991), which have been repackaged since the 2016 release of “Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jörg Buttgereit,” on Blu-ray. Most people wouldn’t recognize a necrophiliac if he or she was strolling through a cemetery with a shovel or caught humping an inert body in a morgue. So, the reveler might need to drag their date to the festivities, like a freshly unearthed corpse or sack of potatoes. In the 1988 original, a member of a crew of men, who clean up after grisly highway mishaps, decides to surprise his like-minded wife by bringing home the putrefied corpse of an accident victim. In her mind, the gift might as well have been a bouquet of flowers for their anniversary. They’ll use the stiff for their mutual sexual gratification and, perhaps, the occasional snack. Betty (Beatrice Manowski) appreciates the gesture, of course, but begins to pull away after Rob (Bernd Daktari Lorenz) announces that he’s lost his job for paying too much attention to the roadkill. Upset that  her source of income has dried up, Betty decides to leave home and take the corpse with her. It leaves Rob high, dry, horny and dead. He’ll return in the sequel, NEKRomantiik 2, but only after his body has been disinterred by another beautiful necrophiliac, Monika M. (Monika), a nurse who’s familiar with his story. While in possession of Rob’s body, Monika attempts to maintain a relationship with a live boyfriend, Mark (Mark Reeder), who over-dubs the grunts of ecstasy heard during sex scenes in porn films. He isn’t interested in her sexual proclivities, but she thinks enough about him to dismember the corpse and re-bury it. It’s about this time in the picture that Betty decides to return home, if only to rekindle her dream of becoming a chanteuse. I doubt that many viewers will get past the televised dissection of a seal that died in the local zoo. Mark didn’t, and this comes as a massive bummer for Monika. NEKRomantik 2 benefits from far better production values, while keeping viewers at arm’s length by setting up situations that are obviously played for laughs. It isn’t as if many people got to watch it, though. Buttgereit wasn’t pleased with German censors when NEKRomantik was set to be released, but he decided to out-do its excesses in the sequel, anyway. This time, however, the government decided the ban the movie outright and, in a move Buttgereit didn’t anticipate, confiscate all prints. Fortunately, he kept the camera negative hidden and, years later, used it to create the Blu-ray edition. I’m not sure I blame the cops who confiscated prints of the horrifying film, because it must have seemed to them if it was produced in hell by Satan, himself. It returns to circulation in a new slipcase package, containing a flock of supplements, including shorts and interviews. Anyone who bought the previous Blu-ray release or compilation should compare them against this release.

Also newly available in a combo pack is “Nekromantix: 3 Decades of Darkle,” which would appear to be a companion piece to the above-mentioned films … but isn’t. Not to put too fine a point on it, though, the Danish/American ensemble’s combination of Psychobilly and Death Metal sounds as if it were directly inspired by NEKRomantik. In a word, the music is ferocious. Filmed in 2019, at the Observatory Theater in Santa Ana, it was directed by Vicente Cordero (Room 37: The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders). One of the things that distinguishes Nekromantix from a million other metal bands is the Halloween-themed instruments, including a double-bass shaped like a coffin.

Malevolence: Blu-ray
Malevolence 2: Bereavement: Blu-ray
Malevolence 3: Killer: Blu-ray
I may not be the most knowledgeable or ardent follower of modern horror – at least, those films that require hyphens to convey their place in the genre – but I’ve become accustomed to the violence and recognize most of its tropes and conventions. That doesn’t mean I can’t be rattled by the necrophilia in NEKRomantik or the pagan rituals in Midsommar. Like so many tried-and-true fans, however, I’ve found it difficult to get excited over the obligatory sequels and prequels to classics that lost their ability to shock 30 years ago. Or, maybe, that’s just me. When the first chapter in Stevan Mena’s Malevolence trilogy opened in 2004, mainstream critics could be forgiven for their lukewarm response to it. They recognized references to such venerable bogeymen as Leatherman (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th), Michael Myers (Halloween) and Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street), while acknowledging Mena’s budding talent as a stager and storyteller. Niche critics, though, picked up on Mena’s potential for future glory and skills as a multihyphenate. Malevolence’s scares were well earned, and it was easy to sense that a freshly minted monster had arrived on the scene. That Malevolence would become a trilogy was something only Mena could anticipate, even if he didn’t know how difficult and strung-out the process would be.

In fact, Part I opens at the precise point where the sequel, Malevolence 2 (2010) should have begun. That’s because, in Mena’s mind, the only way a trilogy could work was if the origin story, Bereavement – as “M2” was titled, at the time – came first. It’s entirely possible, though, that Mena’s timetable was altered by financial realities. As tight as its production budget was, “M1” failed to make back its nut. The new distributor decided to drop “Malevolence” from the working title, Malevolence 2: Bereavement,” and slap a photo of Alexandra Daddario in a “wife-beater” shirt on the posters. Once again, niche critics managed to find it and advised their readers to check it out. Still, plans for the straight-to-video Malevolence 3: Killer were made contingent on a successful crowd-sourcing campaign. Released in 2018, it fulfilled Mena’s hopes for a true triquel, which could be compiled and viewed accordingly.

Bereavement opens in 1989, when 6-year-old Martin Bristoll is kidnapped by the psychotic recluse Graham Sutter (Brett Rickaby), while playing on a swing set at his home in Minersville, Pennsylvania. He’s taken to the serial killer’s lair – an abandoned meat-packing plant – where other victims have been hung from hooks, tortured and slaughtered. Sutter has spared the boy, for one of two reasons: he’s take a paternal interest in Martin’s development, or he’s fascinated by his congenital insensitivity to pain and extreme temperatures, due to  a rare neural disorder. Sutter forces him to witness and participate in unspeakable horrors, and his victims’ screams are drowned out by the rural countryside. Five years later, the stubborn 17-year-old Allison Miller (Daddario) is forced to move to Minersville after the death of her parents. Because her protective uncle and aunt live near the killer’s property, and Allison insists on jogging past it every day, we worry about her safety from Day One. She befriends a teenage boy (Nolan Gerard Funk), who, while a crack mechanic, suffers from the verbal abuse of his alcoholic father (John Savage). The girl’s parents don’t think much of her new friend, either. On her runs, Allison spies the kidnapped boy, staring out at the world from a broken window. If he had wanted to escape, he probably could have done so, by now. When she informs the police and FBI, they couldn’t possibly have imagined what lay in story for them. A bloodbath ensues, leaving almost all of the characters dead. Guess who escapes?

Malevolence, the intended sequel, depicts what happens when a motley crew of young bank robbers takes shelter from the law in an abandoned house on the outskirts of town, unaware that it doubles as the torture chamber of the man who abducted Bristoll, now 16, and was so seriously damaged by what he’s witnessed in the interim that he kills his mentor and assumes his identity. Inside the “safe house,” one of the robbers, Kurt, uses some of the implements he finds in the basement to constrain his own prisoner, a single mom, Samantha Harrison (Samantha Dark), who, hours earlier was cheering her daughter’s Little League game. When her daughter, Courtney, manages to free herself from the duct-tape handcuffs, she makes a beeline for a seemingly abandoned farm. In his attempt to re-capture the girl, Kurt stashes the stolen money in the van and follows Courtney to her presumed hiding place. Before he can find and kill her, however, Kurt is hit on the head with a metal pulley and stabbed to death by an unseen assailant. Meanwhile, Kurt’s two surviving accomplices have arrived at the safe house. Julian attempts to locate Kurt and the stolen money, while Marilyn watches Samantha. Bristoll, disguised as Kurt, pulls the female robber into the dining room and dissects her. When Julian returns, he frees Samantha from a closet and goes off with her to find Courtney. One thing leads to another and Julian will be shot by cops, before he can drop his weapon; Samantha and Courtney are rescued; and Martin vanishes into the night. The mystery of the stolen money goes unsolved, as well.

In Malevolence 3: Killer, almost no time has transpired since the massacre at the safehouse and farm, where a dozen more rotting bodies are found, including that of Graham Sutter. Special Agent Perkins (Kevin McKelvey), from “MI,” has been tasked with the responsibility of informing Martin’s family, which has been mourning the excitable boy’s disappearance for more than 10 years, that he not only is alive, but clearly responsible for the wave of murders sweeping through their town. In a nice touch, Adrienne Barbeau, is introduced here as his tart and combative grandmother, and Ashley Wolfe returns as his mother. Perkins warns them of the likelihood that Martin will return to the house, from which he was kidnaped, and that he will be unrecognizable as a human, with a beating heart and conscience. That he bears a closer resemblance to Jack the Ripper than the boy last seen playing in their backyard 10 years earlier. In the meantime, he has other fish to fry, If those scenarios sound overly familiar, fans of such extreme material should know that Mena’s control of everything from the direction and writing, to the cinematography (in the finale), editing and music, demonstrates a reverence for the genre, and the chops to pull it off on microscopic budgets. “Killer” may have been released straight to video, but its production values, alone, warranted some kind of theatrical outing. Features on all three discs include interviews, making-of pieces, photo galleries and commentary.

The Haunting of Hill House: Extended Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
Among other accolades earned during its first season on Netflix, “The Haunting of Hill House” won Fangoria’s Chainsaw Award for Best Series. I don’t know it’s as prestigious as, say, a Saturn Award, for which it was accorded five nominations, winning one, but it also was nominated by the Writers Guild of America and Art Directors Guild, which are. That has to count for something. In its second season, scheduled for 2020, the series will be re-branded, “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” and be based on Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw.” How much that programming strategy was influenced by the success of FX’s “American Horror Story” is anyone’s guess, but that horror anthology series has already been renewed for a 10th season. “Hill House” is loosely based on the 1959 novel of the same title by Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”). It was nominated for a National Book Award and named to the New York Times Book Review’s “Best Fiction of 1959.” The premise behind “Hill House” should be familiar to anyone who’s watched a movie or TV series, featuring ghosts occupying a creaky old mansion, in the last 50 years. (Jackson’s novel has been adapted directly into two feature films and a play.) Here, the story begins in the summer of 1992, when Hugh and Olivia Crain and their children move into Hill House, which they hope to renovate and flip, before building their own house, designed by Olivia. Due to unexpected repairs, however, they have to stay longer, leaving themselves open to paranormal phenomena and tragedy. The family flees the haunted mansion. Twenty-six years later, the Crain siblings and their estranged father reunite after tragedy strikes again, and they are forced to confront how their time in Hill House has affected each of them. The plot alternates between two timelines – then and now –with flashbacks reminding viewers of the incidents that left the children traumatized. The ensemble cast features Michiel Huisman, Elizabeth Reaser, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, and Victoria Pedretti as the adult counterparts of the siblings; Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas, as parents Olivia and Hugh Crain; and Timothy Hutton, as an older version of Hugh. Reaser plays the oldest daughter, who now owns a mortuary with her husband, Kevin. She gets the ball rolling, by insisting on embalming her recently deceased sister, Nell, and encountering a ghost of someone from her past during the process. The package is enhanced with three extended director’s-cut episodes, featuring never-before-seen footage, and four commentaries from creator/director Mike Flanagan (Oculus).

Killer Sofa
This thoroughly off-the-wall thriller from New Zealand may end up being the surprise catch of the Halloween season. With a title that in two words gives away too much of the story and still leaves plenty to the imagination, Killer Sofa offers thrills that are both cheap and well earned. If the shark-toothed recliner pictured on the cover of the DVD suggests that the antagonist sits around the showroom of a furniture store, like a plushily upholstered Venus Flytrap, you’d be wrong. In reality, it looks more like the plush toys available in the gift shops at any zoo or theme park. Neither does it possess teeth. Its targets are selected well in advance and it has the amazing ability to get around town on its own four legs. The chair is possessed by the spirit of a sexy dancer’s jilted boyfriend, Frederico, who bequeathed it to her in a will written before he was devoured by the title character. Somehow, it is able to monitor Francesca’s every move from a camera implanted in a button sewn onto the seatback of the lounger. It also directs him to any of the sexy dancer’s friends, who get paid more attention than Frederico ever received. Meanwhile, an oddball rabbi determines that the recliner is a dybbuk that needs to be exorcized. Killer Sofa is more entertaining than it has any right to be, considering the premise, cheesy villain and contrived action. Writer/director Bernie Rao has concentrated on short films for most of the last 20 years, so the adjustment to an 81-minute feature probably didn’t raise much of sweat. Open-minded horror buffs and teenagers are the target audience for this one. If that makes it sound like a family-friendly horror flick, though, it isn’t.

Devil’s Revenge: Blu-ray
Judging solely from the cover art, you’d think that 88-year-old William Shatner (“Star Trek”), 51-year-old Jeri Ryan (“Star Trek: Voyager”) and 53-year-old Jason Brooks (Star Trek) are the only things standing between the good people of Earth and a cabal of demons disguised in costumes borrowed from the rock band, GWAR. The only problem with that first impression comes in learning that the actor who will forever be remembered as Captain James T. Kirk, commander of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise, is in Devil’s Revenge for a grand total of 10 minutes and only a few of them qualify as action packed. The weapon he’s carrying is a throwback to the days of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, or dozens of other Saturday matinees for pre-teen boys in love with ray-guns. Brock plays a struggling archeologist, John, who leads an expedition of cronies to a cave system in rural Kentucky, where he expects to find an ancient relic that has tormented his family for generations. Instead, one of the spelunkers is killed by the demons, who, John assumes, are guardians of the relic. Upon his return, John begins to hallucinate visions of a ferocious bird-like creature from ancient folklore. John knows that the only way to end the fearsome visions is to return to the caves and successfully retrieve the relic. To accomplish this, John recruits his wife (Ryan) and partially estranged father (Shatner), who, in his youth, might have given Indiana Jones a run for his money. After the demons become aware of John and his family’s presence and the threat to the relic, which resembles a fake fireplace log, they put on their costumes and chase the invaders to the mouth of the cave. Conveniently, that’s where dad waits with his super-duper laser shotgun. None of it is terribly convincing, especially the streams of sunlight that somehow find their way to the deepest corners of the cave system, but writer/director Jared Cohn (Halloween Pussy Trap Kill Kill) doesn’t sweat the details here. No matter how silly this makes Devil’s Revenge entertaining, in a nostalgic sort of way. The combo pack includes a CD of the soundtrack.

The Drone
If sofas can be possessed by the forces of evil in this world, why not drones? And, by drones, I don’t mean worker bees who serve their queens in hives or the ones that dads pull out when they require some quality time with their kids or, even, the kind that Amazon Prime will use to deliver packages and gang-bangers will use for target practice. No, the drone on display in The Drone more closely resembles the airborne devices that high-tech pervs deploy to spy on their neighbors or photograph high-rise dwellers getting their freak on, without closing their curtains. One night, early in The Drone, a serial killer cornered by police transfers his consciousness into a consumer drone, which is decked out like a Vietnam War-era helicopter, with razor-sharp propellers. Before the killer can be arrested, the drone is commanded to blow out the windows of his apartment and kill him. During the investigation, one of the detectives grabs the drone and puts it in his car as evidence. It will come as no great surprise to viewers when the gizmo turns itself on and attacks the cop, while he’s driving, causing him to collide with a utility pole. Shortly after the badly damaged machine gets lost among the rest of debris on the street, a newly married woman picks it up and takes it home with her, as a gift for her husband. Slowly, but surely, the drone makes its sentient presence known to the couple: first, as a defective toy whose remote control keeps turning it; second, as a mechanical monster that wants to kill them. Along the way, and for no good reason, it kills the model next-door and other people in their orbit, including cops investigating her murder. In this way, The Drone isn’t all that different thematically from dozens of other slasher pictures, featuring voyeurs, stalkers and cutlery. Co-writer/director Jordan Rubin (Zombeavers) knows just enough about pacing to maintain almost 82 minutes of tension, with a couple of nervous laughs and lots of blood splatters along the way.

An American Werewolf in London: Blu-ray
Toys Are Not for Children: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Ringu Collection: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Killer Nun: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Apprentice to Murder: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Dead Center: Special Edition: Blu-ray
With John Landis’ firm hand on the throttle of his dream project and Rick Baker’s splendid special makeup effects, An American Werewolf in London (1981) became one of the most influential horror movies of the pre-digital 1980s. Someone must have spiked the wolfbane that year, because Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen and Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981) also impressed viewers and critics. (Baker left Dante’s picture to work alongside Landis.) Every studio head wanted to add the same frightening ability to transform a human being into a creature from hell to their armory. And, of course, they did … usually at the expense of everything else. Landis has said that he came up with the “AAWiL” story while working in eastern Europe as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes (1970). He and a Yugoslav member of the crew were driving in the back of a car on location, when they came across a group of gypsies, who appeared to be performing rituals on a man being buried, so that he would not “rise from the grave.” A decade later, according to Danny Perry’s “Cult Movies 3,” potential financiers “believed that Landis’ script was too frightening to be a comedy and too funny to be a horror film.”  That’s a bad thing, how? Anyway, when American tourists David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are savaged by an unidentified animal, while hiking on the Yorkshire Moors at night, only one of them lives to tell about it. Everyone in the audience knows what happened, but it isn’t until David awakens in a London hospital that anyone outside the tiny village, where the attack happened, considers the possibility that he’s capable of transforming into werewolf when the full moon rises. Another setback occurs when he learns that his friend is dead – undead, to be precise — and other aspects of his life are in disarray. Retiring to the home of his nurse (Jenny Agutter), he soon experiences disturbing changes to his mind and body, in advance of a transformation that will unleash terror on the streets of the capital. That’s almost too simple, right? Landis’ ability to merge  horror, humor, mayhem and romance made it a cross-over hit. The Arrow package features a fresh restoration, from the original camera negative, supervised by Landis; new and archival commentaries and interviews; feature-length chats with Landis, filmmaker Daniel Griffith and historian Paul Davis; “I Walked With a Werewolf,” an archival interview with Baker about Universal Horror and its legacy of Wolfman films; making-of and background featurettes; and “I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret,” a provocative video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira, describing how the film explores Jewish identity and the concept of “otherness.”

The early 1970s was a transitional period for all sorts of things. While Hollywood studios attempted to corral the spirit and energy of a new generation of “mavericks,” itching to take their seat at the table, another group of indie filmmakers was testing the boundaries of newly minted laws, protecting the rights of those creating more titillating fare. Among them were Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), Radley Metzger (The Alley Cats), Joseph W. Sarno (Siv, Anne & Sven), Doris Wishman (Keyholes Are for Peeping), John Waters (Mondo Trasho), Jesús Franco (Vampyros Lesbos), Joe D’Amato (The Devil’s Wedding Night), Just Jaeckin (Emmanuelle) and Tinto Brass (Salon Kitty). Arrow Video’s Toys Are Not for Children (1972) was written and directed by Stanley H. Brassloff (a.k.a., comedian Stan Howard), who, by comparison, was a mere novice. Their efforts effectively set the table for harder stuff to come. When Gerald Damiano’s Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) blew the roofs off of porno palaces around the world, it forced the pioneers to choose between soft-core erotica and hard-core sex. There was money to be made in both formats, but producers of the latter demanded sex over artistry, while backers of the former enjoyed more freedom, but fewer commercial outlets. Soft-core purveyors found ways to merge art and erotica, with spectacular locations and tastes of bourgeois excess. The formula was more successful in Europe, where sexuality wasn’t handled with tweezers and rubber gloves.

There’s nothing terribly pretty to look at in Toys Are Not for Children, one of only a small handful of movies credited to Brassloff in any genre. Despite cover art that promises the Unholy Trinity of horror, violence and sex, it’s short on exploitable nudity and the consensual sex isn’t very explicit. Instead, it depicts the immediate trauma and lingering  aftereffects of sexual and verbal abuse, dysfunctionality and mental illness. It doesn’t take long before things get creepy here. It begins when little Jamie Godard (Tiberia Mitri/Marcia Forbes) starts treating her dolls – gifts from her frequently absent father – as friends and confidantes. She’s been traumatized by her parent’s impossible to ignore and accusations that run the gamut from frigidity to promiscuity. Her mother considers any woman who doesn’t live in a convent to be a whore and potential client of her husband. Jessie loves her father, however, especially for bringing home dolls to soften the pain of his sexual advances. She compartmentalizes it as something loving and part of growing up. Jamie’s severe daddy issues carry through into adulthood, when she gets fed up with her mother’s debasements and finds another father figure in a man she marries but can’t adjust to sexually. She escapes to the big city, where she moves into the apartment of an older woman, Pearl, who she befriended at her job, in a toy store. Turns out, the woman is a prostitute and her lover is a pimp. For some reason, Jamie isn’t shocked to learn this about her benefactors. In fact, she’s hungry for details about Pearl’s profession. Not surprisingly, when Jamie’s alone with rockabilly Eddie (Luis Arroyo), he rapes her. When she asks to be allowed to turn tricks as a call girl, Pearl exploits Jennie’s daddy issues by pairing her with dirty, if harmless old men, whose fetishes complement her hangups. It isn’t until she simultaneously manages to piss off her estranged mother (Fran Warren) and Pearl that she’s conned into a forced reunion with her father (Peter Lightstone), who’s rotting away in a derelict apartment across the city. Tragedy awaits … somewhere. Although “Toys” is tawdry and more than a little bit lurid, the dramatic elements would fit within today’s standards for adult drama, not porn. Arrow Films has done a nice job restoring the nearly 50-year-old movie, from original film elements. It adds new commentary with Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain; an appreciation by “Nightmare USA” author Stephen Thrower; “Dirty Dolls: Femininity, Perversion and Play,” a worthwhile video essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; the original theme song, “Lonely Am I,” newly transferred from the original 45-rpm vinyl single; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and a collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Vanity Celis.

In 1998, Hideo Nakata (Dark Water) unleashed a chilling tale of technological terror on unsuspecting audiences in Japan, with the Ringu trilogy. It redefined the horror genre, from Tokyo to Tarzana; launched the J-horror boom outside the Pacific Rim, with a trio of adaptations here; and introduced a generation of moviegoers to a creepy, dark-haired girl, Sadako/Samara. The Japanese cycle took three years to complete, while the American trilogy spanned 15. (A fourth entry, Sadako, has already opened in Asian markets.) The film’s success spawned a slew of remakes, reimaginations and imitators, but none could quite boast the power of Nakata’s original masterpiece, which melded traditional Japanese folklore with contemporary anxieties about the spread of technology. In the opener, a group of teenage friends are found dead, their bodies grotesquely contorted, their faces twisted in terror. Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), a journalist and the aunt of one of the victims, sets out to investigate the shocking phenomenon. In the process, she uncovers a creepy urban legend about a supposedly cursed videotape, the contents of which cause anyone who views it to die within a week, unless they can persuade someone else to watch it. In doing so, the curse will be passed along, like a bad penny. Arrow Video has repackaged the genre-defining trilogy, by combining high-def editions of Ringu; Nakata’s chilling sequel, Ringu 2 (1999); the haunting origin story, Ringu 0 (2000); and the “lost” original sequel, George Iida’s, The Spiral (1998). They are supplemented by a wealth of archival and newly created bonus materials, including a pair of fresh commentaries.

Rapidly approaching 50, the cinema’s quintessential blond-bombshell, Anita Ekberg (La Dolce Vita), donned the virginal, white habit of a morphine-addicted Italian nun, in Giulio Berruti’s Killer Nun (1979). If she wasn’t enjoying herself, playing such an exploitable character, it wasn’t noticeable in her performance. That’s probably because, for once, it was her character’s profession that was being exploited, not her famously voluptuous body. Portraying a bride of Christ is one of the things all actresses expect to do in a long, award-filled career … that and playing a prostitute. Younger viewers may not have heard of Killer Nun, let alone the nunsploitation subgenre that tore through Europe in the 1960-70s, before petering out in the 1980s. They typically involved Roman Catholic nuns living in convents during the Middle Ages. Sadistic lesbians were as common in these pictures as horny priests have become in recent dramas. In nunsploitation flicks, monsignors and mother superiors tended to favor novitiates over altar boys, which gave sexploitation specialists plenty of grist for the mill. Despite the cover art, Killer Nun isn’t nearly as sexually perverse as most other specimens in the category. If fact, it leans closer to giallo and movies based on true-crime novels. After Ekberg’s Sister Gertrude undergoes top-secret surgery for a brain tumor, she becomes addicted to morphine. It lowers her resistance to sadism, murder and the advances of her young and lovely roommate, Sister Mathieu (Paola Morra). When the drugs run out, she’ll be reduced to criminality. There are times when Sister Gertrude puts on civilian clothes, hops a train to Rome and puts the make on the first desirable man she sees. Again, the camera doesn’t linger on anything more provocative than her crossed knees in black hose. If those casting decisions weren’t sufficiently kinky, Ekberg and Morra (Behind Convent Walls) are joined by Andy Warhol-favorite Joe Dallesandro (Flesh for Frankenstein) and Mother Superior Alida Valli, whose credits include Suspira (1977), The Third Man (1949 and Senso (1954). The highlights of the bonus package include new commentaries by Italian genre film connoisseurs Adrian J. Smith and David Flint; “Beyond Convent Walls,” an entertaining video essay on nunsploitation and Killer Nun by critic Kat Ellinger; interviews with director Giulio Berruti, editor Mario Giacco and actress Ileana Fraia.

In early 20th Century Pennsylvania Dutch Country, young Billy Kelly (Chad Lowe) falls in with a charismatic healer, Dr. John Reese (Donald Sutherland), who follows the folk traditions of a “powwow” medicine man.  While shunned by the rest of the community for his non-conformist beliefs, the relatives of sick residents don’t hesitate to call on him when mainstream, medicine fails.  Together, Billy and Dr. John investigate a mysterious sickness that is affecting the area. Reese believes it to be the work of a sinister local hermit, who could be at the Devil’s beck and call. Apprentice to Murder: Special Edition (1988) once again demonstrates how good Sutherland was in his younger days, playing wide-eyed fanatics and fringe characters in smallish indies. (He’s good in everything he does.) The film also stars Mia Sara, who was coming off introductory performances in Legend (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and the mini-series, “Queenie” (1987). Sutherland was reunited, as well, with Allan Scott, screenwriter of Don’t Look Now (1973). The Arrow package adds a new commentary with author/critic Bryan Reesman; fresh interviews with religious-horror specialist Kat Ellinger, cinematographer Kelvin Pike and makeup supervisor Robin Grantham; and new writing on the film, by Paul Corupe; and original and newly commissioned artwork by Haunt Love.

In Billy Senese’s suspenseful The Dead Center (2018), when a very dead suicide victim (Jeremy Childs) disappears from the morgue, it sets in motion a chain of events that could destroy everything, and everyone, it touches. Troubled psychiatrist Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) is called in to help a mysterious patient, who is brought to the emergency psych ward in a catatonic state, with no memory of how he reached the hospital. As if to exorcise his own demons, the doctor feverishly tries to break through to his mysterious patient. As a spate of mysterious deaths shake the ward to its core, however, Forrester comes to suspect that there is more to his new patient than meets the eye. As he comes to realize what he’s unleashed, a desperate race against the forces of evil threatens to swallow him whole. The supernatural thriller is dark, moody and a bit too close to the edge of incoherency for my tastes, but there’s no questioning its ability to send shivers down most viewers’ spines. Most of the credit for that goes to Childs, who bears a passing resemblance to Michael Shannon and could scare the frost off a car during a Chicago winter.  It will be interesting to see what Senese does for an encore. The Dead Center arrives with commentaries by Senese, Carruth and Childs, and Senese, producers Denis Deck and Jonathan Rogers, and cinematographer Andy Duensing; the making-of documentary, “A Walk Through The Dead Center”; nine deleted scenes, including an alternate ending; on-set interviews with Carruth and Poorna Jagannathan; a featurette on the creation of the make-up effects and head-casting; “Intruder,” a 2011 short film, directed by Senese and starring Childs; “The Suicide Tapes” (2010), the original short film that later inspired feature; “Midnight Radio Theater,” six chilling radio plays; an image gallery; new and original artwork; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing by Jamie Graham. That’s a lot good stuff for a film that played in only 10 theaters, making a grand total of $7,687.

Galaxy Quest: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Paramount has released, exclusively to Best Buy, a SteelBook version of director Dean Parisot’s spot-on spoof of “Star Trek” and Trekkies: Galaxy Quest. There have been plenty of “Star Trek” parodies over the last half-century, some inspired, others not. Galaxy Quest was among those in the former category. That’s the title of the fictional show at the center of the lighthearted fun here. It  ran for four seasons, from 1979 to 1982, as if “Star Trek” never existed and the characters were one-offs. Every week, the crew of the N.S.E.A. Protector donned their uniforms and set out on thrilling and often dangerous missions in space, which felt like a lot smaller place before the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into low Earth orbit, in 1990. Then, it was canceled. Nearly 20 years later, the five stars of the sci-fi actioner — Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Daryl Mitchell and stowaway Sam Rockwell – continued to make their presence known at fan fairs, conventions and autograph expos, in costume and full makeup. This time, however, the faithful take their admiration to extremes. One group demands to know everything there is to know about the scientific gizmos on board the Protector … not that any of them are operational or the actors could answer their questions. Another group of Galaxy geeks wants to solicit the actors’ help in saving their planet. Turns out, the Thermians belong to a race of aliens from Klatu Nebula, who’ve mistaken intercepted television transmissions of the show for “historical documents.” To prove they’re for real, the ultra-silly aliens beam Commander Peter Quincy Taggart (Allen) and his crew into space to help them defeat an all-too-real and very deadly adversary. With no script, no director and no clue about real space travel, the actors have to turn in the performances of their lives to become the heroes the Thermians imagine them to be. Galaxy Quest is fun to watch and occasionally thrilling … in the way syndicated series tended to be in the ’80s. Anyone who’s already purchased the 10th anniversary Blu-ray package should know that the 20th anniversary edition adds nothing new, except the SteelBox packaging, which is a Best Buy exclusive. The bonus package is intact, but nothing close to the 4K UHD version that fans want and deserve.

GG Allin: All in the Family
Like the aforementioned GWAR, GG Allin brought horror  and torture porn to rock ’n’ roll. The late American extreme-punk musician, GG Allin, is best remembered for his notorious live performances, which often featured transgressive acts, including self-mutilation, eating his own feces and attacking the audience verbally and physically. After a particularly raucous performance in New York, in 1993, Allin went to a friend’s apartment and died of a heroin overdose. In director Sami Saif’s horrifying rockumentary GG Allin: All in the Family, we’re introduced to his closest surviving relativesmother Arleta and brother Merle, who is still active in their backing band, the Murder Junkies Family – as well as given a tour of the lovely New England countryside, where was born and raised. Some of what’s  shown in “All in the Family” is as disturbing as anything in NEKRomantik.

Time Life: China Beach: The Complete Series
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XII
PBS Kids: Dinosaur Train: Dinosaurs Big and Small!
PBS Kids: Berenstain Bears: Tales From the Tree House
Technically, Time Life’s “China Beach: The Complete Series” doesn’t fit within the parameters of this week’s theme. Considering the nature of the Vietnam War and the horrors visited on the characters we met in the series’ groundbreaking four-year run on ABC, from 1988-1991, however, it easily qualifies. The show was based on the book “Home Before Morning” (1983), written by the former U.S. Army Nurse Lynda Van Devanter. The show’s lead protagonist, Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delaney), roughly follows Van Devanter’s experiences as a nurse in Vietnam.  Created by William Broyles Jr. and John Sacret Young, the series looks at the Vietnam War from unique perspectives: those of the women present during the conflict. John Wells took over the reins, beginning with the second season, and many of the show’s cast members would appear later on his other landmark production, “ER.” (He would go on to exec-produce “Third Watch,” “The West Wing,” “Southland,” “Shameless,” “Animal Kingdom” and “American Woman.”) “China Beach” was set at Bac My An beach, at the 510th Evacuation Hospital and R&R facility. As such, it served as a crossroads location for everyone deeply impacted – physically, emotionally, romantically – by the war, including U.S. Army doctors and nurses, officers, combatants, Red Cross volunteers, and civilian personnel (American, French, and Vietnamese). The highly acclaimed, if ratings-starved show also featured the characters’ experiences “back in the world,” either on leave or at the end of their tours of duty. The series was cancelled before it could fully address McMurphy’s PTSD issues. The previous complete-series set was delayed until April 15, 2013, primarily due to issues relating to licensing rights for the music included in the show. The new Time Life re-release is comprised of 62 episodes, on 19 discs, and five hours of bonus features. They include 302 songs popular during the war, as they were heard in the series; highlights from the 25th anniversary reunion; commentaries on select episodes; interviews; making-of featurettes; deleted scenes; and a gag reel. Because many of the same agencies and military outfits are active in our current wars – in the field and in hospitals in Germany – and women are serving as combatants, “China Beach: The Complete Series” is as relevant as it’s ever been.

Caveat emptor: If Shout’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XII” looks familiar to “MST3K” completists, it’s likely because the collection was previously released on DVD by Rhino, in October 2007, with the same four movies. Selected from seasons IV, V, VI and VIII are The Rebel Set (1959), Secret Agent Super Dragon (1966), The Starfighters (1964) and Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979). Using the show’s usual standards, none is so bad that it would drive non-cultists from their home theaters, screaming and attempting to pull out their eyeballs. If anything, they can all be enjoyed strictly for the commentary provided by the SOL peanut gallery. A leisurely perusal of the MST3K Wiki demonstrates just how much research was required of the show’s staff. If the references sometimes sound overly obscure, it’s only because they border on the indecipherable. The Wiki entries serve as footnotes, essential to an understanding of what separates these pictures from those in the trash heap of cinematic history. The Rebel Set opens in a Los Angeles coffee house, possibly borrowed from Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959). The proprietor, Mr. T, played by Edward Platt (“Get Smart”), hires three of his unemployed regulars to participate in an armored car robbery, planned to take place in the mountains of Chicago, during a four-hour stopover during the trio’s cross-country train trip/alibi. That Mr. T flies ahead, with one of his henchmen, doesn’t bode well for the boys. Naturally, the plan begins to fall apart when the men re-gather at the terminal and greed begins to nibble on the afterglow of their unlikely success. Apart from the topographical miscue and the unlikeliness of a passenger train reaching  Chicago on time, in 1959, The Rebel Set isn’t a bad caper flick.

Secret Agent Super Dragon is a French, German and Italian co-production, directed by Giorgio Ferroni (Giorgio Ferroni) and starring Ray Danton (The George Raft Story) as the titular secret agent. A series of murders in Michigan lead an American secret agent to Amsterdam, where he uncovers a plot to imperil the world with a potent new drug that can be planted chewing gum, champagne and antique vases. Although the Amsterdam setting helps a bit, everything else works against the James Bond rip-off. The runt of this litter is The Starfighters, which sounds as if it belongs in the sci-fi pigeonhole but uses voluminous stock footage of Air Force maneuvers – including a midair fueling – to mask the inept direction, acting and writing. It really could have benefitted from an attack by alien spacecrafts.

In Parts: The Clonus Horror, mercenary scientists run an idyllic post-Watergate clone farm for politicians and other VIPs, just in case they want to live forever on the borrowed parts of their clones. Considering the sad state of American politicians in the wake of Jimmy Carter, “Parts” occasionally feels like a documentary. That’s especially true when an escapee from Clonus approaches a presidential candidate played by Peter Graves explains what’s happening there. The politician not only is aware of the project, but he’s also a participant. Does this sound familiar?: “I know that America can be great again, and, as your candidate, I intend to give you what you want by making America great again. Because, like you, I too love this great country that we call America and want to see it be great. Again. I am the people’s candidate and I will do what I said I would; make American great once again with your help. America. Great. You. Me.” The other interesting thing about “Parts” comes in the bonus interview with director Robert S. Fiveson, who brought a copyright-infringement suit against the makers of The Island (2005), citing almost 100 points of similarity between the two films. The court ruled that Fiveson made a prima facie case for infringement, but, before the case could go to trial, DreamWorks settled with the plaintiffs for an undisclosed amount.” Plagiary in Hollywood? Who knew?

In lieu of candy bars and gummies this Halloween, parents might consider handing out kids-friendly DVDs, from such outlets as PBS Kids and Nickelodeon. In addition to being entertaining, they are appropriate for youngsters approaching the cold reality of First Grade. “Dinosaur Train: Dinosaurs Big and Small” encourage children to learn all they can about dinosaurs of different shapes and sizes. First, Mikey Microraptor visits Tiny at the family nest, when next-door neighbor Larry Lambeosaurus tells Mikey he is too small to be a dinosaur. BFFs Buddy and Tank Triceratops share a love for comparing features. They take the kids go on a quest to track down Ceratopsians with horns numbering 1-15.

PBS Kids’ “Berenstain Bears: Tales From the Tree House” contains 26 stories from the popular animated series. Sister visits the dentist for the first time, learning there is nothing to be afraid of there. Later, Brother and Sister both try out for the last spot on Bear Country s baseball team, and Papa and the bear scouts find themselves lost when exploring a cave.

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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