Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Hills Have Eyes (Film Series)

There have been four films in the Hills Have Eyes series:

1977's "The Hills Have Eyes"
1983's "The Hills Have Eyes Part II"
2006's "The Hills Have Eyes"
2007's "The Hills Have Eyes 2"

There was also a 1995 film called "The Outpost", which was also known alternately as "Mind Ripper" and "The Hills Have Eyes Part III: The Hills Still Have Eyes" and "The Hills Have Eyes 3: The Hills Have A Nose, Chin and Beard Now, Too".

Wes Craven

Truly, an overly self-important horror director (I know he used to be university lecturer and all, but for every "Nightmare on Elm Street" there's a "Hills Have Eyes Part II" and "Deadly Friend" either side of it) with some true classics as well. When he's good, he's pretty astonishing, so it's really a shame when he doesn't bother.

1974 - The Last House on the Left
1977 - The Hills Have Eyes
1978 - Summer of Fear
1981 - Deadly Blessing
1982 - Swamp Thing
1983 - The Hills Have Eyes Part II
1984 - A Nightmare on Elm Street
1985 - Chiller
1986 - Deadly Friend
1987 - The Serpent and the Rainbow
1989 - Shocker
1991 - The People Under the Stairs
1994 - Wes Craven's New Nightmare
1995 - Vampire in Brooklyn (ugh)
1996 - Scream
1997 - Scream 2
1999 - Music of the Heart
2000 - Scream 3
2005 - Red Eye

The Hills Have Eyes 2 (1983, Wes Craven)

1985, directed by Wes Craven

Well, if you watch this back to back with the first film, it doesn't come off too bad. It's infinitely more lightweight from the get go and the filming of some early scenes is so fucking slack, you can't believe it. Two or three set ups at most in scenes that establish a significant number of characters, accompanied by many takes (the bit where the black girl first gets off the bus) which make you go "if the director cared, he would have done a second take". Yet, the atmosphere is halfway "Hills Have Eyes" desert spooky and half early eighties, "Friday the 13th" type slasher. "Friday the 13th" is a good reference point, as Harry Manfredini also scored this movie - unlike the first movie's enjoyable music, this one is a typical Harry Manfredini score, meaning it sounds identical to "The Children", "Zombie Island Massacre", Craven's own previous "Swamp Thing" and, of course, every single "Friday the 13th" film. Seriously, the desert flats in this movie are painted out as the west coast "Crystal Lake". And, admittedly, the location (similar, but not the same as the first film) is still a very spooky place, especially now it has it's large mine shaft. Also, Kevin Blair from "Friday the 13th Part Seven: The One With the Telekinetic Girl and the Gay Cast" is in this as well, sucking as hard as everyone else.

Some of the logic is so fucked - the script is just too lax to care. In the first movie, the family broke down for at least a reason. In this one, the bus (yeah schoolbus) springs a leak and they just RUN OUT OF FUEL.

If you look at this movie in the context it was released in (1985, a year after "A Nightmare On Elm Street") it's pitiful. Craven shows barely any of the flair he brought to "Nightmare...", which is strange even if you learn "Nightmare" was filmed the year after "Hills Have Eyes Part II", but released first - it'd be a massive progression, if I didn't think the problem with this was ultimately that Craven didn't give a shit. It was nice seeing Bobby in the opening, flashing back to the first movie - continuity like that is still pretty effective. But the actor playing Bobby (I think Robert Houston is his name), looks stoned out of his mind for his two "scenes" here. The first scene, flashback aside, is just the same thing repeated - discussion between Bobby and the psychiatrist, ending with Bobby pulling a face like "heh, shows what you know...".

The idea here is, of course, to start a franchise. A series like Sean Cunningham's "Friday the 13th" series, or Wes's later "Nightmare" or "Shocker" films were intended to become. This movie wasn't a hit when released and, to be honest, that's not fair. I think it's at least as fun as "Friday the 13th Part 2" (but not "Part 3" or "The Final Chapter") and pretty fun overall. The vast continuity with the first film makes for a nice "back-to-back" feel.

It's not Craven's worst film (ever seen "Vampire in Brooklyn" ? "Music of the Heart"?), but it isn't great. It manages to swing my favour by acknowledging and somewhat recapturing the agoraphobic feel of "Hills Have Eyes", but I have to admit its nowhere near as imaginative, compelling or engaging as "Nightmare on Elm Street", "People Under the Stairs" or even the original "Hills Have Eyes". You could do worse, but a lot better too.

A later release poster with an alternate title ("II" instead of "Part II") and an acknowledgment of 1984's "Nightmare on Elm Street"

The Hills Have Eyes (1977, Wes Craven)


(1977, written & directed
by Wes Craven)

Here it is, the film that actually showed Wes Craven might be capable of directing great horror pictures. I hesitate to call this film "great" because so much of it isn't - but it's definetely got a lot of great things in it and it's miles above the horrendous "Last House on the Left" which preceded it.
The "plot" is essentially a reworking of Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" writ large on 35mm film, as a family find themselves trapped in the desert while deformed mutant cannibals run around picking them off, but it features the added dynamic of family vs family as the straight family find themselves having to resort to nasty violence to fend off and destroy the mutant cannibals. It's got a pretty solid cast for what it is, featuring early appearances for genre favourites Dee Wallace and Michael Berryman and "Shogun Assassin" director Robert Houston as Bobby. It's got baby-eatin' (intended), bird-eatin' and all kinds of cutting, and shooting. But what makes this a truly exceptional low-budget horror film is it's location. Actually shot in the middle of a startling desert environment, the film is incredible to look at even when the lighting seems a bit rough (which can be quite often, I think). The huge rock face surrounding the family is etched into my brain like few movie locations - this is a barren, horrible place, full of rattlesnakes, tarantulas and mutant cannibals.

What I find particularly interesting is that, dissimilar from most horror film, it enschews traditional claustrphobia for a kind of agoraphobia. The family's kinda trapped in a big scooped out valley in the desert - nothing but highway and desert cliff face. They can be seen from all angles, especially in the dark where they themselves can see absolutely nothing.

Pretty cool film. Evocative landscape filmed atmospherically and with passion and confidence plus a compelling story and script. Actually, this is definetely one of Wes Craven's very best scripts, right up there with "Nightmare on Elm Street". Fair play to him.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Dawn of the Dead (1978, George A. Romero)

"Dawn of the Dead" (aka. "Zombi"), 1978, written and directed by George A. Romero.

Version reviewed: The entire Region 1 "Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition" collection from Anchor Bay, featuring the three most common cuts of the film.

There are some films that are so groundbreaking in it's genre that they become prerequisite classics. Very much of their time but still impressive today none the less are George A Romero's original zombie films. Both "Night of the Living Dead" and "Day of the Dead" have faults and high points, but the clear masterpiece of Romero's series is Dawn of the Dead - an intimate and atmospheric horror epic with action, stunts and scope. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that Dawn of the Dead just isn't very scary, I could easily consider it comfortably the best horror film ever made for these other respectable merits alone. Today, "Night of the Living Dead" plays like a perfectly sixties shocker with psychedelic musical cues and moody expressionist lighting in the face of the bright colour that was in use in cinema. "Day of the Dead" plays like a very vivid nightmare, but "Dawn of the Dead" is the one that paints a sustained, surreal zombie landscape for all it's length. A quite believable scenario is sketched in the first twenty minutes - society is falling apart, largely due to people's refusal to choose a course - readily abandoning their jobs and no-longer-relevant "responsabilities" or sticking it out together. Our four main characters can hardly be blaimed for running out on it - there was nothing left sticking around for.

For what it's worth, despite the parts that are dated (or, more accurately, of their time) the film paints it's own convincing reality and the four main characters are drawn in a lot of detail. No, the effects are often quite disappointing, but they were groundbreaking for the time and have a fun and surreal feel. George A Romero himself thinks of the film as a live-action comic book and I can definetely see what he means - but it's a long one and worth every minute.

There are three cuts of this film I have seen and all are included in this boxset - Romero's preferred 127 minute US theatrical cut, his 139 minute "Cannes" cut and the 116 minute Dario Argento cut for Europe. All three cuts have their virtues, but my preference is for the Cannes cut - the lengthier pace allows the film more space for atmosphere and this is the cut I grew up watching, anyway. Argento's cut features very little (maybe NO) library music like the Romero cuts, featuring wall to wall Goblins music. Both kinds of music are effective, though I could do without the cheesy music when Ken Foree decides not to shoot himself which appears in both the Romero cuts. The main Goblin piece which appears frequently, especially in the European cut, is a very effective piece for a horror film.
Romero's theatrical cut is the one that features the best music, featuring a mix between Goblin's score and the library cues, sometimes at the same time or seamlessly transforming back and forth. However, this cut just misses too many things I like from the "Cannes cut". Note the transition from Peter and Roger at the slum to Steven at the docks. In the Cannes cut, the transition from Peter's gunshot (right into the camera) to the helecopter in the air, as it lands at the docks. In the theatrical cut, it cuts right to someone who has been shot in the head as Steven investigates him. It misses out the helecopter and most of the material with the policeman leaving for "the islands", which added a lot of scope, giving the feel of one adventure among hundreds.

The Ultimate Edition is truly a great release for this classic. All versions of the film look good (although, the Cannes Cut is definetely the worst looking) and it's really cool to have all the versions together.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Combat Shock (1986, Buddy Giovinazzo)

The rather misleading poster for the 1986 'theatrical' release.

Combat Shock aka. American Nightmares, 1986, directed by Buddy Giovinazzo.

Version reviewed: The excellent Regionless 2009 Tromasterpiece Collection release ("2-Disc Uncut 25th Anniversary Edition") from Troma Retro (Troma Team Video).

"Combat Shock" was the first feature from Buddy Giovinazzo. Shot on 16mm, it's the gritty and downbeat tour of Hell from the point of view of one Frankie Dunlan. Giovinazzo brings an arty flair to his gutter-level film which shows a world where things will always get worse for absolutely everyone and everything in it. There's not too much of a story - it's essentially the final day of the main character, who I can't bring myself to call "hero", but actually none-the-less performs as an essentially noble man throughout everything he is confronted with. He is given plenty of opportunities to escape the responsibility of his life and family and he never takes them. Right up until the last few minutes, he is pretty sympathetic, even after certain things (which I won't spoil) come to light which redefine all seen before.

An hellish and gory Vietnam.

"Combat Shock" was part of a wave of films in the 1980s that were made by dedicated men, lots of friends and very little money. Usually shot on 16mm, films like "The Evil Dead", "Maniac", "Deadbeat at Dawn", "Basket Case", "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and "Street Trash" are today often regarded as classics and "Combat Shock" is no exception. Lacking the polish of "Street Trash" or even "Maniac", it more closely resembles "Deadbeat..." and "Basket Case", it's hero ankle-deep in grime. This is real thread-bare stuff - scenes in Vietnam were clearly not filmed in Vietnam, but the Staten Island scenes have a lot of impact and Giovinazzo's visual style is really impressive. A few sequences don't work - I'm definitely not sure about all those super intense, Tetsuo-like human-stop-motion scenes, but the cumulative effect of the whole film is undeniable. It's really impressive what Buddy did with basically nothing. It's cumulative effect is memorable. There are few films that can be so depressing and so hypnotic at the same time.

The new "Tromasterpiece Edition" DVD of Combat Shock is one of the best, if not the best DVD Troma has ever put out. It features two whole DVDS and a lot of extras. On the first disc, it ports over from the first DVD the (pretty good) transfer of "Combat Shock" and the audio commentary by Buddy Giovinazzo and Jorg Buttgereit, but adds a brand new transfer - for the first time on home video or even wide release, Buddy Giovinazzo's original cut named "American Nightmares". Running a good few minutes longer, as far as I can tell the most obvious difference is the opening is missing from the director's cut. Troma, for their theatrical "Combat Shock" version release, added a brief opening credits with stock footage from the Vietnam war, cut with footage from the existing movie and scored by some famous composer I can't remember right now. It, admittedly, didn't fit the film perfectly but it got it off to a very exciting and effective start, adding scope and legitimacy to the scenes in Vietnam that follow (and actually "open" the "American Nightmares" cut). So, even though my preference will have to go to the director's full intended vision, I'm very glad Troma would put both cuts on the disc as the "theatrical version" has a bigger budget feel (having both the great looking stock footage and the fact it's a 35mm blow-up transfer) and is a different, more streamlined film. The director's cut has a very nice new transfer from the 16mm materials and is represented well.

Disc two apes a little style from the "Visions of Hell: The Films of Jim Van Bebber" boxset, and includes a large chunk of short films by director Buddy Giovinazzo. The shorts are simple but compelling, especially "Subconscious Realities", the immediate pre-cursor to "Combat Shock". There's also later shorts that were supposedly to springboard into full length features, both of which are great - "Maniac 2: Mr Robbie" is a kinda remake of "The Psychopath" and "Jonathan of the Night" is an interesting, gritty twist on the vampire legend. There's a selection of music videos by Buddy and Rick Giovinazzo's band, Circus AD (I think that's what they're called? I'll check). In short, this is incredibly in-depth and impressive.
The big extra on disc 2 is the documentary "Post-Traumatic: An American Nightmare", which features no contributions from anyone involved with the film directly, but rather other filmmakers praising and analysing the film. Impressive figures making appearances include John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Richard Stanley ("Hardware", "Dust Devil"), William Lustig ("Maniac", "Vigilante", "Maniac Cop"), Jim Van Bebber, Scott Spiegel (Evil Dead II) and Roy Frumkes, who pays Buddy back for his appearance in Frumkes' "Meltdown Memoirs" on the "Street Trash" DVD. Even more strange than Buddy's' absence in "Post-Traumatic..." is Lloyd Kaufman. In fact, I don't believe he appears on either DVD at all, even in an intro, which is very strange for a Troma release. That's respect for the film. (Post-script: I remember now, he conducts one of the interviews with Buddy on another section of disc two!) The documentary is a great extra, presumably made by someone outside of Troma, but none the less a fantastic addition with a lot to think about for fans of the film.
There's also three recent interviews with Buddy Giovinazzo (none are the one included on the previous DVD, and one featuring Jorg again and with some really bad sound), one with Rick Giovinazzo, the trailer and also a brief featurette showing you (and me) the filming locations as they are in 2009.

I have to praise Troma here - no one else in 1986 would have released such a transgressive "horror" film, but Troma had the vision to do so. They supported Buddy's vision so much this new release was really birthed at his own dissatisfaction with how the previous DVD treated the film - it was, apparently, cut by a Troma employee for no good reason. Secondly, in 2009, Troma has done Buddy and the film right with the greatest-yet addition to their Tromasterpiece line, a thorough and whole hearted representation of the film on dvd. It's a pretty thorough and astounding DVD release and stands resolutely with the releases of other, comparable films mentioned in this review by companies such as Blue Underground, Synapse, Dark Sky and Anchor Bay.

If you have never seen this film but like low-budget but compelling exploitation films, give "Combat Shock" a try. There's never been a better time and the film is timeless in it's ability to revolt.

The original artwork for the Tromasterpiece Edition. Am I the only one who liked this cover better?

Redneck Zombies (1986, Pericles Lewnes)

"Redneck Zombies" (1986, directed by Pericles Lewnes)

Version reviewed: The excellent 2009 no-region-coding 'Tromasterpiece Edition' from Troma Team Video.

Nuclear waste falls into the hands of rednecks who use the drum holding the waste to make a still and brew up some moonshine. After they turn into insanely violent zombies, they attack a group of dysfunctional campers from the city. Interspersed with the film are a series of either comedic or mind-fuck vignettes which consist of at least half the craziness.

The 'plot' is a deliberate (but not ironic) attempt at making a bad horror movie. What makes it different is the fact that, in practice, the film is a flat-out comedy. This gives the movie the feel of something custom built to covertly sit between "Troll 2" and "Zombi 3" on the bottom-shelf of your local video store, while in fact celebrating it's own crassness in a way those unintentional bad movie classics never would.

But, in fact, I am of the opinion the film is a much more worthwhile zombie excursion than the vast majority of "Dawn of the Dead" knock-offs produced in this time. There's definitely a touch of "The Return of the Living Dead" here, not just in it's toxic-chemical induced zombies, but in the zeal of the filmmakers making their own rules up as they go. With this movie, the filmmakers decided to show you things no other zombie movie would! They show you the point of view of a terrified man on acid attempting to perform an autopsy on a zombie by lantern-light and you'll see a corpulant redneck seriously contemplate having sex with the (seriously mutilated) remains of a lady camper. It's easy to forget in this post-"Shaun of the Dead"/"Zombieland" world that they were actually no zombie movies where people attempted to 'act' like zombies to move around the world until Redneck Zombies came around. Why George Romero overlooked this, I do not know.

It would be so easy for me to dismiss this movie for one reason or another - it's inherent trashiness or the fact it was shot on video (note: here I am not talking about 'digital' video)- but the fact is I've seen enough films shot on video I can tell you the difference. Most of them are dull and depressing like "Robot Ninja", some of them are atrocious like the "Zombie Bloodbath" trilogy and some of them are just amateur beyond all fucking belief such as "Splatter Farm", which is made as if the filmmakers have only seen two films before, and I only bought the fucking thing 'cause Frank Henenlotter endorsed it on the box! "Redneck Zombies" manages to, rather quietly really, subvert whatever expectations the audience expects. If the audience expects "Dawn of the Dead 2", they're bound to be disappointed and put off with all the weirdness, comedy and the fact it's cheaply shot on video. If someone expects shot on video trash, they get a film that is pretty well shot for what it is, edited tightly with some really neat, trippy effects and all done with a good sense of humour. Intercut with the gory, comedy of the film are genuinely arresting sequences like the Tobacco Man scene (a kind of revolting, redneck twist on the "Ice Cream Man" ) or the "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" influenced scene where one of the rednecks delivering moonshine finds himself in a house where one man, dressed as a butcher and covered in blood, makes an order of 'shine while a bug-eyed redneck holds a rope around a crying woman, tied to a chair. Seemingly, this doesn't really bother our redneck 'hero'. The scene gets weirder - as the girl cries, begs with her eyes in slow motion, close ups on the redneck get more intense, and pretty soon, it's intercut with the slaughter house (actually, beak marking) footage on the TV, featuring a bunch of chirping chicks.
Very strange. "Texas Chain Saw" gets a more direct parody earlier on, when a twitchy barber hitchhiker recreates a similar scene from the Tobe Hooper classic. It's nice to see the filmmakers acknowledge what is, probably, the best 16mm low-budget horror film ever made. There's also some really cool gore and violence here - it's never realistic, but it is frequently disgusting and over the top. One special effect is a clear stand out- one of the best headshots I've ever seen, putting the ones in both "Dawn of the Dead" and "Scanners" to shame, skillfully (and surely patiently) making sure the audience sees for a few seconds the real actor before immediately cutting to the dummy's head exploding apart. The effect is simple but very effective - there's no seam.

I have to give thanks to Troma twiceover - first of all, no one else would release this film. If Pericles Lewnes and co. had made a straight-forward zombie film, maybe they would release it - but ironically, the humour preventing any other company taking the film on is what makes the film so much more worthwhile than it's other shot-on-video ilk. Troma had the good sense (and sense of humour) to release a film that is committed to entertaining it's purely hypothetical audience. Second of all, Troma re-released the film on DVD in this year of our lord, 2009. An earlier DVD from 1998 (I believe) featured a few glitches in the print both visible and, if you scroll down and go to my interview with Ed Bishop, you'll learn parts of the film that seem like cuts are actually glitches too. The only extras were two interviews, one with Pericles Lewnes and one with Ed Bishop. They were okay, but only lasted a few minutes a piece.

The 2009 Tromasterpiece (second in the series, following "Cannibal! The Musical") release is a spiffy two-disc affair that buries any previous versions of the film. The freshly painted cover is a nice touch (though I do miss the original poster, seen up top) and it houses inside two discs - a jam-packed DVD and a CD soundtrack (!). On the DVD, a new transfer has been done that looks a clear three or four times better than the previous DVD edition. There are no glitches in the film so darker scenes (where the problem surfaced before) look a lot better. The whole thing has been colour-corrected, which means it looks much more consistant than the first version did. Perhaps controversial among some small quarters of this film's small fanbase, some of the special visual effects have been redone for this edition. RELAX, this is not a big deal, the two scenes as they stood before were both very funny - the protracted mutation of the rednecks into zombies and the "acid autopsy" scene - but a little dark. This new version preserves the hokey joke of the cheesy effects, but they're more appropriate and less obstructive to the footage underneath. Instead of merely having hundreds of multicoloured squares overlapping themselves to simulate the effects of LSD, this time there are swirls and warping effects, far more appropriate to a "cheesy low-budget approximation of LSD". In fact, I think I saw a kaleidoscope effect in there...?

Overall, the version of the film here is clearly the best there ever was. But wait, there's more! Now there's a commentary from Pericles and Ed, which is a lot of fun and informative too. There's in-depth interviews with just about everybody involved with the production (notably, Anthony Burlington-Smith who was very funny in the film is nowhere to be found here). There is also deleted scenes (including the original mutation and 'acid autopsy' effects), behind the scenes footage, outtakes, trailers, promo-videos and more.

The soundtrack CD, probably the biggest and most unconventional extra here, is a definete boon to fans of the film. Consisting of both Adrian Bond's sometimes hilarious sometimes very effective early synth score and also the songs littered throughout the film, this is an incredible extra to drop on fans (why don't Troma do this with Toxie or "Class of Nuke 'Em High" ? Surely these artists are more obscure!) and a very fun listen for fans of the film.

Overall, in this new DVD I have to say "Redneck Zombies" is one of the best horror or exploitation releases of the year. The extras are really all out, something I never dared hope for in Troma pickup movies, where the cast and crew have usually long given up their filmmaking dreams. I laughed, if you think you will, splash out and join me.

Don't miss out on my great interview with actor/writer/producer Ed Bishop here!