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by Bill Gibron

3 Apr 2009


When a novice becomes enamored with the post-modern preamble known as exploitation, their usual route in begins with a group of seminal figures. Herschell Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman, Kroger Babb, Doris Wishman, Barry Mahon, Bryon Mabe, and Andy Milligan took the genre and ran with it, introducing subjects and storylines to the motion picture artform that mainstream Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a ten foot, well greased and dipped in antibiotic pole. One of the most prolific was producer Harry Novak. Not only did he make his own mark in the realm of sin and skin, but he introduced hundreds of foreign and underground titles to the market as well. One of his most notorious remains Danish import Dværgen. Retitled The Sinful Dwarf, Novak hoped this completely corrupt tale would become a classic. In some ways - he got his wish. Unreleased for decades, it’s become the stuff of lewd legend.

Young newlyweds Peter and Mary are desperate for a place to stay. Unfortunately, they have very little money. Luckily, former nightclub chanteuse Lili Lash as a boarding house that’s cheap, cheap, cheap. Unfortunately, it’s a front for a diabolic scheme involving kidnapping, drug smuggling, heroin addiction, prostitution, and other immoral acts. Overseen by her undersized dwarf son Olaf, Lash spends her days in a drunken stupor, entertaining her equally inebriated friend Winnie. At night, men visit the various victims they have chained up in the attic, these naked, nubile girls forced into unspeakable acts of white slavery to keep the Lashes in the lap of…well, near poverty. When Peter is forced to find work to supplement his failing writing career, he leaves Mary alone with the crazed clan. Sure enough, she becomes the next target of the Lash business model, a piece of meat to be traded like any other available whore.

There’s a moldy old maxim in exploitation that goes a little something like this - if you’re going to give potential audiences a title so titillating it overwhelms the entire notion of grindhouse gratuity, you better deliver on your implied debauchery. On the plus side, The Sinful Dwarf tries to live up to its lurid moniker. We get several shots of star Torben doing his best little person perversions, and the rest of the film offers nothing but nonstop nastiness. If you’ve never seen a raincoat crowd-pleaser before, get ready. This movie makes the basement pit sequences in Pink Flamingoes seem tame by example. Thanks to Harry Novak, that notorious cinematic entrepreneur of excess and erotica, worldwide audiences got a chance to appreciate this unhinged Danish dementia - and now, finally, it finds its way onto home video. The digital format is ill-prepared for such salaciousness.

Granted, The Sinful Dwarf will seem very familiar to anyone with a previous knowledge of the genre. It follows the exploitation recipe to a form-fitting (and breast enhancing) “T”. There’s so much nudity here that male members of the demographic get little time to reload, and the blatant misogynist tone is take to extremes in both the edited hardcore sequences as well as the moments when drunken old dames Lili and Winnie get their gin-juiced groove on. Director Vidal Raski certainly knows how to satisfy his proposed audience’s prurient needs. There are so many shots of star Anne Sparrow in clingy, mammary enhancing garments that he could be working for Maidenform - and that’s just when she’s dressed. The rest of the time, the camera never leaves her swollen, heaving ‘talents’.

As for the rest of the cast, they are caught somewhere between porn and implausibility. Since they are kept drugged up most of the time, their character’s escape appears impossible. Yet anyone with common sense can see that a group of semi-conscious sex slaves can easily beat up one crippled, cane-reliant dwarf. Even better, when Lili shows up to put the smack down, she’s usually so lubed up on Beefeaters that she can barely walk erect. Yet these women simply lay there, full frontals giving the camera the performance of a lifetime. When Raski gets down to the diddling, it’s borderline offensive in its realism. Those in the know understand that this XXX feature was carved down to get a more commercial release. Yet there’s enough blatant innuendo to keep censors up at night.

In fact, the most horrific thing about The Sinful Dwarf is how “tame” it is compared to other offerings from the era. At this point in exploitation, the Findlays were heading over to Snuff-ville, David Friedman was working on the soft to hardcore transition, and Deep Throat was making smut socially acceptable. Here, all we have is bargain basement depravity dressed up in human oddity histrionics. Critics have mentioned that the movie suffers from a lack of Torben, and it’s true. He’s by far the most intriguing character (elderly female winos aside) and he offers a unique and rather disturbing onscreen presence. The fact that he was the host of children’s shows in his native Denmark speaks a lot about his acting prowess. Still, we could tolerate much more ‘midget’ in this out of bounds effort.

There will be some who find this all too tacky and filthy to endure, a wretched experience without a speck of redeeming value or validity. Others will view it all through a cynical gaze that comes from decades of being desensitized to such seedy, slimy sleaze. Though it could probably never live up to its notorious nomenclature, The Sinful Dwarf is an excellent example of the extremes some filmmakers would go to in achieving a kind of kink immortality. Similar to the myth surrounding such previously unknown quantities as A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine and Year of the Yahoo, we once again find ourselves adjusting our expectations in light of reality. Come to this film expecting the worst and you’ll be gravely disappointed. Enter with a knowledge of all things grindhouse, and you’ll discover a genuine junk joy.

by Bill Gibron

2 Apr 2009


Imagine you’re Paul McCartney…no, not the superstar Beatle legend who literally rewrote the pop song rulebook along with fellow musical titan John Lennon. No, this Paul McCartney was equally adept at turning words and notes into memorable hits. He struggled with his fellow bandmates, including George Harrison and Pete Best, brokering a steady career climb. Eventually, he catches the ear of wannabe manager Brian Epstein, the group gets a shot with a major label, and they appear poised to take over the world - that is, until The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, and some upstarts called The Rolling Stones steal their thunder (and their prospects), leaving McCartney and his mates in the dust. Now, four decades later, a disgruntled cab driver with continuing dreams of fame and stardom retires to his lonely bedsit, picks up a guitar, and gets lost in the power of sound. He’s still Paul McCartney, but he’s no longer a semi-star.

That’s the story of Steve “Lips” Kudlow, a talented teen from Toronto who, in 1973, hooked up with high school buddy Robb Reiner, and formed the seminal speed thrash outfit Anvil. By the early ‘80s, they had released three albums, including the classic Metal on Metal, and were featured along with Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, and The Scorpions, at the Super Rock Festival in Japan. But just as they were poised to take over the scene with their unique blend of power and passion, just as they were about to set the stage for such future students as Metallica, Anthrax, and Guns and Roses, Anvil abruptly vanished. No, they kept making records and relentlessly touring. But as Lemmy of Motorhead prophetically points out, sometimes, you have to be in the right place at the right time - and for Kudlow and Reiner, the ship sailed before they knew they could even book passage.

Now, some three decades later, the guys are still making music. With a couple of new band members and a batch of songs, they hope to jumpstart their flagging career. Working a day job delivering meals to local Canadian schools, Kudlow remains open to the entire experience. At 50, he’s perhaps too old to rock and roll, but far too young to die - or do anything else, for that matter. Reiner is far more blunt. He wants to make it now, to be a major player in a business he feels forgot Anvil even existed. Yet as a proposed tour of Europe goes from bearable to bad to worse, and the prospects of recording their 13th album grow dim, both men are asked to face up to the facts - they’re aging and nowhere near where they hoped they would be.

If it didn’t keep reminding you of its documentary roots, if it didn’t keep showing you signs of abject reality where satire and spoof might also fit, Anvil: The Story of Anvil would seem like a nu-generation take on that classic mock-doc spoof, This is Spinal Tap. After all, the band appears to be as cluelessly charming and directionally dysfunctional as the Christopher Guest/ Michael McKean/Harry Shearer side project. Kudlow’s cockeyed optimism, juxtaposed against the constant conflict and karmic mishaps of a horrendous European tour (complete with missed trains, undersized venues, and arguments with owners over payment) grow from pathetic to legendary, and there’s more where that came from. There’s even the brotherly love/brotherly battles of two conflicting personalities - and the other main subject is named “Robb Reiner” after all. As the evidence piles up, the question becomes clear - how is this not a joke?

The answer is simple and quite profound. Director Sacha Gervasi has created one of the great masterpieces of the music business, a seminal statement of pipe dreams and true possibilities that along with the psychological struggles of Some Kind of Monster and the friendly competition of Ondi Timoner’s DiG! exposes the artistic process for what it truly is - a painful and brutal series of disappointments. While it’s nice to see the up front testimonials of musicians with larger fanbases and bigger bank accounts than Anvil, such celebration and recognition raises an interesting point - where were these so-called band fans when Kudlow and Reiner really needed them. While no one is expecting outright charity, would an opening slot on a stadium tour be too much to ask?

You see, the reason Anvil keeps going, the reason we root for them all throughout this amazing motion picture, is because they actually have “the goods”. They aren’t some naïve no talents who blindly believe in their own ability. In the various live settings we see them perform in, they are a confident and conquering musical presence. They can still play, and connect with audiences in a way that few bands can even begin to approach. Even in the studio (they finally get a chance to record thanks to some familial generosity and the return of favored producer Chris “CT” Tsangeride ), they exude confidence. So the notion that they have yet to truly make it after so long trying tempts fate. But it also argues for Gervasi’s main theme - that sometimes, talent is trumped by situational and social pitfalls.

True, Kudlow and Reiner fight. They tend to play the passive/aggressive thing to the hilt. But it’s never truly gotten in the way of their work. What we see throughout the course of Anvil is the story of millions of artistic hopefuls. In fact, this band came closer than many bedroom superstars. As the anecdotes piles up about their place as perennial also-rans, as we watch the guys give it their all for little or no reward, as we realize that they’ve continuously recorded and toured since their inception, the lack of acknowledgement should be difficult to deal with. But thanks to Gervasi, who never lets things get too dark, and Kudlow, who plays private cheerleader with the best of them, we wind up with something winning. Even the last act return to Japan offers enough palpable positivity to keep the dream alive.

And that’s all Anvil wants. In the end, this is a film about never giving up, about never giving in to the constant harangues from friends and family about “growing up and getting real jobs.” Kudlow may seem like the last man standing in a battle he was ill prepared to win, and Reiner may be around because he can’t do anything else, but that doesn’t make these aging Canadians pathetic or deluded. No, what Anvil: The Story of Anvil explains is that, without individuals like this, the world would be dominated by ego and the undeserving. Guys like Kudlow and Reiner do more than “keep it real.” They keep it realistic.

“Ninety-nine percent of all bands don’t make money”, our true believer argues to a group of Scandinavian fans. As they stare at him blankly, the visage of Kudlow in a hairnet, setting up his van for a series of deliveries comes directly to mind. On stage, Anvil is unmatched. Behind the scenes, this classic documentary explains that Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner are like everyone else - hopeful, hardworking, and hindered by elements outside their control. As a lifelong fan, Gervasi’s love letter is sweet and sensible. As a film, Anvil: The Story of Anvil is without a doubt one of 2009’s best.

by Bill Gibron

2 Apr 2009


If it wasn’t for the date, many would have considered it a joke. Then Ain’t It Cool News stepped up and warned readers that they would not be accepting any reviews of it. Soon, the Facebooker and Twitterati were ga-ga over the news. Indeed, it seems that FOX’s first installment in a long rumored X-Men prequel cycle (including looks back at Magneto and others) was leaked to the ‘Net in workprint form. That’s right - X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is making it’s way across illegal torrent and P2P sites all over the world wide web, and fans and fussbudgets alike are worried about the consequences (FOX has subsequently gone into full “cease and desist” mode). Again, it being 1 April when the story broke, this could all be a massive fraud. Others have likened it to the early leaks of Hostel 2, Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake, and the foreign market release mess-up that saw Spider-Man 3 hit computers before the big screen.

But the myth turns out to be true. Currently, if you are want to do so, you can locate a copy of the full one hour and forty-six minute movie, complete with FOX logo at the beginning and DVD quality sound and image. The only thing missing? Lots and lots of completed F/X shots (the studio also argues that this is far from the “final” cut). For those who have downloaded it and perused the overall effort, the verdict seems pretty unanimous - Gavin Hood has done a decent job and fans can feel confident in the film. Even with the lacking CG and visual polish, there’s a lot to like about this action-packed prequel. So the question becomes - why all the handwringing. Is FOX literally sweating over the possibility that people won’t turn up in four weeks, satisfied that they have seen an advanced, though incomplete, version of one of 2009’s premiere popcorn titles?

The answer, obviously, is yes…and no. Assuming for the moment that this was not an inside job (or a completely controlled bit of pre-publicity), any studio would be remiss to not take such a leak seriously. The downsides far outweigh any buzz-based up. No matter how good or great the final version is, viewers who’ve taken the time to download the advance will already have an opinion. They will then place such judgment all over the web for the world to see. They will debate the merits and condemn the creative misfires - and all of this will be done without the studio having a single thing to say about it. Even if the advance word is all good, stealing one’s thunder is never beneficial for the all powerful, all dependent hype machine.

Companies like FOX pay multi-millions to marketing pros who plan out a film’s release pattern many, many months in advance. Everything from standard advertising to new, novel viral campaigns are carefully controlled, purposefully plotted, closely monitored, and immediately manipulated should they fail to fulfill their money-making mandate. Even seemingly innocent facets like press screenings and junket tours are offered (or refused) in order to guarantee a certain level - and demeanor - of exposure. Studios rarely, if ever, let the movie do the talking. Film criticism used to be controlled by an Establishment cabal committed to setting the artistic agenda. Nowadays, anyone with a laptop and a vague idea of noun-verb agreement are making such rash determinations. And no suit has survived based on aesthetic merits alone.

So the advanced release of any movie without pre-arranged studio consent is a reason to be concerned. Arguments can be made that someone with a less than honorable motive decided to leak the material to make those behind the scenes look bad. Others have suggested that FOX is so happy with what’s been done with this floundering movie monopoly that they, themselves, have concocted a complex April Fool’s Day prank. Whatever the reason, it’s a risk to let people see anything that’s not 100% complete, especially when there’s multimillions and Summer movie bragging rights at stake. The dispute will always turn on whether the last minute changes being made will affect the ultimate adaptation for better or worse. And then there’s the reality that, if part of FOX’s plan, we’ve all been duped into publicizing something that, as of right now, is really not ready to be seen.

Studios do court advanced word, especially in this age of instant information access. Greg Mottola’s latest, the brilliant ‘80s coming of age comedy Adventureland, has been making the rounds since Sundance, It even screened some three weeks ago for members of the press here in Tampa. PR companies also inundate journalists with screeners, sometimes before the film even has a distribution deal. Harry Knowles and his insider cronies often get films months before they hit theaters. It’s the main reason audiences line up for lottery entries in the annual Butt-Numb-a-Thon and his filmmaker fueled festivals (as in the Grindhouse celebration sponsored by Quentin Tarantino). So companies definitely feel there is a benefit in getting some early fan input. In addition, online script reviews often get producers to rethink endings or possible plot twists.

Of course, the biggest question yet to be answered is whether or not the leak of Wolverine will affect the all important bottom line. Certainly, some who take the time to locate a possible pirate site and then screen the unfinished footage will probably not venture out to the Multiplex, no matter how successful they think the effort is. Others, prepared to rip this revamp apart for no other reason than their ability to do so will uncork their bile in blogs, messageboards, and comment sections everywhere. They won’t be lining up come 1 May either. Purists will probably wait. True cinephiles will argue director’s vision and “the theatrical experience” and avoid anything other than opening day attendance.

In fact, the only people probably not affected by the leak will be those for whom the movies are a casual, Friday/Saturday night slice of entertainment. The next time you take in a major motion picture, look around you. Can you honestly say that the vast majority of the people in the crowd would be aware of, let alone swayed one way or the other, by a movie leaking online? Oh course, if the movie is bad, word of mouth this early will ruin its chances at some kind of universal acceptance - and even the uninformed will listen. But for the most part, they are out for a good time with friends, and no fanboy geek kvetching is going to keep them from hitting their favorite Cineplex.

As the situation plays out over the next couple of weeks, it will be interesting to see where the final assessment falls. Will FOX be happy for the initial positive conclusions, or will a month of hype both good and bad bedevil Wolverine‘s chances at cinematic supremacy? It has always been a risky proposition, considering the bad taste Brett Ratner left in everyone’s mouth after Part Three. As for now, at least one of the questions about Summer 2009 has been answered - studios still shiver when their almighty dollars are threatened. Planned or not, this leak could turn into a deluge before to long. Whether or not it drowns this film’s chances remains to be seen.

by Bill Gibron

1 Apr 2009


It’s safe to say that, with six months back in business and a wealth of wonderful titles hitting the market, Troma, once considered down and out for the commercial count, is truly back. With the hullabaloo and struggle to get Poultrygeist before the people now over and done, the company that made the Toxic Avenger a household word can not fully concentrate on giving the fanbase what they want - more oddball independent and homemade movie mania. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen surreal Sasquatch sex epics, badass b-movie future shock, vampire bedlam, and the return of some classic redneck zombies. This time around, Troma is treating us to four fascinating titles. While there’s no need to discuss the multi-disc ultimate Tox Box set, the recent release of The Best of TromaDance Volume 5, Crazy Animal, and The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi, deserve some individual attention.

Every year, Lloyd Kaufman and crew pack up their Manhattan (now New Jersey) digs, travel cross country, and take up residence in Park City, Utah to participate in the famed film festival held there. No, not the Sundance or the Slamdance outings, but the only truly free (no entry fees, no attendance fees) short film celebration in all of cinema - Tromadance. Spitting directly in the face of the mangled mainstream moviemaking ideal, this outsider event has celebrated such outright auteurs as Giuseppe Andrews, Ludovic Spenard, and Andy Bauman. For their fifth DVD volume, the independent giant digs deep into their vaults, coming out with all kinds of usual and eccentric fare. While not quite up to the standards of past collections, the films here focus on the future of truly independent art. They make grand statements out of personal drive, limited funds, and a plethora of paltry cheese sandwiches. 

First up is the fabulous, freaky The Mislead Romance of Cannibal Girl and Incest Boy. Tim Burton, this isn’t. Director Richard Taylor does a terrific job with some incredibly seedy material, making his grainy 8mm movie look like a snuff film without the slaughter. This is followed by the one joke novelty Chicken Ass. No matter how hard he tries, writer/director Joe Weaver just can’t make this shocking news exposé spoof work. The same can be said for Patrick Rea’s far more successful Bad Apples. While the laughs come from a single, predicable payoff, the monochrome manner in which the filmmaker gets there works wonderfully. Next up is one of the best films of the set. Bum Runners uses the homeless (obvious actors) as a means of making fun of action movies - and it’s terrific. Writers/directors Kurt Christiansen and Steve Herold do an amazing job with this oddball material, and fans of infamous ‘70s TV should be on the look out for Fred “Rerun” Berry in a minor role.

Mindslime is one of the more ambitious of the mini-movies. Director Henry Weintraub tries to mix alien invasion, horror, gore, comedy, man/woman relationships, and random goofiness into his manic mayhem stew - and for the most part, it works. So does the video for Pizza Time Theater, a raucous retro treat featuring Maniac Mansion, the first Nintendo-punk band in the world.  Travis Campbell takes things into suburban ennui and individual alienation with his stunning, subtle Amnesia Party. Like a post-modern amalgamation of The Graduate and Parents, it’s the perfect antidote to all the 9/11 inspired jingoism. Rob Baniewicz’s Cold Feet takes the notion of marital fear a tad too seriously, while Jacob Hair’s The Courtesy Nudge is extreme Office Space like insanity. Wrapping things up is the pedophile themed home movie madness of Unicorn, the perplexing college creep-out P.S., I am Spaceface, and a terrific take on a particularly bloody Valentine’s Day. 


 
The full length feature Crazy Animal, on the other hand, pretends to be a summer sex comedy. It’s far from it. When she was in high school, prom queen Jen was date raped by her BMOC boyfriend Jeff. Now an equally hedonistic frat boy, the ‘anything goes’ a-hole is also responsible for the sexual assault (and eventual suicide) of Ricky’s Goth gal pal Veronica. Plotting her revenge, Jen gets a couple of sexy Slavic models, contacts her creepy ex, and suggests he come down to the family beach house for a little spring break excitement. Dragging along his dim bulb brothers Henry and Chris, the trio plans to party hearty. When they are kidnapped by Ricky and forced to listen to his god-awful hair metal retreads, it seems like Jen’s plot has gone astray. Little do they know that it’s all an elaborate scheme to get Jeff to confess. There will be no drunken debauchery - just pain and humiliation. 

Crazy Animal wants to wear it’s tell all title on its sexploitation sleeve. It wants to deal with desire, morality, sex, skin, revenge, death, and cult comedy craziness in one big fat rock and roll riot. It even digs deep into the camp kitsch cookbook by featuring porn legend Ron Jeremy and Troma’s own Lloyd Kaufman as polar opposite fathers delivering sage/slaughter advice to their oh-so impressionable offspring. So why doesn’t it work? Why does something that should sizzle with a kind of meat beat manifesto end up sinking like a sour guitar solo at a battle of the high school bands? The answer is quite simple - the script…that is, if there really is one. John Birmingham may be a lot of things - competent actor, decent director, acquired taste musician, shameless self promoter - but he can’t scribble his way out of a basic screenwriting class. The dialogue is dismal, the overall level of narrative competence swaying between dismal and brain dead. Only Brink Stevens manages to bring life to these lame words during her all too brief cameo.



Indeed, Birmingham has some decent actor delivering his verbal atrocities. Though his scenes are brief, Jeremy makes a genial father figure. Kaufman is also more controlled here, his anti-authority rants playing perfectly to the character he’s creating. All the leads are likeable, even if a few overstay their wanton welcome, and the two Russian/Eastern European babes are indeed hot. Yet all of this is not enough to overcome what appears to be a movie made in the editing room. Conversations go nowhere, narrative threads are left dangling without ever coming back and completing them. The songs (mostly written by Birmingham) lack the necessary satiric fire to be true comedy classics, and the resolution doesn’t “feel” right. Instead, we get the sneaking suspicion that it was thought up on the fly, formulated out of a desire to dig oneself out of a major storyline hole. While it earns points for trying, Crazy Animal has more cinematic demerits than credits. In some ways, it’s more of an incomplete attempt than an outright failure.



All of which makes The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi all the more fascinating. Psychological savant Dr. Anna Fugazi is having a hard time with her burgeoning practice. Seems her patients, including a raging pedophile, an agoraphobic psychic, a true nutty professor, and a demented kleptomaniac are trying her mental mantle. Even worse, her home life with musician boyfriend Maynard is a wild ride of sex, parties, and disturbing dreams. You see, Anna is having nightmares involving bondage, discipline, blood, and vague metaphoric memories. While trying to keep it together, she feels like she’s literally falling apart. One day, a detective named Rowland comes to visit. She claims that one of Anna’s clients has killed his wife and left town. The cop wonders is she has any clues as to where the man might be going. Anna has a name - Grenwich - that’s all. Of course, she may have more knowledge than she even knows.

The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi is indeed a triumph for first time filmmaker October Kingsley. Wearing her exotic erotica on her Suicide Girls inspired façade, she’s a creative and confident artist. Sure, the last act “twist” is about as unsatisfying as they come and we don’t always understand or follow the sexual symbolism involved. Still, for a movie that includes anal rape with a broom handle, child molesters dreaming of laughing children, and a post-plastic surgery, pre-apocalyptic disaster Faye Dunaway, Kingsley keeps things from going completely bat dance. She’s also an intriguing onscreen presence, her slight accents and petite stature giving way to moments of madness and murderous desire. Still, not everything about this oddball experience works. Kingsley is anything if not self-indulgent, and the actors appear lifted from the struggling local Los Angeles scene. Yet the minute Dunaway walks on the set, everything changes. Everyone’s community college level performances suddenly start attending graduate school.



There’s also no denying the look of this film. Kingsley loves to experiment with style and form, taking elements from the fetish scene and mixing them with standard cinematics. The moments of physicality are graphic without being profane and there’s an orgy sequence that shows how effective and arousing suggestion and careful editing can be. Still, there’s that uneven ending to contend with, a finale that falls short of the ambitions Kingsley shows elsewhere. Some will probably be able to predict the outcome the minute Fugazzi falls into her first “trance”. Others will witness the reveal and still wonder just what in the Hell is going on. There’s definitely a desire to play with reality and the dream state here, and Kingsley’s history as a psychology and philosophy major do come into play. If you’re willing to accept 5/6ths of a great film, you’ll truly enjoy The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi. Even with its unsuccessful climax, this is a film and filmmaker worth watching. And that’s the main reason why Troma’s continued commercial output is so important. Without them, where would truly independent art be?

by Bill Gibron

31 Mar 2009


In retrospect, it should be no surprise when major talents collaborate, clash and crash. With each one being a giant in their own particularly way, an attempted meeting of the minds becomes something akin to planets colliding. Nothing good can come out of it, with an artistic triumph a fading reality and the apocalypse a distinct possibility. So when it was announced that George Romero, fresh off his mainstream thriller Monkeyshines, would team up with Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, fright fans were overcome with anticipatory joy. The notion of what were arguably the most talented of terror titans coming together to take on the schizoid fiction of one Edgar Allan Poe seemed almost too good to be true. And when they got the opportunity to finally see the resulting project, entitled Two Evil Eyes, there worst fears were mostly realized. Not only did the directors underperform individually, but there was a sense that neither brought their best to this anemic anthology.

Divided into two one hour films, Two Evil Eyes centers on the stories “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and the legendary Poe parable, “The Black Cat”. In the first tale, a gold-digging wife and her doctor lover concoct a plan to keep her terminally ill husband alive long enough to liquidate his assets. Using hypnosis, they get the man to do what they want. One day, he dies while in a trance, and the couple panics. They put the body in the basement freezer and wait. Suddenly, they hear sounds. Apparently, dying while under the spell traps the man between life and death - and there are “others” who want to use him to cross over. “Cat” offers a crime scene photographer who’s desperate to find a new direction in his life. His live-in girlfriend, a violin virtuoso, doesn’t make things any easier for the high tempered cad. In a fit of jealous rage, he kills her and walls up the corpse in their apartment home. Too bad he trapped her favorite cat in there with her as well.

As an experiment in narrative revision and reinterpretation, Two Evil Eyes (new to Blu-ray from Blue Underground) could be called a minor success. Romero takes the tale of a dying man and his eventual transformation into a “nearly liquid mass…of detestable putrescence” and turns it into a revenge narrative complete with double crosses, noir-like nuances, and a last act bit of splatter. Argento, on the other hand, drops so many Poe references into his work (his main character is named Roderick Usher, after all) that some of the story gets lost. Still, what we wind up with is a gory Gothic barnburner including witch trial impalings, freak show feral kittens, and a finale so anticlimactic it makes us wonder why the main characters even bothered. Again, there’s a feeling that both Romero and Argento overcomplicated their often potent macabre muse. Instead of following Poe to the letter, or merely updating him to the present day, there’s a real effort to rewrite the master, which may just be Two Evil Eye‘s biggest mistake.

Of the two, it has to be said the Romero’s has not aged well. At the time, his tepid retread of a dozen crime drama clichés just couldn’t come together, the ending sparking the most controversy with its decision to skip all the suspense and supposed plot contraventions to dive directly into grue. Today, it’s merely dull. Andrienne Barbeau, so good as the bitchy shrew wife from Hell in Creepshow seems low key and laid back, so much so that when she turns on the angst, she appears off kilter. Ramy Zada is not much better as the doctor. His line readings appear lifted from a soap opera and his love scene with Barbeau exudes little or no chemistry. Tom Savini, on hand to provide the mandatory autopsy level F/X, also underperforms. The frozen Valdemar couldn’t look more fake, and the finale feels excessive for excess’s sake.

Not that Argento shows any subtly. His film opens with an homage to “The Pit and the Pendulum”, a dismembered body doing its best Black Dahlia impersonation as Harvey Keitel clicks off a frame or two. A little later on, a female head is shown sans teeth, jaw spreader exposing a mouth filled with hollow, bloody holes. Toss in the main story reveal, a surreal nightmare including a reference to fellow Mediterranean madman Ruggero Deodato, and various visions of animal abuse, and you’ve got one uncomfortable experience. Argento clearly has a hard time with his American actors. Keitel is given over to massive mood swings, playing it for laughs one moment, as loud as humanly possible the next. He’s matched in physical unattractiveness by Madeleine Porter, who gives new meaning to the term “washed out red head.”



In fact, in both cases our intrepid filmmakers fail to see the fright forest for the terror trees. They overindulge in details when the bigger picture is far more powerful. There are endless conversations in the Romero piece that do nothing except take up time, while Argento seems so Hellbent on squeezing a 90 minute movie into his allotted hour that many sequences are rushed. Subplots purposefully added don’t pay off, the inclusion of famous character actors like E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, and Kim Hunter doing little to lift the material. It’s not that Two Evil Eyes is bad. It’s a thoroughly watchable and occasionally entertaining experiment. But when viewing the creative convergence between the men behind Suspiria, Night of the Living Dead, and Dawn of the Dead, you really do expect more than acceptability. 

Of course, viewing in the film in the updated Blu-ray format reveals elements lost on previous home video releases (including Blue Underground’s own 2003 DVD presentation). The 1080p image is striking - facets both unnerving (Savini’s accomplished corpses) and unrivaled (Argento’s color pallet) brought to vivid life. As for the audio, this English only production also gets a revamp. The 7.1 DTS-HD, 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX all sound marvelous. Bonus features are taken from the Big Blue U’s original digital package. There are interviews with Romero, Argento, and Savini, as well as a brief snippet of Barbeau from the Document of the Dead documentary. Toss in a tour of Savini’s studio and the standard trailer and you’ve got a decent, if slightly derivative set of extras.

Oddly enough, Two Evil Eyes appears to be the tipping point in both Romero and Argento’s post-superstar careers. With The Dark Half, Bruiser, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, the king of the zombies has struggled to remain relevant. His foreign counterpart has been a tad more successful, with both The Stendhal Syndrome and the final installment of his trilogy, The Mother of Tears, reminding fans of his previous penchant for greatness. Like Grindhouse, or New York Stories, the merging of masters is almost always a recipe for oversized expectations and unceremoniously dashed realizations. Two Evil Eyes should have been much more than it is. After all, we expect more than serviceability from such astonishing terror icons. 

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