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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. 

by Bill Gibron

27 Mar 2009


One of the great things about art is its ability to make you see the common and the familiar in a totally different and unique light. Painting puts a stylistic impression on the world, while music translates ideas and feelings into sound and sonic expression. Film is perhaps the most endemic of the many formats. It allows for the greatest combination of facets, plus is relies on reinvention and reinterpretation to stay fresh and alive. This is exactly what happens to the horror film in Ben Rivers deconstructionist delight Terror! As part of Provocateur DVDs new Experiments in Terror 3, this brilliant breakdown of the standard fright flick is so radiant, so drop dead eye-opening in what it says about the genre, that it should be required viewing for all scary movie buffs.

As they have in the past, the Experiments in Terror series collects unusual and outsider examples of sinister short films from around the world. Past participants have been Damon Packard, Bill Morrison, and J.X. Williams. This time up, we are treated to six sensational examples of avant-garde artistic invention. Williams shows up again with the Christmas themed Satan Claus, while famed underground legend Mike Kuchar conjures up the mummy mania of Born of the Wind. Rivers’ Terror! costars with Jason Bognacki’s The Red Door (more of a trailer for an upcoming feature than a full blown film), Carey Burtt’s toyland expose of The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase, and the silent film fascination of Marie Losier and Guy Maddin’s Manuellle Labor. Add in Clinton Childree’s It Gets Worse and a pamphlet describing each offering, and you’ve got a killer compendium - both figuratively and literally.
 


It all starts with the animated atrocities of insane maniac Chase, a real life criminal who believed he was a vampire. Inspired by Todd Haynes and his Barbie doll based Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Burtt using basic stop motion techniques and some careful framing to tell the sensational story. There are moments of high comedy and sequences of unsettling psychological damage on display. By using the innocent items associated with youth, Chase’s crime become more compelling - and disturbing. Similarly, the black and white turn of the century cinematic techniques displayed by Losier and Maddin, as well as Chidree, change the entire nature of the horror film narrative. Both feel like malformed comedies, humor derived from death, birth, and the mutations that accompany each.

Elsewhere, Williams works his magic on the Mexican kiddie classic (and Mystery Science favorite) Santa Claus. Taking a subplot involving the rich boy and his inconsiderate parents and turning it into a tale of devil worship and demonic possession - with a little Profundo Rosso thrown in for good measure - we wind up with a wicked Yuletide treat. Even Kuchar manages a bit of bedevilment in his typical homage hysterics. This 1964 farce features the standard company from the underground icon and a plethora of his peculiar motion picture style. There’s high camp, over the top sexuality, significant gore, and a last act reveal that’s so outrageous it hurts.



Oddly enough, the only outing which lacks true impact is Bognacki’s Red Room. There are hints of incest, abuse, spirituality, and murder in this music heavy promo. Just as things start to sort themselves out, we get that most dreaded of creative con jobs - the tag “to be continued”. In fact, much of this prostitute vs. John vs. phantom presence plays like a music video for a forgotten ‘90s Goth act. All we need is Marilyn Manson showing up with a jaw spreader in his craw and we be rockin’! This is not to downplay Bogmacki’s talent - the material looks fantastic, and the post-production touch of placing an animated scar across the ghost’s eyes really works. Too bad it’s all in service of something insignificant and incomplete.

But everything here, no matter its value, is raised several substantive notches by the inclusion of Rivers’ genius dissection of modern fright. Terror! takes several recognizable films - everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween to City of the Living Dead and Friday the 13th to showcase the standard cinematic stereotypes and formulaic filmmaking techniques involved in manufacturing fear. We get the simple set up, the shot of feet stumbling in the dark, the unexpected reveal of the villain, the last girl struggles, the inept desire to explore the unknown, the sudden shocks, and most significantly, the gruesome, gory end game. This last facet is the most fascinating element in Rivers’ routine for many reasons - many of them very telling indeed.



Like pornography, horror’s unwholesome relative, there is a definite desire on the part of scary moviemakers to start out somber and build to a climax. All throughout Terror! , we anticipate the killings to come (especially once the individual films reveal themselves) and then spend nearly 20 minutes waiting for the payoff. All the while, the normal beats that keep us on the edge of our seats become delayers of our gratification. As Rivers randomizes the edits, drawing us closer and closer to the blood orgasm to come, we truly want the relief - and when it comes, it’s almost sickening in its satisfaction. Of all the films made about fear and the movies that monopolize said emotion, this is one of the very, very best.

And that’s par for the course when it comes to Provocateur and its itinerary of titles. One should simply sit back and expect the unexpected, whether it’s action figures and crayons creating blood-drinking dread or a famed filmmaker using his love of antique Tinsel Town for a fabulous play on words. No matter the age, ability, or aspirations, all of these ‘experiments’ succeed in showing that talent in any form - feature length or substantially shorter - can lift even the most mediocre of overdone genre. Horror definitely fits into such a mangled category. For all the good work done, there are thousands of genuine junk piles. This trip into terror is significant for many reasons, the least of which remains their artistic integrity. Like all good masterworks, they mean as much in retrospect as they do in reality.

by Bill Gibron

25 Mar 2009


Stephen King has said that he’s often shocked by people’s initial reaction to him in person. Since he creates horrific nightmares of blood curdling and spine chilling terror, tales that traumatize the very marrow in your bones and scar the substance of your soul, fans assume that he is an equally dark, diabolic person. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, whether or not his imagination holds such demonic thoughts. Making people frightened is merely his job, as it is for writers like Clive Barker, or filmmakers like Wes Craven or Dario Argento. They all suffer from a contextual confusion which suggests what they create is the same as who they are.

Lucio Fulci clearly felt a similar sense of personal misrepresentation. As the man infamous for putting more arterial spray than art on the silver screen, the mind behind such blood-soaked epics as Zombi, The Beyond, and City of the Living Dead was, by 1990, in the twilight of his career. And yet even during these final, inconsistent years, a new fanbase devoted to his guts and grue dynamic were clamoring for more. In the mesmerizing meta-experience, Cat in the Brain (released as Nightmare Concert internationally, and back on DVD from Grindhouse Releasing), the glorious goremeister takes said reputation as a splatter savage and literally turns it upside down and sideways. The results speak volumes for how we watch scary movies, and how we view those who make them. 

While working on his latest film, Fulci finds himself slowly coming unglued. At his usual lunching spot, a suggestion of steak tartar makes him physically ill. Upon returning home, a gardener with a chainsaw causes him concern. Convinced he is losing his mind, he visits Professor Egon Schwarz, a psychiatrist with a knack for hypnosis. As part of the proposed cure, Fulci will let himself be “put under”. Unfortunately, Professor Schwarz is a psychopath who wants to go on his own sinister killing spree. Tricking Fulci into thinking that he himself is committing the crimes, the maniac medico begins murdering hookers with unhinged abandon. All the while, our flustered filmmaker experiences visions from his past films, disgusting, gruesome hallucinations that convince him he’s a monster.

Cat in the Brain is either the laziest excuse for a movie ever made by a true Italian giant, or one of the most unusual and unique films ever crafted by a fading cinematic icon. By utilizing clips from movies he either directed or produced, including The Ghosts of Sodom (1988), Don’t Be Afraid of Aunt Martha (1988), Touch of Death (1988), Bloody Psycho (1989), Escape from Death (1989), Massacre (1998), and Hansel e Gretel (1990), Fulci fashions a formidable tale of personal torment and professional assessment. Convinced he is nothing more than a cinematic circus geek, the filmmaker puts himself in the place of his audience and stands in revulsion over what he sees. To witness a man who makes atrocities for a living play at being equally insulted by their outright repugnance is a bit disconcerting at first. It’s like watching your favorite chef gag on his own cooking.

But Fulci knows that’s how we’ll react, and he keeps driving home the point to make sure it sticks. There are disturbing murders - including a couple involving Leatherface’s favorite power tool - that are simply nauseating in their cruelty. At other instances, we laugh as holdover actor Brett Halsey (he’s featured prominently in the clips) plays lethal lothario, killing various women with a combination of sadism and satire. In fact, the material that’s the least effective here revolves around Professor Schwarz and his wide-eyed, over the top sense of slaughter. When actor David L. Thompson puts on his murder’s mug, we’re not sure if he’s crazy, or just advertising the dentist who polished those sparkling pearly whites. It’s as gratuitous as the Nazi orgy sequence which goes on for far too long.

As a result, it would be easy to consider Cat in the Brain to be self-indulgent, self-centered, and self-aggrandizing. This is Fulci paying tribute to his forgotten legacy, the later period films long after The Beyond, Zombie, and The House by the Cemetery created a firestorm of loyal fans. Indeed, many of the movie reference will be completely foreign to even the most dedicated lover of the Italian icon. Still, there’s no denying the man’s way with special effects. While some of the sequences seem dated by today’s standards (Fulci even rejects an eyeball gag which he professes still fails to look “real” to him), the brutal natural of their visual aggression cannot be denied. Sure, the bodies look like latex and stage blood, but what Fulci does to them is beyond belief.

As part of the new DVD from Grindhouse Releasing, we get a chance to hear Fulci defend himself in a rare and very revealing interview. The man is very open about his career and very candid about his work within the genre (i.e. - would people go to his films if he made comedies, he wonders out loud). There is also a chat with actor Halsey that’s a lot of fun, as well as a look at Fulci’s appearance to the 1996 Fangoria Weekend of Horrors. Just watching him bathe in the warmth of his frenzied fanbase is reason enough to check out this intriguing featurette. Toss in a wealth of additional content, including a few more Q&As, a bunch of stills and poster art, the original theatrical trailer, and a collection of liner notes penned by Antonella Fulci, novelist David Schow, and director Eli Roth, and you’ve got a wonderful digital presentation of a complicated, controversial film.

by Bill Gibron

24 Mar 2009


Filmmakers are funny people. The movies they make are a lot like their children, and as with most good parents, they are reluctant to consider said offspring anything other than perfect. Even when their big screen brat runs around shrieking like a reject and shows as much brainpower as an inbred hillbilly homunculus, they put their aesthetic arm around their pointed little profit margin and kiss the box office boo-boo until it’s all better. In the grand pantheon of blind bat guardians, Lexi Alexander has to be the most baffled of them all. Throughout the comical commentary track she shares with cinematographer Steve Gainer, she tries to convince us that Punisher: War Zone is one of the best, most faithful comic book adaptations ever. Even if she’s right (or partially so), she’s still playing Mom to one mess of a motion picture.

After his family is killed by a mob hit gone wrong, Frank Castle, also known as vigilante crime fighter The Punisher, decides to go on a one man criminal killing spree. Taking out mafia families one by one, he’s responsible for hundreds of deaths. The police turn a blind eye to much of his activity because Castle can do what they legally and Constitutionally can’t. His current target is the Russotis, including the clan’s Narcissistic lieutenant, Billy. A stand-off in a glass factory leaves Castle with undercover cop blood on his hands, and the bad guy with a face full of deadly shards.

After some botched plastic surgery, Billy becomes “Jigsaw” and devises a plan to get back at the dead officer’s family and the man who mangled him. Freeing his insane brother James (otherwise known as “Loony Bin Jim”) from the asylum, they seek out the wife and daughter of the downed agent. All the while, Castle’s guilty conscious over the killing has him trying to help the wounded widow and child. Rallying his weapons expert Linus “Microchip” Lieberman, our street savor gets the arsenal necessary to take out these monsters once and for all.

With the Marvel imprint MAX as her constant mantra, and a bubbly personality that betrays a wealth of pre-release publicity on her “happiness” with the film’s final cut, listening to Lexi Alexander wax warmly about the movie she supposed abandoned over “creative differences” is reason enough to give Punisher: War Zone a spin. This is a filmmaker who can excuse away anything, from wooden performances (“this is exactly how the character acts in the comic”) to blowing off half of an old lady’s head (“it’s great”). There is no denying the fact that if you like bullets and lots and lots of them, this version of the second-tier antihero will definitely satiate your ammunition jones. More poorly aimed artillery rounds are expended here than in an entire season of a ‘70s crime drama. Utilizing the stylized approach to atrocity made famous by Hong Kong and indie Hollywood, Alexander tries to paint a graphic novel vista loaded with pain, anger, and wall-to-wall violence. What we get instead is the firefight equivalent of a gang bang.

Granted, this is a lot better than the Thomas Jane joke that Jonathan Hensleigh made out of the material. So Lionsgate has to be thanked for getting their head out of their horror films long enough to realize a new direction was needed. But what should we make of the reports circa July of 2008 that claimed Alexander was kicked off the film for delivering a blood spattered send-up of all things gun and gun-like. Obviously, arguments over the dollar sign differences between an R and a PG-13 rating were part of the process. But nowhere on this DVD do we hear about the supposed spat. It’s important to note, however, that the disc carries over the original theatrical cut of the film. Anyone hoping to get their hands on the “Unrated” brains and body parts edition of the title will be very disappointed indeed (if one even exists, that is).

That being said, Punisher: War Zone can be called a groveling guilty pleasure. It’s not in the same league as The Spirit, or Crank, or Ultraviolet, but it’s just bugnuts enough to find a place in the less discriminating facets of your movie loving logistics. As our corpse grinding “good” guy, Ray Stevenson puts on his best Brit glower and gives the Queen’s English the heave-ho for lots of guttural grunting. He’s matched in UK jive by the paisan paltriness of Dominic West’s Jigsaw. So stereotyped he might as well be eating dinga-magoo off the back of a bearded Italian grandmother, he gives the entire Mediterranean a bad name. About the only actor surviving this surreal shoot ‘em up is Percy Wetmore himself, Doug Hutchinson - and to hear Alexander tell it, he found his inner psycho all by himself.

As for the rest of the digital package, we are once again fooled by the so-called “two disc” tag. The second DVD is reserved for a downloadable copy of the film only. Talk about a big shrug of the shoulders. Elsewhere, we get the standard EPK material, puff pieces on casting, make-up, behind the scenes scuttlebutt, and that incredibly cockeyed alternate narrative track. When you consider that Alexander and Gainer get a chance to, more or less, “set the record straight”, the rest of this material is meaningless. Still, it’s fun to hear actors who basically know better explaining the motives beyond earning a big fat paycheck.

And you have to remember that, no matter the good/bad karma, no matter the kiss and make-up quality of this presentation, no matter the lack of butts in seats or total disrespect from critics (Rotten Tomatoes has this at 25% and dropping), what matters in the end is the movie. Fans have spoken, and they seem to like that Alexander mimicked the pen and ink publication they loved so well. For those outside the comic cult, this will be some hard media mindlessness to swallow. Sure, there’s a lonely Saturday night out there somewhere just waiting for you to rent this title and take a break from using your brain, and if you’re in the right mood, you may actually enjoy yourself. But don’t be fooled by Alexander and her unrealistic mother and child reunion. This is one cinematic kid that deserves a good spanking.

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