Devil Story

a.k.a. Il était une fois le diable – Devil Story | Devil’s Story
directed by Bernard Launois
1985 | Condor Films Production | 72′ 

This October, the agents of M.O.S.S. are digging deep into the heart of Halloween, taking a look at films about demons, the devil, and every kind of fiend. You can find our collected annals of evil here. Today, I take a look at a film that may or may not have anything at all to do with the devil, but sure as hell contains Halloween costumes.

Somewhere in what I think is supposed to be Florida, but sure looks like a picturesque part of France to me, a guy (probably Pascal Simon) in a Halloween gnome mask that is supposed to be his face wearing a uniform jacket with SS insignia – so I think we can call him Adolf Gnome – randomly kills various people in rubber-gory ways.

After fifteen minutes of these shenanigans, the film cuts to a married couple driving through what might be the same area. They stop, and the woman (most probably Véronique Renaud) has a nasty encounter with a black cat that might at least in part be hallucinatory. Anyhow, it’s enough to drive her into the first of many bouts of hysteric screeching (therefore I dub her “Screechie”).

That very same night (I suppose), the couple is still driving around the countryside, having lost their way terribly. Fortunately, they come upon a gothic palace inhabited by two weird yet friendly members of the elderly demographic who invite them to stay the night. For some reason, Elderly Guy wears a camouflage outfit, but this sort of thing doesn’t invite comments here. The rather strange hosts ramble on about the terrible things that happen in the area “before, during and after the equinox” (which I translate into “always”) and then proceed to tell the young couple a pointless story (historical flashback the film can’t afford time!) about five brothers who lured a ship to its doom but somehow drowned in the proceedings, plus some stuff about their descendants supposedly having made a deal with the devil.

Remember Adolf Gnome? He is one of said descendants, living alone with his equally crazy elderly mum. The female half of our husband and wife protagonist team will eventually meet those two, for during the night, she is awakened by a black horse that makes one hell of a racket outside and will proceed to do so in the most annoying fashion throughout the rest of the movie. Obviously, Screechie decides to go out in her nightie and investigate. That decision is the beginning of an epic journey during whose course Screechie makes the acquaintance of Adolf Gnome and Mum (they think she looks like Gnome’s newly dead sister, so they decide to bury her alive), a mummy with a bulging crotch that randomly kills people and digs out said dead sister (she’s a zombie now, I think) to walk around holding hands with said dead sister, and has random shit happen to her.

Also featured are Adolf Gnome bringing fists to a hoof fight, the usefulness of powder kegs and petrol when confronted with the backside of a mummy, Elderly Guy’s epic (he’s shown to shoot at it for hours out of what I assume to be his starting gun – that does at least explain the infinite ammo) obsession with the black horse he declares to be “the Devil Beast”, the ship from the story, and a random (or rather, even more random) gotcha ending featuring the black cat from the beginning and a very hungry patch of ground.

 
 
 

It looks as if France during the 80s had its own little tribe of people making the really awesome kind of backyard horror films, the sort full of rubbery gore, random nonsense, and a narrative that makes most dreams look coherent. As my attempts at giving you a feel for the absurd randomness of its plot should have made clear, Bernard Launois’s Devil Story is a proud and unapologetic part of that group of films, leaving no brain undamaged and no narrative rule unbroken. It’s not as mind-expanding as N.G. Mount’s improbably awesome Ogroff, but it sure is a film doing its damndest to overwhelm its audience with pure weirdness.

If you want to be all serious about it, Devil Story‘s randomness is obviously influenced by European folklore and fairy tales. The black horse and black cat as creatures of the devil are important parts of that tradition, and stories about smugglers luring ships to their doom and paying for it later on are parts of many local folklores too. However, where fairy tales and folklore usually have quite clear thematic connotations and an understandable subtext, the film at hand just grabs some outward signifiers from the folk tales, adds impenetrable rambling, screeching, some rubbery gore, a mummy and a serial killer and calls it a story in a way that suggests the writer (not surprisingly also Bernard Launois) to be either twelve years old or under the influence of mind-expanding substances like wine or strong coffee. The whole project is awe-inspiring in its stubborn insistence on making no sense at all beyond “bad magical things that may have something to do with the devil – or not – happen to people in this area – or not”.

On the technical front, Devil Story is a curious beast. It’s well photographed in so far as Launois knows how to frame and block scenes and everything he – well DP Guy Maria – shoots looks rather picturesque, but everything else about the film is a (hot) mess. As already mentioned (and obvious), the narrative structure is more or less non-existent, with no really discernible plot, no characters (let’s not speak of the acting beyond giving Elderly Guy the day’s price for most excited line delivery), and no feeling of progression or dramatic escalation.

This problem is further emphasised by the most curious, a-rhythmic editing decisions – every possible moment of suspense is sabotaged by recurring, random cuts to the devil horse being an obnoxious – and very loud – animal, the Elderly Guy shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting, the horse, the shooting, etc, until the little structure there is just turns to goo, very much like the mummy’s lower lip once Screechie has ripped off a few of its bandages. And even if Launois could keep away from Elderly Guy’s horse adventures, all action scenes are so awkwardly staged, and so overly long, they become befuddling instead of exciting, with cause and effect obviously divorced from each other, actors and the things they are acting on clearly not at the same place at the same time, and the same little thing going on and on and on for seeming hours, turning moments that could have been semi-exciting highlights like the scene when Screechie is playing tug-of-war with a gravestone against Adolf Gnome’s Mum who is trying to bury her alive into improbable slogs through the swamps of time and space.

So, clearly and obviously, Devil Story is a horrible movie. And yet it’s also a fascinating and quite riveting artefact of filmmaking that cares so little about – or misunderstands – the way films are supposed to be made, to look and to feel it nearly invents its own filmic language, entering the space so beloved by a certain type of film fan (that is, me) where the objective badness of a movie turns into something quite loveable and beautiful. I know, I do like to go on about films feeling as if they came from another world/dimension, or were made by aliens who once watched a movie and are now trying to make their own, but that is still the best way I’ve found to describe films like Devil Story in all their glorious, unapologetic oddness.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Sadist

released in 2010 by Johnny Legend
video: 1080p / 1.78:1 / B&W / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
subtitles: none
discs: 1 x 25GB BD-R / 1 x DVD-R / All Region
supplements: Interview with Arch Hall Jr. by Ray Dennis Steckler, Arch Hall Jr. Video Songbook, Epilogue to The Sadist by Johnny Legend
The Sadist is available now through Amazon.com and Diabolik DVD.

Between Something Weird / Image Entertainment’s latest H. G. Lewis offering and Arrow Video’s long-delayed and predictably problematic treatment of Lamberto Bava’s Demons films, I’ve had about all I can take in the way of disappointing cult Blu-rays for this month. A pity, really, as I had sincerely hoped that at least one of those, if not both, would turn out all right. But if there’s one good thing about disappointment it’s that it can leave you open for the best kind of surprises, and Johnny Legend’s outwardly dubious high definition treatment of schlock icon Arch Hall Jr.’s one really good film is a surprise indeed.

Unlike the other two titles I mentioned, Legend’s The Sadist Blu-ray isn’t a new release at all. He first began offering this 2-disc Blu-ray / DVD combo online in 2010, and continues to give any sort of wide-release model amiss in favor of selling it himself, one copy at a time. Having been long devoted to the DVD issued by historian David Kalat’s All Day Entertainment in 1997 (most notable now for its feature commentary with The Sadist‘s renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and still available for those who missed out on it), it took me a while to work up the steam to give the Blu-ray a go – it was expensive after all, $29.95 plus shipping through most outlets. As is so often the case, however, my love of cinema ultimately overrode any good financial sense, and I finally broke down and ordered The Sadist Blu from Diabolik DVD on Friday. $30 was still a tough pill to swallow, but in retrospect I’m glad I did.

Before I get to the goods, it must be said that the outward impression of this Blu-ray doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.  The sleeve art is nicely designed, if a bit over-populated with glowing critical quotations (there are even more on the back), but has the deficiency of being physically too tall for the sleeve it inhabits and sticking out about half a centimeter beyond the cellophane. With regards to the case itself, this may be the first time I’ve ever received a Blu-ray in one that’s completely devoid of any sort of Blu-ray logo. I honestly don’t hold either of these things against the release (as quibbles go they are the very definition of minor), but some may find the next bit more difficult to stomach. Having been produced in too low a run to warrant the expense and effort of standard replication, The Sadist is presented on a single-layer 25GB BD-R as opposed to the pressed discs we’re all familiar with. As one Blu-ray.com forum member noted of it, “BD-arrrrgh!”

With all the above taken into account I found myself expecting the very worst from this release when the package arrived yesterday, and it was with no small amount of animosity that I removed it from its resealable plastic baggie to check out the disc proper. Thankfully I soon found my low expectations to be thoroughly and delightfully trounced. Who could ever have thought that Johnny Legend would succeed where mainstream labels like Arrow Video and Image Entertainment failed?

The cover for The Sadist notes that it is sourced from a “new high definition transfer from the original 35mm master print”, and while the “new” bit may be a little suspect (this is the same transfer that was sourced for Legend’s DVD edition after all) the rest is difficult to argue with. Legend presents The Sadist in full 1080p at the comfortable matted ratio of 1.78:1 (the case incorrectly lists a taller 1.66:1), and I was floored by the results. It must be noted that this is not sourced from a pristine print, but it is more pristine than I ever remember the film being. Damage is prevalent throughout, from dirt and specks to reel change markers and all manner of scratching, but I was undeterred. The Sadist looks demonstrably better here than it ever has before on video, and those familiar with just how bad the film has looked in the past will be thrilled.

Rarely lauded by this reviewer, the contrast on this disc may be its keenest attribute. Ace photographer Zsigmond has always been a master of contrast, and the delicious range of it in The Sadist‘s black and white visuals is captured beautifully, perfectly here. The image is suitably crisp and detailed for a film of this vintage and budget ($33,000!), and close-ups can look mighty impressive. Textures are also strong throughout, and the light, unobtrusive grain goes unperturbed by man, beast, or video filter – those who like myself are downright allergic to digital manipulation will find no such impediments here. The Sadist looks like film, pure and simple, and in motion improves handily over both All Day Entertainment’s 15-year old effort and Legend’s own DVD – this transfer would look lovely projected theatrically.

Those worried by the 25GB BD-R specification and what it could have meant for the technical proficiency of this release can rest easy. The Sadist occupies the disc all by itself with the exception of a rudimentary main menu (play film is the only option) and fares all the better for it, with a robust 20.8 GB alotted for the 92 minute film. The video is encoded in Mpeg-4 AVC at a strong average bitrate of 29.4 Mbps with peaks reaching as high as 35.0 Mbps. Compression artifacts are never an issue and the image held up well under even my admittedly excessive scrutinizing. If there’s one sticking point to the release it’s the audio which, as was the case with many of Warner’s early Blu-rays, is presented in lossy Dolby Digital only. That’s not to say that the 2.0 monophonic mix sounds bad by any means, a few unsightly bumps around the reel changes excepted, but I’d love to have heard Paul Sawtell and Bert Schefter’s wicked opening theme in lossless. There are no subtitles.

While The Sadist occupies the Blu-ray by itself, the release is far from supplement free. Included in the package is Legend’s original DVD from 2009 (also a burned disc, a single-layer DVD-R), which arrives with a 10 minute Arch Hall Jr. interview conducted and photographed by the late Ray Dennis Steckler (trailers for Arch’s films are mixed in here as well), a 20 minute Arch Hall Jr. video songbook featuring songs from his various films, and a very enthusiastic 10 minute “epilogue” to the film by Johnny Legend himself. The commentary with Vilmos Zsigmond was unfortunately not licensed for this release, and those interested in it will want to check out the old All Day Entertainment DVD.

The Sadist is both a bona fide American nightmare and a surprisingly great film, and it’s lost none of its potent gut-wrench potential in the last fifty years. This Blu-ray edition from Johnny Legend is an unlikely hit that rises above its perceived limitations and bests some of the bigger labels at their own game. Sure it’s expensive, but I’d rather pay more for something that gets things mostly right than pay less for more crap like this. The Sadist gets a wholehearted endorsement from me, and fans of the film are encouraged to indulge.

Screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Sennentuntschi

dir. Michael Steiner
2010 / 115′
written by Michael Steiner, Stefanie Japp and Michael Sauter
cinematography by
Pascal Walder
music by Adrian Frutiger
starring Roxane Mesquida, Nicholas Ofczarek, Andreas Zogg, Carlos Leal and Joel Basman

1975. Just after a small village in the Swiss Alps has buried its sacristan after his suicide, a bloody and battered young woman (Roxane Mesquida) appears in town. The woman doesn’t seem to be able to speak, and is clearly either heavily traumatized or mentally ill, but the villagers at once blame her for the sacristan’s death. After all, one of the villagers saw what he thinks was a woman in a monk’s robe in the mountains the day before, so witchcraft must be afoot! This must make some kind of sense to the villagers, even though it’s the sort of logic that’s only logical if you’re a surrealist. It sure doesn’t help improve the situation when the local priest brandishes his crucifix in the poor woman’s face and provokes her into a fit of panic.

Confronted with that sort of superstition, and a little bit infatuated with the mysterious stranger, the local constable Reusch (Nicholas Ofczarek), seemingly the only man in town who isn’t batshit insane, takes charge of the woman and attempts to find out who she is and where she came from. He stumbles upon something strange: his new ward looks exactly like a woman who disappeared twenty-five years ago during the burning of a mountain cabin that killed three men.

While Reusch is away talking to the retired cop who worked the case in the 50s, the priest attacks the nameless girl with a knife, and drives her to flight. On her way, she accidentally causes a miscarriage (her fear of crosses is again to blame) in Reusch’s former girlfriend (now the mayor’s wife), which conclusively proves to anyone not Reusch that she is in fact a witch.

Next time we see the girl again, she arrives at the mountain cabin of farmer Erwin (Andrea Zogg), his son-who-thinks-he’s-his-nephew Albert (Joel Basman), and their newly arrived helper Martin (Carlos Leal), who is on the run for the murder of his wife, and therefore just as insane as everyone else in the movie. Because they were just having an orgy with home-made absinth, the men kinda-sorta assume the girl’s a Sennentuntschi like in the old story about a straw doll brought to life by the devil. Clearly, the girl’s suffering won’t end with her arrival.

All the while, Reusch discovers the dark secret of his village.

  
  
  

So, the classic continental European artful exploitation movie, horror department, is alive and well and living in Switzerland, it seems. Even though director Michael Steiner deconstructs most (yet not quite all) potential supernatural aspects of his story and the Sennentuntschi legend, he’s doing everything else I’ve come to expect in and hope from this kind of film.

As the plot synopsis should have made clear, the film is heavily over-written, full of preposterous plot ideas (only about half of which I’ve mentioned) and melodramatic explanations for everything that’s happening, populated by (predominantly male) characters who are all so clearly out of their minds as to make a girl who can’t speak, acts like a child and turns dead guys into straw dolls look positively normal. In addition Sennentuntschi is told with a structural trick I’m not going to spoil that I don’t think makes the film any better, but clearly makes it a hell of a lot weirder; in fact, I’m utterly unsure if Steiner wants his audience to be surprised by that trick or not – his film is sending very mixed messages about it.

This may sound as if Sennentuntschi weren’t a good movie at all, but the opposite is true. There’s much to be said for the film’s over-serious rediscovery of much of what was good about European genre cinema of the 70s, the rediscovery of a combination of strangeness, metaphorical overload, and classic exploitational values, as well as for its the willingness to be nasty and cruel to its characters, even those it clearly doesn’t hate. I, for one, can’t help but respect a film that gives up clarity for the possibility to surprise its audience. But then, that’s what I would say.

On the film’s metaphorical level, Steiner seems to be quite obsessed with dualities. At least, the film is stuffed full with them, from the boring man-woman and rationality-superstition ones to the structural one I’m still not willing to spoil. As is good and well-loved tradition, the film’s narrative logic and the reasons for its narrative logic can get a bit confusing, which seems to be a fitting way to construct a narrative about characters who are all not exactly mentally healthy.

Not confusing at all is Steiner’s visual mastership. The director uses the impressive Swiss landscape to build a mood of overwhelming strangeness, and to intensify the already over-heated feelings of his characters, grounding the strangeness of what is happening in the very real, yet also very strange mountain landscape of a place whose harshness seems to influence the state of mind of the characters populating it for the worse.

I also found myself very impressed by Roxane Mesquida’s acting. Her combination of childlike body language, the visible remnants of hurt and pain, a peculiarly innocent sexuality and a very calm sort of madness dominate the film’s best moments without being showy. If not for Mesquida’s performance, the part of the film’s metaphorical level that’s all about contrasting “maleness” and “femaleness” would probably be quite annoying, but the actress turns what could be a mere symbol – and a symbol of various conflicting things, by the way – into a person. Plus, most of the male characters’ problem isn’t their maleness, but their being murderous rapist assholes, a fact the film seems to realize about half of the time. Which again puts Sennentuntschi directly in the tradition of classic European exploitation movies, where the subversive, the uncomfortable and the conservative have always been entwined in the most interesting, yet also often very uncomfortable, manner.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Heavy Metal

Year: 1981  Company: Columbia Pictures   Runtime: 90′
Director: Gerald Potterton   Writers: Daniel Goldberg, Len Blum, Dan O’Bannon,
Richard Corben, Bernie Wrightson, Angus McKie, Jean Giraud
Music: Elmer Bernstein, Riggs, Blue Oyster Cult, Donald Fagen, Stevie Nicks, Journey,
Cheap Trick, Nazareth, Don Felder, Sammy Hagar, Trust, Black Sabbath, Devo
Cast: Rodger Bumpass, John Candy, Jackie Burroughs, Joe Flaherty, Don Francks, Martin Lavut,
Marilyn Lightstone, Eugene Levy, Alice Playten, Harold Ramis, Susan Roman, August Schellenberg,
Richard Romanus, John Vernon, Caroline Semple, Al Waxman, Harvey Atkin, Glenis Wootton Gross
Disc company: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment   Video: 1080p 1.85:1
Audio: DTS HD-MA 5.1 English, DTS HD-MA 5.1 French   Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish, French
Disc: BD50 (All Region)   Release Date: 06/14/2011   Available for purchase through Amazon.com

The Wtf-Film Guide to Essential Blu-ray is the record of one man’s eclectic journey to uncover the very best of the weird and wonderful that Blu-ray has to offer.  This edition is also our contribution to the Skeletons in the Closet roundtable, the inaugural group-think event of online pop culture consortium M.O.S.S.

A fleet of bombers slice through occupied airspace in the last Great War, ack-ack blooming about them and fighter fire riddling them, and their unfortunate crews, with holes.  The bomb bay doors open, the payload is dropped, and the bombers – crippled and leaden with the dead-weight of expended flesh – creep back towards the safety of Allied territory.  We focus in on one bomber in particular, in which all but the pilot and co-pilot have been killed.  As the co-pilot inspects the damage a strange, green-glowing sphere approaches and enters the plane, bathing the dead crewmen in its unnatural, unholy radiation.  We see one of the dead men’s hands in close-up – it boils and bursts, oozing fluids and dissolved flesh until only a menacing skeletal claw remains.  As the co-pilot makes his way back to the cockpit he realizes that the bodies of his comrades have vanished, leaving no trace of themselves behind.  Where could they possibly have gone, and how?

When he hears a rustling in the bomber’s central ball turret his curiosity gets the better of him.  He opens the hatch, expecting one of his fellow men to emerge.  Instead he is grappled by a pair of monstrous arms, and his body splattered lifeless about the turret’s walls.  The pilot, suspecting too late that something is wrong, opens the cockpit door to see what has become of his fellow soldiers – on the other side he is greeted by a gang of inhuman things, piles of bones and organs stuffed into bomber jackets and creeping with grim determination towards his position.  The pilot slams the door to isolate himself from the horror and fires his side arm into the approaching horde, but it’s no use.  The creatures pummel the door to pieces, and as it falls from its hinges a mass of zombified flesh-hungry ghouls spill into the cockpit.  The pilot survives only barely, escaping the doomed bomber by parachute in the nick of time.  As the plane plummets into the Pacific he lands safely on the shores of a tropical atoll – but the safety is only illusory.  Awaiting him is a graveyard of aircraft of all generations, as well as the damnable creatures their passengers have become.  The pilot screams, but it’s too late.  The beasts surround him, leaving no possibility for escape…

These images, etched indelibly into my brain during my impressionable youth, were my first encounter with the alternative animated 1981 vignette-epic Heavy Metal - as they filtered out of my family’s seemingly monolithic tube set (a 32″ Sharp in an oversized black plastic box – huge to me at the time, but soon replaced with a 54″ monstrosity) into my unsuspecting, unprepared mind, I was horrified.  I’d never seen anything like it before, and nor had I expected to, particularly not from a cartoon.  As the scene’s nihilistic conclusion loomed I slammed my prepubescent fist into the power button, thus saving myself from what promised to be more such terror.  Even at that young age I knew I had seen something strange and different, and something I knew darn well I shouldn’t have.  One thing I could hardly have fathomed was that, had I only left the television running, I’d have likely seen a few other things that would have blown my growing male mind1

It is only with the above experience related that one should judge the unflappable adoration the present I holds for Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel’s alternately crude, juvenile, prurient, and fantastic production – itself modeled on Mogel’s magazine of the same name, the domestic answer to the French publication Metal Hurlant.  Reitman and Mogel’s Heavy Metal was hardly the first alternative animation to burst forth into the American social consciousness (I can only imagine what things might have replaced the writings on these pages had I chanced first upon Ralph Bakshi’s Felix the Cat or Coonskin instead) but it remains one of the most accessible and popular, likely a result of its sidestepping of the sharp satire  and cultural observations of Bakshi’s work in favor of knock-down drag-out pulp madness.  More than once have I earned perplexed glares from Disney fans after they discover that my favorite of the studio’s work is the grim live action fantasy DragonSlayer - how much more disgusted those reactions might have been had those same people only known that my favorite animated film was Heavy Metal!


So beautiful and so dangerous. Who could ever say no to a face like that?

Comprised of a series of stand-alone vignettes, some original and some adapted from stories which had appeared in the magazine, Heavy Metal flirts with a variety of styles and genres – science fiction, film noir, western, fantasy, horror – with little but an overriding sense of adolescent glee holding it all together.  The individual segments – each farmed out to its own team of talented independent animators – are never quite in harmony with one another, even though a framing device in which an evil green orb relates the film’s six stories certainly tries, but the incongruousness of it all quickly becomes part of the film’s charm.  Heavy Metal shifts willfully and wildly in tone and style from one segment to the next, from the eroticized Burroughs-ian universe of Den to the futuristic scum-metropolis of Harry Canyon to the vast, inhospitable fantasy wastes of Taarna, and yet it works, both as an oddball assortment of self-contained narratives and as a jubilant celebration of genre excesses.  The sum experience is the cinematic equivalent of thumbing through the magazine from which the film takes its name – no more and no less than what Reitman and Mogel had always intended – and, much like the ancient Loc-Nar, the magnitude of its appeal and influence should not be underestimated.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the future-noir Harry Canyon.  Set in the rundown sprawl of New York, New York circa 2031, the story follows a world-weary street-smart cabbie who runs afoul of the Venusian mob after saving a red-headed show stopper from a shootout on the front steps of the Museum of Natural History.  The mobsters want the ancient Loc-Nar, the red-head wants to sell it, and Canyon just wants her.  The story by Daniel Goldberg (Cannibal Girls) and Len Blum (Stripes) is a 10-15 minute reduction of the narrative sensibilities of Taxi Driver and the MacGuffin-fueled drama of The Maltese Falcon with plenty of fantastic violence, raunchy cartoon sex and contemporary rock tracks thrown in for good measure.  If the story – a cab driver and a red-head on the run from unseemly elements on the hunt for an ancient artifact in future New York – sounds familiar, it should.  Whether credited or not, Harry Canyon plays like a step-by-step blueprint for much of Luc Besson’s later pop sci-fi epic The Fifth Element - a film which also prominently features a talking orb that is the embodiment evil.  Recently Heavy Metal ‘s influence has been glimpsed in other high-profile projects, notably in the bleak and over-contrived SuckerPunch (whose writer and director, among others, has been mentioned in association with a new Heavy Metal feature) and, more directly, in the 12th season South Park parody Major Boobage.

To that latter end, Heavy Metal is often negatively criticized for its decidedly adolescent sensibilities, including its grade school attention span and subject matter that seems culled straight from the doodlings of a 14 year old boy.  While I can hardly argue with the point – this is, after all, an exceedingly adolescent film - I’m similarly hard pressed to see it as a burden to the production.  Heavy Metal is a film in which cars drive home from outer space, cheeky alien robots have sexual affairs with Earth secretaries, and a pair of intergalactic hippies take a stoned-out trip around the Universe in a giant flying smiley face.  It’s an out and out celebration of whooshing rockets, spurting blood, and bouncing bare breasts – the very staples of the young male imagination brought to life in vivid, living color.  I certainly can’t fault anyone for not liking it, but to hold Heavy Metal‘s juvenile proclivities against it, when they are the very thing it exists to serve, seems more than a little silly2.

Every bit as senseless as you could possibly imagine but more intelligently conceived than you likely thought, this one makes about as good an argument as can be made for smart people making dumb entertainment.  The fun factor here is through the roof even twenty years on, and I’m sure that producers Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel are plenty pleased with their crass animated legacy.  The late Dan O’Bannon’s short horror segment B-17 still appeals to me most here, if only for the childhood memories it recalls, but there are more than enough fantastic developments along the way to appeal to genre fanatics of all kinds.  One could go on interminably about how Heavy Metal isn’t for all tastes, but that’s really the point of it all.  I say give it a try – the worst you can do is hate it.

1 Live and learn, I suppose, but the thin static haze separating family fun from outright pornography in old-school satellite programming would expose me to that other forbidden world soon enough…
2 Yes, I know. I’m sure I’ve made similar arguments against other films.  Then again, I never said I wasn’t silly.

Boo!

Heavy Metal was actually the first DVD I ever purchased, and to be perfectly honest that 1999 Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment edition has held up pretty well over the years with its decent anamorphic image, healthy encode, and substantial slate of supplemental content.  While I’ll be keeping that disc on the shelf for nostalgia’s sake it’s safe to say that it’s not going to be getting much play in the future – this Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Blu-ray blows it right out of the water.  Originally released as a Best Buy exclusive, the disc is now out in wide release and well worth picking up.

Given the highly variable nature of its animation, all of which was produced outside of any major film animation outlets, I had very grounded expectations going into Heavy Metal‘s Blu-ray debut, but I needn’t have worried.  Presented in 1080p at its original theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this new HD transfer is a modern marvel as far as I’m concerned.  Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the upgrade is the color reproduction, with both saturation and the depth of hues taking some huge steps forward – the 1999 DVD can look quite faded and yellow in comparison.  The colors here really have some pop (just look at the sky in the first comparison or Taarna’s lips in the final one below), and are backed by a richer, darker contrast and a substantial uptick in clarity and detail.  Each segment is a revelation, from the trash-noir Harry Canyon to the brilliantly bizarre Den to the all-too-brief B-17, and while the crudeness of some sequences is all the more obvious the more awesome moments shine all the brighter.

The overall quality of the film elements seems to have improved a bit as well, and while there is still some damage to contend with (mostly speckling and dust, much of it a product of the original animation and effects process, still more the result of age) the image here is considerably cleaner than on the DVD edition.  The delicious texture of the original photography is also maintained, much to my delight, with variable levels of legitimate film grain present throughout.  It’s refreshing to see that Sony haven’t skimped on the technical front, either.  The AVC-encoded image receives substantial bitrate support at an average of 34.2 Mbps, and the feature spreads comfortably into dual-layer territory.  I noted nothing in the way of artifacting or other encode troubles, and the image retains its lovely film-like aesthetic even under close examination.  The bottom line is that Heavy Metal looks better here than I’d have ever thought it could, and I doubt most theatrical screenings could touch it.

For the sake of full disclosure, HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool.  After comparing to the original .png files the results appeared quite transparent to these eyes, even when zooming in 2-3x.  DVD screenshots were captured in .png format in VLC from the 1999 Columbia Tristar Home Video edition (I don’t own the Superbit edition to compare), upconverted to 1920×1080 in GIMP and compressed to .jpg format at a quality setting of 95%.  In the five comparisons below DVD screen shots appear first, followed by the Blu-ray.  The rest should be self-explanatory.

More Blu-ray screenshots:

The all-important audio receives a healthy bump to DTS HD-MA 5.1 in the original English (a second DTS HD-MA 5.1 track in dubbed French is also included), and I’ve never heard Heavy Metal sound better.  The crude sound effects have a wonderful vintage about them, and sound very much of their time, as does the voice recording.  The HD track offers considerably more breathing room than on past editions, sounding neither so muffled as the Dolby Surround 2.0 stereo track or as frail as the Dolby Digital 5.1 included on the 1999 DVD, and feels considerably more substantial for the trouble.  The vintage rock tracks have great punch, with Felder’s Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride) and Hagar’s Heavy Metal both sounding hilariously awesome in their lossless iterations.  Benefiting even more so from the bump is Elmer Bernstein’s tremendous score, which offers some of the best genre work of its kind in segments Den and Taarna.  Heavy Metal finally sounds as big as it should on home video, and while I’d have loved a lossless track in the original stereo for posterity’s sake I’m hard-pressed to complain.  The disc comes with a decent array of subtitling options – English, English SDH, French and Spanish – and, according to the back of the case, should be playable in all Blu-ray regions.

The only area in which the disc seems to be lacking is in the supplemental department, and those who already own the Collector’s Series edition from 1999 won’t find anything new here.  Included is the original feature-length rough cut of Heavy Metal, which runs 90 minutes in 480p and is available both with or without commentary from Carl Macek, a small selection of deleted scenes – the unfinished Neverwhere Land sequence (3 minutes, 480p) and the alternate carousel framing story (2:38, 480p, and with or without Carl Macek commentary) – and the excellent documentary featurette Imagining Heavy Metal (36 minutes, 480p).  While all this is retained, a large selection of material was also left behind.  Lost, but available on the 1999 DVD, are a host of image galleries, including portfolios of pencil art, cell animation, production photos, and a massive gallery of Heavy Metal magazine covers spanning from 1977 to 1999, as well as an audio recording of Carl Macek reading from his book The Art of Heavy Metal: Animation for the Eighties that originally accompanied the feature presentation.

While Sony Pictures Home Entertainment have clearly skimped on the supplements, which is a real shame with regards to the art galleries (these would have looked fantastic bumped to HD), they have spared no expense with regards to the feature presentation, and given the low price this release currently commands that’s more than enough for me.  If I had my way this disc would be sitting on a shelf in every home in America, but finding myself in the absence of godly powers of influence I’ve added it to our shortlist of Blu-ray essentials instead.  So there you have it.  Heavy Metal on Blu-ray is an essential.  That means you have to buy it, right?

in conclusion
Film: Awesome  Video: Excellent  Audio: Excellent   Supplements: Good +
Harrumphs: Limited supplemental weight.
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case.

Cannibal Girls

Year: 1973  Company: Scary Pictures   Runtime: 83′
Director: Ivan Reitman   Writers: Ivan Reitman, Daniel Goldberg, Robert Sandler
Cinematography: Robert Saad   Music: Doug Riley   Cast: Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Ronald Ulrich,
Randall Carpenter, Bonnie Neilson, Mira Pawluk, Bob McHeady, Alan Gordon, Allan Price, Earl Pomerantz
Disc company: Filmswelike, Warner Music Canada   Video: 1080p 1.78:1
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 2.0 monophonic English   Subtitles: None   Disc: BD25 (Region A)
Release Date: 10/26/2010   Available for purchase through Amazon.ca and Amazon.com

“Gloria, do whatever makes you happy, and I’ll do whatever makes me happy.  And you know what’s going to make me really happy right now?  A big chocolate milkshake.”

Produced for a pittance in 1971 and released by exploitation megalith A.I.P. in 1973 with the classic tagline “These girls do exactly what you think they do!”, Ivan Reitman and Daniel Goldberg’s Cannibal Girls plays like Canada’s answer to the Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman gore fantasies of a decade past.  Featuring SCTV regulars Eugene Levy (Best in Show) and Andrea Martin (Black Christmas) and largely improvised from a 13-page treatment, the film blends overt comedy with exploitation staples and throws in a hefty dollop of the just plain weird for good measure.  The results won’t be to everyone’s taste, but those with a soft spot for genre oddballs are in for a real treat.

The story, such as it is, follows young couple Cliff and Gloria as they head off for a bit of rest and relaxation in small-town Canada.  After a bit of car trouble they settle in quaint little Framhamville, a place where people – especially woman – have a habit of disappearing.  While checking in at the local motel Cliff and Gloria here the legend of the cannibal girls, three devilish young ladies who lured men to their country home with the promise of sexual delights, only to feast on them instead.  As luck would have it their country estate has since become the town’s must-visit tourist destination – a bizarre bed and breakfast run by a demented reverend (Ronald Ulrich) that’s just dying to have Cliff and Gloria over for dinner.  Soon the cannibal legend is looking more like a lesson in recent history, and the entire town seems to be in on the man-eating conspiracy!

Though it reminds heavily of Friedman and Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs, in which a village of cannibal Confederates conspires against a carload of Yankee passers by, Cannibal Girls offers more than enough of its own brand of the schlocky and strange to stand apart.  Case in point is the good reverend Alex St. John, Farmhamville’s resident cannibal guru and hypnotist extraordinaire, and leader of the eponymous pack of man-eating nymphets.  As played by Ronald Ulrich the character is hilariously bizarre, a tuxedo-donning Shakespeare-reciting weirdo who leads his girls in hymns and is prone to mumbling about the “rich, red, warm blood of life”.  Ulrich takes to the role with a deadly earnest that makes it all the more hysterical, leaving it unclear as to whether he was actually in on the gag or just doing his best by the material.


Ouch.

More transparent in their roles are Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin as bickering young lovers whose relationship is imperiled by their stopover in Farmhamville.  Levy and Martin play mostly as two archetypes – the man who just wants to get laid, and the woman who takes things much more seriously – but become quite endearing as time wears on.  Levy, though more than adept at delivering both scripted lines and improvisation, is here best remembered for his numerous crimes against good fashion sense.  From his bulky furs to a knitted tie (these exist??) there’s little he wears that isn’t cringe-worthy, though it’s his hair that really takes the prize – the actor is all but unrecognizable beneath his sideburns, Bollywood-villain mustache, and monstrous bobbling mane.  Martin may be the only member of the cast whose performance speaks for genuine talent, and while she carries the lighter early drama well it’s her believable late-film paranoia that really makes an impression.  It also builds perfectly to the film’s ludicrous step-frame twist ending, a stupefying turn of events I’ll not spoil here.

Though its trappings are largely comedic Cannibal Girls still works as bread-and-butter exploitation, offering up plenty of exposed flesh and stage blood (and some combinations thereof as well) before its 83 minutes are up.  Reitman and Goldberg offer up a cannibal girl for every taste here – blonde, brunette and red-head – each of whom are given their own dim-witted beau to attend to.  The majority of the more salacious material is limited to a lengthy pseudo flashback early on in the film, in which the girls are given ample opportunity to do “exactly what you think they do”, though there are lovingly tasteless flourishes to be found throughout.  The uber-exploitative opening is a prime example, dishing out a helping of gratuitous nudity, blood, and hypnotic weirdness before the credits even roll.  There’s little in the way of overt gore to be had, separating Cannibal Girls still further from its inspirations, but the shocks are handled pretty well given the paucity of the production and the limited experience of its crew.  The appearance of a pair of bloodied scissors still gives me a jolt, particularly when a bit of well-conceived phallic imagery hints further at what they had been used for…

Cannibal Girls never quite decides whether it wants to be outright exploitation or a spoof of the same, but it works well enough on both levels to keep this reviewer happy.  Silly and sexy and just violent enough to pack a punch, Cannibal Girls grows on me a little more each time I see it – it’s quickly becoming a personal favorite!  The long list of familiar names attached to it will give Cannibal Girls plenty of niche appeal, but it’s really best appreciated on its own strange terms.  Schlock aficionados, trash connoisseurs, and fans of the generally bizarre owe it to themselves to give this oddball genre flunky a run – they just might like it.


If I can’t convince you to give this film a chance, perhaps Bonnie Neilson can…

Just how well you take to Filmswelike and Warner Music Canada’s Blu-ray edition of Cannibal Girls will largely depend on how well you take to the film itself – I happen to adore it, in no uncertain terms, which has put me in a more forgiving mood than the usual with regards to this review.  Released day and date with Shout! Factory’s domestic DVD edition, this hi-def sister package from north of the border is sourced from the same transfer and features much of the same supplemental content.  The difference, as ever, is in the details, and while this Blu-ray package is inarguably imperfect fans of the film and its famous progenitors should still find plenty to love therein.

Though listed as 1.85:1, Filmswelike and Warner Music Canada present Cannibal Girls at the marginally more open aspect ratio of 1.78:1 via a freshly minted 1080p transfer from the “newly restored original film elements”.  Restored or no, the film elements in question have clearly seen better days, though that’s far from unexpected given the nature of the film in question.  Cannibal Girls is an overflowing font of visual imperfections from start to finish, with a host of white flecks and blemishes, persistent scratches and baked-in black specks that will warm the hearts of those who, like myself, enjoy this sort of patina in their grindhouse entertainment.  Your mileage may vary.  There’s also a good deal of grain on display, though it’s honestly not so intense as I was anticipating.  This aspect of the image tightens up nicely compared to the DVD, and help it to export a more faithfully film-like aesthetic.

Otherwise Cannibal Girls improves only modestly, when at all, and I suspect which image is preferred will honestly be a matter of personal taste.  The Blu-ray presents with a broader range of black levels than the comparatively boosted DVD, and they can appear strong during some sequences and a bit milky in others – I’d say that the Blu-ray is just less forgiving of the source elements’ inconsistencies in this regard.  Colors vary only slightly, most notably in red shades, while detail can actually appear less pronounced, a product of the minor edge enhancement and contrast boosting applied to the DVD.  Be it because of Cannibal Girls‘ so-so original photography or weaknesses inherent in the sourced elements the differences in real-world detail are negligible for the most part, though the Blu-ray appears more accurate overall.

All of the above is honestly fine with this reviewer, who had minimal expectations for this presentation going in – Cannibal Girls was never going to be the kind of thing you throw in to show off your home theater anyway, and those expecting otherwise may well have lost all touch with reality.  More problematic are the technical limitations imposed on the product, which has been relegated to a single-layer BD25.  The feature takes up just 10.5 GB of space on-disc, with the AVC-encoded video suffering from a low average bitrate of 15.7 Mbps.  The deficiencies show up as blocking artifacts and inconsistent support of the film’s  natural grain structure, which can appear quite digital and noisy on close inspection.  In motion I didn’t find the issues to be too distracting, and the disc definitely has its stronger moments, but the specter of poor encoding is lurking all the while, and could well have been exorcised had this disc been bumped into dual layered territory.

For the sake of full disclosure, HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command-line tool.  After comparing to the original .png files the results appeared quite transparent to these eyes, even when zooming in 2-3x.  The sample DVD snapshots in comparison sets one through four were captured in .png format in VLC, upscaled to 1080 resolution from their native resolution and exported as .png in GIMP. These captures were then also compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command-line tool.
In the first four sets of captures the Shout! Factory DVD is represented first, followed by the Filmswelike / Warner Music Canada Blu-ray.

More Blu-ray Screenshots:

The audio, whether you choose to go with or without the “warning bell” gimmick, fares much better.  Both tracks receive Dolby TrueHD 2.0 monophonic encodes in the original English with results that are perfectly satisfactory.  Dialogue sounds as flat as it always has, as do many of the canned sound effects, but it’s all perfectly intelligible.  The original score by Doug Riley (alumnus of Reitman’s earlier Foxy Lady) offers a bit more opportunity for expansion, and presents with some modest depth.  Both tracks stay true to their bottom-dollar roots, and remain free of unnecessary modern remixing, which is all I really ask of them.  As is the case with the Shout! Factory DVD, there are no subtitles.

Supplements duplicate the Shout! Factory package for the most part, but all benefit from a bump to HD video (more so than the film itself!) and Dolby TrueHD audio.  Included are two substantial interview featurettes – Cannibal Guys (26′) with director Ivan Reitman and producer Daniel Goldberg, and Meat Eugene (19′) with star Eugene Levy – and the original theatrical trailer, which I’d say is sourced from better elements than the feature it advertises.  Lost from the Shout! Factory package are a 60 second television spot and two radio spots (30 and 60 seconds) and a nice reversible cover.  Gained, however, is the 22 minute Reitman and Goldberg short film Orientation, an amusing artifact from their days at McMaster University presented in 1080p in its original 4:3 aspect ratio.  Though most definitely not a horror film (beyond the horrors of starting college, I suppose) it does make for an excellent companion piece, and the score is pretty groovy too!  Cannibal Girls also exemplifies one of the unsung benefits of the Blu-ray format, in that all of the disc’s content is accessible at any point in playback, even during the supplements, via a simple pop-up menu.  While it may not be a big deal to some it makes my job that much easier, and I heartily approve.

Unless you’re the kind of person for whom the simple act of owning Cannibal Girls on Blu-ray is its own reward (guilty!), this really isn’t must-buy material.  The biggest benefit over the Shout! Factory DVD edition is in the high definition supplements and the addition of the short student film Orientation, but the feature presentation is pretty much a wash.  Both have their downsides, be it the DVD’s limited resolution and digital boosting or the Blu-ray’s paltry encoding, and with the difference in retail price so minor ($22.97 DVD, or CDN$24.99 Blu-ray) it’s impossible for me to recommend one over the other.  I’m perfectly happy to have both sitting on my shelf, but anything beyond that is down to personal preference.

in conclusion
Film: One of a kind  Video: Good  Audio: Excellent   Supplements: Excellent
Harrumphs: No subtitles, iffy video encode for the feature.
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case.

The Women in Cages Collection

Disc company: Shout! Factory   Video: 1080p / 1.78:1    Audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD25 / BD50   Release Date: 08/23/2011   Reviewed from a screener provided by Shout! Factory LLC (Thanks Mitzye!)  Available for preorder through Amazon.com 

This is to be a technical review only.  If you wish to hear what I have to say about the three films in this collection then please read my earlier coverage of the DVD edition.

Shout! Factory released the Women in Cages Collection to DVD just over a month ago. For my money it was a very strong release, with plenty of cult appeal and considerable supplemental heft.  Now that the Blu-ray edition has arrived there are two questions demanding to be answered: How does it compare to the earlier DVD, and is the difference between the two substantial enough to warrant the considerably higher price tag?

To answer the first question, the Women in Cages Blu-ray collection does offer a substantial upgrade in audio-visual quality in comparison to the earlier DVD, and perhaps even more of an upgrade than this reviewer was expecting of it.  That’s not to say that the release is without its problems, unfortunately, but at least they’re not of the same damnable stuff that have compromised some of the other discs recently reviewed here.

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Evil Face

a.k.a.: The Hand That Feeds the Dead / La mano che nutre la morte
Year:
1974    Runtime: 90′   Director: Sergio Garrone
Writer: Sergio Garrone  Cinematography: Emore Galeassi  Music: Stefano Liberati, Elio Maestosi
Cast: Marzia Damon, Klaus Kinski, Erol Tas, Katia Christine, Stella Calderoni, Ayhan Isik

(Not to be confused with Le Amanti Del Monstro aka Lover of the Monster made in the same year, by the same director, with mostly the same cast, shared footage and even shared character names; don’t ask, it’s the Italian exploitation industry at the absurd height of its power, so everything’s possible).

Ye Olden Days. Mad scientist Professor Nijinski (Klaus Kinski) has quite an interesting household. His wife Tanja (Katia Christine) is the daughter of his former mentor Ivan Rassimov (yes, exactly like the actor), and has been disfigured in a fire that killed her dad. Normal medicine can’t help Tanja get her old skin back, but fortunately, daddy was a pioneer in skin transplantation, alas a rather primitive kind that for some inexplicable reason not only takes skin but also all of a donor’s blood to work. Fortunately for Tanja, her husband does not have too many scruples, and his assistant, a lame, slightly hunchbacked mute named Vanja (the great Turkish bad guy actor Erol Tas) does have even less. Vanja’s enthusiasm for the work might have something to do with him and Tanja having an affair behind Nijinski’s back - that is, when Tanja isn’t just torturing Vanja’s ears with a tuning fork. Anyway, with two strong mad men on her side, there are always enough young women to go around to build a new skin for her.

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The Playgirls and the Vampire

a.k.a.: L’ultima preda del vampiro
Year:
1960    Runtime: 83′   Director: Piero Regnoli
Writer: Piero Regnoli, Aldo Greci    Cinematography: Aldo Greci    Music: Aldo Piga
Cast: Walter Brandi, Lyla Rocco, Maria Giovannini, Alfredo Rizzo, Marisa Quattrini, Leonardo Botta

The bus carrying a group of five showgirls, their manager (Alfredo Rizzo) and their driver comes to a stop on a blocked road during a storm while traversing a nameless Central European country. The next town is far away, and the last town holds an angry hotel owner, so our heroes are only too happy when they stumble upon a castle. Having never seen a single horror film in their lives, everyone thinks it a grand idea to ask for shelter there.

At first, the place’s owner, Count Gabor Kernassy (Walter Brandi) is quite displeased by the group’s appearance, but as soon as he lays eyes on Vera (Lyla Rocco), one of the girls, his demeanour suddenly changes and he is willing to let them stay the night. But the Count has a few rules for his guests. Chiefly, he doesn’t want to see them leave their rooms at night under any circumstances, and urges them to lock their doors from the inside. Nobody seems to think this the least bit suspicious, and so not everyone does what the Count asks.

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I Spit on Your Grave

a.k.a. Day of the Woman
Year: 1978   Company: Cinemagic Pictures   Runtime: 101′
Director: Meir Zarchi   Writer: Meir Zarchi   Cinematography: Nouri Haviv
Cast: Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleeman, Alexis Magnotti
Disc company: Starz / Anchor Bay   Video: 1080p 1.78:1    Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH   Disc: BD50 (Region A)   Release Date: 2/08/2011   Product link: Amazon.com

A young female author from New York City takes a trip into the backwoods of Connecticut to clear her mind and aid in her writing.  Shortly after her arrival she is gang-raped by four local ne’er-do-wells and left for dead in her rented home.  She survives and, upon regaining her strength, exacts a lethal vengeance on her attackers.

I Spit on Your Grave received little attention in its country of origin when originally released as Day of the Woman in 1978 – a limited issue that failed to turn either heads or profit except in some parts of Europe (actress Camille Keaton was awarded for her performance in Spain).  It wasn’t until a wide 1980 re-release under the new I Spit… moniker that the film achieved its considerable notoriety, earning the ire of critics like Roger Ebert (who attended a troubling screening at a United Artist theatre) and being summarily banned in many countries for its graphic depictions of sexual violence.  It has since been derided as exploitative garbage and lauded as a misunderstood feminist masterpiece.  With such polarized opinions surrounding it, I suppose it’s no surprise that this reviewer finds the truth to lie somewhere between the two extremes.

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The Sexy Killer (1976)

If these crudely animated titles from Shaw Brothers don’t have you craving an old-school exploitation fix, nothing will. Sun Chung (Human Lanterns) directs this sleazy story of a nurse (Chen Ping, The Big Bad Sis) who takes violent shot-gun revenge against the drug lord (Wang Hsieh, The Super Inframan) responsible for the self-destruction of her sister.

You can read our review of the film here.