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Death of a Snowman

Directed by Christopher Rowley, 1978

Ken Gampu in <em>Death of a Snowman</em>

Neither especially well-crafted nor completely inept, Death of a Snowman is less interesting as a film than as an artifact. You might hope that a low-budget crime drama shot in and around Johannesburg, South Africa, during the apartheid years would deal explicitly with political conditions in the segregated country. Instead — perhaps because of government censorship or fears of political reprisals — Death of a Snowman has only the whiff of racial tension about it, as whites and blacks doubt, disbelieve and double-cross one another from start to finish.

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Horror Hospital

Directed by Anthony Balch, 1973

Horror Hospital
Director Anthony Balch, known both as a collaborator on film projects with William S. Burroughs and as a shrewd cinema programmer and distributor, made this cheesy but imaginative and good-natured horror show on a shoestring. Swinging singles Jason (Robin Askwith) and Judy (Phoebe Shaw, credited as Vanessa Shaw) take a holiday at an old, vaguely threatening English manor. By the time they figure out that the other houseguests have been lobotomized, it's too late — creepy Dr. Christian Storm (Michael Gough -- I know him from Trog) and matriarch Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock) are holding them captive in a weird kind of research laboratory with security provided by Daft Punk. Storm apparently wants to turn the poor kids into mindless sex slaves and only Frederick, a sympathetic dwarf servant, may be able to bust them out before that happens — assuming the mysterious, shambling mud monster doesn't do them in first. Too bad Balch really blows his load in the film's very first scene, prematurely debuting his pièce de résistance — a Rolls Royce with pop-out machete blades that serves as a mobile decapitation machine, right down to the sacks positioned to catch the heads as they roll off the bodies while the limo tears up the English countryside. Meanwhile, the goings-on inside the house are pretty rote — but there's a wee bit of nudity to spice up the first half and the film's cheerfully ludicrous attitude goes a long way. And complaining about the film's cheap stereotypes would likely be missing the point.

Elite Entertainment released a nice version of this on DVD back in 1999; it's now out of print.

Note: Since I wrote this review, Horror Hospital has been reissued on DVD by Dark Sky Films.

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Nikkatsu Noir: Eclipse (Criterion) Series 17

Directed by Kurahara, Masuda, Suzuki, Furukawa and Nomura, 1957-1967
Nikkatsu Noir The latest addition to Criterion's budget-priced and barebones Eclipse line-up is this boxed set of five films from a cycle of tough-minded crime dramas that enjoyed popularity in post-WWII Japan. Little-seen in the U.S., this group of films as a whole probably benefits from Japanese settings and attitudes that bring a sense of freshness, even exoticism, to straightforward genre exercises. But the films are entertaining and engrossing on their own terms, and, more than that, they paint an interesting picture of a culture in a generational transition and, perhaps, a bit of an identity crisis — they're clearly derivative of American film noir and French crime films of the period. And the best ones in the set — for my money, Seijun Suzuki's Take Aim at the Police Van and Takashi Nomura's A Colt Is My Passport (pictured at top) — hold their own against any crime film of the period. Together, they provide a sketch, in necessarily broad strokes, of a key period in the development of the popular Japanese cinema. Nikkatsu Noir is a terrific collection.

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The Sign of the Cross

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, 1932
Mounted and directed by the legendary showman Cecil B. DeMille and photographed by the marvelously adroit cinematographer Karl Struss (Sunrise, Island of Lost Souls), The Sign of the Cross is a dispiriting epic that purports to tell the tale of Roman persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero, who is believed under some theories to have ordered his men to set fire to the city and then blamed local Christians for the damaging blaze. But despite insistently dull depictions of the monotonous lives of the true believers, who are so dumb they can't even station proper lookouts outside their secret prayer meetings, what DeMille's really into is the hedonistic habits of the Roman upper classes. The result is a film whose generous helpings of sex and violence are overwhelmed by its general air of condescension and phony piety. … [read more]
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Sonny Chiba's Dragon Princess

Directed by Yutaka Kodaira, 1976

Crummy by mainstream standards, this low-budget martial-arts programmer has lots of charm, starting with the opening shot depicting the inside of a church with saloon-style swinging doors banging against the wind and dust outside, and Tarantino fans will make note of some of the source elements he appropriated for his Kill Bill revenge pastiche. But the real attraction here is Yumi Higaki, playing a talented but reluctant martial-arts disciple seeking payback for injuries to the body and pride of her master (Sonny Chiba, in an extended cameo at the film's beginning). I had seen her previously in Sister Street Fighter, released two years earlier, but her poise and confidence has improved here. A prototype for any number of femme videogame ass-kickers, from Chun Li down the line, she has an overgrown-kid look to her that makes her determination and eventual triumph in the violent coming-of-age scenario more rousing.

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Chicago 10

Directed by Brett Morgen, 2007
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Chicago 10
, a documentary about the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and subsequent jury trial of eight protester defendants, is a bracing combination of archival footage and contemporary animation. The archival sections speak for themselves -- the colorful footage of groovy, loose-lipped protesters with a flair for the theatrics filling Lincoln Park is not only historic, but can be interestingly contrasted against the less colorful demonstrations of today -- but the interspersed animated sequences are something unusual. Working from stranger-than-fiction transcripts of the (sadly unphotographed) courtroom proceedings, writer/director Brett Morgan has assembled an all-star cast of character actors (Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, etc.) to portray that world-class cast of characters (including Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Bobby Seale), animated in a rotoscoped style reminiscent of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. … [read more]
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Son of Rambow

Directed by Garth Jennings, 2008
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This loosely autobiographical quasi-coming-of-age tale from Garth Jennings, half of music-video production team Hammer & Tongs and the director of the unwieldy but fitfully amusing Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy feature, is crammed tight with every kid-pic cliché you can imagine. It starts with the unlikely friendship of imaginative loner Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) and village tough Lee Carter (Will Poulter), then quickly becomes one of those movies about the making of a bad movie -- the titular "Son of Rambow," which is inspired by a bootleg videotape of First Blood shot by Lee at the local cinema. While Will has been raised in a straight-laced religious sect that forbids TV and movies, Lee is almost his polar opposite - a rambunctious (though soft-hearted) bully given to petty larceny who nonetheless wields a primitive VHS camcorder in the hope of winning a filmmaking contest by leveraging the limited materials available to him. … [read more]
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The Inglorious Bastards

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari, 1978
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Director Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 World War II adventure is probably most notable for inspiring a new Quentin Tarantino screenplay. Its three-disc DVD release, from Severin Cinema, is a surprisingly deluxe affair tied to the Tarantino remake, with Q.T. himself showing up to interview Castellari and put the film in some perspective (it was never released theatrically in the U.S., so Tarantino discovered it on a TV screening). Some extensive making-of features and a CD of soundtrack music (the third disc) round out the package. … [read more]
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When I settled in to take a look at Nimrod Nation, an eight-part documentary series that aired beginning in 2007 on the Sundance Channel, I expected to sit still for an episode or two before deciding when and whether to continue. To my not-inconsiderable surprise, I devoured the first four episodes in a single afternoon, took down two more in the evening, and finished out the package the following morning. Taken as a whole, Nimrod Nation is not a great documentary, but it's a friendly and unassuming collection of days in the life that gets big points for compulsive watchability.

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Saawariya

Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2007
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I haven't seen many Bollywood movies. It's quite possible that, were I more familiar with their form and conventions -- if the exotic-to-western-eyes spell they can cast were less of a novelty -- I'd have a lot less patience with Saawariya and the endless tiny complications that sustain its otherwise threadbare boy-chases-girl storyline over more than two hours of screen time. Then again, were I a Bollywood fanboy, I might be even more enchanted by everything that Saawariya gets right -- enough that I'd be less cognizant of what misses. … [read more]
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Teeth

Directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007
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Dawn (Jess Weixler), the protagonist of writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein's playfully gynephobic black comedy Teeth, is a high-school abstinence advocate whose no-sex-before-marriage stance masks her deep discomfort with her own body. Because Teeth is also a horror movie, the root of her fear is physical, not psychological -- as Anne Carlisle put it in the druggy downtown classic Liquid Sky, "this pussy has teeth."

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The Cottage

Directed by Paul Andrew Williams, 2008
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The gimmick of this energetic Brit-com is that the action switches, approximately halfway through, from comic crime drama to comic splatter movie. The main problem, then, is that The Cottage, against the odds, makes a better caper movie than gore flick. The first half-hour or so is an engaging and amusing farce about kidnappers David (Andy Serkis) and Peter (Reece Shearsmith), who drive to a secluded house with their hostage, Tracey (Jennifer Ellison) bound and gagged in the trunk. It's not the best plan -- the outrageously busty Tracey may be the daughter of a gangster, but she's a terrible hostage, strong-willed and foul-mouthed. She knows David on sight. And their inside man, Tracey's brother Andrew, is a dimwit who brings the whole scheme tumbling down on top of them. About the time the car pulls up outside with a couple of Chinese hit men out for blood, The Cottage has established itself as a credibly tense comedy. … [read more]
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Image nicked from Tim Lucas's excellent Video Watchblog entry on Night of the Werewolf.

It's surely convenience, or just coincidence--rather than any nods to quality or pent-up demand--that these are the first two Euro-horror titles to arrive in high definition on Blu-ray Disc. This double-feature package from BCI and Deimos entertainment pairs two films starring the well-loved (and prolific) Spanish horror actor Paul Naschy. Vengeance of the Zombies (La Rebelion de las Muertas, 1972) is a potboiler from cult director Leon Klimovsky involving a charismatic Indian cult leader (Naschy), his less-attractive brother (also Naschy), and a beautiful redhead (Romy) from a cursed English family. And Night of the Werewolf (La Retorno del Hombre Lobo, 1980) is a genre mash-up directed by Naschy in which he stars as the wolfman Waldemar Daninsky and faces off against a bevy of vampire women led by Elizabeth Bathory herself. (Scroll way down to read about some problems with these discs.)

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The Lost

Directed by Chris Sivertson, 2005
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Whatever happened to the red-meat, teens-in-trouble, blood-and-breasts American horror film? On the evidence here, it’s been driven nearly underground. To be clear, The Lost, which played the festival circuit and got a handful of theatrical showings in New York and Los Angeles, isn’t a great film. It’s limited by its budget, a general flabbiness around the midsection, and genre conventions that serve as reminders of the film’s status as horror product. But, compared to the cynical teen-scare flicks and semi-competent J-horror knock-offs clogging multiplex screens, The Lost feels unhinged and even a little dangerous. Its climax has a ferocity and evokes a sense of helplessness that’s hard to shake. If the ability to genuinely disturb is any measure of a horror film’s quality, then The Lost is a pretty good one.

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4 by Agnes Varda (Criterion)

Among the most important female directors* in film history, Agnes Varda may best be remembered for crashing the boys' club that was the Nouvelle Vague with Cleo from 5 to 7, her 1962 study in real-time anxiousness — the title character hangs around in Paris, awaiting the results of a cancer biopsy. But she was already on the scene in 1956, when she made La Pointe Courte, a film-school standby and an important precursor to the French New Wave. This boxed set collects both of those high-water marks along with Le Bonheur (1965), the well-regarded Vagabond (1985) and a full load of extras. I haven't seen it myself, but it's on my list.

* No, there aren't many of them. Another good reason to investigate the great ones.

Buy it from Amazon.com: 4 by Agnès Varda (La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, Le bonheur, Vagabond) - Criterion Collection

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Sony)

How many times do you have to buy Life of Brian, anyway? If you already own a DVD version, this latest iteration — the "Immaculate Edition" — may be missable. But if you're like me, you haven't watched this since the Criterion laserdisc came out and need an upgrade. (You could also ask why you spent big money on a Criterion laserdisc that you would only play once, and why you would compound that fiscal error by sinking even more money into a DVD that you're likely to only play once — but then you wouldn't be like me.) My copy (Blu-ray) hasn't arrived from Amazon.com yet, but it looks like this one contains the same five deleted scenes and the same twin commentary tracks as the Criterion version, which means I can thrill again to the sound of distinguished Python Terry Gilliam griping about how much better this film would have been if the group had let him direct. (He's probably right, of course.) As Python goes, I honestly prefer the more madcap Holy Grail — but this one has the distinction of being perhaps the least offensive film ever to get a worldwide reputation for blasphemy. Here's a recent interview with John Cleese on the subject.

Buy it from Amazon.com: Monty Python's Life Of Brian - The Immaculate Edition or Monty Python's Life Of Brian - Collector's Edition [Blu-ray] (Note: Amazon.com says the Blu-ray version is two discs, but apparently it's just one.)
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Day Night Day Night

Directed by Julia Loktev, 2006
Luisa Williams in <em>Day Night Day Night</em> I think of Day Night Day Night in some ways as a companion film to United 93. One is about a real event, one is imagined. One uses handheld camera and fast edits to convey a sense of urgency and naturalism, one gets much the same effect through long takes and subjective camerawork. Both are utterly gripping studies of how people react in high-stress situations — one is about the victims of terrorism, the other about the perpetrators. The protagonist of Day Night Day Night is an unnamed young woman (Luisa Williams) who has chosen to leave her life and her family behind to carry a bomb into Times Square in a backpack and detonate it. Writer/director Julia Loktev keeps all this material non-specific — the masked men who prep her for the job seem American; the guy who drives her into the city looks Korean; the folks who make the bomb look ... Jewish, maybe? It doesn't matter. Loktev forces audience identification with her as a frightened woman looking for redemption, not as a symbol of any specific political beef, by keeping the camera close to her face and body, and in certain moments showing us exactly what she sees. (Cinematographer Benoît Debie, who also shot Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, knows a thing or two about the subjective camera.) It's a slow-paced, methodical film, and also a very smart and instructive one that's sympathetic to its sad bomber without forgiving her her intentions. … [read more]
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If you ever felt, as I did, there was some missing backstory associated with the smartly amusing Shaun of the Dead and its somewhat-less-brilliant follow-up, Hot Fuzz, you may be excited to make the acquaintance of Spaced, the consistently ingenious British TV show where director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost cut their comic teeth. Storywise, it’s no relation to Shaun of the Dead, even though it feels somewhat like a prequel — and it’s a bit thrilling to think of Tim Bisley, the videogame-addicted comic-book artist Pegg plays in Spaced finally given a chance to face the zombies who populate his dreams in a real-world post-apocalyptic showdown.

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Death Line

Directed by Gary Sherman, 1972

rawmeat.jpgHere's the bad news: it's not as good as Dead & Buried. But it's still pretty good. Director Gary Sherman's 1972 feature, known in the U.S. as Raw Meat, is a spooky subway movie that takes place in the London Underground but features images of tunnelled emptiness that should send at least a mild shiver of recognition down the spine of any big-city dweller without the coin to take taxicabs every damn place under the sun. Like Dead & Buried, it involves a cop in over his head, but this time the cop — played in typically amiable style by Donald Pleasence — isn't in any real danger. Instead, the protagonists are a hip young couple (their shared pad displays poster tributes to Hendrix and Che Guevara) who trip over an unconscious man on their way up the subway stairs after the last train departs the station. She wants to find help; he doesn't want to get involved. And before a constable can be summoned, the body disappears.

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Emanuelle in America

Directed by Joe D'Amato, 1976

Blue Underground released this notorious and oft-censored installment in the Black Emanuelle series, directed by the well-known schlockmeister Joe D'Amato and starring the knockout Laura Gemser as a labored metaphor for the free love movement. Emanuelle in America boasts the softcore action you'd expect, including some nude underwater frolicking and copious amounts of disinterested fondling and caressing. It also delivers the action you don't expect — like a woman masturbating a horse (yes, this actually happens on screen) and some hardcore, ahem, inserts shot from the kinds of camera angles that might have been commonplace in the 1970s but now seem rather unusual.

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Dead & Buried

Directed by Gary Sherman, 1981

deadandburied.jpgNow here's a real horror movie. So downbeat and unforgettably fatalistic that it almost qualifies as film noir, director Gary Sherman's Dead & Buried was greeted on its original release without much fanfare outside of the genre community, though it was written and directed by smart people and was championed by horror specialists. Now, the scrappy young DVD label Blue Underground has given it the kind of release it deserves.

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May

Directed by Lucky McKee, 2002

mayNo thank you, online horror buffs, for starting the buzz that convinced me to take a chance on May, a quirky horror film from writer/director Lucky McKee. The presence of a front-of-DVD-case rave from Aint-It-Cool-News and a back-cover blurb from Film Threat was a clue that this indie horror film's support is mostly limited to the Internet crowd. (Roger Ebert, the avuncular honorary leader of the online geek contingent, did give it a rave.) Early on, McKee displays a knack for genuinely discomfiting material involving contact lenses and animal hospitals, but such sharply focused moments are increasingly rare as he stretches his material to fill 93 minutes.

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Final Destination 2

Directed by David Ellis, 2003

974_final-dest-2.jpgI wasn't a fan of this, despite its enjoyable, blackly comic enthusiasm for scenes of elaborate death. The arrival of New Line's special edition DVD enticed me to take a second look, and I'm still not a fan — but I appreciate the visual effects work even more than I did the first time through, thanks to the documentary features that underscore the extensive use of practical effects (that's as opposed to computer-generated effects), such as carefully constructed dummies filled with disturbingly convincing blood and organs, that went into creating the wantonly bloody punctuation for the demise of each in a string of doomed lead characters.

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Spirited Away

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2001

Spirited AwayIn spite of my own tendencies, I've come to regard films with a cult following with some suspicion. As personal and extraordinary as many of them are, others seem to have gathered fans up in a single-throated horde like the unthinking masses heading to a fundamentalist rally or a Bon Jovi concert. The European horror genre, for instance, which is regarded with great fervor by a significant population of cinephiles, is home to a number of wonderful films, but also some of the grandest, most misogynist and misanthropic howlers ever committed to celluloid. Japanese anime is another one, a niche market of films that are regarded very highly by some very smart people but has largely failed to excite my interest, despite good-faith efforts to see highly lauded examples of the form in the movie theaters where they belong.

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RoboCop

Directed by Paul Verhoeven, 1987

Nancy Allen and Peter Weller in <em>Robocop</em>

On the commentary track that accompanies the Criterion Collection's new DVD version of RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven kicks things off by admitting that, on a first read of the film's script, he declined the project, mistaking it for just another "B-level science fiction movie" from the Hollywood crap factories. Verhoeven's comments are closely followed by those of producer Jon Davison, who imagines Verhoeven simply reading the first 20 pages of the script by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner and then throwing the damn thing across the room. (From RoboCop, Verhoeven advanced to the far more swollen melodrama of Basic Instinct and Showgirls — his active philosophy where Hollywood crap is concerned seems to be "if you can't beat them, join them.")

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John Carpenter's The Thing

Directed by John Carpenter, 1982
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In his cultural history of the horror genre, The Monster Show, writer David J. Skal compares Francis Bacon's famous 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion to equally disturbing special effects work in John Carpenter's The Thing. The surrealistic imagery conjured by Rob Bottin to depict the transformation of a human being into a shape-changing thing from another world is nearly unimaginable, and Bacon is one of its few precedents. It must be seen to be believed, and it represents a kind of high-water mark for fevered creativity in the horror film. [Ed. note, 2008: This review references a DVD edition of the film that hasn't been available for years. Current editions represent a significant improvement in picture quality.][read more]
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Videodrome

Directed by David Cronenberg, 1983
Finally released in a widescreen video version (on DVD) and as crucial now as when it was first released, David Cronenberg's Videodrome is a dark parable for the television age as well as a horror movie about the very nature of horror movies. With clinical and allegorical relish, Cronenberg uses a gut-busting horror film to turn the oft-repeated claim that violence in the media catalyzes violence in society on its ear. … [read more]
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