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by Bill Gibron

5 Oct 2009

Anvil photo by
Brent J. Craig

Apparently, success is merely a matter of serendipity. For over two decades, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, founding members of the heavy metal group Anvil, were plugging away in obscurity, releasing albums to little commercial return and touring the world to smaller, if still devoted, audiences. At one point, they were the toast of the hard rock world, influencing acts as diverse as Pantera, Slayer, and Metallica. But as the brilliant documentary on the band by Sacha Gervais illustrates, Anvil got lost in the hair band hoopla of the ‘80s - bad management and a three year gap of non-activity allowing their ship to sail - without them onboard. So when the remaining vestiges of the group played a music festival in Italy in 2005, they could never have imagined that the casual mention of one of their former groupies would lead to a late in life resurgence.

“It was insane”, Lips said in a recent roundtable interview to promote the 6 October DVD release of the masterful Anvil: The Story of Anvil, “we were hanging out and someone mentioned Sacha. Then Tiziana contact us about a European tour. Next thing I know, Sacha is coming over talking about a movie. Before we know it, we’re hitting the road with our old friend in tow.” Indeed, Gervasi was listening to some music in his Los Angeles home when the idea hit him of contacting his former friends. Even after two decades, they reconnected almost immediately. There was no preplanned arrangement regarding a documentary, no early discussions about bringing Anvil to the masses in motion picture form. With five months of the reunion, they were filming. “It was fate”, says drummer and lifelong friend of Lips, Robb Reiner. “What’s happened here is revolutionary. It’s unique and very special.”

Indeed, when you think about, Anvil’s story, it’s the stuff of some manner of sublime synchronicity. “All the elements were in the right place,” director Gervasi, a successful Hollywood screenwriter turned filmmaker, confessed. “The guys were ready. The tour was set. We had a crew prepared to hit the road. Everything just came together like magic.” The result is one of the greatest documentaries about pursuing your dreams and overcoming your doubts ever made. Set within the always frantic - and fair-weather - music business, and providing a very personal glimpse into the lives of Lips and Robb, Anvil: The Story of Anvil transcends the trappings of the typical documentary to become a primer of perseverance, optimism, and staring down defeat with good cheer and a whole lot of guts.

“We were the band with bad luck,” Robb adds. “Someone once said Anvil was always too early or too late.” Lips sees a more practical reason for the lack of initial success. “We had a choice,” he explains. “We could have gone with the management (that later discovered and spearheaded Metallica), but we chose to sign with (the man behind Aerosmith). As a result, there was a major gap - three years, where we were idle. They were the crucial years. We missed out.” Indeed, after amazing albums like Metal on Metal and Forged in Fire, the record companies wanted the group to modify their sound to be more like Bon Jovi. The resulting stand-off saw an entire subgenre of rock take over the airwaves, leaving Anvil off the radar during a crucial time in their career.

Oddly enough, there are few hard feelings. “It’s better now”, says Robb, suggesting that the resurgence the band’s currently seeing is more satisfying than any early, flash in the pan fame. “We’re living the dream.” Lips is far more practical, even if he is the certified cheerleader of the entire Anvil overview. “We’ve worked hard, and we deserve it”, he says in his typically sunny manner. But he also understands that there’s an ethereal quality to what’s happening now that just can’t be explained. “When Sacha came to us and started talking about a film, I cried, man. I knew it would be successful”, he says. “I predicted it - everything that’s happened - I predicted the success. I knew it was going to be majorly important. I could just see it all.”

And now audiences can too. Anvil: The Story of Anvil is truly one of 2009’s treasures, a brilliant distillation of how the fleeting flicker of the limelight just can’t destroy the hard work and determination of two incredibly dedicated and legitimately likable guys. In Gervasi’s genius undertaking, we get to know these middle-aged men: Lips works for a Canadian caterer supplying meals to school children. Robb dabbles in construction while pursuing a personal passion for painting. Both have families that are supportive but specious. After three decades and 13 albums, they’d hope the boys would see more mainstream acceptance. Balancing these beliefs with other individual insights, we get a true, more telling Behind the Music portrait of greatness struggling to survive.

Some critics have suggested that the film is more or less a real life Spinal Tap, the Anvil antics we see onscreen almost mimicking the definitive mock documentary by Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner. “How could we avoid it?”, Gervasi laughs. “Our drummer is named after Tap‘s director!” Indeed, the crew chose to embrace the similarities, making sure visual cues (an amplifier stack that, indeed, “goes to 11”) and satiric situations (the funny/sad sight of the group playing to an audience of about five) stood out. “We knew people were going to compare the two,” Gervasi continues, “there was no way to avoid it. So we didn’t. Besides, Lips is a funny guy. I mean, come on, this guy’s wearing a bondage harness onstage and playing guitar with a (vibrator). People can’t help but laugh.”

But there is more than Anvil: The Story of Anvil than a sometimes cruel comedy of expectations and errors. As the DVD commentary points out, the time captured by Gervasi was crucial, a crossroads for the group that can be heard interwoven into every conversation between Lips and Robb. Throughout the film we see the men sparing about their future, each one determined to stay the course and not let the other down. It makes for a hugely emotional experience, one where your own sense of fairness and dreams deferred overwhelm your more practical concerns. Soon, all you care about is seeing Lips and Robb rewarded, to somehow metaphysically move the narrative along so that failed European tours and troubled recording sessions lead to universal acclaim - or at the very least, a sell-out crowd at a Japanese rock festival.

For those who’ve seen the film - and if you haven’t go out and buy the DVD on 6 October, that’s an order! - Anvil: The Story of Anvil actually ends on a beginning. Indeed, since its release a little less than a year ago, the group has played to packed houses, toured along with the movie, opened for AC/DC in front of over 60,000 screaming fans, and is finally getting the recognition they so richly deserve. So naturally, there is talk about a sequel, “but it would have to be a real story,” Gervasi explains. “We are definitely working on something, but it has to have the same narrative appeal. We don’t need to do a “where are they now” follow-up. That’s happening already. There will definitely be something, but it has to a real film, like the original.” “We’ve done failure,” Lips laughs. “I think it would be interesting to see what happens once ‘success’ hits Anvil. Does it change us?”

One thing’s for sure, it’s been a hard and sometimes painful row to hoe. “I tell the boys it’s like a prize fight”, Gervasi explains. “They’ve being going twelve hard rounds. They’ve taken all the punches and body blows. They’re against the ropes and they’re on their last breath. And just then, someone walks up to you and whispers ‘you’ve won’. That’s how it is.” Lips and Robb both agree. “It’s so satisfying”, the laid back drummer confesses. “This is the best time of my life.” It’s awesome,” adds Lips. And with one of the best movies of the year under their belt, as well as a newfound lease on life, Anvil has finally made it. They’ve won - and film fans couldn’t be happier.

by Bill Gibron

4 Oct 2009


When you think of Troma, a few famous titles come to mind. Almost immediately, thoughts of poor Melvin Junko and his date with some nuclear waste comes to mind. Indeed, The Toxic Avenger put the company on the fright night map, showing early horror geeks that terror could be splattery, slapstick, and socially aware at the same time. From the moment that movie hit, creating a massive cult following that’s resulted in sequels, spin-offs, and an entire corporate persona, Troma seemed to forget the films that actually forged their first reputation. You see, everyone’s favorite exporter of independent art didn’t start with monsters, mucus, and mayhem. Instead, Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman initially decided to follow in the footsteps of famed exploitation kings Dave Friedman and Harry Novak and mix nookie with nuttiness.

Indeed, Troma was originally known as purveyors of satiric titillation, post-modern inventors of the equally updated sex comedy. With rare exceptions, past carnal creations avoided the inclusion of jokes, the better to accommodate the self-serve needs of the 42nd Street raincoat crowd. Friedman and Novak hoped the inclusion of humor would increase their fanbase. Instead, they both wound up heading over to harder skin flick material, recognizing that X-rated pornography was more profitable. Elsewhere, drive-in diversions like The Pom Pom Girls and Caged Women took their smut peddling seriously. Kaufman and Herz were the first to marry the traditional facets of onscreen funny business with random acts of raunch. The results were a precursor to every ‘80s Hollywood hackjob, from Porky’s and H.O.T.S. to more recent examples like American Pie and Sex Drive.

It all started with Squeeze Play (1979), a battle for gender equity between a group of softball widows and their sports-obsessed husbands and boyfriends. Figuring that the best way to teach their men a lesson is to beat them at their own game, the gals get together and form their own team. Naturally, all the pratfalls and sight gags lead to an eventual squaring off, the dames vs. the dudes in a winner-take-all attempt to prove who the biological better is. With a no name cast, a lack of any real production value, and a surreal smattering of irrationally included local talent (got to love the horrid disco divas at everyone’s favorite sports bar), Kaufman and crew set the standard for the rest of the genre to come. Indeed, throughout the course of the recent Sexy Box set from the company, you can see how Troma redefined the seedy cinematic category, breathing new life into its often ludicrous designs before abandoning the wit for material far more wanton.

Indeed, Squeeze Play does something few sex comedies even attempt. It strives to craft characters we can care about (or at the very least, identify with), offers up a reasonably logical narrative, and puts everything into dramatic perspective with a last act stand-off that offers a decent amount of emotional investment. We want the ladies to whip up on their lunkheaded lovers, if only because their chauvinistic beliefs are so arch and hissable. Similarly, Kaufman champions these proto-feminists, making it very clear where his artistic allegiances lie. Sure, there’s not a lot of skin here, and the humor is very much aimed at the vaudeville/burlesque level, but Squeeze Play succeeds, both as its own unique update and a perverted roadmap for the next few films.

Waitress! (1981) takes everything Kaufman and Herz learned on Play and puts it to far better use. The material here is more outrageous, the jokes moving beyond the obvious and into the range of the esoteric and the outlandish. Indeed, this could be considered one of the first true gross out comedies, the bevy of bare naked beauties counterbalanced by a desire to dig deep into the bad taste tenets of hilarity. The story is relatively simple - a group of hash slingers, each with their own hopes and dreams, goes to work for a highfaluting NYC eatery with a myriad of issues all its own. When the daughter of the owner finds herself busing tables, it’s not long before the shiskabob hits the fan.

Of all the films in the Sexy Box set, Waitress! is definitely the most madcap. It’s like Airplane! set inside Tavern on the Green. Sure, the restaurant business material is all made up, no dining establishment able to withstand the numerous health code violations and sloppy customer service presented here. But because our heroines each have their own individual career paths - actress, reporter/writer, spoiled urban princess - Kaufman is able to expertly shift between storylines. There’s a real anything can happen feel to this film, a happy Hellsapoppin’ persistence that really amplifies the entertainment value. Again, the nudity is kept to a minimum, Troma still trying to find actresses eager to willing bare it all. All MPAA battles aside, Waitress! works better than you’d expect.

Stuck on You! (1982), however, starts to show the wear and tear of semi-success. Even with the marvelous Professor Irwin Corey on hand to guide the goofiness, the movie’s vignette-oriented approach grows old quickly. The main plot has an arguing unmarried couple suing each other for palimony. Put in front of a freak show judge, they are called into chambers and asked to explain their love life. Over the course of 90 hit or miss minutes, the duo bitch, moan, and accuse each other of everything under the sex manual sun. There’s some funny stuff here, including the frequent forays into History of the World Part 1 territory (the promotional material even acknowledges the debt to Mel Brooks). But with a couple that seems strident and strangely detached, Stuck is wildly inconsistent.

Kaufman manages to milk quite a few laughs out of male lead Mark Mikulski’s career in a chicken factory. There are lots of jokes about his half-baked inventions and several sequences (including a porn spoof) that supply pure comedic gold. But the lovely Virginia Penta is a lox, as lovable as a shrew and twice as untameable. Since she strips down to her skivvies frequently, it’s clear why she was cast. But without the period piece insanity, the entertaining looks at Adam and Eve, Columbus and Isabella, and Napoleon and Josephine, this movie would be mediocre at best. But as they will prove throughout the Sexy Box, Herz and Kaufman sense when things are going astray. They can almost always be guaranteed to salvage a sex comedy before it goes completely off track…

…Unless of course said movie is The First Turn-On! The last true flesh farce the guys ever bankrolled, this sad excuse for a laugher loses much of its luster early on. When we learn that we will be following some stupid summer campers on a forced nature hike into hilarity, we cringe at the concept. When a fat dude with hygiene issues unleashes an unhealthy blast of gas, four fake teens and an adult counselor are trapped in a cave. It’s not long before they are regaling the audience with tales of their “first time”, each one playing like a quasi-comic lift from the Penthouse Forum. After everyone bears their soul, an actual orgy takes place, our directors forgetting the funny bone they where tweking at the expense of the camp to showcase the main cast friggin’ in the riggin’.

It’s actually hard to hate The First Turn-On! , even with its decision to forgo most of what made the other three films entertaining. Some of the bits aren’t bad - the musky man moron who tries to score with a sensible prostitute, the uptight counselor’s story of parentus interuptus - but for the most part, Herz and Kaufman fall into the same trap that doomed the exploitation genre. Toward the end, when producers felt that humor was hampering the audience’s ability to “concentrate” on what mattered, the aardvarking was advanced to the detriment of everything else - production value, smart scripting, and viable performances. Indeed, we often feel that The First Turn-On! is one of those Skinemax comedies that XXX stars like Evan Stone and Nicole Sheridan pump out in between pop shots. Sadly, these updated oddities are a lot funnier and fresh than this tired take.

As with most box sets, the best material here is the added content. Kaufman steps up to speak for both himself and his usually silent partner to offer up a history of Troma’s time in the T&A biz. While they haven’t completely abandoned the sleazy and the scatological, Uncle Lloyd makes it very clear that money drove these titles…and it was their ultimate lack of commercial appeal that brought them to an end. Battles with censorship are highlighted as well as the mantra of making the female actresses attempt their nude scenes the first day of filming. Kaufman even name drops Frank Capra several times during the Stuck on You! discussion. Loaded with anecdotes that would help anyone make their own damn movie and some wonderful backstage stories about the company itself, the commentaries included as part of the Sexy Box Set function as a full disclosure on how Troma went from sex to scares as their comedic counterpart (other material includes a Q&A with Herz and some background on the backing of these particular movies).

Indeed, when The Toxic Avenger became an international smash, striking a chord with a bored and alienated fanbase desperate for something to sink their fright flick teeth into, thoughts of going back to the days of blackouts, one-liners, and sex-based slapstick were quickly forgotten. Indeed, Troma got much more traction out of incorporating said silliness into its terror titles. That’s why such latter day masterpieces as Tromeo and Juliet and Poultrygeist were loaded with nudity, nastiness, and as much lesbian naughtiness as possible. Still, as the Sexy Box illustrates, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz truly understood the adolescent mindset in all its hormonally challenged marketing potential. While films like Squeeze Play, Waitress! , Stuck on You! and The First Turn-On! rarely turn up on lists of Troma’s best, they are definitely the company’s creative calling card. Everything they are today is wrapped up in these ridiculous, raunchy marvels. 

by Bill Gibron

4 Oct 2009


Schlock. Grade-Z cinematic silliness. Cheese. Bad movies get lots of unfortunate names, (especially when discussing the frightmare aspect of crap creativity) and with good reason. For anyone who fancies themselves a devotee of dung, a purveyor of the putrid, a fan of the full blown fear factor flop, the worse a supposedly scary film is, the better for the unlikely entertainment bottom line. Individuals love to champion the “so lame their loveable” school of shocks, but the truth remains that no matter the guilty pleasures present, a terrible attempt at motion picture macabre will always be nothing more than joyful junk.

Want proof? Look no further than the mind-bending DVD double feature from Liberation Entertainment, Mutants and Monsters: Uninvited/Mutant. Digging up two flailing fossils from the direct to video era of terror - the early 1980s - and serving them up sans anything remote supplementary - we are thrown into a world of weak premises, poor execution, bad acting, shaky special effects, underwhelming ambitions, questionable direction, and in the end, spotty, shoddy shivers. Indeed, the only thing frightening about either one of these dreadful dog and pony shows is that someone thought they had any viable commercial potential in the first place.

Uninvited starts off in a high rise laboratory, where a group of scientists are doing unethical things to cute little pussy cats. One of these fudged with felines escapes and quickly kills several security guards. Apparently, the beast has been outfitted with an inner demon, a murderous mutated kitten that comes crawling out of its host - Alien style - to snack on whoever is in claw-striking distance. Through a series of coincidences, it winds up on the yacht of corrupt stock trader Walter Graham. On his way to the Cayman Islands to pick up his ill gotten gains, a group of late ‘20s college kids in tow, he hopes to avoid prosecution by the SEC. When the passengers come face to face with the gangrenous Garfield however, getting pinched by the Feds is the least of their worries.

Mutant, on the other hand, finds brothers Josh and Mike Cameron traveling to the Deep South for a long delayed sibling getaway. A run-in with a few fed-up rednecks and the boys are stranded in the seemingly abandoned town of Goodland. The local law is a drunken city cop whose boozing it up to escape the past. The town doc is a female nosy-body who senses something is amiss with the citizenry. Almost everyone is sick with some kind of mystery flu, and there’s a disgusting yellow ooze on everything. When Mike goes missing, Josh turns detective. It’s not long before he’s hooked up with the town’s only pseudo-sexpot and together they unearth the horrific truth. A multinational chemical concern has been dumping toxic waste in the water supply, turning the entire populace into ravenous zombies!

In the realm of overripe ideas and underdeveloped delivery, Uninvited and Mutant take the proverbial urinal cake. With monsters made out of Tom Savini’s trash bin trimmings and performances so shaky they make Madonna look like Meryl Streep, both films easily fulfill the mandates of psychotronic stupidity. For his killer kitten compost, writer/director Greydon Clark (a true maverick of the mediocre, responsible for such ‘classics’ as Satan’s Cheerleaders, Angel’s Brigade, and the Joe Don joke Final Justice) convolutes his narrative way past the breaking point. Eventually, we get so tired of the criminal cat and mouse between Graham and his spunky Spring Breakers that we just want the feral feline to murder them all. Mutant, on the other hand, sees stuntman turned replacement lenser John “Bud” Cardos bet it all on the appearance of the undead at the end of his otherwise slowwitted wonder. Until then, he discovers as many ways as possible to turn terror into tedium.

Acting is crucial to making any horror movie work. If we don’t believe in the reactions of the victims, if we question their motivation (or in some instances, their similarity to actual living breathing human beings), we are instantly taken out of the moment. In Uninvited, seasoned vets like Clu Gulager, Alex Cord and George Kennedy try to compete with the incompetence of newcomers like a blond Rob Estes or an always bikinied Shari Shattuck. But the real rotten tomato in this wilted, worn out salad is Toni Hudson. She plays Rachel, the boat captain hampered by a saggy subplot involving her dad, his once thriving charter business, and Graham’s destruction of same. Her line readings are so one-note, her onscreen demeanor so slight, she is often upstaged by passing seagulls.

Oddly enough, the same thing happens in Mutant. Bo Hopkins and Wings Hauser are their usual b-movie best, bringing the slightest sense of scenery chewing to an otherwise laid back affair. Former child star Lee Montgomery is also very good, though director Cardos’ decision to constantly focus his shirtless well-toned torso on us becomes an issue for another think piece entirely. No, where things start to fall apart in the performance department is with the arrival of small town teacher and part-time barmaid Holly Pierce. Played with all the passion of a dead perch, obvious ‘friend of the producer’ Jody Medford treats us to blank stares, asexual allure, and a hairdo that suggests Farah Fawcett gone bumpkin. Just like Ms. Hudson in Uninvited, this lumbering love interest for Wings works against anything the film has to offer. 

Still, there are elements of enjoyment to be found in each offering. You can’t deny the devious fun to be had watching a hack job hand puppet, meant to represent an irradiated feline, slowly picking off the droning dim bulbs on the yacht’s passenger list, and Mutant actually delivers an army of the undead…just in time to have the cops show up for a massive firefight. There’s some minor gore in Uninvited, while nothing is better than a bunch of zombie children stalking and smelting another under-aged victim (in a boy’s lavatory no less). Yet even with the schlock factor stinking to high heaven and a desire to turn these former denizens of your Mom and Pop video store into some manner of cult concern, these two films just can’t cut the cheese. Some many find the Mutants and Monsters Double Feature to be a genial camp kitsch novelty. Others will merely be nauseous

by Bill Gibron

3 Oct 2009


If DVD has done anything, and frankly this applies to the entire realm of home video, it’s the introduction of foreign and outsider cult figures to an otherwise clueless commercial audience. Names like Jose Mojica Marins, Sonny Chiba, and Chow Yun-Fat went from literal unknowns with a small, devoted demographic following their films to overnight format icons. The availability of their movies, and the Internet’s capacity to spread said obsessive love around, turned the tide away from the typical Tinseltown twinkies and back toward these undeniably unknown quantities.

Perhaps one of the most enigmatic entries into this hallowed who’s-who is Paul Naschy. Known in his native Spain as the country’s Lon Chaney, his numerous horror films have cemented his status as a menacing, mercurial macabre presence. Yet until the advent of VHS, you had to wait for the local late, late show or Saturday shock theater rerun to see some of his work. Now Troma Entertainment treats us to one of his most unusual, a boisterous bodice ripper with supernatural overtones known originally as La Orgía de los muertos. Retitled The Hanging Woman for its US release, this slick supernatural sudser offers the multitalented actor in a solid supporting role. But even when he’s not the lead, Naschy simply dominates the screen.

In a small Scottish village, the death of a nobleman sends his relatives scrambling. His new wife wants everything. Unfortunately, his daughter stands to inherit everything. When the young woman turns up dead (hanging from a cemetery tree, thus the title) local law enforcement thinks it’s suicide. Evidence later implies she was murdered. When an unknown heir shows up, a nephew named Serge Chekov, the constable considers him a suspect. Soon, however, it’s apparent that darker forces have taken over the household. The widow dabbles in black magic. The doctor in residence reanimates the dead. And a perverted graverobber named Igor appears to hold the answers as to why the town is plagued by such undeniable evils.

Imagine Dark Shadows with nudity and you’ve got a pretty good idea of The Hanging Woman‘s allure. This Gothic soap opera, overloaded with plot and resulting onscreen exposition, is so manipulative and melodramatic that when something startling comes along (Naschy’s character is a grimy little scumbucket who takes pictures of - and occasionally fraternizes sexually with - the dead) that it throws everything for a loop. Director José Luis Merino tries to maintain a tone of seriousness and suspense, but the storyline is so scattered and moves at such a stumblebum pace that it’s almost impossible to feel anything other than confusion. Still, you have to give The Hanging Woman credit - it definitely offers up some fascinating tidbits among the less memorable material.

The whole zombie subtext works because Merino keeps them off camera for most of the movie. When they arrive, they provide a sickening spectacle in all their rotting corpse corruptness. Similarly, the witchcraft angle is also intriguing, since it suggests more is going on than what turns out to be a rather straightforward whodunit. But the best thing about The Hanging Woman is the performances. Everyone here is excellent, from Stelvio Rosi who resembles a lost member of the Moody Blues in his Serge Chekov regalia to the dishy Dyanik Zurakowska, who may not have much in the cleavage department, but sure puts on an alluring front. With other evocative turns by the performers in perfunctory roles (policeman, flustered city official), Merino makes his material work.

Naschy, however, is the key to everything. He’s not just a supporting part of the story, he’s an aura, a magnetic personality permeating every facet of the film. We understand early on that Igor is part of some bigger plan, that his love of the dead is being exploited by someone who understands his needs. Even the wicked widow dresses up like a recently interred body to get him into the boudoir, her confidence, and her bed. From the threat he presents to authorities to the last act reliance on his prowess as an unlikely alibi, Naschy owns The Hanging Woman. When he’s on camera, we are mesmerized by his obvious charisma. When he’s off, we wonder when Igor will return to the plot. While there are better movies that illustrate his undeniable superstardom in his oeuvre, The Hanging Woman is a great way to see how one actor can singlehandedly lord over an entire period piece production.

Troma earns extra points for providing us with another movie as part of this newly released DVD. While not starring Naschy, it too is from Spain and features Dyanik Zurakowska as a young woman who promises her lover that they will always be together - even after death. Entitled The Sweet Sound of Death, this morose monochrome effort from 1965 offers an interest contrast to Hanging Woman‘s more lurid color conceits. Troma also tricks out the disc with numerous added features. There’s an interview and commentary with Merino (in Spanish with subtitles), a new Q&A with Naschy, a talk with Ben Tatar (who specialized in dubbing foreign films into English) and a career overview tied to this film entitled “Paul Naschy 101”. Add in a few trailers, a photo gallery of vintage lobby cards, and a decent set of tech specs, and The Hanging Woman disc provides all the necessary digital context to clarify Naschy’s legacy.

While not a classic, The Hanging Woman definitely has its high points. It’s got some great locations, a splash of sinister finesse, more than a few ripe red herrings, and a performance by Naschy that’s not to be missed. But like most cult figures who are just finding their footing in the nu-media realm, there are dozens of better examples of the actor’s work to be discovered. Companies like Troma are definitely thanked for finding these often rare releases and putting them out for appreciated fans to fuss over. But just like the canon of Brazil’s Coffin Joe, whose decade long career has been reduced to a half dozen DVDs, Paul Naschy deserves a broader cinematic perspective. Of course, the hope is that a release like The Hanging Woman will spark further interest in the amazing macabre icon. As with many who’ve seen home video inspired interest, he definitely deserves it.

by Bill Gibron

30 Sep 2009


There’s no true middle ground with The Wizard of Oz. Either you love its overflowing sentimentality and sugar-coded Technicolor dreamscape or you despise its sugary, saccharine schmaltz. You beam whenever champion child star Judy Garland belts out “Over the Rainbow” or run in terror during those ominous opening strains. It’s hard to be ambivalent, the movie’s moxie making it difficult to ignore its earnest desire to entertain and yet it’s that very hyperbolic happiness that drives many modern audiences to dismiss the movie as antique, artificial, and aggravating. Well, perhaps Blu-ray can help turn the tide. After seeing the sensational 70th Anniversary edition of the film, fully restored to a high gloss HD sheen, few will ever view it as an amiable artifact from a bygone era. Instead, it will be seen as the masterpiece it is.

Everyone knows (or should know) the story by now - little Dorothy Gale, desperate to save her dog Toto from the evil clutches of local busybody Miss Almira Gulch, runs away from home, leaving her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and handyman Hunk, Hickory and Zeke to worry about her. Thanks to the wise words of flim flam man fortune teller, Professor Marvel, she decides to return. As a twister descends on her Kansas farm, she is caught up in the maelstrom. Her house is blown into the whirlwind, ending up in the merry old land of Oz.

There, she meets the Munchkins, learns that she’s killed the Wicked Witch of the East, and has to follow the Yellow Brick Road to find the local wizard and get back home. With advice from Glinda, The Good Witch of the North, she heads to the Emerald City. Along the way she meets a Scarecrow who’d like some brains, a Tin Man who lacks a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who’d love some courage. She also incurs the wrath of the Wicked Witch of the West, an equally evil woman who wants her sister’s magical ruby slippers. It just so happens that Gilda gave them to Dorothy for safe keeping.

So what if it doesn’t follow the classic L. Frank Baum book to the letter? Who cares if then superstar Shirley Temple lost the lead to up and coming MGM diva supreme Garland? Does it matter that Ray Bolger was originally cast as the Tin Man, but then begged producers to give him Buddy Epson’s role of the Scarecrow? Or that the future Jed Clampett would eagerly change parts with his co-star, only to suffer a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum dust in the make-up and have to leave the production permanently? Outside of what’s up on the screen, the missing musical numbers (including the oft cited “Jitterbug”) and multitude of creative coincidences only increase the films legacy and longevity.

Indeed, many of the stories surrounding the making of this amazing movie are just as compelling as the film itself, and Warner Brothers has seen fit to fill out this astonishing four disc set with as many of them as possible. There is so much added content here - early silent film versions of the Oz stories (including one helmed by Baum himself), TV movies based on the material, documentaries and full length features discussing the film’s creation and lasting impact, as well as numerous critical, scholarly, and specialty (F/X, music) overviews - that we get wrapped up in the history. About the only thing not addressed here are the numerous urban legends and conspiracy theory rumors surrounding the final product.

And what a magnificent movie it is, a true endeavor of the human spirit that seems to resonate through every pore of your being down deep into the very core of your sunny, sated soul. It’s almost impossible to watch Garland, in her first major starring role, and not fall in love with her cherub cheeked cheeriness. When she cries, it’s like Heaven itself is weeping, and when she sings, the angels step aside so that her gorgeous voice can eclipse the very power of song itself. She is matched well by Bolger, Jack Haley (as the Tin Man), Margaret Hamilton (as Gulch and the Wicked Witch) and Henry Morgan (as the kindly Wizard himself). Burt Lahr’s Lion might be a bit much for those not familiar with such scenery chewing vaudevillian shtick, but his buoyant personality is so pervasion you simply stop carrying and start laughing.

The look of the film is also a supporting superlative, a day-glo dimension of plastic, paint, and imaginative persuasion. The opening sequences with their sepia tone nostalgia set us up for the sudden explosion of rainbow brightness. Munchkinland is so eye-popping a spectacle that it’s almost impossible not to be moved to tears of happiness and the various locations created for the film resonate with real authority and artistic power. Though Victor Fleming finds his name on the top of the director’s credits, myth tells us that as many as five other filmmakers had a hand in the final cut. You’d never know by looking at the lyrical vistas and stunning production numbers offered. It’s all so perfect and cinematically sublime.

From a special effects standpoint, The Wizard of Oz was also ahead of its time. This is 1939 after all. Several scenes, including most with Margaret Hamilton’s Witch are wonderful in their sense of supernatural intrigue. The times when our intrepid heroes interact with the omniscient Oz also offer excitable “how’d-they-do-that?” eye candy. From the costumes and careful make-up designs to the overall Golden Age of Hollywood sheen, you would be hard pressed to truly age the film. Indeed, when they invented the term “timeless”, The Wizard of Oz was probably part of the defining determination. And now Blu-ray has turned it into something even more magnificent.

This new transfer is awe inspiring. You can actually see the carefully created burlap sack lines in Ray Bolger’s face, painted on in a slight suggestive manner so that the rest of the fabric façade blends right in. When a close-up captures Lahr’s lion head, you’d be hard pressed to find where the appliances end and the human being begins. From details so crisp you can read the wording on various Oz documents and decrees to a field of poppies so ripe and red you can also smell their poisoned pleasantness yourself, there has never been a better version of The Wizard of Oz available on home video ever. If The Matrix made VHS consumers beg to switch over to the new digital domain, the Blu-ray of this classic will convince to make the leap into the new 1080p format pronto.

Even better, seeing The Wizard of Oz this way, in the most flawless and fleshed out way possible, should provide enough ammunition to cynical and smug of their anti-Dorothy sentiments. Unlike other mandatory motion pictures declared treasures by time, unclear consensus, and endless obsessive tirades, Oz maintains its long term defensibility for one important reason - it works. It entertains. It soars. It splashes across the screen in big fat sugar frosted hugs and emotionally honest kisses. For nearly two hours, we are whisked away to a world where no one is unloved, everyone is caring, and the dreams of a little girl find their final resting place in a small Kansas farmhouse among family and friends. Who needs winged monkeys when you can discover that there’s no place like home? That’s why The Wizard of Oz endures. That’s why it is one of the greatest films of all time. 

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